Review: Papillon (Dir. Michael Noer, 2018)

Much has been made of Henri Charrière’s time in prison not least in his 1969 autobiography Papillon, its sequel Banco – published in ’72 – and the ’73 Franklin J. Schaffner film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Even 45 years later, the film was hardly primed for a remake but yet here we are.

Beginning in 1931 Paris, safecracker Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) – so named for the butterfly tattoo on his chest – steals some diamonds for mob boss Jean Castili (Christopher Fairbank). Though, why they all sound like extras from Boardwalk Empire is never explained. Only, Papi’s light fingers also grab a necklace and a few of the precious stones so he and lady love Nennete (Eve Hewson) can eventually do a flit and start a life free from crime. The next morning, he finds himself accused of murder, banged up and set for hard labour in the penal settlement of Bagne de Cayenne (AKA Devil’s Island), French Guiana.

Aboard the transit vessel, an early disembowelling cements Papillon as Louis Degas’ (Rami Malek) protector as he vows to keep the bespectacled con-man alive for the duration of the trip. Degas becomes his bodyguard’s benefactor for any future escape, promising to share the stash of cash he keeps in an intimate place (let’s just say this was long before cavity searches). No one thinks to question the authenticity of the roll of banknotes despite Degas’ counterfeiting crimes, however, an unlikely friendship forms between the two as they reluctantly embrace their jailtime.

Papillon’s first escape attempt doesn’t quite go to plan and it lands him in solitary confinement for two years under the watchful eye of Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageningen), a large man with a gentle voice who’s genuinely curious about the prisoner that can withstand and survive solitary. Any other time he stands, holding court to his kneeling prisoners, in front of a guillotine wearing a cream linen suit – a bit like a sadistic Man From Del Monte.

Even if you haven’t seen the first film, this is a story which will instantly seem familiar. Michael Noer’s rendition may be bookended by an epilogue and prologue – presumably to incorporate more of the source material – however, that’s where the differences begin and end as the plot in between is practically identical to Schnaffer’s. Director Noer and his production designer Tom Moyer, cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, and composer David Buckley work incredibly hard to deliver a pacy epic (based on Aaron ‘Prisoners‘ Guzikowski’s script). It often looks (and sounds) amazing, however, it remains unconvincing in its central performances.

Hunnam doesn’t have the hubris and gravitas of McQueen who inhabited the role of Papi effortlessly (although Hunnam’s is certainly the gentler of the two) and Malek – fresh from his outstanding turn as Freddie Mercury – seems to sleepwalk through his version of the bookish Degas, perhaps those shoes were just too large to fill. Neither character looks particularly lived-in, save for their last scenes together despite the (eventual) 14-year sentence, and overall it lacks the dingy grime and dirt of the original which may have been melodramatic in comparison but at least carried some tension with it. Even the fight scene in the prison shower (of course, there’s always one) comes off as risible as it’s choreographed within an inch of its life, clearly to prevent any display of full-frontal male nudity.

Yes, an argument can be made that this Papillon is purposefully hopeless and, at times, more brutal than its predecessor acting as a commentary of today’s prison system and its privatisation but you’ll find more anger and urgency in the likes of Brawl in Cell Block 99 or even Oz, and Orange is the New Black. While it pushes the ‘true story’ angle despite the questionable ‘facts’ (according to prison records, Charrière was never on Devil’s Island), one wonders if there could have been more care taken with casting or if utilising other aspects of the man’s life after prison might have elevated the already excellent story and produced something, well, more.

Papillon is by no means a mitigated disaster, nor is it as compelling as the original source material however embellished and/or fictitious elements of it were. It’s a decent prison-drama for those unfamiliar with the exploits of real-life Charrière, and McQueen’s screen incarnation. For the rest of us, most will argue that the best cinematic version of that story has already been told.


Review: Texas Chainsaw (Dir: John Luessenhop, 2013)… No Massacre, No Substance


The old adage, “you can never have too much of a good thing” would appear to be the mantra of Hollywood horror producers – excellence being sporadic and fleeting. Friday the 13th tops the list of saturated horror franchises with twelve movies, followed by Halloween with ten and then there are the seven Saws. The next dire instalment of mediocrity is probably not too far behind.


It has been thirty-nine years since Tobe Hooper’s seminal family horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and over the years viewers have been party to sequels, new generations, prequels and  remakes – “Chain Saw Massacre” became “Chainsaw Massacre” and then no “Massacre” at all – none of which have even come close to the first. Part of what made Hooper’s original so influential was its stark cinematography, verisimilitude and its “true story” marketing (based loosely on the exploits of real-life serial killer Ed Gein) with a documentary-style voiceover and photographic stills filmed on 16mm. Its narrative and plot were, of course, entirely fictional but the finished film serves as a subtle commentary on the political climate and symptomatic of the era; something of worth created within budgetary constraints. The US was still knee-deep in the Vietnam War and this affecting horror visualised an apocalyptic landscape, sparse and abandoned through industrial capitalism (Robin Wood). It depicted a non-traditional, perhaps arguably degenerate, familial homestead transgressing the boundaries of the norm and surviving via cannibalistic insanity. As a movie, it stays with you long after viewing and its esteemed standing in the horror genre a testament to director Hooper and writer Kim Henkel, who created an influential piece of frightening art in spite of a profound lack of blood, guts and gore.


A whole decade has passed since Marcus Nispel’s futile remake starring Jessica Biel and seven years since …The Beginning which tried to explain away all elements which made the original so groundbreaking and yet still the unnecessary franchise additions keep coming. The latest attempt, Texas Chainsaw is released on DVD from the 27 May 2013 through LionsGate. The film begins moments after the 1974 release and condenses its pioneer into a few short frames culminating in Sally Hardesty’s (Marilyn Burns) bloodied and hysterical escape. A Hatfield and McCoy type battle ensues between the Sawyers and Hartmans which leaves the old farmhouse burned to the ground, several members of each party dead and a small child ripped from the arms of her mother. Flashforward to present day and Heather Miller (Percy Jackson’s Alexandra Daddario) learns of her adoption and her biological grandmother Verna who has left her a significant inheritance. She jumps into a Volkswagen with her boyfriend Ryan (Tremaine ‘Trey Songz’ Neverson) and friends Nikki (Tania Raymonde) and Kenny (Keram Malicki-Sanchez) to learn her true identity. They pick up a drifter along the way in the form of Darryl (Shawn Sipos) and arrive in Texas to revel in her new-found wealth and meet her birth family, of which there is only one surviving member.


Regurgitating elements of horror films including Psycho (1960), Halloween (1978) The Funhouse (1981), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) (there’s even a cheesy nod to Saw), this film lacks any of the originality, atmosphere, zeal or purpose of those previously mentioned. Its director John Luessenhop has, by his own admission, never directed horror before and it shows. He has attempted to make a film comprising mainly of replicated shots, imitating but never matching the original source material. The mise-en-scène is coaxed to the point of contrivance, resulting in no scares and making for dull, and insulting, viewing especially for a fan of the genre. The decision to discount the franchise instalments which have been made since ’74 is certainly an interesting one from writers Debra Sullivan, Adam Marcus and Kristen Elms, especially in the introduction of the extended Sawyer clan (the Sawyer family name was not introduced until the 1986 sequel).

Unfortunately, this lack of research and attention to detail is evident throughout the 90 minutes and, for a film selling itself as a saga continuation, is problematic. There is an attempt to humanise the psychopath to almost Frankensteinian level asking the audience to illicit empathy for a character that back in the day was motiveless and incapable of remorse and one who should be close to retirement age by now. The recurring motif of meat has all but been removed, here “flesh” obviously connoted through its Abercrombie-&-Fitch-alike cast of characters, all of whom are underdeveloped, and a leading lady who blatantly and irritatingly defies the timeline the writers and director are attempting to evoke. Throw in a few derivative proverbs regaling family, highlight vigilantism and have at least three cameo appearances that only draw attention to the shortcomings and you have got yourself a wholly atrocious and (un)bloody waste of time.


The Great Remake Debate

A one-off battle.

In the blue corner, Hel (TFD) and in the red corner, The Littlest Picture Show (LPS). Here they examine the contemporary and classic reimagining and verbally duke-out the pros and cons.

This bout…

Infernal Affairs (Alan Mak & Wai-Keung Lau, 2002) vs. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)


Infernal Affairs (Mon gaan dou) opens with Ming (Andy Lau) and Yan (Tony Leung) drafted into the police force, as eighteen year old cadets. One, Yan, goes undercover to infiltrate Triad organisation headed by Hon Sam (Eric Tsung), while the other, Ming, works as a his mole inside the department. They soon discover the other’s existence and set about exposing their true identities. The Departed fast forwards four years and in Boston, Massachusetts. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) find themselves in a similar predicament as State Policemen working for Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).

1. Narrative/Plot

LPS: Whilst you can see the similarities to an overall story, it’s really only obvious in certain key scenes. However, The Departed conveys the story a lot clearer, with more fluidity to the narrative progression and fleshes it all out so it felt more accomplished and comprehensive. It also weaves the subplots and supporting roles into the essence of the main story. Infernal Affairs had flimsy sub-plotting almost to the point of it being redundant (the ex partner and daughter, anyone?).

TBT: The slow –burn narrative of IA subverts expectations and the subtlety of the sub-plot is not necessarily flimsy but more to develop character. Yan’s ex-partner and daughter signify what he has sacrificed. I agree with comprehensive but to the point of too much! Spoon-feeding the audience can have a detrimental effect.

Round 1: LPS

2. Casting, cinematography, generic traits, themes

LPS: Casting for TD far outweighs IA in terms of quality and prowess. Nicholson is a more menacing, maniacal bad guy, and Leo is a likeable protagonist. It’s easier to follow as a story as you have recognisable faces such as Damon and DiCaprio, as well as the supporting cast that drift in and out of the film effortlessly. The clear difference is the settings (Hong Kong and Boston) and I think it really alters the perception and tone of each. Because of budgetary constraints, TD clearly wins here as it looks far more atmospheric and convincing. Plus, even though IA has some nice locales, TD overall appears a lot more polished, throughout and impressive.

TBT: Lau and Leung are the most commercially successful actors in their native Hong Kong and have been since the mid-80s. IA is a stripped down noir thriller that differs from the usual style of Hong Kong filmmaking and chooses to avoid overt violence. Instead, it builds upon the quiet desperation and elusive complexity of its leading characters. Rather than cram into its 101 minutes, directors Mak and Lau choose the use of montage and flashback sequences to ground the history of their characters. When Lau and Leung do eventually face-off near the film’s dénouement it is reminiscent of Pacino and De Niro in Michael Mann’s Heat; less is most definitely more and makes for a more nuanced and engaging film. Plus, they’re physically different (Lau has hardened features while Leung is more boyish and sensitive looking) and yet both are likable. TD’s leads are very similar; Damon, although we’re meant to care (seeing him as child, etc) is vile, DiCaprio does, well, DiCaprio…

Round 2: TBT

3. Originality – does the remake capture the original’s essence? Is it different enough to be a stand-alone film?

LPS: TD does indeed capture the essence of the original, but brings so much more to the table – meatier exposition, a clearer coherency for story, structure and subplots. What’s more, TD trounces IA in terms of the script, notably for its superb dialogue.

TBT: TD takes the themes of organised crime, religion and the mirroring duality of its leading protagonists and ups the ante with ideas of masculinity and misogyny. Scorsese throws everything at this film; over-elaborate cinematography, multi-layered sub-plots which can lead to a feeling of over-egging. The gangster-genre is Scorsese’s domain and here he makes his normative Italian gangsters Irish and replaces De Niro for DiCaprio who, along with Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon, delivers an over-amplified performance. TD has more potential as 21st century remake of Goodfellas, via Hong Kong.

Round 3:  TBT & LPS

4. The re-imagining – changes/alterations.

LPS: TD adds to all of IA’s basic elements. Sure, the original is an interesting idea, but I feel TD really builds upon the existing foundations. It obviously helps that Scorsese directs, and is accompanied by a big budget and excellent ensemble, too. The changes are for the better, as I found the original very vague in places and hard to follow. If I hadn’t had seen TD several times before IA, then I’d have had no idea what was going on in it and would’ve been rather lost early on because of the manner in how the story is told.

TBT: See, I watched IA before TD and found that there are some subtle and some not-so-subtle nods to the original, specifically within the mise-en-scène but, yes, essentially this is a Scorsese feature – and his name carries severe weight in Hollywood. The inclusion of the love story is radically different from IA and Vera Farmiga is a great addition, however, her potential falls by the wayside as she becomes the only object of connection between Costigan and Sullivan; a ‘pretty little lady’ in a man’s world.

Round 4: LPS & TBT

Final comment

LPS: Overall, TD is far more accessible due to its westernisation. It all works so nicely and forms a brilliant movie, whereas IA feels a little sporadic in its moments of quality and class. The dynamics of both are quite different, and having seen TD before IA, the latter almost feels like a rushed version of what I’ve become so accustomed to.

TBT: TD takes visceral violence, realism, Catholic reverence amid phallic allusions and mummy-complexes and subjugates the spirituality and the slow building burn of tension of IA. I can see why an audience would enjoy it; however, Scorsese takes sufficient time to establish characters and fabricate back stories and then rushes the final thirty minutes of the film which is unfortunate. Can we really suggest that the use of subtitles alienates the Western audience from the original?  I loved the edifice of tension in both, however, felt nothing when Damon and DiCaprio eventually did come face-to-face – now THAT was rushed.

Verdict: Tie

Check out Hel’s sparring partner here: Littlest Picture Show