Sunday, 16 May 2010

A Swedish Love Story

Roy Andersson, 1970, Sweden

What is distinguished about Roy Andersson’s portrayal of adolescent love is the respect, the unwavering reverence with which he treats the romance of his young protagonists. We may be amused at their affectation of supposed adult ‘cool’, with their leather jackets and mopeds and miniskirts and attention to make-up and posing, but these are also the core of their evolving characters. There is no denying the confidence with which they carry themselves. It is impossible not to recognise ourselves in them: furtive looks, raw feelings, tenderness. When Par (Rolf Sohlman) receives Annika (Anne-Sofie Kylin) at his family’s country home, he can barely stop smiling to be around her. These are agreeable protagonists, not immediately approachable or conventionally affable, for we will never be allowed access to their full inner-workings; but they are fully rounded characters.

Andersson’s debut wears very little friction between the loose influence of Czech New Wave naturalism and the clearer, infamous stylistic formalism of his later films (""Something Happened", "Songs From The Second Floor", "You, The Living"), although the opening does inform us that this is theatre with the rise of a curtain. Andersson’s obsession with detail serves his young couple well, not only in their dress sense and mannerisms, but also their less guarded mannerisms and casual body-language (e.g., the random way Par clucks his tongue nonchalantly after having been caught romancing in Annika‘s bedroom). It also generates a wholly convincing milieu for them to live in and explore: from nursing homes, clubs and the streets, to Annika’s bedroom and the country retreat. Rarely do films feel so of a time and place without feeling dated.

Andersson’s respect for his protagonists is served further by technique: after a split between the couple due to Par’s humiliation and near unbearable shame at being beaten by another boy, the break-up is resolved in a glorious scene where Par mopeds across the yard back into Annika’s arms. The scene uses a melancholic swell of music, strings that manage not to turn the evident melodrama of the moment trite, but rather serious, heroic and moving. The moment creates a dry humour in evoking those big scenes of reconciliation that resolve so many romantic narratives: he is James Dean, Elvis, whoever, awkwardly jumping off of the moped to rush back to her. But more than this, when they are reconciling, the music swells to drown out their spoken intimacies and the camera steps back from close-up to wide-shot to allow them their privacy. It is a moment of sublime cinematic generosity and regard for the characters.

But once they are at the country home, Andersson retreats from the couple completely and we are left with the adults. Throughout, we have been shown the adults as a counterpoint to the young romantics, apparently to reveal what a loveless adulthood becomes, to show what the teenagers are not, or even what they might become. No, we don’t really believe they will become their parents, but the possibility remains. The adults are tediously angst-ridden and distraught, melodramatic and childish in a way Par and Annika are not. Annika’s parents are trapped in an apparently loveless marriage where the mother sobs and the father is given to pompous declarations of bitterness. With Par’s parents being more settled (regardless of their concerns about ill grandparents and business in a time of economic strife), the dramatic focus falls on Annika’s parents, in particular her father’s self-loathing and boorishness. He is driven to distraction by a sense of failure, his temper and a desire to see his indifferent daughter deliver vengeance on the world on his behalf. This focus seeks to trump the Swedish love story who are conspicuous in their absence - Par and Annika have snuck away to be intimate - and the adult histrionics are crass and far less involving than the delicacies of the teenagers. Earlier, a scene involving installing a pair of swing doors in the house is almost farcical in the way the family turn it into a confrontation of the value of the action and the meaning of life. But later, there is little of the satirical, mocking qualities to the last act, as typical of Andersson’s subsequent films; yet the party hats and bibs provide some welcome surrealism, although this too is slightly at odds with the preceding naturalism. Ultimately, there is the feeling that a wrong-turn has been taken, as if the narrative has wandered into another Bergman-influenced film of broken angst-ridden families, leaving the love story somewhat stranded and an aftertaste of dissatisfaction. Like Par and Annika, we really had little to learn from the adults.

Nevertheless, this remains a towering, beautifully made tribute to first love, to the main protagonists and the range of feeling and intelligence held by youth. A rare film that sees its main characters not so much as puppets and ciphers ruled by narrative, but as the personification of the raw, rare and vital intimacies of adolescent discovery and character; and in that way, and more than that, as people in their own right.

Kick Ass

Matthew Vaughn, 2010, USA

When "Kick Ass" first came out, Mark Millar And John Romita Jnr’s comic was an instant phenomenon. The film came out seemingly when the comic had barely finished. That is, barely finished volume one. It’s concept is simple: what if a comic book nerd took it upon himself to dress up and fight crime in the real world? He tries it out, gets hospitalised a couple of times, has some success when his fighting a bunch of thugs gets filmed and uploaded to Youtube. In fact, he becomes an internet and cultural phenomenon. At this point, there is much blood and guts, some lowkey adolescent humour and wish-fulfilment fantasy and not just a dash of self-loathing. "Kick Ass" looked like it may have something to say. And then the story introduces Big Daddy and Hit Girl and Red Mist and organised crime. The comic moved into "Batman" and "Daredevil" territory. Big Daddy was a "Punisher" like vigilante figure with a pre-adolescent ninja daughter. The defining image of "Kick Ass" became not so much "Kick Ass" in his ski suit, but Hit Girl covered in gore from head to toe.

Which you are not going to see in the film adaptation. Announcements of the film adaptation came early in the comic’s first run (reprints with variant covers were catnip for collectors and fooled others into buying editions they already owned) and my first thought was, How the hell are they going to do that? The fact that Matthew Vaughn’s film - writing with Jane Goldman - is not the total compromise that might have been expected is remarkable. Even the fact that a mainstream film going by a mildly swearing title seems remarkable (that, along with "Inglourious Basterds", has Hollywood ever offered such a mild-sweary-title season?). It surely indicates how the ultra-violence and taboo-breaking of the alternative art scene has gone mainstream. So maybe Dave Lizewski - a.k.a. Kick Ass - is older than I imagined from the comic, and as played by Aaron Johnson he is surely more American every-nerd, and far less ugly and manipulative than his comic book counterpart. But Hit Girl is still an eleven-year-old super-psycho. So: sure, we get a hoodlum being microwaved, but the film simply leaves out much of the hand-on super-gore, and it inevitably has to. Hit Girl barely gets a bloody splatter upon her. We don’t get the nasty "Kick Ass" torture session, complete with his testicles being frazzled. And also, rather than the bloodbath finale of the comic, we get a thrilling and funny and totally comic-book showdown, complete with bazookas and jetpacks. It goes for broke and quietly detaches itself from the potential realistic ties the initial concept promises. So, yes, the film is toned down, but the fact that it is a huge mainstream success is - to repeat myself - remarkable.

The truth is that it was obvious halfway through the first volume that "Kick Ass" really had nothing profound to say about the little guys dressing up and playing at being crime fighters. You shook it and it was hollow, so that it’s phenomenon was based upon the shock-value of under-age killers and buckets of gore and bad taste. It is more "Sin City" crossed with indie coming-of-age tale rather than for fans that really, really want "The Dark Knight" to come true. Rather than engaging with the problematic murderous consequences of vigilantism, with all the grey areas and troubled morality, "Kick Ass" fuelled itself on Dave Lizewski’s good intentions and how cool the unstoppable slaughter-machine Hit Girl was. Recent Batman is frequently more focused on the difficult ethical shadows that he moves in than the ostensibly more realist "Kick Ass". In actuality, Romita and Millar conceived the Big Daddy and Hit Girl storyline first, and then stepped back for the Kick Ass story, which does create some critical distance, but serves mostly to accentuate Lizewski’s loser qualities and envy of real hero-murderers. It left me queasy in never once noticing or questioning any humanity of the bad guys. They were comic book bad guys, useful for humour and body count.

The film adaptation bears all the good and bad points of the comic and holds with the trajectory of becoming increasingly fun but less poignant. What we are in fact left with is good old guilty pleasure exploitation entertainment. Not as clever as it thinks it is, the comic "Kick Ass" remained compelling, mostly for the WTF factor. But not only that, because it also had a couple of neat twists that you may not have been expecting. These twists are lost in the film because the adaptation has so much more bad guy back story: so we know that Red Mist is a villain from the start (and he doesn’t get turned on by torture either, making him a genuine sadist), because we know the bad guy plot to nab the good guys (as dubious as that ‘good guy’ status may actually be); we see Big Daddy and Hit Girl overcome early so that the comic’s surprise that they have actually been caught is also gone. The narrative surprises, therefore, are lost in adaptation.

The film makes up for this with lashing of bonus humour and a comic book aesthetic that stays on the right side of drowning out story. Thankfully it also eschews much of the tedious angst that hobbles Peter Parker and the characters of "Heroes" (the kind that is meant to make them more human, but actually makes them repetitive and wearisome). The first fights Kick Ass engages in both have their moments: in the thrill of the moment, Kick Ass gets knifed and we feel very much thrown back in the real world for a moment; in the second, he shames the thugs into giving up, which is the last time the film will recognise the complexity of confrontations. The fight scenes are thrilling, kinetic and visceral, shocking and fun. Considering how Manga Hit Girl is, Vaughn films and edits in a way that manages to keep her killing sprees all looking within the edges of plausibility, using her size and light weight for her advantage in running up bookcases and slipping under the range of adults. We go with it.

As everybody now know, this is Hit Girl’s film. Everyone else is good - I am fond of Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s geek style (and vengeful geek style hopefully helps nudge him out of the typecasting he has to struggle against since McLovin') and Nicolas Cage puts in another bizarre performance - I always imagined Big Daddy as more Henry Rollins, but Cage turns him into a vengeful comic book artist gone psychotic. But it is Chloe Mortez that makes Hit Girl her own, exceeding what is on the page. She invests Hit Girl with a sweetness and humanity that the comic doesn’t touch. And so we go on to forget how troubling the character concept is and celebrate its outrageousness and Mortez’s dazzling performance. Why shouldn’t girls have some fun and trump the guys for once?

As a piece of superhero geek-and-gore vigilante excess, "Kick Ass" is an instant hit. It is a sunnier version of the comic book source, and a damned site nicer to its put-upon would-be hero. these are not necessarily bad changes. It manages to have it's cake and gorge itself too. When Hit Girl uses night-vision, one can also feel themselves playing the tie-in game. When our heroes are tortured and are about to be executed on television, the audience are glued, and when the TV pulls the plug, everyone just moves over to the internet stream. No one seems bothered by watching, and in fact they seem incapable of not watching, apparently only able to process horror as taboo-breaking entertainment, and apparently never able to pull themselves away from entertainment. It is surely too much to read this as a criticism of the very audience watching. Shock IS entertainment, "Kick Ass" persists, but it doesn't go too deep. And that is exploitation cinema and so somehow it pulls it off. Unencumbered by moral reflection and letting go of the reality shackles early on, it’s a funny, thrilling and totally winning guilty pleasure.


Mario Bava, Italy, 1977
a.k.a.: "Beyond the Door II"

It is surely one of the great unsolved mysteries of cinema why Italian shockers feel that free-form funk-rock is the sound of horror. Take the rather good opening tracking shock through a currently deserted house in Mario Bava’s "Shock": we know this is a horror film, so we naturally expect that this will be a place of fear and frights… but the decidedly jamming music accompanying this shot means we should perhaps play air-bass and shake our stuff. Maybe there will be wine and some little cheesy treats to signify European decadence. The impression is often that the score of another film has accidentally walked onto the set of what we’re watching. When this achieves a wonderfully bonkers effect, this is usually Ennio Morricone; when it is contradictory, it is usually some members of Goblin that are responsible. The soundtrack here is by Libra and is, perhaps aside from the theme, for the most part good, atmospheric and experimental in the best way.
Which goes for "Shock" in general. The funky theme song and some slightly stilted dialogue promise the kind of anything-goes, random plotting and narrative that characterise many Italian giallo and horror films, but "Shock" soon tightens up to something more straightforward and haunting. This time, the mishmash of cash-in features actually increases its range and curiosity value: the post-"Omen" creepy/psychic/possessed kid; an apparently haunted house; a woman with amnesia, recovering from a breakdown and increasingly on the verge of another; some psychic supernatural action; a mild giallo murder mystery. Sometimes a film can shake together a pastiche of regular genre motifs and reach for something more, transcending its obvious derivations and generating some originality and fascination. The best b-movies do this. Bava was influenced by Stephen King, but come the end it is equally "The Shining" and Roman Polanski’s "Repulsion". The story also goes that "Shock" was directed by both Mario and his son, Lamberto - but Lamberto never managed anything so otherworldly and surreal on his own.

Although there is probably not enough sustained ambiguity as to whether there really is haunting-possession going on or if it is all in Dora’s mind (Dora being played by Dario Argento’s wife, Daria Nicolodi), "Shock" manages to have its cake and eat it too. It cannibalises all of its influences and builds up a quite a disturbance with a little hysteria and strong nightmare sequences which have the flavour not only of "Repulsion", but also of Ingmar Bergman. Moments such as the plane crash induced by the haunting has more in common with the Seventies psychic phenomenon horrors (e.g., "Patrick", "The Medusa Touch"). There is some surprising subtlety: left unpunctuated by overdone melodrama, a moment such as the child simply telling his mother he has to kill her is left unnervingly un-confronted. Occasionally, Bava truly transcends, as when a love-making scene seems under the touch of a ceramic hand (a masterful shot); or when Dora seems to be caressed by otherworldly ecstasy and forces, her hair flowing as if underwater (apparently filmed using a revolving bed, a simple but mesmerising trick). It is these touches that make "Shock" memorable and distinctive, taking a handful of genre tropes and bringing them altogether with . Throw in some oedipal disturbance on this tale of domestic breakdown, psychics and ghosts and it is quite a full package.

It should be a mess, but the different strands keep pulling at mystery and the unpredictable so that the genre tropes are kept mostly in the air and pulled together with offbeat atmosphere, hanging upon the finely realised, memorable set-pieces. There’s no gibbering finale, just an over-long breakdown, some revelations and the inevitable deaths and a creepy open end.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Fearnet's 10 Greatest Horror Movie Music Themes

Fearnet has a great, note-perfect choice of "10 Greatest Horror Movie Music Themes".

Myself, I am crazy about John Harrison's score for "Creepshow". Also: "Phantasm", "The Amityville Horror" (instant shudders from that music!)... and continuing that choir-like trend, "Children of the Corn".

I don't enjoy the "Friday the 13th" films, but Jason's musical cue is definitely a winner ("Kill!" "Ma!")

I also have a huge crush on Fantomas' "The Director's Cut", in which Mike Patton and esteemed friends re-interpret a bunch of film themes to crazed and wonderful effect. A number of choices are horror-related, not least "Ave Satani".