Thursday, August 31, 2006

30th August 06 - Severance

People getting lost in the middle of nowhere and then hunted down by some creepy dude is almost a genre in itself. It’s an old favourite with horror folk, and can be seen everywhere, like this year’s remake The Hills Have Eyes (creepy dude in desert), last year’s Wolf Creek (creepy dude in outback), the old classic Friday the 13th (creepy dude in summer camp) and the once banned The Burning (creepy dude with a pair of shears.)

What you expect from these films is bland characters, a bit of build up, and then lots of running about and getting killed. They can be done well (Wolf Creek) or badly (the abysmal remake of Texas Chainsaw) but they generally do what they say on the tin. Well, if the tin says “people run about and get killed.” What Severance has done is take the tin and wedge it into a big comedy bottle to form some sort of weird tin/bottle hybrid. And… what on earth am I talking about?

Right, Severance is a British horror. Take one bus load of office workers, send them to a Romanian forest for a team building weekend, and throw in a few crazy guys with a penchant for torture. It’s not rocket science. It’s people running about in a forest getting killed. But it also veers from the usual template of this genre, and adds a decent script, likeable characters and some moments of absurd hilarity. And this is why it shines. One moment you’re tensely waiting for something to jump out at them. The next they’re berating the office nerd for feeding them a pie he ‘found’ (“but it was wrapped in tin foil…”) One minute you’re wincing as a rusty bear trap goes snap. The next you’re laughing out loud as there’s a struggle to fit a severed leg into the fridge.

There’s banter, black humour, pokes at the recent ‘terror’ obsession, extreme violence and sometimes-verging-on-inappropriate belly laughs. What more do you want? How about self awareness? Writer/Director Christopher Smith is a big horror fan, and knows all too well what he’s doing here. Example: he knows that these sorts of film often shamelessly feature women’s boobies. So he shamelessly shows some too – but in such a way that you can almost feel him smirking behind the camera. As such, rather than have the usual “oh for god’s sake” reaction to such female exploitation, I’m just laughing away at the topless bird firing a machine gun in slow motion. But Severance never descends into total parody. Like Snakes on a Plane, though it recognises the various pitfalls of its chosen genre, it still sticks to the rules.

The horror in this film isn’t quite horror enough to be a successful horror film, and the comedy isn’t relentless enough for it to be a full-blown comedy. But with the two parts equally mixed, a new genre is created. Not like Shaun of the Dead (that is pure comedy, with occasional stabs of gore) and not like The Burning (horror, with occasional pangs of amusement), this is half an exciting yet scary run through the woods, and half a clever, hilarious jape. Maybe the best way to sum it up is “knife in the arse”. In reality, it’s pretty damn unpleasant. But it’s also funny as hell.

For a fresh take on a fun genre, this gets CF0, and for making me jump and laugh in equal parts, I’m giving this an extra point. CF1. Come on the British!

Monday, August 28, 2006

27th August 06 - Snakes on a Plane

There’s two types of people when it comes to this film. The ones who know that it’s an internet hyped, Samuel L Jackson fuelled work of ludicrous genius. And the ones who have to ask what it’s about, despite the fact that to have a more self-explanatory title would involve showing someone the script and using a big fat marker to highlight the key plot points. Of which there is one. There are snakes. And they’re on a plane. It really isn’t that difficult to understand.

To pull off a film with this preposterous a concept is not as easy as it sounds. This could’ve been another Anaconda. Beyond ridiculous and into waste of money territory. But with more hype than the Blair Witch Project and support from a loud, bald bloke who swears (that’ll be Jackson) Snakes transcended B-Movie pap into an event picture. People were excited about it. And I was one of them.

What’s not to get excited about? There’s Sammy J, of course, who I could happily listen to while he shouts out the contents of the Daily Mail (and that’s saying something). He’s just ace. True, he may have been typecast now as the shouty cool guy. But he does it so well. The most celebrated line, “I’m tired of these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane,” is indeed pure brilliance, but Snakes offers so much more, and not just from Jackson. There’s “get this fucking snake off my ass!” and the most amusing, if not cringe-worthy “get off my dick!” from a man to a snake, after it emerges from the toilet.

Of course, for some people, a film needs more premise than just snakes on a plane. So the film starts with an explanation (happy now?) It’s an outlandish plot to off a key witness, with Sammy J the FBI agent brought in to chaperone said witness back to LA on a plane. Can you guess the bad guy’s idea? Stick a crate load of poisonous snakes in the cargo hold, add pheromones to make them crazy (as Sam explains it: “Snakes on crack”) and release. And it’s the release you’re waiting for. After being introduced to a host of semi-stereotypes, you’re just waiting for those big worms to come creeping out.

It’s here that Snakes really pulls it off. You could’ve had two hours of bad actors wrestling with plastic snakes, which would’ve been hilarious but possibly tiresome. And though Snakes has purposeful comedy moments (aforementioned toilet attack, plus unnecessary sex scene with resulting nipple attack) there’s also actual tension. As the release of oxygen masks drops snakes all over the passengers, there’s something quite disturbing about watching people battling to escape while snakes strike from all sides. It’s chaotic, well directed, and cleverly mixes the fun ‘ooo’ moments, with the wincing ‘urgh’ (some nice impaling added in here and there, including a fantastic stiletto in the ear.)

Snakes on a Plane is pure thriller fun. My main problem with thrillers is their predictable characters and preposterous action scenes (not much left when you take those out, actually…) But because Snakes knows how silly it is, then the preposterous is replaced with enjoyment, with some unexpected jumps in-between. You could probably find a lot to dislike in this film if you’ve had your sense of humour wiped clean and replaced with an old flannel, but for the rest of the human race this is a fun, thrilling summer blockbuster. It’s not going to change your life, make you think, or reveal anything new about the human psyche. But it’s snakes on a plane. And it’s a CF0, with an extra point for pulling it off so well, making a motherfucking CF1.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

23rd August 06 - A Scanner Darkly

As an intellectual (not nerd) I read a lot of science fiction, and have a particular fondness for Philip K. Dick. His work has often been targeted by Hollywood – Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck – mostly for his vivid visions of the future. As a writer, Dick often creates a general tone of morose confusion, and though his ideas are outstanding, it’s always the feeling behind them that gives his work more emotional punch. Unfortunately, Joe Public doesn’t always want something they have to ponder, so Mr Hollywood takes Dick’s work and strips it down to the barest ideas, then adds a beefy actor and makes a fortune. It’s like giving Ben Affleck a crayon and asking him to recreate the Mona Lisa.

So on reading that Richard Linklater has created the most faithful adaptation of a Dick novel yet, I was quite excited about this film. At its simplest level, A Scanner Darkly is about undercover cops investigating users of a highly addictive drug called Substance D. It’s set seven years in the future, so there’s not a huge amount of the ‘sci’ in the ‘fi’. But delving deeper, the story centres on Bob Arctor/Fred (Keanu Reeves, acting quite well), the undercover cop whose brain is slowly being eaten away by the very drug he’s investigating, so much so that he begins to lose sight of who he really is. Delve a bit deeper still, and it’s Dick’s way of exploring the darkest nature of addiction, something he knows only too well (being a user himself, which may have made him a tad mental and cost the lives of many of his friends.)

What immediately makes this film stand out is Linklater’s use of rotoscoping, which is the method of laying animation over film. In layman’s terms, it looks pretty damn cool. And took bloody ages – 500 hours for one minute of animation, to be anally factual. But as well as giving the film a unique look (well, unique alongside Linklater’s previous work Waking Life) the technique finally allows Dick’s lucid writing style to be visualised. Faces flicker, the patterns on t-shirts shift, hallucinations of giant bugs can be brought to screen without looking massively out of place. Where it works best is with the ‘scramble suits’ worn by the cops to keep their identities a secret. The suits flick through hundreds of different images at a time, creating an almost disorientating effect, but realising Dick’s idea perfectly.

But it’s not just a pretty picture. Far from it. The overall tone is dark, and I feel a great sadness when watching Arctor’s decline. There are moments of light with Robert Downy Jr’s energetic and ever so slightly dangerous Barris, and Woody Harrlesson’s idiotic Luckman. Watching their demented conversations about bicycle gears, or Barris’ attempt to make a gun silencer, gives some light relief. But if Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas is the brightly coloured, loud-mouthed uncle of the ‘films-about-drugs’ family, then Scanner is the poetic, yet clinically depressed teen.

Having read the book, I suffered from the ‘hang on, I’m sure that bit doesn’t go there’ phenomena. Some details were left out (understandably to keep the 100 minute run-time, though it’s a shame the extent of Arctor’s confusion isn’t fully developed) and other events were in a different order. But overall the essence of the book was captured successfully. For being faithful, I’m awarding Scanner a point, and I’m giving it another point for using an innovative visual technique to good effect. So A Scanner Darkly makes CF2. Not everyone will like it. But I do. And that’s what counts.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

22nd August 06 - Terkel In Trouble

I’ve been concerned about my reputation of late. I’ve been labelled as someone who only watches obscure foreign films. Unfortunately Terkel won’t help my case, and may in fact push me down the path towards ‘pretentious arsehole’, (“towards?” you might ask, insinuating that I am already there. To which I might tell you to bog off.)

But two points to keep in mind here. One, this was a preview of Terkel in Trouble, which means it isn’t on general release yet, and therefore like me, you may not have heard of it. Two, the tickets were free. But, as much as I might defend it, Terkel is a Danish animation. Pretension, pretension, pretension.

But hang on a minute. This isn’t how it sounds. It’s probably closer to South Park than Spirited Away. It’s a sort of computer animated morality tale about young Terkel who’s getting bullied at school. And it’s one of the closest depictions of school-age kids I’ve seen in an animation. Let’s face it – children nowadays are unpleasant little shits who should be drowned in a large bucket of rancid water (of course I’m generalising. A small minority are acceptable.) And in Terkel’s world they smoke, swear and are cruelly unpleasant. This realism might well appeal to ‘the kids’ and may help to pass on the anti-bullying message.

But this isn’t just made-for-schools trite. Terkel is at times laugh-out-loud inappropriate. There’s random acts of extreme violence (falling down stairs, fork in the eye, ear bitten off), unpleasant deaths (birds flying into walls, people splatting after jumping from high places) and lots and lots of swearing. The presence of songs worried me a little. As a rule, I despise musicals (except for ones that use the music in a clever way, or feature Ewan McGregor). I think it’s because they remind me of drama school arses, belting out ‘summer-bloody-loving’ with wide, smug smiles, speaking LOUD-ERLY and pronouncing everything ala Orlando Bloom, thinking they’re acting geniuses when in fact they’re just little arrogant rich kids with more money than talent who flounce around and waste perfectly good oxygen that could be used for the rest of the world.

Sorry – where was I? Oh yes, there are songs in Terkel. And they started off not too long, and with some amusing lyrics, so it was ok. And then an absolute gem popped up. An R&B love song, describing one character’s sudden realisation that he liked a girl, all because of what she said to him, which was (and this formed the basis of the chorus): “Fuck of you twat, you’re ugly and your mum shags horses.” Brilliant stuff, especially with an added key change.

So Terkel isn’t exactly a kid’s film. The plot and messages resonate with kiddie morals, but the adult jokes aren’t carefully folded in ala Pixar. You just can’t hide a gag involving child prostitution to rich white tourists in Thailand. Guilty laughter would be the general consensus, and this film was a guilty pleasure. It’s also dubbed with some ace British talent, including Bill Bailey, Adrian Edmondson, and Johnny Vegas (stretching his acting skills to play a drunken lout).

Perhaps it falters when the adult humour occasionally subsides, and you wonder exactly who this film is for. Teenagers? Kids? Adults? Who knows. If you find South Park a waste of space you’re probably not going to take well to Terkel. But if your sense of humour twists just the right way, there’ll be enough tid bits to keep you amused. I think I’m going to be kind and give this CF0. This is a recommendation for DVD rental only, though. If you’re an adult and go to see this at the cinema, people might think you’re a bit weird.

Friday, August 18, 2006

16th August 06 - My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Some light relief for this week’s cinema outing, as we’ve hit a bit of a cinema drought (soon to be replenished no doubt). My views on the genre of romantic comedies have already been set out in my review of Russian Dolls (something along the lines of their sugary view of the world making me want to hurt someone with hammers) so I was slightly dubious about My Super Ex-Girlfriend, although the presence of Ivan Reitman (Ghostbuster’s director) and the fact it’s a superhero based yarn gave me some hope.

Super-Ex plays on your ‘scary psycho ex’ fears, and asks that well known question: what if your ex was also a super-hero with phenomenal super powers who could whip your arse all the way into space without breaking sweat? It’s an intriguing idea, nicely slotted in after X-Men and Superman to play on our current superhero fetish.

And there are some brilliant twists on the old superhero theme. Uma Thurman’s G-Girl may be great at saving the world, but she’s also jealous and a little bit insane. A missile’s heading for New York, but she’s not so keen to go and help because she’d be leaving her boyfriend with the blonde ‘slut’ from work. Uma doesn’t ham it up, playing her flawed character with little ticks and nicely timed bursts of rage. Meanwhile Luke Wilson coasts as the likeable, but slightly bland male lead, and a plump Eddie Izzard is the baddie with a really weird accent.

What’s quite disappointing about Super-Ex is all the missed chances. There’s little sparks of genius here and there (the literal mile high club, her super quick sabotage of a presentation, a shark thrown through a window) but it’s just not enough to make the grade. There’s so much potential for this to be a genuinely funny film, but it ends up an amusing way to pass the time. Raise the certificate to a 15, up the ludicrous revenge tactics, have more screen time with Luke’s sex-obsessed loser best friend, and I’d be a happy cinema bunny. As it was, I’m struggling to give it a proper rating. It wasn’t like I hated it, but it didn’t have much of an impact. So I’ll give it a CF “good film for Saturday evening DVD when you’re tired and not really up for anything challenging or too engaging”. Or, if I had to be harsh, a CF -1.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

9th August 06 - Angel-A

Imagine, if you will, that I am Karen the Producer, sitting in my plush office and receiving a visit from Luc Besson.

“Luc,” I say, in Godfather-esque tones, “Luc, you gave us Leon, which explored a fascinating relationship between a little girl and a hitman, that became a cult classic. You gave us the Fifth Element, which was slightly weird but almost charming. And there was that Joan of Arc one, but we’ll forget that. But you’ve been away for six years, Luc. Six long years. What have you brought me after all this time?”

Luc slams a script down on my desk in triumph. “I bring you this, Karen the Producer,” he says. “My new film. Angel-A. Imagine this: a man is so down on his luck and life that he’s about to kill himself, when,” he holds up a finger, “wait for it… an angel appears to show him life’s not all that bad.”

“Luc,” I say. “That’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’”

“No,” he says. “It’s different. The angel is a bit edgy, not at all how you’d picture an angel.”

“Been done in Dogma,” I say.

“No, but she teaches him to love.”

“A Life Less Ordinary.”

“No, no, get this,” Luc says. “They fall in love!”

“City of Angels,” I say, getting a bit weary. “Luc, is there anything that makes this film original?”

“Well, the angel is a six-foot blonde in a black mini-dress.”

“Interesting,” I say. “What else?”

“The man is quite small. So when she stands next to him, she dwarfs him.”

“Ok,” I say. “What else?”

“Um…” Luc’s face falls. “It’s in French?”

“Luc,” I say, getting impatient now. “Let me get this straight. You’ve made a film with very little originality, and,” I say, reading through the script with super speed, “from the looks of it, the only interesting bit, where the angel questions her own existence, isn’t explored fully and is a bit out of the blue.”

“Well,” Luc says, whimpering slightly. “I’m making it in black and white.”

“It might look very pretty, Luc, but that doesn’t make it a good film,” I say, throwing his script back at him. A tear runs down Luc’s cheek.

“Oh,” he says, crestfallen.

“It’s not like it’s an unbearable film,” I say, with some sympathy. “It’s not like Pirates of the Caribbean. But I expected something more substantial. Your plot is as skeletal as your angel.”

Luc just stands there, bottom lip trembling.

“I’m deducting one point because your film lacks any sort of weight. You’re getting CF-1, Luc. Do you understand?”

Luc nods silently.

“Now go away and do something better. I know you’re capable. You just have to prove it.”

I point to the door, and Luc shuffles out of my office clutching his script.

God I’d be a great producer.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

8th August 06 - Tideland

Because I’m an ultra hip dude, I saw, in a room full of nerds, a preview of Tideland, complete with intro and post-film Q&A with the man himself Terry Gilliam (the director, if this means nothing to you.) It was a good film to have a Q&A with.

From the poor reception with critics, I was expecting Tideland to be trademark Gilliam madness, but amplified. It’s difficult to forget the relentless bizarreness of Brazil and the insanity-inducing score and spiralling plot of Twelve Monkeys. Though fascinating to watch, when first viewing Gilliam’s work it can often be a tough ride. Like a feverish dream that you can’t quite escape from. Or, the technical term; a ‘mind-fuck’. I was quite concerned I would emerge from Tideland a broken nerd. But huzzah! This wasn’t the case.

Granted, Tideland isn’t a breezy summer blockbuster of fun. It follows little Jeliza-Rose as she moves out to the middle of nowhere. Her parents are useless junkies and her only friends are the heads of her dolls. Starving and alone, Jeliza forges friendships with a half-blind taxidermy-loving loon and a brain damaged bloke called Dickens. So far, so huh?

But this is where Gilliam’s introduction to the film helped (unfortunately I don’t think he’s available to sit in every screening of Tideland around the country.) Before the film he said he was fed up of the media’s current portrayal of children as innocents and weaklings, and he wanted to remind us that they were very resilient creatures. He also said to approach the film from a child’s viewpoint. And this approach is the only way to watch the film. Yes, sneak sly glances from your adult perspective just to understand the true meaning of what’s going on, but in order to process this film without being enraged you have to become a child. That way you can find someone teasing peanut butter past the bloated tongue of their father’s corpse amusing, rather than just plain disturbing.

It’s this child-like viewpoint of the world that made this film so captivating. Jeliza’s imagination is the driving force. Her flights of fancy, touching interpretations of the world and conversations with her ‘friends’ the dolls are all intriguing and competently handled by Gilliam. Jodelle Ferland, at just nine and a half, takes the lead and blows Dakota out of the water in terms of ‘oh-Christ-she’s-a-child-and-she’s-a-professional-actor’ and she’s solidly supported by Jeff Bridges, Janet McTeer and Brendan Fletcher. The film dabbles in humour, horror, fantasy and skims the border of inappropriateness in places. You’re never sure where you stand with it, or where it’s going to take you. Though this means you can never truly settle into the film first-time, it makes a refreshing change from the predictability of standard Hollywood cack.

For some reason Tideland has sparked out-rage in some parts of the world. I wasn’t offended by any of it, and can’t see how people could be upset at a religious fanatic who likes to embalm dead relatives to keep them ‘alive’. What may put some people off is how this film doesn’t conform to a typical plot structure. I’m not saying that all films that are ‘different’ are works of pretentious genius. Some are tosh (see Lost In Translation – or ‘over-long self indulgent mass of nothing’.) But if you accept its differences and are willing to open your mind, you may well enjoy Tideland, or at least find something to think about. It’s taken me a while to figure out how much I liked it, and I’ve boiled it down to this: it makes CF0, and I think I’ll give it an extra point because it dared to be a bit different, the performances were impressive, and the talking dolls heads were very amusing. Therefore Tideland gets CF1. Well done Terry.