Thursday, 31 December 2009

Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

No 39 - The Matrix
Director - Andy and Larry Wachowski

I remember when I first watched this. On VHS at my friends house. It BLEW ME AWAY. Completely. This film was so different from anything else I'd ever seen. It is difficult to imagine because The Matrix has become such a huge part of our culture, everything has copied it - from computer games to adverts. Yet in 1999, this came completely out of the blue, the shock factor is what has probably put it so high up the list. It struck such a chord with me, I loved everything about it... and for ages we all wanted a phone that slid open - seeing them as the height of cool (oh how fast things have moved on).
Amazingly, for a film that made such a shock on its first appearance, you'd have expected it to have dated in the last 10 years and yet, visually it is still as beautiful and vibrant as it was. The phones are bigger and clunkier, the clothes are a bit weird (though I think that comes more out of the director's passion with bondage and S&M - there is a strong fetish cybergoth vibe throughout) but the special effects (with the exception of reflective objects) still look good.
What I like about this film is that I can't really explain the plot. Partly because it is nonsense (although, unlike the sequels, well thought out and intelligent nonsense) and partly because it is so convoluted that you really need to watch the film to get it. However, by making the real world 'virtual' it opens up some exciting possibilities: the rules - such as gravity - can be bent or broken.
This means that the film is a package deal, we get an incredible sci-fi concept which (people can argue) could be the TRUTH and we get some fascinating visuals as people run up walls, float in the air or punch with remarkable force. These visuals are what makes the film so astounding. From the small touches, like the nightmarish interview Neo has at the hand of the agents or the camera panning through TV monitors into real worlds, through to the excessive set pieces. In fact, every fight which occurs with in the Matrix is a great mix of wire work acrobatics and really daring camera work (this was the first film to have the camera whizz past an object as it is frozen in time).... however, all of this culminates into the Lobby scene, a flurry of bullets and dust and swirling black clad figures but one of the most fast paced, visceral and exciting action scenes to have come out of cinema. The thing is, when it comes to action scenes, guns make the action ugly. It doesn't matter how John Woo you go.... there is no real beauty in firing a gun, it is an ugly mechanical process. At least in other forms of attack you have the beauty of skill and agility.... by introducing the bending of the laws we get to have these graceful nimble ballet like moves and impossible leaps accompanying the barrage of gunfire.... and there is something beautifully coming about that last pillar collapsing after all the gunfire. After that one scene, the rest of the film is essentially a barrage of set pieces as Neo takes on the agents of the Matrix.
Among the barrage of special effects we get to witness something truly magical, bullet time. Although.... once again this has been ripped off by everyone. The bullet time scene was something completely new, an entire new way of shooting and just looked so beautiful. It even looks beautiful in Lego (seriously, that Lego scene is almost more impressive than the actual scene.... it is faultless)

Unfortunately, the amazing central concept and revolutionary special effects are a mixed blessing, because they showcase some of the film's weaknesses. Firstly a lot of the dialogue and writing is badly written... this becomes clearer with the sequels where everything becomes ridiculously convoluted. But also none of the acting is that impressive. I mean Keanu has never been the most varied of emoters, but even Carrie Anne Moss and Lawrence Fishburne come of a bit cold and emotionless....
There is one MASSIVE exception to this rule, and ironically it is in a role which demands an emotionless performance. Hugo Weaving is phenomenal as Agent Smith... A program within the Matrix designed to seek those abusing it. He drips with malevolence and barely suppressed rage. Each slowly pronounced word is full of hatred and restraint. You can tell that he is borderline insane, but the restraint and the fact that it is all bottled in is what makes it scary. He is a fabulous villain, in a film where the only other villain is completely ballsed up.
One of Morphius' crew ends up siding with the Agents and rather than creating an interesting story about human weakness and the allure of the Matrix (after all, I'd go back in there if I could dictate how I wanted to be) - they just turn them into a Boo Hiss villain who kills a lot of people and is asexually creepy.... what a shame.
Villains, in this type of film, are more interesting and more enjoyable when they're not just a 'Boo Hiss Baddy'. Agent Smith is, without doubt, the best thing in this film.... and yet in the sequels as he gets more and more insane he becomes less interesting. A parody of his former brilliance.

And so, my final point.... Neo becomes 'The One'.... A man who can see The Matrix for what it is and manipulate it at whim. He can destroy the agents. He can stop bullets. He can fly. Look how bored he is as he fights Agent Smith.... so.... What happens in the next film? The Matrix 'upgrades' its Agents.... why didn't it do that at the start? Why does it even matter - NEO CAN MANIPULATE THE MATRIX AT WHIM! Surely it doesn't matter how powerful an object is when it is essentially going up against an all powerful God.

That is what annoys me, and it has nothing to do with this film. The first Matrix was so clever, so original, so remarkable.... The Wachowskis then sully it with two confused and convoluted unnecessary films.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

No one could understand how Mrs. Lisbon and Mr. Lisbon, our math teacher, could produce such beautiful creatures

No 262 - The Virgin Suicides
Director - Sofia Coppola

Let us continue, in reverse chronological order, with my journey through Sofia Coppola. Continuing the theme of upset young women and with an incredibly dark tale.

The film begins - wonderfully setting the tone - with Cecilia, the youngest of the sisters, slashing her wrists and going to hospital.... here she is told by a complete idiot of a doctor that life will only get worse. At least the amazing (and far too brief) cameo of Danny De Vito dressed as professor Robert Winston helps to put things in perspective - 'let your daughters meet other children of their own age' he essentially says. This is the main moral of a very bleak story. You see, the Lisbon girls do not get much of a chance to socialise, and this is not a good thing...

I don't know quite what the film is trying to say. It seems to imply that if you are a strict and over zealous christian parent you will probably lead your children to kill themselves. I don't think this could be a very popular message, so I'm not 100% confident on how likely it is....
What we are faced with though is the story of five sisters who are living their lives in American 70's suburbia and who eventually all off themselves (that isn't a spoiler - seeing as it is the film's BLOODY TITLE)
However, the film spends very little time dwelling on the deaths. It is more about the lives of the girls - and focusing on their unhappiness. In fact, for the majority of the film, the only death is Cecilia' quite horrific impaling on a spike on a fence. We're then briefly faced with the aftermath but mostly deal with four girls being driven crazy by their repressive parents and the few times they're allowed to rebel.

The protagonist of this is Lux, played by Kirsten Dunst at (I think) her most overtly sexual. By the way, Lux is 14 (though... importantly... at the time, Kirsten dunst wasn't). She is the nearest this film has to a lead, being the most outgoing and least repressed of the sisters. For whilst the majority of the sisters seem to shrink back and be very very awkward round people. Lux is a complete hussy - and probably the only exception to the use of the word Virgin in the title. As the most outward of the sisters, it is she that acts as a force, drawing in ALL the local boys. Because, as this film is about teenage girls - it is about dating.
And where the majority of the girls get random blokes (including one, Chase, who appears to be 7 and gets off with the 16 year old sister) Lux, gets Trip.
Both share stupid names and both are uncomfortably overtly sexual for their age.
and.... Trip is none other than Josh Hartnett. The entire film is told in flashback, and the scenes with Trip are the only ones which flash to the modern day and 'interview' the older Trip.

In fact - this film is a bit like It's a Wonderful life, in that the main crux of the story is to build up the characters. That way, when they do get to the point of suicide, you really really feel for them. And where George Bailey didn't jump, here the sisters do (figuratively.... I won't spoil the end for you). Which makes it all the more completely and utterly tragic.

The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you.

No 128 - Lost in Translation
Director - Sofia Coppola

Bill Murray has had this amazing comeback playing the wistful, distant, gloomy comedy. He is playing up to his haggard hound dog look and where once he was all wise cracking and sarcastic, now he is a sombre and sober type of comedy.
You see it in Broken Flowers, you see it in Wes Anderson's back catalogue (who is probably responsible for this new direction) and you see it in this film. Bill Murray's incredible charisma and screen presence pulls you through this film. Even though he does spend most of it moping around.
Bill Murray is important because Scarlett Johansson isn't the most charismatic character in this film, she does however benefit from the presence of Murray. The scenes they share together show a massive improvement in performance.
However, Scarlett Johansson does benefit from the more quiet performances. I will rate her performance in this and in Ghost World other any of the more mainstream performances (even with the added bonus of weird fetish gear in The Spirit). Also, seeing her lost sad looking face and her choice of wearing dressing gowns or big jumpers jsut helps to show how damned pretty she is. She is very pretty. The film knows it, hence the practically gratuitous opening shot lingering (for no discernible reason) on her bottom... in see through underwear.

This film is a very insular and private film. It follows two characters as they sit around in Japan and finally find each other and entertain and distract each other. They both seem to suffer from a general malaise. This seems to be a theme in Sofia Coppola's stories, specifically the concept of women who are suffering from general unhappiness with their lot. Here we are introduced to Charlotte who is in Japan with her achingly hipster photographer husband (who is Giovanni Ribsi - who I'd never perceive as an achingly hip character... I blame friends) and who is utterly bored. She meets the famous Bob Harris who has sold out and is marketing whiskey. Neither are happy and neither have anything to do so they hang out with each other and form a very interesting and beautiful relationship.
Because, this is a film which is led by character rather than story. There isn't really a story, the pair get up to some adventures but that isn't what the film is about - the film is about the relationship which forms between these two lost characters. It is a very strange relationship, there is never any threaten of romance (which is rare in a film) but it runs so much deeper than mere friendship. It is a mutual dependence on the other that creates really interesting and unusually genuine character dynamics.
Firstly their friendship is very awkward, there seems to be a lot of pauses and unnatural silences, but also - Charlotte gets jealous, or angry, with Bob when he gets off with the Jazz singer. Rightly so, after all he is married, but there is no doubt as to whether she fancies Bob - she doesn't - but yet there is this jealous anger. They need each other's company and attention. It is the only time either of the characters are happy throughout the entire film - so it is understandable that Charlotte is upset if it gets threatened. What I like is the way that the threat in the 'relationship' is handled, where most films would treat it as a big deal and a big objective to be overcome for the emotional final act, what we have in this film is far more realistic. An awkward silent lunch, an apology and everything is back to normal. You see this is a relationship that transcends the cliches of film. Hell it is a relationship that transcends the film itself.

This film truly makes you feel like a nosy neighbour, looking in at somebody else's experience. Where as usually a relationship would be tailored to be understandable to the viewer, here we are unwanted witnesses to what is happening. Nothing is spelt out, nothing is clear. It is never explained how each character is benefiting the other (chances are even they don't know) - The one big moment between them - pretty much the crux of their whole relationship - is kept hidden from us. The whisper is kept a whisper. We see their reactions, but the film doesn't tell us what it is about.

As well as being an outsider to the relationship, we are a complete outsider to Japan. The film's title is, after all, Lost in Translation and here we are graced with scene after scene of fast paced Japanese talking, we're as lost as the protagonists - we do not have the benefit of subtitles. Likewise the city of Tokyo is also shown as a confusing and mystical place.
The confusion as they deal with the monster crossing in Shibuya or the other wordly stillness of the temples and weddings (all things I went out of my way to witness whilst in Japan, though the wedding was pure fluke) - the film doesn't go out of its way to alienate the viewer. But it does highlight the fact that this is another culture where you don't even share the alphabet.

And so, in the same way that you can't just go to Japan and expect to get by and blag it.... so too you can't expect to come into this film and have everything explained to you. You are an outsider. An outsider to Japan's culture and an outsider to Bob and Charlotte's friendship.

Though if you REALLY want to know what is said in the whisper, they make an educated guess here.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?

No 195 - It's a Wonderful Life
Director - Frank Capra

This is a film I've been meaning to watch for years. However I keep missing it at Christmas, and it is a film so ingrained into the season that it seems strange watching it when it isn't Christmas.
So finally I got round to watching it (in original black and white rather than new and coloured in). I was surprised by two things:
Firstly this is a REALLY long film, running in at over two hours.
Secondly, the first 90 minutes has nothing really to do with Clarence and what is typically known as the story of 'It's a Wonderful Life'.

Instead we begin with some people praying for George Bailey (the always wonderful Jimmy Stewart) and (in my personal favourite moment) angels, represented by stars, having a little chat about what they should do to answer all these prayers.
So, in order for Clarence the angel to know how to save George Bailey, we must know his story. This is the majority of the film, the life of George Bailey.

What I like is the weird blend of tragedy and comedy in this film. George is a tragic character. Nothing he hopes for ever works out. We essentially watch 90 minutes of his dreams being crushed and his aspirations cancelled out by his kindness.
He is however a very well loved and popular man, and whilst fate pisses all over him, the film never fails to show how loved he is. From his family (who are chaotic, hilarious and feel like a real family) through to his many friends around the town.
Incidentally, two of George's friends form a nice little double act. Bert, the policeman and Ernie the cabby... Bert and Ernie aye? Well... alas Henson dismissed it as coincidence, but I think we all know that Frank Capra's well directed buddies were probably the influence for the best muppets on Sesame Street.

On top of his friends, George has his relationship with Mary. From her first beautiful confession into his deaf ear all the way up their wedding and subsequent family, Mary is a vital support to poor little George.
As the film plunges further into heart breaking doom and gloom, it also allows the films' few moments of balls out comedy. Nothing could be better than the bonkers anarchy of their first date at Harry Bailey's graduation.
We get some funky Charleston dancing from Jimmy Stewart as the least convincing 20 year old EVER, then everyone falls into a pool and Mary ends up naked in a bush.
It is all a bit of bizarre nonsense but it is the little moments like that that pepper the film with lightness.

Because the rest of the film is so sad. Mr Potter, a man who owns most of the town and who is trying to bankrupt George is such a boo hiss baddy that it slightly belittles his plots, but the effect they have on George is heartbreaking.
George goes out of his way to help so many people. He gives up his dream of travelling, his dream of university, his honeymoon... just so he can help people out.
He is so so so so nice and yet nothing nice ever happens to him.
So gradually as the years go by and George becomes more and more flustered and stressed, you really empathise with him. By the time Potter makes his evil cackling declaration "You're worth more dead than alive" which fills George's head with dark thoughts you just want him to be happy. For once, you want things to really go his way.

So finally we come to what the film is famous for. George, about to jump off a bridge, is stopped by Clarence and shown what life would be like if he had never been born.
What is impressive is the way that it showcases the difference one man can make. The fact that one single person can do so much for the people around him and change so much.
Considering I thought this was the entire film, I was surprised to see the parallel world section only lasting around 30 minutes. Enough to show the degree of death and misery which stemmed from there being no George Bailey in the world. However the evil version of the town does seem fun. Full of bars and casinos and brothels. It is a hot bed of liquor, women and VICE. Much more interesting than the boring town he grew up in....
George spends an awful lot of time unable to compute that HE ISN'T BORN. So he tends to find someone he knows, talk to them, get angry that they don't know him and move on to another person he knows.
Once it finally twigs, Clarence sends George back and George is just delighted to be home...

It is here that Finally we have the big uplifting ending. In the same way that Slumdog Millionaire is a bleak film with a big uplifting ending, so to is It's a Wonderful Life. But by the time the film ends you've been following George for over two hours.
You'll be so happy to see something going in George's favour that there won't be a dry eye in the house.

I simply loath it, yet I must conform, what can you do?

No 286 - L'Avventura
Director - Michelangelo Antonioni

This film won the Cannes Jury prize in 1960 so I was expecting something unfeasibly glamorous and incredulously cool. I was not expecting something as weird as this which would anger me to the degree that this film did.

It starts with a very familiar and almost cliched set up. Now, I haven't done any research at all on this film, so for all I know it may be the first ever film which begins with a bunch of couples taking a yacht to a remote island for a weekend. That has now become fairly standard fare for films where SOMETHING GOES WRONG.

We follow Anna who is in a long distance relationship with Sandro and who is grumpy and a bit weird. She is finally going to meet up with him on this yacht and so brings along a motley crew of friends and hangers on. Amongst which is Anna's best friend Claudia, the most important of the rest of the group. They share a lot in common in that they're all quite rich and successful and ultimately unsatisfied with their life.
The first hour of the film (because at 2hours and 20, this does not rush the story at all) follows the group as they head towards a deserted island on which they're going to go exploring. Throughout this there are early signs that Anna is bored and unsatisfied with the situation she is in. Either that or she is just mental. She fakes a shark attack whilst swimming and then laughs about the panic and disorder it throws. She also has several conversations in which she discusses how she isn't sure whether or not she wants to stay with Sandro. That she likes the 'long distance' aspect of their relationship more than the relationship itself.

After a while on the island, Anna goes missing and the group are thrown into disarray (all except for Corrado, I think he is the father of one of the girls on the yacht but he continues to be more interested in the archeology of the island). So we get what we expect with search parties and desperate frenzied cries into the sea and the rain.
It is odd because, until this point we kind of have a plot. It is about a weekend adventure on a yacht. It is about Anna not knowing what she wants. It is not the most action packed of stories but it is a story none the less.
Oddly as soon as Anna goes missing we lose the film's plot. More people join the island, there is a bigger sense of purpose but that lasts about 20 minutes. After that the film is just people wandering around Italy.

You see, as they search for Anna they split into groups. The most determined group consisting of Sandro, her fiance, and Claudia, her best friend. As they search for Anna, their feelings for one another get messier and more complicated until they fall in love.
Now I don't know what the time scale for this film is, however I do know that during the search Claudia says that she has only known Sandro for 3 days. So I assume they probably get together after knowing each other for a week... and then Claudia is going on about how madly and passionately she loves him.
I know that Italy is a very passionate country but this seems a bit fast paced.

This is where the film's most interesting and infuriating element comes into play, the character assassination. You see, Claudia becomes overcome with remorse for her actions. She still loves Sandro, and she stays with him, but she feels guilt for what she has done to Anna - she lives in fear that Anna will return, resent her, and steal Sandro back.
Sandro, however, does not seem plagued by the same fears. In fact after getting with Claudia he seems actively disinterested in following leads to find Anna.
The Anna story falls onto the back burner (you never find out where she is or what happened to her) and instead it becomes about the nature of relationships and the differences between the genders.

Men are not painted in the best of lights in this film. Or at the very least, Italian men aren't.
Firstly, let us talk about the strange 'flocking' nature in the film. Sandro leaves Claudia for a moment and it seems like every man in the town flocks to her, just to look at her.
This is repeated when the female author is introduced. She is a glamorous 19 year old and there are apparently about 100 men clamouring to be near her. Now, this is very odd behaviour - made all the worse by Sandro's TERRIBLE behaviour.
After all he has a terrible track record:
Engaged to Anna but she goes missing.
Gets off with Claudia whilst looking for Anna
Gets off with the author whilst leaving Claudia in a hotel bed.

Claudia is shocked but forgives him, and what is the moral of the story? I don't think there is one... except that if your girlfriend is needy enough you can be a whore. If she isn't needy enough 'lose' her on an island and get a new one....

Thursday, 24 December 2009

You didn't save my life, you ruined my death, that's what you did!

No 400 - The Incredibles
Director - Brad Bird

Pixar is a brave and very interesting stable. I mean look at it... it definitely has a strong concept, after all despite the obvious differences Monsters Inc, Toy Story, Nemo, Ratatouille, Cars are all buddy films. About a mediocre person who finds someone to pull them up to greatness.
You've then got The Incredibles which is a domestic drama superhero film in which a member of a family is trying to pull the rest of them to greatness after they've struggled to get down to mediocre.

It is a surprisingly dark film - it is tight, well script and wickedly funny at times. Not only does this stand up against Pixar's phenomenal back catalogue, it stands up against Superhero films. I'd probably but this up there in the top 5 superhero films, and it is a cartoon.... featuring entirely made up characters who don't have a legion of comic book fans.

It is easy to view this as 'Watchmen for kids' - both stories tackle the outlawing of superheroes and the difficulties of keeping a mundane and normal life after having been a superhero. Both stories see a character get back into his old ways, investigating the disappearances of former colleagues. Both tackle danger of using capes in superhero costumes (Watchman's Dollar Bill gets caught in a revolving door and shot whereas we're treated to an entire montage of death - during Edna's AMAZING show stealing appearance - throughout The Incredibles).

In fact, Edna's speech about 'No Capes!' is just a small part of the darkness which is hidden throughout this film. For what is essentially a children's film, we're given a very real sense of danger in the action pieces. We have a huge amount of deaths in the film, both as the aftereffects of the fight scenes but also implied throughout the film. Hell, at one point Mr Incredible hides behind the mostly skeletal corpse of one of his former superhero colleagues. We're not just talking 'Sid's Toys' dark... we're talking dark. Death is an important part of the film, as Helen Parr points out to her children:
Remember the bad guys on the shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys aren't like those guys. They won't exercise restraint because you are children. They *will* kill you if they get the chance. Do *not* give them that chance.

The danger is then mixed with the film's strongest and smartest touch. The family dynamic. The family bicker and bounce off of each other. Arguing and worrying and working together like a real family. It is a strong family dynamic and some excellent voice acting from Spencer Fox in particular (seeing as the woman that voiced Violet is very much a grown up) in conveying the madness and anarchy of being a child.
You also have Bob Parr's constant resentment at having to be normal and Helen's frustration at being the one that has to keep the family together. For around the first 45 minutes of the film we are just watching the mundane life of the Parrs post superhero ban. We're just getting to know the family.
By the time the action begins and the danger really comes out, we care about the Parrs and we are invested in the success of the Incredibles.

The action scenes are also helped by logic. Surprisingly, logic is not always evident in Superhero films, especially not with origin films. It seems that the writers get too involved discussing the origin of the hero they forget they have to include some kind of triumph over adversity and just crowbar in a villain.
Film 2 is normally the film for the villain to shine. Film one is usually weak.

Yet, Incredibles handles it perfectly. The villain, Syndrome, has brilliant (if slightly warped) motivation. An excellent plan. He has the most ridiculous hideout ever. He has a reason to be targeting Mr Incredible.
His emergence is the fault of Mr Incredible. That is what makes it brilliant. A spurned former fan that goes on a petty rampage to try to make the world dependent on him and also annul super heroes completely. He isn't a maniacal power hungry maniac (well he is a little bit) he is mostly a petty, vindictive sadist who has turned against his hero.
Which is a scary type of villain if you ask me.
The fact that

What we have is a family drama. About finding your strengths and working with them, looking at the slick machine 'The Incredibles' become at the film's end and compare it to the ramshackle arguing mess of the initial Parr family.
We have the moral of being true to yourself and gaining more confidence (a theme which is best shown in Violet, the insecure teen character).
We also have a moral about playing fair (after all, the villainous Syndrome didn't play fair and he gets all killed up) which is seen as well in the hilarious school race with super fast Dash trying to look inconspicuous and win the race.

When you look at the morals, we have fairly standard Disney Pixar fare, seen in Ratatouille and Wall:E as well as those mentioned up earlier in the blog... we have the inclusion of John Ratzenberger, a Pixar talisman, crow barred in for the final line. But the film towers over the risk of being standard. It delivers an engrossing and surprisingly edgy story with a great plot, great characters and infinite opportunities for sequels.

It also gave us an excellent spin off cartoon - Jak Jak Attack... which explains what the baby was doing throughout the film...

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Professor, just so you know I don't think that map always works. Earlier it showed someone in the castle... someone I know to be dead.

No 471 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Director - Alfonso Cuarón

So, I didn't have to sit through the first two films, I could move straight to book 3. This is the only Harry Potter film to appear in the top 500 and I think the main reason it does so is because it changes the films.
It is not a massive revolutionary change. After all Cuarón was going into a filmic universe which had been set up for two films, and the world of Harry Potter is defined by J.K Rowling and defended by legions of frankly terrifying fans. However there were some important changes. The main one is that this is the film where the series started focusing on the characters rather than the magic.

I always felt that Chris Columbus was trying to razzle dazzle us with his view of Harry Potter's world, that each moment of the film had to feel like a set piece full of spectacle and wonder and well... magic. Here is all feels considerably more understated. People use magic to quietly stir their coffee, to light candles or to make interesting animal noises. The magic is not in the forefront, and this means we can actually begin to really care about the characters.
This is helped by the second big thing that is introduced in this film, the idea that these characters are contemporary children. So, gone are the robes and instead we have children walking around in hoodies and jeans and other things that young people wear. It makes sense. It feels right. Whereas in the earlier films (and indeed in the books) you could kind of forget that this was the here and now and instead immerse yourself in the quaintly Victorian Wizarding world... here you begin to notice more and more that things are happening NOW. It is a theme that is taken and expanded on more and more within the later films, see Order of the Phoenix's flight through London or Half Blood Prince's attack on Millenium Bridge. I like the mix of our world with the wizards. By sticking too much in Hogwarts you end up basically in another fantasy world, and oddly... that dulls the magic.

There are then the smaller new touches. I really like the clock tower that only seems to be in this film. It means that large parts of Hogwarts have exposed clockwork, which adds a really nice touch. Best of all is the stonking great pendulum in the middle of the entrance hall. It means the students have to duck and weave to avoid getting smacked by it - it looks cool, but it is a health and safety nightmare. Considering Hogwarts is a SCHOOL there seems to be some very lax health and safety rules. I mean during a game of quidditch, THE SCHOOL SPORT, one player is ON FIRE and the other gets ELECTROCUTED. What do they tell the parents? Just because you have a super awesome magic hospital wing doesn't mean you can totally disregard the safety of children.
Whilst we're on the school side of thing, how weird is Slytherin? How come there is an entire quarter of the school that are allowed to fuck about and be pompous and get people into trouble and bully the other children. Then you can't do anything because they're Slytherin. How the hell can that even be an excuse.

Hogwarts, as a school, is a poorly run disgrace. I blame the headmaster!

Which neatly brings me back on topic with the next new thing in this film. Michael Gambon. In the first two films, Richard Harris played Dumbledore as a very softly spoken, wise, frail and impossibly old wizard. It worked for the earlier films because the cast were so young, they needed the hand holding, but he seemed quite a dull character just because he was so kindly and old. Suddenly in barges Michael Gambon. Far more energetic, far less hairy slightly west country with hints at Irish and with a bubbling undercurrent of danger.
My little sister, the obsessive Harry Potter nerd, doesn't like Gambon's portrayal because he seems too angry, too scary. I love it. Dumbledore is meant to be an incredibly powerful wizard, who has fought some incredible battles and who has permanently been up against criticism for his unorthodox ways. Gambon encapsulates that. His Dumbledore is a man with masses of time and compassion for his students but also with about a million things running through his mind at the same time. He seems permanently busy, frequently on edge but clever, understanding and fair. That is the important thing

The other teachers, as usual, don't get much of a look in. This is why I see Harry Potter as a mixed blessing. It really collects some amazing British actors. Then gives them about 4 lines as it focuses on children who (still) can't bloody act. Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe get gradually better but I think Emma Watson will be wooden forever.
This film adds Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Timothy Spall, David Thewliss and Emma Thompson (to name a few) into an already swelling cast list. Yet, dispite these phenominal actors (and the later inclusion of greats like Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Jim Broadbent) none of them get the chance to act... they just are sort of there. Offering exposition for the kids.
Even then, the film messes up.

At one point, Harry Potter is given the Marauder's Map. A sneaky parchment with a complete map of Hogwarts. It even marks every person in the building and where they are. How very useful. The map has a whole load of back story. Read it here. It introduces Messrs Wormtail, Moony, Padfoot and Prongs. However the film never explains who they are. It never explains why Lupin and Sirius have heard of the map and know how to use it. The importance of the nicknames are implied but never REALLY mentioned.
Plot wise, this is the film's biggest weakness.
But, the brilliant ending more than makes up for it. Playing like a version of Time Crimes for kids... Harry and Hermione use time travel to try and save the day... finding themselves directly responsible for things that happened earlier on in the film. It is a beautiful bit of playing with paradox and nonsense like that. I love it as a touch because it is so cleverly done and I do appreciate it when Time Travel is cleverly done.

I'm losing structure here, I have two more things I want to talk about but no way of linking them together.... so, quickly:

I really like the werewolf in this film. The transformation is pretty standard. Using a lot of the bone growing pain that comes from American Werewolf in London and has been used in everything since. What I like is that Lupin is more Were than Wolf. He doesn't just turn into a big dog... instead he turns into a kind of ape dog. With long orangutan arms and an awkward loping run. It is a great reinvention of the wolf man, one that puts as much focus on the Man element as it does on the Wolf element.

Finally... I like Trelawney's prophecy. I have to file J.K Rowling in the same camp I file Russel T Davis. In that fundamentally I find their writing quite annoying but the way they set stuff up is amazing. Harry Potter stories have so much going on, and it is so refreshing when you realise that all these little things are important. Are leading up to something. Something big.

It is just a shame that the big thing is never as big as you pictured it.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

All these weddings, all these years, all that blasted salmon and champagne and here I am on my own wedding day, and I'm... eh... em... still thinking

No 375 - Four Weddings and a Funeral
Director - Mike Newell

When we were younger we had the Four Weddings OST in our car. Which meant family drives were always accompanied to raucous singing along of songs about weddings. And Wet Wet Wet. This makes it really odd, because I've only ever seen Four Weddings the once (before today) but all the songs are so familiar to me, as well as the occasional soundbite. It makes the whole thing quite surreal.

This is the film that brought Richard Curtis into cinema and it also invented one of the most annoying characters ever. I entirely blame Richard Curtis for bumbling stuttering toff Hugh Grant. There was a period in the mid '90's where all of his roles seem to be full of 'oh... well... em... hmm... bugger... I say' and it was incredibly annoying. I'm very happy that that changed. But it all started with this film, and that is the main problem with this film.
Too many of the characters are stuttering blustery nervous toffs. This film is incredibly white, incredibly British, incredibly middle class and incredibly C of E. It makes for a story full of incredibly dull people. Their interesting character flaws and quirks are repressed through the stiff upper lip and awkwardness of social interaction. It means the characters aren't that easy to relate to or even care about.
Throughout the film we follow our protagonist, Charles, through a series of weddings. Where, it turns out, he was a bit of a commitment phobic shit to his ex girlfriends and he blusters around the place like a toff. He has a very funny habit of swearing (fuckadoodledoo being a favourite) which sounds quite quaint in his posh bumbly voice. Through this series of weddings he meets Carrie. Now somehow... Charles has never met Carrie but she appears at everyone's wedding so they must have a lot of mutual friends. I have to say she is forward, a bit arrogant and essentially really boring. We're supposed to care about the 'will they won't they' relationship that takes place. By which I mean that they sleep together twice and Hugh Grant whines a lot.... As you can probably tell, I didn't care about the couple.

In fact there is only one couple I particularly cared about, mainly because it consists of two of the three characters in the film who are actually INTERESTING.
The film is utterly utterly saved by Simon Callow's character Gareth. He is a whirling dervish of energy with amazing waistcoats and a fabulous booming laugh. He is confident, he is happy and he is exciting. In a film full of wet drips it is a massive sign of relief whenever he storms into the scene.
His relationship with Matthew (John Hannah) is underplayed throughout the film, but they come off as a caring pair who enjoy life rather than everyone else who seems to over analyse love and worry about stuff or mutter and mumble about expensive posh people things.

It is a shame about Gareth's involvement in the titular funeral... it is in fact very very sad. He is my favourite character in the film and his weak heart makes for the only scene which I felt had any actual emotion. John Hannah's speech and use of W.H.Auden is beautiful. A mix of the emotion, the delivery and that beautiful thick accent make the scene the only part which tugs at the heart strings.

The only other character that I found interesting is Scarlett, mainly because she is painted as the 'kooky' character. I like her for the fact that she beautifully displays how dated this film has got (hell it is 15 years old). The clothes are mostly dreadful but the language is also incredibly strange.
Mostly, the term 'bonking' - I can't think of any other moment in time where bonking was used as a word. I can't think of any social group that ever used it. I'm pretty sure it only really appeared in Four Weddings and then was never used ever again.
Which is fair... because it is a ruddy awful word.

While the rest of the characters are dull and wet drips, it doesn't stop the film being ultimately feel good and nice. I mean Charles' deaf brother is pretty cool, James Fleet and Rowan Atkinson come out of Curtis' TV stable to play excellent exaggerations of the bumbling awkward British awkwardness which is evident throughout.

I suppose, really, the only thing I actively dislike about Four Weddings is Andie MacDowell's character. Which is difficult when she is the love interest.
Also, she has the worst line EVER in what is the crappest and schmaltziest last scene in a film.

"Is it still raining? I hadn't noticed" - ICK ICK ICK

Monday, 21 December 2009

Tell me something, Billy. How come a cute little guy like this can turn into a thousand ugly monsters?

No 310 - Gremlins
Director - Joe Dante

It is time to crack out some of the alternative Christmas classics. This is a brilliant Christmas film in that, like the equally brilliant Die Hard, it happens OVER Christmas but it isn't directly about Christmas. It also comes through the period when Speilberg was producing bonkers 80's comedies. The Goonies is a surprisingly dark film for a children's adventure, but it pales in comparison of the awesome darkness on show in Gremlins.

This is violent messy anarchy. Surprisingly gory and full of messy explosions. It is a shame to see something so wildly madcap and dangerous made into something as anodyne as broadband repair. But that is the problem with nostalgic advertising execs.

The film begins like a smokey film noir, reminiscent of Blade Runner with the voiceovers, Chinatown and shadowy figures wearing trilbys. However, that is only a brief introduction before we are introduced to the Mogwai in the form of the painfully cute Gizmo. Look at him. He is just adorable. I'm surprised Dante never sued Furby over the toys.... the similarities in both visuals and sound are there in abundance.
There is nothing more Christmassy (in my eyes) than Gizmo in a santa hat.

Gizmo is soon introduced into a small American town with three important rules.
  • No bright lights
  • Don't get them wet
  • Don't feed them after midnight.
(that last rule is the most confusing... surely it is always 'after midnight' - when is it safe to START feeding them? What happens if you're on a plane chasing timezones.... that rule is too arbitrary - shouldn't it be don't feed them after dark or something?)

Of course, the rules get broken and all hell breaks out in the form of the titular Gremlins. I like the Gremlins because they have the best motivation for villainous monsters. Eat food, get wet so they can multiply, blow shit up. That appears to be it. Also, they seem to have ADD so they constantly get distracted by stuff. The cinema being the best bit. There is nothing I can think of funnier than the sight of all the Gremlins in the cinema singing 'Hi Ho' from Snow White. Brilliant. Bonkers bonkers brilliance.
That is what is great about this film - it is just bonkers. The Gremlins offer Dante the opportunity to unleash complete anarchy into the film. What is impressive is the level which he takes it.

If you 0nly ever seen Gremlins on TV, hunt out the DVD pronto. For some reason there is a TV edit that decided Gremlins would work as a PGish creepy horror-lite for kids. This means you miss out on all the best bits of the film.
Firstly you miss out on almost all of the Gremlin deaths, because Dante (quite rightly) realised that you want the Gremlins to die big messy deaths. So we get them mostly exploding into puddles of gore. Be it in blenders or be it in microwaves. Just big messy red BANGS. Most of the really big death are done in 3 minutes by Billy's mum who proves to be pretty damned badass at fending for herself.
The human deaths are also pretty dark, Murry's death is quite savage as he is mowed down by his tractor, whereas the cruel and heartless Mrs Deagle gets thrown out of the window by a super fast Stairlift - that is pretty funny. All the big messy deaths are pretty funny. Its like Final Destination with a sense of humour. And puppets. Puppets can only ever make a horror story better and funnier.
The only 'clean' death is when Billy manages to kill off most of the Gremlins in one fell swoop by setting the cinema on fire. If 2009 has taught me one thing it has taught me that if you want to kill off a large number of baddies (be they Gremlins or Nazis) set the cinema on fire.

You also miss the best line (or speech) to be uttered in the entire film. Billy's love interest, Kate, doesn't like Christmas. To be fair she has a ruddy valid reason not to...
The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn't home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That's when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He'd been climbing down the chimney... his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus.

I was watching this and my little sister just turned to me and told me that she wanted to laugh but felt bad. This is a REALLY black comedy (When it isn't a violent madcap slapstick one) and it surprises me that Chris Columbus went from writing this to writing the painfully saccharine first two Harry Potter films.

The madness isn't just there in the scenes with the gremlins, it also appears with Billy's father. He is a truly terrible inventor (I love the ominous tones the film takes whenever a character approaches one of the inventions... both the music and the camera seems to take a note of DOOM) and goes off to an inventors conference which looks brilliant.
Steven Spielberg whizzes past
H.G Wells' time machine vanishes between two scenes
Robbie the Robot appears to try and sell a car over the phone (though I can't be sure).
The little cameos and nods to other films (at one point Stripe, the head Gremlin, hides behind an ET doll) are just brilliant touches in a very good, very silly comedy.

It is the ultimate 80's film really, in that it ticks all the boxes. It has comedy, it has cute puppets, it has evil monsters, it has gore, it has explosions, it has Corey Feldman (a necessity in the 80's) it even sort of has a moral about responsibility.
Gizmo is reclaimed by his 'stereotype Chinese old man' owner but it is still a happy ending.

After all, Gizmo says Billy can return for him when he is older. Billy gets the girl and his father finally gets an invention accepted.

It is the kind of ending that you want at Christmas. A warm fuzzy feeling that immediately follows watching a gross monster melt.

Happy Times.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Police Informer

No 472 - Le Doulos
Director - Jean Pierre Melville

Before we begin it is important to talk about the title. The reason I think it is important is that it is the first thing that the film talks about. It should therefore be the first thing I talk about. To quote the pre-title disclaimer:
In slang "doulos" refers to a hat, but in the private language of police and underworld it refers to a man "putting it on", a police informer.

The film essentially covers a group of gangsters and 3 individual jobs they perform which are all interweaved (a jewel theft, a murder and a robbery). They get in increasing levels of trouble because within the group is a police informant, a snitch. What then follows is a quite painful hour and a bit of watching the main character, Faugel (who will never be as cool as the protagonists of Melville's later work Le Cercle Rouge), get further and further into trouble and getting more and more pissed off with the informant.
We are introduced to his crew and they're all a bit dodgy. Silien has repeated dealings with the police and is painted to be a completely cruel and immoral piece of work whilst Jean just comes off as a bit of an idiot, asking too many questions and having an annoying smug face. Either of them could be the informer but the film definitely wants you to think it is Silien, as he is continually showcased in scenes where he appears like a horrific bastard.

His finest moment being where he ties Faugel's girlfriend Therese to a radiator (I know I've said this before but 60's french chic is an EXCELLENT look for a lady), ties a belt around her neck, gags her and punches her in the face. What a superb bit of villainy. He is just so boo hissable and one of the few things in the beginning of the film that pep up the action.
You see, for most of this film I found it quite dull.
The set up is less interesting than the one other film I've seen by Melville, it seems to be solely based around Faugel planning a crime, failing and getting arrested. Throughout this period Silien wonders around asking questions.
Sure the way Silien asks questions changes - sometimes he is talking to the police, sometimes to barmen, sometimes he is beating Therese up as she is tied to radiators and sometimes he has sex with influential exes. However despite the range of methods, it doesn't mask that all he is doing is wandering around and asking questions. It doesn't make the film that exciting. However, thankfully all of that changes in the final act.

I would never claim to be an expect on Jean-Pierre Melville. I've only seen two of his films but I've started to see patterns. There are small patterns: the love of trenchcoats or the fact that the police stop running, take slow and very precise aim and shoot the fleeing perp. However both films have had a final act in which all the plot strands come together and everything twists and turns into a big messy final scene which is usually a Mexican Stand off. It is the kind of directorial decision that is also seen in other, more modern, gangster films. The works of Tarantino and Guy Richie spring to mind.
Once you've found out why Silien has been asking all those questions... everything becomes a bit more interesting.

The final act really ratchets up the excitement and the tension as we get loads of twists (which I won't reveal, after getting in trouble for Electra Glide in Blue), confusion, mixed signals, shoot outs, death, car chases and TWO 2CVs. I mean... you can't get much better than that, surely.

The film's ending also paints everything that has happened before in a different light and suddenly it isn't quite so boring. It is just a shame that the build up to that point feels so uninspired.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

I think it's kinda sexy that John Malkovich has a portal, y'know, sort of like, it's like, like he has a vagina. It's sort of vaginal

No 441 - Being John Malkovich
Director - Spike Jonze

A couple of days ago I went to see Where the Wild Things Are and I found it a truly upsetting experience. Don't get me wrong - you MUST all watch it, it is a beautiful and emotional journey and a visually stunning film. It is also a detached, cold, harsh and painfully heartbreaking study of loneliness. I found it very difficult viewing and at times almost inaccessible. I'm amazed that this was considered a 'kid's film' for a while.

After watching it I felt inspired to go and watch some of Jonze's past films to see if they were as hard and as moving as Where the Wild Things Are. So, it makes sense to begin with his ridiculous debut film.
The plot is too difficult to explain as there are so many little additional parts of it which make the story twist and turn. But the key essence of the film is paraphrased by the protagonist, Greg Schwartz (John Cusack)
There's a tiny door in my office, Maxine. It's a portal and it takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich's eyes... and then after about 15 minutes, you're spit out... into a ditch on the side of The New Jersey Turnpike.

Therein follows a film which blends a very fucked up love triangle with talk of what it is to have a soul, how you can manipulate people, immortality, fame, perception and obsession. It is a deliberately obtuse and confusing film, and yet I find it far more light hearted and far more accessible than WTWTA. I think part of this comes from Charlie Kaufman's very odd sense of humour. His film is willfully strange, hiding the intelligence of the bonkers central concept with layers of peculiar whimsy.
It is like Synechdoche New York (the only film Kaufman both wrote and directed) - the central concept is very strange, the premise is disturbingly bleak but the layers of silly fantasy around it keep the film enjoyable and funny. I think Malkovich is a comedy. A black comedy that has got incredibly twisted over the way but a comedy none the less. But there are no reasons for a lot of the weirdness in the film.
Let us look at what happens:
Greg's Office is on the 7 1/2 floor - this is sort of explained in the film, but not really... not in a way that really makes sense.
The odd odd Orientation video filled with cheaply made 70's nonsense.
In fact everything about Lestercorp is weird. The whole feel of the film is farcical (Dr Lester him self is a hilariously kinky old letch. It does make me chuckle).

The film just manages to stay light hearted, it means it can present quite painful or confusing subjects in a way that entertains rather than alienates.
For example. Look at Elijah the chimp's flashback to when he was being hunted. We're watching animal hunting, definite cruelty, but the way it is presented is so novel and unexpected that you're forced to laugh.
Or when Malkovich enters Malkovich and you're facing the most hilarious metaphysical headfuck - it kind of looks like Roald Dahl's witches are meeting up.

Malkovich's portrayal of himself is quite understated and he is made to look like a very normal and nice man. It is a bit odd seeing him as normal - talking about sex or smoking a joint for example - but he comes off as refined and gentle, albeit confused.
It is an interesting portrayal when compared to the two leads of Greg and Maxine (Catherine Keener) who are both unlikable. Greg is a whiney selfish git of a man and Maxine is just pure evil. A self centred manipulative bitch who enjoys messing people around.
The two protagonists become all the more unlikable when you compare them to the nicer characters like Malkovich or Dr Lester (who is a perv but amusing and charming with it) and Greg's wife Lottie (Cameron Diaz). Yes, she has one of the most complicated and confusing affairs in the world, but she is so naive and so NICE that she pulls it off without the audience hating her.
And what I like about Diaz and Cusack is that they're willing to grubby up because neither Greg nor Lottie are typically 'Hollywood Hot' people. It shows a massive change from Diaz's grand opening in The Mask just five years earlier (and yes, that was an entirely crowbarred aside just so I could include this clip). But then this becomes a typical part of Kaufman's films, they seem to involve the leading characters no looking all that attractive.

Really, when you look at it, I'm amazed this film is as approachable as it is. It is weird. Painfully weird. It contains puppets, which are creepy (though the puppet work in this is astounding). It is about being unfulfilled and wanting to be something (or someone) else and it is contains 2 truly horrible protagonists.
Yet throughout all of that it remains wittier and more accessible than a film starring the coolest kid ever and characters from the Jim Henson Creature Workshop. Go figure.

Though, the film does have one massively chilling point. The ending. It is horrible. It is such a traumatic final thought, such a bleak and distressing notion. It is amazing.

I can't even attempt to explain it, it takes most of the film to build up to that point. But go watch it and see for yourself.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Incompetence is the worst form of corruption

No 431 - Electra Glide in Blue
Director - James William Guercio

What I'm loving about this Film challenge is that occasionally a film that I've never heard of and completely blows me away. Mostly it has been like Santa Sangre or the Last Seduction (ok but not amazing) but some films have been outstanding:
Spirit of the Beehive
and now Electra Glide in Blue.

I don't know what I was expecting in a 70's cop film, but it wasn't what this film is. This is an outstanding film.

The opening montage is a clever mix of someone preparing chops and someone committing suicide. This then ties together the main plot of the film as police try to figure out whether this is a suicide or a homicide.
But mostly this is a film about corruption. Corruption within the police force. Corruption with criminals. Corruption in hippies even. The only character who seems not to be corrupt is our protagonist, the adorable John Wintergreen. He is just a delightful character who takes immense pride in his role as a police man. The introduction to John is what I expected from a 70's cop film, he is there romancing the women and getting into his smart biker cop gear. It is quick editing and sharp dressing and a funky funky soundtrack. John loves his role as a policeman but wants to improve, wants to become a detective. However he is surrounded by lazy and corrupt policemen like his partner Zipper.
Zipper is happy to just sit around in the shade, reading comics and occasionally victimising hippies. He is the audience's first sign of police corruption as he stops a hippy for no reason, searches him for 90 minutes and plants drugs onto him in order to get him in trouble. There is no reason for this, Zip just really doesn't like hippies.

The hippy-hate continues when John finally finds gets into the detective force and sees his boss Harve beat some innocent hippies for information. It is a level of corruption which slowly disheartens John and turns him into a less excited policeman. It is genuinely sad to see him become more and more disenfranchised with the police force, especially if you compare it with how he is when he originally gets into uniform. I mean when he first puts on the (fantastically cool) detective's uniform it is more than mere pride. It is all out love.

John is the only one who believes that the suicide is homicide and he is proven right. In fact the whole film is about him occasionally having an idea, nobody believing him and then him being proven right.

The police make so many mistakes in trying to solve the crime, and attack so many innocent people, that when the murderer is found (a delightfully innocent Willie) John is furious with the way that the police force have acted.
Even more angry when he finds out that Zip has 'acquisitioned' a motor bike from on of the hippies they had tracked down.

It seems that throughout the film John is attacked and cheated from all angles. That he is gradually beaten down and made to feel that his job is worthless. And yet throughout all this he remains a kind and honest cop. Which makes the final sequence so heartbreaking is that it is the first time he 'cheats' the law, doing somebody a favour because he was treated badly by Zip.
As thanks, the hippies shotgun John in the chest and leave him, slumped and sat up in the middle of the highway.
As the camera pans out further and further you see the complete isolation of the desert and the complete emptiness of it all.
It is a very bleak final shot. Beautifully tragic and a prime example of futility.

It is a surprisingly poignant message for what I thought was going to be funky grindhouse nonsense

Saturday, 12 December 2009

It can be - it can be hard to keep track of those things because lunch - lunch is a lot of things, lunch is difficult.

No 489 - Brick
Director - Rian Johnson

And so, after Trainspotting... we continue the heroin theme

This is a very difficult film to infiltrate. I've seen it twice now and whilst I know what is happening, I don't understand the hows or whys.

It seems that every character speaks in an impenetrable way. It isn't the accents, or the words themselves. Rather the delivery. A punchy, beat driven, hip cat way of speaking. That is beautifully melodic, impossibly cool and which washes over you. You get the drift of what has been said, but you wouldn't be able to recount any of it.

However, this plays to the films strength. Because it sounds like a gritty 1940's film noir. The language, the politics, the femmes fatales are all present and are all correct. This is the world of the private investigator. Set in a high school.
We have the aggressive, introverted, quiet loner, acting as the private detective (he'd probably be a chain smoking alcoholic if he wasn't 15). We have the damsel in distress - a broad who gets in far over her head (Claire from Lost, rocking the heroin chic), we have the femme fatales, the criminal kingpins and the law enforcement. It is all there... only at a school.

What is impressive is how well it works, and how there are only the occasional moments where you're forced to remember that these are 'children' in the story. The oldest character (if we don't include the principle or parents) is an 'old man' at 26. So instead of talk of jails or bars, we talk about the fears of detention and the internal politics of lunchtime cliques. A particularly genius moment sees our lead Brendan (an amazing Joseph Gordon-Levitt revealing none of the suave cool he can effortlessly show and instead giving a bristling performance of nerd rage - the guy is a formidable actor) meet with the drug lord of the area The Pin (Richie from Mars Attacks, will wonders never cease). The scene is tense, The Pin has his goon Tugger with him and the threat of violence is imminent until they are joined by The Pin's mother. The immediate switch to nervous politeness is such an apt and truthful depiction of teenagers and a reminder that all of this is happening to a young group of people. Not the hard boiled roles they seem to portray.

Most of the characters in this film then fall into the stereotype roles of the classic film noir. Brendan is the tough but quiet investigator, getting gradually more dishevelled and beat up throughout. The Brain is exactly that, the provider of information that Brendan needs to solve his mystery. Principle Gary Trueman is the hard nosed law official who makes a deal with Brendan only to find that Brendan is playing outside of the rules.
However, the biggest surprise is Tugger. He begins the film as a very 1 dimensional character. He is the muscle. The Pin's bodyguard. Essentially, he is there to punch Brendan. And he does this. A lot.
However, he turns out to be a very rich and nuanced character and a beautifully flawed character. When you get his confession near the start of the final third, it is a really moving and emotional moment.
The fact that he tries to resolve all of his problems with bullets means he is also a mean mean person to cross.

But a film noir will live or die on its broads. This has some amazing Femme Fatales. Who quiver with sexual energy and who you know are dangerous. The most overtly sexual is Kara (played by the beautiful Meagan Good), the theatre student who seems to eat freshman for breakfast. She occasionally gives Brendan information but is mostly there to seduce him. Or attempt to. Brendan is far too single minded to think of any diversions.
Anyway, she is the red herring. The real Femme Fatale is Laura. A creature who fabulously hides her plotting and malicious streak behind unbelievable cuteness. Nora Zehetner is beautiful. She looks like a tinier, more elfin Summer from the OC. She swans around the film looking like a sophisticated French Novelle Vague pin up. But she is dangerous.

With all these characters we then have a fairly standard film noir story featuring murders, pregnancies, drug cutting and violence. In the set up, this is quite an old school story.
In the execution there are some wonderfully modern moments.

There is some amazing snap editing that jitters or pauses or whizzes around whenever Brendan gets beaten up (and he gets beaten up a lot) but the best bit is when Brendan is being chased by a knife wielding bully.
The chase is played in essentially silence. No dialogue. No score. Just the panicky clatter of Brendan's footfall being followed by the steady metronome like boom boom boom of his pursuer. It is a long scene and it is beautifully done. Mixing brave and modern cinematography into a very intelligent but very old fashioned story and script.

Go and watch it. But don't expect to understand what is being said. Just enjoy being washed with the sense of distant disenfranchised teenage cool and the ongoing tension as Brendan gets further and further over his head.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?

No 316 - Trainspotting
Director - Danny Boyle

Ah the 90's and Cool Britannia.
We had Blur. We had Oasis (though I prefer Pulp - who have a song in this film - over either of them). We had Lock Stock and we had this.

'Hollywood Come In - Your time is up' rang the critic quote on the poster. The poster which even today adorns roughly a bazillion bedrooms of students and young adults.

This is one cool film. From the first seconds of the film with the 'dum dum dum' of Lust for Life playing under Ewan McGregor's Renton's iconic 'choose life' speech this film is showing itself as incredibly cool. Yet it walks a very intelligent (and very dangerous) tightrope. You see this film is incredibly cool and it shows taking heroin to be a very lovely and somewhat morish thing. But... in NO way does it glamorise heroin use.
The characters live in horrible squalid squats. There is a lot of poo throughout this film. There are a lot of robberies and a lot of violence.

For every scene in which you see people lying in bliss there are scenes (far longer, more important scenes) of utter horror. Allison's baby dies whilst she is on drugs - a horrible image which haunts the viewer throughout the film, almost as much as it haunts Renton throughout. However, the real warning comes from Tommy. A character that begins the film as one of the few normal people in their social group (he doesn't take drugs. He isn't a psychotic bastard) however after being dumped by his girlfriend he gets involved and everything spirals out of control.
It is quite sad that when we return to Tommy several months after his first hit he is living in a vandalised, dirty, unfurnished flat just lying on a sweat and piss stained mattress. When we return for the 3rd time. He is dead.

Spud ends up in jail, and later seen doped up on the side of a road (literally in the gutter) but Tommy is the warning - Heroin is not only not glamorous, it'll get ya killed.

In fact - for me the most chilling scene is the scene in which Renton overdoses. The mix of imagery as the panicked dealer drags Renton's twitching passed out body into a taxi with the soft tones of Perfect Day by Lou Reed. It is really a moving sequence - worth the price of the ticket alone. And seeing Renton suffer in that moment and the horrific 'cold turkey' sequence would put anyone off heroin forever.

But really this isn't a film about Heroin. It is about Renton trying to get clean, but mostly it is about Renton and his friends. It just turns out that most of his friends are Heroin users. However, the most dangerous of his 'friends' is clean.

Begbie. Fucking Begbie. Robert Carlysle at his most psychotic and terrifying. He has played a lot of psychopaths in the past, but the real chilling thing is how grounded in realism Begbie is. He is just a nutter that enjoys getting into fights. He is that massive cliche... a big violent jock. He is the one that Renton can't escape - he is the one that drags him back to heroin, despite being clean and very anti-smack.
The rest of the cast pale in comparison with Begbie though. Spud is an idiot, a gormless, harmless, smack addict idiot and Sick Boy is a wise alec twat. The other characters are all parents or girlfriends. Bit players in the grand scheme of things. Although I was very amused to see Shirley Henderson playing Spud's girlfriend. Oooh Moaning Myrtle talking about sex and swearing. Love it.

In fact, besides Begbie there is only one character that made an impact. Diane. I think she is hilarious and very cool (obviously as does Renton) and the fact that she is a school girl is hilarious (she is the least convincing teenager though - Kelly MacDonald was 20 at the time and I presume she is supposed to be 14 or 15 in this film.) - but despite scaring Renton to death with worry about going to jail, she turns out to be his most important ally. She writes to him and she cares for him and she's glad when he's off the junk. I like to think they eventually get together. When she has grown up.

The whole film is a slow wake up call. Not about drugs. Renton knows he is addicted. He knows it is bad. He says he should get off it at the very start of the film (that's what makes each failure so crushing). The film is a wake up call that he needs to get away from his idiot friends who bring him down.

So when he finally runs away with the profits of the big drug deal, you cheer.

You want Renton to have 16k to build a better life.

You want Renton to get better and to choose life.

You also know that jail can't hold Begbie forever.... So you want Renton to get far far away.