Tuesday, 30 December 2014

2014 favourites at the cinema



In 2013, I didn’t go to the cinema much, so it seemed redundant to do an end-of-year post. 2014 was different, I’m glad to say, so here’s my favourite seven in no particular order.

1.      Under the Skin
2.      Boyhood
3.      The Rover
4.      The Babadook
5.      Faults
6.      Nightcrawler
7.      The Raid 2


I went to Frightfest this year and although I only went for two days due to the online meltdown obtaining weekend passes. I saw 12 films over Saturday and Sunday and out of that, I’d say 10 had something of merit about them. Two were stand-outs: “The Babadook” and “Faults”. I only felt that “All Cheerleaders Die” by Lucky McKee and Robert Sivertson insulted the intelligence and Guy Pidgen’s “I Survived a Zombie Holocaust”, despite being sporadically amusing, went on too long until you couldn’t help notice that it wasn’t very good.

I’ve been happily surprised at the near-unanimous love Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” has been getting as it’s a proper horror film that doesn’t think that just being scary or gory is all a horror film can do. There is something genuinely dangerous about it and – despite some people thinking the final act is somehow a disappointment – it has an ending that is both logical and carries through on its initial promise. Since most horror fails somehow come its finale, that’s a relief.

Riley Stearns “Faults” is more a psychological horror, but seeing it in a horror context helps to enhance its sense of the uncanny, of something not being quite right. Mostly it has terrific performances, especially from Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as well a great opening scene.

 

Paul Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is a heady character study of Scarlett Johansson as an alien, trawling Scotland for victims. It’s like Jonathan Glazer took the first half of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” as his template and hasn’t watched a sci-fi blockbuster since. Intimate and trippy, this is the kind of genre flick that gets made too rarely.

 

Gareth Evan’s “The Raid 2” goes big whereas its predecessor was streamlined. The film may have to go looking for its fight scenes, but when they come they are superlative. We may be ready for them this time around but that doesn’t make them any less exciting and impressive.

 

 
 
“Boyhood” immediately stood as a cinematic milestone just for taking a single child actor and growing up with him and the other actors around him over twelve years. The fact that Richard Linklater crafts a casual bildungsroman from the material is remarkable: every time the film seems to approach the kind of dramatic input that other films would lap up, he goes on to something else. It rambles in the best sense and finds truths that your average biopic could only wish for. Rarely does a film transcend its own gimmick so artfully.

I had heard good things about David Michôd’s “The Rover” before seeing, but I knew it was my kind of thing within the first scene. Then Robert Pattinson turns up and delivers a performance that will surely leave naysayers wondering if really it’s the same actor that helmed the “Twilight” series. And that’s in a film brimming with good performances. This is the kind of film-making that says that not everything has to be spelt out all the time.
 
I went into Nightcrawler” knowing nothing but Jake Gyllenhaal was a sleazeball and that it was meant to be good. Apparently the trailer gives everything away, but it was all a surprise to me. By halfway through, I was chucking sardonically repeatedly and pretty sure I was watching one of my films of the year.

 
 
 


& runners up…

8.      We Are the Best” for leaving a big punky smile on my face.
9.      Locke” for being a great actor’s showpiece.
10.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes” because this is how you do mainstream effects showcases.
11.  Guardians of the Galaxy” for being a lot of fun where very little was expected.
12.  Maps to the Stars” for being Cronenberg-creepy and for some great performances.
13.  Boxtrolls” for being grimy and odd and funny.




And I will also mention…

The Drop”: exactly what you expect it to be, nothing more and nothing less.

Only Lovers Left Alive” doesn’t quite transcend its frequently bad dialogue, but the soundtrack and the vampires-for-hipsters vibe make up for a lot.

Godzilla” has moments of brilliance, and great monster moments, but too often follows its least interesting angle in search of emotional-connection-with-the-audience.

Interstellar” has emotional-connection-to-the-audience galore, which means its popular but, for me, its best stuff is in the middle section when they leave Earth: that’s where the real awe-inspiring material is.

The Wolf on Wall Street” was as good and as well-made as expected.

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies” was an improvement on the middle part of the trilogy and a fair ending after all, but not enough to match the heights of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy or quite enough to remind us why that was so ground-breaking.

“The Guest” made little sense and seemed to be just an ‘80s nostalgia vehicle: enjoyable for all that, I’m sure, but shallow, too smug and nonsensical.

 


Biggest disappointment goes to….
Mood Indigo” can’t even have a character walk down the street without something whacky happening. I am a Michel Gondry fan but couldn’t connect to this at all. I find it hard to subscribe to the idea of a woman dying of terminal illness as poetic. What might seem poignant as a music video becomes tiresome and shows its cracks at feature length.

Worst cinema visit:
Has to be when I saw “Maps to the Stars” and had to listen to people eating popcorn for at least its first two acts. And multiple times this year I left the cinema thinking: People do tend to talk through films, don’t they?

Best cinema visit:
Two days of Frightfest: whereas last year was inundated with mostly tedious found-footage or turgid mainstream stuff and the year before that was mostly full of rape, this year provided two days that made me realise that watching so many films with something to offer was just as tiring as watching a lot of crap and waiting for the gems to appear. You kind-of want the good stuff to soak in a bit before the next one… But gorging on brilliant or decent film is always pleasant, of course.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Salem's Lot

Tobe Hooper, 1979, USA


 
 
Adaptation of Stephen King’s novel has a small town gradually destroyed by vampires. Its deterioration is watched by typical King heroes: a successful novelist and a teenage horror fan. Central is the old Madsen house with a gruesome, haunted reputation and the arrival of antique dealer Straker and his employer Barlow. Overnight, the vampire is delivered to the quiet town in a crate and the deaths begin.

With two genre heavyweights at the helm with Stephen King and director Tobe Hooper, expectations were high for this adaptation. The general consensus amongst critics appears to be that King’s novel suffered from the limitations of television, but the novel was never particularly explicit in its horrors. It was more interested in the menace and weakening community. In this way, the TV film format seems ideal for King’s picket fence society threatened by the supernatural. The wide cast of secondary yet vividly drawn characters that populate King’s fiction often offer a soap-like backdrop, yet there may be something to Peter Nicholls’ accusation of David Soul being a “predictably wet bit of television casting.”1 It is up to James Mason to deliver the acting delights in a nicely ambiguous turn as Straker. And it is also true that the moments that crescendo to a freeze-frame might hint at CBS censorship more than subtlety. The same year, John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ created a similar community under supernatural threat horror, yet also demonstrated how a film may be both bloodless without compromising its violence too far.
 
Hooper’s ‘Salem’s Lot’, as Kim Newman has written, is a “respectable rather than devastating” adaptation that lives under the “baleful shadow of ‘Psycho’.”2 He identifies the more typically Hooperesque moment as that when a husband catches his wife and her lover and humiliates them with a shotgun. The feel here, with the over-boiled facial distress and violence implied by editing rather than by outcome, is certainly more akin to ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ than the rather plain direction elsewhere (don’t forget that ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ was relatively bloodless too). Nevertheless, there is enjoyment in its long running time and slow build-up of character and incident that is closer to the novel than the 112 minute film that was subsequently edited from the miniseries.
 
‘Salem Lot’s greatest improvement upon the novel is in its use of the Glick brother vampires. In the novel, what mostly happens off-stage and is known through dialogue exposition is here given an unforgettable visual rendition. The vampire boys float outside windows, scraping on the glass, demanding to be let in. It is perhaps the film’s most memorable and chilling image, although certainly not it’s only one. I remember as a young teenager watching ‘Salem’s Lot’ and being terrified, not only by the vampires-at-the-window moments, but also at the graveyard cliffhanger and the Mr Barlow reveal. I remember watching it a second time from behind a cushion because I knew it was going to be scary. Its ambience and shock moments certainly worked on me and I am sure this particular mini-series traumatised a generation of horror fans.

The film’s greatest deviation from the novel is in its conception of Barlow the vampire. Hooper has opted to make Barlow a homage to Max Shreck’s ‘Nosferatu’; he is no longer the pretentious, condescending orator of the book: Straker is now his mouthpiece. Barlow’s entrance is another unexpected shocker, but his appearance gains the story little more than monster-make up, but nevertheless a strong defining image. It is at its best when Barlow invades an ordinary domestic dinner scene.

In many ways, ‘Salem’s Lot’ is a successful King adaptation. Despite its TV conventions, ‘Salem’s Lot’ manages some rawness, black humour and shocks; it is at least scary and atmospheric and has aged better than the televised and fondly remembered version of ‘It’. It is a long way down from here to ‘The Lost Boys’. There is no vampire sub-genre deconstruction as in Romero’s ‘Martin’, but ‘Salem’s Lot’s greatest strength is in allowing the vampires the greater visual set-ups and juxtapositioning them against the otherwise naturalistic framing. Vampires sitting in rocking chairs and coming to life on autopsy tables will still provide the delights for genre fans.
 

*

·        - Larry Cohen made A Return to Salem’s Lot, another television horror in 1987, but its relationship to the original novel and film was highly tenuous.
 
·        - Stephen King’s anthology ‘Night Shift’ contains a short story that vaguely follows up ‘Salem’s Lot’ called ‘One for the Road’. Typical of the collection, it is a slight, only mildly satisfying short.

*


[1]               Peter Nicholls,  Fantastic Cinema: an illustrated survey, (Ebury Press, London, 1984) pg. 145.
2               Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies: a critical guide to contemporary horror films, (Harmony Books, New York, 1988) pg. 54.

 

Sunday, 14 December 2014

"Nightcrawler"

Dan Gilroy, 2014, US




Or the American Dream is for assholes. Something like that. This could be seen on a double-bill with Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”.

Jake Gyllenhall as Louis Bloom is a slime-ball: not particularly likeable but he knows the right things to say when he needs to. He is not a cool guy, but he can spin a tale that makes him sound more important than he actually is; he knows how to spin and he knows how to use his leverage. He’ll use this rather than genuine friendship and he’ll do what it takes to get ahead. He’s a true sociopath, in fact. It’s a blistering performance by Gyllenhall, a career best. By the time he is word-bullying TV executive Nina (Rene Russo) for sex, you can hear in the script why some consider this the best film of the year. Writer-Director Dan Gilroy’s script positively throbs with sardonic black humour. It’s not a comedy but, like a horror, you might find yourself chuckling at Gyllenhall’s outrageousness.

Louis Bloom has nothing: no back story, nothing to fix him in place, nothing to lose. He is a blank slate looking for his chance, for his business opportunity, which he finds when he stumbles upon a film crew filming a car crash and realises that he can do that. 

Chris Cabin notes the moments where Louis Bloom moves a corpse so it is more photogenic and, of course, there is the moment where Bloom walks around a fresh murder site to film it in the most cinematic way possible. Bloom himself states that doing so is crucial. Cabin rightfully prods at this as the point where the film associates Bloom with the film director’s trade: always making murder and death look at their most filmable. Perhaps ‘staged’ is a better term: the giallo genre thrives on this. Cabin takes on Gilroy:

“Sadly, he doesn't develop this deeply alluring aspect of his narrative. Instead, he takes the moral high ground via Ahmed's conflicted character, and in a final twist, provides a shallowly cynical condemnation of the press that reveals a pointed preference for banal pessimism over further exploration of how his own profession thrives off of illicit, even sexy images of murder, pain, and blood”

But I don’t think that is the film that “Nightcrawler” is: it has far more to do with the aforementioned “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Cheap Tricks” than it does the films that directly accuse the audience, like “Funny Games” or “Peeping Tom. The other criticism is that “Nightcrawler” chooses easy and old targets, but as “car crash TV” is currently flourishing, I don’t believe this holds for long. Besides, I saw “Nightcrawler” as far more allegorical and that the world of TV was just one facet of a larger satire. I don’t even think it is subtext: like “Killing them Softly” or “Map to the Stars”, the intent is on top. This is about how those without scruples make business successes. It’s about what people will do to make money.

But “Nightcrawler” is also an excellent character study about a man who is able to go that extra moral-less inch to get what he wants: cash and power. The American capitalist dream is, here, that you will stumble upon a car crash and find away to exploit it; but you must be the one to go and to do what others will not. There is nothing Louis Bloom will not do to achieve his goal: that’s the American Dream right there. At the end, he has taken his chances and is on his way up, through the loopholes.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

"Down by Law"



Jim Jarmusch, 1986, b/w, US
 
This year, Joe Sangre and I saw Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film “Only Lovers Left Alive”, and we liked it but we decided that there was something about Jarmusch’s aesthetic that left the actors looking bad. Was it the dialogue where the vampires couldn’t last a scene without referencing how they had met some renowned artist in history? The final image showed that Jarmusch could do Horror if he wanted to. Perhaps he is least successful when trying to be clever and poignant? Perhaps he was unaware that vampires meeting Famous People In History is a stale Horror conceit, although having high art the domain of hipster vampires was a decent gag. The film is most successful when just travelling around deserted streets in a car, or poking its camera through a bar door to listen to a deliciously haunting singer.

 
Perhaps that is why his early feature “Down by Law” works so well: it just rambles, and therein lies its magic and realism. I don’t mean that anyone would mistake the compositions and atmosphere for realism, but the sprawling and open-ended agenda feels akin to the unresolved relationships and dramas of life. “Down by Law” certainly feels bluesy and jazzy, loose-limbed and funny because people are naturally funny, but it’s also true whenever Roberto Benigni turns up citing from his book of English the film is a full blown comedy, not just an amusing slice-of-life tale about three guys thrown together in a cell that make a jailbreak. I have seen “Down by Law” many times and it always exists in my memory as a scratchy, pock-marked feature, as amateurish as it is sublime in its modesty. But watching the blemish-free Critereon edition reveals not only gorgeous black-and-white but that perhaps I misremembered the amateurish elements and that in fact Tom Waits and John Laurie’s performances are equally as strong as Benigni: Waits is deadpan but no less funny in a different manner and Lurie holds his own as the straight man. They know that Benigni is there to steal the show – that’s his character, after all – but the film is no weaker in Benigni’s absence. It’s the other characters that stop this from being just a funny film, because “Down by Law” is so much more. Like Malle’s “Lift to the Scaffold”, “Down by Law” seems to capture that blues and jazz mood, that sense of life as a series of coincidences and small dramas that remain relevant to maybe two or three people. But that’s all. It is the smallness and the ellipses that the truth of life comes through.

There is indeed something appealing in the scratched-and-warped vinyl feel of the well-used prints I’ve seen before, but the Critereon print shows “Down by Law” in its best light yet.

"Black Water"


 
| David Nurlich & Andrew Taruk, 2007, Australia, 90m
 
Excellent streamlined killer crocodile horror. Amazingly, directors David Nurlich and Andrew Taruk decide that crocodiles are terrifying on their own: you don’t need them supersized, mutated or CGI-ed. And you don’t need them to be seen all the time either: that old adage that what you can’t see and what you imagine is scarier than what you do see. Our fated protagonists are a couple with a sister in tow who jump in a boat and let the guide take them way, way out into the Australian rivers. Before there has been any time to set-up, the crocodile has attacked and our protagonists are stuck up the winding, brittle looking trees. Two thirds of the film is what they do when trying to escape out of those trees. As writers, Taruk and Nurlich don’t try to be too fancy with characterisation: in fact, these may well be some of the most average and relatable characters ever put in a b-movie. Oh, I am sure there are those who would want something showier, but the ordinariness of our imperilled characters strikes me as exactly the winning presentation. It is easy to care about them without having to treat them as heightened archetypes.

This is a prime example of a low budget film using its limitations and restrictions to its advantage. It sets up a near impossible scenario and doesn’t cop out with easy solutions and implausible behaviour. In fact, what truly makes “Black Water” stand out is the convincing mental shifts, the deterioration and the resourcefulness of our characters. It is properly concerned with terror, but also the effects of it; for example, the women’s initial denial of what needs to be done, then their growing courage out of necessity without any recourse to obvious heroics. The ending is unusually bold in deploying the more mundane and heartbreaking effects of experiencing such horror on a person.

The show pieces are vivid: the most beautiful being the electric storm at night. More importantly, the reveals and appearances of the croc are all chilling (slowly coming into view) or terrifying (the fast attacks). Nurlich and Taruk also don’t overexpose the croc and execute brilliant and brief digital trickery to put it at the scene  leading to a finale that doesn’t rely upon a big grand showdown, but rather simply relying upon the frighteningly intimacy of an attack.
 
 

Sunday, 26 October 2014

"The Way, Way Back"


 
Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, 2013, USA

 
Trailers seems to do the films they are promoting no favours, mostly. They offer up the cliché moments as touchstones so that the audience knows what it’s getting into, which has the effect of either (a) giving too much away, and/or (b) misrepresenting the film at hand. Take the modest, unsurprising but appealing coming-of-age film “The Way, Way Back”: the trailer tends towards something that’s more “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” when the actual film is a little more subtle than that. For example, in the trailer Sam Rockwell is just the funny motormouth archetype – he plays Owen, a manager at Water Wizz waterpark – but he is a little more nuanced in the film so the trailer does no justice to his character or performance. Note how he puts himself between Steve Carrell’s condescending boyfriend and the somewhat shy son-figure Duncan (Liam James), a moment that implies backstory without having to spell things out.

Where Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s “The Way, Way Back” is interesting is in its vision of a job being a place where the kid Duncan can process his meekness and relationships with older people. The first job is often a neglected topic in cinema, especially when considering how many coming-of-age films there are, and there are fewer that explore the workplace as a space that is positive for social development. One can go to “Deep End” for how hormonal and confusing a first job may be, or “Import/Export” for how hellish work can be in general, but “The Way Way Back” makes work a positive experience. Duncan makes the waterpark his own and comes out of his shell without becoming a tiresome extrovert.

The film has a fair amount of coming-of-age clichés – there is some pathetic phallacy and a losing-your-swimming-shorts moment, for example – but it seems to skate through them so that they aren’t laboured, as if it wants to do something else but doesn’t quite know how to. Likewise, the misogyny of the guys at the top of the waterslide making the women stand there just a minute longer so the feminine form can be ogled lacks the voice of female characterisation elsewhere: it jars against the respect shown elsewhere.

Nevertheless, it’s amusing, undemanding entertainment. Faxon and Rash’s script is sparky and subtle enough as a tale of people coming out of their shells, teenagers and adults alike, and left open-ended enough that it doesn’t insult the intelligence. It is also a film steeped in the smallness of the world, leaving the dead-end properties of Water Wizz waterpark implied (for example, perhaps it one of the few places where Owen can get away with his schtick): life is what you make it, the film says, but never quite beats the audience over the head with this message, for its other theme is we are what we are. We may be left wondering how Trent will save the relationship with Duncan’s mother (probably he’ll pull some boorish, patriarchal bullshit out of the hat), but this is the tale of how Duncan found some confidence at a summer job.

Friday, 24 October 2014

"Crack in the World"



"Crack in the World", Andrew Marton, 1965, USA

Old-fashioned disaster flick with aging, cancer-ridden, over-ambitious scientist Dana Andrew’s plans to tap the Earth’s core for power resulting in the movie’s title. Desperate and deluded scientist Andrews foolishly still competes for his wife with a younger, equally ambitious ex-student Moore. The global crack runs parallel not only with his disease, but with these domestic troubles: personal and external frictions and frissures finally meet head-on so that the old man’s suppressed rage and cancer explode, sending his soul/life/delusions/guilt etc. spiralling into orbit as a serene second moon.

          Ludicrous End of the World films have always enjoyed an eager audience keen to assuage their fear of headlines, hysterical and otherwise. Talky but lively, the cast try to give “Crack in the World” some emotional gravitas while dealing with science and disaster that, even to a layman, are self-evidently unconvincing. Namely, the end of the world as we know it surely would have arrived half-way through the running time. But the second-moon born in a new burning red world is a fair act of bravado and, finally, the implausibility of it all doesn’t quite hinder decent number of dramatic and special effects.

"Chopping Mall"

 
"Chopping Mall", Jim Winorski, 1986

Starting decently enough with a mock-commercial for security robots, preceding “Robocop” by a year, “Killbots” otherwise known as “Chopping Mall” soon descends into ‘80s campy fun and that is all. These new security robots get a taste for killing people when their rooftop computer gets zapped by lightening (!). They also acquire the ability to: (1) be sneaky by hiding here and there; (2) pretend to be turned off when they are really getting ready to kill; (3) go up escalators even though they move on big treads; (4) find our partying teenagers wherever they run throughout the mall. The teenagers that foolishly stay in the mall after hours for some sexy time are the kinds that do nothing for the prejudice that Americans are stupid as a culture. They mostly go about getting themselves killed and reacting in ridiculous manners. It’s the kind of film where you find yourself saying things like: (1) “Wait, the robots can hide bodies? (2) “Wait, how did the robot open those doors?” (3) “Wait, they have lasers now?” And all in the same scene.

 
Mostly logic free and coasting on its camp qualities, “Chopping Mall” offers one impressive breast-bearing followed by an exploding head, but then all it has, from this distance, is ‘80s nostalgia value. The shopping mall makes for an interesting “house of horror” – as it did in Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” – but the robots delightfully clash with the retro-vibe and provide a lot of humour, intentional and otherwise. The credits sequence establishing the mall itself may be the most lingering and pleasurable moment it has.    

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Godzilla (2014)


Gareth Edwards, 2014, USA - Japan



 

What to do when a film is half good? For example, the parts of “Godzilla” 2014 that work are the stuff to do with Bryan Cranston and the monsters, but the parts with Aaron Taylor-Johnson don’t so work so well. The trailers were great – and as a general rule I don’t like most trailers - and this Godzilla promised so much when it was disclosed that it was to be helmed by the director of “Monsters”, Gareth Edwards. “Monsters” was like the “Before Sunrise” of creature features in that it focused primarily on a couple discovering love on the wrong side of an alien infestation. In fact its crossing-the-border drama made it more understated and equally successful in the social commentary stakes than Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” and “Elysium”. But “Monsters” was interested in real people whereas “Godzilla” offers only Hollywood types: a good-looking stoic lead whose story intertwines with the rise of the Kaiju, but the story is based upon three-act clichés that ask us to relate to a somewhat two-dimensional lead character. The interesting actors are killed off early – Cranston won’t make it to the second act, no matter what the trailers may promise, and Julette Binoche is just a cameo – and we are left with under-written characters. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the film didn’t invest so much in the “human story”, but what this means is caring for the lead character at the expense of the presumably hundreds upon hundreds of faceless dead. So what you end up saying is The parts with Godzilla are good and the parts with Aaron Johnson-Smith are bad.   

 

The Godzilla stuff is what the audience comes for, of course, and this Godzilla certainly looks the part. The highlights: the sky-dive; Godzilla’s back lighting up; Godzilla blasting his death-ray down a MUTO’s throat. Oh, and Godzilla screaming into the audience. CGI has come a long way since “Jurassic Park” and when it’s used well it can be impressive: filming everything through the fog of destruction helps the effects a great deal, just as having the apes actors on set as much as possible helped “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”. These two CGI extravaganzas are both impressive on a technical level but both share the weakness of a somewhat obvious script and thinness of human dramatics: but “Apes” overcomes because it focuses on the ape dramatics and its weaknesses, for the most part, are secondary whereas in “Godzilla” the insistence on the human element – which worked so well for “Monsters” – only goes to show how hackneyed the human element is.

 

Let’s not forget how gloriously daft most of the Godzilla sequels are anyhow, and how feeble the characters have always been, but that’s no excuse. Everyone is unanimous that Roland Emmerich’s 1998 “Godzilla” was terrible but Edwards’ reboot isn’t terrible, just half good, which means half the audience disliked it. It’s proven a divisive film. So what can you do? Lower your expectations and enjoy the monster show, perhaps. Edwards takes his time but the teases are excellent and the monsters and the destruction they cause are indeed spectacular. It’s not the ultimate monster narrative we wanted because the story does nothing to elevate the material, but for monster action it shows that CGI can now deliver on its promise and Godzilla has probably never looked so realistic.

 
 

"Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth" (1992)

“Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth”
“Mosura tai Gojora”
Takao Okawara, 1992, Japan

 
Meteorite falls on Earth and wakes up Godzilla and Battra. Meanwhile, in Indiana Jones land, treasure hunter Takuya Fujito gets involved in a Government investigation of various ecological disturbances around the meteorite. Battra destroys city. Fujito and others discover Mothra’s egg and as they take it home for some unethical company, Godzilla, Mothra and Battra have a fight, setting off all kinds of volcanic activity. Mothra’s tiny fairy-like guardians, the Cosmos, are kidnapped. Mothra levels Tokyo to check up on them and then Mothra changes from unconvincing caterpillar into unconvincing fluffy moth thing and fights now airborne Battra. Godzilla joins in. Battra turns good and helps fight Godzilla.
 
 
   With a plot surely made up as it went along, propelled by nothing more than someone gasping “Godzilla!” and then there he is, it’s up to the showdowns to save the whole enterprise. Subplots drop away and characters with typically bad dialogue (and dubbing) become nothing more than ringside spectators heckling the monster fights. The fights here are less wrestling than laser beams and it has to be said that “Godzilla vs Mothra” provides quite a light-show. Some moments such as Mothra cocooning the Capital Building are bizarrely pretty, shot as if they were gorgeous epics. The scenes of the city being trashed and refugees fleeing are closer to the original “Godzilla” than the late Seventies jokey efforts, but the series latterly moves into ecological rather than nuclear warnings. Although Godzilla remains a startling signifier of man-made holocaust, the plots aren’t strong enough to uphold the original message.
 
 
So it’s up to the monsters. Battra is a vast spiky improvement upon the Mothra design; a mole-moth-rhino of sorts. Godzilla is in his oddly cat-like phase with barely a jaw to jutt. Forget the humans; enjoy the light-show and mass destruction. 

"Godzilla vs Hedorah" (1971)


"Gojira tai Hedora"

"Godzilla vs the Smog Monster"
Yoshimitsu Banno, 1971, Japan

 
A truly bizarre film with almost everything thrown into the mix – psychedilic visuals and musical interludes, animation (not quite Pink Floyd – The Wall, though), stop-animation, kiddie-movie, anti-pollution warning, multiple screens, etc. None of this enlivens the sluggish pace, dull dialogue and ~ catastrophically ~ mundane fight-scenes between Hedorah and Godzilla himself. In fact, Godzilla is almost incidental as the creature made of sludge and pollution, Hedorah, runs amok. It shits, pukes and gases out over people, sometimes dissolving them into skeletons. Hedorah itself is a truly repellent and silly creation, but the script labours under the destruction-of-nature message. A tropical fish tank represents pure oceans, but even that succumbs. Once, just having Godzilla lay waste to Japan was enough to conjure hints of atomic bombs and mass-disaster but the Earth faces pollution monsters too.

            This eleventh Godzilla installment begins with a bizarre opening number, a psychedelic theme, a cross between a James Bond credits sequence with lyrics listing elements polluting our world. Next thing, it’s a children’s “Save the Earth” monster flick with a tadpole turd-like Hedorah and pauses for science lessons. Half atrocious, half spellbindingly odd ~ who knows what they were thinking? Most resonant moment has Godzilla being buried under an ocean of sludge. 
 
 
 

 

"Godzilla vs Mothra" (1964)


Mosura tai Gojora
Ishirô Honda, 1964, Japan



Fourth, somewhat lackluster entry into the Godzilla series. Giant Mothra egg is found and is immediately accosted by unscrupulous company that want to exploit it. The miniature Mothra guardians, the Peanuts Twins, plead with the human race to return the egg, but the businessmen are too busy building a theme park around it. All this is quickly swept aside when Godzilla, disturbed by some atomic tomfoolery again, rises up out of a muddy wasteland – which makes a change from his usual aquatic entrances. Mothra is persuaded to stop Godzilla’s rampage before dying of natural causes and making way for the  contents of the egg, which turn out to be twins.
 
            Since the human ingredient and plots in these sequels give daytime soaps a sophisticated feel, the films mostly fall and stand on the monster, the fights and the destruction. “Godzilla vs Mothra” delivers only sundry efforts in these departments. Godzilla looks as if he has bushy eyebrows. The bad guys over-act like “Thunderbirds” puppets. The good guys barely register. Plastic model tanks melt. As with all Mothra films, the action pauses for musical interludes from the Peanuts Twins and friends. The element of children is introduced, if briefly, paving way for the more kid-orientated sequels and, inevitably, “Godzilla vs Hedorah”. It is always funny to watch something so awesome and primal as Godzilla fight a monster as crap as Mothra. The giant lizard puts up a disappointing fight against the overgrown moth and its twins who, in their larvae stage, simply squirt Godzilla with sticky stuff until he falls into the ocean. Until next time.    
 
 

Saturday, 2 August 2014

"Bangkok Dangerous"



Oxide PangDun & Danny Pang
2000, Thailand



Actually, there isn’t too much “dangerous” in the Pang brothers’ soft-centred hit-man tale. Oh, plenty of blood and shooting, but nothing that will trouble or tax the genre. The excess is all in the aesthetic and tricks with which the Pangs overwrite every scene: they cannot film someone washing their face in a sink without multiple cuts to a turning of the faucet. Filters colour everything, every action affected in some filmmaking tic, nothing left to breathe on its own. The film chokes on its own style, but it isn’t necessarily stylish: its action scenes edited to such an extreme that they are often whittled down to incomprehensibility; the doomed romaniticism is saddled with childish scripting so that they whole things ends up being something like a teenagers playing at gangsters playing in funky clothes. But back to style: it does not have the genre savvy or let’s-screw-with-this attitude of Takashi Miike; it is not a film that could ever achieve the elegance of  Wong Kar-Wai, no matter how hard it uses colour and changes film stock. But if you have come for style-over-substance, there is that.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

"Locke" and mistakes as meltdown.

LOCKE

Steven Knight, 2014, UK-USA

 
But from tales of youngfemale assertion to the life meltdown of a man. Effectively it is Tom Hardy as a construction manager in a car, on the English motorway, trying to stage-manage and salvage his life through the very modern means of hands-free phone calls. By all accounts, he is a very trustworthy and successful family man and construction manager, but…

Director Steven Knight overcomes any pretensions and limitations that its high-concept premise may have with a lucid, thoroughly engaging script. It is in effect a one-act play/radio drama that simply allows Hardy to do his thing whilst employing motorway lights and dissolves to create a naturally, faintly trippy atmosphere. So organic and convincing are the conversations we hear that the contrivances take a while to become obvious: Ivan Locke fights to ensure the foundations of a building are being laid in his absence whilst his family life is simultaneously falling down around him due to a fleeting infidelity which has him deserting everything in an attempt to do the right thing. Since it is one face we see for the entire running time, there needs be an actor that can effortlessly command his space and Tom Hardy is definitely up for the job, supported by an exceptional supporting voice cast. That he is as far from his “Bronson” persona as he can probably get makes him more fascinating: can you do good when you’ve done bad?

Arguably, “Locke” offers a bleak worldview where mistakes are not to be forgiven, where one wrong foundation, one wrong ingredient in the mix will mean reconciliation is not possible. Are we to agree that Locke – an ostensibly decent man – is deserving of almost complete estrangement due to his infidelity? And surely saying “no” is not endorsing that infidelity but without the room to further explore the complexities and ongoing changes or lack-of-change in the family crisis, there is an aftertaste of meanness. The tale implies that mistakes can’t afford to be made, but surely the film is equally arguing that good people will stumble and blunder and, ultimately, act human. For Locke, he discovers that his sills in reliability and negotiation will not resolve everything, no matter that he carries the philosophy that any crisis can be made good with effort and by doing the right thing. The film gets to the frailty of things but all the grey areas leave our flawed protagonist out on his own.




WhereSpring Breakers” and “We Are The Best” present young women aching to discover and assert themselves, “Locke” presents a man discovering that he is not quite who he hoped to be. “We Are The Best” offers that growing up is as quietly as fun and surprising as it is difficult and painful; “Spring Breakers” offers self-discovers as envisioned by a rudderless, immature youth pop-culture; “Locke” suggests that all your good work can be undone at any given moment, just given a key mistake made.

"Spring Breakers" and cluelessness as a trippy thing.

SPRING BREAKERS

Harmony Korine, 2012, USA


Certainly, the rounded and engaging girls of “We Are The Best” make the bad girls gone bad of Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” look ridiculous, wafer-thin and inane. They start off with a similar sufferance and disillusion of their surroundings and schooldays. These are the privileged class but nevertheless unhappy with not having more and not being able to do just what they like. And so they rob a restaurant with water-pistols, acting like gangster-girls, and head off to Spring Break to discover themselves. Indeed, they mutter on voice-overs about such discoveries and that they are amongst the sweetest people, the best friends ever and that this is a paradise realised: but the truth in the visuals is that they are simply getting drunk, taking drugs, taking off their tops a lot, indulging in indulgence and orgies and hi-energy music. Their vision is vacuous and limited and absurd. It leads nowhere and they offer nothing but their own vacuity. Inevitably, it would seem, this escalates into the pose and debauchery of dressing up in nothing but bikinis, guns and Pussy Riot bunny-masks and going on a killing spree (it’s like the psychedelic MTV-minded wet-dream of “Gummo”’s bunny-boy).

The shallowness is part of the point; there is satire here of a privileged generation stoked up on music-video crime fantasies, pop-culture pose and dressing-up (or lack of), of particularly American fantasies and aspiration of youthful excess. In fact, it is no less deep than “Tree of Life’s” cosmic and domestic musings, and like Malick’s film, “Spring Breakers” strength is as a visual piece, the visuals transcending and giving meaning and life to the limits of the script and meaning. Through neon colours, temporal scrambling, an ever-drifting camera and repetitious phrases on the voice-overs, a psychedelic and dreamy rhythm builds up, making the film seductive as an ambient mood-piece.

Korine’s greatest letdown is in failing the girls of his film: that they are barely characters at all and that their friendship is all the gestures of friendships without substance all becomes very clear when James Franco turns up and steals the show from under them. Franco’s performance has been rightly celebrated and he certainly offers a fine depiction of a shallow, ridiculous character; someone who believes the tokens of what is supposedly the gangster lifestyle maketh the man. Oh, there is no mistaking that these girls are his soul mates … although surprisingly, when a couple of the girls just want to go home, that’s what they do. He isn’t mean, cruel or sexually sadistic, but he is the only fleshed-out character in this bikini-kill fantasia: he takes over the voice-over and by the end the girls don’t even have that to convey the discrepancies between what we hear and what we are seeing. This also leave the satirical edge all dried up long before the end. They have one potentially game-changing scene where they turn the tables on him half-way through his boasting, gunplay and foreplay, but this proves not be a twist in the tale where they reclaim their story but a bonding exercise.

But still, the visuals cascade and blur and push for a genuine pop-fantasia. Had “Spring Breakers” kept focus the girls and given them their due, it could have been similar to one of Lana del Rey’s pop-tales of messed-up girls falling for a life of crime, thinking it’s all part of being cool. As it is, it leaves them nowhere as more-or-less gun-toting nobodies.

Nevertheless, it’s still quite a trip through a very minor crime story. If one gives in to the visuals then Korine emerges as a pop-director who has filtered the nihilism of the MTV generation into perhaps his most accessible mash-up yet.

"We Are the Best" and punk as the sweetest thing.


By chance, I happened to see “Spring Breakers”, “We Are the Best” and “Locke” consecutively and each seemed to say something about the other in comparison.  

WE ARE THE BEST

 "Vi är bäst!"

Lukas Moodyson, 2013, Sweden

 

In tales of “good girls gone bad”, as it were, “We Are The Best” proves a delightful and modest tale of growing up for three Swedish teenage girls forming punk band in the early Eighties. It is not so much coming-of-age, which perhaps implies some lesson learnt, but more just growing up and trying to get noticed, make your mark, have friends, have fun and trying to assert your identity. The young women in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” dive into a world of hedonism trying to find themselves, trying to work out who they are: the just-teen girls of Moodyson’s “We Are The Best” seem to already know who they are, but just need to work out the world around them with that information in mind. Bobo is shy but also aware and quietly as sure of herself and as playfully rebellious as her outspoken, politicised best friend Klara (Mira Glosin). These are punk-posing kids, but they aren’t mean or stupid. They’re just bored of the hypocrisies they see in the adult world around them and just want to push back a bit and have a good time: punk happens to be the language and medium that they use.

So, fed up with onset of crap disco and new wave around them, as well as being told that they are ugly, the girls hilariously blag themselves some rehearsal space at the expense of the local prog-rock band just to get back at them and to shake things up. And so, inadvertently, they find themselves in a band. They have no skill but lots of attitude and they know what they don’t like, all good for inventing a punk band from nothing. And what they don’t like is gym class, so they have quickly put together an anti-sport, anti-mainstream song. But they can’t play, so they cheerfully set about befriending and recruiting quiet Christian girl Hedvig because she can actually play guitar. Of course, her Christianity is totally against what Klara and Bobo are against – being the apparent home of conformity and conservatism – but it doesn’t stop her joining the band and turning punkish herself. Indeed, perhaps the most moving moment in this joyfully rambling and naturalistic film is when Bobo and Klara begin to properly learn how to play their first proper notes and start to hear their anti-sport song coming together, or their simple realisation that changing a lyric can improve a song. Oh, they aren’t interested in any craftsmanship, but anyone who creates art can surely take delight in these adorable girls taking their first proper steps as artists of some sort. The conversion of their boredom and general teenage disaffection into music is a fantastic act of development and personal growth.

The film may be a soft-natured affair, but its strength is a nuanced and unfussy respect for offhand humour, for the teenage condition and the growth of an artist and friendships between three girls. It falls into light but mature tales of growing up such as “My Life as a Dog” and “Boy” and “Ake and his World”, but also spiced with the rebellion of music. Based upon the graphic novel by Moodyson’s wife Coco, it is a more convincing confection than the contrived miseries of his “Lilya4ever”. There will be many particular Swedish jokes and details that will be missed by non-Swedes, but it has plenty of material recognised to anyone who has been an outsider kid. Never once does the film let itself talk down to these kids by circumscribing their innate maturity and goofiness with cheap drama: this is just their friendship and they learn perhaps nothing more than how to play a song to piss off people and then to act up a lot over the end credits. These are good girls going not so much bad but punking around for fun and to go against the grain.

For comparison, look at Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers".