Friday, April 29, 2011

Review: Thor

Thunder or blunder?

There's a narrative / gameplay trick in computer games that the gamers amongst you may be familiar with. It's when you start the game as a spectacularly overpowered protagonist, blasting through enemies without a concern. This, though, doesn't necessarily give the game many places to go, so often your avatar is cruelly stripped off their powers for one reason or the other. The vast majority of the game then becomes focused on building yourself back up to the original state by collecting the items you've lost. Only in the final moments of the game do you finally resemble the walking tank you did in the prologue - assuming you collected all the hidden power-ups, of course. It's a cheap trick to lengthen the game, but admittedly one that gives the game a solid structure to move forward with.

Thor - the first in a small blizzard of Marvel releases over the next year or so, culminating in The Avengers - is the cinematic equivalent of that old video game trope. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if the incoming (and probably shit) game adaptation of the movie follows that exact structure. The film introduces us to Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the arrogant but good-intentioned heir to the throne of the Asguard. He's also the God of Thunder. For various reasons involving ice giants, he is banished from the technicolour kingdom by his (all) father Odin (a suitably majestic Anthony Hopkins) to the comparatively mediocre Earth, minus his powers of thunder and his trademark giant hammer (but that's sent along too should someone be worthy of its awesome powers). Teaming up with a duo of astrophysicists (Stellan Skarsgaard and the ever-gorgeous Natalie Portman) and their wise cracking intern (Kat Dennings, present for no other reason than to make three or four comedic quips), he sets out to regain his hammer, while his mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) gets up to his own shenanigans in Asguard.

It's the stuff of high camp, and it's still surprising to have to point out that Shakespeare fanatic Kenneth Branagh is in the director's chair. Yet, and this may be the strangest praise to lavish upon a film, it all remains impressively coherent. Once you get past the inherent silliness of the premise (would you honestly go to this film expecting thoughts to be provoked anyway?) it makes internal sense, and is pleasantly paced throughout. Branagh pushes it along nicely, minus the extraneous crap and characters that bogged down Iron Man 2. Considering the cast of characters here isn't particularly small - outside the ones mentioned already you have Thor's four warrior friends, a number of S.H.I.E.L.D agents, Ice Giants, Odin's wife etc... - it's impressive. The Earth scenes see the film at its best, Branagh and his many screenwriters embracing the absurdity of the content by adding lashings of comedy and never taking it too seriously. There are genuine laughs here, such as Thor's rough viking-like method of ordering another coffee. Kat Denning's redundant comic sidekick is the only thing really dragging the film down in these sequences, but she's rarely in the way. The Asguard scenes are a bit more po-faced, but the design is mostly pretty if unimaginative. Interesting ideas like an enigmatic blind gatekeeper also work better than expected.

There's not quite as much action as some other superhero movies, but when it comes it tends to be energetic and enjoyable. It won't make you re-evaluate your life or anything silly like that, but again having action sequences that at a bare minimum make some sort of sense and follow an internal consistency is a welcome development, perhaps saying something negative about the general quality of Hollywood's recent output. A blistering musical score from Patrick Doyle helps. The acting from all corners is grand too. As a self-confessed Portman fan, I welcomed her presence more than anyone elses - unsurprisingly, she portrays scientist Jane with a sense of independence and feisty energy often absent in 'generic love interests'. Hemsworth hams it up nicely in the main role, as does Hopkins as the father of the gods. Again, I can only point Dennings out as a weak link here.

Thor concludes with excitement and plenty of curious sequel potential, although there's a redundant Avengers teaser after the overlong credits. Indeed, it's almost disappointing that the next part of the story is going to play out in the packed Avengers movie, where Thor's tale is merely going to be one in a glut of subplots. Yet Thor has passed the first test, proving a capable screen hero. It was a hard sell - indeed, the name isn't quite as familiar to the masses as the bat, super, spider and iron men of the world. But Thor is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of trash. It's endearingly silly, and is far from the best blockbuster you'll ever see. That it is entirely aware of these facts is what makes it all so charming.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: The Man from Nowhere

Does it go anywhere?

If there's one thing we should admire the new wave of South Korean directors for their fondness for fucking with genre. You've got Chan-Wook Park, who really made his name with a trilogy of subversive, interesting revenge films. He followed it up with the anti-Twilight Thirst and, well, whatever the hell I'm A Cyborg was (Romance? Sci-fi?). Joon-Ho Bong has proven himself to be a man unafraid of twisting genre conventions - putting his own slant on the procedural detective drama, murder mystery and monster movie with much success.  We can't forget Jee-woon Kim, either, who has made horror films that gleefully refuse to conform to the generic norms, and with The Good, The Bad and The Weird the most comedic & playful Western of recent times, with some killer chase sequences to boot.

The Man from Nowhere - the second film from director Jeong-boom Lee - does not, however, fuck with the rules for the most part. This is a straight up "man on a mission" film, with frequent lashings of grimness, criminal mobs and ultraviolence. It's sort of like Taken, but not as profoundly stupid. Our setup is as follows: MYSTERIOUS (emphasis on that), quiet pawn-shop owner Tae-Sik (played by Bin-Won) has become reluctant guardian to young So-Mi (Sae-Ron Kim), whose mother is usually either strung out on heroin or entirely absent. When So-Mi and her mother are kidnapped after a disastrous drug robbery, Tae-Sik is reluctantly (there's that word again) the only one willing to rescue the little girl, and forced to confront his trouble past in the process.

It sounds familiar, and yeah there's not much in this film that will come as a massive surprise. Indeed, the middle act feels dragged down by familiarity. Without spoiling anything, I will say some of the backstory segments rely on cheap narrative tricks to get their point across. There's some fun action sequences, including a visually impressive one in a nightclub. But it kind of just descends into mindless man against the mob stuff at times, the sort you've seen many a time before. Not to mention that the reasons for our protagonist's MYSTERIOUS SILENCE are a little naff, and eyeballs did roll at times.

Lucky, then, that the two acts that surround it are terrific. The first takes a surprising amount of time to introduce the strange, non-literal father/daughter relationship that drives the film. While So-Mi's background is melodramatic, it's impossible not to feel sorry for her gazing into her wide, emotive eyes, as the camera frequently does. It makes for a compelling motivation, and the film moves forward with urgency. The final half an hour, too, impresses. Again, a number of cheap tricks, but it's the astonishing action sequences that keep you involved. One of them is the most visceral, epically choreographed brawl since the Oldboy produced a hammer. There's a mix of tense shootouts and brutal hand-to-hand combat. If you're going to do cliche, do it like this. The time taken to establish the central relationship most certainly makes our anti-hero's actions more credible and involving.

Admittedly The Man from Nowhere doesn't always play by the rules. One of the sidekicks to the central antagonists is a fascinating character, barely speaking (in English when he does) but torn between a sense of duty and quiet moral pride. It's a bad guy that isn't just a depthless bastard, compared to the other grunts who get in the way during Tae-Sik's kill rampage. Yet the film doesn't surprise all that much, instead happy to tell a well-worn tale with an unusual competence. Filmed in predictably dingy tones for the most part, it probably won't stick in your mind like, say, The Chaser (again, with lashings of genre fuckery). For mindless thrills, though, The Man from Nowhere has energy instead of originality, and it's hard to complain as the film comes to a surprisingly satisfying conclusion.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Hit Or Shit? 24th April 2011

And he doth sayeth that "Here be Coming Attractions!" and we doth sayeth "Amen!"

The High Cost of Living (Deborah Chow)

You know, for all its indie excesses, I think Garden State has a lot of charm, mostly down to Natalie Portman. But it's still a warm if formulaic romance. Unfortunately, Zach Braff has done little to build on his solid foundation, and instead is starring in other people's formulaic crap. The trailer says a lot - romance between two depressed individuals, bland acoustic soundtrack, coming-of-age stuff. Probably nothing wrong with it, but little right either. Typical indie shit maybe?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)

The fuck's this shit? Honestly, there's so much wrong with this trailer I don't know where to begin. Starring man of the minute James Franco, rebooting Planet of the Apes has already proven to be a bad idea. Making it what appears to be a generic mutant / action film? Hmm. Disaster in the waiting me thinks. Weta ensure it will look good - and let's be honest the apes here at least look a bit more convincing than the typical efforts of this franchise - but honestly this trailer really does make the film look like absolute shit.

Cowboys & Aliens (Jon Faverau)

OK, I'm a bit cynical about films that try to blend two genres or franchises or whatever together. But being honest I'm totally on board with this. Jon Faverau has proven himself to be a damn fine entertainer with Iron Man (less so the sequel, but still), and this has a lot going for it. The cast is fantastic - nice to see Harrison Ford back on blockbuster form, and Olivia Wilde will hopefully prove herself once again to be more than just a pretty face after her excellent but limited role in Tron: Legacy. Most importantly, the trailer shows a confident mix of styles, as well as plenty of impressive action. Potentially might be over CGIed, but I'm optimistic for a hit with this one.

Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

Kirsten Dunst and Lars von Trier is one bizarre star / director combo. And the first half of this trailer suggests von Trier may be trying to be - gasp! - accessible. Not to worry though, it all goes batshit after a while. Seemingly an end of the world plot combined with the tensions at a wedding, it looks very weird but also a change of direction for von Trier. Indeed, there seem to be moments of real beauty and warmth in the trailer, which marks a nice change of pace after the often absurdly grim Antichrist. Still looks super eccentric, and good to see a lot of great actors on boards, including von Trier veterans like Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard on board. Sure to be pretentious as fuck, but like all his films I'd say there's potential for a hit despite the self-indulgence.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: Scream 4

Same as it ever was?

There are so many layers of self-awareness and irony going on in the Scream franchise that the films themselves failed to keep up with the metaness. The first remains an enjoyably scathing satire of the slasher genre, a clever and funny film that stands up today. Ironically, it inadvertently spawned the deplorable Scary Movie, which satirised Scream in a further layer of post-modern parody, without any of the cleverness of Scream itself. It was up to the two sequels to Scream, then, to pick up the satirical slack. Scream 2 sort of did: a rethread of the first, now in a college setting, but some funny - ahem - stabs at horror sequels. Scream 3 saw the series self-destruct and lose direction - now so wrapped up in post modernity that it was almost a parody of itself. It was simply a standard slasher film minus much of the comedic elements of the first two, despite the increased presence of film-within-a-film 'Stab'. How had Scream become what it had initially stood firmly against?

Many blamed the fact that writer Kevin Williamson was unable to write the script for the second sequel due to other commitments, bar providing a rough story outline. Indeed, it was Williamson's cheekily self-aware scripts that stood out in the films, not Wes Craven's generally bland direction. So Williamson has returned for a fourth entry in the franchise, risking overexposure in the same way the franchises it vocally lampoons have blown their loads over countless formulaic sequels.

Scre4m (/skri-four-em/) starts of well, echoing the beginning of the first while also ripping the piss out of it. The first ten minutes are the best of the film, with a very funny gimmick best not to ruin. It proves that if you're going to be stupid, at least being aware you're stupid is a good way to go about it. Swiftly, though, we're brought back to the town of Woodsboro as series protagonist Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to her home town on the anniversary of her first Ghost Face Killer encounter to finish purging herself of her past traumas. Predictably, this isn't a great idea. Soon there's another Ghost Face on the loose, and Sidney reunites with her still alive (a series in-joke at this point) companions Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox) and now Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) to solve the case. There's also a load of new faces on the scene: Emma Roberts as Campbell's niece, Hayden Panettiere as Roberts' best friend, Erik Knudsen and Rory Culkin as her geeky classmates and Jamie Kennedy replacements, Marley Shelton as Dewey's new deputy etc etc...

There's a tonne of characters, and therein lies the film's biggest problem. The middle hour is a load of shit. It's dull and struggles to juggle the vast cast. There's a few suitably tense and (in comparison to the rest of the franchise, anyway) graphic killings, but the rest is just lazy red herrings and shallow character development. It drags considerably: again, the irony of Scream inadvertently becoming a parody of itself isn't lost. The performances are typically cheesy, and Craven's direction in anything other than the straight up horror scenes feels lazy. It's only when Ghost Face is on the loose does the film come to a sort of half-life with clever directorial tricks like subtle white marks in the black background creating some enjoyable slasher sequences.

The film is never scary: Scream never has been really. Unfortunately, efforts to inject a bit of contemporary relevance and humour into Scream 4 - like having a character constantly video blogging - fall flat. So it's a relief when the film goes slightly nuts in the last twenty minutes or so. The red herrings are revealed to be such, and the film descends into some almost cartoonish action and violence. It's enjoyable in how unrestrained it is, especially once the relatively surprising antagonist's identity is revealed. It doesn't go as far as it could to provide a shocking ending - everything, once again, is wrapped up in a nice little package - but the slapstick streak is to be admired. Scream has always excelled in pleasingly physical chases, and the fourth entry doesn't disappoint in that regard.

That it disappoints in others is the true shame here. When the resident geeks explain the rules of new horror, it doesn't feel as perceptive as the infamous "how to survive in a horror film" speech of the first. Occasionally when satirising reboots, franchise horror and indeed "meta" comedy horror itself Williamson and Craven have tongues embedded in cheeks and the film is good fun. That so much of Scre4m is what it purports to parody is one final layer of irony to the mix. Not the good kind either. It's probably the best Scream since the first, but that doesn't mean it's as relevant as it thinks it is. It doesn't quite know what it is despite frequent evidence to the contrary, and while it's admittedly enjoyable and fun, it's uneven. Newcomers should stick to the original. It had Jamie Kennedy and a confidence lacking in the franchise ever since. 5cream and S6ream are already threatened - let's hope they have the guts to really break the rules.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Review: Meek's Cutoff

Little wagons on the prairie

Source: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Meek's Cutoff begins with a river crossing, and remember it well because that's the most water you're going to see for a while. The film tells the tale of a group of American settlers traversing the prairie for pastures new. Soon, they're running short of H2O to keep them going, and there's not an oasis in sight, only seemingly endless barren plains. Guided by hired, experienced trekker Stephen Meek, the three couples and one young boy walk onwards, ever hopeful that there'll be something over the next hill.

Following on from the rather wonderful Wendy & Lucy, Kelly Reichardt's latest is another story of emotional intensity and desperation starring Michelle Williams. Shot in glorious, erm, 1.33:1, the boxed aspect ratio is in stark contrast to the sweeping but rugged wilds our wagon team are traversing. In fact, the squared visuals, once you get used to them, are a strength for the film, creating a claustrophobic vibe despite the spectacularly open setting. The focus is - pun! - squarely on the eight characters (plus one more who tags along after a while).

This is the cinema of desperation - rarely has a situation felt so utterly frustrating for both the characters on screen and the audience gazing in through a window. If you've seen Wendy & Lucy, you'll likely be prepared for the narcoleptic pacing - it's considered, thoughtful and, yup, slow. It's Reichardt's almost signature style, although it serves a further function here. That the film forces the audience to make an effort is important, considering these travelers aren't going through an easy situation themselves. Be warned, though, the 'considered' tone won't be for everyone - the (IMO brilliant) ending elicited some vocal discontent in the cinema screen from some corners.

The performances reflect this growing hopelessness effectively. The young Zoe Kazan becomes increasingly paranoid, her husband Paul Dano equally so. Shirley Henderson as Glory is her typical, almost childlike self, unsure how to deal with the situation. But the two strongest roles are the two characters who refuse to abandon all hope. Michelle Williams once again provides evidence that she's one of the most capable actresses in contemporary American cinema: as Emily she shows frustration as the situation worsens, but refuses to abandon her morals. She comes in to conflict with guide Meek (the excellent Bruce Greenwood) who is just certain they're going the right way. He knows what he's doing, he assures everyone. It becomes painfully obvious he's as lost as anyone else. When they pick up an unwelcome visitor, tensions escalate even more.

The cinematography is beautiful, the night scenes particularly notable for looking like night, the only light the small campfires or lamps the settlers carry. It adds to the realism. Indeed, this is a gritty "Western", grittier than that other one which claimed to have true grit a few months ago. You can truly feel the dust here, the characters getting progressively filthier. The sparse score helps too, only kicking in at moments of particular intensity, such as the tiny handful of action setpieces, although 'action' is stretching it a bit. In short, it's understated, sombre, and moving cinema, the kind that awards an audience's commitment by really getting under the skin. Rarely has frustration felt so immensely beautiful.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Review: Snap

...crackle and pop?

Source: Film Ireland
For an Irish person who wants to get involved in the film industry, it's perhaps hypocritical that I tend to be so critical of Irish cinema. Not that there aren't great Irish films out there - Adam and Paul, The Butcher Boy and Once (what? I liked it, although now hate the music) spring to mind. But having sat through a variety of the "best" of Irish cinema during college, a horrific majority of these are grim rural anti-dramas, failed genre attempts or of course Oirish crap. The likes of Poitin or Ballroom of Romance are not for me, and don't get me started on our few horror films or - shudder - Goldfish fucking Memory. I want to like Irish films, and there are a lot of good ones out there which unfortunately don't get any sort of reasonable distribution. But dammit it, why do so many of them have to be so self-consciously Irish? It's all well and good to have a colourful national cinema, but way too many Irish films are simply good Irish films as opposed to good films that irrelevantly happen to be Irish.

Snap, to director Carmel Winter's credit, falls into the latter category. That's not to say it's a great film, but it most certainly can't be accused of prancing around reminding the audience how Irish it is. The accents are Irish, yeah, but the situations are largely universal. The story is told in stylistically varied fragments, following mother Sandra sometime after a crime perpetrated by her teenage son Stephen. The fragmented approach is what makes this film stand out from the crowd - Sandra is followed by a documentary crew, some scenes are filmed as Super-8 home videos, others with a handheld camcorder, occasional CCTV shots, and finally some a lot of more traditionally filmed sequences. The varied styles do work - creating a sense of confusion and ambiguity while remaining strangely coherent. It works well, so it's a significant disappointment when the film's second half largely abandons the varied cinematography.

The narrative, of course, is as distorted as the style. The flashback sequences to the crime itself are the strongest - early hints strongly suggest Stephen has kidnapped a small child, although it's not made crystal clear for a while. Stephen is an interesting character, with Stephen Moran providing a suitably weird, twitchy performance. His motives remain nicely ambiguous, only dialogue snippets hinting at the causes of his psychological turmoil. Aisling O'Sullivan is equally excellent as his frustrated mother. It's a quiet, understated frustration in these scenes that crafts a compelling performance. Late Irish actor Mick Lally has a very memorable cameo too, culminating in what must be the grimmest sex scene in recent cinema.

It's the documentary style scenes set three years later where the flaws of the film become more evident. With Stephen now largely absent, O'Sullivan's anger has become much more extroverted. It makes for a distressingly one-note performance, the exaggerated grimness an unwelcome contrast to the understated grimness that works so well in other scenes. It becomes exhausting and, being honest, repetitive. We don't learn all that much of interest about O'Sullivan's character in these scenes, and the answers we do get - including increasingly unsubtle references to an alcoholic background - actually feel trite and a bit lazy. It feels strange in a film that is impressively reserved and ambiguous in other moments - one particularly odd and unexplained distant flashback proves that this film is much more impressive when it fails to answers questions and trusts the audience to come up with their own interpretation.

Carmel Winters has carved a film that's easy to like but difficult to love. For all the strengths, there are many weaknesses. Despite early coherence of the discordant styles, at its worst Snap feels like two very different films stuck in strange, awkward conflict. It's a film both subtle and on-the-nose, ambiguous and overwrought. When it works though, it is an impressive piece of work, one sure to stimulate debate and varied interpretations. That it fails to achieve consistency in the processs is a shame.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Five Films by... Akira Kurosawa

Five Dreams

This list doesn't contain Seven Samurai. Blasphemy, you yell! Perhaps. Seven Samurai is for many a - deserved - highlight of the career of one of cinema's most accomplished masters. But both before and after 1954 Akira Kurosawa made a staggeringly large number of truly great films. Five films is a restrictive number. Hell, as I said I haven't included his best known work, which is by all accounts inspired cinema. Yet here are five that for me that defined the career of Japan's great auteur.

Rashomon (1950): For me, watching Rashomon was revelatory. It wasn't the first Kurosawa I'd seen, but it was still a massive surprise. That this film was made in 1950 is absolutely staggering. It's structural inventiveness (four takes on the same story, told by various participants in a woodland murder) and moral ambiguity still make it seem fresh and innovative, sixty-one years on. It has a sense of humour, stunning performances, and trusts the audience to interpret the conflicting viewpoints on screen for themselves. It also features a powering performance from Toshiro Mifune, a character whose dominating screen presence would be a defining feature of many Kurosawa films to come.

Ikiru (1952): Famed for his period pieces, Kurosawa regularly explored contemporary issues too. Indeed, the early 1950s found Kurosawa reflecting on Japan coming to terms with the profound suffering during the previous decade. This came out most obviously in the decent but awkward I Live in Fear. Ikiru is much more effective. The story of one man coming to terms with his mortality and trying to live life to it's fullest during his final days is more grounded and engaging. With a central performance by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, the film is probably the most emotionally involving of the films listed here. A beautiful piece of cinema, one of the all time greats and a look at post war Tokyo. The final act also shows Kurosawa's willingness to break established narrative rules as he takes the story in unexpected directions following what you may have thought would be the natural conclusion.

Yojimbo (1961): Kurosawa wasn't always the most fun of directors, although there are plenty of humorous moments dotted throughout his films (Seven Samurai particularly has plenty of laughs). Yet Kurosawa never let his hair down more memorably than in Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro. Yojimbo is the tale of a samurai Sanjuro - Mifune again - riding into a town engulfed in a conflict between two different tribes. Our hero quickly begins to play them against each other as they individually seek his services. It's terrific fun, everything done with a sense of playfulness absent from many of Kurosawa's works. It also makes the bursts of gritty violence more shocking when it eventually does all boil over. Overall, though, it's a great story of one man against ludicrous odds, with only his wits to get him through. While Sergio Leone's excellent remake A Fistful of Dollars is also a classic, the original, as it always does, abides.

Ran (1985): Ran is the film Kurosawa was always going to make, the natural progression of his work thus far. After a dry run with the solid Kagemusha (most notable for the gorgeous watercolour dream sequences), Ran is a film for the ages. It almost didn't get made after a backlash against Kurosawa in his native Japan. But with foreign encouragement - including from George Lucas and Martin Scorsese - we finally got what could easily be called Kurosawa's masterpiece. Breathtaking cinematography, a stunning recreation of feudal Japan and astonishing performances (especially from yet another recurrent Kurosawa presence Tatsuya Nakadai in the lead role, and Pita as the loyal Fool) define this tale of a Japanese Lord who descends into madness after the betrayal of his three sons. It may be an adaptation of King Lear - and the most accomplished of Kurosawa's numerous Shakespeare adaptations at that - but this is distinctly the voice of Akira Kurosawa: the glorious culmination of all his period pieces in one spectacular film.

Dreams (1990): Picking this is a bit of an indulgence on my part, especially considering its inclusion directly excluded Seven Samurai. It's kind of appropriate though, considering Dreams - or Akira Kurosawa's Dreams at it is often aptly billed as - is itself an indulgence. One of the last films of an old master, it certainly isn't without flaws. The first three Dreams (the opening section with the beautiful traditional Japanese dance is my favourite) are arguably stronger than the rest, the thoughtful pacing can make it tough going, and the whole thing is basically a few short films put together. But it's a beautiful piece of cinema, a very personal labour of love from an elderly Kurosawa. The cinematography and strange, supernatural stories recall Kobayashi's Kwaidan - especially in the blizzard story - but these are the innermost thoughts and dreams of Kurosawa. A flawed indulgence that, for me anyway, easily overcomes its flaws. I first caught a few segments from it on late night TV as a teenager, when I was unfamiliar with Kurosawa's other work. It has stuck with me since.

Five More: Stray Dog, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Red Beard, Kagemusha
Five Collaborators: Tatsuya Nakadai, Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, William Shakespeare, Asakazu Nakai (cinematographer)
Five Themes: old vs new, old age, post-war Japan, truth vs lies, the role of family

Monday, April 11, 2011

Hit Or Shit? 11th April 2011

In which we discuss the strengths of failings of current marketing trends by engaging in sensitive discourse concerning whether they shall be roaring successes or cinematic feces.

Cars 2 (John Lasseter)

Cars, contrary to popular opinion, isn't totally worthless. It's just distressingly formulaic for a Pixar film. Simply occupying a world with speaking cars lacks the imaginative, almost childlike ingenuity of, say, exploring the concept of monsters under a bed or having toys come alive when their owners aren't looking. The second film in the franchise - which, let us not forget, is basically a plump, overly generous cash cow for Disney in terms of merchandising - is taking a different direction. Seemingly replacing the nostalgic heart of the first (one of its few definite strengths) with what appears to be a globe trotting spy film is a curious change of pace. The trailer suggests lush visuals but distressingly broad "Japan so crazy!" humour. I silently pray it will be good, and I have only once been somewhat let down by Pixar, but dare I suggest this has the potential to be SHIT? I'm looking forward to Toy Story Hawaiian Vacation more.

13 Assassins (Takeshi Miike)

Personally, I didn't quite know what to make of Miike's last grand genre experiment Sukiyaki Western Django. The hyperstylisation was impressive and overall good fun, but the bizarre mesh of Western and Eastern culture didn't quite gel as smoothly as it could have, especially the choice of having non-English speakers speaking English. This looks like it has more potential, though. Although distinctly in territory mastered by previous directors - Kurosawa notably - Miike's extreme violence and general playfulness will hopefully carve something unique out of a well trodden traditional Japanese samurai setting. Trailer suggests it'll be more grounded visually than usual, but perhaps that will be to the film's benefit. The vast amount of cutting swords, though, suggests the Miike we all know and sometimes love. HIT.

Thor (Kenneth Branagh)

Mere weeks away from release, I have no idea what the fuck to think about this one. On one hand, the mix of stylised sci-fi and middle America settings is certainly interesting. The presence of Portman is a little reassuring. The character design seems top notch. And, of course, the traditionally Shakesperian Branagh as director is still a fascinating oddity. Yet the trailer also contains some forced 'hip' humour, the suggestion of a fairly unoriginal story, possible CGI overload and some bizarrely broad comedy. I also fear it may come across as camp as fuck. Arghh! Can't make up my mind! (S)HIT?

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)

This checks almost every entry the by now oh-so-predictable checklist of the annual Woody Allen film. Super talented cast? McAdams, Sheen, Bates, Coutillard, Wilson - check. Romanticised portrayal of a European city? The clue's in the title - check. Pretentious, forced, unrealistic dialogue? A shit tonne in the trailer alone. So I doubt we're in for many surprises. I'm sure it will be pleasant, somewhat endearing, look stunning, and be kept afloat during the increasingly trite and overblown screwball romantic plot by the consistently strong performances. And the poster's nice, really nice. Look: I love Allen, I really do. But like so much of his recent work, why is Midnight in Paris likely to be so SHIT?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Review: Cold Fish

Red Herring

Sion Sono is a messy director. His last film was the indulgent but brilliant mess Love Exposure - a four hour clusterfuck that a lesser director would have trimmed to half that length. Sono, though, managed to create a meandering and satirical genre mesh instead, one which throws a tonne of pop-cultural themes and ideas (from religion to upskirt photography) at the screen with a surprising amount of 'em sticking. Cold Fish, his follow up to that beautiful monstrosity, is messy in a whole different way. The 'lots-of-the-colour-red' sort of mess.

The joy of this film is how unexpectedly mental it gets, so I'll keep the plot synopsis brief so as not the ruin too many of the surprises. The set-up is thus: Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) is an unhappy tropical fish shop owner. His daughter Mitsuko is rebelling after he re-married a younger woman following his first wife's death. After being caught shoplifting, Mitsuko is 'rescued' by the charismatic Murata (played by a fellow called Denden), a rival and more successful tropical fish shop owner. Murata quickly makes efforts to befriend Shamoto's family, agreeing to employ Mitsuko to try and get her back on the right track, and quickly involving Shamoto in a seemingly lucrative business deal. Things, not surprisingly, are not as they seem.

Cold Fish begins with scenes of urban despair - indeed it opens with a very funny and hyper stylised montage of microwave cooking. With that setup, where it ultimately ends up - what we'll politely call an orgy of bloodletting - is a little surprising. It's sort of like Audition in a way - a seemingly innocuous beginning ultimately becoming something much more violent, although Sono makes his intentions clearer much sooner than Miike did. It's only around half an hour or forty-five minutes into the two and a half hour running time (Sono still, endearingly, declining the indulgence of a cutthroat editor) that we discover Murata is actually more murderous than initial appearances have suggested.  Denden's colourful performance makes a compelling psychopath with compellingly vague motives. If this film seems over-the-top and a little silly, that's because it is. This isn't a yakuza film, it's just the tale of a 'normal' man caught in a frankly absurd situation.

What the film eventually becomes is, for lack of a more accurate description, an exaggerated parody of your bog-standard revenge movie. Fukikoshi's nervous performance transforms at a particular point, and the film doesn't let up after that (not that there weren't a few moment of grizzly violence prior to that, mind). The squeamish be warned - the violence and aggressive sex of this film don't make light, family friendly viewing. It does, though, have a sense of humour. Pitch black, no doubt about it. But the victims of Fukikoshi's revenge are what surprise, and despite the ludicrous amount of blood the over-the-top nature of the final act is performed with tongue deep in cheek.

Cold Fish is certainly a messy film - arguably overlong and literally drenched in fake blood. For a relatively low budget film - most evident when the otherwise impressive digital photography struggles to keep up with a lack of light in some scenes - it's extremely intense and extreme cinema. What puts Sono apart though are his sense playfulness and colourful eccentricities. This is a film that amuses and shocks in equal measure. It can easily be forgiven for being a little messy.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Review: Source Code

Back to the.... something?

Duncan Jones is making sci-fi fun again. He made a wonderful first impression with Moon: a high-concept but playful film that had a lot of trust for the audience. Initially confounding, it slowly explained the fictional science naturally and entertainingly. The presence of Sam Rockwell helped, naturally, as did everyone's favourite demented AI since HAL himself: the delightful GERTY. It was fun, original and impressively grounded for a film set in a zero gravity environment.

For the first half of Source Code, Jones crafts a worthy and entertaining follow up. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, who wakes up after a helicopter crash on a commuter train speeding towards Chicago. But his body isn't his anymore, it's that of a teacher. Sitting across from him is Christina played by Michelle Monaghan (who, might I add, is not the worst person in the world to wake up across from). She seems to know him well, but he's never seen her before. After Stevens bumbles around in a daze for eight minutes - discovering his reflection is not his own in the process - the train blows up, and suddenly Stevens wakes up trapped in a pod somewhere. His only contact to the outside world is through a television screen with a Colonel played by Vera Farmiga and a group of scientists on the other end. After failing to explain the situation to him in any depth, Stevens is merely informed he's on a mission to find the bomber before the train blows up (importantly, it's not traditional time travel we're dealing with here). He's then whisked back to the train seat eight minutes before the explosion.

It's a confusing plot to explain, but to Jones' and writer Ben Ripley's credit the information concerning what in the name of fuck is going on is fed to us at a welcome and engaging pace. It's not as confident as Moon in that regard - one exposition scene that explains what exactly source code is feels forced. But for the most part it's energetically paced. We make sense of the situation alongside Jake, the internal urgency and confusion of the plot very engaging. It's Groundhog Day in action film form, and it's fun seeing Stevens desperately trying to make sense of the bizarre mission while also trying to track down a terrorist amongst a group of your average morning commuters. It's silly, but good silly.

The cast are impressively involved too. Michelle Monaghan is the strongest of the lot. While by design we can't learn a hell of a lot about her character or background with the guy whose body has been taken over by a military captain, she still gives a very warm and likable performance - which is vital as Stevens himself begins to try and save her from a fiery death. Like her characters in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and MI:III she's a love interest with depth, again proving herself as a worthy actress able to make something out of potentially thankless roles. Gyllenhaal has great chemistry with her, and outside that gives a frantic and energetic performance - a potential action star with at least some sort of talent. Vera Farmiga gives a great performance too as this film's GERTY - her initial role as mere ambiguous adviser becomes something more as her humanity quickly becomes evident. The weirdest performance of the lot is Jeffrey Wright as lead scientist Dr. Rutledge who camps it up something fierce. It's a strange one that always doesn't work, but again shows that perhaps Jones is willing to promote a sense of silliness and playfulness, and that is far from a bad thing.

Speaking of bad things: now we get onto the second half, or more accurately the third act. In contrast to most, I liked the weird and brief antagonist reveal, even if is a bit anti-climactic. It's the fact that the film loses considerable steam after the mysteries are all solved and the big reveals revealed. It's ironic, considering this isn't a steam train we're dealing with (an awful joke, I know, forgive me). The main problem is that the film feels like it ends seventeen times or so. There are a good few moments when there's a perfect spot to cut or fade to black, but the film inevitably continues on a bit longer. It's a shame, considering much the resolutions are cheesy and superfluous. There's a technically impressive shot that would have acted as a logical but unforgivably overwrought conclusion, but it chugs along for another five to ten minutes until an even more overwrought ending. When it finally cuts to black, it feels surprisingly sudden for a film that had slowed to a halt almost a quarter of an hour previously.

It's distressing that the audience leaves Source Code on a bum note, as otherwise it is an effective and entertaining action flick. It's also a sci-fi film that neither condescends or overplays the central high-concept. It's hardly Primer in terms of sci-fi intelligence, but not everything has to be. Duncan Jones has again proven himself as an entertainer of considerable worth. But removed from the low budget of his debut, Source Code towards the end begins to veer dangerously towards Hollywood formula and 'accessibility' in an attempt to reach a wider audience. It's disappointing, because up to then it had been impressively accessible science fiction while retaining a subtle intelligence. Still, he's a director with a lot of promise, but let's hope that Hollywood doesn't have its wicked way with him.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Revisit: Summer Wars

Image courtesy of Funmation
When I first watched Summer Wars around a year ago, I thought it was a bit of a mess. A good mess, let it be said, and a very entertaining one, but still a mess. It's a film impossible to compare to a single other such are the variety of influences. You have hints of the Matrix, Tron, Tokyo Story and all those Hollywood rom-coms where a guy pretends to be a girl's fiance for some reason. Even though it predates it, there's strong thematic hints similarities to The Social Network in there too. We're dealing with a family drama, a broad comedy, a sci-fi action film and a romance. The pace and tone are suitably frantic.

I still preferred it to director Mamoru Hosoda's lovable if slight debut The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, but I didn't give it a lot of thought after watching it. The fact that I saw it at the tail end of a weekend long anime binge - alongside the two stunningly brilliant and mind-bending Rebuild of Evangelion movies - probably added to my personal sense of exhaustion. Yet it clearly had an effect, as a few months ago I got a powerful urge to watch it again. Finally learning how to play Hanafuda 'Koi-Koi' - the traditional Japanese card game that is a central element in the film's genuinely exciting climax - was partially to blame. I was looking forward to seeing how the now familiar rules of the game were integrated into a crowd-pleasing sci-fi film. However, the first time the characters sit down to play a game of Koi-Koi early in the film, it finally clicked in my head what exactly Hosoda's dastardly plan with Summer Wars was.

Let's step back a bit first. The plot of Summer Wars revolves around Kenji and Natsuki. Popular Natsuki invites the nerdy but deeply intelligent Kenji along to her family's countryside home to celebrate her great-grandmother's 90th birthday party. The condition - only revealed to Kenji after the fact - is that he has to pretend to be Natsuki's boyfriend / fiance when in the company of Natsuki's colourful family members. Alongside this quirky family comedy/drama is a sci-fi film that kicks off when Kenji accidentally gets embroiled in a major hacking incident in social network OZ: a mesh of email, facebook and online gaming. Brought to life with vivid computer generated imagery and a wide variety of inventive avatar design, Kenji and Natsuki's family get embroiled in the attempt to stop sentient AI 'The Love Machine' from shutting down the world's online infrastructure.

Phew. If the plot sounds unwieldy, that's because it is! It can switch from belly-laughs to moments of melodramatic intensity in mere moments. It moves at a frantic pace, initially especially as we're introduced to Natuski's quirky extended family (all of whom will ultimately have a part to play in the film's action). The huge amount of both real-life and virtual characters is tricky to take on board, but it's all done with tongue firmly in cheek, evident during a very funny dinner table introduction sequence.

Visually, it's gorgeous especially in high-definition. The animation sparkles with detail, from incidental things like Tokyo subway signs to the hilarious way Kenji turns bright pink when embarrassed. All the character designs are extremely rich. The real visual treasure of course lies in the heavily stylised world of OZ, but even the scenes set in rural Nagano are some of the most pleasantly colourful in contemporary animation.

It'd be hard to completely miss the thematic focus of traditional values vs contemporary technology first time around, but watching it again it became evident how deeply ingrained into the plot it was. This is organised chaos - everything actually has a sort of order to it, even if the pacing sometimes can't keep up with it. It's what makes the film something more than merely thoroughly enjoyable. On one hand we have the hyperactive world of OZ, alongside Natsuki's old and once-samurai family. It's the culture clash - an understandably recurrent theme in Japanese cinema - that makes watching Summer Wars so engaging. Most impressively, Hosoda refuses to completely dismiss either. Ultimately, it's a combination of the family's traditions and old contacts (represented through Granny's character) and new technology (one uncle manages to produce a massive computer server at short notice, while another shows up with a gigantic fishing boat to provide power) that is needed to try and save the day as the stakes are constantly raised.

All of this becomes obvious during the film's epic climax. Spoilers ahead, by the way. When Natsuki goes online to challenge The Love Machine to a game of Koi-Koi to win back all the hijacked OZ accounts, it's a refreshing take on the conflict between old and new. Backed up by Kenji and her family's resources and technological wizardry, it all still boils down to the game Granny taught her to help save the family from certain destruction as a satellite hurdles towards their home. Summer Wars at that point emerges as an extremely confident union of genres. Bits and pieces may be overly melodramatic or inconsistently paced. Others are genuinely emotionally involving and laugh out loud funny. Mamoru Hosoda has created organised chaos that deserves to be seen by a wider audience. It's a film that doesn't condescend, and addresses well trodden themes with honesty and conviction. It's a careful deconstruction of technology while still embracing it - hell, it would be hypocritical not to given the reliance on CGI in the OZ sequences! - while never forgetting that it's sometimes best just to yell "Koi-Koi!".

Monday, April 4, 2011

Revisit: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Romance of the century

Ice breaker
“Random thoughts for Valentine's day, 2004. Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap”

Eternal Sunshine opens on a cynical note, and yet is far from a cynical film. Perhaps some of the conclusions you will draw from the film won’t exactly be optimistic – especially with a final looping image that suggests a constant, repetitive cycle. But it isn’t a cynical film. Cynicism is just one part of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s sublime deconstruction of a relationship. There are moments of sadness, moments of anger, moments of excitement and moments of pure joy. Mostly, though, just moments.

Eternal Sunshine was released in 2004, a year after Lost in Translation. The latter is a superb tale of an almost too brief relationship. Eternal Sunshine is about a much longer romance. Having seen them in relatively close proximity, I always put the two together, almost as companion pieces – defining fictional accounts of relationships and the people in them. They both had a profound effect on me as a sixteen / seventeen year old, and both remain amongst my favourite films. Eternal Sunshine is certainly an entirely more ambitious undertaking; not surprising from a writer who had just put out two of the most bizarre, unusual and fresh films of contemporary times.

It’s 20 minutes before the opening credits role. Before that, we get to witness the ‘first’ meetings of Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. We then suddenly jump to what appears to be a breakup, with a mysterious van following Joel. It’s initially a confusing jolt, and it’s the first significant time distortion in an inventive structure. We then jump around in space and time, examining the memories of Joel and Clementine’s relationship as they are deleted from the most recent to the oldest.

You could almost call the film a romantic comedy – the basic structure is there, albeit severely disjointed. There’s a meeting, a relationship, a complication and a reconciliation (of sorts), although not in that order. It’s also very funny. But it’s the central structure that makes the film work, and ultimately something far more memorable than the typical relationship drama. A sci-fi film that is purposefully cheap and down to earth (apparently Lacuna is like a dingy dentist’s office, in a delightfully playful touch), it’s a twist and plot device that allows Kaufman and Gondry to brutally dissect Joel and Clementine’s relationship. Full of moments of great truth, but also surreal imagery – bolstered by Gondry’s admirable insistence on using old fashioned, almost homemade special effects.

The successful mesh of the realistic and fantastical is never more evident than in my personal favourite scene: the climatic sequence in the beach house. Subverting the concept of the voiceover (like Kaufman’s fictional rendition of himself did in Adaptation after listening to a particularly vitriolic Robert McKee seminar), Joel heartbreakingly tells his memory of Clementine his real feelings. Meanwhile, the house – and, sadly, Joel’s final remaining memory of Clem – violently collapses around the pair. “I wish… I wish I stayed” Joel reflects as he leaves the house and Clem behind. It’s the beginning and end of a relationship beautifully combined and captured in one surreal, memorable moment – which pretty much defines the film as a whole. "You said 'So go' with such disdain" is an emotional sucker punch every time.

With such disdain...
Never one to pass up the opportunity to make the most out of a complex plot device, Kaufman even injects the subplots with interesting characters and themes. The ensemble cast help; the always reliable Tom Wilkinson and Mark Ruffalo, a suitably creepy Elijah Wood and a surprisingly effective Kirsten Dunst (playing up her innocent, youthful charm). The sequences involving the staff at Lacuna explore themes and ideas that don’t quite fit into Joel and Clementine’s story, and ensure the moral ambiguities and complexities of memory deletion are explored in great detail. They’re funny too, which helps.

Yet it is Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey’s performances that truly bring this film to life. From Winselt, it’s to be expected. Her portrayal of Clementine is a definitive kook, her bubbly actions a mask for deeper insecurities. Like her hair (I personally prefer tangerine), she’s hard to conclusively define. Carrey surprises more though. Winslet has shown herself to be a great actress on a number of occasions, but Carrey is sometimes harder to like. Here, he is fantastic playing a muttering, awkward character – which is pretty much the polar opposite of a typical Carrey character. He’d shown himself as a capable actor in The Truman Show – almost playing a parody of his comedic persona – but here he proves he has range. Winslet and Carrey both give Clem and Joel the depth the film relies on – two very different characters destined to be together (at least temporarily).

When Joel’s memories are finally deleted, the jigsaw pieces click into place. The ingenious structure is clear, and a relationship has played its course, only to begin again. This is a film that benefits from a second screening, with any confusion eliminated. Then you can appreciate the small touches and the little character moments – book titles disappearing on a shelf, the other occupants of Lacuna reception and their respective best-forgotten memories. It also ends ambiguously, the looping image of Joel and Clem running along a beach. For me, it’s a summary of the film to date – a happy moment, but one that will only happen between moments of pain and anger, again and again. Oddly, the Joker at the end of the Dark Knight pretty much sums it up best: “I think you and I are destined to do this forever”.

Yeah: so with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry and their cast & crew created an almost definitive romantic comedy-drama. Other films have been similarly successful without any of the complications, but it is the wild ambition, humanity and inventiveness of this film that makes it work. Michel Gondry went on to make an equally imaginative, although slightly colder, film with The Science of Sleep. Charlie Kaufman, appropriately, went on to make a film about, well, everything, trying to capture an entire life with the insanely ambitious (and, for the most part, insanely successful) Synecdoche, New York. As good as their follow-ups have been (shame about Be Kind Rewind, though), it’s the warmth, characters and honesty that makes Eternal Sunshine so worth experiencing again and again. Personally, I’ve watched this film a silly number of times.

Although the film opens (and arguably closes) on cynical notes, it’s the happier scenes in this film that always hit hardest. Like Clem and Joel stumbling upon an elephant parade, as Kirsten Dunst recites the Alexander Pope (or is that Pope Alexander?) poem that gives the film the memorable title: “How happy is the blameless vestal's lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd”. So Joel reflecting on the shallowness of Valentine’s Day is an apt beginning; because, after all, this is a film that succeeds in capturing the realities of romance and relationships, and does so far more honestly than the greeting cards mentioned in the opening sentence of this extraordinary film.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Dreams of albino crocodiles 

Werner and the pied piper
Of all the borderline psychotic maverick avant-garde directors out there, Werner Herzog is likely the most lovable. Obviously he's made a vast number of surreal, memorable and often hilarious fiction films which are incomparable with anything else. Yet as well as the director of masterpieces like Acquire: The Wrath of God and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (amongst the great comedies of the last decade) he's also a documentarian of great worth. Mainly because he rarely plays things as expected: while his non-fiction work is obviously more grounded a lot of the time, it's the ever bizarre obsessions and curiosities of the German auteur that make his documentary films every bit as unusual and outrageous as his fictional work. Anyone who recognises the picture below will know what I'm talking about.

A picture that speaks for itself. Source.

What has defined much of Herzog's recent documentary output has been Herzog's obsession with probing human behaviour and nature - from the ultimately fatal compulsions of Timothy Treadwell to the scientists who isolate themselves in Antarctica through wondering what really goes on in the head of a wayward penguin. The result is often the deeply eccentric Herzog often focusing on deeply eccentric characters. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is somewhat different in that regard - the number of oddballs is toned down a notch. There's a bizarre character or two - a Master Perfumer who seeks out caves by scent alone, or the pipe playing 'experimental archeologist' - but Herzog's thick but somewhat comforting German accent is most certainly the nuttiest voice in the film.  Yet a preoccupation with humanity and nature still makes this a distinctly Herzogian documentary.

Oh, I've gotten two paragraphs without mentioning French cave paintings! In short: there's a lot of them here. Or more specifically there's a few, and we see them all four or five times. No doubt they're stunning, and it's amazing to have the rare opportunity to view them. The 3D adds a depth to the images that is certainly a welcome integration of an often redundant technology. The paintings are remarkable in their complexities when you consider their age. The interplay of light and shadow remains impressive in these basic works, and the vividness of their portrayals of wildlife, motion or sexuality is surprising. It's a fascinating insight into the early days of humanity.

And yet the reality remains that you're looking at a fuck load of wall paintings of animals on screen for an hour and a half. Around the fifty minute mark, I'd be lying if I didn't find it a little repetitive. Towards the end - in chronological terms, once Herzog and his crew got more in-depth access to the caves after some initially technologically limited explorations - there are really, really long pans of these paintings. They're beautiful and profound, but honestly seeing them two or three times was enough. Herzog pushes it with the amount of time spent focused on each. Yet actually getting to see them in the first place is a remarkable thing altogether, and although stretched the detailed look at these paintings is most definitely worth the ticket cost.

It falls to Herzog's social ruminations to lend the film a little bit of weight, then. And weight it does lend. Herzog's droll voiceover wonders many things, and it's almost dream-like. As he and his interviewees ponder what the people who painted these images were like, what they did, what their world was like. Bear skulls and footprints littering the cave provide vivid hints. It's fascinating stuff at times, easy to get drawn into the enthusiasm of the scientists and Herzog himself. Naturally, Herzog often makes the interviews a notch weirder than most, and there's a bizarre laugh or two to be had. The question of whether Herzog is a mad genius or a comic genius remains. I'd wager a bit of both.

The film ends with a truly unusual - one might say 'redundant' - postscript involving albino crocodiles. Don't ask. It's a typically unexpected tangent, almost completely unrelated to the material that came before it. And yet it sort of makes sense in context. A strange sense, granted. But a Herzogian sense. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is not always as outrageous as would be typical of a 'Film by Werner Herzog', but it most certainly is the work of the great auteur. There are moments of great beauty alongside pretentious ponderings on the nature of humanity and nature. It's an engaging documentary which arguably could have done with a bit more variety. It almost feels as if it would have worked better as an hour long TV documentary. But then we wouldn't have experienced one of the most pleasant executions of a third dimension to date. It's simply a film hard to describe without actually seeing it: beautiful, meandering, unusual, funny, overwrought. Or: a Werner Herzog film.