Friday, 19 October 2012

Films and "Best Ever" Lists

"Best Ever?" (... I'll do you an A to Z)
So yes, there was and continues to be a huge amount of commentary on the Sight and Sound Bestest Film Ever poll, which is now apparently “Vertigo” with "Citizen Kane" apparently magicked down a notch. Such a poll is always going to be interesting and enlightening as much as it is frustrating and redundant, but nevertheless film aficionados do love to get stuck into this stuff. Hell, even I enjoy grading films on my private What I Watch list. But in the end, it was an email from my friend The Intriguing David Gadsdon that summarised what I could not really find energy to articulate. He wrote:
“Been reading that Sight and Sound poll, it's becoming very stale because people are voting for the same films in large numbers. There some interesting inclusions, but never in great enough volume for them to make any dent on the overall poll, so you always get the same stuff at the top. Not that it doesn't deserve to be there, but when it's always there it means that the poll appears to be in a vacuum that seems to stifle debate as to what other films could be considered greatest. If the results never change the list is in danger of becoming irrelevant (if it isn't already).”
Indeed, and I concur.
You see, I adore “Attack the Block” as both a fun monster flick and as social commentary, and I would argue that it achieves and executes its objectives every bit as much as “Vertigo” (hah!), but it’s apples and oranges and I would have a hard time calling it one of the/my best films ever. Who would ever agree with me? but it gives me great joy, many thrills and much mental engagement. 

Where is the room on any Bestest Film Ever list for “An American Werewolf in London”, which is one of the films I have seen many, many times over since I was thirteen and would always, always sit through? And does the fact that I would always watch “American Werewolf” mean it is, by extension, one of my favourites, and does that segue into being considered by me as one of the best?

Same with Leone films... although they are easier to throw in a Best Ever list. Some argue whether “Once Upon a Time in America” or “- In the West” is the greater Leone (I’m an “In America” guy). But Sergio Leone is one I am likely to say is Best Ever on consideration of his whole oeuvre, just like Ingmar Bergman, Takashi Miike, David Cronenberg, Kieslowski... etc...

There are so many other favourites of mine that I couldn’t justify being on a Best Ever or even Best Of list... Joe Dante’s “Matinee”? Or fresh in my mind: “The Raid”? OK, let me stop.
What such lists do achieve is in outlining and conveying the taste of the list-maker and introducing some films that you/I may not have been aware of. So, in that spirit, I wish to throw down a list of some of my favourites. What is hard is to stick true to my taste and not to wrangle the list into a list of what makes me look cool, or what I think should be my top ten. Hah. But these are the films that I know have had profound effect on me, that I enjoyed to the utmost, that changed the way I watched film and all of that jazz. Let’s see... I am going to get around things by doing this A-Z style, with an intention to do lists of favourites by genre or whatever later on. High-brow? Low-brow? Whatever… it’s all good. This should give you some idea of where I am coming from and what I enjoy the most. Because it’s fun. Indeed.

 (by looking at my film collection so far)

The Adjuster
Bad Education
Come and See
Don't Look Now
Fanny and Alexander
Henry: portrait of a serial killer
In a Lonely Place
Joe the King
Kiss Me Deadly
Let the Right One In
No Country For Old Men
Once Upon a Time in America
Quatermass and the Pit (1958 tv series)
The Raid
Santa Sangre
Toto the Hero
Valley of the Bees
Where the Wild Things Are
Young Thugs: innocent blood/Young Thugs: nostalgia

I am aware that some of these come under "best film I have under that letter" as opposed to "Outright Best Ever". Or rather that "Xtro" remains a film that fascinates me and has done since I was an under-age youth illegally hiring out 18 certificate films from the local video shop, and yes its roughness and oddness is all good. No one is going to agree with me that it is one of the best ever films made, or even one of the best ever horrors, but I have a great fondness for. It is the highest graded film I own under "X" and I'll stand by it. Same with Takashi Miike's "Young Thugs" double-bill for "Y". But, yeah, I love all these titles, if some more than others.

Self-evidently, an A-Z will miss out many others. I shall maybe make more... later...

Because it IS fun.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

For Love's Sake

For  Love’s Sake:
The Legend of Love & Sincerity
Ai to makoto
Takashi Miike, Japan, (2012)

Takashi Miike is so prolific and diverse that’s it is almost a chore to keep up with him; he’s a master of genres and as punk as he is classical and consistently unpredicatable and surprising. Of late: “13 Assassins” and “Hari-Kari” one moment and “Yatterman” and then “For Love’s Sake” next. This also means that he shall often throw anything but the kitchen sink in if the material is a little, shall we say, silly and underwhelming. This is helpful when he is doing his Manga adaptations, because Manga is often quite bonkers and narratively wild and emotionally hyperbolic and ridiculous; or at least the bulk of Manga that gets adapted seems to be. “For Love’s Sake” is, for the most part, delirously silly and over-egged: it comes across like a parody not only of overwrought Japanese school dramas but also of Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” and the teen romance genre as a whole. The performances of the musical numbers are, for the most part, very funny: the tracks are a mixture of Japanese ‘60s pop tracks and original songs with straight enough lyrics, but it is the characters lauching into musical numbers as if they believe they are in their own musical (which they are) when most characters around them aren’t quite so sure that makes it so all so amusing. Manga and Miike is often prone to changing mood and mashing up extreme and sentimental elements indiscriminately, and if the first half of “For Love’s Sake” feels like barmy parody, and is definitely funny, the second half is dragged down by that sentiment that asks us to take seriously the absurd and unhinged declarations of love by characters that feels very much like unhinged psychology.

No one in “For Love’s Sake” is in good mental health. We are expected to go along with a main macho character, Makoto (Satoshi Tsumabuki) who solves everything with violence and who is indeed so violent that he will happily take on entire gangs and come out on top. Oh, and who happily slaps women around. Then there is Ai (Emi Takei), a girl who is delusionally obsessed with Makoto and whose insane pursuit of him with declarations of anti-violence and love are so trite, they are hilarious and surely satirical of youthful romancing; all that being in love with the idea of being in love, etc. When he keeps telling her where to go, you agree with him. Then there is Hiroshi who is also obsessively in love with Ai with that nerdy tactic of hanging around her in the hope that one day she might fall in love with him: the gag becomes that he turns up everywhere after her, but make no mistake that he is a stalker. The school of delinquents adds to the bunch of Asian dramas that make it look as if Asian education is a hellhole (I am thinking of, oh, “Confessions”, “All About Lilu Chou-Chou”, “Whispering Corridors”, “Friend”, etc etc). That the gangs are mostly femal dominated is a nice mixing-up of typical classroom gangs and this leaves plenty of room for the gag that most of the main bad girls are in love with Makoto. Oh, and there is the seventeen year-old boy who has the body of a middle-aged man too (he has some kind of aging disease??). It all comes across as the fantasy of some dysfunctional lovesick teenager with a fevered pop-addled imagination.
My favourite moment of violence? An unbroken take where the camera stays over Makoto’s shoulder as he wipes out an entire gang stuffing full a hospital corridor. But there is also the opening fight during which Makoto sings throughout the punches and kicking. All the dance numbers in the first half have their moments, though.
It’s overlong by at half hour and at least two songs and the earnestness drags as much as the emotional outpourings, although even the later passages are alleviated by sudden bursts of inventiveness: a bad girl’s flashback to her childhood trauma is brilliantly rendered as animation, for example. Even the closing Anime flashback feels like it might possess genuine emotional effect if we were not being asked to associate it with such ridiculous and two-dimensional characters. This, however, is typical of Manga and Anime where we are often to take at face value that people are in love, despite the lack of convincing romantic detail. Characters generally just end up shouting one another's names in various states of hysterics. Miike is also not always one to turn to for emotional engagement: there is often the sense that his films are experiments in free-form cinematic tricks and tropes rather than speaking deeply to the audience, but this depends upon the particular project (films such as "Rainy Dog", "Hari-Kari" and "Big Bang Love: Juvenile A" are different stories altogether).

“For Love’s Sake” is gorgeous to look at, funny and violent for the most part, then undone by the typical Manga sentimentality. If you are looking for the real deal about growing up with neglect and violence, look to Miike’s two “Young Thug” films for revelations, scathing insight and some genuine emotional engagement. “For Love’s Sake” shall not win many new Miike fans, but even at his most conventional, he often seems to be making all the films all at once and no one quite does it like him. There is no doubt that it is at least unforgettable, because Miike's work always leaves some kind of aftertaste, even if this example is candyfloss with punches and pretences of substance.

P.S.: The British Film Institute puff piece for "For Love's Sake" by Tony Raynes says, "This is the kind of movie that hits you, and it feels like a kiss." This indeed is indicative of the problematic nature of deciding what one is meant to take from the film if looking for any depth. It is also one of those faux-poetical nonsense summaries that seems to think equating hitting with kissing is something lyrical.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012



Pete Travis, 2012, UK-USA-India

Well it’s got to be hard when the general public opinion starts with “It’s not as bad as that Stallone version,” but there it is. “Dredd” also suffers from coming on the heels of the hugely impressive “The Raid” with its identical plot. Action guys trapped in a crime-ruled highrise full of people trying to kill them. Perhaps, though, the problem is that Alex Garland’s story does not feel distinctively Dredd. Its Megacity One futurescape feels very much akin to the near-future grunge so familiar from, say, “Escape From New York”, “Robocop”, “The Warriors”, and a dozen others, even this season's "Looper". As is so often the case, perhaps “Blade Runner” already beat Megacity to the punch. Well, Megacity One from the pages of “2000 A.D.” probably inspired the neon urban hell of “Blade Runner” in the first place, plus the films already mentioned, so there is that. The Mega City 1 of “Dredd” feels a little cosy as a dystopia in comparison to the lunatics-on-the-loose police state hellhole of the comics, and even though the film has several decades of Dredd legacy and city psychosis to draw upon, there is, again, not enough of the uniquely Dredd here.
I, for one, have enjoyed the “Judge Dredd” comic strip on an off ever since I was a kid and I found Megacity 1 to be a terrifying place. The population seemed clinically insane and the Judges were merciless and brutal in response. A rock and a hard place barely covers it, and was Dredd hero or terrifying authority figure? I couldn’t tell. Indeed, in this version of the city he patrols, it looks like the early days of the city that appears in the comics, which maybe isn't a bad place to start but it doesn't have quite the Supporting Actor presence as fans might like, despite the Overwhelmingly Obvious Voiceover that namechecks Megacity history and geography before abandoning them for a far more stripped down B-level Judge Dredd tale.
And what to do with Dredd, a character who is deliberately two-dimensional, fascistic and authoritarian, legendary, invulnerable, unflappable and, shall we say, sociopathic and narrow in his view of the law? More than that, he is satirical. In Pete Travis’ film and Karl Urban’s winning chin performance, Dredd is droll and, most likely for the better, probably more ambiguous in the flesh. However, it is Judge rookie-psychic Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) who gets to take her helmet off and is the focus of the film’s concerns: there is the rookie/mentor narrative, the fact that she too comes from the wrong end of town (implying that Judges predominantly come mostly from the ranks of the cloned privileged?) and that she has, you know, feelings, which might interfere with good manly Judging. None of this is particularly original and engaging but this does weigh the film more in Anderson’s favour than Dredd’s, despite Karl Urban’s chin and steely line delivery. In this version of the character, too, Dredd feels a little more vigilante than lawgiver, and the social satire seems to have disappeared under a veneer of action-film brutality; oh, Dredd has always been violent, but the satire was nearly always dominant.
As it is, the dialogue is almost all exposition and not nearly witty enough, or even interesting. For a generic and overly familiar set-up and narrative, it’s far too talky. We know this plot. What we do have, rather than light-relief or wit, is what I might call the shock-relief of the ultra-violence. The slo-mo sequences brought about by the slo-mo drug poisoning the city blocks do provide a nastily graphic shoot-up sequence where the wounds and blood burst in stretched-out detail, which makes a nice relief from the fast-fast-fast and incomprehensible cutting currently in vogue for most action sequences. It is also used to give the villainess – Leana Heady, you know, out-macho-ing the men – the one moment of grace in the film, in closing; which seems perverse.
I suspect “Dredd” will continue to hold on to a very respectable reputation, especially once from under the altogether more exemplary “The Raid”, and it’s enjoyable for sure, but there is the sense that it really isn’t quite reaching its potential. Perhaps, again, the mistake is thinking this most outrageous of characters is a more vigilante fantasy rather than satire. Perhaps it’s in focusing in the action part of Dredd rather than the bizarre and the grotesque which typifies his world in the comics. If this is an early version of Mega City 1 and this film fits into a bunch of sequels – in the style of Bond, say – where the city and Dredd expand and offer up, truly, the bizarre details and urban insanity of the comics, my belief is that it would truly benefit from being part of a greater whole. So I hope for more and better.

P.S. Oh, and I know many thought this was a good representation of 3D, but it just pissed me off that I had to pay more to watch it with glasses that caused light loss and very little improvement, if any.