District 9 – Neil Blomkamp – An alien spacecraft looms over Johannesburg, below which a ghettoized community of aliens are kept fenced in and segregated from humanity. The film combines mockumentary aesthetics with interviews and news coverage, gradually shedding such stylistic tropes for more traditionally cinematic action. Throughout Blomkamp keeps the film’s pace at an exciting level of momentum, which, when combined with entertaining effects, flashes of dark humour and politically probing intelligence makes for a very satisfying (and above all) fun watch. The political nature of the film, through which not only South Africa’s social fragmentation but also, more generally, humanitarian crisis without need for specification – in the crossfire of militant force and political corruption – becomes evocative of a Romero-esque commentary. It is probably reductive to wed District 9 to the political narratives of the (gleefully undead, yet politically alive) Zombie genre, as its South African context, paired with analogous alien injustice is commendably imaginative…and yet, the combination of action, black humour and occasional body horror (the protagonist’s alien metamorphosis) cannot help but resonate with Romero’s films…which is, by no means, a bad thing! Very enjoyable! 8/10
Them! – Gordon Douglas – A 1954 film in which atomic tests in the dessert lead to the cartoon mutation of ants into…GIANT ANTS. Naturally, on reading the breathless tagline: ‘A HORROR OF CRAWL-AND CRUSH GIANTS CLAWING OUT OF THE EARTH FROM MILE-DEEP CATACOMBS!’, I was anticipating a gloriously clumsy orgy of stop motion mandibles and towering silliness; a lost gem of stop-motion, killer bug absurdity…but alas, Them! is better enjoyed as a testament to jovial 50’s misogyny, inspiringly uncreative dialogue and the unintentional comic gold of delusional profundity. Unfortunately the giant ants seemed closer to mutant furry mascots, kept strategically in the side of shots to avoid having to move the whole (obviously inert) ant body, apparently impossible without the aid of effects or animation. Thus the film becomes sporadically hilarious, but, more primarily, an exercise in disappointment and boredom. By the time a bumbling professor cliché and his attractive daughter enter the film, no amount of harnessed Cold War tension, wobbling mutant ant antennae, or ironic appreciation of black and white sexist banter could save the film from being unfortunately yawn inducing. The DVD cover, complete with its lurid ‘B-Movie Poster’ presentation of apocalyptic ants, is probably the best thing about the film. 3/10
Blazing Saddles – Mel Brooks – Irreverent, odd, energetically hilarious, unapologetically slapstick and occasionally genius: Mel Brooks’ imaginative Western parody is beautifully bizarre buffet of knowingly nutty comic ambition. The unrelenting range of jokes and visual gags often lends the film a feeling of excitable sketches, strung together with a slapdash enthusiasm. It is the charisma and chemistry shared by Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder that ultimately raises the film beyond its, occasionally repetitive and chaotic elements (and an over reliance upon racial comedy, which eventually serves to age the film), toward its long revered comedy status. 7.5/10
Bug – William Friedkin – Based on Tracy Letts’ play (screenplay written by Letts), Bug unfolds in the dank claustrophobia of a single motel room. A wandering, decidedly neurotic (even before the madness begins to spiral) man named ‘Peter Evans’ (played by Michael Shannon) is introduced to the lonely figure of Agnes White (played by Ashley Judd). Thankful of his company, Agnes interprets Peter’s unhinged quirks through the vulnerable paranoia of her own past and it soon becomes clear that they are both encouraging a mutual collapse of sanity. Finding security in an unstable affinity for each other, mental fragility begins to entangle and unravel, becoming more and more dangerously divorced from reality.
Peter’s delusional belief that the government has planted ‘aphids’ in his skin as part of a sinister conspiracy begins to dominate the oppressive cell of their shared motel room. Convinced he has escaped the amorality of scientific experimentation he believes himself, and the room, to be infested…leading to growing measures of masochistic precaution. Both central performances by Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon are, to put it lightly, committed. Their insular relationship leads to a frighteningly intense embrace of conspiracy and paranoid nightmares- acted with unnerving believability. From the quick cut sequence of praying mantis/insect imagery after they have sex (connoting violent notions of the mantis’ copulating decapitation ritual, and a fear of contamination through penetrative entrance) to the feverish monologues of their climactic and elaborate madness (painfully uttered under the delusion of epiphany) – the film’s most arresting power resides in two phenomenally convincing – and unsettling - portrayals of collapsing sanity. The parallel nightmare that they construct, so intricately together, makes for a compellingly immersive experience. A disturbing drama masterfully controlled through Friedkin’s wise adherence to the cracked dialogue’s power. 8/10
Kingdom of Heaven – Ridley Scott – After watching Kingdom of Heaven I discovered that there was a massively extended director’s cut-which, at 3hours and more, apparently better fits the original directorial objective of ‘historical epic’, as opposed to the heavily edited ‘action adventure’ that the studio favoured. A telling of the Crusades, with Orlando Bloom as a humble blacksmith turned military leader, ingenious tactician and all round admirable pillar of religious tolerance…unsurprisingly takes liberty with the likely brutality of history - in which figures of ‘religious tolerance’ and advocates of diversity where probably pretty dam rare-and even more rare, in positions of influential power. Peter Bradshaw makes a compelling argument for the film’s questionable political motives, referencing George Bush’s characteristically short sighted rhetoric: in which he defined America’s morally dubious war in Iraq as a ‘crusade’. Thus, the film should rightfully be met with a wary skepticism – considering its noble portrayal of crusader (although the film does attempt to emphasize the independence of his views), which lends a historical movement of evangelical, bloodthirsty slaughter a misleading aura of progressive globalized ethics. In a sense, the aim to depict a hero of such commendable tolerance could be applauded for its basic and positive humanism. However, in the severely edited theatre release/general version…it feels a bit like a thinly veiled convenient appropriation of history.
Although Kingdom of Heaven does manage the epic scale of an arching narrative twinned with a historical backdrop relatively well, it is condemned to fall short due to the casting of Orlando Bloom in the film’s central role. This is not (I promise…for now) an unnecessary critical assassination of Orlando Bloom, as many unkind folk tend to joyously indulge in rending him limb from thespian limb, due to an unfortunate fidelity to the ‘Keanu Reeves School of Acting’. I did think he made a dam fine Legolas, carried off the tights and had sufficiently muted facial expressions to suggest Elf-like ethereal wisdom with prancing aplomb. However, to convey a weathered man of battle, a leader of men and the nascent emotional anguish of a troubled past…he is pretty badly miscast. After Liam Neeson, reveals he is Bloom’s father (beckoning him to join the crusades) we are given a glimpse of an actor with a closer semblance of rugged emotion and believable strength. Unfortunately Neeson is lost pretty early on, leaving Bloom to shoulder the burden of Crusade conviction-and the film’s needed emotional force-very much alone.
It cannot be denied, with dark locks of heroic hair, vulnerable brown eyes and the calculated unkempt look of perennial stubble…Mr. Bloom is a good looking guy…but not a persuasive crusading warrior. For the role to work, it would be desirable for his expressions to convey something beyond mild discontent, eyes that could suggest ineffable depth and not just the good looks better reserved for after-shave adverts. Striding through the epic carnage of Lord of the Rings style battle scenes, he seems consistently removed from the experience-as if gliding in his own air-conditioned catwalk of moody male importance. The scale of the film, and its ambitious array of moralistic themes require acting grit that transcends the pout of Pirates of the Caribbean. Apologies, it seems I have spiraled into the aforementioned critical assassination of the formerly elfish Bloom…He is not that bad, just wrongly cast. Suffering from this casting error and the tension between Scott’s ‘historical epic’ ambitions and the pressures for commercial ‘action adventure’ packaging, the film (in the form/ I watched) fails to deliver the full potential of the vast and complex subject matter. 6.5/10
Manhattan – Woody Allen – Filmed in black and white and set to the musical palette of Gershwin, Manhattan retreads the neurotic intellect and troubled love of Annie Hall. Filmed two years later than Annie Hall (Manhattan was released in 1979) a more developed drama takes precedence over quick-fire wit. The central character dates a girl many years his junior (a college frequenting, homework writing 17year old by the name of ‘Tracey’, played brilliantly by Mariel Hemingway – to Woody Allen’s – ‘Isaac’- balding 42), realizing the relationship to be simply a fling he gets involved with a highly strung academic (Diane Keaton), with whom his best friend previously had an affair with; and so ensues an erratic love triangle, played out against the monochrome backdrop of a lovingly shot New York. It is hard to decide whether the drama of Isaac’s relationship with the younger girl is queasy Woody Allen wish fulfillment, or a more nuanced exploration of the tragic immaturity of a middle aged bachelor…or perhaps both. Either way the film feels less cohesively comical, the humour instead cutting through a leading narrative – as opposed to the quotable glee of Annie Hall in which it seemed witty precocity led the way – the love story often reduced to a vessel for memorable comedic observations.
There is one scene in Manhattan that I found particularly ambivalent in tone, or at least I found myself divided on how to receive its success. Having realized he is leading the 17 year old astray (the awkward and growing nature of her adolescent love threatens to puncture his libidinous, but ultimately superficial, fantasy) and having discovered the older Mary (Diane Keaton), he breaks up with her while sat at a bar. The timing of his break up is compounded by her presenting him with a sweet gift (a harmonica…to encourage him to pursue the musical aspirations he had previously mentioned in a warbling array of deprecating digressions…probably), thus she becomes even more vulnerable and compassionate in the face of his dismissal. The camera closely crops her crying face, the shot’s portrait simplicity interrupted by the fumbling hands of Isaac that fuss and stumble in an embarrassing attempt to comfort her. Somehow, with the aid of theatrical black and white rendering (painterly shadows and angelic white purity), this shot seemed to typify the uneasy chemistry of their relationship. We watch the older fumbling hands of Isaac, trying to find some semblance of authentic emotion, as Tracey is left expounding her earnest devotion. As Isaac continues to witter over the scene, the viewer (or at least me!) is left unsure of whether to read the scene through the bumblingly nervous humour of Woody Allen, or the tragic reality of their relationship. It is not entirely clear whether we are witnessing a narrative of jovial misogyny and a beta male incarnation of charmingly silly chauvinism…or whether in fact Manhattan embodies a more nuanced drama: providing a critique of the inherently adolescent male masquerading as an adult. 7/10
Biutiful – Alejendro Gonzalez Inarritu – Javier Bardem is without question a strong and commanding screen presence. Whether sporting a psychopathic bowl cut in his menacing role for No Country for Old Men, or perfecting the European bohemiam/ roguish Casanova appeal in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Bardem has an innate and magnetic ability to convince. And then there is that face: strong lines of weathered experience with just a dash of ‘haggard hardship,’ ensuring that whatever he does is lent a deep and natural authenticity. So, yep, I am unreservedly a Javier Bardem advocate! Biutiful places Bardem unrelentingly at the centre of the film, he appears in the vast majority of shots. It is the story of one father’s struggle, through poverty, bad luck, illness and marital break up to support his children and endure the hard hand life has dealt. It is, without a doubt, unremittingly bleak. Tragedy upon tragedy mounts until the viewer is left drooping with the same world-weary burden that the film depicts, I found myself hoping (in vain) for just a glimpse of light relief or distracting frivolity! The film is framed (in its opening and ending) with two beautifully crafted and oneiric scenes-both saddled with the hefty pondering of mortality. Javier Bardem’s performance is astounding; it keeps the film from becoming too tiresome in its misery through his sheer natural charisma, a gift which keeps this downbeat spiral a compelling and arresting experience. It would not be a film to recommend lightly due to its relentlessly miserable narrative, but, on top of Bardem’s brilliance, it cannot be denied that Inarritu has produced a brilliantly shot and moving cinematic vision. Barcelona is uniquely evoked, a claustrophobic and decaying urban sprawl; the pervasive gloom is sporadically punctuated with poetic shots (ants climbing, Moths shuffling on a ceiling, billowing smoke, sun spilling a golden light through dry grass) that arrive like precious epiphanies or cryptic omens; the soundtrack draws from an appropriately downbeat electronic and ambient soundscape; the narrative has delicately woven into scenes in which we observe the supernatural, the nightmarish and the visionary, but never in sensationalism or graphic drama. It is a memorable, beautifully shot and poetic film, but undeniably, and at times overbearingly, bleak. 8/10
The Dark Knight – Christopher Nolan – I was Inspired to finally get round to watching this through the release of The Dark Knight Rises. I had wanted to see it for, well, a long time…but my prevailing adversity to ‘superhero’ films only encouraged, an already natural, apathy. I just find it hard to separate the immaculate torso rippling, muscle flexing, cape swishing, gun firing, world saving, tight tight, tight costume sporting, Neanderthal jawline possessing, macho action worshipping, DC/Marvel originating pantomimes from, well, from a pretty adolescent wish fulfillment. The socially awkward outsider who dreams of proving himself, the physically insecure who imagines a 300 Spartan six pack and the keen gym freak who wishes it was more acceptable to revel in tight fitting flamboyant homoeroticism-all of this finds vicarious and masturbatory enactment in the standard fare of superheroes. It’s not a matter of self congratulating elitism, or snidely condemning comics as ‘just for kids’ – it’s just that, in the grand scheme of forms of entertainment, Spiderman/Watchmen/Incredible Hulk/The Avengers/ X-Men and other lycra-clad saviours of the universe are..well, on the whole, pretty silly. Silly aint always bad though, I spend an unnerving amount of my waking (and dreaming) life embracing the virtues of ‘silly’. Nowt much more fun than impersonating an angry duck, imitating a zombie, dancing nude, eating basically inedible substances as an impulsive recreational habit, doodling bulbous eyed rodents on the back of envelopes, wearing trousers intentionally high, insisting you possess a clairvoyant capacity when armed with a pot of raspberry yoghurt, singing loudly when alone, conversing with inanimate objects, learning to safely ingest inanimate objects, painting various areas of the anatomy with glue, declaring penis synonyms with gleeful volume and frequency…and, added to that list…taking the superhero genre too seriously.
BUT, Mr. Nolan has done something wonderful, impressive and (to all the mega mega superhero fans out there…I realize anyone reading this who likes Batman alone ‘he is not a superhero-he has no powers! Etc’ may take massive offence to my misinformed inanity…please don’t…it’s not worth it…so, yeh, for all those BIG fans) massively gratifying: finally a series of films that evokes the very best and most serious aspects of the genre. Mark Kermode, and I’m sure many others, have rightfully praised Nolan’s ability to direct ‘intelligent’ blockbusters. His are inspired action films that don’t insist on dizzyingly quick edits, 90minutes of LOUD explosions, bad dialogue or formulaic plotlines. So, having been ridiculously late in seeing The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger’s, now infamous, portrayal of the joker, I was not disappointed. From the opening sequence, a clown masked bank robbery and the Joker’s first appearance (complete with a darkly humourous Nietzschean soundbite: ‘What doesn’t kill you – only makes you stranger’ , or summat like that) to the tension of the climactic ‘boat scenario’, I found the entire film a very entertaining watch. It has been said a thousand times before, but not without reason, that Heath Ledger’s performance really does add something/everything to the film’s genius. He is simply amazing. To achieve a performance that is genuinely disturbing and unnervingly creepy, while also maintaining show stealing charisma, makes for an unforgettable and (as countless posters/t-shirts/sprawling memorabilia will testify) memorable character act. Apparently much of the Joker’s idiosyncrasies and vocal eccentricity was based on Tom Waits (I’m pretty sure I heard this somewhere…reliably sourced as always..). The croaking raconteur is given a slightly effeminate and frighteningly unhinged make-over, but watching Ledger’s performance with this in mind really does highlight the Waitsian echo…a ‘What’s he building in there…Wanna know how I got these scars?’ hybrid. Also similar to the interviews that Waits has given over the years, the Joker indulges in an articulate and playful (but oh so scary) self mythologizing: continually inventing and reinventing the origin of his scarred clown smile. On top of Nolan’s brilliant direction and Heath Ledger’s unbelievable performance, the portrayal of ‘Two-Face’ is also effectively handled. At the end of the film, as with Inception, one is left feeling satisfied not simply in the blockbuster essential of action and spectacle, but in the imagination of memorable characters, narrative sophistication and acting quality. 8/10
The Dark Knight Rises – Christopher Nolan - Considering the anticipation and pressure involved with following up the box office and critical success of The Dark Knight, it is all the more impressive when, on leaving the cinema, I was buzzing with ebullient praise and post-Bat excitement. I was also vocally smug that my bladder had endured the 2hours 45 minutes; it being always preferable to avoid the indecisive and nagging distraction of contemplating whether or not it’s worth upsetting a whole row of audience members… to make that dash of defeatism, a surrender to the ticking tyranny of regrettable Fanta consumption, reeking its brimming revenge. So, calmly seated throughout, and thus maintaining an affable peace with fellow cinema goers (who, unconcerned, were rustling excessively large packets of sugared sustenance), I enjoyed the film in its ambitious entirety. The film takes it time establishing Batman’s gradual return to Gotham crime fighting, demonstrating Nolan’s sophisticated grasp of narrative. Thankfully devoid of a nervous need to please, the film avoids a premature explosion of action, instead building the expectation of an impending change of gear…and, when said gear change arrives, the second half of the film confidently delivers the necessary excitement. Where The Dark Knight had unsettling themes of disturbed identity (the unforgettable Joker and the violent anguish of TwoFace), The Dark Knight Rises deals on a more social level with notions of class upheaval and the identity of a ‘people’ as opposed to a ‘person’. Nolan apparently drew a lot of inspiration from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the film even quotes a relevantly poignant passage.
The new villain, a very ripped, hulking and generally gigantic Bane (played by Tom Hardy) takes power under the rallying promise to return Gotham to ‘the people’; dragging the decadent from their nests of excess and returning the city to the common man. Except that, as most revolutionary uprisings, Bane’s powerful appeal ‘to the people’ masks a, less ideologically concerned, fondness for casual slaughter, unrelenting violence and further oppression. As a new villain he is sufficiently divorced from anything too Joker-esque to render any misguided comparisons redundant. Bane is a beefy, bestial slab of uncompromising brute strength and although the sound of his voice has prompted much complaint and discussion, he is essentially a suitably evil counterpoint to Batman. Having said that, he did occasionally sound like a camp Sean Connery speaking through a cheap guitar pedal…still, there’s space for such eccentricities in this Batman legacy…I would not begrudge for this peculiar voice (apparently based on a bare knuckle fighting gypsy…naturally). Anne Hathaway, as Catwoman, looks appropriately seductive and lends a potentially ridiculous role the risk, image and allure it so clearly needs to prevent a travesty like Halle Berry’s S&M pantomime. Michael Cane is also used with sensitive intuition, which lends the film some much needed emotion and occasional humour. 8/10
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask – Woody Allen – Taking the form of seven short vignettes and all allegedly based upon the David Reuben book of the same name. Unfortunately without the continuity of an overarching narrative, as opposed to the thematic unity of sex, and without a chance to develop characters and dialogue, the film is unable to capitalize upon Woody Allen’s chief strengths. Relying upon moments of slapstick and the absurd, in contrast to the usual deprecating wit and neurosis of Allen, the film lacks the comedic success needed to carry off its segmented format. The most memorable highlight arrives at the end, in which the workings of a body are shown populated by mechanics straining the gears of an erection. Meanwhile Woody Allen is shown as a nervous sperm awaiting the immanence of ejaculation, brilliantly evocative of a trembling and reluctant soldier awaiting D-Day landings…soon to be stranded upon the cruel shores of vaginal terrain. There is another sketch that combines Gene Wilder and the implied sodomy of a sheep-disappointingly not as funny as it could be! Feels partially preemptive of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life 6/10
Ted – Seth Macfarlane – As a transition from popular TV animations (the rightfully successful empire of Family Guy, American Dad and the questionable spin off: The Cleaveland Show) to film, Ted is almost exactly what you would expect. It offers the same quick-witted observational, scatological, insulting and sexual humour that Family Guy delivers – just with the compromised momentum of simultaneously providing a functional cinematic plot. It deals with its tongue in cheek fairy tale template pretty well (within the bounds of being a watchable comedy)-one is just felt mildly disappointed that the comedic edge (now less edgy due to Family Guy immunization through familiarity) could not also be extended to the film’s narrative. It wouldn’t be unthinkably daring to base a story around something other than the predictable mecca of matrimonial bliss – and yet, it seems impossible to escape. Such an escape would help make the film stand out. Instead a likeable Mark Wahlberg and impossibly attractive Mila Kunis (so very far from her cartoon incarnation ‘Meg’) are steered towards the, painfully inevitable, conventional happy ending of their romance. If the risk-taking sting of Seth MacFarlene’s comedy (which is less extreme here than in his animations) could find a similar cynicism and biting wit with which to shape the narrative, the film could feel less like the exploitation of clumsy plot devices for the sake of a handful of gags – and instead an original gag filled original film. Unfortunately it feels as though the film’s comedy succumbs to the same lame structures it so competently mocks. As a result Ted often feels unnecessarily slowed for condescending plot devices that should, in the tone of its comedy, be points of ridicule and not rules to respect. However, as an entertaining comedy it is certainly enjoyable and frequently very funny (easily appealing to an already established sense of Family Guy humour), it is just unlikely to stay with the viewer long after watching. 7/10