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.

Monday, 18 October 2010

'The Social Network' review

A friend called this film the best teen-drama since 'Donnie Darko'. If I didn't love that schizophrenic mess so much, I'd probably agree with him.

As I’m sure you already know, The Social Network is the story of Facebook, the meteoric rise of creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and the – expensive - enemies he made along the way. What you may not know is that The Social Network is also the story of a couple of guys, struggling with the typical social anxieties of today’s youth in a not so typical way. It is a film celebrating the entrepreneur whilst simultaneously an incisive criticism of, to put it bluntly, the growing culture of the man-child.
When it was first announced that David Fincher would be directing a movie based on Facebook, there were doubts. The man behind Seven and Fight Club, two of the defining movies of ‘90s angst and violence, making a film about a bunch of computer nerds putting together a website where people digitise the best parts of their social lives? It’s quite the jump. And yet, in many ways, The Social Network is to this generation what Fight Club was to the would-be counter-culturalists of its own time. Over the course of its two hours, the movie organically reveals something of the importance the internet plays in today’s youth, not just as a mode of communication, but as a cultural touchstone, a quality in the film that may not be fully recognised for some years; as Zuckerberg quips when he starts to see the tip of the iceberg, ‘we don’t even know what this is yet’. The real-life narrative of Facebook practically begs to be recognised as a fundamental moment beyond the zeitgeist of the moment, from the enormous wealth of Zuckerberg and the global influence of Facebook - hinted at by the movie’s end, right down to the presence of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), former head of Napster. It’s easy to forget that Napster, Generation Y’s introduction to accessible music piracy, was at its peak ten years ago. The online landscape has changed greatly since then, but Zuckerberg’s generation, people including myself, have been with it every step of the way, often without even realising it.
Yet behind the cultural phenomenon lies the real meat of Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to fame; the story of a few guys who wanted to be a part of the immediate, physical society surrounding them at Harvard, but just didn’t know how. Through a script that continually carries the audience with snappy, smart dialogue, Eisenberg’s protagonist is immediately cast as a genius with everything but social skills. The only person who’ll stick by him is his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), fellow Harvard undergrad whose loyalty to Eisenberg is not only tested, but outright betrayed in the quest to push Facebook to the top. The film’s use of two court cases as a frame narrative for events filters what everybody knows – where Mark Zuckerberg is now – to tell us how he got there, and who suffered along the way. Fincher’s ability to reveal the vulnerabilities in human nature return here with aplomb, as Zuckerberg’s use of Facebook as a substitute for the heady life of the elite clubs of Harvard ultimately fails, leaving him with nothing but the site. Yet for all his flaws, you cannot help but admire Zuckerberg for his gall; indeed, the two come in a pair. The film doesn’t shy from showing just what he managed to achieve, but simultaneously just what he could become in Timberlake’s fantastically pathetic rendition of Parker, cast as the pioneering Internet businessman and the prototypical man child. Somewhere in between lies the humanity of Saverin and the naive chivalry of the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) who somewhat manage to escape the sense of youthful irresponsibility that the movie homes in on. This slightly sinister undertone is deftly put into relief through Trent Reznor’s minimalist electro score, one of my personal highlights in a movie that was, from start to finish, potentially decade-defining.

Friday, 15 October 2010

'Enter the Void' review

Some actual new content! If you don't quite realise it by the end of this review, I absolutely adored this film. It's not easy viewing though.

I held off writing a review for Enter the Void for two days after viewing it. After experiencing its 137-minute course, I felt I needed 48 hours to fully absorb what I had just seen. In hindsight, I should have written the review as soon as I left the cinema, sat on the street curb in the middle of the night whilst the feelings it had evoked were still strong. Enter the Void isn’t a film – not in a narrative sense – so much as it is an aesthetic experience that consumes you over its length before abruptly spitting you back out.

Its plot is simple; Oscar (played by newcomer Nathaniel Brown), a small-time drug dealer living in Tokyo with his sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), is killed in a club bust and, in the immediate moments after his death, struggles to keep the pact he held to never leave her. What follows mirrors the journey Oscar’s friend Alex (Cyril Roy) revealed through the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’; Oscar relives his entire life before watching over his sister and friends after his death and, finally, being reincarnated, the cycle renewing. All of this, meanwhile, takes place entirely from Oscar’s POV; the camera is literally his gaze. A linear sense of narrative is thus quickly eschewed as Oscar’s memories of his life run riot with free association, a sense of character and story rejected in favour of core emotional responses and Freudian issues through associative patternings. Against this, the camera ‘eye’ is dominated by the back of Oscar’s head, a static image of disassociation from a life irreversibly marked by one single tragedy.

Indeed, alienation fills the viewer from start to finish (with only a brief reprieve early on in the film as we experience Oscar’s DMT high first hand; the first instance of many where Noe makes it clear that he will play this film out as he wants, narrative conventions be damned). Quite beside the invasive aspect of being privy to the view of a dead man, Oscar himself, once he has relived his life, takes up intensely voyeuristic qualities as he navigates the streets and bodies of the city with mute purpose, all set against a backdrop of foreigners in a Neon Toyko of indecipherable pollution; fluorescence frequently dominates the screen, whilst a steady soundtrack of street noise plays throughout, creating a friction between the intensely claustrophobic view of Oscar and the wider sense of a city frequently teased at but always distanced from the viewer. Even the opening credits ensure the viewer is successfully unsettled, before the movie even starts, through a violent assault of sound and light, instilling a sense of vague dread that you’re never allowed to shake off. This is a film that relies upon its creation of atmosphere, and it does so in spades; absolutely considered pacing and editing turn Oscar’s out of body experience into a bad dream we don’t really want to wake up from, as the camera stops being the middle-man of the medium and instead becomes both event and recorder, offering a sense of first-hand experience that, coupled with this invasive quality, lets the viewer fully immerse themselves in a Tokyo that increasingly loses its grip on reality as the movie progresses through the lens of its dead protagonist. Despite its incredibly bleak subject matter then, this is a movie that left me feeling, against all odds, considerably uplifted, a visceral bomb that defies a sense of depth in favour of total sensory gratification. For many it will be completely off-putting, but it is this totally uncompromising nature that, for me, made the film one of the stand outs of the year. It is already a firm favourite.

'Crazy Heart' review

The second of my reviews for the Cherwell. This one involved a trek to 21st Century Fox London, for a brief moment of journalistic glamour in an advanced screening. Those were the days. Or day.

Star power is a wonderful thing. It can save a movie from merely being a banal script, it can pull in audiences, and, in some cases, it can stop a direct-to-video release in favour of a cinematic debut. For Crazy Heart, star power does all three. Originally picked up by Paramount Vantage as a straight-to-DVD package, writer-director Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart offers a candid glimpse of fictional country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), whose forty straight years of performing have taken their toll. Pushing away those who care about him in favour of alcohol and women, Blake embodies the wisdom earned through hard lessons – not necessarily adhered to – that characterises some of the best Country music, swaggering, and sometimes shambling, his way from one down and out venue to the next.

Cue the arrival of Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a journalist who quickly forms a personal connection with Blake and offers a last chance at redemption in the face of cancer and utter loneliness. What follows is the same story we have seen so many times; a man glutted on former success who, in his old age, attempts to right the wrongs of his life even when it already feels too late. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is still fresh in audience’s minds, and comparisons are bound to be drawn, yet across the market variations on this formula can currently be found. Crazy Heart then, needed to stand out. Yet it threatens to be crippled by a script that, at least until the film’s more respectable denouement, dumbly signposts every generic plot point well before its arrival (and the story doesn’t exactly come thick and fast). The emotional gut-punches on which this formula relies are, for the most part, avoided – Blake’s plight is treated with kid gloves, his personal nadir, and the movie’s climax, feeling far more at home in a Hallmark TV movie.

With a script that flounders, what saves this film is the considerable presence of Bridges and Gyllenhaal, both of whom shine. Bridge’s Bad Blake is played with a subtlety that lends believable nuance to the character’s alcoholic state; Bridge’s drunken lumbering bleeds easily into his sober, sombre moments, allowing fluidity in presentation that other actors playing drunk should take note of. Bridge’s idiosyncratic performance gives Blake character where the script holds back. Similarly, Gyllenhaal’s single mother visibly struggles with her opposing impulses between head and heart, offering a maturity previously unseen in her work. Together they are a watchable, believable couple whose tenderness toward one another, along with the soundtrack, carries this film.

T Bone Burnett returns to song writing here after O Brother Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line, and his ability to write memorable songs that not only complement, but often become their own characters in the film, continues. Blake’s prowess in songwriting is well conveyed through Burnett’s lyrics, whilst Bridge, a musician himself, does a deft job at singing along to the steel guitars. A cameo from Colin Farrell also adds some novelty, though like his character, it threatens to buckle under the weight of Bad Blake.

Crazy Heart has been getting a lot of hype, and, without Bridges and Gyllenhaal, it would be hard to see why. As it is, their emotional development (rushed instigation aside), is the major achievement in what should otherwise have been consigned with stealth to the DVD aisle. This isn’t a bad film at all, but it’s a far cry from what it’s being hailed as.

'Up in the Air' review

I wrote a couple of reviews for the Cherwell newspaper earlier this year, here's the first one. It managed to get centrepiece status. Must've been a slow news week.

"The New Year period is the perennial ‘down-time’ phase of Hollywood; a brief respite after the slew of Christmas blockbusters before it all kicks back into gear from March and we’re once again watching big explosive messes. Yet it is in this quiet zone that some of the year’s best movies make their appearance in our cinemas; No Country for Old Man, The Wrestler, and quite possibly, Up in the Air. By turns comic, tragic, wry and poignant, Jason Reitman’s latest directorial proves to build upon his success in the wake of Thank You for Smoking and Juno
Up in the Air details the life of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who utilises his job as corporate downsizer-firing people whose bosses are too cowardly to do so- to achieve his lifetime girl; ten million frequent flyer miles. If this sounds anodyne, you’d be right; yet Ryan’s world is the model that GQ sells to millions on a monthly basis -crisp suits, expensive hotels, big spender reward cards – and Ryan’s charisma and pop philosophy allows us to buy into it quickly. His life of airport-limbo is one of ‘50s glamour; cocktails and crooning music, ejecting delayed flights and sweaty queuing for an existence built upon the smiling efficiency of good business.
Scrapping much of the original novel’s story, the plot presents a lightly existentialist look at the validity of Ryan’s lifestyle through his two female companions. The enchanting Alex (Vera Farmiga), is a fellow frequent flyer whose casual relationship with Ryan seemingly confirms his jet-set lifestyle, whilst his begrudging protégé, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), in her sweetly naive belief in romance, provides a strong foil that, when coupled with Ryan’s unexpected feelings for Alex, begin to reveal the possible hollowness underneath his surface gloss.
Anna Kendrick successfully captures the youthful ambition of a graduate go-getter, trying to keep her head up against the quietly devastating nature of her job for the employees fired (well evinced through documentary-style montages), whilst Vera Farmiga’s Alex is, as she so aptly puts it, Ryan with a vagina, matching his own effortless cool with a disarming aloofness that, from their first scene together, makes for great chemistry. The clear star of the show however, is Clooney, who fits right into Ryan’s shoes – the magnetism of his Danny Ocean is allowed to flourish within a strong script that creates natural tension against his smiling rejection of emotional baggage.
Reitman, meanwhile, rightly seizes upon the opportunity to fuse the corporate tone of Thank You for Smoking with Juno’s squashy whimsy, resulting in a visual style that mirrors Ryan’s own awakening emotion; what begins with relentless fast-cuts, sweeping pans and tight angles steadily softens into the shaky camera work and jerking zoom of amateur video, the visuals themselves gaining a sense of humanity as the movie progresses. Ryan’s speech on the need to remove yourself of your ‘luggage’ in order to live sounds increasingly false in its played out repetitions throughout the movie, the central conceit – the need for relationships in order to gain a fulfilled life – given the finishing touch with a soundtrack that swings from Rolfe Kent’s upbeat orchestral pieces to the sombre introspection of Elliot Smith.
Without giving too much away, the Juno haters needn’t fear too much over any excessive mushiness in Up in the Air – whilst the film goes through its occasional lull, there is no denying the polish of the finished product and the magnetic energy of its leads – there is a reason this film has drawn in Golden Globes and significant Oscar hype. You will, if nothing else, be entertained."

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The inaugural post

It felt weird to just plow right in, so this handy little ice-breaker post was formed for anyone who might read this. I'm planning to put my musings on film, literature, comic art and maybe even music on here when they come to me.

For now though, have a link to an article well over two years old that I didn't realise was online until today, when I decided to dig around the net for anything I might have written in preparation for this little blog. It's a press-release for my old school's production of Dracula what I did write (the press release not the play). D'aww.