Saturday, 26 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty and the Torture Argument.




            It’s that time of year again - Oscar is abuzz with frenzy and furore as the usual suspects along with some unexpected surprises queue up to collect their little gold statues. Last year was looking at how great Hollywood and the past used to be, with many of the big prizes being taken by nostalgia trip The Artist and the technical prizes being swept up by Hugo. This year it’s America’s collective yahoo to it’s own victories - a film about America’s favourite president and one about the death of Osama Bin Laden have swept recent awards and are tipped for golden glory as well.

            But this isn’t about the Oscars. And who cares if it’s an America-centric award ceremony? It is American after all. No, I draw attention to the awards because various academy members have seen it fit to publicly call out to veto against voting for Zero Dark Thirty because of its depiction of torture and the supposed insinuation that it gets results. But this doesn’t seem to make any sense because if they had actually paid attention to the film, they would see that this really isn’t the case.

            Firstly, I draw your attention to the presentation of the film as a story rooted firmly in facts. The script is based on the first hand accounts and case files that the CIA allowed screenwriter, Mark Boal (a former investigative journalist) and director, Kathryn Bigelow access to. The film is also littered with real world connections such as recordings of 911 calls from 9/11, news footage from the July 7th bombings as well as interviews seen on the TV screens in the background. The cinematography is crystal clear and harsh in light - this is what happened, this is how it is. This makes the torture sequences much more uncomfortable than if they were to take place within the safe walls of fiction. It’s something that many people do not want to face, but since the Bush administration it’s been a secret that’s talked about as much as Jodie Foster’s sexuality - except Jodie Foster didn’t vehemently deny it.

            Next, we have the consequences of reality on the story. The torture sequences take place towards the beginning of the film but about halfway through, the pace and tone of it changes. This is the point in 2008 where Obama had just been voted president. We are informed of it via a newscast on a TV in the background and the CIA guys seem disgruntled. Then in comes the new boss who slams his hands down on the table and informs the team that there is no one else on this hunt. They are the only ones and their previous efforts had turned up nothing but photographs and rumours of who was in them - not to mention the more unsavoury photos that leaked to the press. Things have to change, America is above torture.


            Finally, just to really hammer the point home, the CIA was sitting on the piece of information that actually leads to Bin Laden for 6 years. They attribute it to human error during a routine reshuffle of the office. So in actual fact, it was that little bit of luck that brought down America’s most wanted - hardly the glorious victory that was expected. This is built upon further with the final raid of the compound in Abbottabad. The language speaks gung-ho military and the scene is incredibly tense (a fine piece of filmmaking), but there is no money shot of Bin Laden’s head exploding or lingering close ups on his body. He dies in a flash and is kept out of sight. He dies as he lived - in obscurity.

            So in all of this, please let me know where the film says that torture gets results? The film is more about the obsession with finding Bin Laden and actually ends on a rather bleak note. Maya (played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain) gets onto the plane home, she’s alone and the pilot asks her where she wants to go. She doesn’t reply and sheds a tear. She seems overwhelmed at finally getting her target, but she also looks incredibly lost. It’s an anti-cathartic ending that asks the audience a very simple question - where do we go from here? Hardly a comfortable question when the last 12 years of your country’s politics has been based on a war on terror that has now lost its public face. 

Friday, 29 June 2012

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN







The term ‘Reboot’ is one that comes with a certain cynical weight attached to it for anyone with any hint of enthusiasm for cinema. It epitomises the fear of Hollywood’s lack of creativity, the unwillingness to take risks and the usual rehash of the ‘sure thing’ (something that John Carter proves, doesn’t exist, making a $200 million loss for Disney). In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking that a reboot of Spider-Man just 5 years after Tobey Maguire donned the red and blue spandex for the last (and frankly most excruciatingly forgettable) time is just another cash cow for the Hollywood machine. Well, you’d actually be completely right, but that’s not to say that this is a bad film. By all means, it’s probable success will come from the fact that this is pure popcorn pleasure.


This is first and foremost an origin story, so we get all the usual major plot points: a science lab, a spider bite, uncle Ben’s death, and a scraping of the bottom of the word barrel for a new way to say “with great power comes great responsibility”. But The Amazing Spider-Man introduces Peter’s parents into the mix with a story I hope they continue in the (inevitable) subsequent films as it introduces an extra dimension to the character that wasn’t seen the last time around, one that plays nicely alongside the themes of responsibility.

But with the origin story alongside the mandatory battle with a villain, the introduction of the love interest and the legal ramifications of becoming a masked vigilante, there is quite a lot to cram into the 2 hours and 10 minute running time and a leaves a couple of narrative loose ends that just dissolve into nothing, making it feel a little incomplete. Add to that the obligatory saving of a child, some stock characters (otherwise known as obvious plot devices) that come to Spidey’s aid for the final battle and a cringe inducing skateboarding (yes, skateboarding!) montage and you have a film that has the perfect formula for a bland box office success with no real worth behind it.


But The Amazing Spider-Man does what all good blockbusters do - manages to make you forget about the plot holes and the inherent cheese that comes with all Marvel characters. This is largely due to some fantastic central performances: Andrew Garfield lends his British awkwardness and sarcastic wit to create a Peter Parker that embodies Spiderman’s central allegory of the transformation from boyhood to manhood that makes him instantly relatable (there’s a scene on the subway that ONLY a British person’s awkwardness could pull off), Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is a little sharper than the usual damsel in distress and Rhys Ifans gives Dr. Connors that slightly mad streak that transforms him into The Lizard.

Where it’s not going to reach the blockbuster heights of The Avengers (to the tune of $1.37 billion), nor will it gain the credible applause that The Dark Knight Rises will, The Amazing Spider-Man is on the whole, a very enjoyable and solid blockbuster that stands out above the average schtick by balancing good characters, enjoyable (but not mind blowing) action, comedy, romance and all of Spiderman’s core themes. Where Sam Raimi’s 2002 incarnation realised Spidey for all his geeky campness, Marc Webb’s (seriously, that’s his name) version finds an emotional core of the character that adds an air of believability to him despite the fact he’s a cross genetic mutation. And isn’t that suspension of disbelief what cinema is about in the first place?

Thursday, 21 June 2012

COSMOPOLIS



Road movies - they celebrate the open road, the freedom of travel, and the discovery of the self. Hardly the kind of genre you would expect to be a claustrophobic and dystopian philosophical musing on modern day capitalism. Yet here we are, with David Cronenberg bringing us a strikingly original take on the road movie based on Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name.

First things first, this movie is nowhere near as action packed as the trailer would have you believe. This is what I hate about trailers, they sell a film as something it’s not, people go to see it, hate it, and then tell everyone it sucks. This is something I’m sure scores of screaming R-Patz fans are going to be doing as his character - Eric Packer, a super rich billionaire - is a far cry from the smouldering, floppy haired and vacuous Edward Cullen that they would come to expect. Instead what we have is a study of a cold and calculating young man at the pinnacle of his existence, where the only way for him to go is down.


And a long way down he goes as well - treading familiar Cronenberg ground, the edge of human mentality and physicality - he loses everything he has in the space of a day in his limo trying to get across town to get a haircut. These are mostly events that take place outside of the car, which doubles up as his control centre, and shows that even those who command such incredible wealth and power are not completely invulnerable to the outside world. One particular sequence, in which Eric gets a cream pie to the face, can only lead to recollections of one News Corporation CEO falling to a similar fate.

Though despite the events that send his life spiralling out of control occur outside of his limo, the severe majority of the film takes place within the confines of it. A lot of the time it’s just the characters talking, and even the dialogue is something that would barely be used in a real conversation, but that’s not to say that nothing happens. It’s the performances and cinematography that make this film shine. Pattinson is brilliant as Packer, and his performance is one that is likely to break him from the R-Patz mould. He is fierce, yet blank - the epitome of cold calculation you would expect from such a figure in the real world. The camera work and lighting are enough to keep the conversations visually interesting as well as subtly creating the detached mood of the film.


It is this complete otherness that the film exudes that is going to divide the audiences. People have walked out of it, people have praised it, and people have vehemently attacked it all over the web. It’s a film to get people talking, and the issues it discusses in the film have never been so relevant today. It’s a startlingly close, if not hyper exaggerated, rendition of our times and if it gets people talking, then it has done it’s job. 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

iLL Manors



Let’s rewind for a moment back to August 2011. Police stop search a young man in Hackney and set off a chain of events that exploded into widespread rioting and looting that was to spread across the country. Ever since then, people have been looking for a reason behind the mentality of these people’s actions. This is where Ben Drew (aka Plan B) comes in with his take on the subject with his debut feature, iLL Manors - a contradictory film that doesn’t quite cut as close to the bone as it could.

To make one thing clear, I did not come from a background or a lifestyle of any similarity to those depicted in the film, hence why I am not going to be talking about the film’s realism - but a little research shows that the events depicted seem to be quite close to real things that do go on in a London that David Cameron doesn’t want the world to see with all eyes on the upcoming Olympic frivolities. So this is a very brave move from Drew and he’s certainly chosen the right medium to open up a discussion on the underlying issues of the riots, rather than the damning news reports that reduce the actions to nothing more than ‘criminality’.


However, it’s a shame that this realism has been undone by some of the formal choices he made in the presentation of his film. A multi-stranded narrative, we are introduced to the main players by a little rhythm and poetry from the man himself (the film is a companion piece to his upcoming album of the same title and the tracks, I can only assume are taken from said album). Now this is a neat little touch, but what it ultimately boils down to is exposition of the character’s back-story, leading the characterisation to seem forced with an air of “they are this way because I wrote them this way”.

Combine this with some stylistic flourishes in the camera work and some over used time-lapse photography, the film feels much more like an overly long music video than a social realist film. The style of it does make me wonder as to whether a feature length film was the right platform for this project. He may have been able to do something similar to Daft Punk’s Interstellar 5555 (if you haven’t seen it, you absolutely MUST) - a long short film set to an album - and make it have more of an affect, which is what this film lacks. It’s kind of like watching a train crash, brutal and unrelenting with no hope in sight, which makes it’s completely convenient, happy ending more like the studios forced it on him than something he actually wanted to include in the finished product and essentially takes the venom out of the sting.


That’s what the real problem with iLL Manors is - it’s been dulled down by a main contradiction that runs throughout the film and is especially prevalent at the end. The idea is that we are all products of our environment, and this environment breeds a particular kind of person that would have been found in the rioting and looting. But the film ultimately states that while this is the case, we all have a choice in our complicity with this environment.

There are some really great moments in this film, and the message is one that’s all too clear. There are issues that need to be talked about and I commend Drew for bringing these ideas back to popular culture. But the way he tells the story has been done many times before, to much greater effect.

Monday, 21 May 2012

THE RAID






One of the most incredible things about forking out the price of a DVD to go to the cinema is the buzz and the noise you hear when a film strikes a particular chord with an audience - comedies have the howling laughter, dramas have the teary sobs, horrors have the screams of terror etc. But recently, these kinds of reactions seem to be in decline, especially in action films as they get bigger and bigger in an attempt to show us things we have never seen before. The Raid, an Indonesian martial arts flick directed by Welshman Gareth Evans, brings back the visceral reaction we hope to get with an action film and punches you square in the gut with it.

The plot couldn’t be simpler - 20 police officers head to a tower block in the Jakarta slums to apprehend a psychotic crime lord. There is however, one snag; this place is a haven for any criminal willing to pay protection money and serve under the rule of said psychotic crime lord. So once the police squad get spotted, chaos naturally ensues. There are a couple of twists and turns to the tale, but nothing groundbreaking. This is totally OK though, because the experience (and trust me, it is an experience) won’t allow much room to breathe, let alone develop a complex plot.


But don’t let the simple plot fool you, The Raid offers something much more visually complicated than your bog standard action film. Instead of cutting every half a second to disorientate the audience and disguise the fact they aren’t actually fighting, Evans allows for longer shots and relies on the astonishing talent of the star, Iko Uwais to provide an authentic realism that adds to the visceral nature of the film. Also adding to the excitement is that these fight scenes have a certain sense of desperation about them, they don't seem 100% planned. Combine this with a camera choreography that compliments the action and you certainly feel every bone breaking, skull smashing stunt you see on screen. If you thought it couldn’t get any better, the on screen carnage is accompanied by a symphony of heavy punches, bones snapping, machetes chopping and squeals of pain all to a meaty, beaty soundtrack from Mike Shinoda (from Linkin Park…blast from my past right there).


This is a film that sets out to assault the senses and its ability to do this well is what’s getting it all of the praises of everyone who’s seen it. Sure, it’s an incredibly simple film with plenty of violence that barely gives you a moments rest to develop its basic story - but the sum of its parts creates something far more intelligent than the big blockbusters that try so desperately to instil a sense of awe in an audience. This is something that brings cinema back to the days of the medium’s origin, where the Lumiére brother’s screening of a train pulling into a station caused their audience to dive out of the way and run out of the tent to look for the train behind the screen. It’s a visceral testament to the powerful kind of magic that cinema has on us.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Problem with Lisbeth Salander



After all the hype that’s been surrounding Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, spawning a Swedish film adaptation of all 3 books and an American adaptation of the first instalment (with two others on the way I presume), I figured I might as well check it out and see what all the hype was about and sat down to David Fincher’s rendition of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. What I found was a very competent and largely enjoyable thriller, greatly crafted in almost every aspect except for one - Lisbeth Salander (played by Rooney Mara).

This isn’t a review; you pretty much know how I feel about the film from the last paragraph. But what I want to talk about is not only why Lisbeth lets down the film, but also how her portrayal can be seen as worrying considering that she is the biggest draw of the story and has been the main selling point for many people that have invested in the series. Also, I would like to point out that I have not read the books, so please call me on something if it’s wrong, but the point I am looking to make in all likelihood stem from the source material on which the film was based.


The problem is the presentation of Lisbeth as some sort of feminist role model. She’s a rebellious, bisexual and independent woman; free to do whatever she wants and is a freelance hacker who gathers personal information for an anonymous company. Sounds like quite the strong female character. Yet this really couldn’t be further from the truth, in a character arc that seems to jump forward in logic and motivation before finally placing her in a position in which she is briefly emotionally saved from herself by Mikael Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig) before being let down and ending on the generic male perspective of feminists - that they believe “all men are bastards”.

So to begin at the start of the film, she has a narrative that is completely separate from Mikael’s and they don’t actually meet for a good thirty minutes. This narrative takes us down a very dark route; her legal guardian - the man responsible for providing her with a decent living allowance (in which I assume is a Swedish government funded system) - has had a stroke and as a result becomes mentally incapacitated. This basically means that she now has no money and is referred onto another guardian, who turns out to be a rapist and wants sex in return for the money he is supposed to provide her.

The first time this happens, it’s oral, and is more of a psychological than physical affair. Lisbeth reluctantly submits to what is happening to her in order to get the money and in effect, is relying on satisfying a man in order to get money. The second time she plans to secretly record the events, thinking she was just going to be doing the same thing again. However, things get a lot nastier and more physical than the previous time. Eventually, she goes back for a third time, but she’s back for revenge and sets him up a treat in one of the best retorts for such an atrocity (I won’t spoil it too much for those of you that haven’t seen it).

So she comes out a champion and she has been set up as a tough individual, with smarts and a twisted imagination and eventually turns the rapist’s mind games back around in order to get the money she wants. So far so good, she’s a strong woman in the end - supposedly.


But then in swoops Mikael with this case that he needs her help with. She is interested and takes it on, helping him out and eventually getting rather intimate with him, seemingly coming from nowhere. She lets her emotional barriers down and grows to like him. They fuck a few times (again, any motivation for this seems to come from out of the blue) and by the time the case is solved, she’s saved him from being tied up and the usual thriller lark - she’s the real action hero of the piece. But then comes the coda, where Mikael sets off with Lisbeth’s help to address the reason he has been disgraced, which is seen at the start of the film (a narrative that takes place alongside Lisbeth’s until they meet).

In this part, we see Lisbeth go above and beyond to ensure that everything is OK for Mikael in the end, and she even buys him a gift and goes to meet him all doe eyed and one might push to say ‘loved up’ to an extent…OK not ‘loved up’ but she’s definitely happier than before she met him. BUT she sees him with another woman - a married woman he was involved with at the start of the film. She dumps his present and rides her motorcycle off into the night and we are left with an empty frame, suggesting her isolation and loneliness.

This final 15 minutes or so of the film has completely undone her entire character set up as feminist anti-hero because in the end, everything she’s done was for a man and it seems to be the only emotional solace that she is able to find. The image of a strong woman is broken down by her own romantic ambitions and it’s only in her rejection that she gets angry and becomes herself again. What it boils down to is this: if a woman is independent, she can’t have a man, and without a man, she will remain unhappy. So they have to choose one or the other.


The worrying thing about this is that as people are praising Lisbeth as this feminist role model for standing up for yourself - which for the large part she is - they aren’t realising that her character is in fact a pseudo feminist role model. One who has the traits of the powerful and strong woman but at the cost of her own happiness, destined forever to be a loner. So despite having some original flair to it, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is at it’s core, has the same representation of women as every other male centric crime thriller ever written.

This is just something to think about as you watch the film though. Please don’t let it hamper your enjoyment of it because it is a great film that’s worth the time it takes to watch it, and in all likelihood I will probably watch parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy - providing it has the same calibre team that was behind this part.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

















There’s a certain curiosity to be had before going in to see The Cabin In The Woods - one that asks the question as to whether it actually does strip the horror genre of its tight cheerleader uniform before grabbing it by its long blonde hair and pulling its head off as promised from its marketing campaign. The combined writing effort of Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy and Angel and writer of Toy Story) and Drew Goddard (writer of Cloverfield), who also directs, there was certainly the promise of a fresh take on a tired format. And it certainly doesn’t fail to deliver - providing us with a smart and reflexive genre film whilst remaining freshly entertaining and full of laughs.

It all starts off with every possible cliché known to man: a jock, a nice guy, a stoner, a whore and a virginal type all venture off for a cabin holiday in the middle of nowhere. They stop off at the traditional creepy gas station and have the usual foreboding crazy gas man act all crazy at them before leaving him behind as the obvious last post of civilisation. They get to the cabin and you instantly picture their blood all over the walls as everything just screams YOU ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!!! Please - stop me if you’ve heard this one before.


But The Cabin In The Woods is much more sophisticated than that. Revealing much of the ulterior plot quite early on in the film, it uses that to riff off the unfortunate events that befall our generic heroes and in turn flip our generic expectations, thus keeping the film continuously fresh despite using the common tropes of horror films. With a tongue firmly in its cheek, it isn’t afraid to use the plot devices that it is mocking in order to propel the story and it falls very firmly into the category of self-referencing films that are being released at the moment (see my review on 21 Jump Street).

However, despite its intelligence it never gets too smart for itself and isn’t afraid to break out the big guns for what quite frankly is one of the most batshit insane third acts I’ve ever seen in any film. There’s plenty of humour and gross out moments to satisfy the teenage audience Hollywood is so desperately trying to please these days - but it doesn’t stoop to the juvenile level of the Scary Movie franchise to get the laughs. The large part of the cast play out their roles to an acceptable standard, with a couple of stand out performances and one completely unexpected appearance - but the large part of the entertainment is down to the fantastic script and solid direction grounded in a firm understanding of the genre they are satirising.


Don’t think there aren’t any scary parts though; there were moments where I did jump a little and a few moments where the tension is ramped up to great effect. And like all good horror films, there is an underlying message or fear that’s in the subconscious of society - but I’ll let you watch it and figure it out because if I were to go into detail, it would spoil some of the twists and turns in this great genre mashing mental film.