Thursday, 30 December 2010

VALHALLA RISING


NICOLAS WINDING REFN
2009 - Denmark/UK




In some ways, “Valhalla Rising” feels like a debut from a director come from making experimental short films which have been successful due to a triumph of atmospherics hung upon an ambitious but thin story. Director Nicolas Winding Refn is in fact a Danish director that has a commendable list of films exploring male violence which are both naturalistic in characdterisation and given to stylistic tics: “Bleeder”, “Pusher” and its sequels, “Bronson”. “Valhalla Rising” is a superficially different beast, taking a Viking drama and conveying it through a fog of dour atmospherics and often pretty visuals; again, like a young director exceeding the limitations of budget by sheer aspiration and verve. And, like many student films, there is a certain uncertainty of performance, despite the experience of the cast, threatening to sabotage the illusion of a visit back through time. Viking dialogue - which is a chief weakness - is conveyed in low, undecided tones as opposed to what we might mostly be used to: those grand gestures and intonations of other historical epics. But, despite the visuals and the grand intentions of this journey into the heart of darkness, there is something in the space left around the dialogue that leaves it feeling weak and searching for a hold. Refn’s intention seems to be to produce a neo-realistic tone, but the performances seem un-buffered whenever dialogue is spoken. It feels adrift somewhere between Harmony Korine’s guerrilla aesthetic and Zack Snyder’s infamous “300” stylisation, with a reach for Werner Herzog and even Tarkovsky’s elemental fascination.
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Nevertheless, there is Mads Mikkelsen, who gives a wordless but magnetic performances that keeps the film grounded. Part ravaged hunk, part super-killing machine, an enslaved warrior robbed of one eye and his humanity. One-eye is kept caged and let out only to win fights: scarred up and seemingly forever on the verge of slaughtering anyone in front of him, initially his tale promises an study of the mystery and violence of this silent killing machine. The British Momentum Pictures promotional packaging uses cues familiar from Snyder’s “300”, giving the impression of a blood-soaked war epic with Mikkelsen leading a helmeted army, and none of which represents the film at all. Although “Valhalla Rising” is arguably just as stylised, it is far from the pulp absurdities of “300”. Almost all the gore and violence is up front in the film - including an unforgettable evisceration - for when One-Eye is free and we might presume a tale of extended wrath, he acquires a friendless boy (Maarten Stevenson) as a kind of spokesman and finds himself joined up with a small gang of crusading Christians. They are setting out to create a New Jerusalem - or rather, their apparent religious leader is and the others seem along for the promised treasures the conquered Holy Land will bring them.

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Then follows what may be, the gut-wrenching and bleak early passages aside, the film’s most successful sequence. The boat journey combines the elements of odyssey, otherworldiness, silence, naturalism and formal experimentation with pace, plotting and location that Refn otherwise struggles for elsewhere. Others may find this sequence interminable, for it is here that Refn goes from brooding, slow-paced doom with spasms of violence to a more dissonant sense of plot and increasingly abstract meaning. The claustrophobia of the boat is tangible, seemingly stranded in fog and undergoing a passage into another world as surely as the Bowman going through the light-show of “2001”.
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“Valhalla Rising” is an antidote to the bombast of so many other historical warrior epics. It is not grandiose like a Ridley Scott recreation; it’s visuals and beauty rely not upon set-design but the natural world, the foggy mountains and damp rock faces, the doomy and drained landscapes, accompanied by a heavily ambient soundtrack. It is a brief tale: gaining his freedom as a slave for fighting, One-Eye goes to hell, those around him find nothing and go to pieces, and he finally meets red Devils. It is a exercise in anti-climax, a heart of darkness that goes nowhere and probably signifies very little. Had Refn lost many of its modern stylistic affectations, it may have headed in the direction of, for example, “The Valley of the Bees” in recreating a long lost era in a realistic manner. Nevertheless, for all its flaws, “Valhalla Rising” remains a fascinating experiment throughout.

Monday, 27 December 2010

The Best Things I watched in 2010

An end of year list - of course! Here is a run down of the films that I found hit the mark with me, excelled, etc. Some are new, some are old... 25 favourites in no particular order:


  1. Where the Wild Things Are - (Spike Jonz, USA, 2009)
  2. The Road - (John Hillcoat, USA, 2009)
  3. A Prophet - (Jacques Audiard, France/Italy, 2009)
  4. Kick-Ass - (Matthew Vaughn, USA, 2010)
  5. A Serious Man - (Coen brothers, 2009, USA/UK/France)
  6. Afterschool - (Antonia Campos, USA, 2008)
  7. The House of the Devil - (Ti West, USA, 2009)
  8. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs - (Phil Lord & Chris Miller, 2009)
  9. Lake Tahoe - (Fernando Eimbcke, Meixco/Japan/USA, 2008)
  10. Do You Remember Dolly Bell? - (Emir Kusturica, Yugoslavia, 1981)
  11. Martyrs - (Pascal Laugier, France/Canada, 2008)
  12. Diamonds of the Night / Démanty noci - (Jan Nemec, Czechoslovackia, 1964)
  13. A Swedish Love Story / En kärlekshistoria - (Roy Andersson, Sweden, 1970)
  14. Valley of the Bees / Údolí vcel - (Frantisek Vlácil, Czechoslovackia, 1968)
  15. The Cremator / Spalovac mrtvol - (Juraj Herz, Czechoslovackia, 1969)
  16. Libero (Along the Ridge) / Anche libero va bene - (Kim Rossi Stuart, Italy, 2006)
  17. The Bridge / Die Brücke - (Bernhard Wicki, West Germany, 1959)
  18. Box (Three... Extremes) - (Takashi Miike, Japan, 2004)
  19. Picnic at Hanging Rock - (Peter Weir, Australia, 1975)
  20. Valerie and her week of wonders / Valerie a týden divu - (Jaromil Jires, Czechoslovachia, 1970)
  21. Barry Lyndon - (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1975)
  22. House of Voices / Santa Ange - (Pascal Laugier, France, 2004)
  23. Waltz With Bashir / Vals im Bashir - (Ari Folman, Israel (et al.), 2008)
  24. The White Ribbon / Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte - (Michael Haneke, 2008, Germany (et al.), 2009)
  25. Deadwood - (TV: all of it)

What have I learnt from this list? That I apparently discovered the Czech new wave in a big way and that I obviously think Pascal Laugier is one fine horror director.

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And ten more of note that I liked or found of note -

Scott Pilgrim Versus The World

We Are What We Are

Four Lions

La Antea

Life During Wartime

The Girl Next Door

In The Loop

Pontypool

Moon

My Way Home / Így jöttem

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And the worst that I saw this year... and yes, they are horror films.

The Unborn

Pirahna 3-D

Death Tunnel



Where The Wild Things Are


WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Spike Jonz, 2009, USA

A work of staggering furry near-genius.
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Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s much loved and brief book engages with the unnerving freedom and aggression of Max’s free-fall play from the very first minutes, as he chases the dog around the house, like a delirious hunter. The handheld camera follows and jumps around with him and the effect is dizzying, liberating, and just a bit scary. This opening and the following drama surrounding Max’s snow fort capture the ups and downs of play effortlessly ~ play makes you high and when it doesn’t go as you want it to, it’s throws you low. The magic of Jonze’s film is that it never, ever losing sight of the pell-mell violence behind rough-and-tumble play: at any minute, it might go horribly wrong.
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The dog is okay, but Max’s snow fort does not fare so well, and neither does his mother. In a tantrum of attention-seeking and jealousy, Max bites her and, apparently horrified at his own behaviour, sets out on his own odyssey from the house to sort himself out. Even the journey to the island of the Wild Things is fraught with peril: the waves threaten to toss his little boat and drown him. The dangers of Max’s world all seem very real and likely, all larger than life and exaggerated. Upon meeting the Wild Things, his friendship with them and Max’s hold on them by proclaiming himself a king always seems precariously ready to end up in something terrible due to any of their unpredictable mood-swings and penchant for aggressive play. The Wild Things themselves embody a whole host of difficult, affectionate and fraught relationships: immediate family; a gang of new friends; various facets of Max’s own personality. The Wild Thing Carol seems most to represent Max’s temper and destructiveness as well as an immature father-figure. Has a bunch of giant puppets ever been so dangerously temperamental and morose? They are all like Sesame Street muppets in need of therapy and anti-depressants. As special effects The Wild Things are a mixture of real costumes and CGI tweaking, and are remarkable and scary in their size and physicality. They smash, they wreck, they tear chunks out of trees, they throw one another around without sense of consequence.
 
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It is like a grunge film for pre-teens. The soundtrack by Karen O and the Kids amplifies this feeling: it surely won’t be to everyone’s taste but it’s an often jubilant, crash, strum and shout accompaniment that relates well to Max’s energy. The work of the voice actors, all seasoned professionals, is also exemplary: James Gandolfini especially uses his very nasally, snorty and sighing voice to excellent effect for Carol’s sulkiness. Jonz captures Max Records as Max at just the right moment, encouraging a wonderfully open, fluid performance. It is free from the brattishness and knowingness of so many trained American child performers. When he declares nonchalantly “I have no plans to eat anyone today,” it is irresistible. He throws both a great temper and confused remorse, both totally in thrall to and nervous of the monster-sized character traits around him. Max maybe isn’t the all-scowling tearaway of Sendak’s book, but he is a more fully rounded, conflicted, variable character: by turns needy, volatile, sweet, unthinkingly mean, et cetera. He is as dwarfed by the intimidating moods-wings, judgements and needs of the Wild Things as he is by his need to play and to be the kind and the centre of attention. Rarely does Jonz miss the child’s eye perspective and feel of his surroundings: even when the monsters bundle into a mountain on top of him, the dangerous claustrophobia is tangible and, wonderfully, Jonz turns the bundle into tunnels that Max crawls through. Just like a fort.

Jonz and Eggers draw a clear line between the troubling relationship between creativity and destructiveness: it is not mistake that Carol is the most artistic. Where does one end and the other begin? When does play become dangerous? Where does neediness end and selfishness take over? How, indeed, to find the compromise between all these things? In the end, Max has worked as much out as he can for himself and, as he leaves to go home and start over afresh and, we would hope, wiser and more controlled, all that is left is a gorgeous, plaintive, primal howl. Well, until Max goes home barking at the dogs in the yards. And he is still wearing the wolf suit. You have to stay yourself, after all.
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A farewell love letter to temper tantrums.
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A film for kids that treats a kid’s irrational temper with respect.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

TRON


Stephen Lisberger - 1982 - USA







Although I never actually saw “Tron” when it first came out, I was still mesmerised by its look. I was in possession of one of those novelisations, the movie tie-in, inevitably adapted by Alan Dean Foster, which was bisected by a few glossy pages of stills from the movie. It was from those stills that I discovered “Tron’s” distinct look; the luminous blues and reds mostly. Of course, when I finally saw “Tron” for the first time as an adult, I was instantaneously disappointed in the somewhat lukewarm script, and a story that had seemed so much more threatening in the captions beneath those book stills which implied dark corporate intrigue and gaming adventure. The actual film is a far frothier affair. “Tron” suffers from that weakness that undermines many a special effects extravaganzas: fascinating and original big sci-fi concepts and contexts given to a recourse to the flimsiest of storylines that draw from tired tropes and stock characters (from “Logan’s Run” to “Avatar”, etc.) . Yet the look remains sumptuous, timeless and fascinating. And not forgetting that, apart from the visual aesthetic, “Tron’s” greatest achievement is the possession of an all-time great action and sci-fi sequence with the legendary bike race.


Atari had barely made the promise of things to come when Tron created a world where the players become their virtual counterparts. Avatars and virtual identities allow us all that, perhaps without the cool glow-in-the-dark costumes and Frisbee hats, but also without the risk of being wiped out by a megalomaniac, demon-faced computer system. Critic John Brosnan probably misses the point in his taking the Tron to task for being illogical and unscientific:


True, video games are controlled by computer chips, but that is no reason to suggest that the internal workings of a computer would be visually analogous to those of a video game. [1]


Theres worth to this criticism, should you be looking for plausibility, but it bypasses the fact that, narratively, “Tron” draws far more from fantasy and fairy-tale conventions than from science-fiction: the lone warrior drawn into an alternative reality to defeat a seemingly omnipotent overlord; ‘magical’ weapons and steeds; an odyssey across an incredible otherworld - all these are the fantasy tropes that pulp science-fiction long ago adopted. They are the devices and props for the adventure and one would search in vain for “Tron” to be considered as hard science-fiction and the exploration of what science might give to us (as, say, “2001: a space odyssey” might). “Tron” barely skates the trite Good versus Evil dilemmas of the “Star Wars” franchise, and it is not overburden with ridiculous and vacuous philosophical affectations of the “Matrix” series, but the similarities of appearance between the real and virtual world does give “Tron” faint allegorical pretensions. Everything from inside the computer to the genuine cityscapes, and even the gliding point-of-view searching camera in the arcade, all share the same computer-game aesthetic. The world, Tron says with its overall look, is one big computer chip or grid, and were are but players and programmes, etc. It does at least give the sense that we are dwarfed not only by technology but also be the products of our imaginations, and entertainments. The danger of technology is also prevalent in the Master Computer MCP’s ambitions to take over the world and run it better than the humans, joining the ranks of megalomaniac computers such as those from “The Forbin Project” and “Demon Seed” and many, many others. The idea that computers (and robots, etc.) will achieve total sentience is another science-fiction fetish that in truth speaks more of human beings tendency to anthropomorphising the truly inhuman.


Brosnan goes on to berate the method that transforms players into their cyber-counterparts: a laser that allows the computer to store molecules and reassemble them into their original form. I doubt that any sci-fi kid worth his salt would truly buy this as probable in a second. Any kid knows this is pseudo-science, that it is a just techno-babbling means of allowing the real kick that Tron promises: the promise that, tomorrow!, we will be able to BE those characters in those fantastically virtual beautiful worlds of heroism and adventure, not to mentioned the unleashed Id (but we are a long way from the failing realities of “Videodrome”, “eXistenZ” and Philip K. Dick here). Were the creators of Tron really ignorant of the science or simply patronising the young audience, Brosnan asks? Well that audience knew exactly how Tron logic worked: it is the same Olympian magic that allows the Gods to animate giant steel statues, to transfer Chosen Ones from one world to the next, and, say, for E.T. to breathe Earth oxygen without trouble. For the thrill of hard, plausible science, you would have to look elsewhere.

The far more interesting question is what the hell Jeff Bridges is doing in there? He has one awesomely dated and unintentionally funny moment when he rolls into the arcade, fastest player in town, and then proceeds to kick ass on a game that runs at the speed of a tractor. If the internal world of Tron graphics still manages to seem somewhat ageless, this opening arcade sequence reminds us of how far the gaming and virtual world actual have come.

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Nevertheless, we do live in a world where Tron, the character, and all his associates and enemies, have had their own MySpaces. So do the characters of Back to the Future”, Childs Play and a whole bundle of other cult and classic films I havent even ventured to look up yet (I myself am friends with Mr. Barlow, for example.) The adoption and merging of real and pop culture identities, character transference, projection, the world of surrogates and avatars, must be enough to power a hundred university modules. Be friends with Tron and enjoy the groovy neon colours of his MySpace! ( and of course, MySpace itself seems increasingly retro and by the time you read this, it probably is, if not dead and gone.)

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What Disney thought it was investing in is baffling wait, no, what about all those tie-in Tron games? “Tron” was undoubtedly considered a children’s film. It was a new dawn, when films still inspired computer/arcade games as a rule and not vice versa and the crossover potential was still barely realised. The look and reality-jumping promises offered in Tron has far exceeded its malnourished concept and screenplay. Tron is like a great band with a weak front man. Even as the visuals try for subtext in presenting everything as a gamescape, the terrible pacing and exposition does its best to kill off elements such as suspense and brilliant reveals: e.g., we get to see the bikes before any kind of plot has even occurred so that the sequence mostly exits autonomously rather than driving narrative.

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What remains is that even after the meteoric development of special effects, not to mention CGI, the Tron design still remains pretty much unique. It looks like a silent black and white sci-fi, coloured in with fluorescent pen, which is again a clue to its agelessness: it looks as if it spans centuries of cinema, then and now, and in that way transcends the limitations and passé design of its proposed future look for game systems. Just look at the poster that heads this article: see the silent-screen clasp of the romantic interest; how old-fashioned it is and how it is projected into a vision of the future. And it is very pretty. An example of look overcoming content.


[1] (John Brosnan, The Primal Screen: a History of Science-Fiction Film, Orbit, Macdonald & Co, 1991, pg. 350)

Monday, 6 December 2010

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE






Jorge Michel Grau,
2010, Mexico




---- Although comparisons between films is often just a flip manner in which to cash in on another’s reputation, as well as critical shorthand, it is easy to see why “We are What we Are” has been dubbed the Mexican “Let The Right One In”. It’s because both films are interested in their protagonists’ emotional, home-baked relationship to the horror they are involved in: the horrors are tied to more mundane daily anxieties and barely repressed angers, alienation, poverty and needs. The concentration on the domestic is vital: one of the terrors of “We Are What We Are” is surely how bleak the household of our cannibal family is; how devoid of any culture other than ‘the ritual’, how blank the walls, how limited the family appears to be in experience. They apparently spend all their time sitting around brooding, doing nothing, squabbling, or preparing for the kill.


When their father drops dead from a poisoning in a shopping mall - the mall staff drag him away and wipe up after him: it’s a broad but nonetheless effective symbol of the disposability of the poor - the wife, two sons and daughter that he leaves behind are thrown into turmoil. Family dynamics become strained: a fight for dominance between the matriarch and the eldest son; the rivalry between the more thoughtful and empathic elder son and his younger sibling; the careful manipulations of the daughter/sister, who proves to be the real force behind the family in light of mother’s insanity and the brother’s volatile and insecure natures.


Later, the eldest son’s other secret surfaces: we follow him as he shadows an openly gay man and his friends to a club in perhaps the film’s best sequence, revealing a colourful, pounding, liberated world that he has barely ever seen. His first pursuit and taste of another identity seems to come as a revelation. Inevitably, allegiance to the family overrides all, and the general ineptitude and emotional issues of the family weakens their ability to keep a grip on things.


There is even a moment of pure farce when the eldest son brings his first victim home, only to find his mother already has one in the bed. Slowly, the violence increases and distresses and the gore comes full on. The film works on a slow burn: we have had a clue as to how abominable their practices are when the brothers first attempt and fail to kidnap a child, but by the end we are in no doubt how horrific their ritual actually is. If it all ends typically in grand guignol style, it is not surprising, probably needing to lay bare the awfulness of their oppressive lifestyle and cannibalism. Additionally, as if to drive home how the desperate become monster types, the local prostitutes seemingly become a gang of zombies, moving in upon the family to exact their own revenge. Elsewhere, the police are bumbling, boorish and given to slapstick.



“We Are What We Are” casts a bleak and blackly humorous world in grainy low-budget style that has seemed so suited to horror since the Roger Corman quickies, through “Night of the Living Dead” and “.Rec”. Grau's film is llikely to be a minor cult classic, and probably exactly the kind of thing getting commentators envisioning a new wave of Mexican horror. But it is focused, resting upon its broad tying-in of horror and poverty motifs, mounting dread and a number of fine set-pieces.