Sunday, 14 December 2014

"Nightcrawler"

Dan Gilroy, 2014, US




Or the American Dream is for assholes. Something like that. This could be seen on a double-bill with Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”.

Jake Gyllenhall as Louis Bloom is a slime-ball: not particularly likeable but he knows the right things to say when he needs to. He is not a cool guy, but he can spin a tale that makes him sound more important than he actually is; he knows how to spin and he knows how to use his leverage. He’ll use this rather than genuine friendship and he’ll do what it takes to get ahead. He’s a true sociopath, in fact. It’s a blistering performance by Gyllenhall, a career best. By the time he is word-bullying TV executive Nina (Rene Russo) for sex, you can hear in the script why some consider this the best film of the year. Writer-Director Dan Gilroy’s script positively throbs with sardonic black humour. It’s not a comedy but, like a horror, you might find yourself chuckling at Gyllenhall’s outrageousness.

Louis Bloom has nothing: no back story, nothing to fix him in place, nothing to lose. He is a blank slate looking for his chance, for his business opportunity, which he finds when he stumbles upon a film crew filming a car crash and realises that he can do that. 

Chris Cabin notes the moments where Louis Bloom moves a corpse so it is more photogenic and, of course, there is the moment where Bloom walks around a fresh murder site to film it in the most cinematic way possible. Bloom himself states that doing so is crucial. Cabin rightfully prods at this as the point where the film associates Bloom with the film director’s trade: always making murder and death look at their most filmable. Perhaps ‘staged’ is a better term: the giallo genre thrives on this. Cabin takes on Gilroy:

“Sadly, he doesn't develop this deeply alluring aspect of his narrative. Instead, he takes the moral high ground via Ahmed's conflicted character, and in a final twist, provides a shallowly cynical condemnation of the press that reveals a pointed preference for banal pessimism over further exploration of how his own profession thrives off of illicit, even sexy images of murder, pain, and blood”

But I don’t think that is the film that “Nightcrawler” is: it has far more to do with the aforementioned “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Cheap Tricks” than it does the films that directly accuse the audience, like “Funny Games” or “Peeping Tom. The other criticism is that “Nightcrawler” chooses easy and old targets, but as “car crash TV” is currently flourishing, I don’t believe this holds for long. Besides, I saw “Nightcrawler” as far more allegorical and that the world of TV was just one facet of a larger satire. I don’t even think it is subtext: like “Killing them Softly” or “Map to the Stars”, the intent is on top. This is about how those without scruples make business successes. It’s about what people will do to make money.

But “Nightcrawler” is also an excellent character study about a man who is able to go that extra moral-less inch to get what he wants: cash and power. The American capitalist dream is, here, that you will stumble upon a car crash and find away to exploit it; but you must be the one to go and to do what others will not. There is nothing Louis Bloom will not do to achieve his goal: that’s the American Dream right there. At the end, he has taken his chances and is on his way up, through the loopholes.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

"Down by Law"



Jim Jarmusch, 1986, b/w, US
 
This year, Joe Sangre and I saw Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film “Only Lovers Left Alive”, and we liked it but we decided that there was something about Jarmusch’s aesthetic that left the actors looking bad. Was it the dialogue where the vampires couldn’t last a scene without referencing how they had met some renowned artist in history? The final image showed that Jarmusch could do Horror if he wanted to. Perhaps he is least successful when trying to be clever and poignant? Perhaps he was unaware that vampires meeting Famous People In History is a stale Horror conceit, although having high art the domain of hipster vampires was a decent gag. The film is most successful when just travelling around deserted streets in a car, or poking its camera through a bar door to listen to a deliciously haunting singer.

 
Perhaps that is why his early feature “Down by Law” works so well: it just rambles, and therein lies its magic and realism. I don’t mean that anyone would mistake the compositions and atmosphere for realism, but the sprawling and open-ended agenda feels akin to the unresolved relationships and dramas of life. “Down by Law” certainly feels bluesy and jazzy, loose-limbed and funny because people are naturally funny, but it’s also true whenever Roberto Benigni turns up citing from his book of English the film is a full blown comedy, not just an amusing slice-of-life tale about three guys thrown together in a cell that make a jailbreak. I have seen “Down by Law” many times and it always exists in my memory as a scratchy, pock-marked feature, as amateurish as it is sublime in its modesty. But watching the blemish-free Critereon edition reveals not only gorgeous black-and-white but that perhaps I misremembered the amateurish elements and that in fact Tom Waits and John Laurie’s performances are equally as strong as Benigni: Waits is deadpan but no less funny in a different manner and Lurie holds his own as the straight man. They know that Benigni is there to steal the show – that’s his character, after all – but the film is no weaker in Benigni’s absence. It’s the other characters that stop this from being just a funny film, because “Down by Law” is so much more. Like Malle’s “Lift to the Scaffold”, “Down by Law” seems to capture that blues and jazz mood, that sense of life as a series of coincidences and small dramas that remain relevant to maybe two or three people. But that’s all. It is the smallness and the ellipses that the truth of life comes through.

There is indeed something appealing in the scratched-and-warped vinyl feel of the well-used prints I’ve seen before, but the Critereon print shows “Down by Law” in its best light yet.

"Black Water"


 
| David Nurlich & Andrew Taruk, 2007, Australia, 90m
 
Excellent streamlined killer crocodile horror. Amazingly, directors David Nurlich and Andrew Taruk decide that crocodiles are terrifying on their own: you don’t need them supersized, mutated or CGI-ed. And you don’t need them to be seen all the time either: that old adage that what you can’t see and what you imagine is scarier than what you do see. Our fated protagonists are a couple with a sister in tow who jump in a boat and let the guide take them way, way out into the Australian rivers. Before there has been any time to set-up, the crocodile has attacked and our protagonists are stuck up the winding, brittle looking trees. Two thirds of the film is what they do when trying to escape out of those trees. As writers, Taruk and Nurlich don’t try to be too fancy with characterisation: in fact, these may well be some of the most average and relatable characters ever put in a b-movie. Oh, I am sure there are those who would want something showier, but the ordinariness of our imperilled characters strikes me as exactly the winning presentation. It is easy to care about them without having to treat them as heightened archetypes.

This is a prime example of a low budget film using its limitations and restrictions to its advantage. It sets up a near impossible scenario and doesn’t cop out with easy solutions and implausible behaviour. In fact, what truly makes “Black Water” stand out is the convincing mental shifts, the deterioration and the resourcefulness of our characters. It is properly concerned with terror, but also the effects of it; for example, the women’s initial denial of what needs to be done, then their growing courage out of necessity without any recourse to obvious heroics. The ending is unusually bold in deploying the more mundane and heartbreaking effects of experiencing such horror on a person.

The show pieces are vivid: the most beautiful being the electric storm at night. More importantly, the reveals and appearances of the croc are all chilling (slowly coming into view) or terrifying (the fast attacks). Nurlich and Taruk also don’t overexpose the croc and execute brilliant and brief digital trickery to put it at the scene  leading to a finale that doesn’t rely upon a big grand showdown, but rather simply relying upon the frighteningly intimacy of an attack.
 
 

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.