Monday, 28 March 2011

'I Saw the Devil' Review

There’s a scene in Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy that has stayed with me ever since watching it. Well, there’s plenty (live squid, a very special family relationship revelation, a hotel room prison blah blah), but there was one particular moment when I found it very difficult to watch the screen. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen, suffice to say it’s unpleasant, occurs near the end of the film, and is carried out with a pair of scissors as the victim pleads “You want me to be your dog? I’ll be your dog.” For those who know what I’m on about, imagine the grisliness of that scene kicked up to eleven and then repeated every ten minutes or so for almost two and a half hours. Congratulations; you now have the basic framework for I Saw the Devil, Kim Ji-Woon’s take on the Korean revenge thriller that grimly throws in everything but the broken-off corner of the bloodstained kitchen sink.

I don’t mind being this hyperbolic when I can state quite fairly that I Saw the Devil was one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences I’ve had in quite a long time. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s something to bear in mind. Ostensibly, the film follows the familiar outline of its ilk, as seen in the likes of Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy; Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-hun), an agent for the National Intelligence Service, is devastated when his fiancé, Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha) is brutally butchered. Daughter to a retired police chief, Joo-yeon’s case is already personal for the local police, who have a number of suspects in mind. Using the superior resources at his disposal, Soo-Hyun begins to track them down one by one, and when he finally comes face to face with the demented Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik, in familiar territory), the two plunge into a violent inversion of the usual cat-and-mouse formula that pushes Soo-Hyun’s revenge fantasies into the harsh light of reality, as he comes face to face with the sick underworld bellowing beneath the surface of society, and begins to join in, making Kyung-chul the victim of his own lengthy hunt.

What then separates I Saw the Devil from its peers – along with its extreme violence – is its probing of the personal consequences when meeting psychopathic violence on its own terms. This is of course present to a level in all such revenge thrillers, but Soo-Hyun’s descent is quite markedly that, a fall from civilization that opens up a world where Kyung-chul is just one of a number of remarkably depraved individuals. The film wears its heart on its sleeve in presenting just how inadequate vigilantism really is; how can one man expect to take on psychotic violence without coming out with scars, let alone make a real dent in it as an idea? Killing one man is all well and good, but when there are plenty of others around to replace him, where is the catharsis? In the end, fantasies of revenge are just that -daydreams. In turn, and coupled with the film’s intensely voyeuristic approach to extreme violence, the audience are left to ask if there ever really is such a thing as the ‘righteous’ violence that revenge movies use as their crux – when it’s all becoming so animalistic, what’s actually human about any of it? The film may be incredibly over the top, pushing plausibility to its limits, but at the end, these are the questions we’re left with.

Lee Byung-hun’s Soo-Hyun is convincingly filled with a conflict of grief and rage he wishes to give action to from the start, whilst Choi Min-sik is clearly delighting in playing a thoroughly reprehensible human being – this man was born for the genre and will forever be its icon. However, Soo-Hyun’s protracted manipulation risks getting incredibly repetitive by the onset of the final hour, and whilst the film does do a good job of kicking things up a notch for the final act, its succumbing to its own (incredibly stylish) endurance test of pain porn begins to seem less and less didactic, and just plain sadistic by the film’s end. But maybe this is the point; whilst you can’t destroy evil, it can certainly corrupt you. Whilst Ji-Woon may not have taken the crown from Chan-Wook, he’s directed a largely successful companion piece to the greatest of the Korean revenge thrillers that pushes the genre into new, darker places.

Saturday, 26 March 2011


This is the latest in a series of monthly pieces on the James Bond franchise, as part of The Incredible Suit's  Blogalongabond. For more info, check out here, and here. For my prior entries, click here.

The shadow of Goldfinger looms large, even when the size of its titular villain is considered. This, the third outing for Bond onscreen, made the mould and broke it in one swift two hour show, leaving a template that the series still struggles to fully evolve from after its twenty-second outing. Goldfinger is easily the most all-round enjoyable of the Bond movies so far; where Dr. No failed to gel its grounded, investigative first two thirds with the final comic book lair of the villain, Goldfinger pits 007 against the head of Auric Industries from the outset. And where From Russia with Love took its sweet time putting the pieces into place so that Bond could be fully ensnared, Goldfinger always makes sure things move along at a marching pace. It’s also the most cinematic of the Bond movies so far, mostly due to a variant score that isn’t simply a recycling of Bond’s main theme. It helps that this score happens to be that one that underlines that really good Shirley Bassey track that happens to be the definitive Bond song. So Goldfinger really comes out ticking all the boxes and walking away with a big fat grin. Which is fine – great, but with anything that hits the nail on the head, it’s hard to stray away and try something fundamentally different, and like I said before, it’s because of Goldfinger that we’ve had over a dozen would-be Goldfingers (all of which miss the mark by varying degrees), and nothing that really comes near to the territory of From Russia with Love ever again. Why then, does everything fall into place here?

The fantastic theme song has already been mentioned, and, pitted alongside with perhaps the classiest of the series’ opening credit sequences, it’s hard not to immediately buy into the film to come – this is pure, vintage Bond, and its reek of pre-‘69 sophistication is held onto through the course of the film; 007’s encounters with Goldfinger occur in swanky hotels, perfectly maintained golf courses, and a horse farm so immaculate, even its stable revokes any trace of manure, so as to allow for a bit of rough and tumble later on. This is perhaps that underlying ‘feel’, defining the best of the Connery films, that the series has forever tried to replicate whilst also staying contemporary – and the results have been varied. It can’t be denied that none of them achieved exactly what’s going on here.

The problems come when filmmakers attempt to recreate Goldfinger through its surface attractions; at best, this has resulted in the familiar tropes that allow the Bond films to be parodied in very familiar ways; Q’s gadgets really get on their feet here with the tracking device and the kitted out Aston Martin, Pussy Galore is the first Bond girl who doesn’t have a strong whiff of misogyny hanging around her, and, in contrast to his role as the stooge in his last adventure, Bond’s cool charm finds itself sliding in comfortably with a foresight and intellect that will see him through for much of the franchise to come (it's interesting to note that Hamilton wanted to make Bond less of a 'superman'). The Bond archetype is becoming apparent.

However, at its worst, the awe Goldfinger is still held in has resulted in slavish ‘homages’ that attempt to ride on the successes of the film without realising why they worked at that particular time. Everyone remembers the (still fantastic) reveal of Gill Matheson coated in golden paint, beautifully horrifying; so Quantum of Solace signposted the franchise’s slide back into rote manoeuvres by dunking Gemma Artherton into some oil. That wasn’t the first time the franchise has so obviously called back on itself, but it’s perhaps the most nonsensical. And, in a stunning double-whammy of rehashing, pseudo-sequel to the revolutionary N64 adaptation of Goldeneye, Rogue Agent, featured Auric Goldfinger himself as the key figure – again without realising why Auric remains as one of 007’s most formidable opponents (Thankfully, the original Goldeneye game knew exactly what it was doing by making Oddjob the best multiplayer character. You can’t fucking beat a man who looks unnervingly like a Korean Oliver Hardy, and whose modus operandi is to kill people with his steel-plated bowler hat).

These instances – and others – do however show just how extensively the legacy of Goldfinger extends through the James Bond franchise. At once it’s greatest achievement and its heaviest burden; it’s easy to see why this is considered the best Bond film. Personally, I disagree, for reasons I’ll come to in...a little over a year, but if I had to argue for what I consider the ‘classic’ Bond film, this would undoubtedly be it.

Faking out

Had a short holiday; You Killed the Car will return properly this evening for another round of Blogalongabond, but first some sagely advice:

Sunday, 20 March 2011

'Submarine' Review

I might as well be clear that this will have about as much right to the title of “review” as my covering/shameful slobbering over Black Swan did a couple of months ago. I’m sure that by the time you’ve read this, you too will see me pounding away at the keyboard shouting “GREAT THIS IS JUST GREAT”, though I’m going to try and stay somewhat grounded. That said, Richard Ayoade’s adaptation of the novel Submarine by Joe Dunthorne is a fucking fantastic film and you should definitely book tickets for it now.

Set in Swansea in a vague past, mashing up everything between the 70s and the 90s, Submarine offers an intimate portrait of young Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a would-be young man of letters and individualism who is instead more than a bit awkward and probably deranged; happy to give bullying the first girl he kissed a go if only because it takes the flak off him for awhile. Over the course of the autumn school term and Christmas holidays, he sets himself two goals; to lose his virginity to possible girlfriend Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) as quickly as possible, and to repair the marriage of his parents after convincing himself that his mother (Sally Hawkins) is embarking on an affair with old flame and new-age life coach, Graham Purvis (a thoroughly sleazy Paddy Considine). Oliver’s candid narration of events, offering us a comprehensive overview of just how self-absorbed (and outright selfish) he can be, allows for a wonderfully dry comedy that offers something of an antidote to the usual teen movie without resorting to the blunt reactionary jokes of genre satire. Basically, it’s a thoroughly British approach to the teen movie that is both rare and refreshing in the current cinematic market, though has obvious influences from the likes of The Inbetweeners and other small-screen laments on the less romantic parts of growing up. Oliver sets himself up as that romanticised version of Holden Caulfield that seems to be so popular with the young’uns (bizarrely), only for real life to make sure he gets a good kick in the balls in turn.

With an engaging storyline, the film is then amplified by a strong marriage of art direction and editing that takes full advantage of its nostalgia-manipulative setting of the indeterminate past. It would be easy to say that Ayoade’s debut feature displays the familiar hallmarks of young British contemporary cinema, raised on a post-Tarantino diet, and it would likewise be easy to point out a clear Wes Anderson influence. Whilst both statements are true, they only go so far in describing what makes Submarine great; it’s sharp cuts and masterful sound mixing offer something slightly less showy, and more substantial, than the visceral rollercoaster rides of an Edgar Wright film. And where Wright’s hyper-kinetic style may get the blood pumping, Ayoade’s approach works in that it gels on an emotive level with the tone of the film; sincere even when mirroring Oliver’s overt pretentiousness, it has heart where Anderson has a cynically applied formula. This has a lot to do with Craig Roberts’ and Yasmin Paige’s fantastic work as a duo (though both more than hold their own), with a real chemistry that never feels forced. Likewise, Sally Hawkins and Paddy Considine are on their usual top form, with Considine looking totally comfortable with his magnificent mullet power.

The film is rounded out by a Alex Turner’s suitably bittersweet love songs and a rousing score from Andrew Hewitt that perfectly captures Oliver’s histrionics. Whilst initially sceptical of Turner’s collaboration, fearing that it might overpower the film, it’s safe to say that his pieces mesh easily, and subtly, with the film’s more sincere moments without being showy. They were the icing on one delicious cake, and another instance of cinema-lovers being spoiled over the past two months. 2011’s shaping up to be one hell of a year for film.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Run, Rabbit, Run

This isn't exactly new, but it's pretty great so if you haven't seen it, I'm sure you'll enjoy. Unfortunately there's not enough stuff by Run Wrake to compile a 'Short Stuff' article entirely around him, so this can be a nice stop gap before the surprises of the fourth installment (hint: it's Maya Deren). 'Rabbit' is a fantastically subversive little piece that turns childhood innocence on its head, with plenty of violence to boot.

For further delights at no extra cost, have a trawl through the youtube comments...

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Growing up with Formic Acid

Some of the points discussed here are (tenuously) linked to my previous essay on Alien. This is a pseudo-sequel insomuch as it attempts to provide potential reasons as to why the themes of the original Alien came to be replaced with what we saw in James Cameron’s take on the franchise.

In 1954, Warner Bros released Them! One of the first of the “giant monster” movies, the most obvious credit of lasting success to the film’s name is its Oscar nomination for the crew’s rendition of the irradiated ants that terrorise New Mexico. Amidst the countless slew of Sci-Fi features released in the 50s, it’s certainly one of the better ones, and its legacy can be traced to Starship Troopers, Eight Legged Freaks  - possibly even having a hand in the US refit of Godzilla. However, there’s another film that follows the mould of Them! on a far more comprehensive level; one that, when revealed, is both striking and potentially illuminating as to why a certain blockbuster franchise followed a specific direction, after its original inception as a rather insidious horror story.

Them! is essentially a story about how ants, if large enough, could destroy humanity due to their strength and caste structure. Police officers Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn, whilst out on patrol, discover a little girl in shock. A few miles further in the New Mexico desert, they find a decimated caravan that turns out to be her family’s holiday home. Her family are nowhere to be found. As more deaths occur, the evidence points to something sinister and inhuman, with even FBI agent Robert Graham being stumped. When an unidentified footprint allures the father/daughter Doctors Harold and Pat Medford – a team of entomologists – it soon becomes apparent that our killer is in fact a colony of giant ants living underground. The rest of the movie concerns their attempts to destroy the colony as it spreads across the West Coast of America, working alongside the military.

Aliens is essentially a story about how a species of insect-like creatures could destroy humanity due to their strength and caste structure. Having been rescued from cryogenic stasis after the events of the original film, Ellen Ripley finds herself acting as an advisor to the Weyland Yutani Company as they attempt to discover what exactly has happened to their planetary colony. When they land, they discover a little girl in shock. The base around her is deserted and in a bad state, and Ripley, along with a cohort of US Marines working for the Company, attempt to destroy the colony so as to prevent the xenomorphs from spreading across the galaxy – likely as a bio-weapon under the Company’s desired control.

It’s not exactly convincing just yet. We have two sets of insectoid enemies, and we have two scared, lonely girls – so what? Leaving aside the matter of why the aliens are suddenly insect-like for the moment, let’s actually consider Newt and the little Ellinson girl a little more. When Ripley first finds Newt hiding away in the corridors of the colony, the girl’s shock leaves her mute, catatonic. There is a specific shot of Newt staring into the void as the lights of the corridor and the marines’ rifles blast across her face; it pretty effectively conveys, along with the emptiness of the colony, that this girl is the last survivor, having lost everything. In the opening moments of Them!, Sandy Descher walks through the desert landscape with the exact same face. Catatonic and mute, all she is finally able to say is Them! THEM!!’ when a bottle of formic acid is held under her nose, thus giving the film its name. Her parents are dead at the hands of the giant ants, and it is her appearance that first suggests that something is very, very wrong in New Mexico. If nothing else, the use of Newt to highlight an imminent threat in the first third of Aliens is, I believe, a firm homage to the opening of the first real Hollywood “Creature Feature.”

Yet the marks of Them! run far deeper through Aliens. For one, where exactly in the original Alien is it ever really implied that the xenomorphs are analogous to earthen insect life? Eggs are common to every species except mammals, and whilst the facehugger has obvious arachnoid elements, it looks more like a hand, its raping of its victims and subsequent rebirth as a penis-headed alien working far more to suggest a perverse abstraction of human sexual intercourse than anything to do with insects. And yet in Aliens, the creatures suddenly work within a hierarchy of queen and drones, the aliens setting up their own, invasive colony within that of the Weyland Yutani venture. As in Them!, discoveries are first made of the drones seeking out prey, with the queen actively being sought out by the humans to be destroyed in the heart of her colony, along with her eggs. Like an insect, the queen is both larger and more intelligent than her drones. Given that the “son of Kane” in the prequel was clearly not a queen, it’s pretty obvious that this element is a new addition that not only strips away some of the original themes running through the creature, but it also, in light of the plot structure of both movies and their essential enemies, seems to be indebted to a film about giant, puppet-controlled ants. And given that a James Cameron film was going to focus on the surface thrills of the alien antagonist rather than possible subtexts, working the Company into the story of Them! seems to have worked more than well enough.

However, it’s interesting to note that, if we follow this trend, Ripley’s analogue in Them! happens to be both Doctors Medford, and this pairing offers an interesting insight into just how divergent gender attitudes were in the thirty years separating the two films. Enough has been said about Ripley to have established her as the first real action-heroine of a post-feminist world. She’s a competent individual who doesn’t need saving by a masculine hero, and has the maternal instincts that help revive Newt in a way no one else in the film could manage. This isn’t really challenged in the film beyond the likes of Hicks clearly being attracted to her strength, holding her up as a woman to be respected. Hicks’ closest parallel in Them! is probably FBI Agent Robert Graham; a dashing man of action who helps deal the killing blow to the ants, and lives through to the end where our other major male protagonist, Sgt. Peterson, does not. Graham is clearly attracted to Dr. Harold Medford’s younger daughter Patricia, but whenever she takes the initiative to tackle the ants, by, as in one scene, entering their colony with Peterson and Graham, the FBI agent waxes on about how she won’t, as a woman, be able to handle herself down there when something happens. Whilst she eventually wins him over, it’s as the only viable replacement researcher for her old father, not on her own merit – and the fact that she’s a woman is forever her vulnerability to be potentially exploited in the rest of the scene. It’s rather uncomfortable to watch now, and whilst Pat does get to be ‘one of the lads’, it feels a bit knowingly exceptional in the film – something that now, thanks to the likes of Aliens, we’d take for granted.

If Them! is actually the inspiration of much of the script of Aliens, could Pat’s struggling against “good old” American patriarchy actually be the blueprint for the highly competent Ripley of Aliens? She held her own in the first film, but there’s been clear movement up the “bad-ass” scale whilst in cryogenic sleep. Either way, I think it’s very hard to outright deny, given the evidence, the clear evolutionary link between giant, irradiated ants, and penile-headed, acid-bleeding xenomorphs.

Monday, 14 March 2011

'Rubber' Review

Remember 'Flat Beat', that massive song by Mr. Oizo in the 90s that helped spawn a major Levi’s campaign, as well as selling countless Flat Eric plush toys?  Well, you might be surprised to know that Oizo, otherwise known as Quentin Depieux, has more recently tried his hand at film; specifically the horror comedy Rubber. Though if you’re looking for a light film with laughs and schlocky appeal, this probably isn’t it. Dressed up as a forgettable midnight movie, Rubber, for better or for worse, is at least something that will stick around after watching, for reasons very different from what might at first have drawn you to it. Yes, the trailer makes this look like a potentially amusing, if one-note film on a lonely tire’s murder spree – and that is there – but even Depieux seems to have realised that alone couldn't carry a feature film.

From its outset, Rubber is pretty comfortable with poking and prodding the audience. “Why a movie about a murdering tire?” Why not? Having methodically driven through a bunch of wooden chairs scattered on the desert highway that makes up most of Rubber, Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella) walks up to the camera to give a steadily more heated diatribe on matters of right and reason in cinema. We quickly discover that the audience he’s talking to isn’t us, but a bunch of people “on set” who will watch the film in real time from afar. The film’s premise; that of the tire Robert discovering its love of destruction, and in turn, developing telekinetic powers to achieve what its small frame cannot, quickly comes to be shown as a thin veil of silly fun, an “homage to the no-reason” that the film struggles to actually reconcile with.

For despite its surrealist avowals, there’s a strong hint of structure running through Rubber, but I’m not sure what exactly it’s trying to say. Our audience figure more and more in commenting on the movie, as two distinct threads form between the story of Robert and the actual events of the “movie” being staged, and what this means for both participant and spectator. It’s a fun approach that allows the film’s bizarre, nightmarish tone to gain a bit more flesh, at the cost of actually being just a bit of lightweight fun. Depieux seems to be commenting on the process of performance and the presence of an audience in a very arch, knowing way, but once the initial novelty of this wears off, and things start to get stuck in a smug little rut, whether or not this film is actually saying anything is a question that looms ever larger over the barren desert landscape. Some of the time, Depieux carries us through a nice little piece of intensely nihilistic humour where nobody’s worth shit and the farcical nature of the whole film is pervasive. The rest of the time, it gets bogged down by its own showiness, the dialogue becoming stilted as the narrative grows boring and one-note – ironically for very different reasons than the trailer may have hinted at.

Ultimately, Rubber seems to be trapped in a very specific frame; Depieux is a veteran of the 90s music scene, having not only composed, but directed music videos also. His film has all the pretty aesthetic appeal of a mid-decade MTV hit, with that same sense of pseudo-intellectual showiness that may carry a tune for a few minutes, but can’t sustain a whole feature film – especially one that so explicitly wants to make the audience do successive double-takes on the nature of genre, narrative, and even the role of the audience. These are lofty, difficult themes, and whilst the film may draw attention to them, the fact that it can’t really conclude on them, particularly against its silly subject matter, leaves it feeling more than a bit conceited. In his opening speech, Chad's major point was that “all great films, without exception, contain an important element of no reason.” Rubber is not one of these great films. What it is, is an interesting, if highly flawed experiment, that will be worth a watch for those still interested after reading the review, if only to see what the fuss is about. For everyone else, it will probably be alienating either in its surface silliness or its underlying pretentiousness. It was nice, at least, to see something so playfully meta, but at 85 minutes it’s all turned into a bit of a circle jerk by the end.

Friday, 11 March 2011

'Never Let Me Go' Review

Alex Garland can’t quite seem to catch a break. After the phenomenal success of his debut novel, The Beach, he has forever struggled to match up to the ideal everyone (not least Danny Boyle) seems to pitch him as. Branching out into screenplay writing with Brit Zombie movie 28 Days Later, if there’s one thing that can be said of all his scripts – adaptation or no – they offer big blasts in the opening salvos, only to seem to tail off, prematurely deflated, before the supposed climax. His latest adaptation, the Mark Romanek helmed Never Let Me Go, originally a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, is no different. Not all of this is of course Garland’s fault; Ishiguro’s foray into science fiction is intriguing in part because of its flawed premise, and Romanek’s latest after One Hour Photo continues to offer the understated brittleness of his former underrated feature. However, like One Hour Photo, Never Let Me Go also just misses the critical steps that would make it a really worthwhile film.

In an alternate reality, most of the world’s degenerative diseases have been cured, the life expectancy of the average human well over 100 years. In this world, Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), a “carer” for organ donors, reminisces upon the intimate friendship she had with the cunning Ruth (Keira Knightley) and sensitive Tommy (Andrew Garfield) as they grew up in the halls of Hailsham; a stereotypically “English” boarding school that harks back to pre-war values and aesthetics in the late 70s. Here, the students are special, their development into adults further complicated by strange rumours and practices in the school environment. In light of what’s to come for these isolated children over the course of their existence, a rivalry for the affection of Tommy quickly occurs between Kathy and Ruth that will leave an indelible mark on their whole lives. If you haven’t worked out almost every detail of Never Let Me Go from that “allusive” synopsis, you certainly will by a third of the way through the film. The “mystery” of how people live so long; the reality of Hailsham and the Cottages; these are the questions that fuel this soft Sci-Fi flick that are both easy to answer and actually a little dull.

It’s a slight tale that tries to mask its potential plot holes and lightness with a strong emotional core with its centre love story, told from Kathy’s more grounded perspective. If you’ve seen that prior hit Ishiguro adaptation, The Remains of the Day, you’ve actually seen a lot of what’s actually going on here before; a fascination with a certain English period (more overt here in that Hailsham itself is artificial in its harking back to a time gone by) and the resulting clash of “good old” British restraint and emotional impotency against the unwavering ticking of our collective clock. The problem is that, after a strong start with some really great performances from the child versions of our principal cast, the actual tension between Ruth, Kathy and Tommy never feels as palpable as the film clearly wants it to be, a problem that seems to lie somewhere vague, between the script and the central performances. Mulligan is at her usual easy greatness, carrying the film through its length, and Knightley has perhaps found her niche as a complete and utter bitch, but Garfield’s attempts to be slightly awkward only really come into their own in the final third – before then, there’s been more than a few moments where he’s seemed a little complacent.

Even if he was on top form however, I can’t help but feel that the three of them would still be struggling to pull a heart wrenching thread that just isn’t really there. The whole thing feels a little too distant, and this, ironically, might be due to Romanek’s directorial style and the film’s cinematography. The grey seaside towns and farmer’s fields at dusk all help create a real feeling of the cold, brittle society that has engendered the schools of Hailsham’s ilk, but the film’s elegant bleakness makes it feel a little aloof to its own very human, very needy characters. When this is coupled with the fact that almost every twist in the plot can be seen from the moon, what should have been a great little take on the usual genre movie is instead a little bit limp and a little bit forgettable. Never Let Me Go is – well, fun is maybe the wrong word – but it’s a solid enough piece of British fluff that will hold your attention for its length, though perhaps not for much longer afterwards.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Why Luc Besson and Eric Serra are gods #2

Another little clip showing how great a team Luc Besson and Eric Serra are (sorry I forgot to mention you last time Mr. Serra!). Leon is one of Besson's best films, possibly my favourite; Besson's on top form and Serra's score is just phenomenal. It's criminal that so much of his work for Goldeneye was culled from the final cut (though I'll focus on that a lot more when I eventually get to it in the Blogalongabond series). For now, enjoy! And if you haven't seen this film yet, bloody well do something about it.

Monday, 7 March 2011

'Archipelago' Review

Having made her directorial debut with the critically lauded Unrelated in 2007, Joanna Hogg returns again to the concerns of upper middle class Britain with Archipelago, a two-hour chamber piece that strives to display the skills of an auteur. But does it succeed? Reliant on natural lighting, naturalised dialogue, and heavily decompressed storytelling, this is a film that, on paper, ticks all of the boxes for an “Arthouse hit”, but in many ways that’s exactly why it ultimately falls flat – derivative and predictable, it is a film that forces a high price to be paid on the part of the audience to experience its best moments. When they come, they are wonderful in their bleak comedy and glints of insightfulness – but it takes a hell of a lot of slogging to get there.

Prior to leaving for Africa to engage in volunteer work, Edward (Tom Hiddleston) has been invited by his mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) to once again attend the family’s annual holiday to the Isles of Scilly, along with sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonar) and hired cook Rose (Amy Lloyd). Stepping in (but not filling in) for their conspicuously absent father, Will, is art teacher Christopher (Christopher Baker) who quickly becomes a family friend to this lot; insecure in their privileged status and isolated amidst the windy landscape of Tresco. As might be guessed, the cracks in the seams of the family begin to become more apparent through their interactions with each other, particularly in light of the presence of both Rose and Christopher. It’s a bit like To the Lighthouse, if To the Lighthouse didn’t have any of the lyricism and sense of universal experience that actually make it worthwhile reading. This might seem a little harsh, but it is expressive of what is perhaps the core problem in Hogg’s work; in trying to present a family whose veneer of closeness is swiftly falling apart, it fails to actually comment on what makes these individuals worth caring about as people in themselves, and why this experience isn’t anything more than a chance to further discriminate against the upper middle class for living lives so indulgently out of touch with reality. Ed is so empathetic he’s just pathetic, Cynthia’s Elektra complex is textbook, and Patricia’s emotional well only seems to kick in when the film’s understated climax demands it. In reality, people are flawed yes, but they’re rarely caricature.

This in itself could be workable; indeed, Archipelago would have made a fantastic thirty-minute short film. As stated above, it has the necessary ingredients, but it doesn’t seem to know quite where to take them; just as its characters are absolutely inert in their ennui, the film’s conscious embracing of natural lighting comes to grow a bit stale. It can be argued that this of course reflects the falsity of the family’s holiday, and it can’t be denied that the staging works this for a charm; the house they live in feeds back their own emotional immaturity, but, when coupled with the film’s obsession with awkward silences, it all gets a little samey and a little amateur. Like I said above, none of these formal features are in themselves necessarily “bad”, but that the film doesn’t really take them, or its characters, anywhere is disappointing – there is something haunting here that sticks with you, but it felt like it wanted to be taken further.

This wasn’t an awful film (though check out a contrary reaction from one of my friends below...), but it was, after all the hype, incredibly disappointing. The acting was largely superb, relying on nuance and gesture behind the vapid conversations, and when the comic moments came through, as in the brilliant restaurant scene, the film was allowed to really shine. If this had been a thirty minute short, it would have been fantastic. As it is, it is derivative and laboured; when I left, I just wanted to stick on some Bergman instead. (Coincidentally, when I saw it, I kept aching for Animal Kingdom; I could hear the score coming from the auditorium next door. FRUSTRATION). For me, there was a germ of something really good here that got lost amidst all the try-hard formalisms.

Oh and this is what my friend posted regarding the screening:

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Batman, are you feeling okay?

I painted this picture on Photoshop, for some reason the colours on the big version don't match the thumbnail. Anyway, enjoy, don't be scared kids. 

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Short Stuff #3: Fleischer Studios

It's hard to really pin down a single director for the great output of work coming out of Fleischer in the first half of the 20th century; the brothers were often supervisors to the directorial work of the animators, and Max's son, Richard (later to direct Dr. Dolittle and Soylent Green) also cut his teeth on the likes of Popeye. It doesn't particularly matter; whoever was behind the helm at any one time, the Fleischer animations were consistently brilliant, setting up a formidable rival to Disney. It was only when the Fleischers realized they needed to enter the growing world of feature-length animation that their luck ran out; Gulliver's Travels (1939) and the underrated Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941) bombed in theatres, leaving the studio bankrupt. Those two films are occasionally shown on Film4 still, but the revolutionary shorts the studio produced go largely unknown these days; left to rot in a limbo of public domain and soundtrack copyright, there's been no restoration, no revisitation, nada. It's a crying shame, but thank goodness for Youtube, offering chances to see these great shorts, and offering me the foundations for another blog entry!

Minnie the Moocher starring Betty Boop (1932)
Made at what was arguably the peak of Betty Boop's cartoon career (she has not yet been turned into a housewife caricature in angry retaliation to growing concerns of lewdness on screen), this great little cartoon functions also as a bloody great video for the Cab Calloway classic, 'Minnie the Moocher.' Cab and the gang actually feature in the opening thirty seconds of the short, before a bizarre tale of ghosts and goblins - common in Betty's world - sets up a paper-thin excuse to bring some of Cab's Rotoscope dance moves to the table in the form of a spectral walrus. Yes, it is as orgasmic as it sounds. The Talkartoons, of which this short is a part, were integral in bringing contemporary black jazz to a wider audience (The first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927) featured a white man in the titular role).

Popeye the Sailor (1933)
Popeye the sailor man not only began his animated career in the hands of the Fleischers, but his debut was actually as a spin-off 'Betty Boop Cartoon' (Betty appears to do the hula with Popeye halfway through the short). At this point in time, Popeye was already a well-known comic strip character; something the short pays attention to in its opening newspaper sequence. Most of the familiar tropes of the Popeye cartoons make their first appearance here, as this short became the instant blueprint of the star's career, regardless of whatever studio has possessed him since. Indeed, it is the 1930s Fleischer look that is seen by most audiences as the 'true' interpretation of the plucky spinach eater.

Superman - The Mechanical Monsters (1941)
One of the very last Fleischer cartoons to be made, the '40s Superman serial was way ahead of its time, its vibrant palette and Art Deco leanings having a strong influence on the Timm / Dini Batman and Superman cartoons of the '90s (just check out the opening for Batman: The Animated Series). 'The Mechanical Monsters', my personal favourite, was the second episode released in the series, all of which are worth checking out. Halfway through however, production was handed to Famous Studios when things went bust for the Fleischers, and in order to save costs, the animation greatly suffered.

If you enjoyed these, just youtube the stars' names for other shorts. Alternatively, check out the early Felix the Cat shorts, such as Felix Woos Whoopee - surreal anthro animation at its best!

Oscar Bait 101

Just a little something worth checking out. Jonathan Looms over at the Oxford Student has written a really great beginner's guide to Oscar Bait, and how you too can be a shoe in at the next awards ceremony. If you fancy making the next Driving Miss Daisy, look no further...

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

'Howl' Review

Howl, the latest from documentarian Rob Epstein, is an odd film. Given that it’s knee-deep in the territory of the Beat generation, this may not be all that surprising; putting on a front of easy formlessness, this nonlinear exploration of the story behind Allen Ginsberg’s highly influential poem “Howl” attempts to mirror the Beat poets whilst also being objective and authoritative in its movement from the poem’s conception to its 1957 obscenity trial. And therein lies the problem; at once engaged with its subject matter and distant, Howl never quite exceeds the sum of its parts – all good – to become something great.

Whilst it presents itself as a collage of varying cinematic techniques and genres, ultimately Howl relies on three distinct, alternating, strands to tell its core story; a celebration of liberal ideals at a broad level. Ginsberg’s life up until the writing of “Howl”, and his views on the creative process, are told through reconstructed interviews in his apartment, with James Franco stepping in as the endearing, bespectacled poet. Chronologically parallel to the trial of the case, these interviews are punctuated with black-and-white reconstructions of Ginsberg’s flashbacks to his early days, growing up with the thought that his homosexuality may be directly linked to his mother’s mental illness. These sequences are where we find out about the man behind “Howl”, and are perhaps the most interesting the film has to offer. Ginsberg’s life, like that of all the Beat poets, is fascinating in its open exploration of what life has to offer within a very confined, incestuous group of writers, his candid opinions on the creative process, meanwhile, offering a wonderful insight into writing that feels true and without pretention. And yet these conversations are largely visual re-recordings of existing audio tapes with Ginsberg – tapes whose absence can’t help but be noted. As Franco demonstrates, Ginsberg in conversation was clearly charming and insightful, and it would have been nice to hear the actual poet speak beyond the mature voice in the film’s coda.

Thankfully, the use of Franco gains currency beyond flashback sequences in his arresting recital of the poem, mimicking its debut at the Six Gallery in the second thread which runs through the film; the presentation of the poem itself. Franco’s take on “Howl” is loud and electric, the idiosyncratic nature of his voice melding with the scattered, sprawling movements of the poem itself. Running alongside this is a joining of 2D and 3D animation to “visualise” the poem. Whilst these sequences are well made and imaginative, they somehow fail to capture the heart of the poem – if that is even possible in the transference from one medium to another. They tackle the sex and dirt of “Howl” without actually embracing them; it’s all onscreen and yet it feels oddly clean and removed, pacifying rather than aiding Ginsberg’s words. Most disappointingly, these sequences distract from Franco’s great reading.

This cleanliness further lightens the charges put against the poem in the film’s third, and final, major strand; a reconstruction of the trial against “Howl” publisher, Luther Nichols. The most filmic of the three parts, the trial sequence has an energy distinct to itself that helps propel the film along, aided by a particularly strong performance from David Strathairn as prosecuting attorney, Ralph McIntosh. These three threads all run together alternately, concluding one by one in the final ten minutes of the film. The whole process renders a scrapbook effect that, as stated above, gives a kinetic freedom to the film that mirrors the work of the Beat Generation. Yet if Howl is trying to imitate the literary revolution its titular poem set off, it hasn’t quite got the gumption to do so. Touted as some form of new genre, much of what Howl does has been seen before, the last obvious example being American Splendor in 2003, the Harvey Pekar biopic that actually formed a relationship between dramatisation and reality that mirrored the questions of fictional life behind Pekar’s autobiographical comics. In Howl, the effect is nice, but that’s about it. If you’re interested in literature, then Howl is by no means a bad film; enjoyable and hopeful without being saccharine, it well presents some of the truths behind Ginsberg’s work. It isn’t, however, a fundamentally new take on the documentary form; in fact, when it's all considered, it's a bit pointless.