September 28, 2010
I was reasonably looking forward to this "gut wrenching exercise in tension" (as it was billed in the leaflet). I admit to pretty much complete ignorance to this French film from 1953. I think the title may have struck some sort of dark and ignored memory-chord, but other than that... nada. So what's goin' on? Well, I got got with the hook: four losers have to transport unstable nitroglycerin in two shit-heap trucks over crappy dirt roads to an isolated oil field. That sounds great! That sounds like it really could be a "gut wrenching exercise in tension"!
Not so much. First we spend an hour getting to know these four characters, and the other losers who are stuck in the nameless small South American town with them. Which I could maybe get on board with, if the main characters weren't such completely misogynistic assholes. Like our main character, Yves Montad's Mario. Sure, he's a bit of a layabout with a certain rough Gallic charm. He's also a douche who seems to have no problem with his occasional gal pal being, essentially, raped by her boss (at that, she seems to have very little problem with it too). Then when she does have a day off work, he'd much rather pal about with his new best friend, fellow Frenchman Jo. Oh, and he also screws over his roommate for Jo. I know some of this is from the prevalent attitudes to women at the time, but c'mon!
When we finally get to the hook of the thing, the transportation of the nitro, there are some fantastic set-pieces. Director Clouzot works each scene of potential disaster as hard as he can, wringing the maximum amount of tension out. He also manages the fluctuation of loyalty, respect and dynamics between the driver's with a sure hand, with some of them cracking under the pressure and others seemingly rising to it. Just about everything that could go wrong for these poor saps, does; and even more besides. Not all of them make it to that remote oil field and even the one(s) that do are irrevocably changed. But then, by that point, I didn't really give a good goddamn.
September 19, 2010
Now, having seen it again... it still kicks ass as a totally fun rom-com/video-game/comic-book/kung-fu cinematic extravaganza. What Wright has crafted here is a super-caffeinated hyper-kinetic mash-up of, well, just about everything. At once faithful to its graphic novel origins while at the same time being totally and inescapably an Edgar Wright film, and the gods have mercy on his poor editor. No film is quite cut like an Edgar Wright film, and none more than Pilgrim; this could be the apotheosis of Wright’s style with lightning cuts, zooms, wipes and split-screens etc layered on, giving even scenes of dialogue an almost unharnessed energy. But this never gets out of control: the film is incredibly tight, hurtling along at guitar-thrumming speed.
I'm no fan of the source material: I've read most of Bryan Lee O'Malley's books and enjoyed them but I haven't bought them and haven't re-read them. I know that the first half of the film sticks pretty closely to the source material, but past that I'm not sure how much is Wright and his writing partner Michael Bacall, and how much is originally O'Malley. I'm not really all that fussed, to be honest. Even with the stuff straight from the book, Wright brings his own energy to the film giving it all pulsating life.
Something I truly appreciate, is that each action scene has been crafted differently. Each fight, each super-charged dust-up has its own feel, its own rhythm and serves a different purpose to the overall film; to the story, the characters and themes. How is it that this year the kings of action-scene craft, usually the purview of mega-macho American directors, are intelligent Brits? Vaughn, Nolan and Wright have all blown me away this year with inventive and stunning action sequences. Wright gives himself a bit of a leg up, hiring none other than Bill Pope as DoP. Y'know. The guy who shot the freakin' Matrix. Interestingly, he also shot the pilot for Freaks and Geeks, so Scott Pilgrim seems like a pretty good mid-point.
And that's not the only intelligent hiring choice Wright made. He made a tonne, most obviously with his cast. Michael Cera is going through something of a backlash at the moment, but here as the eponymous hero he totally nails it. If you have issues with Cera as a person, or the sound of his voice or whatever this ain't gonna change that. But here, Cera is actually playing against type. His Pilgrim is a bit of an idiot, occasionally thoughtless and bounding with some bizarre energy. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the enigmatic dream girl Ramona Flowers possibly has the toughest role: she has to be mysterious, yet we have to understand Pilgrim's attraction and their relationship. So, the movie kinda hangs on her... and she is fantastic. She downplays everything, with hints of the sadness inside. It likely won't be a career making/defining role, if only partly because it's hard to actually recognise her. Every other single cast member? Astoundingly, amazingly awesome in what little time they get on screen. From Jonny Simmons as Young Neil and Alison Pill as Kim Pine, from Brandon Routh as Todd Ingram to Jason Schwartzman as Gideon Graves; they all find something to their characters, the all find a way to bring something out in those small moments they have. I wanted more, just because I wanted more of them all. It's a ridiculous riches of actorly talent, all looking like they're having a ridiculous amount of fun.
And if you've got this far in this review, you can tell they weren't the only ones. I had a ball with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. It's about growing up, about relationships, about facing up to your own past and yourself (even if it is only to take yourself out for brunch). It's the best video-game film ever made, it's a wacky comic-book of a film with visible sound effects and thumping action. I loved it; from the cast and characters to the look and feel. I haven't even talked about the music! Or the sound effects - how Wright makes excellent use of 8-bit video-game effects and other ambient noises to punctuate scenes and characters thoughts. I'm hankering to get my hands on the soundtrack(s). And writing about it all here, I just want to watch it all again. When's the DVD out?
September 13, 2010
Enter the Dragon has everything you could ever want to expect from a classic kung-fu film: lightning fast moves from Lee, slightly out of it voice dubbing, an awesome Lalo Schifrin score, crash zooms, wise Shaolin monks, nunchuckas and slow-mo action. A chance to see all that on the big screen? Definition of a cinematic no-brainer. You've also got great sets and great locations (Hong Kong looking particularly dirty and... alive) with Bruce Lee at his most iconic; incredibly ripped and taking down opponents with screaming ease.
Some interesting social points even get raised amongst all the chop-sockey. As Jim Kelly's Williams says as they chug through a floating Hong Kong slum, "Ghetto's are the same all over the world. They stink." In his flashback he also deals to a pair of racist cops, before stealing their cruiser. But then, this is paralleled with weak female characters (when they're there), and helps perpetuates the myth of all Asian people knowing kung-fu (I guess it is a kung-fu film though, so everyone should know kung-fu).
But aside from some pretty poor work from extras - who can be seen flailing about rather than actually doing kung-fu - the film is a tight action film with few flaws. It's also so evocative of the era in which it was made, with it's muted tones, funky music and camera-work. If it got cleaned up for some sort of hi-def release it would all look a bit off, really.
I unreservedly and unashamedly loved it, and perhaps the biggest compliment I could give it is that I wanted to a) go out and track down more Lalo Schifrin scores and b) watch a whole bunch of 70's kung-fu films.
Instead I had Terrence Malick's debut film, the atmospheric Badlands. The film plays out a fictionalised account of the Charles Starkweather killing spree in the US in the late 50's. Martin Sheen is stunning as the pathologically psychotic, but withdrawn killer Kit Carruthers and Sissy Spacek is equally fantastic as his tag along girlfriend (and narrator), Holly Sargis.
I occasionally have difficulty in talking about a classic film - I often wonder what it is I can contribute to the (already lengthy) conversation. Which, I know, is a bit silly to be thinking when I'm writing a "Catch-up Classics" column every now and then. And it isn't like there aren't just as many reviews posted around for current films. It may be that I find it easier to understand the history of a current film and it's context within the history of cinema.
As with Malick's other films, there is a focus on the natural world, with many long lingering shots on animals and landscapes. There are also moments of cliched romanticism and teenage adventure juxtaposed with Kit's sociopathic violence and charming deception; almost like a corrupted fairytale.
After watching this, and also taking into consideration Apocalypse Now, it's frankly astounding that Martin Sheen wasn't a bigger actor earlier. While his contemporaries like Robert Redford, Harrison Ford and Jack Nicholson were constant presences throughout the 70's, Sheen seems to have dropped off. Here, he is absolutely fascinating. His Kit Carruthers is deluded, polite, violent, charming; a mixed bag o' crazy. I thoroughly recommend checking it out.
September 11, 2010
Secret Cinema is exactly that; a secret. Well, the event itself is becoming less and less of a secret (what with recent articles in the Guardian and Empireonline), but the actual film to be screened is kept under wraps until the audience arrives. But it's not only that; it's making the act of going to the movies a grand night out again. It aims to engage with you, the audience, rather than just have you plonk down your hard earned savings for a ticket and some popcorn and then ushering you out the door as soon as the credits start to roll. Though the film may be kept a secret, ticket holders are advised of what kind of themed costumes to wear. Yes. Themed costumes. People are engaged. People are involved. And it's not only themed costumes and a movie, it's a whole show in of itself. For example the recent Lawrence of Arabia had a whole bazaar set-up with real live camels. You don't find that down the local multiplex.
The Secret Cinema is part of a larger movement in the UK of what is being termed "pop-up cinema". This is cinemas popping up in small or unlikely venues, sometimes for only a limited season. A prime example of this is the Cineroleum, a disused petrol station converted into a small cinema for three weeks. It is made up of found and donated materials, with the screen having been found in a skip. They screen classic films and it's not just about unusual spaces to watch movies; it's about re-using spaces, about finding new and interesting uses for them that the public can enjoy. There are also a couple variations on the theme in the US and Australia.
One of the biggest of those variations is the Rolling Roadshow, run by the Alamo Drafthouse. The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas is the home of Fantastic Fest, the largest and most important genre festival in the States. The Rolling Roadshow, which has just wrapped up, is just that: a roadshow of films taken across the States. But with a slight twist: they're shown at locations important to the film. Thus, you're given The Blues Brothers at Joliet prison in Illinois, Dirty Harry in Washington Square Park in San Francisco, RoboCop in an old industrial centre in Detroit and The Godfather Part II on the rooftops of Little Italy in New York. And they're all FREE. How fuckin' cool does that sound?!
My question, my pondering, is whether something like these events can be done here in NZ. I'm honestly not sure. For one, I just don't know that we have the population base. And we are quite far from the rest of the world. If the prints aren't already here, how many people would be willing to pay the courier costs for these films that aren't guaranteed a paying audience? Because I really don't know if that audience is here for classic films or genre masterpieces. I mean, I'm there. But as audience numbers for the recent showings of Enter the Dragon and Badlands at the Embassy (two films I would never have imagined I would get to see at the cinema) show, not everyone else is. For me, a chance to see a Bruce Lee kung-fu classic on the big screen is a no-brainer. And I would guarantee that if Badlands had shown at the Festival (possibly in a restored print) it would've done business. But then, Festival crowd is different to your regular punters.
I love going to the cinema, going out to the movies. It's not just watching a film on the biggest screen possible. It's the experience; the feeling of being transported or of sharing something undefinable but communal. The difference between watching a film (dirt and all) in the dark with a crowd of strangers in a cinema and chucking a DVD (or Blu-Ray) on your big telly is vast, like a chasm. Of vastness. They are entirely different experiences. I would love to have something like what's going on overseas here. How awesome would it be to watch Jaws out at a surf club? Or Vertigo atop the Sky Tower? If you wanted to keep it to NZ films, what about Braindead (or Dead Alive) at Wellington Zoo? Bad Taste out at Pukerua Bay? Whale Rider on the East Coast? Could it be workable? Is there anyone who would put it on? Would people come?
September 8, 2010
I guess you could consider it a neo-noir psycho-sexual art thriller, with Kyle MacLachlan as a young man finding himself drawn into the dark side of suburbia following his discovery of an ear in a field. As he’s an unnaturally curious fellow he continues to follow up on it, with the Detective’s teenage daughter Sandy Williams (Laura Dern). The affair also involves tortured torch singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosellini) and the psychotically evil gangster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Hopper is the biggest name in the cast, and easily the biggest character. Booth is one of the most vile and evil villains ever to put up on the big screen. And Hopper seems to be having a ball of a time with the role of the violent amyl-nitrate suckin' crazy-man (even scarier is that Hopper wanted the role because, as he said "I've got to play Frank... I am Frank!"):
What's fascinating is seeing in this similar motifs and themes that Lynch has explored, almost throughout his entire filmography (not that I've seen his entire filmography). Sex and sexual kinks, strong female characters, mysterious characters coming out of the shadows, highways at night, zooming in and entering objects and more and more. However, I found it suffered occasionally from actors coming in and just delivering their lines, throwing them out like statements rather than dialogue. It kind of smacks of an early film in a director's body of work. But then, that may also just have been the sound levels: they were all the way down. I wasn't sure if it was the quality of the print, or if the projectionist just didn't turn the sound up enough... It did help drive home again how important sound is to cinema: it sounded hollow and robbed of life at points. But hey! Minor quibbles for a film that also included Dean Stockwell as a camp pimp!
Lynch is truly one of a kind in American cinema. Always fascinating, I love that he gets to make movies. His is a fascinating voice, and one always worth listening to. Even if I'm not sure what he's saying sometimes.
And in super exciting awesome news: apparently the Paramount is planning on doing more late-night cult showings! This, along with the Embassy playing genre classics (Enter the Dragon, Ghostbusters etc.) and Sunday matinees of bona-fide classics (Badlands, Touch of Evil), is fuckin’ excellent news. FINALLY we’re getting some revival cinema going here!
September 5, 2010
Although I had read (and enjoyed) more grown-up funny-book fare before, Ex Machina was the first I ever collected. I have all the issues from #1 right through to the just released final issue #50. You see, Ex Machina is not a continuing super-hero type of comic book. It's a finite story, told in sequential art and in periodic issues. While it doesn't necessarily have anything as simple as a beginning, middle and end it does have arcs within the larger story. Or did. So, what is Ex Machina and why am I taking the time to write about it here? Well ok, we'll start off with what the series was actually about.
Ex Machina takes place in a world similar to ours: there are no men in capes or women in spandex (except for the loonies). But while this world is similar to ours, it is not ours. Quite blatantly not. See, in this world, there is a man named Mitchell Hundred who, after a horrific accident, finds he can talk to machines. He is the world's first, and only, super-hero. He's... not all that great (despite going by the name of The Great Machine). He's a civil engineer by trade, and not all that fit. He does, however, have a wicked jetpack and a couple of crazy sci-fi pistols. What separates this book out from the rest of the super-hero fare is this: he hangs up the jet-pack and becomes the mayor of New York City. So what Ex Machina is, is a sci-fi West Wing super-hero melodrama. And to really drive home the point of this being not our world, the first issue's final frame is:
Now, dammit, the series is finished. There will be no more. Vaughan and Harris have said all they're gonna say with these characters. Which leaves me without a series to read. Sure, I'm currently picking up a couple of the new Avengers books but there's only so much you can take of characters who don't age. Or who de-age, re-age, die, resurrect, are replaced by clones from another dimension who are then de-aged, re-aged, killed and resurrected. As bad guys. What I want now is an intelligently written (non-superhero centric) series. It helps if the art is top-notch and if they're wholly original characters, free of decades of pointless continuity. I don't know if I can quite give up comic-books. Not the good ones. Not yet. There'll be something out there: some new series that'll suck me into it's bordered pages. And that's the thing: superheroes are, and have been for too long, the predominant genre of comic-books. But comics aren't just superheroes. There's work like Brian K. Vaughan's Y:The Last Man, Jeff Smith's Bone, Ed Brubaker's Criminal and Bill Willingham's Fables. Just as in every other art form, there is something out there for everyone.
I'm still a geek. Still addicted.