Thursday, 30 December 2010

VALHALLA RISING


NICOLAS WINDING REFN
2009 - Denmark/UK




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

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

Monday, 27 December 2010

The Best Things I watched in 2010

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


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

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

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

Scott Pilgrim Versus The World

We Are What We Are

Four Lions

La Antea

Life During Wartime

The Girl Next Door

In The Loop

Pontypool

Moon

My Way Home / Így jöttem

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

The Unborn

Pirahna 3-D

Death Tunnel



Where The Wild Things Are


WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Spike Jonz, 2009, USA

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

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

Sunday, 19 December 2010

TRON


Stephen Lisberger - 1982 - USA







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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, 6 December 2010

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE






Jorge Michel Grau,
2010, Mexico




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


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


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


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



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

Saturday, 27 November 2010

SUDDENLY


Lewis Allen - 1954 - US




In a little, sleepy, Republican town of Suddenly, a officer pauses to share a joke with someone passing through that “things happen so slow now, the town councillor’s figuring to change the town’s name to Gradually.” But it’s name comes from a time when it was a wilder place of gamblers, road agents, gunfighters, probably prostitutes, that kind of thing; the kind of people that make things happen ‘suddenly’. It shouldn’t be forgotten what kind of wildness built the town.


It’s a regular ol’ day in Suddenly. The most conflict seems to be when Sheriff Tod Shaw has a little tiff with the female that he is after, Ellen Benson, because he buys her son “Pidge” a cap gun when she has expressly forbid it. She is still grieving for the loss of her husband in the war, you see, and abhors symbols of violence. Oh, he explains that it’s not the weapon and it’s the man, et cetera, et cetera, but she isn’t having any of it. The Sheriff’s affinity with violence seems also to be one of the reasons she is playing hard to get. Her father-in-law is also tired of Ellen’s anti-violence moaning. She is, after all, just a woman and doesn’t understand that there is horror and Evil in the world that can only be resolved and fended off with counter-violence. But not to worry: her silly, womanly anxieties and philosophies will soon be shown up for the bunk they are when three hoodlums take over the family house for a plot to assassinate the President of the United States who is apparently - or suddenly as it may be - passing through. What follows is a little chamber piece in which decent people and hoodlums argue it all out whilst they wait for the assassination attempt.



Conversely, Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) would be better off without Sheriff Shaw because he’s an asshole, and as performed by Sterling Hayden, a wooden chunk of an asshole. He is belligerent and bolshy with the life-long ease of a born bully; juvenile in his responses to Ellen, swaggering with the unintentional humour that posturing machismo always brings. On the other hand, if she wasn’t such weak tea, she ought to notice that assassin John Baron is played by Frank Sinatra and is a far more interesting man. Sure, he’s a murderer, but so is her beau and her father-in-law because they were all soldiers: Baron brings with him an interesting questioning of what it means when a Nation trains its men to kill. This grey area is quickly resolved by the Sheriff distinguishing between good and bad soldiers, those that come home to take on authorities roles such as cops and secret agents and those that liked it too much: Baron was born a killer, even if, as he says, “They” taught him how to kill. His mental health is probably more a result of this innate psychothic nature, the fact that he was left in an orphanage, that kind of thing, rather than a result of war trauma, of course. He’s a bad seed, see?



We are a long way from the home invasion scenarios of “Funny Games” and the like, but nevertheless there is a fair hard edge to the proceedings. The film implies Baron’s sadism and instability as much as possible, whilst never losing his hoodlum hat, and it’s fairly zesty with the expendable cast. Thanks to Sinatra’s performance, both mean and vulnerable with eyes full of uncertainty and a gutted sense of his own emotions, we have no doubt that he is capable of carrying out his threats against “Pidge” and the President. Sinatra brings the whole set-up alive in a community of otherwise stock types and rote performances. The film may try to side-step the issue of what turning men into killers might do to a generation, but he is far from a whiner about his lot and he does help to puncture the posturing of the ex-servicemen around him just by being there. He is also living the American dream of Capitalism and firearms: he doesn’t have any feelings about his job, he is just doing it for the money and marking his place in the world by killing when told and paid to. It’s just business. Baron may be wrong, but that doesn’t make the little conservative enclave he invades right just because of their pretences at patriotism and overall recourse to violence which is just as quick as his, although arguabloy justified as self-defence. Writer Richard Sale also can’t help but give Baron the best dialogue either. The irony is simple: the bad guy bring with him the dark edges of noir and is the only point of fascination in the film, the near only thing with blood running through it’s veins. Sinatra is good casting: he is tiny compared to the hulking Hayden, but Sinatra holds his own by doing and not swaggering. Only with the TV repairman - who may as well wear a target on his chest when he turns up late in the proceedings - played by James Lilburn do we get another actor actually awake and complex, simultaneously confused, outraged, bemused and shocked.

It is all highly implausible, of course, with the feel of an expanded play. The play with the cap gun and the television set is quite neatly handled, right under the assassins’ noses, and the ending - and we’re never in doubt as to the how things will turn out - gives both “Pidge” and Ellen a chance to resolve issues with a firearm. That’ll learn’em. And later, it will be the Sheriff playing hard to get and Ellen doing the chasing. That’ll teach her.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

PIRANHA 3D


Alexandre Aja
2010- US - 88m

Alexandre Aja’s gore-and-soft-core 2010 “Piranha” remake is so unapologetic in its apparent disdain for audience and cursory intellect that that it is thoroughly critic-proof. Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to outline some key reasons why this piece of shit doesn’t work.

It’s horror for hecklers, for what they call trolls, for those that really have no interest in any investment in character or story. What they want, and what they get, is tits and ass, blood and dismemberment. So gratuitous is it in its misogyny that it ought to be parody. This outrageous misogyny is the film’s chief joke, extreme gag-gore it’s second. All this is explained by a spring break festival of hedonism based around Wild Wild Girls with constant gyration on boat decks. Girls shake booty; boys ogle. But “Piranha” offers no commentary: what happens is that this perpetually dancing and lusting cast of extras are so loathsome and vapid that we don’t give one toss whether they live or die. The nastiness of the piranha attacks are an end in themselves, and so cartoonish and CGI-buffered that they are empty of identity and really give nothing up for the audience. There is some cursory suspense wherein our key protagonists are stuck on a boat and need rescuing, but the fact that it all ends with an explosion only feels like one more condescension - because isn’t blowing up everything how endings work? - and then this is topped off with a stupid, stupid coda.

How odd that Aja, having staked a reputation with the flawed but full-on horror “Haut Tension”, seems to have fallen into America by way of remakes that no one really wants. I myself warmed to his updating of “The Hills Has Eyes”, but in “Piranha”, his capacity for outright nastiness is anchored to nothing and his sense of atmosphere nonexistent. It is as if the Weinstein brothers, producing, and director Aja know the film was worthless at worst and slim at best and simply threw in more and more tits. Guys will pay to see that, right? Twentysomethings - that key demographic - love to see their own kind acting like assholes and then slaughtered en masse, right? Ever since “Friday the 13th”, we know this. Setting up an appalling spring break community (which need not be appalling) and then slaughtering the lot isn’t criticism of that culture: it’s just setting up the skills to knock down. When we get to see a piranha cough up a half-chewed penis, you know horror has reached quite a nadir and the filmmakers don’t care. The audience laughs both with and at the fact that the film has no care.

You may or may not agree that it’s insulting. The audience I saw it with treated it as a comedy, and sure enough it is, but it is the bassist, crassest humour. It has more in common with the “Scary Movie” franchise than, say, the Joe Dante original. It doesn’t even have the breezy inventiveness and anarchy of Troma Studio’s bad taste films: it’s much, much better made, but aside from the boundary-breaking breast bonanza and general, silly nastiness, it’s really a tidy little package. Inventiveness and anarchy, you see, are not condescending to an audience; simply amping up the lesser qualities of b-horror is. And no, it is not satire either.

As the lead teenager being teased into the spring break craziness by Kelly Brook - rather than, you know, being tied down to the responsibility of baby-sitting and browsing porn on his laptop for light relief - Stephen R McQueen seems to try his best to be a convincing and charming every-guy just about to learn the joys of adult indulgence, but his efforts dissolve into stock scenarios. Interestingly, it is Kelly Brook who, in the brief time she gets, manages to evoke something like an real interesting character: playful, gorgeous, unapologetic, independent, plus mature. Now, if Kelly Brook had been the one to cut through the bullshit and save the kids on the piranha-besieged boat - all without changing her bikini - then maybe there might have been something interesting here, something a little critical of gender types in horror films. That would have been a whole lot sexier and more interesting to debate. But, alas, no: Kelly must go the way of any hot girl who indulges in naughtiness. She has the best and most genuinely amusing joke - the opera-scored nude swimming duet - and seems a wasted opportunity.

Dante’s original is a cult favourite, and no one thinks it’s a masterpiece, but it is mischievous, fun, engaging, satirical, nasty and witty. “Piranha” 2010 has mostly tedious American cookie-cutter acting, thin characters, a bunch of non-starter cameos (Eli Roth, for one, which might clue you in to the standard), and all the piranha and gore generated by CGI you could want. Oh, and it has 3D. Tits and 3D: that should bring them in. The 3D enhances nothing. The technology may have improved, but 3D still won’t improve a film. It works best with beams of light shining underwater (the underwater lake sequence is the best scene because, for a moment, the films looks real pretty and there is a real, fleeting sense of dread and otherworldliness). Otherwise, it often looks just like bad Photoshop work (the opening whirlpool sequence is especially bad). What we are left with is a horribly cynical horror film cashing in on a relatively respected cult item, puked up over the frat boy horror fan who likes being puked on - because that’s funny; a film with no real shelf-life due to its artlessness. A film that casts American culture as a wasteland of self-absorbed decadence, vapidity, and one that thinks that the tits and cocks of this culture being eaten is the stuff of great sight gags. It’s junk, but not in a good way.

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Friday, 19 November 2010

ADVENTURES IN FILM #1

FAVOURITE SCENES: “LET THE RIGHT ONE IN”: the pool scene.

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Occasionally, a film makes you say something aloud, or shout something at the screen. Oh, I have seen people calling advice and names at “EastEnders”, cursing the news, but that’s not what I mean. I have heard stories of audiences shouting at screens things such as “I would kill that guy!” and so on, but that’s not what I mean. I am talking about something even more primal. I am talking about when the film you are watching and all the elements - sound, vision, mis-e-scene, pacing, atmosphere, characterisation, etc - coalesces into pure story and all the elements hit the right note suddenly you realise how film reaches places you maybe never quite knew were there in a film. And you say something out loud because you are delighted and in awe.

I was watching “Let The Right One In”, with love, soaking it all in, thinking what a brilliant horror and brilliant bildungsroman it was… I was totally invested in Oskar’s situation, fearful for him as a victim of bullying, as a somewhat naïve and sweet soul, fearful of him as his unresolved need for revenge seemed to tap into the latent psychopath squirming in his gut and the hand that held the pen-knife. His relationship and investment in Eli, who remains impregnably enigmatic, was fraught with danger and gore and alive with affection and loyalty. But how were they going to resolve it?

Horror endings, especially, are notoriously weak, disappointing, stupid. I am a horror fan, but it’s the truth. But I had not read Lindqvist's novel, so I had no idea how it would sort itself out, or not.

And then: the pool scene.

The bullies have contrived to corner unsuspecting Oskar in the pool, where he is trying to do something for himself (now that Eli has gone) by learning to swim. They, on the other hand, have come to punish him for whacking the chief bully about the head with a stick, costing him his ear. Chief bully has brought along older brother, who is evidently of a more murderous nature. Chief bully’s henchmen don’t seem so sure, seemingly equally scared of carrying out the increasing cruelty and scared of not doing as they are told and losing … status? Power? Comradeship?

Then there is only Oskar and the four bullies, no one else, and the brother is holding his head underwater. Eli the vampire is conspicuous by absence.

Oskar is in slowed-motion underwater, drowning in dull pool blue. All is quiet. The brother has discovered his capacity for doing the unspeakable. The bully henchmen are slowly being traumatised by their complicity, not really having that same capacity, but in too deep. Oskar is drowning and we are underwater with him, watching. Bubbles float. And…

Wait. What was that noise? Huh? Wait!..? Is that… is that screaming? We are still underwater so all other sounds are muffled. The brother’s hand still grips Oskar’s hair, pushing him under. Then a foot flies past the screen…!! Two feet are flying across the pool, just under the surface of the water, kicking!!

And it was at this point that I said to the screen, out loud and clearly: “Oh my God.”

Because my jaw my dropped, my heart in my throat, my sense of drama, film, story and horror in my throat too. Oh wow. It seemed to me that, rarely, does a film find the totally right way to film a moment, that it was rare to see such a horror scene – a vengeance scene, a slaughtering, the horror money-shot – filmed in such a way.

So: trying to disentangle the sounds that are muffled to work it out. Oskar still floats, half-dead perhaps. Oh, what a perfectly pitched scene: pure cinema, pure horror – all about what you don’t see, triggering the imagination, trusting the audience, focusing on what matters – Oskar’s life! – whilst not skimping on the horror. A decapitated head falls into the pool distance. Jesus. Crunch! The hand holding Oskar down becomes detached and falls away with its disembodied arm. Oskar hasn’t even seen, his eyes closed. It is like he is dreaming all the vengeance, or like he has summoned it. Perhaps he has.

Now a hand reaches in and gently lifts him out. He drifts to the surface.

Above the surface comes Oskar’s head. He opens his eyes and he is looking into those of Eli. He smiles. Yes.

And then: a wide-shot of the pool: in the distance, the headless body draped over the side of the pool: the body of the bully henchman who, really, had he taken time and listened to conscience, could have been a friend to Oskar and saved them all a lot of grief… perhaps. Perhaps he really was that mean and treacherous. Hard to tell. Another of the film’s perfectly maintained ambiguities and mysteries. In the foreground, the ravaged corpses of the chief bully and his brother and, to the side, the other henchman, still sitting where he had sat earlier in terror when realising they were going to drown Oskar, and he is quietly sobbing.

Chills, thrills, drama; horror through sounds and hints but never holding back on the gore either. Such a fine balance. A scene bringing Oskar’s vulnerability to breaking point, never losing sight of him, and in that, never trivialising the albeit mostly off-screen slaughter as merely a shock-piece either.

And when he smiles at Eli, that is it. It is the best and the worst thing ever for him. He is simultaneously found, safe, lost and salvaged by horror. Should you care about such things, it is a cinematic moment transcending genres, one that proves that horror can be rife with both gore and humanity. A film that keeps me rooting for horror as a genre capable of reaching places unlike any other. And one of my favourite scenes.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Notes on why "Let Me In" is not "Let The Right One In"


Notes on why "Let Me In" is not "Let The Right One in"

When I was a boy, I would buy comics, read them and then, with my collection of felt tips, I would colour them in. It didn’t matter if they were black or white: if they were colour pictures, I would simply go over their red with my red, etc. What a hideous act of destruction, I think to myself in retrospect (those comics could have been worth loads now!). But it also appears to me that my act of vandalism was a side effect of coveting the artwork and stories I so enjoyed. With ruinous tools, I attempted to claim them for my own and, yes, perhaps even improve them. It also occurs to me now that this is much like the art of the remake.

There is no getting around comparisons with the original, and that’s why these words are going to be about why “Let Me In” is not “Let The Right One In”. This is only marginally different from damning one with contrast with the other, but I do want to distinguish that this is my agenda from the start. What we have is Thomas Alredson’s “Let The Right One In” being a masterpiece, the superior adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, and Matt Reeves’ decent version called “Let Me In” being an American remake of the Swedish film. In fact, the original’s instant classic reputation was/is still warm and spreading when “Let Me In” was made. I shall agree to a large extent with Victoria Large that “'Let Me In’ may be a song that you’ve heard before, but it still sounds great.” If “Let Me In” is a lesser version cashing in, it has only itself to blame, for that is predominantly the domain of the remake and the nature of the beast. Let this be less a straightforward takedown of a remake for not being the original, and more a exploration of why it isn’t. Reeves' film may be a different take on the novel, but it seems likely that it would never have been made if the Swedish film had not become such a cult success. Reeve’s film should not be condemned for any perceived lack of thorough fidelity to the source; making alterations and taking liberties does not automatically flaw an adaptation ~ Alfredson and Lindqvist left out entire chunks in their translation onto screen, after all. In fact, variations and liberties should be encouraged in the hope that they illuminate the original text. It is all about which choices and variations are made: will they illuminate, strengthen or sabotage and weaken?

The title: somehow, the abbreviation, or truncation, of the title is a big clue as to how “Let Me In” compares with its predecessor. “Let The Right One in” - thank you, Morrissey - as a phrase is full of ambiguity, suggestion and scope that “Let Me In”, as a title and film, does not possess. Once the remake was annouced, its pending inferiority was predicted, for the majority of sequels are anticipated to be so, and it does not disappoint on that score. “Let Me in” is certainly not a bad film, being engaging enough and a decent variation on the original tale, carrying a lot of atmosphere and seriousness; but anyone suspecting that a translation to American cinema would neuter much of its resonant detail will have their conjectures confirmed. “Let Me In” does little to dispel a widespread view that any Americanisation (i.e., Hollywoodisation) of a foreign film will simplify if not “dumb down” a more layered and intelligent original. Indeed, there is the infamous case of the terrible subtitling of "Let The Right One In" with the first Ameican DVD release, prime evidence that American translations tend towards "dumbing down" (and you should definitely look here at Fright to see how appallingly a non-English language film can be treated in translation).

And arguably, “Let Me In” does suffer from a neutering, a simplification of all the fascinating and discomforting elements of the Swedish originals, book and film. It is poorer because it is more average, in its adherence to a more traditional genre template, to the very tropes that the originals managed to a large extent to refresh. “Let Me In” is inferior in its persistent obviousness, in making much of the primary mystery explicit, in its more mediocre dialogue and black humour. It is lesser in the obviousness of its vampire make-up, in its recourse to CGI to assist in creating a more inhuman monster (and no, I am not letting “Let The Right One In" cat scene off the hook). Anyone immersed in both the horror and the coming-of-age genre will find things simply more conventional in a way that Alfredson’s film avoided. Reeves’ film is enjoyable, but often uncertain, often copying the Swedish predecessor, ditching the tricky stuff, lacking the challenges and true poignancy of the earlier film. “Let Me In” is more than passable as a remake, but it simply misses so much. Remakes have the difficult goals of both being faithful ~ which usually mean duplicating original material ~ and staking their own identity. One could look to the American remake of “The Ring” to see a remake that actually amplifies and successfully varies the scary tension of the original. Rob Zombie’s “Halloween”, for all its flaws, definitely justifies its alternative take on the original story and commands its own individuality. “Let Me In” simply does not diverge enough, or in an original fashion, and even on its own terms it comes over as too obvious. Everything is sign-posted and tagged. Michael Giacchino cues every response he thinks we ought to be experiencing as if scoring a more needy drama in need of emotional overstatement.

“Let Me In” includes nods to all the major points and characters of the original story ~ many crucial secondary characters are name-checked and pass by (listen for a mention of Tommy, a key character in the novel otherwise absent in both films) ~ but they are all swept away to focus on the young romance. Groan as Owen (previously Oskar) is reading “Romeo and Juliette” for school. But this narrowing down does not cause sharp focus: again simplification occurs. This means that Owen’s dyfunctional family is reduced to brief banal ‘they’re separated’ dialogue and squabbles. When Owen’s mother is propped next to a finished bottle of something ~ alcoholism playing a major part in “Let The Right One In” ~ here it looks like crass shorthand. Whereas “Let The Right One In” comes with a fine catalogue of side characters, the adult support in “Let Me In” mostly evaporate. So a woman goes up in flames (and in keeping with the film’s add more ethos, takes a nurse with her), but it’s simply a set-piece shocker, for we do not know her at all and we don’t care, we’re just suitably horrified. More shorthand: curious and investigative locals are replaced by a single generic Detective - gone is the sense that Oskar’s community has been left to rot, to fend for itself, that there is no protection from or effective law, that any horror can hide there.

In the original, the whole of Oskar’s frozen community seemed sodden with the scourge of alcoholism, an epidemic numbing all human affections, leaving them reeking of despair and dead ends ~ and that being the promise of Oskar’s future. I do not agree with David Jenkins that, in “Let The Right One In”, “eccentric characters are thrown in as story padding” (1): the stir crazy locals are crucial to Oskar’s alienation, his circumstances. In “Let Me In”, this is absent and loneliness and alienation is created by the sense that Owen barely even meets anyone. The backdrop somehow possesses none of the winter-chill eeriness of the original either: rather, the courtyard is bathed in light that is something between bright warm oranges and piss-yellows. This, although apparently caused by the courtyard lighting, seems an odd choice as it robs the story and film of its natural temperature. The one time the film really makes use of Winter is the remarkable image of a corpse in an ice block being pulled out of the lake. Otherwise it’s just footprints in snow.

All this, one can argue, is simply a shift in emphasis for a different market; others may see these details as evidence of “dumbing down”, the occasional uncertainty of tone I earlier accused “Let Me In” of.

More:

When we first meet Oskar in “Let The Right One In”, he is toying with a penknife and, unforgettably, mimicking his tormentors at school ordering him to squeal, little piggy. When we find Owen indulging in this, he is emulating how his persecutors call him a girl. The shift is striking: it evokes homophobia and the denigration of the feminine: they try to verbally castrate him. How very American a translation. Less abstract, primal, and less evocative. This Are you a girl? insult and provocation ends up carrying all the gender confusion that the original novel finds so crucial. (2) In the novel, it is as if Lyndquist wants to push his young loners beyond gender, so that their friendship transcends the problems of gender and social relations. The novel also has a more difficult and distressing portrayal of sexual monsters that could never be fully moved onto the screen. Consequently, for example, Hakan ~ Eli’s adult protector and the most problematic character who, in prose, carries a horror that outdoes Eli’s vampirism ~ is almost entirely devoid of complexity or character in “Let Me In”. All the ickiness has been carefully, surgically removed. Eli is now simply a vampire girl. Hell, Owen even keeps his pyjama top on when Eli comes to seek chaste comfort from him in bed.

If it was not for Chloe Moretz ~ still fully hyped from "Kick Ass" ~ it is easy to imagine that Abby (previously Eli) would also become very vapid by comparison. (3) There is good stuff between her and Kodi Smitt-McPhee as Owen (still hyped from his turn in "The Road") ~ a nice retro-moment in an '80s arcade ~ but as competent as these young actors are, they are left a little stranded with mostly unchallenging dialogue and an unevenness of tone. They don’t feel as iconic and a right as Hadebrant and Leandersson. Their playfulness is lost. They have the loneliness, but not the tangible fury and despair of the original, because “Let Me In” is missing that breadth of context; it is afraid to allow Abby and Owen the full range of what and who they truly are, and the film simply lets them drift through, actors struggling for bearing, plot dragging them towards the conclusion when so much of it should be guided by their characters. When Owen discovers the truth about Abby, it comes as a total shock to him, for beforehand he has not really been shown to have suspicions about his new friend; the element of an impending Faustian pact of sorts that must be made just to gain friendship, that too is vague. Trampled apparently by the romanticism of “Romeo and Juliette”, their relationship has the gore but lacks the chilling revelation that the need for friendship can be a horrifying force.

We are never afraid of Owen, but this is less due to Smitt-McPhee’s abilities than this reduction of the key relationship being put down to simple adolescent loneliness. With Oskar, as played by Kare Hedebrant and his terrible hair in the Swedish adaptation, we felt that his consummate alienation and torment at the hands of others make him a potential psychopath in the making. It is that piggy stuff: he mimics his tormenters so furiously and bitterly. When he hits his bully across the head with a branch, we might feel he has crossed a dangerous line, but one that was always a part of him. He got a kick from it and we feel he wants more. Oskar relishes. He is, we feel, reaching his full potential. When Owen does it, it is simply self-defence: no real moral complexities are evident; his soul is barely at stake. Even providing Owen with a little “Rear Window” voyeurism early on doesn’t ultimately trouble his character. It is worth quoting Matt Reeves himself (still respected from Cloverfield) to demostrate that he gets so much of what Oskar is about, and yet cannot carry this over so very clearly and starkly in Owen, who is a far more pacif, rudderless character:

"...there's something very interesting about a 12 year old boy growing up in a world where he's bullied so mercilessly that he deserves revenge but he does not know what to do about it. He's so helpless, and how could he not be? He's only human. He has those feelings. And yet the world around him is telling him those are evil thoughts and that they mean he is evil.Because there's none of that within us, we are fundamentally good. And wouldn't he not understand any of that and feel lost?" (4)


This sounds interesting, a summary of a fully formed character and context. But this is not particularly the character of Owen that we meet. We do not really see him being told that his thoughts of revenge are evil. Keeping this quote in mind, when Owen calls his father and asks if he believes in evil (neatly, the father is so self-obsesses he thinks this is just Owen's mother poisoning the boy against him), perhaps we are meant to sense Owen's confusion about his own desire for violent revenge, although it is all so vague that we might feel he is simply referring to Abby, who he has discovered to be inhuman. This reference to "evil" also seems paricularly American, as if American horror can only see monsters and violence in terms of an abstract, religious context, which the original sources are very particular about side-stepping. But Owen's reference to "evil" is a non-starter and barely contributes to what comes after.

What Reeves does offer that is new is something not found in either the novel or the Swedish adaptation: in place of an eerie, distressing locker room scene, a botched murder attempt, we get an action set-piece: it is a fairly breath-taking and scary car crash as viewed from within the vehicle, and it is probably the only truly original and virtuoso set-piece “Let Me In” has. The other set-pieces mostly copy, paste and add more gore. In his “Little White Lies” review, Adam Woodward waxes that “Let Me In” is “bloody and unabashed”; that the “eerie quietude so deftly composed by its predecessor is here ousted by bloodcurdling screams and eye-watering violence” (5). Perhaps I am jaded from too many modern European and Asian ‘extreme’ horrors, but I cannot say I saw much of the bloodcurdling, the screaming and eye-watering violence, or no more than the average modern horror. Nevertheless, “Let Me In” is probably bloodier than "Let The Right One In". By the time we get to the pool scene, wondering if perhaps this version will be able to pull out a different angle, what we get instead are a thick wodge of horror orchestra and simply more limbs and blood in the pool, and therefore none of the sheer originality of Alfredson’s careful use of sound, angle and hints. So of course it would be possibly impossible to out-do the original pool scene ~ a total, horror classic ~ but to simply trace over the original and add more bloodiness… was that even trying? Sometimes more blood simply seems desperate. And here, again, Reeves misses the tiny details that mean everything: the apparent and increasing confusion of cruelty and conscience of the main bully’s henchmen; the way Eli leaves just one alive, traumatised. And then, in closing somehow, someway, the brilliant openness and ambiguity of the original ending feels narrowed, somehow explained and less troubling (and Hakan’s birthmark is another groan-worthy cue that undoes much of the mystery once it appears in some old photos Owen sees). It has less resonance because the rest is a more confirming, more straightforward telling of a modern classic. And then the strings swell.

It has to be said that Giacchino’s score is a terrible offender. It cues in every emotion, every horror as if worried we just aren’t getting the undercurrents. And in that score, as well as the abbreviated title, we find everything that “Let The Right One In” was not.

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It must be noted that "Let Me In" is the first film from the revived Hammer Studio Brand. Not a bad start, even if it seems a safe bet to cash in on a previous established title. Hammer was, after all, a certain kind of exploitation. Welcome back then. Better than Amicus' return with "It's Alive".




(1) David Jenkins review for “Let The Right One In”, Time Out Film Guide 2011, (ed. John Pym, Time Out Guides Ltd, London, 2010) pg. 609

(2) One friend called this version of the knifing-the-tree scene embarrassing, badly acted and executed.

(3) Another friend feels that Moretz is badly cast and that this scuppers the whole film.

(4) Matt Reeves interview by Jonathan Crocker, Little White Lies Magazine, issue 32 nov/dec. pg. 76

(5) Adam Woodward, "Let Me In" review, Little White Lies Magazine, issue 32 nov/dec 2010, pg.77