Monday, 28 February 2011

'Animal Kingdom' Review

Last autumn saw the release of Ben Affleck’s The Town, a crime thriller set in the current hotspot of Boston (The Departed, Affleck’s own Gone Baby Gone etc.) that gained critical acclaim, despite being an enjoyable work that was nevertheless highly derivative. It didn’t help that the film came out amongst a slew of similar ‘One Last Job’ storylines, seemingly the only way Hollywood seems to go about bringing flawed male characters in serious dramas onscreen right now. The crime genre is compelling if seemingly static; before The Town, there was Public Enemies, itself heavily indebted to the charismatic gangster flicks of time gone by. Even without its phenomenal cinematography, scoring and cast, Australian cross-over hit Animal Kingdom already sets itself apart, in that it is a film about armed robbery where all the heists have already taken place. What we’re left with is a criminal family slowly imploding on itself, searching for leadership so that it might stop gnawing its own limbs.

This deflation of the usual ‘live by the gun, die by the gun’ mantra is made more explicit through the use of Josh ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville) as the protagonist; a rather apathetic young man who struggles to fully engage with anything, but admits to just going along with whatever’s put in front of him. In this case, it’s the fatal OD of his mother, leaving him in the hands of grandma Janine (Jacki Weaver) and her sons; a notorious Melbourne criminal family who’ve already done their last job, whether they know it or not. J’s induction into this dysfunctional, paranoid family, bound by a loyalty none of them ever seem capable of fully adhering to, is the knowing antithesis of the rise of Henry Hill in Goodfellas, as there is no room for legends outside of romance. The reality of Melbourne’s criminal underworld is a complex rule of force and subservience between the police and the crooks where strength is all, and power must be found in your pack.

The Cody family are a memorable cast of self-serving egotists, with the unhinged ‘Pope’ being perhaps the most arresting of them all; played fantastically by Ben Mendelsohn, the would-be ruler of the family is utterly ineffectual, terrifying in his short-sightedness and easy descent into violence.  Yet the real power lies with Jacki Weaver’s Janine, who quietly dominates as the utterly reprehensible matriarch of the family, her saccharine sweetness hiding the black heart that ultimately keeps the family ticking. J’s feelings of entrapment within the family are furthered, rather than abetted, by the attempts for salvation offered by Police Officer Leckie, the white knight of the drama who fails to see that no one else upholds the moral code he abides by; least of all his own force. Once again, Guy Pearce fully embraces a role that leaves you asking for more, his soft presence dominating every scene he’s in with a warmth we know won’t see us through to the end.

The strong, doomed performances of the cast are furthered through some excellent cinematography that well highlights the sense of enclosure working its way through the film; its gratuitous use of slow-mo actually fits perfectly, lending a sense of real weight to proceedings that give the piece a fable like quality to mirror its titular imagery. With such foundations to build upon, Antony Partos' magnificently oppressive score is then the cherry on top of a thoroughly dark tale of power that lingers long after watching. Animal Kingdom is a real breath of fresh air; a crime film that plays out as a domestic drama, rejecting most of the usual tropes of the genre in favour of something a little bit more ‘arthouse’, it’s not only a highly auspicious debut from director David Michôd, but a cracking film all round. I have no hesitation in calling it the best crime film we’ve had in a good few years. Check it out.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Oh look, it's another shortsighted attack on the portrayal of women in cinema


Don't get me wrong, there's plenty wrong with the presentation of women in film; just look at Transformers. I'm not going to go into that here though. I just wanted to draw your attention to an argument condemning cardboard cutout women in cinema that actually gets character and stereotype confused. How so, you may be asking?

1) It attacks Michelle Williams' 'Cindy' in Blue Valentine as utterly forgettable fluff. This was a film that offered a truer, and more objective, account of the breakdown in a relationship than anything Hollywood has come out with in quite a long time.

2) It claims that the 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' trope has more validity to it than characters such as Cindy, despite acknowledging that the representations of said trope are also "cloying and grating".

3) Its idea of a full bodied woman in cinema is Eva Mendes' 'businesswoman' character in Hitch. You know, the same one-note piece of 'sophisticated' eye candy that the male lead conquers in most mainstream comedies i.e. any film with Cameron Diaz.

It's a classic example of how putting people in suits and giving them respectable jobs suddenly makes them decent human beings, with the added bonus of a rant about the 'empowered female' being the only one worth anyone's time.

The real kicker though comes from the tagline of the piece:

Why are studio movies beating independent ones in featuring interesting, complicated female characters?

The studio movies it cites are Sex and the City and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Huh. Complex women? OK, sure. The former in particular being a franchise that, in its latest iteration, has been openly condemned as not only sexist but borderline racist.

Check it out here:

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

When Students Beat Hollywood

Okay well no, not exactly. The blog may not have as much attention this week, due to my covering a university film festival, but it's just as well really as it reminded me of this absolute delight. The winner of last year's Best Director award at Oxford University Film Festival, 'Faustus' is a fantastic little tribute to German Expression that hits all the nails on the head without being ironic or knowing. Its bloody fantastic and you should watch it while I clean up after myself.

by David Shackleton

Faustus turns to the Dark Arts, and challenges Mephostophilis to a game of Chess!

Writer, Directer, Producer—David Shackleton

Director of Photography, post-production - Robert Rapoport

Assistant Grip—Tim Meester

Costume and Make-up— Jessica Law

Faustus—Adam Taylor

Mephostophilis—Christopher Adams

Wagner—Carlene Icuschke

Scholars—Jessica Law

Chloe Orrock

Tim Meester

Monday, 21 February 2011

From Russia with Love; or, Why Bond Sucks at Chess

This is the second in a series of monthly pieces on the James Bond franchise, as part of The Incredible Suit's great Blogalongabond. For more info, check out here, and here. For my previous piece on Dr. No, click here.

It’s 1963; the height of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened twelve months prior, and in the face of the tensions between two sides of the same coin, a shadowy organisation aims to make its own quiet power play for a decryption device. Along the way, it will rid itself of an upstart British agent who foiled the plot of a major operative a few months prior. Russia and Britain will be played off one another, as the Secret Service man is tailed by an assassin trained to take him out. As the net closes around the British agent, he will realise how much he’s been played and make a final effort to remedy the situation.

The fact that the above synopsis sounds somewhat removed from the ‘typical’ Bond movie is to the immense credit of From Russia with Love, the character’s second onscreen outing (and Connery’s second as 007). To an extent, all of the Connery movies can be seen to have a sense of continuity that didn’t get erased from the Bond franchise until the Moore era, but it’s possibly at its most acute here. By the time of the ‘Blofeld trilogy’, the head of SPECTRE has himself become the sort of Moriarty to Bond that can exist outside of everything else that occurs, but here, the plot springs from SPECTRE’s desire to avenge the death of Dr. No. There isn’t a formula here yet; having been introduced to SPECTRE at the end of Dr. No, From Russia with Love picks that thread right up from the beginning, setting up a sense of just how formidable the terrorist organisation is – it even has a creepy master chess player in its ranks that could probably beat Deep Blue by just staring at it.

As a result of this, the sense of threat already feels far more real – the ‘megalomaniac of the week’ approach hasn’t been set in stone yet, SPECTRE instead acting through the stalking presence of assassin “Red” Grant, always watching Bond and ensuring he follows their plan to a tee. It makes for a great extended chase through the film that is a marked twist from the later strict adherence to the Dr. No narrative arc. Grant is in control, but he’s just a pawn himself, playing his part in Kronsteen’s latest chess game. For most of the film, Bond is thus far more human than the undefeatable agent of the later films; his arrogance leaves him short sighted, his appetite for women being the snare that entraps him. In short, his place in the film actually feels organic, and the stunning Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova feels equally real (one of the few Bond girls to actually have you rooting for her as opposed to smirking at Bond’s having away with her). Everyone bangs on about Ursula Andress but man; this woman is where it’s at. Plus she actually serves an engaging purpose, far beyond being a one-dimensional bimbo fixated on sea shells.

This unique approach continues structurally also. Indeed, if the eight minutes it took to introduce Bond in Dr. No felt alien in the face of Die Another Day’s surfing superstar (ahem), then the fact that we have absolutely nothing to do with James for the opening sixteen minutes (that’s 1/8 of the total run time) is positively groundbreaking. Except that this is the second Bond film, and all that other stuff got established afterwards; this is part of the joy in taking part in Blogalongabond, seeing just how the series has evolved and changed to create the James Bond trope alluded to last month. This might be why people enjoy Connery’s Bond so much; he might be the most suave, but he’s also the one with the most depth, not always commanding the film with his (at least in the laziest Bonds) empty presence. And when he does get to step up, as in that fantastic stand-off with Grant, it’s brilliant.

The series is clearly still figuring itself out here; the search for a decrypting device isn’t exactly spectacular, but is this so bad when it allows for the unique approach discussed above? I might be wrong, but the only other instance I can think of prior to the Goldeneye renaissance that makes such a gamble is the underrated License to Kill. The film has more than a few similarities with North by Northwest, but that likewise is hardly a bad thing – it doesn’t get much more stylish than spectacles on a train surely? It’s such a thing of time gone by, that lends itself so well to the idea of Bond as the Imperial figure abroad, that it only furthers my case as to whether the Bond we have today is actually Fleming’s Bond at all. Where things go from here will be interesting; Goldfinger is the first true ‘Bond’ film as we’ve come to know them today, and is also perhaps the best of that formula. But it might have a lot to answer for in cancelling out more of this From Russia with Love’s ilk.

Friday, 18 February 2011

'Special' FX

Imagine your typical Hollywood action blockbuster of the past two years. Big budget, bigger explosions, and the biggest effects (hello Michael Bay), its flashy and intense- the camera whirling as computer generated warriors battle on land, sea and air. Yet for all the lens flare and motion blur, something, at least to my mind, feels missing. It’s all well and good trading up on scale and violence, but when it all has that pristine shine of CGI, how can you really care? I’m not saying CGI is uniformly bad, but with it being so readily available in today’s SFX extravaganzas, there’s a definite laziness in certain corners. For some directors, a healthy dose of green-screen means that engaging cinematography and, dare it be said, imagination, go out the window.

It's totally real!
Let’s cut back thirty-five years to a certain film called Jaws. It may be a cliché example, but it serves our purpose well. The big daddy of summer blockbusters, the power of Jaws was largely a result of the perceived technical deficiencies in successfully rendering a shark through animatronics. What we got was a film that dealt heavily in suspense (‘that’ score) so that, when the big reveals occurred, they had real weight, aided by the fact that the shark actually had a sense of presence on screen – mechanical puppet or no, it was there when the actors gave their reactions. I can’t help but think if Jaws was made today, it would be a pretty generic, lacklustre affair – precisely because it would be bathed in cheaply exaggerative, 3D-augmented shots.

Nice hair
But what’s that? Animatronics look cheap and tacky too? Jaws is about as intimidating now as a grey sock on my hand with pencilled eyes? It’s probably a fair comment for some, and one that Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead revelled in – the prosthetics were ridiculous even then, and leant a hokey, cartoonish feel to proceedings. In contrast, the ‘cartoonish’ graphics of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus only further amputate an already floundering affair. This isn’t to say CGI should be outright condemned – far from it. But with the relative ease using green screen has in favour of animatronics and make-up, directors should be careful they don’t settle for shallow efficiency over personality.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

'Blue Valentine' Review


You can’t really talk about Blue Valentine with any depth without giving away the plot, simple as it is. Following in the veins of such films as Annie Hall, and (500) Days of Summer, Blue Valentine details the breakdown of a relationship whilst simultaneously presenting the heady beginnings and moments of true affection upon which the coupling was originally based. Yet where those previous two entries were similarly aligned comedies (indeed, (500) Days, competent as it was, was little more than Generation Y’s take on the Woody Allen classic), saying “everything’s going to be fine”, ultimately reminding us of the processes of renewal and emotional growth that come from ended relationships, Derek Cianfrance’s first mainstream release shows how destructively claustrophobic the final days of a relationship can be, offering solace only in the times that were, not those after.

Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), are at breaking point. Their marriage has become stale, with only the mutual love for their daughter Frankie, binding them together. In an effort to revitalise a tired union, Dean books the couple into a cheap sex motel, but the underlying tensions in their marriage come along for the ride. Some years earlier, Dean is a talented young man who just wants to get by, and comes across the beautiful Cindy whilst moving a customer’s belongings to a nursing home. For the rest of the film, these two opposing threads to their story interpolate as they become revealed, and we see the best and the worst all at once, allusions in the present gaining startling new clarity from events in the past and vice versa.

It is, as stated above, an approach to relationship drama that isn’t exactly new, but is made engaging through its powerful execution. Where Annie Hall and (500) Days relied on narratorial voices and a peppy, ironic tone that distanced the audience somewhat in favour of biased (male) perspectives, Blue Valentine is frank and unfiltered, neither Dean nor Cindy gaining a sense of narrative control over the chaos on screen. Throughout, the camera is jerky and unsteady, cuts occurring in the middle of meditations on the meaning of love when not just day-to-day life. At the high points of Dean and Cindy’s relationship, this renders a sense of intimacy with the heady displays of affection the two offer one another, but in the alternating present, it becomes intrusive and painfully voyeuristic. Cianfrance’s script hits the nail on the head in what it set out to do – this film is nothing more and nothing less than the story of a failed relationship that was once wonderful; the final 24 hours are incredibly uncomfortable viewing, but in spite of this, one can’t help but smile when, fifteen minutes later, Dean is serenading Cindy with a ukulele five years earlier.

The cinematography, in spite of a few nice visual quirks – particularly in the opening of said ukulele sequence outside (or in?) a dress shop – is largely a vehicle for the performances that make this story true. Williams, and particularly Gosling, are both fantastic, offering themselves candidly to the camera so that we see their joyful, uncertain younger selves against the clearly damaged and defeated futures they both inhabit. That the film is so affecting is a testament to their ability, warding off the potential for worthy melodrama that often inflects these dramas of doom. Grizzly Bear’s soundtrack, largely made up of instrumental versions of existing songs, conveys well the sense of whimsy that punctuates the film.

The final message is somewhat troubling; with every relationship in the film ultimately ‘failing’, the clear good times that Dean and Cindy have show that this isn’t simply a polemic against coupling, but there isn’t the sense of hope such films usually lend to their audiences to help them walk out of the cinema untouched. If relationships are doomed to one day fail, is the best we can hope for memories of what once was? Is this as terrible as it sounds? The film doesn’t answer the questions it offers, and to its credit. Why this hasn’t received more awards attention these past few weeks is beyond me, and I’m incredibly annoyed at myself for waiting until the second run of the film to finally see it. Blue Valentine is easily the most moving film of the year so far, and rounds out a great opening two months in the cinema of 2011. It’s bleak, but it’s worth it.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Amazing Spidey Footage

With a very young Morgan Freeman!

Wait, what? There's a new Amazing Spider-Man on the way? You got here searching for that? My bad.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Oh What a Knight! (1928)

Here's a little treat for my 50th post. Before Mickey, there was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. This was one of the last of the character's shorts directed by Walt Disney, prior to him leaving Universal and turning his attention to Plane Crazy...

Saturday, 12 February 2011

'True Grit' Review

Can the Coen brothers ever be stopped? Formerly known for two cult greats of the Nineties, Fargo and the behemoth that is The Big Lebowski, since the release of the successful No Country for Old Men in 2008, Joel and Ethan have annually followed up with hit after hit that both critics and audiences love. The two former indie brothers are now some of the most recognisable names on posters today, perhaps the most revered of Hollywood directors, and with True Grit, this cred seems only to be rising; before officially opening worldwide this weekend, its domestic earnings were swiftly catching up with the international accumulation of No Country. But what does this mean for True Grit? Is it still a product of the Coen brothers we know and love? Yes, but perhaps not quite as might be expected. A rip-roaring revival of the Western genre with real heart, True Grit shows the usual ear for dialogue the brothers have, their ability to get the best out of their cast, and of course, Roger Deakins’ phenomenal cinematography. But that existential drive that has so marked their career is put somewhat on the backburner on this quest for redemption and the ways of the Old World.

Following Charles Portis’ 1968 novel more closely than the original John Wayne adaptation, True Grit is the story of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield), on the hunt for the drunkard outlaw who betrayed and killed her father – Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). The hardy fourteen year old girl struggles to be taken seriously on her path for vengeance; her mind may be sharp with the ways of the judicial system we now take for granted, but in this violent world such reckonings are quaint and naive. Nevertheless, her sheer pluck comes to win over the aid of dandy Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and legendary gunslinger, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and their journey to track Chaney and his gang begins.

Joel and Ethan create a true Western world that harks back to the period’s greatness; the generic revenge plot, already subverted somewhat through the aid of a young girl, is made unique in their adaptation by making this firmly Mattie’s story – fresh eyes viewing the final days of the great Western era. Characters display themselves through their words, and the way they utter them; the language of the Bible uttered eloquently by some, croaked with guttural cynicism by others. Yet whilst this world may be thoroughly founded upon Christian teachings, it is a credulous religion in which the fear of God inspires a blood trade, and we are throughout reminded of the view of not only life, but death, as a commodity that has a value to be traded – even Mattie’s desire for vengeance, so rooted in notions of ‘an eye for an eye’, points out this fragmentation of an Old Testament mindset into the financial growth of the new frontier. We’re witnessing an era that is paying its way into the modern world through blood debts and tales of glory that will be forgotten as the 20th Century begins to rear its head.

This is not to say that the film is overtly serious; indeed, like all of the Coen films, it manages to make these points – here more subtly than ever – against a real sense of comedy, and, rare after the likes of Burn After Reading and A Serious Man, an earnest engagement with the characters free of irony. LaBoeuf and Cogburn of course make great viewing; well written characters of ‘grit’ and gunpowder that Bridges and Damon soak up and live through with their usual commendable skill. The real stand out however, is Hailee Steinfield, who manages to capture a sense of seriousness within the youthful confines of her character that will leave the cast of the Harry Potter movies hanging their heads in shame. This is her story, and we are rooting for her the whole way.

A great piece of revivalist cinema with real heart, True Grit isn’t the best Coen brothers film; elliptical narratives are largely forsaken (bar some poignant notions put forth in the ending), and characters aren’t quite so obviously struggling against the tide of fate. It is, however, a great piece of cinema that not only bears the other hallmarks of the Coen brothers’ quality, but is just straight up fun to watch. Between this, The Fighter, and Black Swan, UK audiences have been more than a little spoiled over this past month. Enjoy it while it lasts!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Let's not forget...Videodrome

Bringing new meaning to the term “video nasty”, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is a nightmare world of death and sex, the popular portrayal of the yuppie lifestyle as something founded on violence and sleaze taken to its radical extreme.

James Woods is on top form as the opportunistic Max Renn, head of the cable channel CIVIC-TV; a regional station that delights in showing the latest taboo delights. When he stumbles across the pirate broadcast of ‘Videodrome’, a seemingly fictional snuff show, he thinks he’s hit the jackpot. Yet the show’s bizarre premise and murky origins soon gives way to a surreal quest for answers, with Renn’s girlfriend, Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), being the first to let the strange seduction of Videodrome overwhelm her.

With brain tumours, conspiracies and hallucinations aplenty, the line between dream and reality quickly blurs, Cronenberg’s signature SFX reveal the grotesque endpoint to the complete objectification of what Renn (and most TV audiences ultimately) desire - power, sex and violence - and Renn’s efforts to escape Videodrome’s long shadow makes for the ultimate Midnight Movie. When the nightmare’s over, you’ll believe a man can have a vagina for a belly.

The trailer for Videodrome is sufficiently mental in its own right that you should watch it regardless of whether you've seen the film or not...

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer

Cooper and BOB do love the gossip

Twin Peak's media, erm...peak, was pretty damn big. Covered in newspapers, TV guides, fanzines, and no doubt Usenet discussions, the question of just who killed Laura Palmer was on everyone's lips. And as we now know, it wasn't really what Frost and Lynch were particularly interested in so much as just exploring this bizarre lumbermill town and generally having a kooky, kooky time.

However, to further entice audiences, script writers created a series of real life 'artifacts' that expanded upon the TV storyline in a way that I guess we'd now say points to all the ARG and viral stuff we take for granted as part of the media experience today. Of note was the release of Laura Palmer's 'real' diary - the one we see Cooper and Sheriff Truman pouring over in the first few episodes. Full of cryptic little details that fans hoped might unearth the killer inside Twin Peak's heart, the diary it turns out (perhaps not so surprisingly) is ONLINE! As

  1. A massive Twin Peaks fan
  2. A skinflint

having the opportunity to read this for free is pant-wettingly good. Imagine then my further surprise when the same website also has Dale Cooper's autobiography, most of which is aimed directly at the unseen recipient of his tape recordings, Diane. I realize these 'discoveries' are belated by about two decades, but nevertheless you might not have known about them. Check them out and see if you can find out how Annie is.

Friday, 4 February 2011

'The Fighter' Review

Why is The Fighter worth your time? Another performance drama (executive produced by Darren Aronofsky no less); another boxing biopic, what makes this worthwhile in a world of Alis and Raging Bulls? Probably a valid question, yet whilst The Fighter is ostensibly about the career of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, David O. Russell’s latest venture (and third with Mark Wahlberg), is much more than this; a domestic drama with real heart, it will inevitably draw comparisons with Scorcese’s epic, but it nevertheless holds its own as a thoroughly enjoyable, accomplished piece of cinema.

Micky Ward’s (Wahlberg) career isn’t exactly flying. A welterweight boxer who’s lost three matches in a row, his boxing life is going nowhere. Yet the decisions on where to go are entirely out of his hands, as home life parallels the inertia of his status as a title-belt “stepping stone”; his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) and larger-than-life half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a former pro boxer and “pride of the town” dominate the reticent man as his manager and trainer, buying into the motto of “family first.” Matters are further complicated in that Dicky is an unreliable crack addict, idolised by his mother and nine sisters so that Micky is forever trapped beneath his shadow. Dicky himself is being filmed, seemingly as part of a career comeback, that further pushes Micky to the sidelines. The drive of the film thus comes not so much from Micky’s attempts to revitalise his boxing career so much as it is to escape the snares of his mother and siblings, aided by beau Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), of which the boxing is the external representation. Part of what makes the film interesting is the effect this cult of Dicky has on his loved ones, and indeed the community as a whole. Worshipped for something he never really was, Dicky’s washed up delusions of grandeur leave everyone seeing Micky as second-rate without ever truly realising it. Criticism has come from the fact that Bale seemingly steals every scene he’s in with Wahlberg, yet this is the modus operandi of Dicky, a ball of chaotic energy that, as he states, “gets in from the outside.” The film’s whole structure is based around examining and deflating representations of Dicky so that, ultimately, Micky can be seen for who he is – as a result, both Bale and Wahlberg perform admirably, Bale’s method acting well complimenting the sense of quiet presence and drive that runs through Marky Mark’s version of Ward, the centre point of the film's soul. Likewise, Amy Adams is great as Ward’s rock of support – a woman that gets under your skin, you root for Charlene just as much as you do for Ward, the relationship between the two becoming another part of Ward’s quest to win, one it’s hard not to buy into.

Russell’s direction allows the smothering element of the Ward family to organically pervade throughout the film, through strong choreography and sound design; Ward and Charlene are alternately hemmed in and excluded from the Ward women’s sphere of influence, sometimes subtly, other times less so. Micky’s cabal of Harpy like sisters, swooping into frame to wreak havoc, are an incredibly fun set of villains that make for some very tense moments of domestic discomfort, whilst Leo’s Alice is a frustratingly formidable force of matriarchal power.

Engaging and enjoyable where it could have been worthy and gritty, The Fighter is the best yet in Russell’s career. With a strong set of likeable characters and a white-knuckle climax, this might not be in the same league as Raging Bull, but so what? It’s a fine piece of cinema and should definitely be seen.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

'127 Hours' Review

How do you make a film interesting when your audience not only knows exactly how it ends, but has come to see its simple and, well, effective climax as the definitive crux and main draw? When everything else runs the risk of being dead exposition before gory pain porn, what’s left to be done? It’s an issue that has no doubt haunted Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours since its inception, and will no doubt be haunting it now, as people pay up and wait to see the unfortunate Aron Ralston (James Franco) pluck his arm off. But Boyle and co. can rest easy knowing that, if given a chance to be a fully fledged movie rather than merely the long run to a quick pay off, 127 Hours is a largely effective movie that, even in its sugary-sweet moments, is sincere and on the whole engaging.

If you lived under a rock until recently, or are, more realistically, under the age of ten (you precocious prodigy you), 127 Hours is an adaptation of Aron Ralston’s book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, which detailed his nightmarish days trapped in Robbers Roost, Utah. His arm wedged between a boulder and canyon wall, Ralston endures five days of diminishing supplies, physical deterioration and mental collapse, before finally finding a bloody way to escape. Ralston’s story is ostensibly one of isolation and the will to survive against the odds. What balances this premise and saves it from being an endurance test on both the audience and Ralston, is Boyle’s pitting it against a larger issue Ralston has fled his whole life; human connection. It’s a rather simple message that Boyle hams up when he can; particularly in the opening “RUSH HOUR-STADIUMSPORTS-HIGHWAYS- THIS IS MANKIND WOW!” split screen sequence, but when allowed to seep into the film more organically, it is a surprisingly effective message in spite of its crudeness, realised well in the film’s final moments.

Boyle’s style is typical of the director throughout, the imprisonment of Ralston allowing for a repeat of the alternate energy and claustrophobia seen in Trainspotting, whilst Ralston’s opening moments of solitary joy are derivative of extreme sports videos, complete with pumping soundtrack. For all its bombast it works, for the most part. Unfortunately, Boyle seems to have developed something of a love affair with the low frame-rate staccato shots that punctuated much of Slumdog Millionaire. There at least, it served a point, gelling well with the collage effect of the movie and colourful palette. Here, seeing Ralston’s plight suddenly be rendered in such a way made no stylistic sense, actually detracting from proceedings and revealing a need to be flashy for the sake of it. The film’s lesser moments of style and occasionally ham-fisted approach to message coalesce about three quarters into the movie, so that, despite the 'importance' of what we're seeing, it all begins to drag. Thankfully, a strong, decisive, shift in focus brought things up to speed for the home run, and throughout, Franco shone, able to inject a rather selfish character with a sense of pathos that gave his plight weight (aided by a particularly enjoyable ‘Talk Show’ sequence; Ralston, finally realising he needs to connect, has only himself to connect with in the canyon). And when ‘it’ finally happens, it’s more than effective...

Whilst it will no doubt be considered overhyped by many (myself included, to a point), or still seen as a bad attempt at shock porn (it’s not attempting shock porn), 127 Hours as an accomplished piece on isolation that achieves its goal of making a full bodied story out of a headline grabbing moment. Simple and to the point, it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s pretty darn good.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Short Stuff #2: Neill Blomkamp

You may know him as the director of indie sci-fi hit District 9, but Neill Blomkamp also has a number of other exciting glimpses of possible futures under his belt, many of which are less than ten minutes long! Blomkamp clearly has a fascination with the genre, as will be evinced by the shorts below (it's interesting to note that District 9 itself began as a short feature).

Yellow (2006)
Since the advent of the internet and streaming video, its become pretty common for directors to make corporate short films that, if not fulfilling a viral function, centre around a specific marketing concept that has more range than a mere thirty second commercial. 'Yellow', as part of adidas's 'Adicolor' campaign, is just such a piece. But don't let its origins put you off; 'Yellow' is a great example of Blomkamp's approach; a short, frenetic pseudo-documentary piece that shows a rogue AI attempting to escape its pursuers. Blomkamp's natural talent toward the genre, when pitted with the stylistics of the 'Adicolor' campaign, make for a very fun piece.

Tetra Vaal (2004)
Blomkamp's exploration of new future themes in third world settings continue in this piece from early in his career. Essentially a showreel for his Visual FX, the film functions as a mock press release for fictional company Tetra Vaal's latest creation; a free-running police robot that can handle the hardships of Johannesburg's gang culture. A very short, slight piece, what makes it so interesting are Blomkamp's attention to the robot's aesthetics and vivid movement; elements of this were clearly carried into 'Yellow' - as well as District 9 - but if the draw there was the colourful palette, here it's the hints of the same pseudo-realism that pervaded his feature film.

Halo Landfall (2007)
Personally, I'm glad the Halo movie didn't take off and Blomkamp made District 9 instead. Whilst I'm sure, as this video attests, the Halo feature would have been atmospheric, with a strong visceral feel and attention to the details of the franchise, Halo's already a bit limp in the whole story-telling department. Rather a nice indie feature than another forgettable franchise media-jump that will have the kids go 'wooo' and splash out on crappy merchandise. Eh. Nevertheless, 'Landfall' is interesting to gamers due to it focusing on the (as of then marginalised) ODST Troopers, and to everyone else as being a competent sci-fi action short - there's not exactly many of them around. And the costumes are pretty fucking sharp.