The Menkoff Method Limited release Underworld: Blood Wars National release
As someone who writes about films and books, I’ve been thinking a bit about satire, especially after American author Paul Beatty won the Man Booker Prize for his satirical novel The Sellout. I’ve been wondering if satire is still appreciated in our instant communications world, a place where everyone knows — or thinks they know — everything.
I may be wrong about this but I feel satire is not as common in film and literature as it once was. There’s an emphasis on realism. Watching Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, for example, I felt the ironic elements of Ben Fountain’s novel were mainly rendered as imagined events, concoctions of Billy’s rattled mind.
Such thoughts returned while watching the small-budget, limited-release Australian film The Menkoff Method, directed by David Parker and starring the magnificent Noah Taylor as a strange Russian corporate fix doctor.
There were times when I thought my suspension of disbelief was being stretched too far. This wouldn’t happen, I decided about certain plot developments or character interactions. Then I started to think it was indeed a satire — of the corporate world, the modern workplace, globalised Australia, and Russians of course — and laughed at its insightful cleverness.
We first see a young man, David Cork (Lachlan Woods), rising from his bed in suburban Melbourne. He has adolescent posters on the wall and a doona cover that should be on a 10year-old’s bed. He’s a handsome, introverted 23-year-old who works in the data processing centre of Endobank. His dream, however, is manga, the historic and celebrated Japanese comic books. He is at work on one featuring a heroine named Foxy Chaos.
We cut to an international bank conference in Dubai and meet Endobank executive Guy Curry (David Whiteley), who is smart and smarmy. He thinks the data collection workers are hopeless and hurting the bottom line. In walks Max Menkoff (Taylor), besuited, bearded, champagned. “Every tower falls some day, Mr Curry,’’ he says, in a ripe opening line. “Max Menkoff. I can help you.’’
In short time Menkoff is in Melbourne. Some Menkoffian financial finessing sees the bank chief executive, Clive Struthers (Robert Taylor), sidelined. There are also plans for the human resources manager Marjorie Werne (a droll Catherine McClements), and her dog. Menkoff reports to Curry. His plan is to introduce the Menkoff Method, starting with the data proces- sing workers. His first words to the staff, broadcast in Orwellian fashion, are: “My name is Max Menkoff. I am here because you have failed.”
I don’t want to reveal much more except to say it involves turning the workers into slavish drones. This is where it becomes quite satirical. Just how far a walk is it from the soulless openoffice cubicle to dronehood, after all? There’s also a side-effect in some people, one you may think apt for investment bankers.
Such a story needs rebels, and here they are the unlikely Cork and the beautiful head office executive Ruby Jackson (Jessica Clarke), who he has a bit of crush on. Both these young actors are terrific at walking along that fine line where drama and comedy meet.
Menkoff has two old-school comrades, Karpov (Mal Kennard) and Svetlana (Olga Makeeva). The Russian-born Makeeva helped Noah Taylor and Kennard with their accents. They come across as slightly comic but that’s probably deliberate. Noah Taylor has said he was attracted to the Get Smart feel of the script, written by Zac Gillam. The Russians are also being pursued, because of a previous job, by an Asian martial arts hitman (Chan Griffin).
The two Taylors in this film both returned to Australia and this modest film project during a break in their respective successful television series: Game of Thrones for Noah and Longmire for Robert. That they did is a tribute to director Parker, best known as the writer of Malcolm (1986) and The Big Steal (1990), both directed by his wife Nadia Tass. The score attracted another celebrated Australian, Paul Grabowsky.
The result is a film that is weird in a good way. It’s engaging and funny and held together by fine performances. The fact it is in so few cinemas — when Bad Santa 2 is on hundreds of screens — could be a satire on the challenges of Australian filmmaking. Strangely enough, Underworld: Blood Wars, the fifth instalment in this horror-drama series, has a bit in common with The Menkoff Method. Swap bankers and gangsters for vampires and werewolves, and we’re in a similar ballpark. It’s also quite funny, sometimes intentionally.
Kate Beckinsale returns as Selene, a great vampire warrior who makes short work of Lycans, as the lycanthropes are known. A quick backstory reminds us she’s fallen out with the vampire leadership and lost her daughter Eve. She fears she will next lose “my very existence’’.
The Lycans have a new leader, Marius (Tobias Menzies), who is smart and strong and has a plan to conquer the vampires. To do so, though, he needs to secure the blood of Selene’s daughter. The vampires also have new blood, so to speak, in the aristocratic and cruel Semira (Lara Pulver). Selene’s main ally is the vampire hybrid Noah Taylor and Malcolm Kennard, left, and Jessica Clarke and Lachlan Woods in The Menkoff Method; Kate Beckinsale
Underworld: Blood Wars, below David (Theo James). David’s imperial vampire father Thomas is, well of course, Charles Dance. His first appearance includes wry mention of the mise en scene. He also believes the Lycans are stronger than ever before, and the result could be the extinction of vampires.
The rest of the film, directed by Germanborn American Anna Foerster, is mainly a battle between vampires and werewolves, and at times vampires and vampires. A fight scene between David and Semira is brilliantly brutal.
There are quieter moments, hints of romance and humorous set pieces and dialogue. A vampire soiree shows them all drinking glasses of what perhaps is not red wine. And Beckinsale’s hair-raising scene towards the end is so funny I don’t care if it’s intended or not.
The main difference, though, between this series and the horror films I grew up with lies in how the monsters are presented. As a boy, I was terrified and fascinated by Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man. Seeing him change from man to beast was thrilling. The vampires were more elegant, had fangs and bit people on the neck.
Here the blood wars of the title have more to do with genes than jugular veins. Only once do we see a vampire biting someone, and it’s not an act of aggression. Similarly, the Lycans are human-like more than wolf-like. When they do transmogrify, the special effects are great, but it’s all too infrequent. We’re told the Lycans are in fact weakest as werewolves because they can’t fire guns.
And that brings us to the core difference, I think, in horror films such as this, aimed a younger audience. There are no silver bullets or wooden stakes, fewer fangs and claws. It’s all about good-looking, well-dressed young men and women fighting each other with machineguns. That they are vampires and werewolves is almost secondary. Underworld: Blood Wars is fast-paced and fun at times, but it doesn’t feel like a horror film to me.