Sunday, 26 October 2014

"The Way, Way Back"


 
Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, 2013, USA

 
Trailers seems to do the films they are promoting no favours, mostly. They offer up the cliché moments as touchstones so that the audience knows what it’s getting into, which has the effect of either (a) giving too much away, and/or (b) misrepresenting the film at hand. Take the modest, unsurprising but appealing coming-of-age film “The Way, Way Back”: the trailer tends towards something that’s more “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” when the actual film is a little more subtle than that. For example, in the trailer Sam Rockwell is just the funny motormouth archetype – he plays Owen, a manager at Water Wizz waterpark – but he is a little more nuanced in the film so the trailer does no justice to his character or performance. Note how he puts himself between Steve Carrell’s condescending boyfriend and the somewhat shy son-figure Duncan (Liam James), a moment that implies backstory without having to spell things out.

Where Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s “The Way, Way Back” is interesting is in its vision of a job being a place where the kid Duncan can process his meekness and relationships with older people. The first job is often a neglected topic in cinema, especially when considering how many coming-of-age films there are, and there are fewer that explore the workplace as a space that is positive for social development. One can go to “Deep End” for how hormonal and confusing a first job may be, or “Import/Export” for how hellish work can be in general, but “The Way Way Back” makes work a positive experience. Duncan makes the waterpark his own and comes out of his shell without becoming a tiresome extrovert.

The film has a fair amount of coming-of-age clichés – there is some pathetic phallacy and a losing-your-swimming-shorts moment, for example – but it seems to skate through them so that they aren’t laboured, as if it wants to do something else but doesn’t quite know how to. Likewise, the misogyny of the guys at the top of the waterslide making the women stand there just a minute longer so the feminine form can be ogled lacks the voice of female characterisation elsewhere: it jars against the respect shown elsewhere.

Nevertheless, it’s amusing, undemanding entertainment. Faxon and Rash’s script is sparky and subtle enough as a tale of people coming out of their shells, teenagers and adults alike, and left open-ended enough that it doesn’t insult the intelligence. It is also a film steeped in the smallness of the world, leaving the dead-end properties of Water Wizz waterpark implied (for example, perhaps it one of the few places where Owen can get away with his schtick): life is what you make it, the film says, but never quite beats the audience over the head with this message, for its other theme is we are what we are. We may be left wondering how Trent will save the relationship with Duncan’s mother (probably he’ll pull some boorish, patriarchal bullshit out of the hat), but this is the tale of how Duncan found some confidence at a summer job.

Friday, 24 October 2014

"Crack in the World"



"Crack in the World", Andrew Marton, 1965, USA

Old-fashioned disaster flick with aging, cancer-ridden, over-ambitious scientist Dana Andrew’s plans to tap the Earth’s core for power resulting in the movie’s title. Desperate and deluded scientist Andrews foolishly still competes for his wife with a younger, equally ambitious ex-student Moore. The global crack runs parallel not only with his disease, but with these domestic troubles: personal and external frictions and frissures finally meet head-on so that the old man’s suppressed rage and cancer explode, sending his soul/life/delusions/guilt etc. spiralling into orbit as a serene second moon.

          Ludicrous End of the World films have always enjoyed an eager audience keen to assuage their fear of headlines, hysterical and otherwise. Talky but lively, the cast try to give “Crack in the World” some emotional gravitas while dealing with science and disaster that, even to a layman, are self-evidently unconvincing. Namely, the end of the world as we know it surely would have arrived half-way through the running time. But the second-moon born in a new burning red world is a fair act of bravado and, finally, the implausibility of it all doesn’t quite hinder decent number of dramatic and special effects.

"Chopping Mall"

 
"Chopping Mall", Jim Winorski, 1986

Starting decently enough with a mock-commercial for security robots, preceding “Robocop” by a year, “Killbots” otherwise known as “Chopping Mall” soon descends into ‘80s campy fun and that is all. These new security robots get a taste for killing people when their rooftop computer gets zapped by lightening (!). They also acquire the ability to: (1) be sneaky by hiding here and there; (2) pretend to be turned off when they are really getting ready to kill; (3) go up escalators even though they move on big treads; (4) find our partying teenagers wherever they run throughout the mall. The teenagers that foolishly stay in the mall after hours for some sexy time are the kinds that do nothing for the prejudice that Americans are stupid as a culture. They mostly go about getting themselves killed and reacting in ridiculous manners. It’s the kind of film where you find yourself saying things like: (1) “Wait, the robots can hide bodies? (2) “Wait, how did the robot open those doors?” (3) “Wait, they have lasers now?” And all in the same scene.

 
Mostly logic free and coasting on its camp qualities, “Chopping Mall” offers one impressive breast-bearing followed by an exploding head, but then all it has, from this distance, is ‘80s nostalgia value. The shopping mall makes for an interesting “house of horror” – as it did in Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” – but the robots delightfully clash with the retro-vibe and provide a lot of humour, intentional and otherwise. The credits sequence establishing the mall itself may be the most lingering and pleasurable moment it has.    

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Godzilla (2014)


Gareth Edwards, 2014, USA - Japan



 

What to do when a film is half good? For example, the parts of “Godzilla” 2014 that work are the stuff to do with Bryan Cranston and the monsters, but the parts with Aaron Taylor-Johnson don’t so work so well. The trailers were great – and as a general rule I don’t like most trailers - and this Godzilla promised so much when it was disclosed that it was to be helmed by the director of “Monsters”, Gareth Edwards. “Monsters” was like the “Before Sunrise” of creature features in that it focused primarily on a couple discovering love on the wrong side of an alien infestation. In fact its crossing-the-border drama made it more understated and equally successful in the social commentary stakes than Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” and “Elysium”. But “Monsters” was interested in real people whereas “Godzilla” offers only Hollywood types: a good-looking stoic lead whose story intertwines with the rise of the Kaiju, but the story is based upon three-act clichés that ask us to relate to a somewhat two-dimensional lead character. The interesting actors are killed off early – Cranston won’t make it to the second act, no matter what the trailers may promise, and Julette Binoche is just a cameo – and we are left with under-written characters. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the film didn’t invest so much in the “human story”, but what this means is caring for the lead character at the expense of the presumably hundreds upon hundreds of faceless dead. So what you end up saying is The parts with Godzilla are good and the parts with Aaron Johnson-Smith are bad.   

 

The Godzilla stuff is what the audience comes for, of course, and this Godzilla certainly looks the part. The highlights: the sky-dive; Godzilla’s back lighting up; Godzilla blasting his death-ray down a MUTO’s throat. Oh, and Godzilla screaming into the audience. CGI has come a long way since “Jurassic Park” and when it’s used well it can be impressive: filming everything through the fog of destruction helps the effects a great deal, just as having the apes actors on set as much as possible helped “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”. These two CGI extravaganzas are both impressive on a technical level but both share the weakness of a somewhat obvious script and thinness of human dramatics: but “Apes” overcomes because it focuses on the ape dramatics and its weaknesses, for the most part, are secondary whereas in “Godzilla” the insistence on the human element – which worked so well for “Monsters” – only goes to show how hackneyed the human element is.

 

Let’s not forget how gloriously daft most of the Godzilla sequels are anyhow, and how feeble the characters have always been, but that’s no excuse. Everyone is unanimous that Roland Emmerich’s 1998 “Godzilla” was terrible but Edwards’ reboot isn’t terrible, just half good, which means half the audience disliked it. It’s proven a divisive film. So what can you do? Lower your expectations and enjoy the monster show, perhaps. Edwards takes his time but the teases are excellent and the monsters and the destruction they cause are indeed spectacular. It’s not the ultimate monster narrative we wanted because the story does nothing to elevate the material, but for monster action it shows that CGI can now deliver on its promise and Godzilla has probably never looked so realistic.

 
 

"Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth" (1992)

“Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth”
“Mosura tai Gojora”
Takao Okawara, 1992, Japan

 
Meteorite falls on Earth and wakes up Godzilla and Battra. Meanwhile, in Indiana Jones land, treasure hunter Takuya Fujito gets involved in a Government investigation of various ecological disturbances around the meteorite. Battra destroys city. Fujito and others discover Mothra’s egg and as they take it home for some unethical company, Godzilla, Mothra and Battra have a fight, setting off all kinds of volcanic activity. Mothra’s tiny fairy-like guardians, the Cosmos, are kidnapped. Mothra levels Tokyo to check up on them and then Mothra changes from unconvincing caterpillar into unconvincing fluffy moth thing and fights now airborne Battra. Godzilla joins in. Battra turns good and helps fight Godzilla.
 
 
   With a plot surely made up as it went along, propelled by nothing more than someone gasping “Godzilla!” and then there he is, it’s up to the showdowns to save the whole enterprise. Subplots drop away and characters with typically bad dialogue (and dubbing) become nothing more than ringside spectators heckling the monster fights. The fights here are less wrestling than laser beams and it has to be said that “Godzilla vs Mothra” provides quite a light-show. Some moments such as Mothra cocooning the Capital Building are bizarrely pretty, shot as if they were gorgeous epics. The scenes of the city being trashed and refugees fleeing are closer to the original “Godzilla” than the late Seventies jokey efforts, but the series latterly moves into ecological rather than nuclear warnings. Although Godzilla remains a startling signifier of man-made holocaust, the plots aren’t strong enough to uphold the original message.
 
 
So it’s up to the monsters. Battra is a vast spiky improvement upon the Mothra design; a mole-moth-rhino of sorts. Godzilla is in his oddly cat-like phase with barely a jaw to jutt. Forget the humans; enjoy the light-show and mass destruction. 

"Godzilla vs Hedorah" (1971)


"Gojira tai Hedora"

"Godzilla vs the Smog Monster"
Yoshimitsu Banno, 1971, Japan

 
A truly bizarre film with almost everything thrown into the mix – psychedilic visuals and musical interludes, animation (not quite Pink Floyd – The Wall, though), stop-animation, kiddie-movie, anti-pollution warning, multiple screens, etc. None of this enlivens the sluggish pace, dull dialogue and ~ catastrophically ~ mundane fight-scenes between Hedorah and Godzilla himself. In fact, Godzilla is almost incidental as the creature made of sludge and pollution, Hedorah, runs amok. It shits, pukes and gases out over people, sometimes dissolving them into skeletons. Hedorah itself is a truly repellent and silly creation, but the script labours under the destruction-of-nature message. A tropical fish tank represents pure oceans, but even that succumbs. Once, just having Godzilla lay waste to Japan was enough to conjure hints of atomic bombs and mass-disaster but the Earth faces pollution monsters too.

            This eleventh Godzilla installment begins with a bizarre opening number, a psychedelic theme, a cross between a James Bond credits sequence with lyrics listing elements polluting our world. Next thing, it’s a children’s “Save the Earth” monster flick with a tadpole turd-like Hedorah and pauses for science lessons. Half atrocious, half spellbindingly odd ~ who knows what they were thinking? Most resonant moment has Godzilla being buried under an ocean of sludge. 
 
 
 

 

"Godzilla vs Mothra" (1964)


Mosura tai Gojora
Ishirô Honda, 1964, Japan



Fourth, somewhat lackluster entry into the Godzilla series. Giant Mothra egg is found and is immediately accosted by unscrupulous company that want to exploit it. The miniature Mothra guardians, the Peanuts Twins, plead with the human race to return the egg, but the businessmen are too busy building a theme park around it. All this is quickly swept aside when Godzilla, disturbed by some atomic tomfoolery again, rises up out of a muddy wasteland – which makes a change from his usual aquatic entrances. Mothra is persuaded to stop Godzilla’s rampage before dying of natural causes and making way for the  contents of the egg, which turn out to be twins.
 
            Since the human ingredient and plots in these sequels give daytime soaps a sophisticated feel, the films mostly fall and stand on the monster, the fights and the destruction. “Godzilla vs Mothra” delivers only sundry efforts in these departments. Godzilla looks as if he has bushy eyebrows. The bad guys over-act like “Thunderbirds” puppets. The good guys barely register. Plastic model tanks melt. As with all Mothra films, the action pauses for musical interludes from the Peanuts Twins and friends. The element of children is introduced, if briefly, paving way for the more kid-orientated sequels and, inevitably, “Godzilla vs Hedorah”. It is always funny to watch something so awesome and primal as Godzilla fight a monster as crap as Mothra. The giant lizard puts up a disappointing fight against the overgrown moth and its twins who, in their larvae stage, simply squirt Godzilla with sticky stuff until he falls into the ocean. Until next time.    
 
 

Saturday, 2 August 2014

"Bangkok Dangerous"



Oxide PangDun & Danny Pang
2000, Thailand



Actually, there isn’t too much “dangerous” in the Pang brothers’ soft-centred hit-man tale. Oh, plenty of blood and shooting, but nothing that will trouble or tax the genre. The excess is all in the aesthetic and tricks with which the Pangs overwrite every scene: they cannot film someone washing their face in a sink without multiple cuts to a turning of the faucet. Filters colour everything, every action affected in some filmmaking tic, nothing left to breathe on its own. The film chokes on its own style, but it isn’t necessarily stylish: its action scenes edited to such an extreme that they are often whittled down to incomprehensibility; the doomed romaniticism is saddled with childish scripting so that they whole things ends up being something like a teenagers playing at gangsters playing in funky clothes. But back to style: it does not have the genre savvy or let’s-screw-with-this attitude of Takashi Miike; it is not a film that could ever achieve the elegance of  Wong Kar-Wai, no matter how hard it uses colour and changes film stock. But if you have come for style-over-substance, there is that.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

"Locke" and mistakes as meltdown.

LOCKE

Steven Knight, 2014, UK-USA

 
But from tales of youngfemale assertion to the life meltdown of a man. Effectively it is Tom Hardy as a construction manager in a car, on the English motorway, trying to stage-manage and salvage his life through the very modern means of hands-free phone calls. By all accounts, he is a very trustworthy and successful family man and construction manager, but…

Director Steven Knight overcomes any pretensions and limitations that its high-concept premise may have with a lucid, thoroughly engaging script. It is in effect a one-act play/radio drama that simply allows Hardy to do his thing whilst employing motorway lights and dissolves to create a naturally, faintly trippy atmosphere. So organic and convincing are the conversations we hear that the contrivances take a while to become obvious: Ivan Locke fights to ensure the foundations of a building are being laid in his absence whilst his family life is simultaneously falling down around him due to a fleeting infidelity which has him deserting everything in an attempt to do the right thing. Since it is one face we see for the entire running time, there needs be an actor that can effortlessly command his space and Tom Hardy is definitely up for the job, supported by an exceptional supporting voice cast. That he is as far from his “Bronson” persona as he can probably get makes him more fascinating: can you do good when you’ve done bad?

Arguably, “Locke” offers a bleak worldview where mistakes are not to be forgiven, where one wrong foundation, one wrong ingredient in the mix will mean reconciliation is not possible. Are we to agree that Locke – an ostensibly decent man – is deserving of almost complete estrangement due to his infidelity? And surely saying “no” is not endorsing that infidelity but without the room to further explore the complexities and ongoing changes or lack-of-change in the family crisis, there is an aftertaste of meanness. The tale implies that mistakes can’t afford to be made, but surely the film is equally arguing that good people will stumble and blunder and, ultimately, act human. For Locke, he discovers that his sills in reliability and negotiation will not resolve everything, no matter that he carries the philosophy that any crisis can be made good with effort and by doing the right thing. The film gets to the frailty of things but all the grey areas leave our flawed protagonist out on his own.




WhereSpring Breakers” and “We Are The Best” present young women aching to discover and assert themselves, “Locke” presents a man discovering that he is not quite who he hoped to be. “We Are The Best” offers that growing up is as quietly as fun and surprising as it is difficult and painful; “Spring Breakers” offers self-discovers as envisioned by a rudderless, immature youth pop-culture; “Locke” suggests that all your good work can be undone at any given moment, just given a key mistake made.

"Spring Breakers" and cluelessness as a trippy thing.

SPRING BREAKERS

Harmony Korine, 2012, USA


Certainly, the rounded and engaging girls of “We Are The Best” make the bad girls gone bad of Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” look ridiculous, wafer-thin and inane. They start off with a similar sufferance and disillusion of their surroundings and schooldays. These are the privileged class but nevertheless unhappy with not having more and not being able to do just what they like. And so they rob a restaurant with water-pistols, acting like gangster-girls, and head off to Spring Break to discover themselves. Indeed, they mutter on voice-overs about such discoveries and that they are amongst the sweetest people, the best friends ever and that this is a paradise realised: but the truth in the visuals is that they are simply getting drunk, taking drugs, taking off their tops a lot, indulging in indulgence and orgies and hi-energy music. Their vision is vacuous and limited and absurd. It leads nowhere and they offer nothing but their own vacuity. Inevitably, it would seem, this escalates into the pose and debauchery of dressing up in nothing but bikinis, guns and Pussy Riot bunny-masks and going on a killing spree (it’s like the psychedelic MTV-minded wet-dream of “Gummo”’s bunny-boy).

The shallowness is part of the point; there is satire here of a privileged generation stoked up on music-video crime fantasies, pop-culture pose and dressing-up (or lack of), of particularly American fantasies and aspiration of youthful excess. In fact, it is no less deep than “Tree of Life’s” cosmic and domestic musings, and like Malick’s film, “Spring Breakers” strength is as a visual piece, the visuals transcending and giving meaning and life to the limits of the script and meaning. Through neon colours, temporal scrambling, an ever-drifting camera and repetitious phrases on the voice-overs, a psychedelic and dreamy rhythm builds up, making the film seductive as an ambient mood-piece.

Korine’s greatest letdown is in failing the girls of his film: that they are barely characters at all and that their friendship is all the gestures of friendships without substance all becomes very clear when James Franco turns up and steals the show from under them. Franco’s performance has been rightly celebrated and he certainly offers a fine depiction of a shallow, ridiculous character; someone who believes the tokens of what is supposedly the gangster lifestyle maketh the man. Oh, there is no mistaking that these girls are his soul mates … although surprisingly, when a couple of the girls just want to go home, that’s what they do. He isn’t mean, cruel or sexually sadistic, but he is the only fleshed-out character in this bikini-kill fantasia: he takes over the voice-over and by the end the girls don’t even have that to convey the discrepancies between what we hear and what we are seeing. This also leave the satirical edge all dried up long before the end. They have one potentially game-changing scene where they turn the tables on him half-way through his boasting, gunplay and foreplay, but this proves not be a twist in the tale where they reclaim their story but a bonding exercise.

But still, the visuals cascade and blur and push for a genuine pop-fantasia. Had “Spring Breakers” kept focus the girls and given them their due, it could have been similar to one of Lana del Rey’s pop-tales of messed-up girls falling for a life of crime, thinking it’s all part of being cool. As it is, it leaves them nowhere as more-or-less gun-toting nobodies.

Nevertheless, it’s still quite a trip through a very minor crime story. If one gives in to the visuals then Korine emerges as a pop-director who has filtered the nihilism of the MTV generation into perhaps his most accessible mash-up yet.