Sunday, 29 August 2010
Alternate Title: "Clash of the Hipster Stereotypes".
Cigarette intake since viewing: Zilch. Have been on nicotine patches a week and a half now.
Currently listening to: "Threshold" by Beck.
The Gist: Michael Cera's balls drop, Edgar Wright goes trans-atlantic, and something fun and original suffers from post-summer malaise.
The Experience: Faithful readers, you probably are aware by now that I'm not exactly what you would call an objective reviewer. And if you have any kind of sense, you'll know that that isn't what reviewing movies is about. There are a handful of really good writers and critics out there whose word may as well be gospel, but the truth is that all the magazine and internet reviews are only there to tell people what they want to hear or already know, and the fact of the matter is you're only really going to know whether or not you like something if you nut up and sit through it for yourself. I only have the luxury of seeing so many films I'm probably going to like anyway because of a combination of incredible luck and having lots of cool friends to mooch off periodically.
I say this to give you some understanding as to why I would spend £24 sterling on tickets (sofa seating, no less) to see Scott Pilgrim vs The World with my girlfriend on opening night, and then £5 on a matinee showing two days later; the rest will become apparent later. Anyway.
Based on Bryan Lee O'Malley's award winning comic series (end of plug), Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera playing a variation on Michael Cera) is a Canadian slacker who is the epitome of blithely, effortlessly lame. He lives in a crappy little hole in the wall of an apartment, shares a bed with a sarcastic gay guy called Wallace (Kieran Culkin), is a terrible bass player for a mediocre garage band and his "girlfriend" is 17 year old Chinese-Canadian girl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Then one day he encounters an effortlessly mysterious ninja delivery girl called Ramona (Mary Elisabeth Winstead), ends up falling head over heels for her, and ultimately has to defeat her seven evil exes in order to win her heart.
As with Inception, it's hard to say more about the film without ruining it; not because of any twists, but because, like Edgar Wright's previous movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (and to certain extent his TV breakout Spaced), this is a film that you simply aren't going to know whether you like or not unless you man up and see it for yourself like everyone else. The cast all work brilliantly well, the stand-outs being Culkin's snarky roommate, newcomer Wong and evil exes Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman. The film has all the pop culture elements of Wright's previous work (without feeling like he's ticking boxes), the music contributed by Beck and Nigel Godrich is exceptional, and the retro graphics and video game-style duels between Cera and the parade of over-the-top villains are each unique and imaginative.
So, typically of hip, clever movies that come out around this time of year, it's going to be seen by virtually no-one, because you, faithful readers, are too busy going to The Expendables or Step Up 3D or whatever pablum is getting served up at your local multiplex. Sure, some of you will go see it because Michael Cera is in it, or because you remember liking Shaun or Hot Fuzz, and maybe it'll get its second wind on DVD, but American print journalists (i.e. the people who were never going to go see it anyway) have already declared it a "major financial disappointment".
This, ultimately, is exactly why I paid over the four times the going rate to see this film on its opening night in a packed screening at the Electric. Why I saw it again in a half-full, mildly bemused matinee audience two days later is because so many people where laughing the first time. Not talking. Not heckling. Not texting. Laughing. Remember when comedies where actually funny because they were well written and not because they involved bodily functions? This is not a niche movie that only 10% of the population are going to like or get, and the accusations of it being a "hipster" film are ridiculous. There really is no excuse for you to not see this movie at the cinema with your girlfriend or boyfriend or a roommate or a bunch of people from work you don't really know.
Even the slight mawkishness of Michael Cera and a self-consciously ludicrous Bollywood sequence can't derail what by rights should be the sleeper hit of the summer. 29 quid is a small price to pay for seeing something witty and out of the box succeed, and if more people did likewise the movie industry would be very different.
I drank the Kool-Aid, and I went back for seconds.
Sunday, 15 August 2010
Alternate Title: "Does Christopher Nolan Dream in M.C. Escher-Vision?".
Cigarette intake since viewing: Zilch. Not looking forward to this.
Currently listening to: "I Disapear" by Metallica. Don’t ask.
The Gist: Heat via Total Recall with a splash of Neuromancer.
The Experience: By now, Christopher Nolan can make any kind of movie he wants, and it will make money. This was not always the case. Everyone and their dog knows him for his two entries into the Batman film franchise, but The Prestige was, in my estimation if no-one elses, an overlooked gem that suffered from the two-pronged curse of a) being the quirky post-blockbuster pet project that every director makes after their big studio breakout film, and b) that there were at least two other equally bland looking contenders coming out at the same time in the form of The Illusionist and Scoop. Memento and Insomnia were, despite critical acclaim and cult status, were not widely seen until a while after they hit DVD and rental. I still haven’t seen Nolan’s debut, Following, even though it has been out on DVD a while.
So my initial thoughts on Inception, when it was first being hinted at in the media, were guarded at best. This was, after all, Nolan’s next project after The Dark Knight, the biggest movie in the history of anything. He does have a habit of course of doing one massive movie, then doing something smaller and tighter and cleverer, then going even bigger, and so on. If this was not Nolan bucking the trend, it was certainly an interesting experiment.
The problem with describing Inception in conventional terms is that it risks shattering its mystique. Back in the days when twisty-turny plots in movies were a relative novelty, (i.e. before The Sixth Sense reared its ugly head,) it was much easier to keep plot points in films secret and let people judge for themselves, but the very fact that I’m able to post this on the internet for anyone to see completely invalidates that. So, from hereon, I will be keeping the plot summary as bare bones as possible. Besides, I feel like a challenge.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, professional thief and wayward father, who specialises in stealing information from people's minds through their dreams, and is hired by Ken Watanabe's rich Japanese industrialist stereotype to plant an idea (the titular act of "inception") in the brain of competitor Cillian Murphy. He hires Ellen Page to design a series of mental mazes with which to confound him, Dileep Rao to hook them up with the necessary anaesthetics and Tom Hardy to just be a general bad-ass. Wow. That was easy.
Yes, the basic plot is not the most complex in the world; in many ways its a standard heist movie through and through. I mean Christ on a crackerbread, they even have a scene where the main characters shout at each other that something "wasn't in the plan"!
For a film from someone who pretty much cornered the market in topsy-turvy storytelling in Memento, Inception is not trying to reinvent the three act structure. Instead, it takes the idea of a three-tiered lucid dream - a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, if you will - and runs with it. Since, as the film asserts, time dilates within a person's dreams, one can theoretically spend days within them, giving a whole new dimension to people's concept of slow-motion filmmaking.
As I'm intent on not spoiling this movie's best sequences, (all I will say is this: "Zero gravity corridor",) I will have to wrap this up as quickly as possible or I'm liable to start blurting things out. The thing is, Inception defies easy categorisation, and so too does it defy conventional reviewing. Every once in a while, a movie will come along that confounds my intellect, but that I still have to respect for its sheer audacity. That I simply have to say "see it for yourself" as response. This is one of those films. It's also the only thing that makes this even remotely like The Matrix. Seriously, get over it, folks. The Matrix is not a catch-all term for "groundbreaking".
If Christopher Nolan wasn't one of the best filmmakers of our generation and hadn't made billions of dollars seemingly without breaking a sweat, he'd never have gotten past page one of this film. It would not exist. And I have to give a hearty recommendation to any blockbuster film comes completely out of the blue and makes people sit up and think for change. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen this ain't.
Oh, and Joseph Gordon Levitt, Tom Berenger, , Marion Cotilliard, Pete Postelthwaite and Sir Michael of Caine are in it too.
What? What else do you want?!
I drank the Kool-Aid already! Go on, get a move on!
3. Toy Story 3
Days behind review schedule: 21
Alternate Title: "It Ain’t Easy Getting Old, Even if You’re Plastic".
Cigarette intake since viewing: Stop judging me!
Currently listening to: "The Musical Box" by Genesis.
The Gist: Having long been outgrown, Woody and Buzz et al must brave the perils of day-care.
The Experience: The original Toy Story holds a warm place in the hearts of many children, and with good reason. I for one remember it as the first film my mother took my sister to see with us, albeit with me being the only one able to properly enjoy it; my sister was a baby back then, and not a quiet one. For years after, however, the VHS copy of it I received for Christmas would be watched and re-watched constantly by both of us. In many ways, Toy Story and its sequel were made for kids like me and my sister: a parable about toys vying for the affection of their unwitting owner, as well as dealing with the topic of sibling rivalry and fear of abandonment in terms that are universal without talking down to children.
Then along comes the long-threatened third instalment to cock the whole thing up. That’s what I and many others thought 5 years ago when Disney announced that it had gone into development. Of course back then we had the hellspawn that was Michael Eisner running the show, and the supposed plot of the film (Buzz malfunctioning and getting recalled to Japan) sounded as idiotic as Pixar doing a movie about talking cars – oh, wait, they did.
Mercifully, Toy Story 3 not only bucks the trend of not being bullshit on chips but also being perhaps the best film of the entire series so far. This, in addition to the fact that both Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone and Predators seem to not be following the law of diminishing returns seems to indicate that we may be witnessing the dawn of the Age of Aquarius. But I digress.
Time has passed since the second film and now the toy occupants of Andy’s room are down to a mere handful stuck in an old chest. With Andy off to college imminently, Buzz and the others decide its time to move on and wind up at a day-care centre (or nursery, for those of us who aren’t septic tanks). Woody, still blithely loyal to his owner, (not surprisingly, as he’s the only one Andy was likely to take with him anyway,) is determined to get back. However, they fail to reckon with the incredibly oddly named Lotso’Huggin’ Bear and the Stalag 17-esque Sunnyside Day-care centre.
Yep, the second half of this is essentially a jailbreak movie (to be fair, both the sequels had elements thereof). The core of the story is not so much the back and forth from place to place, gag to gag, as in previous films; once again, the film stresses the emotional core of the characters.
All of this is well and good, but it’s not what made this film so definitive for me. What did was the ending. For what was essentially a third go-around of a bunch of well-worn characters with lots of nostalgic harking back to the previous films becomes in the final twenty minutes a harrowing climax where, for possibly the first time, Woody and the gang seem to be in genuine mortal peril the likes of which not seen in a kids film. I saw this in a packed house with my girlfriend on her birthday, with a theatre full of screaming kids, and every single one shut the fuck up for the ending. That is the true power of cinema in action. Many of those children will grow up with that, and I think that the world is better for it. Sugar-coating what happens to forgotten and abandoned playthings is a disservice to the audience’s intellect and to do so here would have been criminal.
Luckily, of course, the ending was a happy one, with the toys moving on to newer pastures. Still, this movie felt like it deserved it, and any film that features a cameo by Studio Ghibli’s Totoro in stuffed toy form gets my vote.
I drank the Kool-Aid, and if you haven’t already, you have no soul.
P.S. A note about the 3D. My experience with it is limited to this and Alice in Wonderland, but I felt it important to add a small addendum regarding its use here. Whilst I chose to shill out extra for the 3D presentation as a treat to my girlfriend, I would warn that, unlike the 3D gag-heavy Alice, there was actually very little obvious use of it in the film itself, apart from one or two sequences relatively early on. What was apparent in Toy Story 3, however, was that the 3D greatly enhanced the depth of field and clarity of the images on screen, doing much greater justice to Pixar’s artisans than was previously possible. However, until I can judge from the DVD, I remain unconvinced that 3D will become standard issue until it is made significantly cheaper and studios cease their obsession with post-conversion. You are only killing the medium quicker by trying to squeeze the juice out of it before people get bored of films going “look at me! I’m coming out of the screen!”.
Sunday, 25 July 2010
Alternate Title: "About Bloody Time".
Cigarette intake since viewing: ≤4.
Currently listening to: "Ride of the Valkryies" by Richard Wagner.
The Gist: The Predator franchise justifies its continued existence.
The Experience: As I briefly mentioned in my Evangelion review last week, reinventing a franchise is a tricky business on its own. Reinventing one that only has one really good entry in it in the first place, was started over 20 years ago and has been sinking lower and lower with each entry ever since is just asking for trouble of the "stomped to death by angry nerds" variety.
So watching Predators was a strange feeling, and one that doesn't come too often with sequels/remakes/reboots: vindication. The Predator films have long been the butt of unimaginative jokes about hypermasculine men carrying half a helicopter gunship on their backs and that the Predator's face looks like a snarling toothed vagina. Finally, though, we're getting the Predator sequel that we deserve.
The setup, as in the original, is deliciously simple: a bunch of hard-cases are dropped into the jungle, realise they're being hunted and have to escape. This time, however, these aren't Special Forces soldiers on a mission, but a motley crew of misfit mercenaries, murderers and malcontents (try saying that when you're drunk) who've been kidnapped specifically as prey for the eponymous Predators, and the jungle is in fact an alien game preserve on an unknown planet.
The plot never gets much more complex than that, but to be honest it's actually refreshing; previous films have stretched the stories' limited coherence to breaking point by trying to link the Predator race not just to the xenomorphs from Alien but to human crypto-history as well. No such bullshit here, as the majority of the film is instead spent on gore gags, geek-out moments and character beats. A more critical audience member might call this a weakness, but here it is a boon to the solid cast and direction. The characters are cartoonish but well drawn. Its structure is nostalgic of the previous movies without becoming rote or obvious. This film may actually be the finest cases of fan-fiction filmmaking the like of which never really accomodated in Hollywood before.
Which brings me neatly to the subject of Robert Rodriguez. For a while Rodriguez was king of his own little film-making fort, this generation's John Carpenter making his fun little jaunts into everything from horror to kids films. And while he's never really stopped doing that, Sin City shot him into the public eye and his last high profile gig Grindhouse hit cinemas to loud trumpets while the American audience simply looked baffled, as if they'd just witnessed a Brazillian transexual doing something unholy with a wine bottle and a soldering iron. For the past couple of years he's been floating around several big projects, seemingly hoping that he will come back into vogue and get another stab at the mainstream, and Predators seems to be it.
Originally a spec he conceived in the nineties, what would eventually become Predators seemed on paper to be a case of stealthily ghost-directing a piece that would endear him to the notoriously clueless execs at Fox. However, not only does Predators play against type by not being terrible, it also lacks the tell-tale signs of a movie that has been micro-managed into mediocrity by either a fidgety producer or studio focus groups. Return of the Jedi this isn't.
Its criminal that I'm this far into the review without highlighting the brilliant acting talents of Adrien Brody and Alice Braga as the primary characters, or Topher Grace, Walton Goggins or Laurence Fishburne in supporting roles, but the even bigger stars of the show are Brian Steele, Carey Jones and Derek Mears as the Predators themselves. If you loved the first, then this is a must.
I drank the Kool-Aid. Some should you. Right now!
Sunday, 18 July 2010
Alternate Title: "WTF: The Remake".
Cigarette intake since viewing: ≤4.
Currently listening to: "My Iron Lung" by Radiohead.
The Gist: Teens in mechs beat the crap out of aliens, have personality issues and listen to too much Radiohead.
The Experience: Steak is good, but man cannot live on steak alone. In life, as in art, its rare enough getting a really nice juicy one, without the chef coming back ten or more years later, saying “Hey, remember that great steak I cooked you years ago?”, then presenting you with another from the same cow, who by now would be either a rotting corpse or else very angry at him for cutting big chunks of meat out of him.
So it is with an understandable mix of potent nostalgia and mortal dread that I approached this, my review of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, a cinema remake of a Japanese cartoon from the mid-Nineties. That statement alone is going to breed a bit of nervousness among the faithful and ignorant alike, and I admit that as a fan I was concerned both regarding its integrity to the original show and my own ability to remain objective: when all my classmates were listening to Linkin Park and watching Dragonball Z, I was listening to Pink Floyd and watching Evangelion. But since a live-action version is languishing in development hell where it likely belongs, it’s nice to see the previous taskmaster Hideaki Anno giving the old girl a spin in a post-CGI world.
For those who haven’t heard of the show or don’t know what it’s about, I would usually start by saying “shame on you!” but in the interest of letting the film stand on its own merits here’s the summary: it’s half past the future, the world is still in a state of recovery from a disaster known as Second Impact (think climate change, Hurricane Katrina and 2012 all in one go), and the city of Tokyo 3 (guess what happened to the other two) is being attacked by the Angels, a race of unearthly behemoths who seem to have all graduated from Monster Island Academy a couple of decades behind Godzilla and Mothra, who are intent on bringing about the end of humanity for… some reason. The Angels don’t exactly rate as the most chatty antagonists.
The only thing standing in the way of this happening is the titular Evangelion Unit 01, a bio-mechanical suit of powered armour which occasionally has a mind of its own, which is piloted by Shinji Ikari, typical teenager by day, agent of NERV and whiny bitch every other waking hour. Aiding and abetting him are fellow pilot Rei Aiyanami, a seemingly autistic albino girl, Misato Katsuragi, his sassy commanding officer/flatmate, and his stern emotionally dead father/boss, Gendo Ikari.
If that premise seems simple enough, guess again, because as with the show that predicated it, hidden agendas run thick and fast throughout the film, be it from the personal level with Gendo’s callous manipulation of his own son, to the broader scope of the Angels’ attacks, the Evas’ true function and their mysterious backers SEELE. Weirdly enough, most of the momentum in the film comes not from the threat of any alien menace, although the movie does have its fair share of action sequences. Instead it finds most of its conflict in Shinji’s struggle to stop being such a pussy and stand up for himself.
I should not like a protagonist like Shinji as much as I do, because for a start he manages to go most of 90 minutes (even longer than that in the show) umming and ahhing about whether he can do his job and still be happy, which should really be a no-brainer, and still doesn’t seem to have an answer at the end. Between his abandonment issues, (mom’s dead, dad’s a stone-hearted workaholic prick,) his stunted relationship with the opposite sex, (he’s been voiced by the same guy since the early 2000s and his balls still haven’t seemed to drop,) and the fact that he gets floored by a single punch twice in a row by the Japanese equivalent of a Scouse chav, Shinji cuts a pretty unimposing figure as a hero.
However, whilst the show dragged the character development out to the point where the fight scenes seemed to be done on sufferance, the film allows for a much better balancing act. Add on 10 years of advances in the animation field, a tighter script and an attitude of not trying to reinvent the wheel but refine it, and You Are (Not) Alone does deliver on its desire to relight the franchise’s fire.
This brings us rather neatly to you, the audience. Yes, you. The person reading this. If you’ve gone the past fourteen years ignorant of Neon Genesis Envangelion (the show’s original, more pretentious title), you may find it hard to understand why you should care now. The short answer is to not be such a twat, but the long answer is that it has taken that long for the quality of the finish product to match the creators’ initial ambitions.
Those ambitions seem to be to redux (or Rebuild, as they call it) the saga in a way that is both true to the spirit of the original but still accessible to today’s audience, and I for one think that’s not such a bad idea. Whilst NGE and its previous spin-off movies Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion are close to my heart, they were part of what I’d describe as George Lucas syndrome: not being able to stop tinkering with something that was fine in the first place.
The problem was not that the show or the films were bad; the problem was that due to the studio politics of the time, Anno never quite got to have the last word on the project. When his sponsors weren’t pulling out over some of the (admittedly mind-boggling) Freudian content of the latter part of the series, the fans were crying out for more robot fighting as only fanboys do: by sending death threats. End of Eva was meant to be the “proper” conclusion the series’ end, but after the frankly underwhelming Director’s Cut DVDs we seemed to be no closer to understanding the show. Or why Hideaki Anno hasn’t been committed to an asylum.
You could be forgiven for taking this long and rambling review as a recommendation to old fans and newcomers alike, but the fact is there are still a lot of tricks up Anno’s sleeve; not only has the animation been improved but there are some little surprises in there that only someone who got completely submerged in the show would pick up on. I for one think that is a good thing, but the whole leper-status of remakes in general will probably make old fans chafe and the just plain weirdness of it will no doubt put off the people just looking to see robots fighting other robots.
But if you’ve gotten all the way through this blog just to find out whether on or not you should see this film, as the man said to the lemming, it’s your funeral.
I drank the Kool-Aid, and so should you.