Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Fourth time a charm?

 The inner workings of Hollywood can be a mysterious beast. Somewhere along the line, for some god forsaken reason, Mission: Impossible became the testing ground for untested directors to tread the blockbuster waters. First was J.J. Abrams, straight off TV success, with his surprisingly excellent M:I3 - a rare big budget blockbuster with intensity, strong characters and (lens) flair. And now the franchise has fallen into the unexpected hands of Brad Bird - the extraordinary animator responsible for The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Iron Giant, but a first-time live action director. It was a risky strategy, but one that pays some worthwhile dividends.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo


Say what you will about some of the films made by David Fincher - and I personally find it easy to say nasty things about Panic Room and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - but it's hard to say anything bad about the man himself. Even when the material they're working with isn't A-Grade, Fincher and his collaborators craft technically dazzling, stylistically ambitious and effortlessly cool films. When the scripts hit the mark - whether it be Se7en, Fight Club or The Social Network - the results are remarkable. He's almost certainly mainstream American cinema's most compelling directorial voice. And under his watchful eye, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a slick and atmospheric adaptation (Fincher's fourth 'adaptation' in a row). It's that same adaptation part where the problems lie.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Entirely Pointless Film Ha Ha Annual Review 2011

Part Two: Best of Miscellaneous

Best Actor: Michael Shannon - Take Shelter
The man with the craziest eyes in America does it again. Take Shelter isn't without flaws, but Shannon's performance keeps you hooked even when the narrative doesn't. Portraying the desperate, confused Curtis, Shannon combines manic energy with emotive force to create a character unlike any other. It's the heartbreaking sequence in the storm shelter that propels this performance from the great to the transcendent.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Entirely Pointless Film Ha Ha Annual Review 2011


Yes, it's that time of the year again: every blogger, critic and their respective mothers are conjuring up lists of films they were fond of during a meaningless period of time! And who am I to deviate from tradition? No-one, that's who! So let's kick off the annual reflections with a list of Film Ha Ha's nineteen (yes, nineteen!) favored films of the year. I'm not really a fan of numbers, so I'm ordering them alphabetically. Chaos needs order, after all.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: Tabloid

Read all about it!

 While the critical response to Tabloid - Errol Morris' most recent feature documentary - has been largely favourable, there's a slight undercurrent of disappointment to be found in some commentator's opinions. This, they remark, is slightly 'lesser' Morris. Some make it obvious, others briefly allude to it not being 'his best'. It's certainly true that a deconstruction of a tabloid sex scandal isn't as 'grand' a theme as justice, warfare or (a favoured subject) the death penalty. However, can we begrudge Morris for tackling such a comparatively 'easy' target when the results are so exhilarating?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Review: Lotus Eaters

The discreet charm of the Bourgeoisie

Yesterday, I reviewed Charlie Casanova: a scathing critique of the upper-middle class lifestyle. A few hours later, I watched a film that couldn't have been more different. Lotus Eaters is a film that tries to document a similar class with none of the anger or value judgements. Charlie was loud and brash. Lotus Eaters is observant and subtle.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: Charlie Casanova


Charlie Casanova is a rant, a call-to-arms, an agenda and a sermon. It's barely a film - it's a stream of consciousness. There's the old saying in film-making that you should never tell the audience something when you can show them it instead. First-time director Terry McMahon, frankly, doesn't give a fuck.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Review: Another Earth

A Tale of Two Planets

I wanted to like Another Earth, I really did. I like the concept of an Earth doppleganger (people included) and the poetic possibilities that suggests. I love the good intentions behind a sci-fi film devoid of aliens, ray guns, space travel and all that other nonsense. I like that the filmmakers made a unique, technically impressive film for $200,000. I like co-writer / lead actress Brit Marling, who from the evidence has an exciting future ahead of her in both screenwriting and acting. And, most of all, I always like to cheer on the underdog from the sidelines.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review: Underwater Love

Ichi Ni San Shi!

Underwater Love is unusual even by Japanese standards. It's being marketed as a 'pink musical', which only goes some of the way towards describing it. A pink film, by the way, is an unusual genre of softcore Japanese pornography where directors tend to try and actually tell an engaging story within their modest budgets and sex scene requirements. It's not quite the Dogma 95 of porn, but it's a noteworthy movement none the less, and has been going on for decades now with various degrees of critical and commercial success over time.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Review - Take Shelter

Storm a brewin'

The arthouse apocalypse movie - one of cinema's most unusual subgenres. From the Canadian Last Night, to the 'troubled-adolescent-forsees-world's-end-plus-becomes-superhero-in-the-process' joys of Donnie Darko, its always interesting when a filmmaker or two that aren't Roland Emmerich decide to make a film about impending doom. There was also Southland Tales, but we don't like to talk about that anymore. The last few months have coincidentally seen two offbeat, melancholic takes on all things apocalyptic  - Lars von Trier's aptly-named Melancholia (previously reviewed here on filmhaha), and Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter. There's probably more, but I'm too tired, lazy and apathetic to google it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: Snowtown

If recent cinematic exports from the country are anything to go by, Australia is a horrible place to live. Every major Aussie release I've seen over the last year or so has been a parade of violence, dingy environments and social collapse. Samson & Delilah was poetic but unflinchingly grimy. Animal Kingdom was a vibrant but violent slice of urban decay. Beautiful Kate was rural grimness redefined. Only the The Tree didn't seem to wallow in the filth, and that suffered from the affliction of not being a terribly good film in the first place. Snowtown is another film that fails to do the Australian Tourist Board any favours.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

An open letter to all Twilight fans

Director: So. How do we make this love scene more cliched?
Good evening,

If you're reading this, I'm going to presume you're either a Twilight fan or someone who's bored and decided to click into here for a chuckle. Whatever your backstory, welcome, but be aware post is directly directed at anyone who might be planning on going to see The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1; a shoo in for a nomination in 'titles that really aren't suited to twitter discussion' Oscar category this year, along with the really long winded Harry Potter title.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: The Chef of South Polar


Unlike others I've spoken to over the years, there's not many 'genre' films I'll be instantly enamored with for merely belonging to said genre and being bascially cinematically competent. There is however, an underpopulated sub-genre whose existence fills me with great joy. Thus far, I had only discovered one film I would have categorised in the glorious realm of Japanese Food Pornography, and that was the scrumptious and deliciously eccentric Tampopo. But now I have hungrily stumbled upon another: The Chef of South Polar.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review: Twin Falls Idaho

Just the two of us

Twin Falls Idaho kicks off with moments of quirky surrealism that threaten to hurl the film in various fantastical directions. As prostitute Penny (Michelle Hicks, who I've only now pegged as the same actress who played the almost cartoonishly despicable Mara in The Shield) heads towards an appointment, she's given a two dollar bill by a peculiar taxi driver. In the hotel elevator, she engages in dream-like conversation with an elderly bellhop. And, finally arriving in the dingy hotel room, she's surprised to discover her client is in fact a duo: Siamese twins Blake and Francis Falls.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Runway / A Film With Me In It

Double Feature

This article originally appeared on Give them hits, y'all!

Here we have two films that share a few things in common. Firstly: they’re both Irish. Secondly, and this is related to the first point: they’re Irish films that try something somewhat different than your typical grim urban / rural social dramas, which is admirable. Thirdly: they both feature distractingly weird performances from Mark Doherty. Fourthly: they're both directed by chaps called Ian. Fifthly, and finally: neither is particularly good.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review - Melancholia

And I'm Feeling Blue

How does one review a Lars von Trier film? The man's work is almost immune to traditional criticism - even within individual films, the tone, content and quality can dramatically shift. And, these days, it's increasingly difficult to separate the art from the artist. At a rough estimate (note: not scientifically tested) 99.9% of reviews of Melancholia have referenced his infamous, stupid Hitler gaffe. You can now add this review to that overwhelming majority.

I'll admit that, generally speaking, I do tend to enjoy the work of von Trier for one main reason: he always tries something different, and the results are always interesting if not entirely successful. There are some films I truly like (if 'like' is the appropriate word): Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots or Manderlay. There are others I admire on general principle, but can't say I entirely enjoyed my time with: Dogville or Europa. And there's at least one I actively disliked despite the odd burst of insight or invention: specifically Antichrist.  Melancholia, to cut to the chase, is in the middle category. Interesting, yet flawed.

It's not a significant spoiler to say this is von Trier's take on the apocalypse film. Indeed, the film opens with hyper-stylised, slow-motion images of the end of the world. If anyone has seen the haunting (although somewhat naff) black & white opening of Antichrist, this is similar territory, although with a bit of effects work an over-indulgence of colour these scenes probably work better. Anyway, apocalypse well and truly now, the film jumps back in time and focuses on two different stories. We first observe the wedding party of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), being held in the vast country estate of her wealthy brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). In the midst of a crippling depression, she fakes a smile for her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard) and the party guests (a variety of acting powerhouses). But as the night wears on, the bride finds it harder to keep her veil of happiness in check. In part two, set some undefined time after the wedding, the focus is on Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine is brought to the estate to help her get over another physically exhausting mental health episode. Claire, meanwhile, worries about the news reports that a planet, Melancholia, is one a collision course with Earth. John - an amateur astronomer - assures her everything will be fine. Yet as the planet draws closer, he grows less certain of himself, and Claire's anxiety escalates. In contrast, Justine slowly seems to grow more accepting of the oncoming apocalypse...

This is very much a film of two halves. The first is certainly superior. It plays out like a riff and homage to von Trier's dogma-mate Thomas Vinterberg's classic Festen.  A stunning ensemble cast drives the slow burning drama towards breaking point - John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgard and a very funny Udo Kier as a frustrated wedding planner are amongst the party guests each compellingly experiencing their own personal melancholy. However, it really is Dunst who holds everything together. Having never really been given the opportunity to flex her dramatic muscles before, she genuinely feels like a discovery here despite being one of Hollywood's most recognisable faces. Von Trier isn't in a hurry to get anywhere, but there are enough interesting ideas and revelations to keep the viewer interested while they await the inevitable doomsday. It's not perfect - Justine's motivations sometimes seem determined by narrative necessity rather than credibility or logic - but it's mostly good stuff.

The second half, however, is comparatively overstretched. Abandoning the vast majority of the cast, it's instantly disappointing to leave such curious characters. It's like the first half is a long tease by von Trier - introducing interesting stories but leaving them behind when there's still life left in 'em. It's not like the acting in part two is bad - Dunst is still great, Gainsbourg fantastic as always, and Sutherland has some great moments. But, thematically and narratively, Melancholia feels more repetitive in part two. The first had all the characters experiencing very different and very subtle inner turmoil. With the cast reduced, it's harder to remain interested. The same beats are hit time and time again during Claire and Justine's story, and while the imminent apocalypse does keep things relatively engaging, there are few emotional payoffs.

That said, the film concludes with an absolutely stunning effects shot that will linger long after the cut to black. Cinematography wise, this is an arresting mix of handheld naturalism and stunning apocalyptic fantasy (while arguably too on-the-nose, the regularly blue tinted visuals work really well). And acting wise, it's impossible to fault. But the story is overlong at over 130 minutes, and the rewards only come after struggling through numerous sluggish sequences. It is, admirably, less excessive and confrontational than your typical von Trier vehicle (if still not traditionally 'accessible'). Yet, typically of the man, the mixed success of Melancholia make this very distinctly the work of cinema's most divisive auteur (not too mention predictably strong female characterisation). A reminder that he's always going to be a more interesting film-maker than comedian.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: Cold Weather

The Mumbling Detectives

If there was any justice in the world, Aaron Katz would be better known. On the surface, he's just another purveyor of finest mumblecore. Yet his films have far more character and charm than most directors these days. His first two films - Dance Party USA and the sublime Quiet City - are two honest, realistic romances in a sea of shitty rom-coms and 'chick flicks' (the latter being a term I always find deeply condescending to the fairer sex). Sure, the actors may be non-professional, and the budgets low, but Katz has passion to spare and a keen eye for the everyday. For his third film, Cold Weather, he takes a surprising turn towards genre while never forgetting his mumblecore roots. The results are unique and rewarding.

The carefree first half of Cold Weather will be familiar to anyone familiar with Katz' previous work. Doug (Cris Lankenau) is a guy drifting towards his thirties in no particular rush to go anywhere at all despite his schooling in forensics. He has moved in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), and decides to get a menial job in the local 'ice factory' to pass the time. There he befriends Carlos (Raul Castillo). One day, his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) comes to town on business. Doug invites her over for poker with Gail and Carlos, and soon the quartet are hanging around with each other regularly. One night, Raul gets worried when Rachel doesn't show up for a 'date' they'd arranged. Doug is at first cynical, but is soon persuaded to check out Rachel's motel room. They find an empty room, a suspicious flier, a coded note and some discarded Chinese takeaway. And thus begins an unlikely detective thriller.

For me, Cold Weather is a film that simply worked. It may have caught me in a good mood, and I'll happily admit a bias towards Katz and his low budget contemporaries, but I still loved this film. The first half is fairly typical mumblecore material, and the criticism 'nothing happens' will surely be levelled at it by many. But it's the thriller aspects that add real bite to this movie. Now, don't go in expecting an action packed detective drama - this is a satire if anything. Basically, what Katz has made is a film that imagines what would happen if a bunch of 'normal folk' stumbled across a mystery. They embark on awkward stakeouts, library assisted code breaking and profoundly unexciting stakeouts. Sounds boring, but it's actually very funny. There's a bit with a pipe where Doug tries to emulate his hero Sherlock Holmes that is genuinely hilarious, and the banter between the enthusiastic investigators is always enjoyably amateur. Like Baghead married mumblecore principles with horror tropes, this is an enjoyably naturalistic and playful take on the detective film.

Some will certainly accuse the film of that most frustrating of criticisms: 'nothing happens'. Indeed, many may find the shift from subdued slacker comedy to detective story a bit jarring. But the way Katz ultimately joins the two disparate elements is ingenious. It may sound like a strange comparison, but the ending here reminded me of No Country for Old Men - a sudden ending that may annoy many, but when you think about it it makes perfect sense. Because while Cold Weather often resembles a conspiracy thriller, at the heart of it is a simple, beautifully understated brother and sister bonding story. It only dawns on you when the film is over how likable the characters were, and what Katz was trying to achieve. At it's core this isn't a detective story: it's a down-to-earth relationship drama.

The cinematography is more extravagant than Dance Party USA or Quiet City. DoP Andrew Reed does a wonderful job in capturing a grim, colourless Portland. Indeed, the location is a character in itself: the wintery Oregon conditions lending the film its title. Performance wise, there's the odd moment of mumbling and a distinct lack of experience, but it actually adds to the atmosphere. Again, these people feel like individuals you could meet in any bar. Doug seems a bit moany at first, but as he becomes engrossed in the unfolding narrative you get sucked in with him. Dunn is particularly notable for giving a performance that really captures a sense of quiet, subdued boredom. A jaunty score from Keegan DeWitt works surprisingly well, and is used sparingly.

Cold Weather won't appeal to everyone, and at the end of the day it's relatively lightweight. But it is also completely devoid of pretension, and succeeds in crafting a refreshing mesh of two very different genres. I'm not sure why, but I haven't enjoyed a film so immensely in a long time. Easily the best American indie film I've seen in recent times. It's funny, different and has charm to spare. A real gem.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: Midnight in Paris

Art de Triomphe

Midnight in Paris is a very good film. I'd suggest it may even be a great one. This took a while to sink in. Because while I'm a long-time fan of 'vintage' Woody Allen, every recent film I've seen of his has resulted in a feeling of profound distress and disappointed. Even the odd occasion when he might put out an 'alright' film - Vicky Christina Barcelona, for example - there's something missing, and the occasional mumblings that he's 'returned to form' come across as insincere and hyperbolic. The Allen magic that defined his masterworks is typically absent from all but a few of his post-1990 films. His early, funny stuff. His genre dominating and defining romantic comedies. His love letters to Manhattan. His passion for cinema. For the first time in a decade (or, heck, even longer), Midnight in Paris is a magical Woody Allen film.

Perhaps expectations had something to do with it. Having managed to accidentally avoid publicity materials (I did see the trailer and gorgeous poster, but they admirably give little of note away), I was expecting yet another rigid, formulaic rom-com from cinema's most prolific veteran. After his unconvincing sojourns to London (resulting in the abysmal Casandra's Dream, potentially Allen's all-time low), a change of location didn't fill me with great confidence either; especially when the setting was such a frequently filmed city. But Midnight in Paris is destined to be a definitive cinematic essay on the city: a film that probes what it is that attracts countless artists, filmmakers and travellers to the City of Love & Lights. Move over Paris, Je T'Aime - this is a vastly superior reflection on the city and its history.

Having been particularly seduced by the surprises of Midnight in Paris, it would be inappropriate of me to go into more detail. If you haven't seen the film, then, now would be a good time to close this particular tab, so I don't inadvertently ruin some of that joy for you. I assure you, it's a wonderful film, go watch it! Still here? Good: then I'm going to assume you know what the deal is here. I was genuinely excited when the film first jumped back in time - it was unexpected, and quickly established itself as a very effective trick indeed. It's the perfect tool to examine the character of Gil (Owen Wilson). Like so many artists throughout time, he's infatuated by the city of Paris: more specifically, the 'Golden Age' of the 1920s. By literally granting him his wish to be partake in the past (no wishy-washy explanatory magic here, simply simple movie magic) Allen crafts a playful way to examine themes of romanticism and nostalgia clashing with reality. The journey Gil embarks on is a fascinating one, and it will surely resonate with anyone who has ever dreamt an impossible dream.

This isn't new territory for Allen - in my favourite film out of his massive filmography, The Purple Rose of Cairo, he memorably pulled a movie star from the cinema screen and into small town, depression-era America. A character being transported to early 20th century Paris is a riff on the same basic idea. But a great riff it is. Literally having our protagonist interact with the great figures of the time - from Dali to Fitzgerald - makes for a wonderfully entertaining film. Allen has got damn good actors on board to portray these charismatic figures. Adrian Brody is notable for discovering a small fortune in comic gold during his brief cameo as DAAALLLLLIIIII. Alison Pill is one of her generation's most promising actresses, and she doesn't disappoint here as the energetic, slightly loopers Zelda Fitzgerald. They, and others, are always there to provide laughs and unexpected takes on well-known artists. And, of course, Mario Cotillard is simply radiant, especially in affectionate, suitably old-fashioned soft-focus.

The only minor problem I had was with Rachel McAdams. Not her performance, as such: she's actually does wonders with what she has. What she has, as you might infer, is the problem. If there's one overall problem I have with contemporary Woody Allen films, it's that his dialogue has grown increasingly wooden and artificial. His scripts have always artificial, but he always managed to pull it off in his golden days. In recent years, there has been a few too many occurances of obsequious banter. When McAdams speaks here, she just doesn't sound like a real human being. And while Allen parodies the 'pseudo-intellectuals' that populate his films with Michael Sheen here, McAdams' character simply feels underwritten. It doesn't matter all that much, since we're meant to detest Inez, but it was the one part of the film where I feared Allen would overindulge in his bad habits.

The fears were unfounded. It's obvious from the first moments of the film that this is something different. I'm no Allen scholar, but having seen a significant amount of his films over the years, it's telling that the film opens with an out-of-character pre-credits sequence: a montage of the city. While it certainly drags on a bit (although we're pleasantly reminded of Manhattan), it's an indicator that the director has somewhat left his recent comfort zone. What follows is a thematically rich, vibrant, funny, romantic and affectionate film. It's cleverly directed, and wonderfully acted. Midnight in Paris is simply a delight.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review - Guilty of Romance

Rollercoaster of Love

Sion Sono has become rather prolific lately, and I'm not complaining. This is his second major Western release of 2011 (following Cold Fish), and his most recent film Himizu received enthusiastic feedback from critics at Venice (also, somewhat accidentally, becoming the first major post Earthquake film fron Nippon). But before we get to see that, Eureka have released Guilty of Romance. It's the third part of a very rough thematic trilogy of films about the various different forms hate can take - Cold Fish and the brilliantly unwieldy Love Exposure being its predecessors. And boy oh boy, this is a film full of hate.

The story opens with detective Kazuko (Miki Mizuno) being called to a frankly horrific murder scene. If dead bodies upset you, prepare to be violently ill here - the images of decomposing flesh are deeply disturbing. Kazuko's role has been significantly cut down for this release, so lengthy flashbacks to two other women dominate the film. There's a protagonist of sorts in Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka); the wife of a famous novelist who lives a life of bored servitude. The most demanding task of the day is calibrating her husband's slippers. After taking a job at a nearby supermarket just to get out of the house, she is spotted by a modelling agent who invites her to partake in a photo shoot. However, it transpires the shoot is actually one for soft pornography. Initially reluctant to participate, Izumi ultimately feels liberated by the encounter and engages in a series of casual sexual encounters. One day, she travels to Shibuya where she is seduced by a mysterious man in a bowler hat, who whisks her off to a love hotel. There, he sexually abuses and humiliates her. Wandering around in a daze, Izumi bumps into the larger-than-life Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi): a charismatic university lecturer who moonlights as a prostitute. She leads Izumi on a disturbing journey full of surrealism, sexual encounters, shocking revelations and - ultimately - violence.

Of the many things that differentiate Guilty of Romance from the pack is the utter joylessness of the film. After early scenes of liberation, this tale is largely devoid of happiness. Sex, Mitsuko teaches Izumi, is a tool, something to be exploited for money (Sono critiquing the porn and sex trades in the process). There's no joy to be found in it, no 'love'. The sex is brutal and profoundly unerotic - surprisingly graphic, too, considering the harsh censorship laws in Japan. As a descent into the strange purgatory that is Shibuya's love hotel district, it's fascinating. The film is rarely less than intense, and Sono's fondness for the odd visual flight of fancy is welcome. A character who walks around squirting neon pink paint on people and surroundings makes for some particularly memorable sights. No stranger to shocking the audience - the gory prologue of Suicide Club, finally released on Region 2 DVD a few weeks ago, still lingers - even the most desensitized of audience members will find this tough going at times.

Like all Sono films, Guilty of Romance is pretty fucking messy. While his films are rarely less than compelling, it's pretty obvious at this stage that he's not one for traditional structure, and his films can feel rather loose as a result. With the UK theatrical just passing the two hour mark (the Japanese one is longer at 144 minutes), it's notably shorter than his recent films. But there's still a lot of ideas, and the frequent moment where the viewer will wonder where all this is going. And, yes, it can be hard to pick out the meaning amongst the increasingly nightmarish events. Some twists and turns are downright unconvincing, including a shock revelation which probably won't come across as shocking to many.

But many of the ideas stick and resonate. Accusations of misogyny will be made, but those people may not have paid enough attention. Sure, women are subject to extremely vile acts throughout the film. But they're also independent, powerful characters. And the men are shown as a foul bunch - few of them are anything other than selfish, and all are exploiting the women in various degrading ways. It all comes back to the key thematic concern of the film, and the 'trilogy' as a whole: hate. These people hate life, and hate other people. In the absence of happiness, they seek whatever twisted pleasure they can find.

The various lifestyle decisions characters in Guilty of Romance make are shown as shallow, unrewarding and destructive ways of life. It isn't meant as a realistic critique - everything is illustrated in broad, cartoonish strokes. And that's what makes the film a fascinating and deeply uneven experience. There are fresh ideas presented every step of the way, and the viewer is forced to engage with them through Sono's take-no-prisoners directorial style. Guilty of Romance is a grim and exhausting film, but it also shows a director who makes his points like no other. It may not be his masterpiece (Love Exposure remains the highlight of this particular trio), but GoR will beat you into submission. And it's all the better for it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Review: Drive

Ryan Gosling is: The Driver. 

If you have a nameless protagonist, your film is automatically propelled into the realm of 'cool'. And Gosling's almost silent, bad ass hero is most certainly a cool motherfucker. A stunt driver / mechanic by day, and getaway driver for hire by night, Driver's world is lit up when he meets his next door neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio. Like all good 'boy meets girl' stories, sparks fly. Irene, though, is married, and her husband Standard (Oscar Issac) is about to get out of prison. Meanwhile, Driver's mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston) has worked out a deal with 'legitimate businessmen' Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) to get his protegee racing at a professional capacity. This isn't going to be a smooth ride, though, and soon feces is hurtling its way towards the industrial strength fan.

Let me preface the following criticisms with the assertion that, in general, I rather enjoyed Drive. The star of the show is director Nicolas Winding Refn, who has conjured up one of this year's most distinctive films stylistically. Drive is beautifully retro: a film that truly understands the cheesy 80s film it is so clearly paying homage to. Even the credits are rendered in bright pink fonts straight out of the cheesiest decade of 'em all. It's the soundtrack that is particularly electrifying, and used sparingly: the memorable, catchy synth rock only kicks in when it's truly needed. Add to this some stunning cinematography (including masterfully long tracking shots and slow motion), a welcome fondness for silence (a rare film that shows rather than tells when it comes to characters) and some brilliant setpieces. Indeed, the opening sequence is a tour-de-force: a getaway 'chase' where the soundtrack menacingly hums, and the only dialogue is coming from the Driver's police radio. It's a wonderful, tense and spine-tingling introduction. As a standalone scene, it's perhaps the best of recent times.

A quick mention of the cast is also due. Gosling plays it cool, his distinctive Brooklyn accent only apparent on the rare occasions he decides to speak. When he does, the script dictates he be blunt, to the point and monosyllabic where possible. While his 'considered' pauses can drag on a few moments too long, overall he makes for a great enigma of a protagonist. Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame is typically wonderful in his portrayal of innocent desperation, although he's somewhat underused. Mulligan, I'm not really sure what to make of. She's a fine actress, no doubt, but the chemistry between her and Gosling is almost non-existent. And in a way that's on purpose. Kudos are due, though, to Christina Hendricks for accepting an unglamorous minor role that is as far from her stylish Mad Men persona as possible. But acting wise Brooks is the star: a man with a strange sense of righteousness, yet one utterly unafraid to get his hands dirty to protect his interests. Ron Perlman seems like a mere caricature next to him, and that's some feat.

However, there's one major flaw that kept bothering me throughout the film: I personally think Drive is extremely hollow. And, yes, that's sort of the point. This is a distinctively style over substance film. But the plot just goes through the motions. All the bells & whistles Refn piles on consistently attempt to disguise the fact that this is merely a dumb thriller, with most of the plot beats predictable and formulaic. So while the senses were most certainly hypnotised (and the infrequent bursts of visceral action certainly act as a nice counterpoint to the considered silences), Drive's narrative for me sort of went beyond merely being shallow to the point when some bits were just dumb. Stopping and thinking here is a pretty bad idea. Apparently the book it's based on is extremely short, and it shows. Drive is in no rush to get to its final destination. On one hand, this helps lend the film its individual and likable sense of pacing. On the other, one could easily argue it's because the destination isn't worth getting to.

That said, for many lack of substance will be what sets the film apart. Overall, as an experience, it remains extremely distinctive. I just wouldn't go as far as some of the critical hyperbole out there: the frequent cries of 'existential thriller' are giving the plot a bit too much credit. Drive has a (mostly) great cast, and Refn has a unique and engaging sense of pace, place and atmosphere. Yet the formulaic, overstretched story is the one thing that stops Drive from being truly great. As is, it's merely a damn good ride. Surely, for many, that will be more than enough.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Attack the Block

Aliens, innit? 

I can't deny I've become increasingly cynical towards genre films over the last year or two. I'm always up for something entertaining, but at the risk of sounding terribly elitist, less and less is able to provide those 'turn off your brain' kicks. There are quite a few, for sure: Serenity, Star Trek, Super 8 and other films that may or may not begin with the letter 'S'. But they seem increasingly rare. Maybe I'm just odd, but having heard many announce the IMO merely decent Rise of the Planet of the Apes as film of the year (seriously?) I often wonder if I should lower my standards.

Before I consider that radical solution, I'm glad to add Attack the Block to the realms of superior fun. It sounds like it shouldn't work: I'm not a massive fan of director Joe Cornish's comedy output with cohort Adam Buxton, and the concept of an alien invasion film set in inner city London isn't the most inspiring of setups (and, post 28 Days Later / Shaun of the Dead, not entirely original). But, against the odds, it works.

We begin with a mugging, as you do. It's Guy Fawkes night, and Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is robbed at knife point by a group of five hooded teens led by Moses (John Boyega). Sam manages to escape when an extraterrestial object blows up a nearby car. The teens, though, decide to check out the wreckage. Out pops a wee but aggressive alien, who proceeds to maul Moses. Angered, the kids decide to kick the shit out of it. Cue one dead alien. They haul the corpse back to their apartment block as a trophy. But they soon regret it. Soon, more aggressive alien things arrive in the area, and they seem to have their eyes (well, they don't technically have eyes) on Moses and co. Not helping matters are the police and a disgruntled drug dealer (Jumayn Hunter). So the kids arm up, reluctantly team up with a disgruntled Sam, and set out to kick more alien ass.

There's a few chuckles in Attack the Block, but for the most part Cornish plays it straight. This is a good thing. The result are some superb performances, clever aesthetics and setpieces that drip with tension. The design of the aliens is magnificent - pitch black, featureless fur with glowing blue neon teeth. The result are creatures that aren't invisible, but all the more terrifying when you see those glowing fangs in the distance. The memorable aliens are a stark contrast to the over-thought monstrosities that unconvinced in Cloverfield and Super 8 - CGI used thoughtfully, for a change. Setpieces are largely relegated to the 'block', but full of visual invention. A bike/scooter chase, a smoky corridor, cramped apartments - Cornish gets the most out of his setting, and creates a monster film that's terrifically tense and engaging in the process. I'll admit that it's a little convenient the teens have access to a samurai sword alongside the more credible likes of fireworks, kitchen knives and baseball bats, but we'll let them away with it given the badassery that ensues.

Kudos must be given to the main actors, who do an absolutely terrific job. It's a hard sell when we're introduced to our slang-hurling protagonists as they mug an innocent civilian. But the five of 'em - Boyega,  Franz Drameh,  Leeon Jones,  Alex Esmail and Simon Howard - do a fine job. The fear is they'll be your typical hooded ne'er-do-wells, but aside from the occasional moment of indecipherable slang they all have a distinctly unique character. They're written and directed affectionately rather than critically. When the danger level predictably increases, you'll be hard pressed not to be rooting for 'em, and Cornish isn't a director who gives all of them easy passes. Whittaker is grand as the token female, although I'll admit Nick Frost and Luke Treadaway could easily have been excised from their supporting roles without a major impact to the plot one way or t'other. Even at a running time that barely passes the eighty minute mark, their roles feel like unnecessary fluff, especially Frost who is clearly present to add a marquee name.

Cornish never strays far from genre tropes here, which some may consider a bad thing (for all the positive feedback this film has received, there's also been quite a bit of negativity). But he quietly subverts as he goes along. A particularly nice touch was bringing the old 'phone out of battery' cliche into the modern world with characters who run out of credit. The film is short of social commentary considering the setting, but there are a few clever digs along the way - one of the teens Pest wryly comments on how violent video games and rap music are definitely not responsible for their new found action hero status. The film doesn't judge, and doesn't condescend. The backgrounds of the characters are carefully, ambiguously referenced in an excitingly edited sequence where all the kids return home to arm up: there are no in-your-face attempts to explain their delinquency. The setting feels honest and realistic as a result. Well, as realistic as you can get when a bunch of kids are fighting off glowing aliens.

Add an energetic score from Steven Price (with contributions from the likes of Massive Attack) and you have the makings of a great contemporary alien invasion flick. There are problems: the aforementioned slang, a sometimes distracting fondness for name-checking pop culture, some redundant subplots and characters. And I was a tiny bit uncomfortable with the fact that, for a film with an admirably mature approach to race, all the white characters get off a little too easy. But otherwise Attack the Block moves along at a frantic, involving pace from beginning to end. It's well directed, well acted and well intentioned. Most of all it's fun. And when you're dealing with a film like this, isn't that all that really matters?

Review - Kaboom

Sex, Drugs and the End of the World

Back in the early 90s, director Gregg Arkai released a number of (what are considered by many to be) definitive Generation X movies - films like Nowhere, Totally Fucked Up and the Doom Generation. Most of them featured an actor named James Duval. I haven't seen them, but Richard Kelly did. They had a big influence on him: their attitude and tone influencing his one and only 'success' (and possible fluke, going by the vastly inferior director's cut) Donnie Darko. He acknowledged his debt to Arkai by casting Duval in one of the film's most pivotal roles as Frank: the iconic, nightmarish bunny rabbit. Now, after a more cerebral excursion with the superb Mysterious Skin and a diversion to stoner comedy with Smiley Face, Arkai returns to his Gen X roots with Kaboom. This time, however, he has added supernatural elements. Duval is back too, as a character named Messiah who shows up with a crown of thorns at one point. Unfortunately, like many reviewers, I couldn't get Donnie Darko out of my head, because here the imitated becomes the inferior imitator.

The more I think about it, the more pronounced the similarities to Kelly's opus are. The film stars Thomas Dekker (am I the only one who's a bit freaked out by his resemblance to Casey Affleck? Just me?) as Smith, a sexually 'undeclared' teenager experiencing recurring and possibly precognitive nightmares. There's freaky, possibly hallucinated, guys wearing animal masks. There's a mysterious book that helps describe the ever weirder happenings. There are vague references to the end of the world. There are irreverent pop-cultural discussions. There's also a witch. Okay, Donnie Darko didn't have a witch.

In fairness, it takes a while for Kaboom to truly drift towards the supernatural. The strangeness is there from the beginning, but they just seem like playful quirks in what is otherwise a light-hearted sex romp. Smith lusts after his surfer roommate Thor (Chris Zylka) while engaging in casual sex with the eccentric, hyperactive London (Juno Temple) and infrequent rendezvous with strangers on nudist beaches. Meanwhile, his lesbian best friend Stella (Haley Bennett) is in a messy relationship with the potentially psychopathic witch Lorelei (Roxanne Mesquida). Plus, there's a girl who was possibly murdered by costumed cultists, but Arkai will get back to you on that.

The sex is handled playfully, with plenty of flesh, albeit in a shall we say 'tame' manner. It's not Shortbus, that's for sure - it's rated 15s and over here in Ireland, so there's a lot of above waist nudity. But these are absurdly attractive people (particularly the gorgeous Bennett and Temple) having inconsequential intercourse with other absurdly attractive people. Sure, barely any of them can act - although Dekker makes a likable protagonist - but it's throwaway, confidently camp fun for a while. Less successful are Arkai's attempts to emulate his slangy vernacular from his early work. I don't know about you, but I grimaced hard when Bennet utters the sentence 'What the shit is going on?'. Like much of the dialogue here, it feels wooden and hardly rolls off the tongues of the actors. Real people do not speak like this, and fictional people shouldn't either. Similarly, the references to 'hip' culture wear thin. While the soundtrack is hit-and-miss with its wide selection of critically acclaimed hipster music, the more vocal references and name-checking of pop culture is entirely miss. "I got your email from the Explosions in the Sky facebook page". Indeed.

The early flaws are easy to ignore as you go along with the campy fun and Arkai's casual yet endearing direction - it's a film full of colour, and the low budget cinematography is often disguised by quick bursts of invention. The flaws, unfortunately, only become more pronounced in the third act shift towards straight science fiction. It simply doesn't work. Any curiosities the early mysteries evoked are rendered obsolete as Arkai explains every single one of them away in increasingly forced, blunt and uninteresting ways. Coincidences here are merely lazy contrivances, and even attempts to shock - there's a brief, unnecessary allusion to a possibly incestuous twist - feel half-assed. There's lots of stuff about cults, messiahs and other supernatural shenanigans, but it's about as subtle as a brick to the face, and about as enjoyable. A ludicrous, exposition-heavy final ten minutes sees the film at its very worst, and seriously threatens to undo all the good that came before.

In Arkai's defense, he doesn't take things too seriously, and tongue is in cheek throughout. It's almost like a bubbly, sex-filled cartoon. But Kaboom is two disparate genres - sex comedy and supernatural thriller - unsatisfactorily combined, especially since one is more effective than the other. The result is a disappointingly scattershot film that isn't as clever as it wants to be. In Donnie Darko, the supernatural story was beautifully integrated with the teenage angst. Here, it's shoddily superglued on.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Few of My Favourite Scenes 3 - End of Evangelion

Live Action Interlude

Before we begin, it's important to understand the phenomenon of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the television show that precedes this feature film. To say it was popular in Japan is an understatement. From first airing back in 1995-96, the show has been a perennial obsession for Japanese otaku. The female characters have become 'fan service' icons, and even today Japanese businesses - from convenience stores to arcades - are chock full of Evangelion merchandise (biscuits, figurines, lunchboxes, video games, and much more).

But fans were furious with the way the series ended. For various reasons - budget problems and financial mismanagement included - animation studio Gaimax and Evangelion auteur Hideki Anno had to cut corners as they rushed the last few episodes to broadcast. The results were two final episodes that almost entirely took place in the mind of series protagonist Shinji. Not helping matters was Death & Rebirth: a theatrical film released a year after the obtuse, ambiguous conclusion to Neon Genesis. Consisting of a rushed hour long 'recap' and the first half of a 'real life' alternative ending, Gaimax once again ran out of cash. The otaku revolted, even going as far as spray painting hate messages on Gaimax offices (messages that would subliminally be inserted into End of Evangelion). The grim, shocking 'Rebirth' (opening with Shinji masturbating over the unconscious Asuka, and a vast majority of main characters being cruelly dispatched throughout the 'episode') was not the hyperactive, fan service laden finale fans lusted after.

But, pray tell, are fans really worth listening to all the time? It's a question addressed in a rather brilliant live action interlude in End of Evangelion, the film that continues with the ending established in Rebirth. Indeed, the first forty five minutes (or one 'episode') of EoE is Rebirth itself.

I'm not going to be able to sum up the admittedly rather convoluted central narrative of the series and film here. Just some a quick establishing synopsis. Basically, a mysterious group called SEELE have initiated something known as the Human Instrumentality Project, which assumes humanity has reached the peak of its evolutionary potential and in order to further advance it needs to return to the primordial soup they came from. The alternative is extinction. Heavy, right? And it's nowhere near that simple. But anyway: series protagonist Shinji, deep in a debilitating depression that reflects Anno's own depression, is the one who gets to decide what to do with humanity. Piloting his EVA (the semi-organic mech suits that lend the series its name) he transcends humanity and becomes a divine being. Humanity is quite literally in his hands, all humans having turned to orange goop and their souls released into the atmosphere.


Anyway, a lot of this takes place in what could easily be the most beautifully, hypnotically filmed action sequence ever illustrated. But after a while, we dive into Shinji's head to see how he's negotiating the final decision he has to make. And, suddenly, there's a live action sequence. Accompanied by Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring we see shots of Tokyo, crowds and - most importantly - an audience sitting in a cinema screen (a screen that's later empty). Over this, Shinji and the now equally divine Rei negotiate concepts of dreams and reality.

What does it all mean? Like much of End of Evangelion - talk to any fan and you'll surely get a very different reading of the film - it's up for debate. But this is my take on it. Obviously, it fits tightly within the wider themes of the film and series as a whole, as Shinji struggles to understand his place in the world. But this sequence goes further. It seems to me a very considered attempt to comment on the nature of fandom and the way an audience consumes someone's creation.

Over two interlapping shots of an audience, a subtitle pops up on the screen: "Does it feel good?". Boldly, Anno breaks the fourth wall and wonders if the ending the audience are being presented with lives up to their expectations. Maybe not. In one of my favourite quotes about the film, Carlos Ross says: "The second half of the movie is so incoherent and obtuse that it completely loses the mainstream audience (and in fact, virtually any audience) this series has attracted before. It goes beyond art film and beyond anime. And in doing so, it goes beyond the audience's capability to understand and be entertained, which defeats the purpose of something labeled as entertainment." I completely disagree, but it's a fascinating quote. The film simply has to be obtuse to make the points it wants to make (I also think its so profoundly beautiful that it transcends mere quote entertainment unquote and becomes something far more engaging, but that's an aside). If it leaves some audience members behind, that's no fault of Anno's. "That's a substitute for reality", suggests Rei at one point. Perhaps a none-too-subtle dig at fans who become unreasonably entangled in what is ultimately something that isn't worth obsessing over? "Using fantasy to escape reality", perhaps. Evangelion is, ultimately, just a television / feature film series. Is it worth getting so wound up about that you're sending death threats to the creator? Anno doesn't completely rip apart his audience (he's too smart for that - ideas are merely suggested), but its clear his impressions of hardcore Eva fans aren't entirely favourable. Like Shinji masturbating over Asuka earlier in the film ("I'm so fucked up", he admits) they have distorted his intentions and made the whole thing somewhat obscene.

Hate mail
But, more than posing questions of how the audience has consumed his opus, the scene shows Anno questioning his own approach. Maybe the fans are right, and he should have created a more traditional, accessible ending? Rei imparts yet more wisdom to Shinji: "You can't bridge the gap between your truth and the reality of others". And to me, that's Anno clearly stating his final opinion on the matter. So what if some fans didn't like it? Evangelion is the work of Anno - a deeply personal one that often probes hix own psychological problems in depth. This is his decision: like Shinji ultimately rejecting Instrumentality and finding faith in humanity again, Anno's going with his heart, and deciding that this is how he wants to finish the story. Demanding, illogical fans be damned!

"I don't know where to find happiness" wonders Shinji aloud. Rei replies "So you only find happiness in your dreams". And that's what sums much of Evangelion up - themes of belonging, friendship and society explored in great depth. The sequence concludes with shots of a disgruntled looking audience, an empty theatre and then, finally, shots of hate mail Gaimax received following the series ending and Death & Rebirth (Die Anno!, the subtitles nicely inform us). In one three minute scene, Gaimax and Anno have powerfully reflected on how their art is consumed by a rabid fanbase. The result is an ambiguous scene that likely pissed off many of the fans it critiques. But, maybe, those fans don't really understand what Evangelion is in the first place.

End of Evangelion is one of animation's most complex, underrated and greatest achievements. And, in a short foray into live action, it shows itself as comfortable in real-life as it is in animation.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Stray Thoughts: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY Photo: Jack English All rights reserved. (c) 2010 StudioCanal SA
I've been doing some writing for fresh-faced Irish site over the last week or two, and will hopefully continue to do so over the next few months too. Through their contacts, I attended a press screening of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy t'other morning. My thoughts can be read over here: (give 'em the traffic and I keep getting to see cool films!). TL; DR? It's rather good indeed. But I would never abandon you, loyal Film Ha Ha readers! And so here I present some stray thoughts on this wonderful film of espionage, wars that are cold and excessive levels of famous people. These are some extra features, if you will, just for you. Enjoy!

How does it measure up to Let the Right One In?
Following up a breakthrough hit such as LTROI isn't a small task for any director. To Alfredson's credit, he doesn't try to emulate the success of his previous international success. This is a very different film altogether. One that they do share in common, though, is a wonderful eye for period detail. He's not the most happily nostalgic director in the world - the pasts he conjures up are grimy, grey and morbid. The result, however, are period pieces that don't really feel like traditional 'historical' cinema. Both evoke timescales that aren't commonly explored in contemporary cinema, and feel wonderfully fresh as a result. Basically, if Let the Right One In breathed new life into the vampire movie (can you breathe life into undead creatures? Anyway...), Tinker... is a glorious return to form for the Cold War thriller. We missed ye.

Is it confusing? 
Here's something that could border on a problem. As far as I can gather, previous versions of TTSS (book and TV) have been rather dense affairs. Condensing the heavy story into one hundred and twenty minutes could be a problem. Occasionally it is.

Minor Spoilers Ahoy (skip if you wish to err on side of caution) 
One unfortunate directorial misstep is that Alfredson is relegating a certain character's death to a brief shot in the middle of a post-prologue montage. It's sudden and awkwardly handled, even more confusing as the film adapts a structure that regularly embraces flashbacks without much warning. I certainly warmed to the structural eccentricities relatively quickly, and as the film progresses there's a clearer divide between past and present (which is also our past, but that's complicating matters unnecessarily). But it took me ages to figure out when and where this character died, only indicated by his absence at a meeting scene close to the halfway mark. Maybe I'm just stupid (highly possible) but it's a rare notable problem with the movie.
Minor Spoilers End

Other than that, Tinker... isn't particularly confusing for a film that features a wide array of names and places the audience are required to keep track of. Sure, you'll lose track of some names. There's a discussion or two where the sheer amount of information may pull you down. Overall, though, it's pleasingly accessible, and there are few if any points where an audience member will miss the twists that really matter as the film approaches its rewarding end game.

Who's getting the awards?
Firstly, we all know awards are redundant. What a silly question, whoever you are! But yeah: it would be downright shameful if certain elements of this masterful ensemble aren't recognised for their achievements in acting. Personally, I emerged most impressed by Oldman and Hardy. The former is quietly understated, the other making a typically strong impression despite being somewhat of a late comer narratively. Special kudos, however, to Toby Jones. An always trustworthy face, Jones embraces his roots and pulls out one of cinema's most endearingly British accents: a voice that always dominates during his comparatively minor role. If there's an award for best accent, the man deserves it. Jones' own camp performance as a Nazi in Captain America is probably one of his great competitors in this field.

Any pretentious final thoughts?
Thanks for asking. Not since Michael Haneke's Cache has a film been so fond of surveillance. The camera, the soundtrack, that shady stranger: rarely do films make you feel so untrustworthy of everyone around. The camera here is, at best, another character: lurking in the shadows, never letting you enter into a false sense of security. It's the themes of paranoia that really make this film such an engaging, thoughtful and ultimately memorable film. This uneasiness even stretches to the exciting setpieces, including one that makes beautiful use of sweat itself. Further edge-of-your-seat sequences take place in libraries, foreign countries and creaky safehouses. This, being honest, is the kind of film that puts the hyperactive, trigger happy Mr. Bond to shame. When someone pulls a gun here, there's real danger afoot. And you can be assured there's rarely a moment when someone nearby doesn't have a holstered firearm. Indeed, as events constantly threaten to boil over, TTSS could easily be read as a cinematic analogy for the entire Cold War.

Also, I'll be curious to hear other people's thoughts on the 'school' subplot that takes up a few minutes of running time after the halfway mark. It could probably be considered superfluous if you're feeling cynical. While it can be a little on-the-nose at times (you'll see what I mean when you see it) it is a nice thematic contrast to the main story, and ultimately leads towards a rewarding conclusion.

Final final thought?
The way Alfredson never shows Smiley's wife's face? The nicest directorial indulgence in a film chock-a-block with visual flourishes.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Review: Kill List

Worth checking twice?

Jay (Neil Maskell) is an English husband and father who hasn't worked in eight months. His wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) is stressing that their once comfortable lifestyle is in trouble - they can barely afford the shopping, let alone fix the jacuzzi! Cue marital strife. One night they invite Jay's old friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) over for a dinner party. Gal has a job offer for Jay, but Jay is cautious and politely refuses. However, tensions flare at the dinner table, as Jay storms off following a scathing comment from Shel about their financial situation. When everyone has calmed down, Jay reluctantly agrees to accept Gal's job offer.

Relatively innocuous, yes?

So here's my dilemma: how the hell do I review a film that I'd genuinely feel bad describing in anything more than the most basic detail? The above synopsis is a mere introduction to Kill List, and following the opening scenes of suburban strife Kill List becomes a very peculiar film indeed. As the title suggests, and a bit like Cold Fish earlier this year, these innocuous beginnings transform into something a bit more murderous. Magnificently murderous.

The film is from director Ben Wheatley, who co-writes with Amy Jump (with 'additional dialogue' by the cast). The film-makers have crafted a very strange beast: a film that is by turns riotously funny, deeply disturbing, horrifically violent, genuinely scary and - ultimately - almost camp. The unique tone and multitude of influences are handled with great care, though. Here we have a film that has some absolutely stunning setpieces (a dimly lit but uncomfortably claustrophobic action sequence in a tight sewer stands out) alongside some of contemporary cinema's finest one-liners (many of the film's most brutal moments are directly followed by belly laughs). There's nightmarish, almost Lynchian, surrealism, and regular lashings of ultraviolence (including a horrifying bit with a hammer). And it all works.

The cast certainly help. The middle-aged Maskell and Smiley (the latter gloriously embracing his Northern Irish accent) make for unlikely protagonists, but they both manage to swim along with the constantly shifting tone. They're as comfortable with intense action as they are with witty banter. Maskell and the Swedish Burring create a fascinating parody of modern married couple: rarely has a casual Skype call come across as so deeply disturbing. It's the casualness these individuals show towards their morally dubious activities that terrifies, even more so than the more explicit horror scenes. Other actors creepily pop in when needed - in an almost dialogue free appearance, Gareth Tunley says more with a sinister smile than words ever could. To Wheatley and Jump's endless credit, they keep the backstories of the characters ambiguous and vague, and they're far more interesting as a result.

It's a fantastically shot and edited film - the crew make great use out of light particularly, from fire to flashlights. Scenes often frantically cut, which merely adds to the uneasy tone. The soundtrack is the most explicitly 'horror' element of the movie, and definitely channeling Mr. Lynch. Kill List certainly looks and sounds the part, full of considered visual symbolism (occult and religious imagery appear frequently).

It's hard to criticise the opening hour of Kill List, but the final half hour is surely to divide audience. Here, the film very purposefully becomes something bordering on pantomime, and (likely purposefully) resembles a classic British film whose name it would be remiss of me to mention out of fear of spoiling anything. I'm pretty sure I like the further tonal shift (although I'll gladly admit it's a bit jarring), but it's likely to be a change too far for many audience members.

I hope I've kept things suitably ambiguous here, and that I haven't ruined any surprises. Because that's what Kill List is: surprising. It's brave, unique and very strange indeed. It fucks with conventions with an admirable nonchalance. Kill List could well be brilliant, but it's definitely something: fascinating, compelling, frightening. And something is better than nothing.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Few of My Favourite Scenes #2: Toy Story 3

The Incinerator


The folks over at Pixar must be getting slightly existentialist as they grow older. Over the course of two films - Up and Toy Story 3 - they made two surprisingly profound reflections on mortality and 'growing up'.  There was barely a dry eye in picture houses around the globe during the heartbreaking montage that introduced us to our elderly protagonist Carl and his wife Ellie in Up. Rarely has a film being so emotionally affecting in such a short space of time. One may have assumed enough tears had been jerked. But Pixar in their infinite wisdom decided to kick us while we were down with Toy Story 3.

What differentiates Toy Story 3 from Up is our familiarity with the characters. Two delightful prequels had introduced us to the colourful cast of plastic cowboys, pigs, dinosaurs, potatoes and space rangers. Personally, having seen the first at a very suggestible age of eight, the mere mention of Toy Story elicits a very unique level of nostalgia. And the terrific sequel built upon the themes and ideas of the first to propel it into the rather empty echelons of sequels that either equal or improve upon the successes of the first. One may have thought one brilliant sequel was enough. But after a decade long gap, another TS sequel was unleashed. Such a move would usually stink of a cynical moneymaking maneuver. In the hands of Pixar, however, this second sequel emerged as a uniquely worthwhile endeavour, and inadvertently created one of cinema's finest trilogies in the process. Because, in an all-too-rare move, Toy Story 3 acknowledges something peculiarly mature for a modern day Disney film: that time has moved on.

The toys in Toy Story haven't aged. They can't. But their owner Andy has. And so has the audience. Like myself, the people who watched Toy Story as kids have grown up. The cast & crew who made the first film are no spring chickens either - in a casual but affecting touch, TS3 briefly acknowledges the absent Bo-Peep and Weezy the Penguin, whose voice actors had passed away in the lengthy gap between films. Odds are Slinky Dog (actor Jim Varney died a year after Toy Story 2 was released) would have been excluded had his springy nature not have been such a convenient tool to get the characters out of the various jams they find themselves in. The core narrative of Toy Story 3 acknowledges Andy growing up and going to college, and his long-ignored toys struggling to find meaning in a newly dusty life. Parallels between Andy and the viewers aren't subtle: they're the very foundation of the film, relying on the accurate assumption that many viewers here will have boxes of ignored toys of their own. Indeed, I've often said anyone under college-going age is unlikely to be quite so moved by TS3. The coming-of-age themes are resonant and moving, but Toy Story 3 goes one step further that that in its most remarkable, memorable scene.

After an energetic, imaginative and very funny extended rescue sequence and unintended escape in a dumpster, the toys find themselves in an incinerator due to the fiendish non-interference of the bitter Lots-O'-Huggin Bear. The tone now takes a sudden turn from the exciting to the emotional. As the garbage drifts towards the incinerator, Jessie turns to Buzz and asks him what to do. He simply stares at her sadly. No words are uttered. The toys simply look at each other, hold hands and close their eyes as they await the inevitable together.

Threat is a concept largely absent in the often predictable world of family entertainment. But here the danger is terrifyingly real. After three films of lucky escapes, it appears as if the characters are finally in a hopeless situation. And they simply accept it. Reinforcing the unbreakable friendships that are pretty much the heart of the Toy Story films, if they're going to go down, the only thing they can do is go down together. And so a group of plastic playthings bravely face their inevitable death. The helpless audience holds their breath and thinks "holy shit". And yes, shit has most certainly gotten real. For a film about anthromorphic toys, only the most cynical of viewers could feel cold as these animated characters face a fiery end.

As a scene, it's a beautifully animated one. The orange tint makes the heat of the furnace feel very uncomfortable indeed. The furnace itself is a monster: an avalanche of metal flowing towards a destructive epicenter. But what makes the sequence so remarkable is the sound, or lack thereof. The dialogue free minute that marks the film's climax is one of cinema's most affecting emotional moments. Pixar trust the audience to understand the thoughts of these characters, and so their silence says more than a hundred sentimental utterances ever could. All we hear is the flowing metal and an urgent, pounding soundtrack that is a thousand miles away from the jaunty, upbeat Randy Newman numbers that have come to define Toy Story over the years. Like the 'Strange Things' montage of Toy Story, the heartwrenching 'Jessie gets abandoned' montage of the sequel, or of course Up's beautiful opening, the incinerator sequence once again proves that Pixar are masters of using only music and visuals to tell a story.

Ultimately, the situation is resolved the only way it can be: a deus ex machina of sorts that still fits neatly into the Toy Story fiction. It's definitely a cheap resolution to a hopeless situation, but fuck me did I let out a sigh of relief first time I saw it. Not content with such an emotional climax, the film goes on to jerk even more tears in the extremely moving sequences that follow, although finally provides a deserved happy ending for our heroes. But it's the furnace that truly lingers in the mind after the playful credits roll.

The observant viewer will surely have noticed the frequent appearances of a plush Totoro teddy throughout the film. Indeed, his appearance is a clue to the thematic focus of Toy Story 3. In My Neighbour Totoro, the mother of the children who imagine the cuddly creature of the title is hospitalized with an unspecified illness. Like Toy Story, Totoro a film that captures the joys of childhood imagination, but also acknowledges that reality and mortality can cruelly intrude. And rarely has this theme been so wonderfully realized as in the incinerator sequence of Toy Story 3.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review: In a Better World

Violence = Bad

I don't like the Academy Awards, but I particularly don't like the Best Foreign Film category. The nomination process itself is somewhat of a minefield, with each country only allowed to submit one film. And like most of the categories in the Oscar, the eventual winner tends to be the most conservative, safest film from the wide world of foreign cinema (indeed, condensing said wide world into a single category is more than a little suspect). While the occasional deserving film does sneak through (The Lives of Others in 2006, per example) the winners rarely tend to be the most deserving. Recent winners have been notably suspect. As much as enjoyed The Secret in Their Eyes, to place it on a pedestal above The White Ribbon or A Prophet is absurd. Departures was grand, but utterly safe. And don't get me started on the Counterfeiters, which I shall now casually dub the Countershitters - a film that once more proves the mere mention of the Holocaust seems to guarantee almost parodic superlatives come award season.

This year's recipient is the Danish In A Better World, directed by Susanne Bier and written by Anders Thomas Jensen. I will happily admit that I was more than a little bitter my precious Dogtooth didn't walk away with the pointless accolade - it was way too subversive and clever for that. But the reviews seemed positive, if cautious. So with an open mind and built up loyalty card points (free tickets = w00t!) to the Irish Film Institute I marched.

Perhaps I missed something, because two hours later I walked out of one of the most appallingly bland films I've seen in a long, long time. The narrative is ridiculously derivative and formulaic. The main thematic focus (NB: as I interpreted it) is insultingly simplistic: "violence is bad". Well, fucking duh Ms. Bier: I'm sure we could have all told you that one. Not only that, but there are ludicrously uninformed reasonings why the various characters in this film resort to violence - broken homes, bullying, computer games and of course 'the Internet' are just some of the unimaginative reasons presented that encourage two young boys (Markus Rygaard and William Jøhnk Nielsen) to resort to increasingly violent acts (one happily, another reluctantly). A few reviews I've read have picked up on various subtexts - religious themes (one of the boys is named Christian, in a further act of subtlety) and reflections on the concept of revenge most notably. Excuse me while I proceed to not give a shit. I do not want to undersell the seriousness of some of the topics addressed, and yes some of the reasons for violence here are very real. But without a compelling or original narrative justification to address these ideas, it all comes across as insultingly preachy.

Contrasting with the story of the two boys are their parents, who are no pacifists either. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is employed as a surgeon in Africa. There, he encounters a sadistic warlord who cuts open pregnant women. At home, he tries to teach the boys right & wrong by refusing to violently act against a middle-aged bully who slaps him after Anton has the decency to break up a fight between their two young sons. Subtle this film most certainly is not.

In a Better World is rarely, if ever, anything more than painfully predictable. Every over-exaggerated plot device is clearly going to come back to haunt the characters. And - sigh - they always do, like clockwork. A knife, an abandoned silo, the previously mentioned warlord - all referenced early solely to provide dramatic contrivances later on. Just when you think this might lead to an interesting conclusion, it instead settles on an absurdly, incredible happy ending that has absolutely nothing to say. Indeed, the third act pretty much actively ignores the (entirely uninteresting) ideas that preceded it. 

Positives? The acting isn't bad. The two kids are grand (even if Christian is rarely more than a one-note enigma), and Persbrandt brings a bit of constraint to the melodramatic proceedings. Other performances are overblown, particularly Trine Dyrholm as Anton's wife. The cinematography has been much praised, but being perfectly honest I found it bland and barely perfunctory. The soundtrack is suitably overwrought.

The only thing less inspiring than a bad film is a mediocre film. The only thing worse than a mediocre film is a mediocre film with pretensions of grandeur. In a Better World is nowhere near as clever or insightful as it clearly thinks it is. I have heard much from people who actively liked it, so please don't take my word as gospel. In my humble opinion, however, In a Better World is a very lazy, extremely unimaginative film. In Hollywood, we would never forgive the storytelling and thematic shortcuts utilised here oh so frequently. Just because it's subtitled we shouldn't let it away with murder (a theme appropriately explored unconvincingly in the film itself).

A brief aside: the original Danish title for this film is Hævnen, which roughly translates as 'revenge'. It's more than telling that two far more interesting and complex takes on that particular topic never even made the nominee list. Japan's excellent, subversive Confessions made the ten-film shortlist but not the nomination list. The surprising, energetic I Saw the Devil wasn't even submitted.

Safety trumps imagination once again. In a better world, we'd reward better films.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Review: The Inbetweeners Movie

Lads on Tour

The Inbetweeners is the rarest of British sitcoms: one that's genuinely funny. Like the 'early, funny' work of Ricky Gervais, it built its humour around cringe - it was simply suburban teens Will (Simon Bird), Simon (Joe Thomas), Jay (James Buckley) and Neil (Blake Harrison) struggling through their final years of school. Embarrassment predictably followed. Archetypes though the characters may be, the show was most notable for being a genuinely honest look at the life of teenage boys. The situations may have been contrived for maximum comic effect, but anyone who has been through the school system could totally relate. First cars, discos, exams and, of course, 'clunge' (probably the most uttered word in the entire series) - these are but a few of the topics hilariously addressed by the writers of the show over three brief but consistent seasons. It was the honesty and the characters that allowed the Inbetweeners to enjoy deserved popularity - who, after all, hasn't had a cocksure, obscene acquaintance just like Jay?

The jump to a feature form was not one that immediately jumped out as a good idea. When it was revealed that the lads would indeed be on tour in Malia, like so many British sitcom characters before them, fears only escalated. But then again the holiday resort is a much more natural setting for these four fellows - the pre-university holiday is a rites-of-passage for many a young adult these days. So after an accelerated fan-service laden first act - featuring cameos from the teachers and parents who were the butt of many a joke over eighteen episodes - the guys graduate from secondary school and are off on holiday. They arrive, discover their accommodation to be sub-pig-sty, and promptly proceed to get fucked up. Is any further synopsis required?

Well, yes, as it turns out, but we'll get to that later. Let's focus on the first half... em... first. These scenes are almost beyond sensible film criticism - they do exactly what they set out to do. If you liked the Inbetweeners, you'll more than likely enjoy the film. It is certainly funny. Jay makes a drunken ass of himself when he finally realises he has to act upon his brazen, boastful lies. Simon mopes and mourns his recent break-up with Carli (Emily Head: the only minor character from the TV show to return for an extended role) who is awkwardly holidaying at the same resort. Neil proves himself as the lovable fool with little to no standards, as he happily enjoys getting acquainted with the post-menopausal ladies of the island. And Will is his usual brutally honest, nerdy self. They get involved in genuinely amusing situations - whether it be one of cinema's great comedy dance scenes, epic hangovers or mistaking a bidet for a children's toilet with predictably brown results. And then there's the scene where they visit a busy resort swimming pool - that one's best to discover for yourselves, and destined to be acknowledged as one of The Inbetweeners finest moments of situational comedy.

So yeah, The Inbetweeners Movie is funny, and that's a relief. But around the half way mark it begins to have something the show was usually casual about - plot. The narrative of the show was usually just an excuse to lead up to a crescendo of embarrassment. Here, they actually begin to focus on things like relationships and growing up. Yeah, they probably had to do this to justify a ninety minute running time (all things considered, it's hard to deny we're dealing with a cash cow rather than a film made for the art). But it feels quite non-Inbetweeners-ey. The plot heavily focuses on four girls they bump into into a seedy, empty nightclub. It's clear rather quickly that each of the girls is an almost perfect match for each of the lads. Of course, there's plenty of awkwardness between them and romantic success.

In fairness, many of these four subplots are rife with amusing incidences. Simon's ineffectual wooing of Lucy (Tamla Kari) is particularly chuckleworthy, with at least two of the most emotional scenes interrupted by very funny punchlines. On the other hand, Will's infatuation with the pretty, sarcastic but taken Alison (Laura Haddock) is distressingly by the numbers. It's all building to resolutions you fear are going to be formulaic, and at the risk of spoilerizing, they kind of do. Particularly odd is Jay's coming-of-age tale. Through his overweight love interest he begins to see the error of his crude ways - and this, in my opinion, is definitely not the Jay I expected to see. The drama is consistently tricky to buy into when it's merely distracting from the laughs. Some emotional payoffs, perhaps, but movie is strangely sentimental for a film based on an admirably unsentimental TV show.

Perhaps I'm over critical here, because I did laugh quite regularly with the film. It's endearingly crude and rude - one of the few comedies that manages toilet humour with a strange, almost adorable charm. But whereas the laughs were tightly condensed into an efficient twenty-five minutes in the show, here they're more infrequent and stretched over a far less efficient running time. But for most that won't matter. Because The Inbetweeners Movie is first and foremost rather funny, and probably the definitive 'lads on tour' movie. If we can call an end to that cursed genre as a result, that would be a particularly favourable outcome.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Je t'aime, je déteste: Negotiating La Nouvelle Vague

Or: My Love/Hate Relationship with the French New Wave

Last Year in Marienbad
Do you know what grinds my gears? When people claim film is merely 'entertainment'. It seems so utterly defeatist: writing off an entire artform as something disposable. Yet there is a point in the argument: a film should at some level engage you. Surely the best films are the ones that remove you from reality for a few hours, making you forget about everything but the images on screen?

It's a question that popped into my mind frequently watching Last Year in Marienbad on the big screen last night. I'd be lying if I said I was entirely hypnotised by the visuals and musics of the film for the entirety of its running time. Often I was: there are moments of profound beauty & iconic imagery, and the sense of place and atmosphere are unique. There are also a handful of genuinely hilarious sequences showing a character challenging party-goers to an almost unbeatable game of wits, infrequent enough to pull you back in when needed. And yet it seemed as if director Alain Resnais was aggressively challenging the viewer; showing something bordering on contempt for an audience. Its ambiguities, the purposeful lack of clarity and a general sense of uncertainty: these are the features that often frustrated as I (sometimes unsuccessfully) searched for meaning in the dialogue between two characters that may or may not have met before and may or may not have engaged in a passionate affair. 'Entertained' I certainly wasn't. Yet in hindsight, and after reading up on various critical analyses of the film, there are plenty of rewards in Marienbad. They are not ones I immediately appreciated, however, and they definitely weren't ones picked up by the surprisingly large amount of people who walked out of the screen in frustration.

Last Year in Marienbad for me was an ideal representation of my struggles with the French New Wave to date. Of all cinematic movements, La Nouvelle Vague is perhaps the most (in)famous. It is easily defined, and overflowing with idealism: a group of film-makers determinedly breaking the rules and dismantling cinema as the audience knew it. You can tell many of the writers and directors responsible were film critics before their forays into auteurship. They painstakingly break down the established norms (often the 1950s Hollywood ones), and harshly critique and examine the very basics of how cinema works. The result are deliberately disjointed narrative structures, peculiar pacing, casual approaches to sex and violence, technical playfulness and a complete disregard for predictability. They basically took their approach to film criticism and translated it to film-making.

Arguably the most famous of the lot is Mr Jean Luc Godard; still active today having just unleashed Film Socialisme (which, appropriately for my argument, received equal amounts of praise and hostility upon release). I've seen a number of his films over the year, and I never know what to expect. I adored Week End, despised Pierrot Le Fou, admired Breathless and was entirely indifferent to Contempt. On one hand, his playful approach is often wonderfully endearing: whether it be the monster and very funny tracking shot in Week End, or the devil may care attitude of Breathless. And yet his complete disdain for well established norms can result in films that are absolutely no fun to watch. Pierrot Le Fou is actually insulting in it's refusal to provide the audience with anything resembling traditional pacing or narrative payoffs. Pretentious trash, in other words: I try my darndest not to use that horrid 'p' word, but in Godard's case it's wholly applicable. Godard is a man whose influence is easy to measure, but sometimes he's easier to admire than actually, you know, like.

I'm much fonder of the movement's other figurehead, Francois Truffaut. Unlike Truffaut or Resnais, he doesn't seem opposed to acknowledging there's actually going to be an audience watching his films. The result are movies that frequently entertain as well as enlightening. There's even the odd - gasp! - emotional moment: something in severe contrast with the non-humans that populate Godard's work. Of the lot, Day for Night is a personal favourite. Here you have everything: technical wittiness, plenty of humour, a story you can actually follow, and - importantly - a very scathing critique of the film-making process. It's one of cinema's great parodies of itself. Jules et Jim and The 400 Blows are two others I am extremely fond of: again, enjoyable & accessible stories that still embrace the rule-breaking manifest of the New Wave (a good example is the satirically jaunty music that plays over the tragic conclusion of Jules et Jim). Truffaut certainly broke the rules, and their are moments where he does indulge in audience-hating indulgences (pacing, again, is a sticking point) but only the ones that truly needed breaking.

Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Being honest, my knowledge of the other auteurs of La Nouvelle Vague are limited or non-existent. My experience with Eric Rohmer and Claude Charbol is distressingly and embarrassingly non-existent: an ignorance I intend on righting. I did fall in love with Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, however: a truly beautiful film, and one that deviates just the right amount from the Hollywood musicals that inspired it.

What I love about the New Wave is how much they were willing to challenge and break the rules: rightly asking the world if the norm was an acceptable one. They were often wildly successful in this regard, and in terms of sheer passion their are few contemporary equivalents (I guess the Dogma 95 crew could be regarded as spiritual but far less influential successors). What I hate is that they sometimes went too far: their contempt for mass produced cinema often translated into a contempt for the audience (particularly maligned was Godard's decision to subtitle Film Socialisme in broken, confusing Navajo English for those idiots who don't speak French).

There are few guarantees that you will be traditionally entertained when you watch a film from La Nouvelle Vague. Yet there are rewards: whether it be in wild visual imagination, innovative soundtracks or thought-provoking themes and ideas. In that regard, perhaps the movement is the finest symbol of all for film as an artform: sometimes anti-entertainment can be just as compelling.