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.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Few of My Favourite Scenes #1: Paprika

Dream Sequence


Satoshi Kon's death last year was one of cinema's contemporary tragedies. After suffering a brief battle with cancer, Kon died in August 2010, leaving his last film The Dream Machine unfinished (production is being completed by Madhouse). The career of one of anime's most exciting, distinctive voices had been cut unfairly short. Yet even Kon's limited filmography is stronger than most directors manage in double, triple or quadruple Kon's time in the directors chair. From his disturbing debut Perfect Blue to the touching, nostalgic Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, in eight short years he created a fantastic catalogue of work, including the complex but brilliant TV series Paranoia Agent. When Paprika was released in 2006, it was yet another artistic triumph from an exciting newcomer to the scene. Few could have predicted it would also be a swansong.

The film opens with a lengthy, disorientating prologue showing a detective stumbling through a surreal dream. When the detective finally wakes up, it's revealed that he was undergoing a type of psychotherapy to combat recurring dreams. Conducting the treatment is a fiery red head: our titular heroine. This extended prologue then transitions smoothly into opening credits. And some opening credits they are.

Credits are for many an inconvenience: a distraction before the movie proper begins. Many resort to the Woody Allen school of thought: a black screen, white text and jaunty music completely separate from the main film. However, for many they're a tool to create a dynamic, exciting opening to grab the audience's attention. David Fincher is particularly talented in this field. Paprika puts Kon in the same ballpark as Fincher: rarely have names popping up on screen been so hypnotic.

Of course, in this case, it's not the words themselves that hypnotise, but the wonderful montage that plays over them. The audience is presented with a cavalcade of inventive, playful imagery. We see Paprika traveling through space and cyberspace - a dream-being able to utilize everything from a t-shirt to a cartoon rocket as transport. She puts a jacket over a dozing office worker, invisibly skips past a night guard and escapes two flirtatious men (the looks of a disgust in the split mirror is a particularly delightful touch). It's joyous visual storytelling, the kind only animation can achieve. Kon was endlessly imaginative; telling stories that took full use of his chosen medium, and this scene is a perfect example of his profound talent at illustration. And this isn't just an irrelevant flight of fancy either - the final cut to the black-haired Atsuko introduces us to the split-personality concept that is vital to the core narrative. Paprika is a dream, Atsuko is reality. It's a tricky concept as the film goes on, but one introduced with beautiful simplicity.

I've yet to mention the most distinctive element of the scene. That would be Nigeru Mono by Hirasawa Susumu, the music driving this magnificent sequence. It has energy to match the rambunctious editing and animation, and provides the credits with an extremely unique pace. The soundtrack is easily one of the highlights of the film throughout, and Nigeru Mono is the catchiest themes that emerges from it. It's been my ringtone and morning alarm pretty much ever since I saw the film the best part of half a decade ago.

The film that follows the opening credits provides many other joys - the Parade sequences particularly almost overflow with imagination. The plot may occasionally steer towards the convoluted - it's one of those films when sometimes it's better just to go with it even if you don't entirely get the finer narrative details - but it's always engaging. Yet everytime I watch the film it's the credits that stand out and put a big ol' smile on my face.

Satoshi Kon didn't know Paprika would be the last film he'd put his name too. But when his writer/director credits pop up at the end of the scene, it's an appropriately imaginative on-screen tribute to one of animation and cinema's most under-appreciated artists.

Introducing "A Few of My Favourite Scenes"

Like a good album, a film is defined by the sum of its parts. A film can have a great opening, a spectacular middle or a superb ending but if there's nothing gelling it all together it will all fall apart.

That doesn't mean there's sometimes a temptation to skip to the 'best bits'.

"A Few of My Favourite Scenes" is a new feature on, where I hope to explore individual scenes that define the appeal of a particular film. The bits that really linger in the mind. I hope to stay away from the truly iconic scenes, instead focusing on ones that stand out for me for one reason or another.

The scenes chosen will indeed often be from my favourite films. But I also hope to occasionally pick out scenes from films that otherwise aren't all that great: ones that suggest a better film than the material surrounding it.

The first in the series will be up shortly. I swear I'll lay off the Sound of Music references from here on out.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Reivew: 30 Minutes or Less

Toilet Humour

I don't like keeping things brief. Despite my attempts to keep things focused, my writing quickly descends into multiple rambling paragraphs. But today I make an exception. Because I don't care anywhere near enough about 30 Minutes or Less to justify anymore than a handful of sentences.

In short, Jesse Eisenberg stars as a guy who gets a bomb attached to him by Danny McBride. McBride wants Eisenberg to rob a bank so he can get enough money to assassinate his millionaire father. If it sounds like contrived nonsense, that's because it is. The plot goes from one incredible stretch to another, never really accepting that the basic premise is absurdly over-complex. The plot just continues to grow more and more illogical as the brief running time progresses, even finding time to feature trite romantic subplots along the way. It's a significant step back for director Ruben Fleischer following the unspectacular but frequently amusing Zombieland.

All the actors are on autopilot here; basic and infinitely uninteresting riffs on their more well known creations. The humour shits all over subtlety from the off; relying on cheap, crude gags and, bizarrely, the odd excursion into racial jokes (calling a character of Indian descent 'Slumdog' has no place in this modern day and age). Punchlines are frequently over-elaborated upon, just in case you didn't get it first time around. The plot rarely misses an opportunity for a cliched, derivative development. And, despite hints that it might explore darker territories, the frequent sex jokes are about as mature as all this gets. The cast mostly linger around the moderately annoying - Aziz Ansari and Danny McBride provide particularly over-enthusiastic performances - with Michael Pena providing a distractingly weird turn as a hitman.

The only nice thing I can say about this film is that it's relatively short. But even at the length suggested by its misleading title it would feel stretched. The final scene is the best - a well-paced conclusion that cuts to credits without even a superfluous line of dialogue. Alas, it's followed by a crude post-credits rethread of a profoundly unfunny running joke. But the brief conclusion is too little, too late. 30 Minutes or Less provokes the worst kind of apathy. It's not traditionally bad, it's just offensively mediocre. And sometimes the latter is a far worse crime.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Review: Super

A Bit of the Old Ultraviolence

It's always a shame to see a film doomed to obscurity before it's even released. In James Gunn's Super's case, it was Kick-Ass that denied it a chance to receive the attention it deserved. A simple synopsis and basic genre comparisons to Matthew Vaughn's stylistically interesting but ultimately vapid superhero parody do little to distance the two films. A whole section of the film's wikipedia page is devoted to the 'controversial' similarities to Kick-Ass. Despite some high-profile names - Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler, Ellen Page and Slither alumni Nathan Fillion - on-board, Super's confrontational themes and low budget meant it was destined for, at best, cult appreciation. It was released to critical apathy (even the positive reviews are cautious rather than gushing) and, in Europe anyway, direct-to-DVD hell.

All of this is a damn shame, because Super is a fascinating if flawed oddity. The whole 'Joe Bloggs becomes superhero' comedy has indeed become a sub-genre unto itself in many ways. But of the recent attempts, Super emerges as a very distinctive experience. Unhappy Frank (Rainn Wilson) is married to Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering drug addict - the marriage, as he informs us in voiceover, is one of only two perfect moments in his humdrum life. However, she inevitably relapses, and one day she's gone. Frank discovers that she has become involved with drug-dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon). The police are uninterested, and Frank is subject to a beating at the hands of Jacques' goons when he tries to get his wife back. After watching a religious superhero show one evening, Frank experiences a bizarre vision involving God and, ahem, tentacle rape. Inspired, he decides to become a masked vigilante called The Crimson Viper. To Frank's displeasure the slightly demented Libby (Ellen Page) insists on tagging along as sidekick Boltie. Wrench in hand, they set out to dish out hard justice and save Sarah.

Sounds pretty standard, right? Wrong. Where Super impresses is in it's surreal, controversial delivery. You see, we're never really sure if Frank is a nice guy trying to save his wife or a nice guy who's mentally disturbed. The frequent hellish visions he experiences (amusingly visualised by Gunn and crew) hardly help make the case that he's a sane individual. When apprehending criminals, he seems unable to differentiate between petty and serious crime. In one sure-to-be-infamous scene he graphically wrenches a cinema-goer for skipping the line. He means well, but is unable to moderate his particular brand of vigilante justice. It, more than any other film to date, asks us to examine the motives and methods of superheroes. It's a film that dares the audience to support this anti-hero's actions. Not even the best Batman comics critique the nature of comic book justice with the bite of Super.

Super is a very funny film, albeit one where the humour is pitch-black (another trait that will never endear it to a wide audience). A particularly effective comedic creation here is Libby, with Ellen Page presenting a pleasant subversion of her usual hyperactive style. Like Hit Girl in Kick Ass, Boltie here is a parody of the fetishised hero. An amusing sequence shows Libby showing off her tight, squeaky costume to a deeply uncomfortable Frank, and a later sequence best not to ruin here illustrates this sexualisation in a manner that's both hilarious and extremely disturbing. Yet for all the laughs, Super is a film that insists on making the audience question why they were laughing in the first place. For every act of slapstick violence, there's a more graphic one where your laughs will become more and more nervous. It culminates in an act of graphic violence that you most certainly will not laugh at. Super is a rare beast: a comedy that knows the fine line between shock humour and genuine shock, and walk said line masterfully. Where Kick Ass merely toed the controversial waters, Gunn is unafraid to dive right in, much like his under-appreciated Slither. He also directs with an impressively playful eye - whether it be the aforementioned 'visions' or the occasional animated interlude.

A few significant flaws hold Super back from true greatness. The pacing is all over the place, and some subplots are utterly redundant. One involving a policeman ultimately has little to no relevance to the overall plot: there are no consequences or payoffs for once promising plot threads. While the performances are largely solid - Bacon and Page camp it up effectively - Wilson is sometimes less than charismatic as our protagonist. He's good - particularly in the scenes where he has to awkwardly contend with an over-eager sidekick - but not amazing. Luckily there's some great minor roles from the likes of Nathan Fillion and Andre Royo.

The biggest flaw of all comes in the final moments, when Super settles on a rather sentimental conclusion. It's tonally at odds with all that has come before. It doesn't entirely taint the experience, but is a sour note to end on. But for the most part Super is bold, confrontational cinema. To take something as inherently silly as a superhero comedy and create something with as much bite as this is an achievement. It's a parody that cleverly satirises it's chosen genre, and a film that is comfortable with making the audience think about their preconceptions while providing them with deep belly laughs. Such comedic success is all too rare, and perhaps the reason why Super was always destined to be shunned by a mainstream audience. For those willing to take the risk, however, there are rewards a plenty. To go with an appropriately sexualised analogy: it has the balls to follow through with the ideas it presents, rather than just lamely thrusting in the general direction of satire.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Third Window Films and the London Riots

Broken Windows 

In a time when independent and arthouse films fight for even the smallest of screens in multiplexes or any sort of space in high street retailers, we can only but admire the small distributors who continue to take risks. UK and Irish film fans may be familiar with Third Window Films, who in my humblest of opinions are amongst Europe's finest film distributors. Focusing on Asian cinema, a large amount of the most interesting recent Japanese and Korean independent films have been localised and released by the guys over in Third Windows. Love Exposure, Confessions, Confessions of a Dog, Oasis, Cold Fish, Instant Swamp, Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers, Peppermint Candy, Memories of Matsuko, Kakera... just a few of the fantastic films that have been brought to cinema and DVD by TWF.

It's with sadness that I read their lengthy facebook update today. Best to read it for yourself over yonder. In short: like many other distributors and record labels, their stock and production schedules were destroyed when a Sony production centre in North London was set alight by ignorant, aggressive rioters. While - thankfully - insured, it's going to have a serious impact on availability of stock for the near future. Production has moved to a smaller plant in England, and while your preorder of the mega deluxe edition of Thor is unlikely to be affected, smaller distributors are going to be waiting a while for things to return to normal, and they face some serious cashflow problems in the meantime.

So, like Third Window did in their post, I'd really encourage everyone to help 'em out while they try to get back to full speed. They have a cinema release of Villain coming up: I saw it on a plane back at the start of the year, and it's pretty great. I actively look forward to seeing it on a screen that isn't a piece of shit. They have a great selection of films to watch over on Mubi, where I intend on checking out the rest of Chang-don Lee's stuff after being deeply impressed by his recent Poetry. And a quick search on amazon will hook you up with some damn good Third Window films for well under a tenner.

Hopefully I don't sound too much like a shill here: I have absolutely nothing to do with Third Window, just as a borderline obsessive fan of Asian cinema they have in recent years proven to be the most consistent independent distributor of interesting, offbeat and high quality cinema from the East. It really is a damn shame to read that a few yobs have had such a negative effect. So, if you can, check out some of their releases in the next few weeks and months, whether digitally or on DVD. I would personally highly recommend the epic, mental, brilliant Love Exposure and the ambitious, moving Memories of Matsuko. Confessions of a Dog is angry, compulsive cinema, and Kakera, Instant Swamp and Turtles... are lovable, quirky gems. Below are a few reviews from the Film Ha Ha archives of Third Window releases. Times are hard enough for film distributors who aim for a niche audience. It's only appropriate to help 'em out when they need it.

And, naturally, so us Irish can finally get to see Sawako Decides ;)

Review: Cold Fish

Review: Instant Swamp

Monday, August 8, 2011

Review: Poetry Motion

Poetry is a sly one. The latest from director Chang-don Lee, it's the very definition of a slow-burner. So slow, you may wonder for the first half if it's going to be worth the heavy time investment. The thing about Poetry is that it's never bad, or even average. It's extremely capable throughout. The performances are universally impressive, especially from the remarkable Jeong-hie Yun as our protagonist Mija (and how fantastic is it to see elderly women getting such meaty roles?). The direction is competent and consistent, if unremarkable. But as likable as it is, for at least an hour of the running time it's more admirable than lovable. Visually it's nothing to write home about. The story seems to be hitting beats we've seen before. It's definitely nice to see a Korean film that isn't focused on gruesome, rip-roaring revenge receive a wide release, but one might query if it deserves the accolades it has received. Where, pray tell, is Poetry going?

This is also a film where a synopsis does no favours. Much heralded as the story of an elderly Korean lady taking up poetry classes, you'd be mistaken for thinking this would be an excuse for a fairly by the book coming-of-old-age story. Opening (after a sombre prologue showing a young suicide victim's body flowing down a river) with a forgetful Mija attending a doctor's appointment, there are early hints the character is succumbing to early Alzheimers. Hardly helping is her lazy, rude grandson Wook (Lee David), who she's taking care of in the absence of her daughter. Mija makes a meager living from Government support and working as a maid for a wealthy but disabled elderly man. To challenge the monotony and potential mental degradation, she signs up for the aforementioned poetry class.

Director Lee lures us into a false sense of security with the opening half. Despite one or two surprising plot developments (one in particular providing significant insight into the previously mysterious prologue), the narrative largely moves along an interesting but rather predictable path. Personally, I feared the plot wasn't going in a particularly insightful direction. As I mentioned before, the lack of audio-visual flair rarely elevates the film into the realm of greatness. It's slow-burning almost to a fault. Luckily, Lee is a devious bastard, and the somewhat ordinary opening hour or so reveals itself as a mischievous sleight-of-hand.

What ultimately propels Poetry towards brilliance is how utterly unpredictable it becomes. A synopsis disguises the many curious directions the plot takes. It would be inappropriate for me to spoil anything here. Suffice to say, many of the later scenes will break and warm your heart in equal measure. A subplot may reach what seems like a natural conclusion, but will return at a later point to make a point that truly resonates. Mija comes-of-age, that's for sure, but the way she reacts to the world and people around her makes for astonishing cinema. Whether it's her encounters with her lonely, crippled employer or the way she reacts to her grandson's increasing distance and impoliteness, Mija's actions surprise but always feel believable within the dynamic, fascinating narrative.

The poetry of the title certainly leads Mija on a journey of self-discovery as she grows as an individual and makes decisions that we didn't expect from the awkward but likable old lady we're introduced to in the opening scenes. She particularly reflects on the way people consume art. A particularly memorable group of scenes focus on a charismatic policeman who frequents the local poetry recitals. Initially a likable individual - winning the audience over with crude jokes after readings - Mija begins to question whether or not he's a true poetry lover at all and, indeed, what makes a poetry lover in the first place? Yet the brief backstory we receive for the policeman casts him in an entirely different light. Characters here are people with depth - flawed individuals with credible motivations.

More than merely reflecting on the nature of art (and film-making?), Lee goes further than that again. Poetry, like the best poems, is an artful observation of nature and society. Are people merely using the timid, eccentric Mija? Do people overestimate and abuse the power of money? Why are the elderly treated like second-class citizens? Are the difficult decisions the only truly important ones? Poetry is a critique of South Korean and Western society, reflecting on the minute, the profound and everything in between. And isn't that the role of great poetry?

After two and a quarter hours of distinctively straightforward structure and delivery, Poetry in its final moments settles on a surprisingly abstract conclusion. While it appears at first to resort to the old 'ambiguous ending' trick that has cheapened many a desperate attempt at last-minute profundity, Poetry is far cleverer than that. The ending isn't clearly spelled out with conventional 'resolution', but then the themes and ideas that have been presented by the film are not easily resolved. Instead, the film-makers decide on a beautiful, thoughtful conclusion that brings the film full circle, and it's the only resolution that could feel natural here. Few if any characters in cinema can claim to reach a level of transcendence, but Mija finally achieves something approaching true insight. Having teased a potentially simple 'endgame' - the creation of a single poem at the end of the six week class - the ending is instead a very complex matter indeed. For a film that started wholly unremarkably, the ending is the polar opposite.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Review: Super 8

Super Great?

Here's an actual quote from producer Frank Marshall to reassure fans before the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (source):
"Steven is very aware of the process and we're not cheating with CG (computer graphics) at all. It keeps the B movie feel."
Years later, it's painfully obvious what a vicious lie that was. Heralded as a return to the old-fashioned romps of the golden days of cinematic entertainment, Indy 4 was anything but. Only a few seconds into the film a computerised gopher raised its cartoonish head, and the audience knew they had been had. The few moments of nostalgic action - the bike chase, the diner fight - were drowned out by waves of CGI monkeys, vine swinging and (spoiler!) alien spacecraft. I'm not as hostile to Kingdom... than others, but a sham it often was. Rather than emulate the good old days, it made you yearn for The Goonies, Close Encounters, E.T., Jaws and of course the early Indiana Jones films. Heck, even Jurassic Park and its majestic dinosaurs. Those were the days when Spielberg films were kept on the ground by focused stories and fantastical elements subtly but effectively intruding upon a recognisable world. Then George Lucas had his wicked way, and suddenly Shia LaBeouf was swinging through rain forests with barely a concern for gravity or believability.

Super 8 - finally receiving a European release two months after its domestic debut - is the anti-Crystal Skull. Here, the majority of the film is pleasantly down to earth, old-fashioned and deeply nostalgic. Unlike Indy 4, the film isn't dominated by excessive effects work. But where a small minority of less effects heavy scenes impressed in KOTCS, a handful of sequences here depress with an overly heavy reliance on incredible effects. Crystal Skull was Hollywood excess despite moments of charm. Super 8 is charming despite moments of Hollywood excess.

The closest relative to this film is the timeless Goonies. A group of kids setting out to make a homemade zombie movie for a local film festival heavily recall the adventurers who set out to find One Eye Willy's (decades on, the name still invokes childish chuckles) both in attitude and stature. In Super 8's case, the ragtag group - the explosives / fireworks expert, the nerd, that twitchy nervous kid - are led by the charismatic, newly motherless Joe (Joel Courtney) and wannabe auteur Charles (Riley Griffiths). After persuading the popular Alice (Elle Fanning) to co-star in their zombie epic, the group sneak out of the house at night to film a scene. Unfortunately, they also happen to get caught up in the middle of an horrific train derailment. Shit one. While the kids emerge unscathed, it quickly becomes clear from a heavy military presence that there's something more than meets the eye going on here. Especially when dogs start disappearing, power outages increase and, eventually, the sheriff and others go missing. The kids try to put the finishing touches on their film despite this increasingly dangerous backdrop, all the while trying to deal with friendships, troubling secrets, growing up and Joe's well-intentioned but stern father Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler). Oh: and a monster.

Super 8 is directed with great lens flare by J.J. Abrams. The pun is intentional - the man is over fond of light sources reflecting off the camera, even more obvious here than in his previous work. But he also carries over the more lovable sense of fun, tension and adventure that defined his previous two big budget blockbusters. Working with a new IP could have proven troublesome, but under the tutelage of producer Steven Spielberg, Abrams has crafted another terrifically entertaining film. By capturing the small town atmosphere of many a creature-feature and Spielberg film past, Abrams shows us how a simple genre film such as this should work. The cinematic ambitions of the youngsters keeps the film focused while providing plenty of laughs as they earnestly try to craft a zombie movie with a 'story'. There's perhaps a deeper reading in there about the very nature of making a film, but you'll be having too much fun to care. The kids all put in damn good performances: Fanning we knew could provide a surprisingly mature performance from Somewhere, but the newcomers impress too, especially Griffiths as a director with visions of grandeur. They all make the transition to action heroes surprisingly well.

Super Lens Flare
The narrative rarely breaks new ground (ground is literally broken, but that's not what I meant), but the small town tensions and conflicts remain compelling throughout. It's funny, moving and thrilling in equal measure. Set on the eve of the 1980s, it's achingly nostalgic throughout but rarely in-your-face with its retro setting (a few cheeky soundtrack additions and disco references aside). When the action kicks in, it's handled well too. The centerpiece train crash might look artificial, but the sequences where the kids wander through the wreckage, as well as the initial monster attacks and military escalation are well handled and entertaining. An admirable touch here is that the 'money shots' from the promotional materials and trailers are often shot from a different perspective in the actual film: a decision that many over zealous marketers could learn something from. Also helping matters is a rousing score from one of cinema's most underappreciated talents: Abram's regular composer Michael Giacchino. Like his work on Star Trek, Lost and Up (to name but a few), the soundtrack here is as effective in the emotional scenes as it is in the action ones. It echoes John Williams' many Spielbergian works, but with affection rather than mimicry, all the while retaining a distinctive sound all of its own.

Some spoilers in the following paragraph:

Unfortunately, the film stumbles a bit during its particularly formulaic third act. Up until then, the monster had only been partially and ever-so-briefly glimpsed; an unoriginal but likable trick that lends the action scenes an air of mystery. Indeed, I personally quite enjoyed the high camp sci-fi explanation for why this is all going down (gotta dig the cubes), but then I'm for the most part a fan of Abram and friends' fantastical flights of fancy (I'm one of those weirdos who stuck with Lost 'til the end). Alas, the monster itself proves a revelation too far. Like Cloverfield before it, the creature is too unreal and incredible; a bad case of CG artists gone wild. The surreal monster design is particularly unfortunate when we're asked to sympathise with this unbelievable creature. I simply couldn't bring myself to do it - this misunderstood (but murderous) alien is no E.T. Luckily, though, an extended encounter with the once mysterious creature is followed by a well handled ending. While many may bemoan the Crystal Skulls / Close Encounters-esque resolution, the scenes of a main street suddenly becoming magnetised are hypnotic. It find it hard to believe anyone could watch the finally completed movie-within-a-movie that plays over the credits without being charmed once again.

Spoilers end.

Flawed Super 8 is. Yet it still stands as a welcome contrast to what stands for a summer blockbuster these days. In a world where the Star Wars, Avatars and countless superhero movies try to upstage each other by creating ever more extravagant and expensive worlds for paper-thin characters to occupy, Super 8 stays simple. In channeling the very films that provoked the rise of the 'summer blockbuster' as we know it, it reminds the audience that charm, innocence and adventure can provide far more entertainment than the lush forests of Pandora ever could. J.J. Abrams remains a guiding light for the entertainers of Hollywood, even if Super 8 infrequently lacks the whirlwind of his stunningly successful trip aboard the Star Trek Enterprise. Super 8 is not original. It's occasionally indulgent. Overall it's rather disposable. But Super 8 is the rare film that doesn't make you feel guilty for switching off your brain.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Review - Captain America: The First Avenger

Fuck Yeah?

After a summer of solid to awful superhero movies, you could be forgiven for being hostile about yet another one; especially one that focuses on a hero who is best known as pro-American propaganda. But the best thing about Captain America is, somewhat ironically, British. Step up, Hayley Atwell, and your delectable English accent. As Peggy Carter, she charms in almost every scene she appears in, even those when she's not wearing a red dress. Standing alongside Natalie Portman in Thor, she's not the stereotypical passive love interest - indeed, we're introduced to her as a high ranking military officer when she amusingly floors a stocky male private for questioning her ability on gender grounds. Now, it's not the kind of feminist revolution that will have Susan Sontag or Germaine Greer shouting from the rooftops, but it's a start for love interests with depth (see also - Olivia Wilde in Tron: Legacy). After equally impressing in the otherwise deplorable Casandra's Dream, Captain America makes a good case for giving Atwell meatier roles beyond the token female ones.

The second best thing about Captain America is, somewhat ironically, British-Australian-Nigerian. Hugo Weaving as the Captain's arch enemy Red Skull is a symbol of this film's pleasing streak of high camp. With a frankly ludicrous German accent, Weaving is a charismatic representation of cartoon evil, playing a rouge, superhuman Nazi planning world domination through an evil organisation called Hydra by channeling the power of Odin's Cosmic Cube (the first in a series of nods to Marvel film continuity in the lead-up to next year's Avengers film). He's representative of the sense of fun that lightens up the film: yet another superhero film not taking itself too seriously, but in contrast to many earlier attempts with some degree of competence. The design of his iconic red skull, when he eventually removes his skin mask, is pretty cool too.

This isn't sounding like a distinctly American success, is it? Indeed, the film's best scene is notable for its surprising hostility towards American war politics. In an all-singing, all-dancing montage, we're shown Chris Evans' Steve Rodgers / titular Captain as he makes his name on the domestic front as a propaganda icon sent out to persuade an American public to invest in war bonds. And then, in a biting transition, we suddenly jump to the same entertainer trying to replicate his cheesy 'motivational' routine on the European front. Fresh from a significant failure in battle, the soldiers mock him and demand the return of the chorus girls. In one brief segment, the film acknowledges the origins of this particular superhero as a propaganda icon and harshly critiques it. It's the kind of self-awareness and criticism largely absent in mainstream American cinema (Spiderman's flag waving, to mention one particularly cringey example), so it stands out as a particularly effective and entertaining interlude here. It's hardly in-depth social commentary, but such a curious take on our hero's history is only to be welcomed.

Elsewhere, it's largely superhero business as usual. An origin story at its heart, the film tells the stories of Steve Rodger's transformation from puny man-child to dashing superman through a process concocted by defected German scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and the brilliant but arrogant Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper playing a younger version of Iron Man's dad - he's not quite John Slattery, though). The film follows his progress as the one man army puts together a commando group of soldiers to try and defeat the evil Hydra, while also trying to win the trust of the strict, hard-to-please Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, in the same role he always plays). Getting the girl would be a plus.

The WW2 setting is certainly a strength and, like the Rocketeer, differentiates itself from director Joe Johnston's frequently bland filmography by having audio-visual character. The design of the machines, the fantastical retro technology and an endearingly exaggerated take on the war is compelling. At it's best, it recalls the classic Saturday afternoon matinees that Indiana Jones also channeled so well. But, like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it also embraces a few contemporary indulgences. When it actually comes to action, Captain America disappoints. Too many sequences rely on computer generation: a ziplining sequence is an unrealistic step too far. Not that this is ever realistic, but the otherwise impressive art design often feels at odds with the computer generated backgrounds and explosions. Considering the title character is for the most part a more grounded hero - super strength and physical characteristics as opposed to the more outlandish powers of the X, Spider or Supermen - it's a shame the action is subject to such excess. A sense of apathy certain invades during the increasingly explosive second and third acts.

Another failing of the technology is Steve Rodger's himself. For the first third of the film, Rodger's is shown as a scrawny but enthusiastic kid unfit for duty. Gone are the days where an actor would actually lose weight for a film (or indeed that directors would practically disguise an actor's physicality), so instead Evans' head is oddly superimposed on another's body. The illusion is fairly well disguised - except when he speaks. Evans' deep voice is at odds with this small body, and it's hard to believe this is a weak, asmatic individual. Only when he buffs up does his portrayal become more effective.

The central 1940s origin story does have one twist, though - it's all structured around the upcoming Avengers film. I won't spoil anything, but suffice to say there's quite a few hints about how the big crossover might play out (most obviously in a post credits teaser for the film). It goes some distance into creating a wider 'movieverse' in which all these superheroes exist - much more so than simply tacking on a Samuel L. Jackson cameo at the end (although that is present and correct). After a relatively bland parade of action sequences, the final few scenes of setup for 2012's extravaganza are welcome. It's a much better taster for Joss Whedon's film than the merely average Iron Man 2, which just felt like it was wasting time. It also helps in providing some unique and interesting backstory for Rodgers going forward, even if it seems unlikely we'll get another retro-themed Captain America film. This is a comic-book world after all - who knows what elaborate plot device they'll come up with?

All in all, Captain America is simply fun. Despite the presence of an excellent thespian cast (Toby Jones and Stanley Tucci definitely stand out as slumming it) it's all cheesy and very silly. And there's nothing wrong with that. The action is uninspiring for the most part, but some clever twists and subversions prop up an otherwise deeply formulaic and unoriginal film. It's a film that embraces, satirises and updates the legacy of an iconic hero. Even if the best bit is British.