Friday, 30 March 2012

Werner Herzog interview!

I had the great privilege of meeting one of my all-time heroes the other day when I interviewed German filmmaker Werner Herzog about his latest documentary 'Into the Abyss' for What Culture! I was pretty nervous but he was in a warm and jovial mood. In any case I still felt I made a fool of myself, getting a few of his film titles slightly wrong as I name dropped them, like the absent minded geriatric I am. "It's LITTLE Dieter NEEDS to Fly!" he corrected, after I asked him about the non-existent documentary Dieter Wants to Fly. Sheesh. It might not read like a big deal, but I was mortified.

Anyway, if you want to read anything of substance that came of that interview:

Read that HERE!

I've also posted a review of 'Tiny Furniture', which you can read HERE.

Both films are released today in the UK.

Monday, 26 March 2012

'We Bought A Zoo' review:

Only in the perpetually sunny, 70s "Album-Oriented Rock" infused world of Cameron Crowe - where momentary lapses in confidence are on par with cancer - does a man respond to unemployment and the loss of a loved one with the impulse purchase of a large zoo. Though Matt Damon stars as Benjamin Mee, the real-life figure upon whose memoir the film is apparently based, there can be little doubt that an audience is being invited into Crowe's world rather than the one we see out the window; A world as always built around grand gestures, cute motivational turns of phrase, and populated by uniformly winsome, oddball characters.

Earnestly sentimental and overflowing with whimsy, Crowe's films are easy to dismiss, though such an act can feel as mean spirited as heckling a eulogy, or writing graffiti on a Mr. Men book. His films are intended as celebrations of life and the innate goodness of the human spirit and, when they hit the spot, their sweet nature can overpower all but the most reactionary cynicism. For instance the deeply personal 'Almost Famous', another loose autobiography (this time of Crowe's youth as a music journalist), is one of the defining films of the last two decades. Yet when they fail, his films leave themselves so open to assault, with the writer/director's heart so plainly on his sleeve, that criticism feels like a form of bullying. As with the much-derided 'Elizabethtown'.

With its saccharine zoo-buying premise, it's no surprise that 'We Bought A Zoo' does not reach the dramatic heights of 'Almost Famous' or 'Jerry Maguire', the formal ambition of the badly received 'Vanilla Sky' remake, nor the zeitgeist appeal of 'Singles'. In tone and spirit it feels like the inbred cousin of 'Elizabethtown' and proof-positive that the filmmaker has leaped into self-parody, becoming sappier and more bombastic than ever. 'We Bought A Zoo' is far more damaging an anti-Crowe missile than any of his most ardent critics could ever have hoped to launch. It's a film in which an aggressively adorable girl complains that she can't sleep because next door's "happy is too loud".

It's a film in which Thomas Haden Church (ever an uncomfortable marriage between the body of Hercules and the demeanor of a terminally ill family pet) can throw his arms into the air and, apropos of nothing, say "joy" without it seemingly either ironic or incongruous. It's a film in which Damon's financial recklessness is enabled by his late wife's secret leaving of $84, 000 "circus money", in apparent anticipation that he would do something this grand and stupid (and who can't identify with that in a time of recession?). It's a film in which someone genuinely utters the line "I like the animals... but I love the people", and in which the musical choices are so painfully on the nose that a downpour is accompanied by Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain". Pathetic fallacy indeed.

In this world a teenage boys "dark" artwork (charcoal etchings of decapitated bodies and the like) is seen as evidence of a cry for help - a glimpse at how superficially gloomy you have to get before Crowe would sit you down for a pep talk, and preach about the life-changing impact of "twenty seconds of insane courage", like a man who is part director, part music critic and part walking self-help cack fountain. And if 'Elizabethtown' copied the plot of 'Jerry Maguire' almost wholesale (allowing for a shift from athlete management to high-end sports shoe design), 'We Bought A Zoo' effectively imports whole lines from that previous movie, with Scarlett Johansson breathlessly complaining about how her life as head zookeeper means she doesn't get to go out with her friends and meet guys. Likewise, Damon reenacts the scene in which a near-defeated Tom Cruise confronts and wins over his doubters.

I haven't even mentioned that Damon's character refers to his spur of the moment zoo acquisition as being part of a plan to give his children "an authentic American experience"... whatever that means (an image of George Washington running an owl sanctuary springs immediately to mind). Of course, this tendency towards emotional tourettes and romanticised public meltdowns hasn't been an automatic black mark against previous Cameron Crowe movies, and perhaps wouldn't be here if the film ever ventured beyond trite ideas of "letting go" and "moving on", as Damon attempts to reconcile the loss of his sadly departed wife. The tale of a middle-aged man struggling to relate to his eldest child in the wake of losing his partner, 'We Bought A Zoo' is basically what 'The Descendants' would have been if George Clooney, with smiling insanity, resolved his problems by relocating his family to a theme park.

'We Bought A Zoo' is out now in the UK, rated 'PG' by the BBFC.

Friday, 23 March 2012

'The Hunger Games' review:

The screams of young girls in the audience leave no doubt as to who the film's target audience is, yet 'The Hunger Games' - and its impossibly hunky onscreen love triangle - exist in a far more compelling world than that of the similarly pitched 'Twilight': trading in high school vampires for post-apocalyptic hardship and child-on-child warfare. Both films are based on pieces of teen fiction which mix action with angsty romance, yet this one's sulky heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), at least has cause to be sulky.

As the story begins, Katniss is established as a capable and fiercely pragmatic young woman who provides for her poverty-stricken family, hunting game in the forbidden woods alongside her handsome chum Gale (Liam Hemsworth). With her father dead and mother drifting in and out of a manic depressive coma, Katniss is the only thing standing between her sweet young sister, Prim, and certain death by starvation. You see, the Everdeens live in District 12: the poorest of the outlying communities of Panem - a futuristic nation built on the ruins of North America - and they spend their days toiling thanklessly in service of the central ruling Capitol: a city of superficial, fashion-obsessed gluttons.

Shit really hits the fan when Prim is chosen at random to be her district's tribute in the year's annual Hunger Games, prompting Katniss to volunteer in her place. As fate would have it, the male tribute is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) - an equally dreamy and faultlessly good-natured baker's son who's harboured a life-long crush on Katniss and to whom, for a past kindness, Katniss owes her life. Thus complicating the titular game which only one of them can hope to survive. Happily the question of whether Katniss prefers drippy Peeta or outdoorsy Gale is not the film's main preoccupation, however much it might be the chief selling point for a large chunk of the audience.

With a set-up that's instantly familiar to those who've seen the hyper-violent Japanese thriller 'Battle Royale', the Hunger Games themselves see 24 children (a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district) fighting to the death with the survivor crowned the winner - henceforth entitled to a life of luxury. The twist here is that the tournament takes the form of a gaudy reality TV show, complete with much pageantry and all the contrivances of that genre. Director Gary Ross' adaptation deviates slightly from the book by using the Truman Show-esque device of depicting those in control of the games, manipulating the arena to generate the most exciting spectacle for public consumption, which works well. But otherwise it's a highly faithful, if abridged, version of the tale - only really omitting the book's minor characters and interminable scenes of hunting, eating, and dress making.

As in the books, the games themselves fall short of the more fascinating build-up, a fact not helped by the UK 12A certificate version cutting some of the more violent footage. Making child v child death matches more palatable for increased consumption is morally questionable to say the least, though I understand that the film's box office hopes are pinned chiefly on the world's tweens. Even still, the film does seem overall more squeamish than the book, eschewing the frank nudity, Katniss' frequent (remorseless and detailed) animal slaying, and being coy with the arena violence. Katniss spends much of the book bruised and bloody, but not here where the entire games feels as though they take place over a couple of days.

Lawrence is a perfect choice as Katniss, convincing as strong, and being the embodiment of the character's winsome beautiful-whilst-non-girlish shtick - even if the film's version is rather more prone to bouts of weeping - though its doubtful whether the book's heroine, who so totally internalises every emotion that isn't contemptuous fury, would work on screen. I suppose, robbed of access to her thought process we need to see that she is upset, lest we think she is uncaring or wooden. Likewise, Hutcherson - who seemed so mopey as a sulky teen in 'The Kids Are All Right' - does live up to the book's vision of Peeta as vulnerable, noble, and charismatic.

In many respects this version improves upon the original. For instance, Suzanne Collins' books are so light on physical description of people and places that the look of the film feels like it's breathing life into her world rather than struggling to live up to the reader's imagination. Though the books don't specify the race of any of the characters, it's great so see some of the most crucial and beloved characters cast with black actors (chiefly Lenny Kravitz as Cinna and Amandla Stenberg as Rue), even if the lead parts have all been read as Caucasian.

It's also true that here the villainous kids are more problematic enemies than those of the book, with the ultimate baddie portrayed as far more human. They are still cast as bullying jocks for the most part, though in a way that reads as a Lord of the Flies style look at child behaviour (albeit a shallow one), rather than simply a way to render their deaths more palatable. The film also does well to weave in some of the second book's themes, of wider civil disobedience and the repercussions of Katniss' actions, showing the impact of the games on the people of Panem, giving events a sense of weight.

By breaking from the consistent first person narrative of the text it's also able to show us the games as televised. To this end, Toby Jones and the ever-watchable Stanley Tucci form an entertaining commentary team, who guide us through stranger elements of the world's lore and provide some neat (if gentle) satire of reality TV, reflecting back some of our culture's fondness for exploitative voyeurism and love of glossy, gossipy pap. In fact everything outside of the arena is handled better in the film than the book, with a note-perfect Woody Harrelson particularly funny as Katniss and Peeta's mentor Haymitch.

The teen girl mob, who during the show I attended literally screamed the house down whenever Gale or Peeta (or a cat or a child) appeared on screen, seem to have found a new set of idols and, with Lawrence's robust central showing, a feminine hero for the ages. Perhaps there's little surprise in their showing of affection for this material, in many ways so cynically tailored to meet their interests, but what's striking is that 'The Hunger Games' is actually to some extent worthy of their adulation.

'The Hunger Games' is released today in the UK, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

'21 Jump Street' review:

"We're reviving a cancelled undercover program from the 80's" says a police captain near the start of '21 Jump Street' - a self-aware comic re-imagining of the 1980s cop show that most famously launched Johnny Depp as a heartthrob. In this version it's left to a mismatched buddy pairing - of a sporty airhead (Channing Tatum) and a brainy dweeb (Jonah Hill) - to track down teenage drug dealers, as hapless rookie cops sent to infiltrate a high school posing as students. Yet they both have unfinished business left over from their own school days which ensures they are soon more focused on making a second go of high school life, with Hill unexpectedly befriending the cool set, whilst Tatum becomes the unlikely champion of the science nerds.

As former high school antagonists turned best friends it's inevitable when they begin to turn on each other during the second act, yet - in a refreshing twist on a tired formula - it's Hill who comes to marginalise the strapping jock, rather than simply seeing the two revert into their old roles. Sometimes the comedy leans too far towards knowingly shocking excess, whilst the plot and "bad-ass" aspirations of our heroes threaten to veer uncomfortably towards a right-wing fantasy, yet its heart seems to be in the right place thanks to the film's tendency to make everything as broad and lovably ridiculous as possible.

Hill and Tatum make for a funny and charismatic double-act, whilst the film's many in-jokes at the expense of formula cop series (like the original) and tropes of the high school comedy allow for a disarming bluntness about the stupidity of its own premise.There are perhaps too many action scenes, with car chases and gun battles now a staple of the Hollywood "dude comedy", and these do drag the film down for long spells. But when it's funny it's funny enough that you more or less forget all the bits you didn't like... and it's funny about 50% of the time.

Especially winning are the drug taking scenes, which seem fresh despite the fact drug trip humour has been done to death over the years: staged imaginatively and going to some fairly bizarre places. This married to the terrific interplay between the leads, deft physical comedy, and some unexpectedly great meta-humour, ensured I laughed long into the credits - possibly for the first time since the last film from directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (2009's criminally overlooked Sony animation 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs'). There's also a very clever cameo that's almost of 'Zombieland' proportions - and which you certainly won't want spoiled.

'21 Jump Street' is out now in the UK, rated '15' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

'Michael' review:

Stark, austere and stripped of sentiment or the vaguest promise of redemption, Markus Schleinzer's directorial debut 'Michael' is a grim tale told (for the most part) from the perspective of Michael Fuith's titular pedophile: a middle-aged Austrian insurance salesman. Michael's otherwise banal existence is only of note because he has abducted a young boy, who he keeps in a specially designed room below his unremarkable suburban home.

It's a synopsis that's not only uncomfortably similar to several cases in recent Austrian history, but which also seems currently in vogue with European filmmakers - with the in some ways identical French film 'Coming Home' debuting at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Yet whereas that less compelling effort made a vain attempt to analyse both kidnapper and victim, 'Michael' focuses on the former and boldly presents this character in a way which is endlessly humane without compromising the horror of his distressing crimes.

Michael is a loner and, whilst nothing in Schleinzer's subtle film waves his backstory in your face, you can just about glimpse his unhappy childhood and unfulfilled adulthood among the details. He is antisocial, though a palpable self-hatred sees him repeatedly attempt to overcome inadequacy (going on a ski holiday with friends and throwing an office party). He seems unable to relate to adults and much more comfortable in the company of young boys - who I suppose represent the only subset of the population he feels able to hold any semblance of control over or has anything remotely in common with (with his fondness for Christmas and racing cars).

He is not a monster, yet nor is he a victim, with the film resisting any easy classification of his behaviour or character. It is testament to the great skill of Fruith's restrained performance (pathetic but tinged with just enough threat) that the film can remain so mannered and almost neutral even when it comes to depicting the protagonist's molestation of a child.

Though we're never explicitly shown any of the acts themselves, it is strongly implied that Michael is having sex with the 10 year-old Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), the miserable and angry blonde-haired child imprisoned beneath his home. Whereas 'Coming Home' sought to make its kidnapper marginally less hateful by having him express a lack of sexual interest in his young prey - eventually forming a consensual sexual relationship with his victim (a teenage girl) - 'Michael' does not cop out so spectacularly.

If you're going to address the perverse and uncomfortable side of humanity, and suggest that this chaotic and debauched assault on social values can lurk just behind the curtain of any seemingly normal family home (as is the case), then in order to do that effectively you must be frank about what that sinister face of humanity looks like. It makes for mercilessly uncomfortable viewing, but 'Michael' is not trying to make its protagonist or his actions palatable, even as it avoids the classic knee-jerk response of the lynch mob.

'Michael' is out now in the UK, rated '18' by the BBFC.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Mass Effect 3 endings: Questions better than answers?

As I explained in my last post, I've not really done anything film related over the past week due to the release of Mass Effect 3 - a sci-fi video game which concludes an epic trilogy which started in 2007 and has taken me (something like) a combined 100+ hours to complete. I've finished it now and, in lieu of anything filmy to talk about, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on it here. Well, not so much on the game itself: mostly I wanted to talk about the furore surrounding the game's controversial ending.

I won't explain in any depth why the ending(s) is so controversial. After all, two smart chaps at Game Front have already done that over two incredibly comprehensive pieces in the last few days (see HERE and HERE), and whilst I don't agree with all of their points, they certainly make a very good case for the idea that the story's climax is - at the very best - flawed. (Though, for what it's worth, I think they overstate the amount of genuine "choice" and "freedom" present over the rest of the trilogy, with player choices always simplistic, binary and of little meaningful consequence even before this supremely botched conclusion. For instance the decision of whether to sacrifice Kaiden or Ashley in the closing hours of the first game was completely superficial, seeing as how both characters go on to perform the exact same role, speak the same dialogue, and make the same decisions.)

Anyway, the reason I bring this up on my film blog is that their main gripe ties into something I've wondered about for a long time, concerning whether it is better for a narrative to conclude with questions or answers. Director Terry Gilliam's passionate avocation of the innate superiority of the former has long been an influence on me. Here he explains (correctly) why Spielberg is less good/interesting than Kubrick, but much more popular:

In what can only be perceived as a slap in the face of Gilliam, a complaint the writers of these Mass Effect articles make - and one which is echoed in the substantial comments threads below both pieces - is that the story needed a solid resolution. The ending, the logic runs, is too open to interpretation and raises more questions than answers and this is a very bad thing indeed. In fact it's worse than that: it's an insult to gamers (etc etc etc). One of the writers, Phil Hornshaw, has even responded to several passionate comments below his piece, in each case (tellingly) choosing to reiterate that the success of the ending as it stands is "contingent on BioWare providing more ending content through [downloadable content]". In other words: the unresolved ending is only worth a damn if we're eventually going to get answers, and soon dammit.

This feeling of indignation is so vehement that a fan-led campaign called Retake Mass Effect has quickly raised over $50,000 for charity as it attempts to coerce developers BioWare into releasing an alternate ending. Their stated aims, as listed on their site, are very telling (underlining my own):
We believe:
* That it is the right of the writers and developers of the Mass Effect series to end that series however they see fit
However, we also believe that the currently available endings to the series:
* Do not provide the wide range of possible outcomes that we have come to expect from a Mass Effect game
* Do not provide a sense of succeeding against impossible odds
* Do not provide a sense of closure with regard to the universe and characters we have become attached to
* Do not provide an explanation of events up to the ending which maintains consistency with the overall story
We therefore respectfully request additional endings be added to the game which provide:
* A more complete explanation of the story events
* An explaination of the outcome of the decisions made, especially with regard to the planets, races, and companions detailed throughout the series
* A heroic ending which provides a better sense of accomplishment
Perhaps never has there been greater proof of what Gilliam is saying in the sense of what is popular: people clearly desire answers and a feeling of "success". There have been a lot of fans scrambling to make sense of the ending and vent their frustration at what BioWare have done, but the only voices (I have encountered) who seem to be defending the openness Gilliam-style are the developers themselves, who have come out admitting that they removed explanation from the final scenes believing it made the ending weaker and less memorable. They have admitted knowingly devising a "polarising" end to their story so as to generate (as Gilliam so relishes) a dialogue.

"Are video games art?" is that nebulous, maddening discussion that won't ever die. I come down, roughly, on the side that they probably are - but even I admit that the debate surrounding this issue is profoundly pointless. However, if the game's audience can not appreciate what might be termed a "Kubrickian" ending, then what does that say about the way games are consumed as a medium? Perhaps nothing at all. After all, Mass Effect is a blockbuster and a similar response might have been expected had, say, 'Transformers 3' ended as obliquely.

In any case, I guess what I'm getting at is this: I too was underwhelmed by the game's ending. I can understand first hand the desire to have closure on the story and to know the subsequent fates of characters who had (in a sad and strange way familiar to all RPG gamers) become my friends. Yet this massive fan outcry in favour of "answers" misses the point. It isn't bad that Mass Effect ends on questions - I'm still with Gilliam on that score - rather, it's that the questions is raises ("is Shepard alive?", "did he defeat the Reapers?", "what did his crew do next?") are so uninteresting and narrowly focused.: too embedded in the game's internal mythology, rather than any grander existential concerns. '2001: A Space Odyssey' Mass Effect is not. But I'm inclined to say nice try for not taking the easiest path, so far at least.

It remains to be seen whether BioWare chicken out and give the people what they want, as Spielberg infamously did in his cinematic re-release of 'Close Encounters', which took viewers inside the otherwise mysterious alien spaceship. Money talks, so I have a hunch they will. And I'll probably buy it too. I don't know what to think.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Splendor Cinema Podcast: 90th Episode and Facebook Page

Apologies for the overall lack of posts of late. A mixture of post-Berlinale film review burnout, my girlfriend being at home in the day over the last week, and the release of the Mass Effect 3 video game have seen me spending less time at my computer of late. With that in mind I thought I'd use the creation of a Splendor Cinema podcast Facebook page as a way to get something quick and easy up on my blog today!

So yes, please go ahead and "like" that if you're a fan of the Splendor Cinema podcast, or out of an altruistic desire to spread the word around, if you're so inclined. For those that aren't listeners, the podcast began at the start of 2010 and is hosted by Jon Barrenechea and I. We recorded our 90th episode the other day - a "show about nothing" in which we loosely discussed stuff we'd recently seen. It's basically just a semi-regular chance to hear a cinema manager and wannabe journalist talk about movies, the industry, award shows, and occasionally an inside angle on distribution. Over the past year guests have included Mark Kermode, 'Kill List' director Ben Wheatley, and several of our close cinephile friends.

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes HERE.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Splendor Cinema Podcast #89: 'The Avengers' Retrospective

As mentioned last week, I am pant-wettingly excited about the upcoming 'Avengers' movie. Now called 'Avengers Assemble' in the UK, it's out here on the 27th of April and is the climax of an ambitious (and, yes, potentially highly lucrative) project which will see comic book style continuity coming to the big screen adaptations; uniting the heroes of 'Iron Man', 'Thor', 'Captain America' and 'The Incredible Hulk' under the banner of a super-powered dream team headed by Samuel L. Jackson AKA Nick Fury: Agent of Shield.

In fact, for those looking to get equally psyched about the whole thing, I've recorded a podcast about these movies, which you can download in iTunes here or stream here. I've talked/written about all them at length previously, so I'll just briefly sum up my feelings on each of them here and then say a little bit about what I'm hoping for from 'The Avengers' next month.

'Iron Man' (2008): Exciting, with an incredibly charismatic lead performance (from Robert Downey Jr), Jon Favreau's movie established the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date and its success made the whole 'Avengers' thing (first teased in a post-credits sequence on the original movie) possible. It's inherently right-wing, with its privitised vigilante using his lucrative weapons contractor business to sock Afghan terrorists in the jaw, but it was a thrilling movie - albeit with a weak finale. What a waste of Jeff Bridges, though wasting talented actors as thinly developed villains is a trend that would continue over the next two Marvel movies.

'The Incredible Hulk' (2008): Far less successful (commercially and artistically) was Louis Leterrier's Ed Norton starring attempt to re-boot the Hulk following Ang Lee's much derided earlier version. It's brash, ugly and a little incoherent, with Norton adding little of the acting heft to Bruce Banner that we might have hoped for - particularly as he helped write the script. Tim Roth is likewise wasted as the baddie, whose evil equivalent of the Hulk (Abomination) contributes to the boring (yet oft-repeated) spectacle of two CGI monsters punching each other a lot. On a side note, the film does at least feature a Downey Jr cameo, as Tony Stark comes to discuss the "Avenger Initiative" with William Hurt's General Ross. Which is nice.

'Iron Man 2' (2010): Favreau's sequel is, to put it kindly, a mixed bag. On one hand, Mickey Rourke is underused as the villain (Whiplash), and there is too much fluff in there building up the Avengers movie which does nothing to advance the main plot (the coffee shop scene with Jackson's Fury and the introduction of Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow). Yet on the other, it's nice to see Lt. Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard) getting the chance to don his own suit and become War Machine. Sam Rockwell is also good comedic value as Stark's business rival Justin Hammer. A government committee into Stark's private use of his advanced weaponry is also interesting, even if the film's thesis is that the technology is better off in the hands of a private individual than Big Government (as represented by Garry Shandling). There's also the first real look at Tony Stark's legendary descent into alcoholism (which, in the comics, represented the first time a mainstream super hero suffered such a real world problem) A bit of a mess of a movie but there's plenty to enjoy.

'Thor' (2011): Kenneth Branagh did a lovely job with Thor, successfully turning one of the most outlandish characters - a Viking deity from outer space, with a magic hammer and a suit of armour - into someone who could reasonably fit in with Iron Man and company. As a stand alone movie it's probably the strongest of Marvel's efforts to date, boasting powerhouse performances from Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston and Natalie Portman, as well as a star-making turn from Chris Hemsworth as the titular hero. It looks gorgeous, it's pretty funny, the human drama actually has gravitas, and the project overall seems imbued with immense love and respect for the source material. The only slight gripe is a clunky scene in which Jeremy Renner's Haweye is established in a few otherwise needless shots. But that's a very small gripe.

'Captain America: The First Avenger' (2011): I fell in love with Joe Johnston's WWII-set film the first time I saw it and have seen it several times since. Not in the least bit annoyingly patriotic or militaristic, the film set up Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, who previously played Marvel's Flaming Torch in the ill-received Fantastic Four movies) as a really nice, sweet-natured guy who doesn't want to kill Nazis: he just doesn't like bullies. Despite a few commonly acknowledged flaws (an ending, and montage-reliant second act, geared more towards setting up 'The Avengers' than serving this one movie) the film actually makes me a little emotional, with its kindness and cynicism-free attitude. As a result it was one of my very favourite films of last year.

On 'Avengers Assemble': My hopes are set very high for this summer's tentpole movie, but here are a few things it has to do to avoid being a disappointment:
  • Black Widow and Hawkeye, who haven't had the benefit of their own movies, need to be developed - potentially as a duo (seeing as how the are frequently paired up in the comics).
  • This should add the human drama/character growth element that ought to be missing regarding the remaining heroes: we've already had entire movies introducing these guys so - beyond the issues that might be thrown up from their interactions together - I don't want to be told again who any of them are. With the possible exception of Bruce Banner, who has a new actor (Mark Ruffalo) and so perhaps needs to be re-established.
  • However each character does have their own ready-made sub-plot waiting to bear fruit: Iron Man needs to learn to sacrifice his ego for the good of the team; Captain America will doubtless be dealing with the whole "everyone I ever knew and cared about is dead" thing; Bruce Banner needs to get control of his powers; whilst Thor has to deal with the fact that the film's super villain is his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) - which might lead to some resentment from his teammates, as well as calling his loyalty into question.
  • I hope writer/director Joss Whedon doesn't make the characters speak like teenagers. He needs to retain the characters' already established voices, whilst resisting the no doubt strong temptation to make Cap more cynical. sarcastic and snarky this time around. If he has him quipping one-liners, that'll pretty much ruin the whole movie for me. A lot rests on the continuation of Steve Rogers as an unshakable pillar of integrity and niceness.
  • There needs to be more to the movie than the trailers have so far suggested. Is Loki the only baddie? He's pretty awesome, but I hope not. The Avengers are called together when the odds are stacked too far against any one individual, but we've already seen Thor defeat Loki - so what else is there to this story? Who is behind the gigantic robots and spaceships seen in the trailers? They don't seen very "Asgardian".
  • I'd also like to see some mention or screentime for supporting characters from each individual hero's film. Will Thor be dealing with his unresolved love for Natalie Portman's Earth-based scientist, or are they saving that for his sequel? Will the Warriors Three aid him on this quest in any form and, if not, why not? Or his father, Odin? What of Iron Man's newly equipped buddy War Machine? Surely he should be helping these guys out? I'm sure many of these characters won't feature, but there needs to be some statement of why.
  • Likewise, and at the risk of being a little too cute and contrived, it'd be nice to see some acknowledgment of the fact that the peril New York is facing in this film is not attracting any aid from any of Marvel's other premiere super heroes. The X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and Daredevil (to name a few) all live and operate in New York City. So, aside from the fact that Marvel don't own any of their rights as far as movies go, why aren't they lending a hand? It only takes a line.
Anyway, that's the last I'll go on about anything 'Avengers' related until release late next month.

Oh, and here's the German-language trailer which, for massive geeks, contains a few shots previously unseen in English-language versions (I know how sad that sounds... I'm sorry):

Monday, 5 March 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (11/30): 'Top Gun':

I'm aware this isn't a particularly original thing to say, but 'Top Gun' is very gay, isn't it? And I don't just mean the infamous beach volleyball scene or the fact that Tom Cruise has far more screen chemistry with his wingman (Anthony Edwards AKA "Goose") than with intended love interest Kelly McGillis. The steamy, overtly homoerotic exchanges between the film's team of elite Cold War fighter pilots include such aggressively macho lines as "your dick, my ass: we nailed that bitch!" and the memorable exchange: "This [briefing] gives me a hard on"/"Don't tease me!" Another pilot, during one of a thousand locker room scenes, candidly reveals that a list is as "long and distinguished" as his Johnson.

Later, a pilot compliments Cruises' "Maverick" on an especially risky flight maneuver, saying in a breathy voice "gutsiest move I ever saw, man" - a line that wouldn't be all that gay if it weren't backed up musically with the refrain from the film's love theme, "Take My Breath Away". More subtle, but no less gay, is a rack focus shot which sees "Maverick" in a flight classroom, looking over his shoulder at "Iceman": sizing up Val Kilmer in a way that is reminiscent of the way so many high school romance movies depict the top jock checking out the head cheerleader. Of course, there is nothing at all wrong with this homo-eroticism and nothing inherently hilarious about gayness, until you consider the film's intended devoutly heterosexual male audience.

Writing checks its body most certainly can't cash, 'Top Gun' is the latest entry in my "FilmQuest 2012" column and, produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, it very much establishes the archetype for subsequent action films like 'The Rock', as well as the military recruitment aesthetic of the entire Michael Bay oeuvre. It opens with by now familiar shots of US military personnel doing their duty, with the flight deck of an aircraft carrier shot in slow motion, backed up by triumphant and patriotic sounding music. A poster asking people to consider the "adventure" of joining the US Navy hangs on the locker room wall - and I doubt it's there for the characters (already serviceman). American military tech and jargon are endlessly fetishised, with Tom Cruise draped around fighter jets the way Hollywood stars usually advertise expensive wristwatches.

Feminists would quite rightly object to a film which suggested staying at home and obeying your man were essential to a happy, fulfilled life - and arguably 'Top Gun' is no less problematic. Here men are told: join the US military - it's damn sexy and super cool. It's a fantasy version of military service in which all the discipline is missing, even at an apparently "elite" fighter jet academy for the best of the best. Whenever Cruise breaks a rule he gets a stern talking to, but he's otherwise allowed to act as he pleases. Along with the volleyball, the karaoke, and the driving of high-end sports cars and motorcycles, "Maverick" seduces the driven career gal from the Pentagon (McGillis) and becomes a Cold War hero - whose face, we are told, will be on the front page of every newspaper in the English speaking (and therefore relevant) world.

The aerial photography is pretty outstanding however, with director Tony Scott serving up some really intense dogfight scenes. Even though I'm not usually one to get turned on by machines of war, I'd have to admit the fighter jets are pretty spectacular. The scenes in which they are piloted also seem (as far as I can tell, with no military or flying experience) pretty realistic: few planes, few explosions, and long moments of relative inaction. I mean, aside from the bit where he flies upside down against a Russian cockpit in order to give the guy the finger. "Maverick" and company don't take to the air guns blazing, but instead they get involved in quite drawn out and limited combat missions, usually without permission to fire live ammunition.

This being 1986, with the Cold War still raging, the enemy is vaguely defined. They are at least in league with the Soviet Union, flying MiG jets, but the enemy pilots we see are suited up like Darth Vader (complete with the heavy breathing) and never speak. The combat we see takes place over the Indian Ocean - which means the enemy could come from pretty much anywhere from East Africa to Southeast Asia. But who they are and what they are fighting for is not of any importance to this story. 'Top Gun' positions war as a glamourous, high-stakes backdrop to "Maverick's" personal story. All successes and failures are his own and ultimate victory is his. Even when a close friend dies it is he who is consoled by the widow and told to fly on.

Perhaps this is the crux of why so many American war movies get it wrong: war degradates the individual, taking away their rights and turning them into an expendable cog in a gigantic, terrifying machine. Yet war movies promote conflict as a an arena in which the individual can shine and grow.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (10/30): 'Dirty Dancing':

1987 sleeper hit 'Dirty Dancing' is actually a pretty sad film when you get down to it. It begins with "Baby" (Jennifer Gray, daughter of 'Cabaret' star Joel) narrating from a (presumably) discontented future, wistfully looking back at her more exciting youth, recalling a time when she didn't mind being called by her childish nickname. And it ends with a climactic dance number during which (most famously) the song "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" plays. HAD the time of her life, but it's all in the past now: a bittersweet memory. At least that's what I took away from this supposedly "feelgood" movie, where youth is king and anyone over 30 is an irrelevant dinosaur.

The latest entry in my "FilmQuest 2012" column, 'Dirty Dancing' is an odd one. Odd because though its blueprint to success has been emulated even recently, with choreographer Kenny Ortega going on to helm the 'High School Musical' trilogy and the posthumous Michael Jackson concert movie 'This Is It', unlike the recent wave of dance film descendants it concerns itself with social issues and a moment in history. The lack of unions for the film's nakedly exploited camp workers is bemoaned by our politicised heroine, whilst it's a rare mainstream American movie that admits the existence of social class, with the plot turning on Baby's upper-crust father's failure to accept Patrick Swayze's slick dance instructor - yesterday's leather-clad vision of cool.

With its 1960s setting, the film even charts the decline of Catskills-style holiday resorts, which offer little for the day's youth with their magic acts and talent competitions. There is even a subplot involving a backstreet abortion, which plays as a pro-choice argument from its makers. Which is not to say that it looks at any of these things with any degree of depth, but it's nonetheless interesting that the film is not anything like as vapid as its imitators. Indeed its core message of acceptance and the importance of "living your dream", whilst cliche, is eminently agreeable. Though, in conjunction with the aforementioned jaded future-narration, perhaps we can assume these dreams never truly panned out beyond teenage idealism.

But whatever. You've also got to admit that these guys can dance. That the late Mr. Swayze went on to star in such non-dance films as 'Ghost' and 'Point Break' speaks to the fact that he was a decent actor as well as a good mover, and Grey is also an appealing lead. Overall though 'Dirty Dancing' isn't really my particular cup of tea. I like dancing, but not really this kind of slow, supposedly erotically charged stuff (I guess I like what you might call "Jewish showbiz dancing"), whilst a lot of the training montage/sex scenes (such as the bit where Swayze is catching Grey in the lake) feel like the stuff of Mills & Boon fantasy. Perhaps, with its quotable lines ("nobody puts baby in the corner", "I carried a watermelon" etc) and the wish-fulfillment aspect for the largely female audience, it's the exact girly equivalent of something like 'Con Air'.