Friday, 31 December 2010

The Best (and Worst) Films of 2010

As the year comes to a close, ‘You Killed the Car’ will jump on the annual canonisation bandwagon and bring you my personal Top Ten Movies of 2010. There’s no particular order to the proceedings here as I am notoriously bad at picking my favourite anything in life, so in the name of diplomacy the titles will be ranked alphabetically – everyone here is a winner.

Enter the Void – Gaspar Noe
After the total numbing of my brain that resulted in my ‘true’ inaugural post for ‘You Killed the Car’, and the casual notes on the film I’ve dropped ever since, there was never any question of whether this would be one of my films of the year. An intense, nihilistic (and seemingly never-ending) rollercoaster, Noe’s latest proves to be utterly compelling in its total decimation of drug culture, set against a surreal mirror image of Tokyo that takes the neon sleaze of the city night and amps it up to eleven. This isn’t a film so much as it is a total sensory experience. Audio-visually, it’s everything Avatar attempted and didn’t quite manage. But if Avatar was the dream, Enter the Void could only ever be the nightmare. REVIEW HERE: ‘Enter the Void’ Review

Exit Through the Gift Shop - Banksy
Whichever way you look at it – as a cleverly edited documentary, or manipulative fiction – there’s no question that Exit Through the Gift Shop is Banksy’s self-aware Ego-baby, a movie that flaunts the self-built mystery of the man whilst at once pointing the finger at the audience for this very act of idolisation. The death of Street culture in favour of the celebritising of the artist is shown through both Banksy and his star-struck, talentless protégé, Mr. Brainwash (Thierry Guetta), supposedly the cousin of fellow established Street Artist, Invader. Guetta’s descent from director to heavily-scrutinised subject matter is compelling in itself, as his own camera comes to be turned against him, but the real fun lies in the strong vein of mockery that runs through the movie. “What is Art?” Does the answer really matter? Especially when the DVD includes premium 2D Glasses that are completely useless, and stated as such? A wonderful attack against pretty much everything in the Art world, with nobody winning.

Four Lions – Chris Morris
Despite probably being watched by many people as “Daily Mail bait”, those who can get past the fact that, yes, this movie is about terrorists, will agree that this is the full-scale attack on institutional single-mindedness that we fully expected Chris Morris to deliver. Outrageously funny, with multi-levelled humour through both obvious gags and more insidious satire and social commentary, Four Lions is without a doubt the British comedy of the year. Monolithic ideas of Fundamentalism and the State are brought crashing to the ground through the realisation of the bumbling, mundane humanity of the people that make up the reality of these ideas. We shot the right man, but the wrong man blew up


Inception – Christopher Nolan
As many have stated, proof that blockbusters don’t need to flash their utter contempt of the audience in order to be successful. Nolan’s ability to tell a story tightly, with a considered use of suspense and danger is a quality that today’s action movies are sorely lacking, whilst the script’s spattering of dream logic and dark hints leave the audience compelled for answers that cannot really be found. Nevertheless, Inception fails to be my definitive favourite of the year due to its neat, at times even hollow, treatment of the complexity of the human psyche, opting to create a trippy heist movie rather than push the conflicting, repressed emotions that lie within us all. According to Nolan, dreamland is less of a land of limitless association – for good or bad – and more of a videogame starring James Bond. Nevertheless, as a believer of the theory that the whole film is a metaphor for the making and viewing of cinema as a whole, Inception proves to be a thoroughly smart and entertaining thriller that hopefully left Michael Bay crying into his Transformers mug.

The Killer Inside Me – Michael Winterbottom
I’m not particularly interested in discussing the Jessica Alba scene; enough has been said by both parties on the issue, suffice to say that I feel the scene, whilst intensely uncomfortable, led to an immense pay off when coupled with the climactic moments of the film. One of very few character pieces released this year (all of which proved, at the very least, intriguing), Casey Affleck’s turn as the demented Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford was compelling, his brand of evil charismatic and seemingly completely in control. The film’s closing moments, through the dichotomy of sound and vision, playfully revealed the fractures in Ford’s seemingly watertight narration, aided by a glossy, pitch-perfect production that, in just one element, economically achieved what the whole of A Single Man was built upon (and ultimately overdid). But man, that scene was rough going.
 
Metropolis – Fritz Lang
If this hadn’t been such a stellar year for films, it would probably be incredibly damning that the restored cut of a silent movie, originally released in 1927 is, at the very least, one of the top five films of the year. What was an interesting piece of cinematic history has, in being almost definitively restored, become a 20th century fairy tale, a masterpiece of cinema. Metropolis, like Star Wars, is one of those fantasy films whose world has been so completely realised, so utterly self contained, that to watch it is to engage in the kind of escapism that drew you to the cinema as a child. Coupled with an elegant Art Deco aesthetic and a fantastic re-recording of the original sweeping orchestral score, Metropolis can finally take its rightful place as one of the definitive genre classics, and not merely as the plundering material of film historians and music video directors.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World – Edgar Wright
Frenetic, hyperkinetic, epileptic and distracted, Edgar Wright’s adaptation of the cult comic book series managed to succinctly and faithfully capture the idiosyncrasies of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s original work whilst injecting it with the distinctive personality that made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz such great comedies. Reviled and loved in equal measure, Scott Pilgrim is a movie for its generation, and perhaps no one else. A love letter to video games, indie music, and the denial of growing up, it’s probably way too immature for some, and just too weird for others. Those that liked it however, loved it. Like Enter the Void, a movie that revels in the sheer spectacle of cinema that managed to anchor it with a worthy premise.


The Social Network – David Fincher

The definitive character piece of the year, it managed to comment on the fracturing of online ethics against the reality of living within a society, the power of the individual and the selfish impotence of the loner, without even really showing anything of Facebook. Everything about this movie was right; Aaron Sorkin’s tremendously witty script, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s haunting electronic score, the fantastic performances by all, though particularly Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield as the best friends who became worst enemies, and of course, Fincher’s own experience as a veteran director. There’s little else to say that I didn’t already comment on in my review, apart from repeating that I think this film is an instant classic. REVIEW HERE: ‘The Social Network’ Review

Toy Story 3 – Lee Unkrich
Can Pixar do no wrong? After years of development hell, the threat of being developed by the same studio behind Chicken Little, and numerous script re-writes, the movie that should never have been made hit the cinemas and proved all the naysayers wrong. Like the rest of Pixar’s catalogue, Toy Story 3 offered what all great kids movies bring, universal appeal. Here however, the weight perhaps more so lies with the older audiences, parents maybe, those just entering adulthood definitely. For those who grew up with the original Toy Story, and experienced firsthand that magical thought that ‘what if my toys could talk too?’ fifteen years ago, it will be Andy’s story that really hits home, growing up and moving on, but never forgetting the joys of being a child. Call me a sap, but by the end, the only reason I wasn’t crying was because I didn’t want to get a reputation.

That moment unfortunately arrived a few months later at the end of The Death Hallows Part 1.

Up in the Air – Jason Reitman
A movie that at once revitalised and devastatingly deconstructed the charming, glossy cinema of the 50s, Up in the Air gelled the disparate tones of Reitman’s previous ventures, Thank You for Smoking and Juno (both of which are wonderful on their own merits) by putting George Clooney’s corporate Ryan through the emotional mill, coming out the other end a little more shaken up than we perhaps expected. Like The Killer Inside Me, Up in the Air recalled the American cinema of decades gone by, and gave it a thoroughly modern twist in production and denouement. REVIEW HERE: 'Up in the Air' Review


And that’s that. I’d be interested to know what you agree or disagree upon in the comments section. BUT WAIT – there’s more! For whilst there’s been some truly fantastic movies this year, there’s also been some full on stinkers. Whilst I unfortunately missed Winter’s Bone, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives, and Mother, I happily avoided the likes of The Last Airbender. I did unfortunately see two movies that, at the year’s close, tie for my personal


WORST FILM OF 2010 (tied)


The Expendables – Sylvester Stallone  // Clash of the Titans – Louis Leterrier
Clash of the Titans was a textbook example of a needless remake that, in the process, managed to completely and utterly remove the personality of the original film, instead taking a massive dump on everything that made that film great, creating something only superfluously related. Dull, dumb, and with awful tacked on 3D effects, Clash of the Titans was further proof that Sam Worthington cannot be the action star of our generation, despite his earnest attempts. And literally throwing out the mechanical owl Bubo, chirpy mascot of the original, wasn’t a funny in joke. It was the moment you cemented my hatred of everyone involved in making this travesty. Burn with Hades. BURN.


Like Stallone’s previous Rambo-callback...John Rambo, The Expendables suffers from some sort of schizophrenia where one minute, Stallone and co. are essentially engaged in a puerile competition over who has the biggest dick, the next sombrely aiding a heavy handed, ridiculous notion that what we’re watching on screen is somehow socially relevant. Apparently Stallone thinks that all those stabs at the Reds in the 80s wasn’t Republican exploitation, but was actually the incisive political commentary of its time. What Stallone also failed to realise is that those old action movies didn’t take themselves too seriously, and knew that a good one-liner couldn’t be followed by Mickey Rourke pouring his heart out over letting a woman commit suicide. It’s over Randy! Get back in the ring, nobody cares about you in the real world! Oh wait...this isn’t The Wrestler.



And that really is that. Happy New Year folks, hope you have a good night to see it in.

'Little Fockers' Review

Do you remember those dreams you had as a kid, where you would be merrily on your way to school, but something just didn’t sit right? You’d ponder it over, getting ever more uneasy and uncertain, until full-blown agitation would hit; you’d look down and realise you were butt naked in the playground, and everyone knew it. It was pretty embarrassing stuff, the only solace coming when you woke up and realised the whole thing was just a fantastical episode that could be speedily forgotten once the ordeal had been endured. This is how I feel about most of the Stiller-heralded ‘Frat Pack’ humour, that, along with (and as part of) that familiar Apatowian brand, came to define American comedy of the Noughties. You sit through it all feeling steadily more uncomfortable with the idiotic behaviour onscreen until, just as you reach bursting point, relief is signposted in the sentimentalist denouement, and finally found in the end credits. The nightmare is over. At least until the next one.

Meet the Parents, released in 2000, was an instant hit. Back then, it offered a more family friendly blend of the gross-out, cringe-humour seen in the likes of American Pie and Road Trip. Actually a remake of a 1992 indie production, the film grossed millions, and was inevitably followed by the interminable Meet the Fockers four years later. Another six years on, and I found myself walking into the cinema intent on hating Little Fockers, the latest instalment in the series. This franchise had effectively straddled the entirety of the Noughties, putting into the mainstream a brand of humour that has since been pumped to starvation. I wanted Little Fockers to be the death knell, the final final credit sequence, and, whilst actually an improvement on its previous instalment, one thing remained clear upon watching the movie; this should be the end of an era.

The film pushes things forward six years in the lives of “Greg” Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) and his insane father-in-law Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro). Greg, now happily married to Pam (Teri Polo), is about to achieve the American Dream, moving into the perfect suburban American foursquare and planning a birthday party for his twin children. As the family gathers in anticipation, in laws arriving, old friends returning, the stage is set for the same old song and dance we’ve seen so many times before. Whilst Stiller’s character has grown up, the set-pieces becoming a little less outrageous (at least in some senses), it is hard to tell whether this is a conscious effort to mature the series with the characters, or simply a result of the far more troubling fact that, like so many comedy franchises that are founded on a relatively one-note premise, the writing has become tired and limp. Old gags are played out that we’ve either seen too many times already or never really liked the first time round to muster up enjoyment for them now, the only real new element being that the film’s universe seems to be aware of its own ridiculousness; characters are a little more rational and aware than before, with the result being that De Niro’s left hamming it up as a caricature of a caricature. Little Fockers itself, with this strong undercurrent of self-parody, seems to be quietly admitting that the game is over, its treatment of De Niro reaching new lows in actively recalling his past film roles in order to exploit new 'jokes'.

What all of this tired re-treading results in is the ultimate realization that these films are simply not witty (and never really were). Their style of humour relies upon an increasingly bombastic cycle of agonisingly awkward and embarrassing episodes. It’s a really crude appliance of schadenfreude that is neither clever, nor really that funny. The audience watches because it enjoys having a sense of one-up-man-ship over the players, but by a third offering, even this has become formulaic and predictable. The whole film is effectively mapped out for you in the opening salvo; Jack is back ('Oooh'), the kids are kooky, and Jessica Alba is rocking her body as the fatal temptress, whilst Owen Wilson struggles to get the laughs out of a character even he seems to be annoyed with.

As I said earlier, I went into this film wanting to hate it, but I actually left feeling a little sorry for it, remembering one moment I actually enjoyed. Mid-way through the movie, Stiller and De Niro are engaged in a send-up chase sequence through the streets and monorails of the city that could have been utterly clichéd, had it not been for the dual effect of Greg’s newfound sense of understatement (a reflection upon Stiller post-Greenberg?) and the genuinely fun cinematography at work in the sequence’s climax. However, when a five minute episode from a whole ninety minutes is all you have to go on, you know it’s just not enough. The Fockers need to go on a vacation, get some family downtime. And I hope they never come back.

Monday, 27 December 2010

A Belated Present from IGN

Dumb Quotes of 2010:


I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art
- Roger Ebert, a film critic who didn't even like Blue Velvet

-- James O'Connor, IGN AU http://uk.ps3.ign.com/articles/114/1140981p1.html



(A late) Happy Christmas to you all! The above made me laugh, it made me cry etc.


I'd like to talk a little more about the above quote at some point in the near future. I'm considering introducing game reviews periodically to this blog, and to write on the latest in the never-ending, pretentious (my favourite), High vs Low Art debate would be a nice little segue. For now though, chuckle along with me (or call me a complete nerd) over Ebert's sagely words. Har Har de Har!!

Monday, 20 December 2010

'Brighton Rock': The Next 'Atonement'?

Whilst everyone's banging on about Never Let Me Go, the British adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's acclaimed novel, there's another literary adaptation on the way that, despite currently slipping under the radar, might spring out with a formidable attack. Then again, it might, like so many of these thoroughly British melodramas (Never Let Me Go itself getting this very flak from some quarters) have the emotional manipulation without the heart to sustain it. Nevertheless, I'm finding myself more and more intrigued by Brighton Rock, a 60's transposition of Graham Greene's original novel, mopeds and all. Sam Riley was fantastic in Control, a film criminally underrated in comparison with all the hype Corbijn's latest, The American, has generated, and the clashing of indulgent individualism against a sense of morality that inflected Riley's take on singer Ian Curtis will hopefully be allowed to run riot in his characterization of gangster Pinky; a thoroughly nasty excuse of a Catholic. Helen Mirren's turn as Ida also looks promising, and the film's cinematography seems rich and absorbing, granting Brighton the weight as a character in itself that the novel so successfully built upon. Time will tell which of the two will prove to be the real contender, but both look worth a gander.



Sunny, sunny 'Summer Wars'

Despite what some may believe, I'm not actually an otaku, I'm just a casual anime fan.

If you're still with me, I'm not sure what that says about either of us. The latest anime film I've seen is Paprika, already now four years old. I missed out on Ponyo, despite being one of a multitude of Miyazaki fans, and Earthsea just looked a bit stale. I'm sure there's a lot of good stuff out there, but, as with OAVS and anime TV series, what actually reaches the relative mainstream has to bear either that golden sticker, 'Studio Ghibli', or else is derivative of some lame mass-merchandise cash cow. I don't want to d-d-d-duel, and Pokemon has outstayed its ethically dubious welcome by half a decade. Recent release Redline bombed in Japanese cinemas, despite its bold, saturated palette and strong reviews. With the unfortunate passing in August of Satoshi Kon, the eccentric maverick behind both Paprika and Perfect Blue (one of my all-time favourite movies), the industry's future is looking bleak. Miyazaki himself, the one heavyweight champion left, despairs for the future of the medium.

But maybe those raised upon the cash-cows will save the day yet. Mamoru Hosoda was the man behind the original Digimon series, the popular if somewhat generic children's show that gave Pokemon a strong run for its money. However, he also directed 2007's acclaimed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. With Kon's final film The Dream Machine only half finished, production team Madhouse may have found a viable source of continued innovation. Hosoda's latest feature, Summer Wars, is at first glance perhaps a little derivative of Kon's own Paprika. Vibrant, esoteric, and relying upon the interdependence of reality and dream, what makes Summer Wars look interesting is its fusion of said Kon-like issues with the childish naivete and brightness - ironically - of Digimon Adventure. If the trailer is anything to go by (I am, unfortunately, far from fluent in Japanese, so must wait for the localised DVD or limited cinema release), Summer Wars, in rejecting the darkness that fueled much of Kon's works, is sufficiently set apart to be a different beast entirely. Whimsical and off-beat, Summer Wars may be the film that revitalises some Western attention in a medium that is too often connected only with Ghibli or videogames.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

'Tron: Legacy' Review

 Tron: Legacy, is, on paper, a bit of an odd release. Sequel to the 1982 box office flop Tron, a film so obscure it struggles to even earn the moniker ‘cult classic’ (its DVD status as ‘out of print’ will no doubt change very shortly), it nevertheless earned the approval from Disney bigwigs to be their Christmas blockbuster, going toe-to-toe with the studio’s former seasonal franchise, The Chronicles of Narnia. Things may begin to make a little more sense when the actual content of Tron is considered. A virtual reality world of light cycles and disc battles, ‘The Grid’ of Legacy, like ‘Pandora’ twelve months ago, is another opportunity for viewers to see 3D cinema be brought to the fore through an alien landscape of a predominantly visual draw. Further, in a world where ‘The Social Network’ earns merit as one of the films of the year, the context of Tron is perhaps a little more pertinent to audiences than it was twenty eight years ago. However, whilst the film seems to be – at times painfully - aware of its own circumstances, it struggles to build upon them. What we get is a spectacle that won’t, for many, defy Avatar, and a cyberpunk movie that is perhaps too shallow to stand with its peers.
The word ‘reboot’ has been bandied around in regard to Legacy, but I feel that this is perhaps a little loose a term. Tron: Legacy may revive a long dead franchise, but it doesn’t reconstruct it – this is very much a sequel movie; the legacy of Tron is quite literally embedded in not only its inception, but its plotline. Following on from the original Tron, Legacy details the entrance of Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) into ‘The Grid’ to find his father Kevin (Jeff Bridges), former creator of the virtual world which has now enslaved him through the machinations of his digital avatar CLU. The two must escape - before the portal into the real world closes - with the help of Kevin's apprentice and surrogate child, the program Quorra (Olivia Wilde). From here, it’s pretty standard fare, and, upon inspection, quite basic. Whilst the movie’s run time clocks in at a little over two hours, not a lot actually happens. The film’s faithfulness to its predecessor ironically results in heavy sequences of exposition that, whilst pleasant in solidifying the ties between the two movies for those who know of the original, hampers the sense of urgency that the core storyline must rely on.
One area where the origin source isn’t treated as totally sacrosanct is in the art direction, and it is this for which the movie will be best regarded. The artists behind Legacy managed to take the goofy motion-capture outfits of the original movie and create a strong, elegant aesthetic upon which ‘The Grid’ is founded. Lacquered black and white, punctuated with neon blues and oranges, create a limited colour palette that is sleek and at times ever so slightly eccentric; Gallic touches that call to mind the oddball visuals of The Fifth Element. However, less inspired, and more derivative, elements come from both Blade Runner in ‘Downtown Grid’ and of course The Matrix, the eternally stormy nights of that movie’s real world now inverted to fit with the impeccable cool of ‘The Grid’. These ‘nods’ to fellow Cyperbunk heavy hitters are both disconcerting and self-defeatist; the Neo Los Angeles of Deckard’s world will not be beaten anytime soon (twenty eight years and counting). Nevertheless, when Legacy’s own visual style is allowed to come across unencumbered, it is unique and at times beautiful, aided by some quality cinematography - at least in the first third of the movie. As the movie plods along to its endgame, it isn't merely the plot that seems to suffer; the sparsely dusted action sequences upon which the film's meat may ultimately be found become steadily less idiosyncratic, and more and more cold.
It’s a real shame; Legacy has some fantastic elements, both visually and in its core storyline, that could have really elevated it into something special. As it is, we’re left with a movie that leaves the viewer feeling a little cold – glimpses of greatness interpolate with the same weary nothingness that plagued fellow franchise revival Lost in Space over a decade ago. The nice visual tricks of the first twenty minutes that link our two worlds; the video-game camera angles of Sam’s bike rides around the real world and thematic recurrences become replaced by the standard lazy repetition that frequently mars less imaginative action movies. Here, it’s all the more painful to see as Tron: Legacy does have a hell of a lot of imagination being poured into it. The sound mixing, along with the sound-track itself, provided by Daft Punk, is absolutely stellar - there are times when this movie is a sensual feast. The early ‘games’ sequence is genuinely engrossing, tense stuff, and the lore behind the evolved ‘Grid’, whilst not enough to stop the world of Tron from feeling a little hollow, nevertheless offers promise of something more. This promise, dressed in the coolest of suits, is perhaps all we have to go on. It's good – fleetingly great – but overall, it’s not enough.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Superman got Sucker-Punched (see what I did there?)

With the release of Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch getting very close, another trailer's been released. This is the guy Chris Nolan actively sought to direct upcoming Superman reboot The Man of Steel. When Sucker Punch comes out, Snyder will have released three SFX extravaganzas in just under two years (two of which had a gap of less than six months between them). Quantity over quality?

I don't even know what to think about this film right now. The man's audacious, I'll give him that.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

'Monsters' Review

After years of happily borrowing from the insect world in its presentation of the unknown and alien, cinema has decided upon a new source for the non-terrestrial. The caste systems of Aliens (1986) and Starship Troopers (1997) are gone (at least until Ridley Scott’s Paradise hits screens), replaced with the marine monstrosity of Cloverfield (2008), and now, the giant Squid-giraffes of Monsters. Cephalopods are in, and so, it seems, is decompressed sci-fi. Mixing Tartovsky style pacing with the indie production of ‘Mumblecore’, Gareth Edward’s new film, whilst perhaps not a sci-fi classic, is certainly fresh, entertaining, and – rare in this genre – mature. If you’re looking for an action thriller, stick to Skyline (or maybe don’t), and hard sci-fi? Moon had it covered last year. Monsters is a thoroughly anti-Hollywood take on the genre, from its budget (less than $500,000) down to its incidental narrative style.

Monsters quickly establishes the origin of its alien invaders in its opening titles; a space probe crashed on the Mexican border six years ago, and the area – now the habitat of said aliens – has been dubbed the ‘Infected Zone’, secured and over-watched by the weapon-ready American military. In terms of explicit details of the conflict between man and squid-being, this is all you’re getting. What follows is a focused storyline detailing the efforts of photographer Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) – a man who makes a living documenting the tragedy around him – to escort his employer’s daughter, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) across Mexico and back to America in the wake of another skirmish between beast and army. What was to be an overnight journey quickly turns into a cross-country hike wherein these two strangers bond against a war-torn Mexican landscape. If this sounds removed from the initial focus of the movie, you’d be right – Monsters' chronicle of the alien presence on Earth is largely incidental against what is essentially a road-trip love story. The history of Mexico’s struggle to live with the aliens is told through background details; anecdotes in conversation, graffiti on walls, the wreckage surrounding the travellers. What results is not only an organic, naturalistic approach to storytelling – refreshing in a genre that can sometimes feel contrived in its efforts to forever explain – but all the more powerful in that, as the ambiguous title comes to suggest, it becomes steadily more transparent in its presentation of a man-made alien identity; a construction removed from the more bittersweet reality of the creatures’ presence that the movie hints at.
Given the movie’s extremely low budget, this was a smart idea on the part of Edwards, who had five months to turn his Mexican footage into a war zone from his bedroom computer. Whilst the wires do at times show on the CGI, it is ironically the military element, the tanks and planes, of the piece that suffer slightly – the aliens, for the most part, look imposing and unique, holding your attention through a clever use of lighting when the big reveals occur. Otherwise, the movie relies upon the power of suspense – largely through sound – to build a sense of atmosphere. Again, when pitted against the intense rollercoaster ride of Cloverfield, another movie with a localised narration, this return to the economic genre cinema of the past is welcome and engrossing.
The two leads play their parts convincingly, and it is little wonder that, in what was a highly free-form, improvised process, the actors themselves ended up falling in love. Their emotional journey is as enjoyable to watch as their physical, loose and plodding. However, it is this free-form nature that ultimately stops the movie from being a classic; the script sometimes seems to hit dead ends, its continual teases sometimes just becoming split ends and missed tricks (without spoiling the film, a particular scene where photographer Andrew goes for the shot could have really fit in with the idea of man thriving on conflict that seems to underpin the movie. Instead, it opts for the safety of ideal morality). It’s a shame, as Monsters has all the ingredients to be a film that really stands out. As it is, it’s a notable indie production that stands against Hollywood convention without toppling it. However, given that it had a crew of seven people, was cut down from 100 hours to 94 minutes, edited almost entirely from a home computer, and has made it into mainstream cinemas, its achievement should not be underestimated. If you thought District 9 was a little more Hollywood than you would have liked, Monsters will be right up your street.


Thursday, 9 December 2010

"Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Goosebumps"

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Arcade Fire perform at the LG Arena in Birmingham. I would love to talk about them till the sun rises, but I've become quite strict in limiting this blog to dealing only with film and TV rather than a diffuse, batshit insane mix of comics, music, cinema and videogames. Nevertheless, somewhere in the middle of what was one goddamn awesome show, I had a little thought that linked the spine-tingling power of live music, with my favourite scene from one of my favourite films of the year.

Watching the band's performance reminded me of the incredible power that music can hold over the listener; a power that is often hinted at in a great album but, I feel, is only fully realised on stage. At the risk of sounding like one pretentious arsehole (it wouldn't be the first time, certainly not the last...), a great performance conjures something larger than the sum of its parts, something beyond human, in performer and listener. You can see it in the fuck-off big grin of Win Butler and you can sense it inside you, as something mystic, euphoric, feels like its going to erupt from under the stage. It's what drives people back to gigs time and time again, and, for all its cartoon violence and hyperactivity, it is what underpins the unfettered joy in watching this scene, from the highly addictive Scott Pilgrim vs the World.



Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Month Ahead: December 2010

We're entering Christmas season well and proper, boys and girls! Here's a brief overview of what's on the way this month of Advent. It's kid-tastic.

Megamind 3D: Shamelessly plugged for months, the latest Dreamworks animated vehicle features Will Ferrel and Brad Pitt in Despicable Me - sorry - Megamind, replacing the Pixar-lite family dynamic of the former with a villainous, Pixar-lite spin on The Incredibles' comic book foundations. From what's been shown so far, expect more of Dreamworks Animation's only facial expression for characters; that raised eyebrow and side smile. Bleurgh.

 The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader: You know it's Christmas when the soulless Children's adventure stories spring up by the dozen. Harry Potter avoided the curse so that, by the looks of things, the Narnia franchise could get a double share of it. Whilst The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was enjoyable enough, Dawn Treader looks to be continuing the bore-fest of Prince Caspian - only this time, the use of 3D allows for some really dodge looking photography if the trailer is anything to go by. Call me a cynic, but this franchise should have been a one-hit wonder.

The Tourist: Johnny Depp's having a go at stepping into the shoes of Pitt, Clooney and Cruise with a sexually charged espionage thriller. It's pretty generic stuff by the looks of things, but Depp and Jolie know how to entertain, and it's refreshing to see a protagonist who looks a bit, well, scruffy amidst all the glam. Because we all know sinful sexualised murder is also very, very glamorous.

Burlesque: Two pop-star movie vehicles in one! Cher takes a stab at the silver screen again, bringing movie new-comer Christina Aguilera along for the ride. Reviews suggest this is pretty awful, but if you hadn't already twigged that then...well, you're more optimistic than I am.

Tron: Legacy: First hinted at almost three years ago at Comic Con, Tron Legacy is a bit of an odd one. Another in the slew of 3D gimmick movies, not only does it revive a thirty year old franchise most of the public will know diddly-squat about, but brings back Jeff Bridges (!) to boot. With Daft Punk on score, things are looking a bit too good to be true. We'll have to see where things lie with this one, but it has a pretty kicking aesthetic if nothing else. (Has ripping off the Star Wars poster become ironic or something?) (18/12/10 NOW WITH A REVIEW: 'Tron: Legacy' Review)
 

Meet the Parents: Little Fockers: You like Ben Stiller? You'll like this. You don't? Stay away. De Niro used to be a contender :( (31/12/10: NOW WITH A REVIEW: 'Little Fockers' Review)


Gulliver's Travels: Jack Black comedy vehicle hitting on Boxing Day, based loosely on Jonathan Swift's novel in a modern setting.


Monsters: Britain's answer to District 9? Reviews are looking good for this low budget science-fiction-love-story-road-trip movie with its very own species of alien squids. Fans of the Watchmen comic can squint hard and imagine its the result of a chaotic Tachyon planned thirty-five minutes ago, and not a David Hayter re-write. Everyone else can enjoy a good sci-fi movie. (12/12/10: NOW WITH A REVIEW: 'Monsters' Review)

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale: This looks pretty interesting; a fairly light horror movie that reveals the 'truth' behind Santa Claus. One young boy gets more than he bargains for when he looks into what his dad's hunting after - a bearded, razor-teethed humanoid with a penchant for eating reindeer...The closest we're gonna get to Gremlins this season?

Unfortunately, both The Black Swan and The Fighter have been pushed back into the new year (The Fighter not hitting till early February). It looks like these two potential Oscar magnets will have to wait. Oh well, Christmas is for DVDs by the fire and all that, right?!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

'Another Year' Review

In 2004, Imelda Staunton raised shocked sympathy in audiences watching the bleak tragedy of Vera Drake. It’s unflinching portrayal of just how grim life in the 50s could be – caught between a world war and a sexual revolution, was both poignant and devastating. In 2008, Sally Hawkins brought us a buoyant primary school teacher who always stayed optimistic in Happy Go Lucky. Mike Leigh’s latest offering, Another Year, lies somewhere in between – much like the banality of real life it captures so well, its offerings of comedy and tragedy are not so much alternate as embedded, the two interpolated within one another organically.

As the title suggests, the film looks upon just another year in the lives of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and his wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen). A typical middle class couple of middle age, they work, they play, and they eat. In doing so, they provide the film with a simple but effective frame that both carries the action and speaks on a fundamental, if explicit, level, on the nature of life. The movie passes through the seasons as we are privy to four individual dinner parties that the happily married couple provided for their friends and family, gathering vegetables from the allotment they devote their free time to maintaining as the time passes from spring to winter, green shoots turning to withered, iced branches by the movie’s end. Already then, something of the real undercurrents to this movie, despite (or because of) its ordinariness, are present – this is a film about life inasmuch as it is a journey wherein we grow old, and – inevitably – die. For some, like Tom and Gerri, it is a life of bliss and comfort that they may well take for granted. There may be threats to the stability in the fact that their son Joe (Oliver Maltman) hasn’t settled down yet at the age of thirty, but by and large, things are looking pretty good. Better than they may realise.

Tom and Gerri’s relationship, manifested in the providing of dinner parties – events of not merely nutritional nourishment, but the nourishment of community and warmth on the part of the hosts, acts as a keystone upon which the lives of their friends and extended family are thus drawn in, and the darker currents of life become present; Tom and Gerri live a life that isn’t only wonderful, but to some of their friends, magnetic in its dreamlike quality when compared to their own lots. Particularly enamoured is the ditzy, annoying, but ultimately endearing Mary, co-worker to Gerri who seems less of a friend than a charity case. Played with aplomb amidst an accomplished cast by Lesley Manville, Mary’s steady descent into utter loneliness – failing to realise Tom and Gerri’s life is their own, or that fellow wanderer Ken (Peter Wight) may offer the security she desperately needs, creeps throughout a narrative that casts her as the protagonist in disguise. Whilst we may be following overtly the lives of Tom and Gerri, it is their lives – and the events of their son Joe who Mary so wistfully desires – that act as the catalysts upon Mary’s own depression and retrospection upon the state of her own life on this earth.

The movie heavily relies on a sense of pathetic fallacy to bring about the idea of the indifferent cycles in life Fate deals us, and without spoiling the ending, winter comes to us all, signalling its presence with the falling of leaves. Like life, nothing much really happens over the course of the film’s more heady seasons, and it was incredibly refreshing to see a film that – largely improvised – relied heavily on the power of gesture acting amidst the inanity of everyday conversation to reveal the powerful emotions of individual lives that lie beneath the veneer of sociability; veneers that of course sometimes crack. Unfortunately, the film perhaps mimicked real life a little too well, as sections of the plot, particularly towards the end, began to drag a little, with no clear end in sight. Overall however, Another Year was a distinctly British character piece that proved largely engrossing and thoughtful, its considered pacing and deception of a free-form plot through banality offering something different to the contrived signposting of most emotional dramas. This was a film that fully revealed the tragedy of ordinary life, the fascinating aspects of the mundane.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

"Last Night"

This time last year, fellow cinephile Nicolas Pierce and I shot the following short film. It's quite a rough little thing, but for all its flaws it has character...


Monday, 22 November 2010

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One' Review

Things are coming to a close for young Harry Potter. Having already bid farewell to us over three years ago in print form, the ‘boy who lived’ (and seemingly did little else half the time?) is entering his swan song on the silver screen also. He may have done a good job of circumventing the majority of puberty, but even he can’t magic his way out of this final confrontation; a speccy with a scar that looks like it was drunkenly drawn on the night before, battling a man who chose to make himself look like a snake (an indirect choice resulting from a deadly cocktail of Crystal Meth and PCP rather than drink). It’s easy to be flippant about Harry Potter, particularly as someone who grew up with, and, sometimes, grew weary of, the wizarding adventures that quickly turned from storybook fantasy to textbook franchising. There are, essentially, three types of Harry Potter fans; those there from the start who still cherish every minute of the phenomenon, those who came along for the ride with the movies and don’t know the twist ending (Harry is a diabetic who forgot to eat his biscuit and tripped out into a tragic coma), and those, like me, who maybe sometimes feel they are now ‘too good’ for Harry Potter, despite the fact that, deep down, they actually rather enjoyed the books, and are more than a little bit jaded that the past few films have just been rote text-to-screen productions that lack any real charm or personality. For that third group, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One may very well be the two hours that restore your love of not only the books, but of the idea of Harry on screen. For the other two, it’s a mixed bag – this isn’t the Potter Chris Columbus first prepped us for, and, to a degree, it may not be the Potter that even those who read the books expected.
Despite the fact this is actually part one of a double-decker close, the movie wastes no time attempting to fill the viewer in on the events of its lacklustre predecessor, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Harry and the gang are on the lookout for the horcruxes that contain the fragmented soul of Voldemort, who has now publicly returned to instate his dictatorship of fear and Muggle oppression. What follows is a fundamental shift from the formula established over the past six films; forgoing the usual hi-jinks of Hogwarts life in lieu of the new political landscape and general sense of apocalypse, Harry, Ron and Hermione soon find themselves trekking across the English countryside in a much darker, more mature storyline. The more sinister elements of the storyline, glimpsed in the earlier David Yates’ films, return with new vigour, but perhaps the greatest similarities lie in the climax of The Prisoner of Azkaban, resulting in a Potter film that finally forces home the underlying truth of the series; these are children who have had to grow up as soon as they could, in order to confront the fears their parents couldn’t handle. It is an incredibly serious take on the coming-of-age drama that only really seems to be fully acknowledged at this point; the seventh film in the series. This is a bleak film, and I would hesitate to label it as a kid’s movie; the mortal humanity of wizards is shown – perhaps for the first time – from the outset, whilst the inherent sexual tension of an intimate friendship between two guys and a girl is maturely – and explicitly – handled. As a ‘young adult’, it was nice to see attention paid to something that, despite it being a natural (and expected) part of growing up, even Rowling seemed hesitant to touch in her frequently sexless portrayal of teen life. For once, the movies have taken the spirit, rather than the prose, of the books, and, to my mind, it has paid off dividends – the realisation (in several senses) of Ron’s masculine insecurities on screen makes for one of a number of frankly fantastically handled action sequences in the movie. For some, this acknowledging of murky teenage angst in a series that began with three little kids eating Pumpkin Pasties after a trip to the merry Goblin bank of Gringotts may not gel easily, however.

Yet the loss of innocence is perhaps the major theme in a film that takes its time to move across its narrative (refreshing in a series that crammed and excised with a heavy hand in order to previously meet within the two-hour attention span of its younger audiences). The sparse, icy forests that Harry, Ron and Hermione skulk through, when alternated with the claustrophobic streets of London – alien in their urban pollution against the grandiosity of Hogwarts, creates an atmosphere of intense loneliness and despair that is only furthered by some stellar photography that, at times, borders on Arthouse pretentions, with a suitably minimalist score to boot. Of note is the extended opening shot of Bill Nighy’s eyes (a conscious refutation of popcorn editing?), and a beautiful wide-perspective shot at the movie’s denouement on a beach made grey with January sky, the tide well out. The splitting of the final story in two has allowed for a first in Harry Potter movies, and perhaps even children’s fantasy; ambient cinema that works more as a mood piece than straight narrative. Whilst I don’t agree with the criticism that this feels like only half of a movie, I somewhat understand the logic behind it if audiences are looking for the same dense narrative approach of the earlier instalments.
Yet this is not to say that the movie is one long, slow, sombre train into a wizard’s equivalent of depression. The film still carries a sense of humour that is perhaps all the more endearing against the disturbing subject matter, and a handful of well choreographed action sequences. Humour and thrills come together in perhaps the high point of the movie, when our three heroes infiltrate the Ministry of Magic – now akin to a National Socialist headquarters - with the use of the chameleonic Polyjuice potion. The bemused actions of our heroes are punctuated with a fantastically sinister turn by Peter Mullan as Yaxley, the Minister of Justice, his trademark rage boiling barely beneath the surface being another example of this movie raising the emotional stakes. Even Daniel Radcliffe manages to quell the usual complaints of a wooden Harry, offering someone a little bit more human, able both when things are comic and on the road to despair.
However, after being offered an accomplished piece of ambient cinema, I cannot help feeling hesitant for Part Two. (If you’re wondering how much I lap this kind of ‘emotional wash’ type cinema up, check out my Enter the Void review). With all the pieces methodically laid down for the endgame, what remains now but for the final confrontation to happen? Having gorged on a wonderfully individualist Part One, will Part Two just offer the stock element of the fantasy genre; the epic showdown between good and evil? Yet maybe one mood piece is enough, and if Part One is anything to go by, at the very least, Part Two will be beautifully shot and choreographed. Perhaps this swan song will be one to remember after all.



Wednesday, 17 November 2010

'Jackass 3D' Review



Halfway through Jackass 3D, Sean William Scott popped up on the screen in referee gear, and it was then that I realised the cinema doors were a portal into 2001, and I was 12 again. The fantasy quickly faded, however, upon closer scrutiny of the man formerly known as Steve Stifler. This guy had put on a bit of weight. He was looking a little bit meeker - not tired, but his face looked a little more care worn. This guy, and the guys around him, had got old. So was revealed one of the two moments (prior to the end credits) that perhaps summed up Jackass 3D. The other was a quick, simple skit in the opening sequence; Steve-O jumped into a fan, it broke, and he fell down. In the original Jackass movie, released in 2002, the same stunt was performed in a corridor. Here, it was in a studio environment amid bright colours and confetti, the rest of the cast grinning at the audience in fancy-dress. Jackass 3D is, in every sense, a reunion party (its release celebrates the ten year anniversary of the show), not only of the physically irresponsible daredevils, but of a certain mode in MTV history that has since been replaced by the tanned ideology of Jersey Shore and My Super Sweet Sixteen. The edgy MTV a lot of us grew up with is gone, but not forgotten - the movie even opens with Beavis and Butthead informing you to put on your 3d glasses.

This is of course wonderful for people who were there when Daria aired, and who rocked with laughter the first time Johnny Knoxville tried to roller skate jump over a concrete sewage gate. But this is very much a generational thing, and it is telling that the major demographic for the movie is the under-25s. Jackass is not only dumb, silly, guy-fun, but it is dumb, silly, guy-fun that perhaps only really makes sense to those who grew up with the post-Tony Hawks skater culture and often failed even to perform their first Ollie (myself included). There are gags a – plenty, many of which had me laughing out loud, if not holding back the urge to shout in empathic pain or else hold down my popcorn. This is classic Jackass stuff, and some of the pranks are as iconic as those of the show’s former years (one particular highlight being the use of a jet engine as a mortar).For everyone else, Jackass 3D, just like its parent series ten years ago, will be disliked and disregarded as cheap pain-pornography, and they would be right to label it as such. 

Yet this ‘same as it ever was’ approach ran the risk of alienating its original fans also. In the rush to return to some glory long past, Johnny Knoxville and crew repeatedly remind us that, 'Hey, they were on Jackass - ten years ago now!', through visual cues, ‘college humour’, and prank rehashes; the fan jump at the start isn’t the only thing you might remember. Porta-loos once again form a staple part of the programme, as well as the anti-social grandpa routine. Sometimes these re-hashes come off as both nostalgic and exhilarating at once - as in the climactic ‘Poo Cocktail Supreme’ stunt - but the old-people skits of the first Jackass movie felt tired then, and when they reappeared here, it was one of a number of moments in the film where I was concerned that my attention wouldn’t hold out for the full stretch. Jackass 3D however, manages not to outstay its welcome, but ends on something of a high note. 

For all this rehashing, the end credits suggest a lot of material was excised, and one cannot help wondering why. Most of these pranks fail in the clips we’re shown, and when coupled with the shots of crew members bearing their infant children in their arms, the lingering knowledge that these guys have got old suddenly becomes a little more sobering. They’re no longer the elastic balls of energy we remember them as, no matter how hard they pretend to be. Its clear that this was very much a labour of love - no amount of money could justify the pain these people put themselves through - and everyone gets involved on camera, even Spike Jonze. The final product is likely exactly what was intended: Jackass 3D is dumb, irresponsible and illogical. It is, in short, everything you loved or hated about the first series, ten years later.


Saturday, 13 November 2010

First 'Green Lantern' Footage

So the first clips of the Green Lantern movie with Ryan Reynolds have hit the web, courtesy of Entertainment Tonight, and frankly, things are starting to look a little worrying. This movie feels like its riding on the bad-ass charm of Reynolds and little else, goading the viewers with little cries of "Hey, you all said he was the best thing in Wolverine Origins right? Eh?" Hmm. I had my doubts with the costume upon the initial photo reveal; it looked far too much like something Burton's Superman Lives might have come up with had they been working with turn of the century CGI, rather than corny casted muscles intertwined with the fibre optics from a cheap Christmas tree. Maybe a little harsh, but I know I wasn't alone in being unsure of how this organic approach to the costume was going to work out, and after seeing the new clip, its still hard to be won over. Something about it just seems slightly off - whether or not that's down to the quality of the clip remains to be seen, but that face-paint domino mask just seems odd against the pulsating muscle suit that comes with it. If the art direction is pushing the alien element of the Green Lantern Corps, then why not extend that to the mask?

Besides that, the clip reveals very little else. As expected, Reynolds is the cheeky chappy falling in love with his new found power (as well as Blake Lively) and...that's it. Kilowog and the Guardian homeworld make a brief appearance, but there's very little in this clip to make you go 'wow' in a movie that's supposedly pushing the Superhero genre into galactic avenues. This was a common criticism of the (different) footage shown at Comic Con, and it's a little disconcerting to see that the same traces of disappointment are present six months later. We'll just have to see where things go with this one, but I fear its a strong sign that the Superhero movie in its current form is ringing its death knell. Maybe the Brannagh-led Thor will shake things up a bit.


Monday, 8 November 2010

Glancing shot: Metropolis

Things are a bit hectic at university at the moment. Despite that, I don't like leaving the blog unattended for lengthy periods, so here's just a little something to whet my imaginary readers' appetites. 

Just before I left home for another year's study, I had the pleasure of watching the newly restored cut of perhaps the greatest science fiction film of them all. Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) doesn't really need an introduction; even if you've never heard of it, you'll probably recognize Walter Schulze-Mittendorff's Maschinenmensch, or robot woman - the iconic female of cold steel, gazing into the void. There is much more to this film than just great art design (and by great, I mean visionary use of the Art Deco movement) however. From its fairytale storytelling down to its sweeping score, Metropolis is a flippin' masterpiece. To attempt to analyse exactly why its so fantastic would, at a certain depth, take away from the movie's wonder, and for myself to write on it, I feel, would be to do it a further disservice. Instead, I've found a great little clip on YouTube (containing some of the newly restored footage) that offers something of a culmination of the reasons why this film is, and always will be, magical. Babel is here!

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

'Easy A' Review


Anyone who went to school knows that kids love to gossip. Gossip is a currency; if you have it, people listen. This in turn of course means that if you make it, people will talk – rarely to your benefit. High school can be a pretty tough place to get through, and we all manage it however we can. Easy A is the latest in a long line of films to deal with this ubiquitous problem / coming of age phase / absolute pain in the ass, and from the outset it vies for its spot as the latest in what is a very prestigious procession. But does it deliver?
The plotline is inspired by, and makes frequent references to, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter – think of this as Hester Prynne in the 21st Century, without actually having any sinful, sinful sex. Our wry narrator, Olive (Emma Stone), is instead trapped in a lie she can’t escape, so decides to make her own profit grinding the rumour mill, in turn setting herself up as the school ‘super-slut’ without actually seeing a male member. It’s an interesting twist on a familiar conceit that offers the light cynicism noteworthy teen movies always bring onboard; the knowledge that high school is at once ridiculous and life-consuming, and there’s not much we can do to change it. Each decade’s irony is of course specific; Heathers and Clueless both bore the hallmarks of their time, and it cannot be denied that Easy A has a slot with its man-child brethren in Superbad and The Hangover. What’s refreshing here, however, is the firm female perspective the film gives us, the self-indulgent slacker type being the counterpoint to our heroine.
Yet here is where the problems start to appear. Those of you who are as obsessive over the Brat-pack as I am, may have cottoned on to the fact that this blog's title is a reference to the classic feel-good film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), possibly the best in John Hughes' formidable line-up. These movies are adored by all who watch them, and rightly, as the pinnacle of light teen story-telling. And of course, Easy A wants to be a John Hughes movie. Sure, it makes (explicit) acknowledgments to the contrary half way through in the deflation of 80s teen movie values, but, as the ending attests, all Olive really wants is to be living the John Hughes dream. That she can’t is partly, as acknowledged above, a generational thing, and for this the film can't be blamed. The responsibility it does bear however is that, whilst often laugh out loud funny with a magnetising, charismatic lead, what made Hughes’ best films work was that they were ensemble pieces with heart beneath the witticisms. Easy A pays for its incisive portrayal of the school rumour mill, Christian fanatics and back-stabbing friends by losing any sense of real companionship between characters. For the majority of the film, Olive is flying solo, the few figures of support she has, Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church) and long-time crush Todd (Penn Badgley) being little more than bit parts. On that note, what exactly is Malcolm McDowell doing here as the – barely acknowledged - school principal?
This glaring weakness is further revealed through issues with pacing in the movie. The narrative takes the frame of a web cast where Olive relates the past few weeks to us in a series of episodic chunks with a brief commentary in between. This works quite well as a frame, but the episodes themselves have a piece meal, disparate quality to them; after a punchy beginning, the movie drags its heels between plot turning events until the final third, where everything starts coming together a little more.
This is not to say that Easy A is a bad movie, far from it. The jokes hold their own from start to finish, abating the usual fear that ‘all of the best bits went into the trailer’, and Emma Stone is, frankly, fantastic in the lead role. It’s a shame she couldn’t star in an actual John Hughes movie. Overall, Easy A is perhaps the best teen movie to come along since Mean Girls, proving to be entertaining despite lacking the heart it desperately needs.

TRAILER
 


Sunday, 31 October 2010

Weird Science in 'Eerie, Indiana'


You’ll forgive me (I hope) for deliberately instigating something of a sense of déjà-vu with this post in relation to the last, but it is somewhat necessary. When I was really, really young, Channel 4 used to show a bunch of shows in the morning for kids that I would sit and watch avidly from the comfort of my parents’ bed. Sharky and George, Doug (which, a few years later, would be a firm favourite on Golden-Age Nickelodeon), and Saved by the Bell were all the mainstays, with one show in particular ruling the roost of my attention. It was a show about a boy, Marshall Teller. He was a pretty normal kid with a nose for sniffing out mystery and an erstwhile friend called Simon to help out when mysteries occurred. And they happened. Frequently. Why? Because they lived in Eerie, Indiana.
Eerie, Indiana is one of those kids shows that comes along once in a blue moon – bizarre, often off-colour, and, above all, self conscious, it offered a refreshing counter-point to the rest of Channel 4’s schedule, and indeed, anything else that was offered at the time. The only show that offered a similar format was the Australian Round the Twist. I loved Round the Twist – it was, uniquely, an Australian import that was actually good (Pugwall and The Finder are dubious, though hold a special place in my heart), but Round the Twist was more like living in a slightly sinister dreamscape. Eerie had its feet firmly in pop culture ground, always reminding us of the reality it skewed in a knowing, humorous way. The pilot episode, ‘Foreverware’, is a fantastic parody of the EC Comics stories of the 50s brought into the post-modern early 90s, right down to the green glow emanating from the crazy, tupperware-obsessed antagonist as she laughs maniacally into the night sky. This might seem like a bold claim to make for what was essentially a kid’s show, but when the final episode of the series is revealed as a fourth-wall breaking entrance into the ‘reality’ of filming Eerie, Indiana, it becomes clear that this isn’t just a kids show.
Eerie managed to achieve a blend of reverence and parody toward its source material that easily came off as endearing; it’s everything John Hughes’ Weird Science (1985) wanted to be – when it wasn’t too busy dangling Kelly LeBrock in front of us – but ultimately failed precisely because of its obsession with appealing to a teen demographic. Weird Science is odd in that it not only fails as an EC Comics tribute, but as a Bratpack movie – it feels lightweight to the point of it being phoned in by everyone involved, almost as if they feel too good, or else, as in the case of Ilan Mitchell-Smith, too crap, for the concept. Joe Dante, on the other hand, revels in the kind of anarchic perversity this brand of pulpy sci-fi can bring, and it is to Eerie’s credit that he was involved not only as Creative Consultant, but also as an occasional Director. It is also rare. Not many TV shows get to have a Hollywood director mix things up, let alone successfully, and it is telling that the only other show of this period to bring in the creativity and, in a period of Dallas-style cinematography, visual flair of the cinema, was David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks. The similarities between the shows are striking; they’re both named after the insular, off-kilter town they’re concerned with, with a strong sense of subverting the expectations of their respective genres shining through also. This kinship was not missed by Eerie’s creators, who put a number of references to their neighbouring town into the show, not least of all the casting of Harry Goaz as Sergeant Knight. Goaz may be better known to you as the lovable, dim-witted cop Andy Brennan, boyfriend of Lucy Moran, the plucky receptionist of the Twin Peaks Sheriff's Department...
Why don’t we get more shows like this? Twin Peaks is still, even today, revered for its originality and innovative approach to television. A decade later, Carnivale was sold as the literary successor to Lynch’s work for those who found its predecessor too free-associative, with not enough cerebral-pounding. Lost certainly shares similarities with the land of the Log Lady, but not necessarily good ones; nobody likes a plot that's elliptical nature is actually just a result of lazy writing. And what of Eerie? Sure, in 1998 we got the (frankly lacklustre) spin off The Other Dimension, but this was hardly enough. Eerie succeeded in being a kid’s show that anyone could watch and enjoy, provided they were a fan of light sci-fi, that is. But  then the X-Files suggested a hell of a lot of people are - or at least were. Was all this just a part of the 90s zeitgeist? Has this kind of television had its moment come and go? Or will we one day find ourselves in another strange town, with another freaky mystery, and only one seemingly sane person to guide us through it? I, for one, hope so.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Growing up with a Facehugger


Ten years ago, I first watched Alien. I’m pretty sure it was a Wednesday night, with school the next day. ITV used to show a major movie every mid-week; often a series. For many people my age, their four month dedication to showing every single Bond movie (up to Tomorrow Never Dies at that point), was the first chance we’d had to catch the full series. Some time a decade ago, they decided to show the original Alien trilogy and a childhood dream was achieved. It’s somewhat ironic that I’m returning to the series now; as a kid, I begged my parents to let me watch Alien by telling them that, by the time I was 18, it probably wouldn’t be around anymore. To that eight year old kid, ten years seemed like a lifetime away. I only watched Alien once, and I still remember the emotions it stirred like it was a few days ago. I had never experienced anything like it before.
As a child that grew up within the 90s action movie merchandise boom – who related licensed action figures to overblown special effects extravaganzas, Alien, when I first started watching it, was pretty odd. That opening scene seemed to last forever. And where is that big yellow Robo-suit they sell in Woolworths? Things got a lot more interesting once these guys landed on the alien planet. I was being presented with images of bizarre, organic-looking caverns which seemed to carry on forever, and a giant skeleton space pilot?! It was pretty awe-inspiring stuff, and I can’t deny being quite disappointed when I re-watched the scene of the Space Jockey today and, whilst still instilled with dread, failed to be transported. Growing up diminishes the ability to experience wonder; Ash’s malfunctioning, white fluids spewing everywhere, whilst still arrestingly perverted, no longer disturbed me to my core. And the Chestburster scene? I wasn’t scared. But I was disturbed in a way I could not have comprehended at the age of eleven.
Alien is about childbirth. Specifically, it is about man’s fundamental inability to grasp the processes of conception, gestation, and labour that women endure during procreation. Penetration, growth and parenthood are all forced through the filter of one that finds the event totally removed from their emotional and physical experience. Kane as father-mother is not only raped but impregnated, the mythic pain of childbirth and primal fear of bodily ejection being realised in a wholly male-based biology where even the newborn looks like a giant, bloody penis. It is not enough to refer to the alien as parasitic; it has a particular vampiric quality to it that renders it as an active, violent threat. Yet where Count Dracula may be invited, and his brand of intercourse suspiciously female (you orally invade his open wound to become a vampire), the facehugger is always the male, no matter what.
In many ways Alien is a companion piece to Eraserhead. Both look at the father’s role in bringing a being into the world so far removed from their life that they cannot relate to it, and are ultimately antagonistic toward it. Eraserhead’s industrial landscape of unnatural nightmare becomes Giger’s biomechanical caress that is all too organic – impossibly so. This is obvious in the case of the crashed Space Jockey, whose chair has strongly phallic suggestions (a visual marker that we are entering stage one of the procreative act; sexual intercourse), as well as of course the androgynous alien, a creature that has all the disparate elements of visual attraction, but no welcoming unity. It matches Shelley’s description of Frankenstein’s monster as a being whose perfection makes it terrifyingly non-human (another male-mother figure, ironically). Yet the Nostromo itself, with its padded lines and maze of corridors, is reminiscent of the inner body, the crew waking up from their cryogenic sleep through a series of dreamy, overlaid shots that strongly suggest a process of birth. More tellingly, the rail that connects their scout vessel to the ship at large, and from which they detach when they descend to the alien planet, is referred to off-hand as the ‘umbilicus’. And let’s not forget conscientious Ash and his ‘Mother’, the artificial relationship that sets itself as diametric opposite to that of Kane and the alien.
The Giger-ian product of male-male intercourse can only ever be a singular Other, now-classic Horror/Slasher tropes melding with stronger Freudian notions to create a specific feeling of dread that few movies – not least the sequels – failed to reproduce or truly build upon. Ash’s utterance, ‘Kane’s son’ is of course a play upon Cain’s son, the Biblical notion of the fallen family that threatens us, Abel’s descendants. It’s easy to remember that Alien was the first formidable Sci-Fi Horror. It’s hard, it seems, to remember why. When I first watched the movie, these ideas of birthing would have been alien to me, and to some people probably still are. Yet they are irrefutably there, and were clearly noticed by later filmmakers. What it became for them however was almost as troubling to contend with as the idea of a laconic Englishman giving birth at the dinner table. Aliens consciously refuted the biological nightmare, firmly grounded in human intercourse, in favour of a commentary on the Military-Industrial complex (repeated unashamedly in Avatar), mingled with an admittedly strong maternal battle against the alien culture, now reconfigured as a caste-system akin to Bees. One glance at the production history of Alien 3 reveals a troubled tackling of the disparate issues these movies raised that ultimately aided neither. And Alien Resurrection? Just step away.

This begs the question, could the parental anxiety of Alien really be taken any further? Ellen and Newt's relationship in Aliens sets itself up as the unbreakable antidote to this issue, staring right back in the face of masculine fear. Did Alien say everything it needed to say and leave the door open only for the eventual prostitution of its iconic nemesis? Maybe this, ironically, was a fitting end for a creature that so commanded our own fears of sexuality.