Sunday, 26 June 2011


Here I go again; breaking the first two rules of Fight Club!

Fight Club opens with a pounding, fast-paced, Dust Brothers-scored, computer-generated ride through the protagonist’s brain. It sets off at a terrific pace and rarely lets up.
So much of this film feels, if not experimental, then at least bold, daring, challenging and thought-provoking, in terms of its visuals, its structure and its themes.

Utilizing a circular narrative structure, the voiceover is used to guide the viewer through the story. The postmodern and sardonic drawl of Norton’s voiceover demonstrates his awareness of being in a film, even stopping the progress of the story and skipping to an earlier scene to ‘back up a little’.

I love Fight Club’s visuals because they are dazzling. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and director David Fincher pull off a dark and dirty film shot with bold visual ideas that look like they cost the earth. The pioneering and stunning use of photogrammetry combines live action with computer-generated imagery in several amazing sequences such as the camera pulling out of the bin full of rubbish and the camera whizzing down a building, into the building’s car park, into a van filled with explosives and then whizzing through the streets to another building’s explosive-filled car park all in a matter of seconds.

The film is full of incredible visual effects from the plane crash to the self-inflicted shooting of the protagonist. But it is the experimental elements that are the most eye-catching and memorable. Subliminal frames of Tyler Durden being spliced in to the early scenes of the film, the flash of a single frame of porn at the end, the visible sprocket holes as Tyler addresses the camera and almost seems to be leaping from the film itself all combine in making Fight Club a film that violently breaks free of Hollywood’s restrictive visual conventions.

Accusations of style over substance are unfounded as the film is full of ideas and many of its visual flourishes serve the story and develop the ideas of the film in interesting and creative ways. It may not have answers, but it is filled with food for thought.

Released in 1999, after a delay due to the recent Columbine High School massacre, Fight Club divided critical opinion. Presciently referencing the massacre in its scene where Norton threatens his boss with a similar rampage, the film is also an eerie premonition of 9/11 with its final scene of the destruction of capitalist towers of power (by a group of indoctrinated young men) and repeated references to ‘Ground Zero’.

Like another 1999 film ‘The Sixth Sense’, much was said about Fight Club’s rug-pulling twist. It’s a shame as this is such a small reason to discuss the film. However it does make for fulfilling repeat viewings of the film spent spotting its liberal peppering of hints throughout. The narrative does not fit easily into a genre, lacking conformity with any rigid set of conventions. Some call it a thriller; some have called it a dark romantic comedy. Either way it is bleak but hilarious, exciting and strangely romantic and definitely not predictable, leaping from scene to scene with pace, wit and unexpected escalations of the action.

I love the script because it is littered with dark as dirt, blackest of black humour. Occasionally uncomfortable and insensitive with its cast of cancer sufferers, it still makes you snigger. And who wouldn’t laugh at a little girl crying at the sight of a single frame of porn spliced into a harmless family film?

But of course the film would be nothing without its central trio of brilliant characters and the talented cast’s performances. Norton plays troubled, depressed insomniac with a childlike quality but the film belongs to Pitt and Bonham Carter. Pitt plays hunky and alluring, charismatic and crazy while Bonham Carter is cast against type as dingy, dirty femme fatale Marla.

Marla looks as though she has walked in off the set of a film noir, smoking, dressed in black and ruining the life of our protagonist. She seems fearless, in control, independent and contrasts with Jack’s reserved, uptight personality. Marla punctuates the film; like an annoyance she disappears and keeps reappearing in Jack’s life. She is the one who comes across as a sympathetic victim on repeat watches. It is a gutsy and funny performance.

Meanwhile Tyler may come off as an initially enthralling and exciting character but on repeat viewings, comes across more as a bully and a hypocrite; he manipulates and pressures people to conform to his expectations. He is a modern day preacher but his word is anti-God, anti-capitalist and anti-society. He ridicules the unnecessary consumption of modern life but then smokes a cigarette (no doubt made by a huge multi-national corporation and in no way necessary to his survival). However he comes across as charismatic and intelligent, filled with little nuggets of information like why they give oxygen on planes and how to make napalm. Nevertheless for all his speeches on freeing yourself, Tyler turns into a drill instructor and for all his anti-authoritarian mischief, Tyler ends up a Fuhrer figure, manipulating the masses into becoming thoughtless pawns.

But really it’s the films themes, ideas and messages that are why I love Fight Club. Getting to the bottom of what this film is really about is tricky and pointless. It has no answers and has no message. It is nihilistic and bleak but very funny. It deals with corporate life and the corporate world but has product placement in many scenes. It touches on corporate practices with its brief explanation of formulas and protection of profits over consumer safety. It deals with consumerism, capitalism and the emasculation of modern men.

Some have called it a fascist film for its suggestion that violence is good for men and the world. Spill blood and you will feel alive it seems to say at some points. Follow and obey your leader unquestioningly to attain enlightenment. But the film does not fully endorse this. Yes bleeding and fighting do come across as self-help remedies that hugging and sharing will never get close to. But compassion is also shown as Jack realizes the error of his ways.

Some have called the film misogynistic but Marla is the most interesting and sane character in the film. Tyler may show contempt for women and there may be some strong homoerotic undertones, but the resolution delivers a reconciliation of man and woman that could easily be seen as conservative.
Fight Club also deals with religion and the Space Monkeys of Project Mayhem become parodies of cult members. The early stages of Fight Club are often compared to religious gatherings with ‘shouting in tongues’ and the aftermath of feeling ‘saved’.

The film is neither right-wing nor left-wing; it walks a tightrope of extremes. Ending with one of the most memorable and breathtaking shots of modern cinema accompanied by the haunting music of the Pixies, it is a film that I love and I can watch again and again and again.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes trailer

Finally a prequel that has an interesting and exciting story to tell! Yes the fall of Anakin had its moments and X-Men: First Class sounds vaguely entertaining but this looks like its going to fill in the details on how one of the greatest twists in cinema history came to occur!

43 years after the original dropped its bombshell of an ending on unsuspecting audiences, comes the story of how the apes took over the planet. And what a story! The first trailer showed promise, but this most recent one shows the potential for real heart and a finale on an epic scale. Caesar the ape leader looks like an anti-hero worth cheering for despite something not being quite right about WETA’s effects used to depict the apes.

Like Deep Blue Sea before it, the premise of experimenting on animals to find a cure for Alzheimer’s is not particularly new. However if it results in increased intelligence in sharks and now apes and a ride as fun as Deep Blue Sea, I’ll be in line to see this on August 12th. Even if it is just to try and wash away the dirty taste Tim Burton’s 2001 ‘reimagining’.

And how come there’s never been a sequel to Deep Blue Sea?

Friday, 24 June 2011

Inglorious Basterds (Tarantino, 2009) Review

Synopsis: Jewish-American soldiers, the titular ‘Basterds’ hunt, kill and scalp Nazis in WW2. Massacre survivor Shosanna makes her own plans to bring down the Third Reich.

Thank God Tarantino’s back on track! After the double whammy of disappointments, Kill Bill Vol.2 and Death Proof, the director returns with this blistering, uber-violent, very funny ‘masterpiece (his words!).

The cast handle the script brilliantly with standouts being Pitt and Waltz. Pitt’s accent and jutting jaw are hilariously OTT and Waltz’s ‘Jew Hunter’ is another deliciously watch-able villainous and charismatic bastard that makes the audience wait in suspense for the bouts of (often) vicious violence.

Tarantino unfolds the story with trademark chapter headings and makes it plain from the opening title that this is a fairytale fantasy (though set in a very real, very sad time of world history). The script crackles with dark humour and cool characters, flying high above the (frequently) boring dialogue of Tarantino’s last couple of efforts. Building to a bloodthirsty climax in a cinema, the setting is fitting for a film that is all about film; filmy film where cinematic references are plentiful and the film-lovers in the audience are in on the jokes.

The opening scene is classic Tarantino and sets the tone for the rest of the movie with its promise of violence, a cracking villain and another Tarantino heroine out for revenge. If you were losing patience with the masterful cinematic magpie, give Inglorious Basterds a spin and then settle in for the long wait till ‘Django Unchained’.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Russia 88 (Pavel Bardin, 2009) Review

Synopsis: ‘Russia 88’ is a gang of fascist skinheads who roam the streets filming themselves being a right bunch of racist twats.

Continuing the filmic trend for charismatic psychos followed by sensation-seeking camera operators, Russia 88 successfully uses the mock-doc aesthetic to deliver its derivative but engaging narrative. Following in the footsteps of Man Bites Dog, The Magician and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Petr Fyodorov plays Shtik, an angry, ranting lunatic who just loves having an admirer film his every move. Though not as memorable as Edward Norton, Stephen Graham or Russell Crowe’s terrifying performances as Nazi thugs, Fyodorov holds the movie being reminiscent of Colin Farrel’s early appearance in Tigerland.

While the pace lags at times due to the minimal plot, the last act of the film veers into predictable but vaguely silly territory after building up a strong sense of realism in the rest of the film. The handheld camera and other traits of the mock-doc format such as the voxpops with (real?) members of the public, direct address to camera and seemingly unedited material give the film a powerful feeling of watching the footage of a bunch of rhetoric spouting racist thugs keen to share their life and views with the world via the internet.

Like an anti-American History X, the film uses no fancy tricks like excessive slow-mo, black and white or orchestral and choir filled music, making the film feel more real and closer in tone and style to This is England. However there are also moments of humour (mainly in the first half of the film) where the mock-doc style is used to undermine and humiliate these characters who take themselves too seriously.

Briefly touching on what turns young men into Nazi’s, the film comes up with one or two interesting (if not very surprising) answers. The scene in a training camp may be a reminder of the hatred and indoctrination that is spawned in other training camps around the world and the use of voxpops and the constant references to the footage being put on the internet make this a very contemporary spin on the skinhead psycho cycle.
Overall, Russia 88 is filled with realistic detail but tries too hard to create a powerful and shocking ‘movie’ ending that feels out of place with the rest of the ‘documentary’ style. However Bardin may be a director to watch out for in the future.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Review of 'Stake Land' (Jim Mickle, 2011)

Synopsis: Orphaned Martin is taken under the wing of bad-ass Mister as they travel across vampire-ravaged America in search of the refuge known as ‘New Eden’.

Aside from the fairly frequent jumps, scares and gore, Stake Land feels surprisingly subdued for a recent horror film. With its melancholic tone, ravaging of the religious right and focus on characters over action, the film succeeds in being a bit more thoughtful than many of its contemporaries. And don’t go into this expecting sanitized, pretty-boy vampires a-la-Twilight. These monsters are old school to the core- more like zombies than modern takes on vampires; all ferocious snarls and messed up faces. With fairly few jumps or scenes that are likely to scare a grizzled horror fan, Stake Land is easier to recommend for its realistic world-building, mournful soundtrack and interesting, well-drawn characters.

Opening with Martin’s voiceover as he introduces himself and his travelling companion, the enigmatic father figure and teacher, Mister, the film quickly flashes back to a vicious encounter between Martins family and the horrific vampires. Sticking with most of the rules of the vampire myth, it is soon established that stakes and sunlight are still useful in this tale of vamp vs human conflict. The pace is deliberately slow and the film painstakingly constructs a very authentic feeling vision of post-apocalyptic America. Guarded communities living in fear while supplies dwindle, drinking and sleeping together in packed bars until the sun rises and religious nutjobs taking over the wilderness to rape and murder as they please. It is this rendering of the Christian crazies that strikes the biggest false note in the story, feeling over-blown and too simple for the subtleties of much of the rest of the story and character drawing. 

The cast are great, particularly Nick Damici as Mister who delivers a convincing performance with the familiar role of mean old git with a soft heart underneath. Kelly McGillis is barely recognizable as a constantly victimized nun (bet she must be wondering what happened to the days of getting jiggy with Tom Cruise in a Navy uniform) and the youngsters, especiall Connor Paolo are good in their less demanding roles. It’s particularly nice to see Danielle Harris still working, even if she has lost some of the spunk of her early appearance as Bruce Willis’ daughter way back in The Last Boy Scout.

Jim Mickle should be applauded for his direction; the film works very well as a whole, with good performances from the cast, a bleak soundtrack and pacing that could have easily been spoiled by trying to appeal to a bigger audience. It is a brave movie; not overly rushed and taking its time to build to its understated climax. The action and horror are handled well and the villain is a right nasty piece of work that should stick in the memory.

The film is most memorable for its details of life after the vampires take over. The small communities that have popped up round the country feel realistic and lived in. A sense of community, of something we have lost to some extent in 2011 shines through and gives the film a nostalgic feel, as if the vampire apocalypse may help America return to a simpler, more caring time. The positioning of the cult of Christian crazies dropping ‘bombs’ on peaceful communities and their obsession with deliverance and the ‘will of God’ is the least subtle and most forceful of themes on display and does feel a little OTT in places but the journey of the characters and their encounters with ordinary folk ground the film and make up for its excesses in other areas.

Stake Land is a very well made film and can be enjoyed as a simple horror film but also as an experience of a post-apocalyptic society and the highs and lows of living in a world with a drastically reduce population.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Review of 'Bridesmaids' (Paul Feig, 2011)

Synopsis: Down-on-her-luck Annie becomes maid of honour for her best friend Lillian’s wedding. Fighting and bonding with the other bridesmaids, Annie attempts to deliver the best wedding she can.

Kristen Wiig is officially a comedy Goddess. The co-writer and star of Bridesmaids takes centre stage after years on American television’s Saturday Night Live and being sidelined with smaller roles in recent comedies like Paul and Date Night. Here she is barely off screen and is a hysterical joy to watch throughout. Funnier than the entire cast of The Hangover (either of them), she would be enough to single-handedly split your sides, but with an ensemble this brave and funny and writing this hilarious, Bridesmaids is a laugh-out-loud comedy that deserves to rule this summer. The sisters are doing it for themselves!

Bridesmaids is very rude, occasionally very sweet and often ass-clenchingly awkward. If you think gross-out comedy belongs to boys, wait till you see these girls at their dress fitting. If you think men being mean to women is funny, wait till you see it as written by a couple of women. If you think the writer/producers of films like The Hangover push the boundaries of taste, wait till you see these girls get angry. But most of all if for some reason you think women, can’t be funny, give yourself a slap and go see this film!

The story might follow a fairly conventional path with the romantic-comedy trimmings resulting in an ending that lacks much surprise. However the narrative is tightly constructed and Annie really ‘hits bottom’ (allowing for countless awkward and self-deprecating moments) before the film delivers its predictable resolution. The script is brilliantly written with a touching and believable relationship between the two best friends, Annie and Lillian. The comic set-pieces escalate in a consistently hysterical fashion, standouts being the dress fitting and a plane journey that allows Wiig to show off what a gifted comedy performer she is. The script crackles with witty and memorable dialogue, much of it delivered by Wiig, but the supporting cast all get their own moments to shine as realistic and funny characters.

The best reason to see this film is Wiig. There is nothing she won’t do in this film for a laugh. Whether it’s flailing her legs in the air in the opening sex scene, toilet humour, acting drunk, selfishly ruining parties, or swearing at a young woman, all vanity is left behind. Wiig’s performance is consistently hilarious. As writer she has rightly put herself up-front, giving her a vehicle to finally show off her comedic prowess. The supporting cast are excellent with particular standouts being Melissa McCarthy as Megan (in another unflinchingly funny/awkward performance) and Chris O’Dowd as a sweet cop. However despite the presence of a couple of male British TV stars (O’Dowd and Matt Lucas), the women get all the best lines and even Matt Lucas is totally outshone by his look-a-like ‘sister’ in the film. All give solid, believable and occasionally completely over the top performances, but they are anchored by a sweet script that (like so many other Judd Apatow produced/directed movies) isn’t afraid to poke and prod at the state of people trapped in unhappy marriages.

Paul Feig directs effectively, drawing riotous performances from the cast and keeping the pace brusque throughout. Like many recent comedies that are produced, directed or executive produced by Apatow, the film is over two hours, but unlike some others, Bridesmaids does not drag or sag after the half way mark and its story feels full and not overburdened by an abundance of improvisation.

The film is a sweet look at female friendships, the madness that surrounds wedding preparation and could be seen to deal with the pressures put on modern women to conform, succeed (in both love and career) and above all get married! Wiig’s loveable loser clearly does not have enough respect for herself and the audience will find themselves rooting for her to make big changes in her life. However Bridesmaids is a comedy; there’s no message of self-empowerment and marriage and heterosexual romance are still held as the aspiration for modern women.

Aside from the overly familiar romantic comedy elements the film should be enjoyed for the hilarious script and the performance of a brilliant ensemble of very funny, very entertaining women. It is hugely refreshing to see a film with female performers totally lacking in vanity that is this rude, this vulgar and this amusing. Written by women, starring mostly women but aimed squarely at both men and women, Bridesmaids deserves to be a huge comedy hit.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Superheroes must die!

Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe it’s just because I never liked comics. But is it me or are there just way too many superhero movies these days?

I confess I’ve never read comics. I read books or I watch films. Reading with pictures just ain’t the same as it was when I was a kid. I tried. I read one graphic novel, generally considered a classic… ‘Watchmen’ and guess what… I much preferred the film! The ‘novel’ was long, complicated and for me, just not very engaging.

So what blockbusters have we got to look forward to this summer? Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, Captain America: The First Avenger. All superhero flavoured, comic book madness. Give me Transformers 3 over this lot anytime.

The thing is I too get excited by all the hype surrounding these films. I read the features in the magazines, I gawp at the trailers and I even go and see a fair few of them expecting to get my mind blown and face melted.
Unfortunately time and again I’m disappointed. I blame X-men. Like so many others back in 2000, I went along to see it at the cinema because the critics were raving. Bryan Singer was directing. He made ‘The Usual Suspects’. Surely it would be good. But I felt nothing. The action and big climax were too filled with ridiculous looking special effects. The costumes were kind of cool and the cast were top quality but the film was totally unmemorable (to me). It goes in my eyes and gets crapped straight back out, barely registering on my brain.

As a kid I’d enjoyed Tim Burton’s Batman films and the Superman series but I think even then I preferred the Batman TV show with Adam West. This brings me to an exception. The Christopher Nolan Batman films have registered on my brain. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Bruce Wayne throw his wallet away to discover what it was like to have nothing. I loved Heath Ledger as the Joker and truly believe that even if he hadn’t died people would still be banging on about that performance. Great films… great director. Real adult themes and a distinct lack of ridiculous looking special effects.

There’s too damn many for me to go through all the comic book movies of the last ten years. Some critics have argued that we (mainly America) needed these fantastical heroes to save us from a post-9/11 depression. Most people just see these movies making bags full of money for greedy studios who can’t believe their luck! Stories that have already been written. The visuals storyboarded. Characters already created and fans already waiting. Fantastical super powers that can now be created with CGI. Easy money!

Don’t get me wrong… some of these characters are interesting. Iron Man and Hellboy were particularly enjoyable due to their funny and likeable main characters. Kick-Ass and Super give us hip new spins on the superhero genre. But for every cool character there’s always going to be a fair few Daredevil, Elektra, or Ghost Riders.

Now the studios are even starting to reboot the franchises that are barely a decade old. X-men, Spiderman and Superman are all getting a fresh coat of CGI and the paint has hardly dried on the last batch. Seriously do we really need another lot ALREADY???

These comic book/superhero blockbusters aren’t even taking over the top tens of highest grossing films of the summers. In 2002, only Batman Begins and Fantastic Four made it. In 2003 only X-men 3 and Superman Returns made it. But then in 2004 and 2005, the top spots were filled by Spiderman 3, Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Bringing it right up to date… in 2009, only the Wolverine spin off film hit the top 10 highest grosser list and in 2010, Iron Man 2 beat competition from original works like Inception and Despicable Me.

If you love comics and you love the movies and I’ve offended you to your very core, then I’m very sorry. But look at the blockbusters I got to devour as a kid in the 80s. Aliens, Back to the Future, The Terminator, E.T., Ghostbusters, Die Hard, Beverly Hills Cop. And the 90s… Titanic, The Matrix, Speed, Forrest Gump, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Toy Story! Give me these beauties any day over the next buffed up pretty boy in tights and a screaming damsel girl next door.

So despite the pretty trailers for the coming summer’s superhero antics, I’m going to vote with my wallet. If YOU want to see more originality or even just more sequels to interesting, exciting, not overdosed on silly special effects movies, then don’t be lured by the trailers! Remember you’ve seen it all before! You’ll forget it in a week (if not less).

Review of 'Life in a Day' (Kevin Macdonald, 2011)

Synopsis: A day in the life of the planet Earth and the human race; this is the 24th of July, 2010 as recorded by anyone with a video camera.

Democracy. Power to the people. Digital technology. Video cameras, the internet, editing software and music. Life in a Day is a unique, ambitious experiment. And boy does it work! A call went out from director Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland) and executive producer Ridley Scott to the YouTube community. Capture your life in a day. Anyone with a video camera and access to the internet could enter and submit a video of what was happening in their life on the 24th July 2010. Cameras were even sent out to far-flung places to allow people who do not have access to these filmmaking tools to contribute to the film. So is this a documentary, an experimental film or a social action media production? Well it’s all three and more. It’s also a narrativised piece of thrilling, enjoyable and inspirational cinema that will leave audiences crying, smiling and feeling blessed for their own lives and loved ones.

The narrative is not forced; the film begins in the early hours of the morning and takes the audience through the day to midnight. Characters occasionally reappear throughout the day and others come and go in the blink of an eye. The ordinary, everyday lives of the people of the planet are given an epic quality by the capturing of the full moon and many time lapse shots of changing landscapes and in one brief sequence the beauty of the northern lights. People rise early; people have stayed up all night drinking and one man howls and barks at the moon. The film then has many montages, people taking a morning leak, eating breakfast, taking their first steps out of bed in the morning. The soundtrack adds to the feel of the ordinary becoming extraordinary and the editing emphasizes the universal ways that people go about their days. It might sound boring but it’s not. The pace is swift with moments of humour, sadness and plentiful details that will strike a chord with many an audience member.

People play themselves and I say ‘play themselves’ because there are moments when the camera set ups draw attention to the constructedness of the scenarios. For example the montage of people waking up in the morning is rather let down by the people who have clearly set up the camera on the tripod and then pretended to wake up in front of it. Much more ‘real’ feeling are the moments of people filming their partners as they sleep and capturing true moments of awakening. There is also a notable emphasis on children which seems to tie in to a major theme of the film. Children are filmed by their parents (from sonograms to babies to a young man’s first shave) and in fact this is one of the first moments of the film when it settles on a character for more than a brief moment. The pride and love these parents feel shines through with the following of their children and cannot fail to put a smile on your face.

The task of editing 4500 hours down to just over 90 minutes must have been a monumental task and it’s a wonder that the film has been released in just under a year from the date that all the filming was done and uploaded. The editor, Joe Walker and the researchers must have sifted through countless hours of crap and should be applauded for their selections and for managing to also keep the film to a concise 90 minutes. I imagine there are also numerous moments that were fought over and eventually ended up unceremoniously dumped on the cutting room floor.

Life in a Day is thought-provoking and life-affirming. Though no message is forced down the audiences throat, there are many ideas presented here that should be thought about and discussed for hours after watching. The global origins of the footage, the various languages spoken, the colours, sounds and sights of people of varying cultures brought together in one film emphasizes the similarities between the people of the planet. The footage of rituals, customs, and celebrations from around the world show that love and loss are universal, that family is universally important to all cultures. Juxtaposing an Afghan photographer with an American soldier’s partner or a grinning Lamborghini owner with a shoe shining child suggests a political agenda but again, no message is forced. The viewer decides what to make of what they are seeing. There are some horrific moments; the tragic outcome of the German Love Parade, the killing of a cow, but these are contextualized in a positive film that does not dwell on the sadness of life but focuses more on the joy.
At just over 90 minutes the film does not outstay its welcome and I dare to suggest that a sequel would be worthwhile in a few years time. Life in a Day is a time capsule and a treasure trove of the ordinary. Through skilful editing, beautiful and emotive music and the desire for the people of this planet to share themselves honestly and openly with others, Life in a Day becomes more than a film, more than a documentary and more than an experiment. The ordinary becomes extraordinary and the film becomes a gift, a statement and a powerful dedication to love, family and unity. Watch it and embrace it.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Review of 'The Road' (John Hillcoat, 2009)

Synopsis: Father and son travel a long, long road, battling the elements, cannibals, starvation and the temptation for suicide in post-apocalyptic America.

According to Hollywood the world’s going to end very soon. Not sure how, not sure why… all that’s clear is that civilization will crumble and only a few survivors will be left. As if the idea of the decimation of most of the world’s population isn’t depressing enough, John Hillcoat’s The Road plunges the viewer into the desperate, hopeless struggle of a father and son to survive against misery, despair and the degenerate remnants of humanity. For much of its run time, the film is unrelentingly bleak, pessimistic and difficult to enjoy. Sadness and hopelessness bleeds from every frame. Still, for fans of drama, this film is a real tearjerker. Stick with its slow pace for a rewarding ending that may surprise with its glimmer of hope after all the preceding misery.
T he Road is unlikely to appeal to fans of other recent post-apocalyptic cinema such as I am Legend, The Book of Eli and Terminator Salvation, but if viewers are willing to succumb to its mounting sense of despair and forget about action set-pieces, there is plenty here to, perhaps enjoy is not the right word… but… appreciate.

The plot is barren like the landscape the protagonists are travelling. Like Lord of the Rings, there is a great deal of walking to be done (only this time Aragorn does a hell of a lot less fighting along the way). This is road trip without the girls, drugs, good times with great friends or even a sodding car. So much of the film is just the man and his son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) walking, occasionally talking and grimacing at the cold, the hunger and the fear of strangers on the titular road. The two leads carry the film, helped only briefly by interludes of flashbacks/dreams that add to the overwhelming sense of despair coursing through the veins of the film. In these flashbacks Charlize Theron has a thankless but memorable role as suicidal wife and mother that adds to the hopelessness of it all. The flashback structure adds to the poignancy of the central relationship between the father and son and reminds the viewer of the determination of the pair to survive. Cameos from Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce and other assorted travelling folk (some friends, some foes) add interest to what could become a stale, repetitive and unbearably slow and depressing slog.

Duvall is fantastic in a brief role, but Mortensen and Smit-McPhee shoulder the burden of the entire film. Rarely off screen, Mortensen’s performance is haunting; gaunt, caring, determined and half-broken. It is an incredible performance. Smit-McPhee is equally good with a whinier role but some heart-wrenching scenes that he pulls off convincingly. With scenes that require the father to put a gun to the head of his son in moments of desperation and despair, the pair are outstanding and believable throughout.

While the pace is slow, the film feels a hell of a lot faster than the book which is a difficult read, despite its prize-winning popularity. The cinematography is excellent, particularly with the strangely beautiful shots of decimated landscapes. The never ending grey adds to the relentlessly bleak tone. Grey skies, grey trees, grey buildings and grey sea. Life has left this planet and it shows in every frame. Moments of colour are only glimpsed in reminders of what the world used to be; the opening flashback, the solitary coke can. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score complements the tone and gets under your skin with its sad, unrelenting piano.

This film is far from the crowd pleasing post-apocalyptic scenarios of films like I am Legend. Cannibalism, starvation, rape and suicide are all very real threats to the protagonists. The film seems to be dealing with notions of morality with the father constantly teaching his son right from wrong. The boy must learn to be a good guy, not a bad guy. But the film questions the father and his moral codes, as the son does. What is bad in this new world? Is stealing wrong? Is suicide wrong? Is cannibalism wrong?

It could also be argued the film also implicitly deals with contemporary America. The idea of fear and isolation and shutting oneself off from the ‘bad guys’ is crushingly foregrounded in the closing moments of the film. The idea that so many of these apocalyptic films have been made recently is because of American fears of civilizations imminent collapse rings true. The use of the gun as the last hope a man can have of protecting his family feels very right-wing and familiar from so many other American films. But the gun is almost used on many occasions in the film to prematurely end life, not just as protector of the family. The cause of the apocalypse is never explicitly stated but the original book has been praised by environmentalists for taking the potential outcomes of the human races current actions as a serious threat.

The Road is undoubtedly a tough watch. It’s not a popcorn/multiplex kind of movie and fans of 2012 and I am Legend may possibly want to give this a miss. It is a slow, grey and depressing film. There is very little action but many moments of suspense; heartbreaking, unbearably tense in places and carried by a pair of grim but inspiring protagonists, played with conviction by a couple of bright stars.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Review of 'Frankenstein' (James Whale, 1931)

SYNOPSIS: Man creates monster by stitching together body parts of the recently deceased and giving it the brain of a criminal.

James Whale’s original film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story is an undisputed classic of the horror genre. While lacking in the scares and gore of more contemporary entries into the genre, the ideas and themes played out here are smarter than many a modern day science fiction/horror mash-up. The film is unlikely to make a young audience of today scream with terror but it still manages to muster sympathy for the hopeless story of the victimized monster. Watching the film now conjures memories of many films it has influenced.

Sympathetic, misunderstood monsters, crazed arrogant scientists and a screaming damsel in distress all feel overly familiar now but this film would have served up a powerful and original telling of an original tale back in the 1930s. More modern films that spring to mind while watching Frankenstein included ‘28 Days Later’ with its chained monster being provoked by an unsympathetic captor, ‘Edward Scissorhands’ with its misunderstood protagonist chased out of town by angry villagers/suburbanites and ‘The Terminator’ with its unstoppable man-made monster on the rampage (to name just a few!) The influence of this film on contemporary cinema is immeasurable. The less said about recent rip-off ‘Splice’, the better.

The story is tightly structured and the script has its faults but keeps the action rattling along at a brusque pace. The opening scenes of body-snatching are intriguing and followed by some grating scenes of exposition. However this is soon forgotten as the creation of the monster becomes a great set-piece that builds suspense and climaxes with the iconic cry of ‘It’s Alive!’ The supporting cast is lumbered with a fair share of exposition-spouting, theatrically-staged scenes and the tone of the film veers wildly between moments of dread and horror and moments of comic relief with Frankenstein’s father but the progression of the narrative is overall logical, well-crafted and fast-paced (particularly for a film of this age).

Frederick Kerr plays the Baron Frankenstein with an easy comic touch, mumbling and bumbling like a grumpy but amiable old git. Colin Clive delivers a performance that is far from subtle and contains far too much of the familiar theatrical style of acting from so many classic old movies where the character stares just off camera into the distance when thinking. However the award for really over doing this has to go to Mae Clarke playing Elizabeth whose performance would be ridiculed if it was in a modern film. Karloff plays the monster perfectly, inviting sympathy with his tragic mix of innocence and rage.

The actors work well together and despite some overly theatrical thesping, the cast is generally believable and carry the narrative convincingly. Whale never allows the pace to slow and there are some moments of interesting cinematography. However the majority of the camerawork is simple and functional, restricted as they were with the technology of the time. There is a distinct lack of musical soundtrack and this is a blessing as overly powerful orchestral scores can be a distraction in many classics from the thirties.

The special effects and set design are also worth mentioning as the interior of the windmill is an iconic construction filled with convincing contraptions that create memorable, iconic moments of the (re)birth of the monster. Karloff’s scars and screws add to this to ensure the monster is one of the most enduring and recognizable images of horror cinema.

The idea that God must not be challenged and that scientific progress will KILL US ALL is persistent but not forced down throats with quotes from the Bible. The arrogance and madness of the scientist is punished. However the innocence of the monster and the guilt of the aristocratic protagonists are not fully explored. The manipulation of the masses by the aristocrats is touched on but not overtly dealt with as a major theme.
At barely over an hour long the film is over before anyone could possibly have a chance to get bored of it. In fact the climax feels rushed and could have been more drawn out. More sympathy could have been created for the monster and the connection between creator and creation could have been explored further with a longer third act.

Frankenstein is very enjoyable and clearly a hugely influential work in the cinematic horror genre. It is an easy watch even for viewers raised on blood, guts, slashers and torture porn. Iconic, sympathetic and deserving of its classic status.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Summer Silliness

As the Hollywood summer silly season grows longer and longer every year, perhaps I've left it a little late to share the big dumb blockbusters I'm most anticipating this summer. After all, I've already seen one excellent jumpy screechy horror (Insidious), one head-smackingly dumb but fun action movie (Fast Five) and one comedy sequel that seems just as overrated as the first (The Hangover Part 2).

However with more superheroes, pirates and giant robots on the way, I thought I'd share the biggest of the big that I'm most looking forward to. So I'll begin by saying I'm not really a comic book/superhero fan. Forget X-Men, Green Lantern, Captain America, Thor and any super grouping that Marvel are carefully constructing for the future. I'm not interested. And Captain Jack's just never been that funny to me so despite the loss of Keira and Orlando, I'm not too excited by that behemoth either.

Here's my top five to look out for this summer.

1. Cowboys and Aliens
That had me from the second I heard the title. I know it's based on a graphic novel, but that makes immediately makes it more interesting than the superhero's of this summer. It's got a great cast including Harrison Ford going grumpy, Daniel Craig doing heroic and Paul Dano doing dunno what. Oh and the always excellent Sam Rockwell. It's directed by Jon Favreau who's done a great job with the Iron Man's and it's got freaking cowboys VS freaking aliens. Trailer looks great; violent, ridiculous and taking itself very seriously. Check it out

Released 19th August.

2. Super 8
Written and directed by J.J. Abrams and featuring a virtually unknown cast, the teaser trailer got me interested straight away with a mysterious cargo using its considerable strength to break free from a crashed train. The vibe of this is very Speilbergy with kids in the main roles, bike riding, young love, aliens, awe, 70s setting and mystery and suspense aplenty. I can't forgive Abrams for allowing Lost to end the way it did (though I'm not sure how involved he was by the end) but I'll always be sucked in by the clever marketing campaigns that revolve around work he is attached to as producer or director.

3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Love the original, hate the Tim Burton remake. This has James Franco and sounds like a prequel that actually may just have an interesting story to tell. How did earth get overrun by apes leading to Charlton Heston's chilling discovery? Implausible: certainly! Big, dumb, fun; hopefully! Looks like the writers took a leaf out of Deep Blue Sea's book and have gone down the 'don't experiment on dangerous animal's brains' route, otherwise they will grow smart, strategic and us humans will be shafted!

Released 12th August.

4. Transformers 3: Dark Side of the Moon
This is one I really should not be excited about. The second Transformers was instantly forgettable. Megan Fox is gone. Michael Bay really does make some crap sometimes. But watch the trailer and try not to let your jaw drop. The action and the special effects look mind-melting (though it may all turn out to be an overly edited nonsensical mess). Shia's still in (though getting less and less goofy and there's no sign of his parents!) and Michael Bay still knows how to blow your mind. Toppling buildings, more giant robots than ever and this time the earth looks seriously under threat of destruction. I just hope this time they kill Optimus properly and I can shed a tear for a real childhood hero. Released 1st July

5. Bad Teacher
Well I thought I better include a comedy and this Cameron Diaz pic looks pretty damn good. So all the best bits are probably in the trailer, but isn't that always the way with comedies? This looks rude, sexy and funny. Segel's charming, Timberlake's geeky and Diaz looks just plain filthy! And personally I can definitely relate to Diaz's bad teacher in many ways. Go watch the trailer, forget The Hangover Part 2 and save your comedy cash for this:

Released 17th June

So that's it for me. Anyone still reading? Have I missed anything? Am I deluded?

And if you haven't seen Attack the Block yet, please do go support this British film. I really want to see what Joe Cornish comes up with next. And if you're in the mood for a rental, go get Rubber; this film will melt your brain and make you piss your pants.