Talking Movies

July 28, 2010

Snyder’s Sensibility

Does Zack Snyder, director of Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen, have an identifiable and disturbing filmic sensibility or is it too early in his career to judge?

In a previous blog entry I wrote about misgivings regarding Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s epic comic Watchmen. These included the fact that Snyder’s Rorschach growled like Batman, rendering him heroic, whereas Moore gave Rorschach peculiar syntax to indicate his damaged state – this raised the worry that Snyder viewed Rorschach’s interior monologue as colourfully phrased expressions of a legitimate worldview rather than reprehensible ravings. More alarming was the linked problem of violence and visuals as, to masquerade as a blockbuster, Snyder had added violence, eliding Moore’s satirical point about the need for violent spectacle, and then reversing Moore’s intentions in Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s intentionally lame rescue of people from a fire, which made their subsequent sex even more pointedly pathetic, by filming it as slow-mo heroic firestorms followed by ‘Hallelujah’ scored sex…

One could argue Snyder was demonstrating that he had only one style of directing, slow-mo ultra-violence, but what if it was a sensibility that colours his approach to all material? Dawn of the Dead threw out what little social satire there was in Romero’s original movie, about survivors repulsing zombies from a shopping mall, and instead indulged in that easiest of cheap horror tricks, fast-running zombies, as well as oceans of gore and needlessly nasty moments like a zombie baby trying to eat someone seconds after being born from an infected mother. Dawn’s writer went on to write and direct the joyous Slither so the majority of the blame must lie with Snyder. 300, which may be the cinematic encapsulation of the cocksureness of Bush America, works wonderfully as a musical comedy without music so replete is it with absurd patriotism and macho bombast, but Snyder in all seriousness made an action movie about freedom, and the people I know who hate 300 are uniformly the ones who took it seriously, like Snyder, rather than comically.

I wrote previously on the dilemma of criticising bad films without encouraging more of the same. I have since seen the ultimate cut of Watchmen in such a manner as to avoid both such encouragement and the vengeance of the FBI. I’m aware Ultimate Watchmen is not the theatrical cut most people saw, but the interpolation of the animated Black Freighter storyline along with its sheer wide-screen nature makes it more considered than a cut running an hour shorter could be, which allows some interesting observations. It remains a curiosity rather than a good movie, as it hews so closely to the comic, but Snyder is more restrained than I would have thought possible and one can only have a small number of quibbles with his adaptation.

These quibbles though feed the idea that there is a distinctive Snyder Sensibility, as their presence in the shorter theatrical cut emphasises both that Snyder wanted to include them above all else, and that they are jarring wrong notes. The ‘Hallelujah’ sex scene is painfully funny, and unintentionally so, and misses the point on two levels of its source equivalent by being heroic (even down to the climaxing fire-burst from Archie) because the preceding fire rescue has been presented in a bombastic rather than cringe-inducing fashion, and by following the failed sex scene which fails to juxtapose TV commentary on Veidt’s athletics prowess with Nite Owl’s impotence – an omission that makes a nonsense of interpretations of the alley scene as necessary misdirection because of the superpowers displayed in the opening fight. By the alley scene I of course mean the infamous moment when Silk Spectre, an out of shape human devoid of superpowers, rips the bone straight out of a man’s arm in a spray of blood with her bare hands. To quote Dean Winchester – “What the Hell?!” The other quibbles are Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the blood seeping out from the toilet after Rorschach flushes Big Figure, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer.

Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off thereby ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him in agony when Moore slashes his throat for an instant death? Why replace water with blood and have Rorschach graphically kill the child murderer rather than Mad Max him? Snyder adds sadism to an already nasty story, makes explicit violence that was elided, and prioritises super slo-mo sex and violence over logic. This is a sensibility. He may grow out of this seeming love of sadism for its own sake – Ultimate Watchmen displays new maturity – but if not he may become the new Tim Burton…

July 19, 2010

Inception

“Have you ever had a dream Neo, that you were so sure was real. What if you found yourself unable to awake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the real world and the dream world?” Among the many achievements of Christopher Nolan’s latest film is that it answers Morpheus’ rhetorical question…

I’m not idly linking Inception to The Matrix as Nolan is in dialogue with it as well as his own opus. Following a typically stylish/puzzling opening we follow corporate spies Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as they bungle an industrial espionage job in a Japanese mansion highly reminiscent of Ras Al’Ghul’s mountain lair in Batman Begins. They are unexpectedly offered a way out of their predicament from a former mark Saito (Ken Watanabe). Saito wants them to reverse their usual modus operandi of ‘extracting’ secrets and instead attempt inception – to plant the seed of a destructive idea in the mind of his business rival (Cillian Murphy) – which Arthur, almost imitating Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects, opines can’t be done. Cobb though takes the job, as Saito offers the bait of freeing himself from outstanding legal troubles which have prevented him returning to his family in America. Nolan’s ‘existential heist movie’ then becomes a joyous globe-trotting exercise in assembling a team for the caper – picking up a forger in Mombasa (Tom Hardy), an architect in Paris (Ellen Page), and a seriously dodgy chemist, before training (in shared dreams) in a warehouse and making contact with the mark, who complicates their plans…

That description should tell you that Nolan has somehow made a ‘realistic’ film about larceny where the scene of the crime is your unconscious mind. This depiction of the unconscious owes nothing to Dali, Freud or Jung. His thieves keep their dreamscapes impeccably realistic to dupe the mark into believing that the dream world is real. Only Ariadne’s initial gleeful construction of architecture free from the laws of physics, and collapsing dreams and malevolent subconscious projections shatter that verisimilitude. Nolan’s interest here is not plot twists or fractured chronology but layering levels of reality. This allows him the blockbuster action tension of the double jeopardy at the end of The Matrix, with Neo fighting Smith while a Squiddie assaults the Nebuchadnezzar, but even more heightened. How exactly these thieves insinuate themselves into their subjects’ dreams and manipulate them though is anything but popcorn as its conceptual simplicity but sheer craziness in execution means you must stay as alert to what is happening at every moment as with Memento. The device which allows the team to synchronise their dreams and instantly fall asleep is similar to its equivalent in The Matrix but (gloriously) its working is never explained scientifically in this ‘sci-fi thriller’, which instead prioritises Edith Piaf and inner ear discomfort in the explanation of the ingenious ‘kicks’ for waking up.

Nolan’s films obsessively follow characters wracked by guilt over the deaths of people close to them who embark on quests for justice or vengeance and Cobb is an interesting variation on this archetype. DiCaprio is strong as a haunted hero running from his guilt, aided by Hans Zimmer’s unsettling reworking of his Two-Face musical theme, and is supported by an impeccable ensemble. Page is terrific as Ariadne. Both the newest member of the team, through whose eyes we come to understand this universe’s rules, and the most grounded, it is she who pushes Cobb towards finally exorcising his demons before they endanger the team. Hardy shows immense range after his bravura turn in Bronson by being wonderfully insouciant as the forger Eames, while Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt is once again effortlessly charismatic as the quick-thinking point-man Arthur. He steals many scenes from DiCaprio and memorably gives an outstandingly delivery of one delightful word.

Inception combines caper movie with sci-fi thriller, underpinned by a meaty character arc about guilt that takes advantage of being able to give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, to dazzle both eyes and mind. Essential viewing.

5/5

July 13, 2010

Keanu Takes Stock

Keanu Reeves will be 46 in a few months, so how is he dealing with mid-life cinematically?

Back in 2004 when I wrote a profile of Keanu for the University Observer he had just refused to play Superman for Warner Bros, and now (not being connected to any lucrative franchise) unlike the era of George Reeves, he’d be considered about 20 years to old to even get an audition.  In that piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles” but didn’t have time to expand on my meaning, which was that Hollywood leading men tend to lose their cachet on hitting 50 so their 40s are the years where they have the maturity and the box-office clout to take on big roles – like John Wayne doing Red River and The Searchers, Gregory Peck doing Moby Dick, Cape Fear and To Kill a Mockingbird and even Michael Douglas doing Romancing the Stone, Wall Street and Basic Instinct.

Since Keanu turned 40 he’s appeared in only seven films Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in the movie. His turn in Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem both their lives. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find sustained audiences. Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if flawed film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as mature roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing and a fine sense of metaphysical horror that was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix. Keanu seems to have moved away from franchise movies but that might just reduce the audience for his upcoming roles. He faces a dilemma it seems – does he take on another box-office behemoth or just cameo in indie movies?

Where he goes from here is a choice we leave up to him…

July 11, 2010

Ride the Lo-Fi Country

My beloved 1993 CD player died yesterday, forcing me to turn to its sister tape player for the first time in years, and muse over living lo-fi in a hi-tech world…

Not only is my beloved 2004 Auf der Maur album stuck in the CD player with no means of escape, I can’t listen to her new CD (which I just bought) on the thunderous speakers which echo around the room, instead I have to settle for throwing it into the laptop and listening to the tiny volume that it delivers in comparison. Small wonder that I’ve instantly turned to my long-neglected tape collection to still use the speakers and their great potential for noise. As a result I’ve spent the last two days listening to the Stone Roses, Bryan Ferry, The Beatles, and the Chemical Brothers. And that was just picking the tapes that were at the top of the pile. I know that somewhere in the dusty stash is The Goon Show not to mention the Pixies, Lightning Seeds, Bowie, Ash and The Doors.  And then there’s all the tapes I’ve forgotten I even made, which is going to be a treasure-trove of 1992-2004 time capsules for me to dig through.

But this has happened when I’ve just seen Tom Stoppard’s dazzlingly clever and utterly hilarious Arcadia which is nonetheless a simple enough play to stage, and as I’m ploughing my way through Jonathan Franzen’s epic family drama as state of nation saga The Corrections which is modern in style and content but very old in its ambitions, and as thoughts, possibly blog-worthy, possibly not, about each mull around in my mind. These pieces of work are very old-fashioned, lo-fi, if you will, but still impressive, just as the music I’m blaring from my tapes is fantastic, regardless of the ancient method of its delivery. It’s brought home to me just how at ease I still am at living a lo-fi life in a hi-tech world, how what’s dismissed as ‘obsolete’ is really often just ‘different’, and how the obsession with instant gratification can blind us to the qualities of older forms and the greater rewards provided by work that demands more active engagement. After all, filling out an 8-track led to Parklife

I write a weekly blog but posting it can be the only time I venture on-line each week, as I write on a lap-top with no internet connection, about films which, for the most part, I have seen once in the cinema and then analyse from memory. This to me is normal, but I can imagine other people being crippled without access to IMDb or YouTube, just as I can imagine few people would be able to understand that I improvised dictation of nearly a year’s worth of articles down the phone to my co-writer for the University Observer, and wrote nearly half of my PhD thesis long-hand and had it supervised in that way.

I still am lo-fi, it’s just the world that upgraded.

July 2, 2010

Eclipse

David Slade, director of Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, succeeds in returning some of Catherine Hardwicke’s viciousness to Eclipse but takes the romance tongue-in-cheek seriously…

The opening reinstates the nastiness that Hardwicke made so crucial in the first film by depicting a savage vampire attack that agonisingly turns new villain Riley. From there Slade alternates sappy romance with something that New Moon so badly lacked – a plot. The same plot broadly as the first film mind, killing spree heralds vampires heading towards Forks who target Bella, but a plot nonetheless. Slade gleefully ret-cons the vampires into ice-cold beings who shatter like glass when hit hard enough, which allows for decapitations aplenty with exploding heads and nary a drop of blood, and doesn’t make a lick of sense given that they mop up the red stuff, but why complain when it allows a lead vampire to very painfully lose an arm to a werewolf.

Slade also fleshes out the Cullens, giving Rosalie a chance to stop pouting and become a character by revealing her back-story. The real revelation though is Jackson Rathbone as Jasper who after doing a Harpo Marx impression for two films is finally given dialogue and, in revealing his Civil War past in Texas and his experience in training newborn vampires, turns out to be ridiculously charismatic. He’s matched by Xavier Samuel as Riley, who raises an army of insanely destructive newborn vampires that cause such mayhem in Seattle that sinister vampire overlords the Volturi dispatch Jane (Dakota Fanning) to kill them. Whisper it, but Fanning displays an un-nerving flair for sadistic villainy – far surpassing Bryce Dallas Howard’s underwhelming cameo as Bella’s vampire nemesis Victoria – with one moment in particular almost an exorcising of her past career.

Such almost fourth-wall breaches litter Eclipse as Slade is aware that these characters have taken on a life outside their fictional framework. When a hypothermic Bella needs to be warmed up and over-heated werewolf Jacob tells Edward “We both know I’m hotter than you”, you almost expect both actors to look directly at the audience and then return to the scene. Slade knows that teenage girls will wildly cheer Jacob’s first appearance and his first shirtless scene, especially Edward’s reaction by engaging in an epic make-out session with Bella. It is hard not to suppose that Slade and his writing associate Brian Nelson did a dialogue polish as there are tart put-downs at all these moments which make Taylor Lautner’s Jacob a more sardonic and charismatic presence here than in the previous film despite having less screen-time and also give Robert Pattinson something to play other than brooding. New Moon was unintentionally funny in its awfulness but Eclipse’s intentional comedy reaches exquisite heights in a scene when the always droll Billy Burke as Bella’s father tries to discuss accidental pregnancy with Bella while they both die of embarrassment.

Reviewing the performances of Pattinson and Lautner is of course redundant and it could be argued that the unashamed objectification of them is a positive development, but, this conflict between a dependable pretty boy and a moody pretty boy was done far better in seasons 2 and 3 of Gilmore Girls, which only highlights the enormous problem that is Bella Swan. Kristen Stewart’s original turn masked the fact that Bella is a bafflingly anaemic heroine, the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend…

This surpasses New Moon but favourable comparisons to that are like saying fewer people died when the Lusitania sank than when the Titanic went down. Eclipse isn’t as good as Twilight but it’s a qualified success as a horror film spliced with a romance that needs to wink at the audience. But when a romance needs to wink at the audience it means that you’re liable to spend as much time anthropologically observing the audience’s fevered reaction to the movie as actually watching the movie.

3/5

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