Saturday, 31 October 2015

Jodorowsky's 'Dune'

Frank Pavich, 2013, France-USA

Frank Pavich’s documentary ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ makes a good argument for the greatest science fiction film that never happened and its lasting influence. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vision of ‘Dune’ was a film featuring the work of the likes of H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, Salvador Dali and Dan O’Bannon. All in one place. A mixture of those names alone is enough to be inspirational. It seems an impossible and improbable venture but Jodorowsky shows how he could have made it happen so that all these influential people could have worked on the same project, describing how he proposed these ideas to these artists and brokered agreements. A lot of this involved going around telling people that he intending to make a film that will change humanity (uh-huh). It’s a surprise that David Bowie wasn’t somehow involved. And of course, this was the creator of counter-culture hits ‘El Topo’ and ‘The Holy Mountain’ and based upon those films and the famous ‘Dune’ proposal book one can see why people believed he could do it. Of course, these people did not include the film companies that got cold feet about Jodorowsky directing and effectively pulled the plug. But those people went on to take various ideas and intentions fostered by working on ‘Dune’ and – as the film argues – shaped genre cinema. It is hard to imagine genre cinema without the vocabulary of ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ alone, but there is also the slacker mentality of ‘Dark Star’ for example.

People imagine a world where Jodorwosky’s ‘Dune’ usurps ‘Star Wars’ as the defining genre text of the era, but I think that underestimates how the simplicity of Lucas’ Good/Evil born again Force would be far more digestible to the multi-masses than Jodorowsky’s psychedelica (I imagine Jodorowsky’s ‘Dune’ influence would have been more akin to Kubrick’s ‘2001: a space odyssey’). But it does look as if the film would have been amazing and its epic vocabulary surely informs today’s genre blockbusters, especially in the digital-effects era. 

Frank Pavich relies simply on talking head interviews to tell this story, embellished by some animation to bring alive some passages of the endearing Jodorowsky’s vision. Pavich keeps it all light and breezy and doesn’t get deep into anything – for example, why the studios thought Jodorowsky was untrustworthy (aside from the cash reasons, which makes Jodorowsky furious) or perhaps the dubious aspect of having his young son at the time undergo serious training for a potential role. Nothing is really questioned: I, for one, probably would have thought the ending a turn off, verging as it does on religious allegory. Nevertheless it really seems he could and might have got these amazing artists all on the same project. This remains a fascinating tale of what if in cinematic and genre history and if the idea of it remains influential, perhaps the actual thing might have been too. 

Monday, 26 October 2015

Crimson Peak

Guillermo Del Toro, USA-Canada, 2015

Jake Cole is onto something when he says that Guillermo Del Toro is probably closer to Wes Anderson than his horror peers, although Katie Rife mentions Mario Bava.  And then there’s 12 Gothic flicks to watch before you see “Crimson Peak. But perhaps that’s the problem:  one may feel this is highly trodden Gothic ground, story-wise, and with that only holding mild interest, the set designs and costumes come to the fore. Indeed, they threaten to smother the story being old – that of a woman being seduced by a man to live in a deteriorating house and her seeing warnings from aggressive ghosts – and as distinguished as they are, their dominance tends to affectation. That’s a pretty dress by costume designer Kate Hawley, you’ll be thinking, distracted instead of being gripped by the plot. Although the collar of a dress that seems to be sprouting mushrooms is probably a bit much.

The film is a triumph of colour-coding, not least of which is a house that sits atop a hill of and is sinking into red clay which rises to the surface when the snow comes. Hence the title. It’s in these details that the film succeeds: a head is bashed in against an overflowing sink, so violently that the sink breaks and the water turns red as it spills on the floor. It’s a moment to rival that celebrated bathroom scene from Del Toro’s ‘Cronos’, but this is followed by characters assuming he simply fell and cracked his head open, which is surely preposterous given the obvious carnage  at the scene. I mean, I’m no coroner or policeman, but…. So where the details succeed, an overall carelessness seems evident and ambivalence sets in. You can see the joins. Oh, the violence is indeed brutal and brings things to life whenever it is onscreen, but again – like the ghosts – it is an element adrift in a story that feels it could exist without.

The oily black and blood red ghosts – referring to FW Murnau’s “Nosferatu” for an entrance - mostly overcome their CGI trimmings to have some effect, but in the great scheme of things they don’t mean much. Del Toro tweeted: “About the Ghosts in CRIMSON PEAK: ALL except for one are entirely REAL actors in prosthetics IN SITU w digital touches.” [Oct. 24-2015] But it’s telling that Del Toro issues an explanation about resembling full CGI creations because audiences will probably react to them as such: if you don’t mind CGI, then there’s no problem, but if you think CGI is too artificial then there’s probably an issue. Near the beginning, wannabe author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska – and that’s right: “Cushing”) says that the story she’s writing is a love story that just happens to feature ghosts, and we’re probably meant to read this story the same way (and that’s not the only moment of meta-commentary). But when the ghosts do appear it’s dangerously close to the James Wan model, cued with musical blares instead of allowing the creeps to set in. “Crimson Peak” isn’t really creepy or scary: it’s too bright for that, but not in a way that achieves the delirium of, say, Argento’s ‘Suspiria’. The ghosts feel more superfluous than woven into the fabric of things: they’re there to spice things up because, well, that’s what Del Toro does. Can you imagine a Del Toro flick without monsters/ghost/etc.?

There is nothing particularly understated here, little of the genuine brooding that underpins genuine Gothic. When Jessica Chastain’s clearly psychopathic sister-figure feeds Mia Wasikowska soup to “help” her recovery, the spoon on the bowl scrapes and sings so loud that although the effect is meant to be unsettling, it feels as if someone is over-egging the pudding (and I couldn’t tell at first if it was meant to be read as funny). It’s not that there isn’t subtlety – Tom Hiddleston plays the conflicted Thomas Sharpe for as much sad-eyed ambiguity as he can, for example – but much is so overdone and obvious that it’s like someone trying to do a Guillermo Del Toro impersonation but can’t quite avoid the habits of more obvious contemporary mainstream horrors.

If a film so obviously a Gothic homage is just replicating the tropes and there is no sense of trying to truly subvert them or flesh them out, then a dullness is left at the core. All the flare here is in the visuals, so the story is left floundering. It looks the part but there’s a lack of the feeling. Tonally inconsistent, narratively derivative, aesthetically interesting, ‘Crimson Peak’ doesn’t quite gel and Del Toro doesn’t succeed in bringing the focus of his Spanish language films to his English catalogue. This lacks the foundations of genuine realism from which his fantasies flourish, creating a pretty but lacking confection.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Martian

Ridley Scott, 2015, USA

Matt Damon, due to a storm is left for dead on Mars, but he isn’t dead and, realising his fellow astronauts have gone, has to use science to survive whilst hoping for a rescue.  Yet there is something tonally about the film that tells you that this is not about if he will survive and get back home, but how. Certainly the upbeat disco soundtrack helps. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that emphasis, allowing more for a concentration on problem-solving than dread. What this also means is that the science better be convincing if not accurate because that’s where the wonder mostly will be. Especially since the Martian vistas seem strangely lacking in wonder. What it does have instead is humour, and that’s okay too although this is to mitigate the dread rather than to add texture. Its lack of existential angst leaves it surprisingly and positively free of religion, but it also leaves it shallow. This is also surprising in the light of the somewhat God-bothering tone of Ridley’s “Prometheus”: “The Martian” seems to say that there’s little time for that here.

Drew Goddard’s screenplay, based on Andy Weir’s book (and previously responsible for ‘Cabin in the Woods’), offers little on the human condition as sciencing the shit out of everything takes centre-stage, which is probably a good way to contain the lack of character depth; that, and the actors are expert at fleshing things out. It’s a strong roll call. Matt Damon constantly looks to draw out the comic potential of the script and succeeds. The rest of the cast  are mostly straight men, as if they are an audience attempting to rescue a one-man show. The direction, however, doesn’t possess any distinctive trademarks that tell you this has been helmed by more than a competent director: it’s all very slick, the effects seamless but nothing truly idiosyncratic or memorable. Yet, as Tim Robey notes, 

Compared with the heaving verbosity of other recent Scott pictures (Exodus, say), all the chatter here feels better matched with his obsessions, at least: it’s a film about micromanaging, fixing things on the fly, and a lot of Ridley’s gruff, technocrat personality shines through.

The matter-of-factness that conveys the drama along with the humour and lightness of tone that roots it in a believability also goes someway to highlighting its prosaic qualities. For all its flaws, there are moments of genuine awe in “Interstellar” and it is a curious thing that Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” doesn’t seem to pause in the right places for a similar awe to set in.

What we do get is a mainstream ensemble piece with all the effects and lightness of tone needed to be a crowd-pleaser. And it is surely too long, even if this to accommodatethe time  it takes to work things out. I am sure those in the know will be able to pick apart some of the science – for example, apparently Mars would never have such a storm – but the prominence of it is winning. Also pleasing is that it avoids resorting to a bad guy to spice things up; we might think Jeff Daniels will play that part but he doesn’t as this is not that film. In fact, the positivity of the coming-together tone at conclusion might be seen to be the most implausible element of the film; but by that stage, it surely comes as no surprise.

Compared to the films it might be held up against – ‘Moon’ and ‘Interstellar’ or ‘Silent Running’ – ‘The Martian’ is more playful and shallow and agreeable rather than poignant. 

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Children of the Damned

Anton M Leader, 1963 ~ GB

AKA.  “Horror!”

Lacking the terrifying allegory of its grandparent novel John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, ‘Children of the Damned’ instead uses the children as signifiers of man’s own warmongering ways. Unlike Wyndham, the film clearly offers the children as man advanced a million years, but like Wyndham they only kill when attacked. In the original, this violent self-preservation triggers the debate about Darwin’s survival of the fittest; here it only means that the children are innocents, misunderstood and abused by adult paranoia. We are soon on the side of the kids, for their alien silences and self-defensive unity soon overshadows the petty squabbling and eager militarism of the adults. “Do you really want to take them back to your embassies now?” Hendry asks the ambassadors, having demonstrated the unifying telepathic powers of the children. It is a fine moment that uncovers the ambassador’s latent motivation. Leader’s film is an anti-war fable with the children as blanks, reacting to adult, political violence.

          This leaves little room for development or exploration of the children. Of course, the point is that they have no traditional individual character, that they possess a very collective alieness. But without Wyndham’s disturbing and exemplary theories on evolution and humanity, Jack Briley’s screenplay has very little idea how to develop these children, except to make them an international assortment of examples of man advanced and capable of resurrection. Having the Indian child Rashid resurrected in a church only adds to the martyrising of the alien kids, but achieves theoretically little. There is no debate on parenting, although the early scene with Paul’s mother hurling hateful abuse at her silent child is a powerful and promising moment. More interesting is The Aurum Film Encyclopedia’s (pg. 220) translation that the children “become pawns in the love-hate relationship between Hendry and Badel in which Badel seeks to destroy them almost in revenge for Hendry’s rejection of him for Ferris.” Further to this, the scenes with Hendry going to the church where the children keep Ferris possessively play like siblings protecting their mother from a potential step-father. But what remains is the film’s overall distrust of the adult ability to care for the young. Paul’s mother opens the door to her flat with undertones of sensuality; officials are too eager to use them for their own agenda; even Ferris cannot be trusted with a bread knife around the children.
          Still in many ways ‘Children of the Damned’ is better shot and easier than ‘Village of the Damned’, and is certainly free of much of its stodginess. There is some snappy dialogue and memorable shots of the children wandering through deserted city streets. The film shares a church finale with particularly British sci-fi trailblazer, Nigel Kneale’s ‘The Quatermass Experiment’, although Kneale’s monster is a pitiable transformation that has to be destroyed, Wyndham’s children provide greater moral problems due to their human appearance. They are our own offspring, disgusted at the adult world and possessing the means to destroy and perhaps better it. In this way they are icons of Cold War guilt and liberal conscience.

Finally, the political powers only want the children for the weapons they can build. A fair amount of conflict and suspense is built due to sharp editing, but much of the outcome remains conventional. David Pirie says the finale “falls into some unconvincing liberal moralising,”[1] and certainly it creates an easier resolution than ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’. That a last minute hope of co-existence is wiped out by accident, that human folly brings about genocide and destruction is both potentially an avoidance of the film’s issues and a universal truism. 
As a sequel, ‘Children of the Damned’ is superior to many, acted with conviction, full of British Sixties atmosphere and crisp black-and-white moments. The silent, staring children remain unforgettable and impenetrable, a reminder of Wyndham’s original chilling concept. Like ‘Planet of the Apes’, it remains a quintessential allegory of the genre.
- Also see the Numinous Book of Review

[1]               David Pirie, The Time Out Film Guide (edited by Tony Milne, 3rd edition pg. 121)