Stephen Romei

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

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.

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