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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

The business of proper big-screen revivals of classic movies can be a funny old thing sometimes. It’s quite normal for the two slightly art-housey cinemas in my area to regularly show something like The Graduate or West Side Story of a Sunday afternoon, the main selection criterion seeming to be that the film is just old and good. In terms of an old movie getting a more general showing, well, having a major anniversary certainly seems to help. Even so, things are often not quite as one would expect: if you’d asked me which blockbuster Hugo-nominated fantasy film would be getting a spruced-up revival for its fortieth birthday in 2017, my first guess would not have been Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

(Then again – and I hope you will forgive the digression – there is always something slightly nostalgic about a revival, and I get the impression that nostalgia is only allowed near the stellar conflict franchise nowadays under strictly controlled conditions. To do otherwise might end up suggesting that there was something genuinely magical and innovative about those first couple of films, while the current sequence are just machine-tooled product. Other opinions are, of course, available.)

Close Encounters, directed and (in theory – many hands were involved) written by Steven Spielberg, is one of those movies which has shifted into the cultural background somewhat over the years, no doubt as a result of its ideas, themes, and images being so extensively reworked in other venues. Long before seeing the actual movie, I remember watching the parody of it on The Goodies (Bill Oddie, in a Superman costume, playing a trombone duet with an alien spacecraft), and not being at all confused by the various references. Hard to imagine The X-Files without Close Encounters; impossible to imagine E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at all, for obvious reasons.

The film opens on a black screen, over which an unsettling wail of white noise rises, before a smash cut to the heart of a sandstorm. One group of the film’s protagonists emerges from this: Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), a French scientist, who meets a group of American colleagues. Together they make a disturbing discovery: a flight of torpedo-bombers has been deposited in the Mexican desert. The planes seem to be a squadron that disappeared off the coast of Florida in 1945, but they appear to be brand new, as though thirty years has not happened. A witness speaks of the sun rising in the middle of the night and singing.

More strange phenomena occur over Indiana: strange lights in the sky are reported by airline pilots. A blackout spreads across the countryside. Electrical engineer Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) leaves the domestic chaos of his home in an attempt to track down the source of the power cut – he is an ordinary guy, a little harassed, but generally happy in his life. Then something happens to him on a lonely country road in the middle of the night that changes everything. He encounters a UFO, which wreaks havoc with his truck and gives him severe sunburn before heading off. Neary goes in pursuit, encountering others who have had similar experiences. Amongst these are Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her infant son, who were visited in their home by an unseen presence. A flight of several UFOs swoops by, hotly pursued by the cops. Neary’s world has been transformed.

From here the movie follows both Lacombe and Neary. Lacombe is a scientist, following a trail of evidence: long-since-disappeared ships return, in rather improbable locations. From India there come reports of strange noises from the sky. Signals are received from deep space, providing map co-ordinates. Government preparations are made. Something is coming to Earth.

Meanwhile, Roy and the other eye-witnesses are struggling to make sense of their own experiences. They find themselves compelled to draw or sculpt a particular mountain. A particular five-note sequence of music has mysteriously lodged itself in their brains. Roy’s newfound obsessions cost him his job, and eventually drive his family away. He is irresistibly drawn to the mountain from his dream – as Lacombe observes, Roy has been invited to a very special occasion…

Close Encounters is part of that sequence of early movies which established Spielberg as probably the most famous and financially successful director in the world – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.. (Rather more obscure is his 1979 knockabout comedy film 1941, which was less successful but which I find very hard to dislike. Apparently the experience burned Spielberg when it came to doing pure comedy, which is a shame, as legend has it his next project was going to be, almost unbelievably, a big-screen blockbuster movie version of The Goodies. Strange how all these things link up together in different combinations.) Of all of them, Close Encounters is the one which has slipped furthest from the public consciousness, perhaps in part because it hasn’t been sequelised or exploited to death, and also because it has to some extent been eclipsed by E.T..

The similarities between the two are obvious – the relationship between Neary and Lacombe clearly parallels that of Elliot and Keys in the latter film, which had its earliest origins as a Close Encounters follow-up – but it seems to me that Close Encounters is a rather subtler and more thoughtful film, in addition to being less sentimental and cutesy. It feels much more of a piece with other films being made in America in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the country was still trying to process the tarnishing of the government in the Watergate affair and the implications of the conclusion of the Vietnam War. People were looking for something that would allow them a chance to escape, and perhaps even give them something to believe in, and it seems significant to me that so many of these late 70s and early 80s films conclude with an explicit act of faith on the part of the protagonist – switching off a targeting computer and relying on instinct, or averting their eyes from the wrath of God. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is perhaps the fullest realisation of this theme of all of these films, for it is surely primarily about the finding and following of faith.

I find it now a little ironic that my parents are fond of declaring that E.T. is actually some form of Christian allegory (they said the same about the first stellar conflict movie for a while, if memory serves) – for one thing, Spielberg is not exactly noted for his Christian background. But Close Encounters does have that spine-tingling sense of human beings coming into contact with the deeper mysteries of the universe, and so often the imagery used is religious: there are signs and portents in the sky. A ship appears, ark-like, in the middle of dry land. When John Williams’ famous five-note motif first appears, it is as a mantra, endlessly chanted by what appears to be a choir of Indian mystics. At one point Roy Neary demands of the sky what all of this means.

Neary’s story itself practically qualifies as a conversion narrative: he’s an Everyman, transformed into a true believer by a chance encounter. From this moment on he finds he has no other choice than to follow his new faith, despite the efforts of friends and the authorities to dissuade or convince him otherwise. He loses his job, and his wife and family leave him too (the movie is perhaps a little hard on Neary’s wife, played by Teri Garr). But he presses on, makes his pilgrimage, and in the end it appears to be him, the true believer, who is chosen ahead of all the government-approved candidates to be taken up into the heavens by otherworldly forces. (The sensation is presumably one of pure rapture.) Spielberg has said that he now finds it unimaginable that Neary could abandon his children and go off into space, but in the context of the movie, and given its theme, it would feel very strange if he didn’t: the movie is about shedding those kinds of Earthly connections in favour of the spiritual kind.

That said, it’s not a cosy or sentimental spirituality: Close Encounters‘ aliens may be otherworldly, but they are also enigmatic and strange, and often frightening as a result – the visitation of alien forces on Jillian in her home is a genuinely frightening sequence, rather at odds with the rest of the movie. (Almost enough to make one regret the fact that Spielberg hasn’t really directed a horror movie since Jaws; one imagines it would be utterly terrifying.) There is a real sense of the unknown and perhaps unknowable touching life on Earth.

Perhaps this is rather odd material for an SF movie, then: but then I suppose this is a case of a film being declared SF simply because it isn’t obviously anything else, and besides, it has aliens in it. (It’s noteworthy how rare in-the-flesh aliens are in ‘serious’ SF movies prior to 1977, also this movie’s role in creating the assumption of friendly alien life which would persist until Independence Day once again inverted the stereotype.) Science fiction and ufology are distant cousins, I suppose, but no more than that, simply because ufology is only marginally science (it’s still more respectable than Bermuda Triangle lore, which is also touched on in this movie). While there’s obviously something going on with the UFO phenomenon, I doubt it admits to a single, simple solution, and not the one suggested by Spielberg here – but as I’ve suggested, the UFO element of the story is simply a metaphor that allows Spielberg to talk about something else. (Slightly ironic, then, that the 40th anniversary showing I attended was followed by a serious talk by a couple of university professors about the prospects of intelligent life in the universe and our chances of communicating with it.)

Spielberg’s casual mastery of cinema is already well-developed in this movie, which includes several of his most memorable bits of legerdemain – the moment where the lights in Neary’s rear-view reveal themselves to be not headlights, but something rather more exotic, for one, and the one where a TV set in the foreground flashes up an image replicating the vast sculpture dominating the room behind it, for another. He also manages to keep a film which could easily have become a bit airy and earnest grounded and accessible, inserting many bits of humour and action. Not that he gets everything completely right – quite apart from the handling of Mrs Neary, one is struck by the sheer number of people (virtually all men) at the Devil’s Tower arena who seem to have nothing to do but stand around looking on in awe: spectacle trumps logic here, I suppose. Fairly prominent in the crowd is a young Lance Henriksen – there’s a guy with an interesting CV – and also J Allen Hynek, the formulator of the ‘close encounters’ scale (which never gets elaborated upon in the actual movie, oddly enough).

The late 1970s and early 1980s have left us with a lot of significant SF and fantasy movies, not all of which get the attention they deserve. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is probably the least action-adventure oriented of all of them, and the least escapist (as escapism is generally understood, anyway). It’s also much more obviously a film about personal themes, but one which handles them in a very accessible way. That it manages all this while still looking very much like a modern special-effects blockbuster is by no means the least of its achievements. Probably not Steven Spielberg’s best film, perhaps not even the best of his early films – but still a significant one, and worth remembering. Good to see it back on the big screen.

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I don’t want to appear to be misjudging the situation, because I suspect that at least one friend of mine already believes that I am biased when it comes to the great opposition of our day – but I have to say that all the omens for Justice League do not lead me to be optimistic. Even a friend and colleague, who is one of the very, very few people I know who actually enjoyed Batman Vs Superman, declared ‘That looks awful’ when we saw the trailer for the new movie on our last cinema trip.

What comfort can one offer to DC at moments like this, except to say that the great wheel turns, even if it sometimes turns slowly. Back in the 70s and 80s it was DC who made successful movies and TV shows, while Marvel languished in the netherworld of trash TV, for the most part. (As recently as the mid-2000s, Marvel were still turning out the likes of the Thomas Jane version of The Punisher and the big-screen Man-Thing.) So you never know.

American trash TV from the 1980s is not normally in my wheelhouse, but I will make an exception for the 1988 TV movie The Incredible Hulk Returns. This is partly because this movie is a curious addendum to the Kenneth Johnson-produced Hulk TV show, which is very much not trash TV and a classy piece of work, but also because of the curious way it prefigures exactly the sort of thing with which Marvel Studios have scored such a massive success over the last decade or so. (Kenneth Johnson was not invited back for the Hulk TV movies, towards which he has a rather dismissive attitude.)

To start off with The Incredible Hulk Returns works very hard not to disappoint fans of the original TV show, reusing elements of the original title sequence (although the lettering and so on is now a lurid gamma-green shade). Presumably this is because retained as the writer and director of this opus was Nicholas Corea, a prolific contributor to the series.

Anyway: years have passed since the end of the show. It has been two full years since Banner (Bill Bixby, of course) even turned into the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno, of course). Adopting a typically impenetrable false identity (currently David Banner is living under the name of David Bannion), our man is working as a technician at an LA-based research institute, where in return for using his scientific genius to build the ‘Gamma Transponder’, a potential source of cheap, clean energy (I really should pen a paper on the history of this trope in superhero movies), he is allowed unfettered access to the labs in the evening, no questions asked. The Gamma Transponder has a second function, of course, which is to dehulkify Banner and let him move in with his lovely and predictably understanding lady friend.

All is set, but Banner’s dehulkification is delayed by the appearance of a figure from Banner’s pre-irradiated days, an old acquaintance named Don Blake (Steve Levitt). Blake is a medical doctor and a somewhat hapless, disreputable figure, and he has a strange tale to tell (perhaps even one of a journey into mystery, but let’s not overdo it). As a life-long fan of all things Viking, Blake jumped at the chance to be expedition doctor on an archaeological trip into the wilds of Scandinavia (was Scandinavia really that wild, even in 1988?), where he discovered an ancient Viking tomb. As any archaeologist would, Blake relates, he broke into the tomb and found a pile of bones and a mysterious war-hammer. No sooner did he pick up the hammer than a mighty Norse warrior appeared out of thin air, calling himself the mighty Thor…

Yeah, we should probably just clarify what’s going on here. ‘Don Blake’ was Thor’s Clark Kent-ish alter ego in the early years of the comic, a doctor with a gammy leg who turned into Thor by bashing things with his magic walking stick (initially it seemed like Blake was a random guy whom fate gifted with the power of Thor, but… well, they retconned this quite a lot as time went by). But in this movie, Blake and Thor (played by Eric Kramer) are entirely separate individuals, though linked in some usefully vague manner. If anything, they kind of resemble Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt from DC’s Justice Society comics, in that Blake is kind of a useless wimp who is obliged to whistle up Thor whenever the plot kicks in.

As it does here. Blake is not happy about the burden of being saddled with this responsibility, given that Thor will only exert his powers in a good cause. ‘It’s the eighties, I don’t even know what a good cause is,’ complains Blake, probably the best line in the movie. Banner assumes Blake is delusional, and so to prove his tale Blake summons up Thor, the shock of which does not do Banner’s blood pressure any good. Thor assumes that Banner’s lab is a bar, for some reason, and starts trashing the place in search of a drink. Banner strenuously objects, the inevitable happens, and we’re all set for the first ever live-action Hulk-Thor barney in media history…

Well, manage your expectations, pilgrim: it was 1988, after all, and once Lou Ferrigno’s body-paint and Thor’s rubber Viking armour had been paid for, there was only a bit left for electrical sparkles on Thor’s hammer and a few broken windows. Even so, everyone throws themselves into the fight enthusiastically enough, and it has a definite goofy charm if you’re prepared to be charitable.

What it doesn’t have is any tonal similarity to the original TV show, and the rest of the movie continues the decline into thick-headed cops-and-robbers nonsense. Someone decides to steal the Gamma Transponder, hiring a tough-talking squash-playing Cajun mercenary (Tim Thomerson, a prolific actor with a dizzying diverse, if somewhat variable CV) to do so. Thomerson decides to kidnap Banner’s girlfriend and hold her to ransom in the hope this will get them to hand the thing over. Could it possibly be down to Thor and the Hulk to save the day…?

Apparently The Incredible Hulk Returns was a smash hit on its initial broadcast, which I suppose we can only attribute to the enduring popularity of the original TV show, and the fact that the general standard of genre TV shows at the time was subterraneanly low. Even so, there’s something a bit dispiriting about watching a generally classy act like The Incredible Hulk TV show get quite so comprehensively dumbed-down and sillied-up. Possibly the most depressing thing about the whole extravaganza is the fact that Jack Colvin is dragged back as McGee the reporter – he gets nothing much of significance to do, and rather than the nuanced and rather sympathetic character McGee had become by the end of the original run, here he is largely played for laughs.

Oh well. At least Bill Bixby, who produced the movie through his own company, is as reliable and warm a presence as ever, very recognisably the same character as in the TV show. Banner just can’t resist helping those around him, even Blake and Thor, who spend most of the movie squabbling like a stereotypical married couple. (While we’re touching on – presumably unintended – grace notes of homo-eroticism, there’s also a bizarre scene in which McGee interviews a towel-clad Thor, who’s passing himself off as Banner for somewhat contrived reasons.)

The thing about some of these Hulk TV movies is that they also functioned as back-door pilots for other potential series featuring famous Marvel properties. You can kind of envisage the Thor series that might have spun off from this, basically a version of Automan with more shouting and chain-mail. There’s a scene in which Blake decides to ask Thor important questions about the reason they’ve been manacled together, so to speak, and Thor insists he won’t talk until he has eaten, and drunk, and fought, and generally caroused like a man! So Blake takes him to a biker bar.

Really, though, Thor as he is presented here is a slightly ridiculous man-baby with zero grasp of subtlety, very poor impulse control, and a wholly ridiculous pile of absurdly blond hair atop his bonce. What kind of hero would he really make for the American people? At least they didn’t have Twitter in 1988.

Oh, this is a silly, silly, predictable film, but it’s often very funny (not usually on purpose, I should say), and the sheer enthusiasm of it, plus the positive elements inherited from the Hulk TV show, keep it watchable. You can see why Kenneth Johnson refuses to acknowledge its existence. But look at Marvel now! Try to stay hopeful, DC: sometimes all it takes is the passage of nearly thirty years, a complete change of creative personnel, and the injection of obscene amounts of money. So you never can tell.

 

 

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As a person who has been looking at and listening to things with my eyes and ears for quite a while now, I am no stranger to the concept of absurd hyperbole. That said, absurd hyperbole is not what it used to be – the revelation that Jonathan Ross’s review of Batman Forever described it as ‘one of the greatest films ever made’ solely in order to win a bet arguably debased the whole notion of saying something ridiculously overblown about a film simply to make yourself noticed. In other words, it takes a bit to get my attention these days.

But here comes the New York Observer (a reasonably well-established and respectable news source, even if it did used to be published by one of the Trump clan), proudly announcing that Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is ‘the worst film of the century’. Crikey, now that’s a bold claim, even if you accept they’re not actually making predictions about the next 83 years. Let us not forget that this is the same century which has given the world Sex Lives of the Potato Men, Paul Anderson’s butchery of The Three Musketeers, A Good Day to Die Hard, After Earth, and many other really poor films. One might even say that it would take something quite unusual to beat Hampstead to the position of Worst Film of 2017, before even starting to look further afield.

Well, anyway, such a claim had to be investigated, and as a colleague is a confirmed Aronofsky fan (‘He is incapable of making a bad movie,’ he declared, which just prompted me to ask ‘Have you seen Noah?’), off we trotted to the very small cinema which was showing mother! (regular readers can have fun imagining the intonation I used on the title when asking for our tickets).

It’s not just the Observer, by the way: the reputable market-research firm CinemaScore has given mother! its rare and very (not) coveted F rating, indicating a film which audiences are likely to react violently against – other recipients include the remakes of Solaris, which isn’t that bad, and The Wicker Man, which most certainly is. So what’s going on with Darren Aronofsky’s mother!?

Hmmm. Well. Popular and critical darling Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman living in a beautiful house in the countryside, along with her husband (played by Javier Bardem). She is slowly renovating the house, he is a writer contending with a bout of the dreaded block, and all initially seems very nearly idyllic.

But then an older man (Ed Harris) turns up, claiming to have been sent there in the erroneous belief they run a hotel, and Lawrence is just a little irked when he invites the vaguely sinister Harris to spend the night without checking with her. Soon he is joined by his wife (Michelle Pfieffer), who is rather given to inappropriate behaviour. Is there something going on between Bardem and this couple? Or is Lawrence simply overreacting and being a bit paranoid?

While all this is unfolding, various other oddities and enigmas are floating around at the edge of the story – why does the structure of the house seem to dissolve when blood is spilled on it? (Don’t ask.) What is the obscurely disgusting object Lawrence finds clogging up the toilet? What is in the mysterious potion she finds herself compelled to glug when the stress all gets a bit too much for her? Will any of these things be explained before the closing credits finally roll?

Um, well, probably not. Watching mother! really brought it home to me that the two kinds of people with the greatest creative freedom in the movie industry are completely unknown directors, whose films are made on micro-budgets and so whom no-one really cares about, and those who have a strong track record of both popular and critical success, who as a result are granted a certain degree of latitude to do something a bit different on a lavish scale (though this only lasts as long as their films continue to turn a profit, as a quick look at the careers of M Night Shyamalan and the Wachowski siblings will attest to).

Darren Aronofsky currently seems to be in this state of grace, making distinctive, generally well-received films. I went to see Black Swan (‘unlike anything else I’ve seen at the cinema in a long time’) and Noah (‘engrossingly strange’), both films which ended up making over $300 million. A similar achievement for mother! does not appear to be on the cards, however, not that this is especially surprising when you consider that this is an example of the historically-unpopular ‘surreal bat’s-ass-insane psychological art-house horror’ genre.

I suspect this is why many people have taken against what is, by any standards, a superbly crafted film – it is unafraid to go rather a long way out there. In fact, just as a thought experiment, imagine yourself going really quite a long way out, to the very fringes of your comfort zone. Now imagine a faint speck on the horizon, even further out. This speck is a house equipped with a very strong telescope, and through this you would just about be able to make out mother!, hurling itself about and howling at the sky. This is how way-out-there Aronofsky’s film is, especially in its closing stages.

Luckily, I figured out very early on that we were not in the realm of a traditionally naturalistic narrative here, which probably helped – there’s almost a sense in which the fractured dream-logic of mother!, in which events pile up wildly on top of one another in a totally irrational way, reminded me of some of the weirder short stories of H.P. Lovecraft, although that would require Lovecraft to have been capable of writing for a female protagonist. There is certainly a touch of Terry Gilliam in the film’s various conjuring tricks, and perhaps also a little of Peter Greenaway in its more gleefully gory excesses.

Aronofsky has gone on record and attempted to explain what mother! is actually supposed to be about – I won’t trouble you with that here, not least because it’s really a spoiler. I can’t help suspecting that this was a movie where the surreal, nightmarish style and tone came first, anyway, and it was just a question of coming up with a premise that would justify them.

Why, somebody asked me, would an actress like Jennifer Lawrence choose to appear in a film as strange as this one? The prosaic answer would have something to do with the (presumably significant) portion of the $30 million budget going home with her, but at the same time you can see why this film would appeal, if only as a technical challenge – it largely fails or succeeds by her performance, for she is on-screen virtually non-stop throughout, frequently in close-up. She is, needless to say, very good, but then so is everyone else – Bardem’s Iberian inscrutability is well-employed, and in addition to Harris and Pfieffer, there are somewhat unexpected cameos by the likes of the Gleeson brothers and Kristen Wiig.

Mainly, however, the film is a triumph of direction and editing, with the pace and mood of the film always expertly controlled. It is obviously the case that some of the subject matter will repel many people from this film – there are some nauseatingly nasty moments, none of them really suggested by the film’s (arguably misleading) advertising. Others will not be able to get on board with the peculiar stream-of-consciousness flow of the narrative, its lack of conventional story or characterisation. And this is fair enough – but I have to say I hugely enjoyed the film’s sheer audacity and willingness to do something unusual and different. This did mean I was laughing in some rather inappropriate places (my colleague feared I was laughing out of scorn rather than appreciation), but my enjoyment of the skill and innovation that clearly went into this movie was genuine.

The chances are that mother! is a movie which will not appeal to you. There’s quite a good chance its excesses will actively appal or disgust you. I suspect it may prove to be the cinematic equivalent of Marmite (a proverbially-divisive, rather foul yeast-based spread, in case you’re wondering). I can’t imagine anyone not having some kind of strong response to it, but the minority that get it, will probably really, really like it. Certainly not the worst film of the century, anyway, even if it’s highly unlikely to make much of a profit. Pretty much a dead cert to become a cult favourite for decades to come.

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I am increasingly aware that I am, in many important ways, a man out of time – not to the extent of wearing double-breasted pyjamas or being hailed as a possible future Tory Prime Minister, but I’m fully aware that many of my views are, well, rather old-fashioned. One of these is that the best place for watching a new film is the cinema. This may just be dyed-in-the-wool traditionalism, or possibly simply the fact that going to the pictures a couple of times a week often makes up most of my social life (there are other people there, after all, even if I don’t speak to them or actually know their names).

Nevertheless, the world moves on, and new films are starting to show up in places you might not have expected a few years ago. Investing heavily in films, along with much else, is a video streaming site which is not paying me for advertising and so which I will not name. (Suffice to say it rhymes with Get Clicks.) One thing you can say about these guys is that they do not skimp when it comes to things like actors or production values: they show every sign of making proper big movies which would be quite at home getting a (proper) traditional theatrical release.

For example, let us consider Okja, directed by Bong Joon Ho, a movie which appeared on the site in question. There are some extremely odd things about this film and the manner in which it has been presented, but it is no more extravagantly weird than many other films which I’ve seen recently.

Tilda Swinton plays Lucy Mirando, newly-installed boss of a major corporation, who as the film starts reveals her plan to start a ten-year programme of raising a litter of unusual ‘super pigs’ in different locations around the world. The new breed of pig offers hope of an end to the problem of global food shortages forever!

Hmm, well. Ten years pass and we meet Mija (An Seo Hyun), a young girl living in the remote mountains of South Korea with her lazy and skinflint grandfather – and Okja, one of the Mirando super pigs they have been entrusted with. Okja is an impressive beast, having grown from cute piglethood into something resembling an endearing hybrid of a particularly big hippo and Lockjaw from The Inhumans. Needless to say, Mija and Okja have a very strong bond, and as they have purchased Okja from the corporation, their rustic idyll can continue forever.

Except, of course, that her grandfather has been lying about buying the pig, and Mirando’s apparatchiks turn up, accompanied by their zoologist shill Dr Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal), to take Okja off to Seoul and then New York for the final of the Giant Super Pig Contest. Okja is spirited away without Mija’s consent (spiriting away an animal the size of a small van is a neat trick, I have to admit), and she is outraged when she learns of her grandfather’s deception. Mija equips herself for an epic quest and sets off in search of her beloved animal…

Now – and I hope I’m not breaking any confidences here – my sister has a thing about pigs. Hmm, perhaps that didn’t come across quite the way it was intended to. I should clarify things and stress that she is just inordinately fond of our porcine friends. No, that’s not quite right either – well, look, she’s a pig person, all right, just not in any peculiar or unwholesome way. And so it occurred to me that I might end up recommending Okja as a film she would want to watch, perhaps with her kids. Certainly, the opening set-up has that slightly grotesque and outlandish quality of a Roald Dahl story, and the first movement of the story feels intentionally ‘classic’ in its elements and tone.

But I will not be suggesting Sister-of-Awix check this movie out, and especially not with her children around. This is indeed a film about a young girl’s quest to recover her giant, slightly magical pig, with a somewhat fantastical tone. But it is a fantastical film about a young girl and her giant magical pig with a monumental F-bomb count, some startlingly brutal violence, and also a no-holds-barred visit to an abattoir at one point. It’s all a bit more Tom-Yum-Goong than it is a Disney film.

General consensus seems to be that Get Clicks have dropped the ball when it comes to its handling of Okja, not least because it is still listed on its UK site as a ‘G’. This in itself is slightly confusing, as it’s not a standard British certification – I assumed it stood for ‘General’, but apparently it means ‘Guidance recommended’. The BBFC, by the way, appear to have given Okja a 15 certificate, which seems to me to be entirely appropriate.

But you can’t really blame Get Clicks, except in the most general way, for the fact that Okja is utterly bizarre in its tone – this is definitely not a children’s film. But it has the same kind of subject matter as a children’s film, and is largely made in the style of one. So, what exactly is going on here? I fear the worst, readers, specifically that this film has been made to appeal to the dreaded Ironic Sensibility. Many of the English-language scenes not concerning Mija and Okja have a very knowing, tongue-in-cheek quality, which after a while set my teeth to aching. The film seems to be inciting at least part of its audience to be complicit in its own weirdness, while assuring them that it is absolutely sound in terms of its politics and morality and so on. I know I am on the thinnest of thin ice here, but I have a very low tolerance for the whole phenomenon where adults sit down and have earnest conversations about (for example) the admirably progressive gender politics of a cartoon about talking kittens. It seems to me to represent a retreat from maturity and actual engagement with the serious issues of life – except where serious issues are handled only in the most simplistic way. The looming threat of right-on smugness is a constant danger.

So I found it with much of Okja. This is, obviously, a film with a message to deliver about animal rights and the practices of the food industry – you could quite probably label it as a piece of pro-vegetarian propaganda, to be honest. Fair enough – there are arguments to be made here. But the style of Okja means its sheer sentimentality grates with the graphic nature of many of its scenes. This is a shamelessly, brazenly manipulative film, so much so that it actually becomes irritating rather than affecting. My first instinct after it finished was to go and have a sausage baguette, just on principle.

This is not to say that there is not much to enjoy in Okja – the staging of the early scenes with Mija and Okja in the forest is honestly magical, and the depiction of Okja is genuinely stunning – CGI never ceases to improve, of course, but I have absolutely no clue how some of the shots in this movie were achieved. Then again, the film is almost wholly about Okja (hence the name), so I suppose getting the CGI right was a priority. There are also a raft of good performances from people like Swinton, Gyllenhaal, Shirley Henderson, and Paul Dano (who appears as an animal rights activist).

In the end, though, I couldn’t help thinking that Okja is only a few more script drafts away from being a really great children’s film – Babe, quite literally on steroids. But as it stands, there’s too much profanity and darkness in this film for it to be suitable for normal kids, while at the same time it’s too childish and eccentric to function as a piece of entertainment for mature audiences. Definite talent at work here, but in a very undisciplined way.

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And now for another installment in our current series entitled Underperformance Anxiety, in which we consider the plight of a movie which has not lived up to box-office expectations in a fairly serious way. This time around it is Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower, based on a (I’m tempted to say ‘interminable’) lengthy novel sequence by one of the greatest storytellers of our day, Stephen King. Many people have tried to bring The Dark Tower to the screen, for the sequence has gained legions of fans for its rich mythology, engaging characters, and imagination, apparently (I should point out that while I’m a big fan of King, I’ve always shied away from these particular books for no reason I can easily articulate). On the other hand, the two most famous of these were Ron Howard and JJ Abrams, neither of whom I would honestly describe as a visionary film-maker, so maybe that was for the best.

Or maybe not. What exactly, you may be well be wondering, is the Dark Tower, and why have they made a film about it? Well, fasten your seatbelts and I will have a go at explaining. The Dark Tower, you see, is the metaphysical bulwark which supports the structure of all the worlds of the multiverse, which stands at the centre of creation and holds back eternal, demon-infested darkness. Yes, apparently the Dark Tower holds back the darkness, which is a little counter-intuitive, but I shouldn’t worry too much about it. No-one in the movie actually visits the Dark Tower, it is just a sort of symbol or plot device – the movie could have been called The Pink Bus Stop or The Tartan-patterned Shed and it would be functionally exactly the same, just with a lower special-effects budget. (Although neither of those would have the same kind of archetypal mythic resonance. The whole movie is very big on symbolism and archetypes, which may be one of the reasons why it is as coherent as it is.)

Well, anyway, for reasons best known to himself, evil sorcerer Walter (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to knock the Dark Tower down and end the world, using the psychic powers of children whom his bestial minions have kidnapped from across the multiverse. This is causing mysterious earthquakes in the various worlds, and giving nightmares to Jake (Tom Taylor), a troubled young lad living in New York City with his mum and stepfather. His various visions of the Tower, of Walter, and of an enigmatic gunfighter (Idris Elba) just lead everyone to conclude he’s one book short of a novel sequence, and when Walter’s minions turn up offering to take him to a Special Clinic for Troubled Children he finds it very hard to say no.

But say no Jake does, and he manages to find his way into one of the other worlds, looking for the gunfighter. His name turns out to be Roland, and he is in fact a Gunslinger (the capitalisation seems non-negotiable), the last of an ancient and noble order of warriors, carrying a pair of pistols forged from the metal of Excalibur. Or something. However, Roland is having a bit of a crisis and seems in danger of becoming terminally grumpy (as you can imagine, this element of the character really plays to Elba’s strengths as an actor). However, the chance to kill Walter (with whom he has an old beef) perks Roland up a bit and he and Jake set off to find Walter’s supervillain lair together…

Hollywood Marketing Dogma #1 these days is that, if you’re promoting a product with an established following, you have to keep the fans onside, or else your movie could end up capsized by the bad buzz before it even reaches theatres. The alarm and disquiet with which early news of The Dark Tower was greeted by fans of the books probably chilled the soul of the marketing department – for one thing, this is an adaptation of a 4,250 page novel sequence that clocks in at a far-from-expansive 95 minutes, and for another, it’s not really a straight adaptation of the novel sequence at all, but also to some extent a sequel (I get the impression things get metaphysically weird on a fairly regular basis in Dark Tower-land).

On the other hand, while not many people seem to be going to see The Dark Tower, the ones who do seem to be having a reasonably good time – critics excepted. And the fact is that it’s not a terrible movie by any means, and indeed has some interesting things going on in it. It very much reminded me of a bunch of other, thematically similar films, such as Forbidden Kingdom and The Last Action Hero, in which children from ‘the real world’ find their way into a fantastical realm, hook up with a paternal tough-guy, fight against evil, and so on. Nothing wrong with that – a sturdy narrative archetype, I would say. The distinctive and perhaps problematic thing about The Dark Tower is that its fantasy element is not drawn from something as resonant as Chinese mythology or cinema itself, but has been created almost out of whole cloth – you’ve got gunslingers, Dark Towers, parallel worlds, high-tech dimensional portals, demons, psychic powers, evil sorcerers, and monsters in stolen human skins, all crammed into the same movie. Being hit with all this stuff at the same time is admittedly rather bracing, but at the same time you feel perpetually on the verge of being flummoxed by it all.

I say this as someone who is more than passingly familiar with the Stephen King opus. I like King more than many people (my writing coach, for instance, is by no means a big fan), and ideally this film would tip people off to the fact he’s not just a big-selling horror author, but the creator of a complex and intricate fictional universe of his own – there are various references to other King stories threaded into this one, which you don’t even have to be that big a fan to spot (in addition to Jake’s psychic powers being nicknamed ‘shining’, there’s a spot of free publicity for the forthcoming It movie, while Walter is so transparently another incarnation of King’s recurring supervillain Randall Flagg you nearly expect the revelation of his true identity to be a plot point). On the other hand, if you’re not into Stephen King I suspect all of this will just add to your sense of bafflement.

Perhaps it’s the need to keep the wider audience on board that is responsible for the film’s structure feeling so very, very familiar. You can almost see the flags popping up as the various points in Classic Story Structure are reached and ticked off. For all its textural and thematic weirdness, the movie is on some level very routine, even predictable, and perhaps this is the single biggest problem with it. It’s almost like taking pieces of ancient, gnarled, mysterious wood, from trees at the edge of the world, and then using them to make flat-pack office furniture, in strict accordance with the assembly instructions. The film should really be bigger, richer, weirder, more sprawling, and definitely have more than three significant characters.

That said, all three of the leads are perfectly acceptable, with McConaughey in particular seeming to have fun with his role. The production values and direction are also never less than thoroughly competent, and occasionally you do get a glimpse of the remarkable film which could be made from this material – some of Tom Holkenborg’s rousing music, for instance, seems to have wandered in from a rather more effective fantasy adventure movie.

No doubt the producers would agree, defending this movie by saying it’s only intended as an introduction to the Dark Tower mythology, with various TV series and sequels in the works which will explore this universe further. Well, if so, that nearly reduces The Dark Tower to the status of the world’s longest and most expensive teaser trailer – and one which doesn’t really do its job, for at the end you don’t really feel a burning desire to spend any more time with these characters. The uninspired efficiency of the movie robs it of genuine power and magic. It seemed like everyone had forgotten about the famous hoodoo afflicting Stephen King, where for the longest time his most famous and accomplished novels would come a terrible cropper when they were adapted for the screen. It seems to be back in full effect as far as The Dark Tower is concerned. Still, not an actively bad film, just a rather odd and not particularly exciting one.

 

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‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen Being John Malkovich,’ said Bloke From Next Desk.

‘I didn’t say I’d never seen it, I just said I haven’t seen it in a very long time. Fifteen years or so,’ I said.

‘No problem,’ he said (I’m not entirely sure he actually heard me). Within a couple of days he had brought in his copy of the film on DVD for me to watch. He is a thoughtful fellow, even if I find him rather too inclined to be generous towards Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

So, anyway, Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich, which reached the UK a short while later, as tended to be standard in those days. I was living in the north of England at the time, many hours from the nearest art-house cinema, and so I could often only listen and sigh as London-based film critics extolled the praises of bold, brilliant, unusual films, that I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of actually getting to see on the big screen. Ah, my wilderness years; however did I make it through? Being John Malkovich was just one especially notable example of this – there was a distinct buzz about this film, presumably because of both its startling premise and relentless originality.

John Cusack, that dependable and likeable screen presence, is cast rather against type as Craig, a struggling puppeteer who is married to obsessive animal-lover Lottie (Cameron Diaz, who is also cast very much against type). At Lottie’s request, Craig puts his unusual dexterity to use in a steadier job, working as a file clerk for the mysterious LesterCorp. Here he meets and is instantly attracted to the spiky Maxine (Catherine Keener) – she, quite sensibly, wants nothing to do with him.

All this changes when Craig discovers a mysterious blocked-up doorway in the file room. Going through it results in him being sucked down a passage and finding himself in the mind of the distinguished American actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich). For fifteen minutes he gets to experience life as a famous thespian, before he is disgorged onto the side of a road just outside New York.

Craig and Maxine decide to make the most of their discovery, by selling tickets to Malkovich’s mind for $200 each (as you would). Needless to say, there are dozens of interested parties, and it looks like the pair of them have a good thing going – until Lottie discovers that occupying Malkovich allows her to live out her fantasies of being a man, and engages in a relationship with Maxine from within the actor. Malkovich himself becomes suspicious of the odd events happening around him, and decides to find out just what is going on…

These days, you look at Being John Malkovich and think, ‘aha, a Charlie Kaufman movie’, for the writer has gone on to carve out a unique furrow as a purveyor of existential strangeness in wildly original and blackly funny films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Anomalisa. It’s almost enough to make you suspect he has some kind of superpower when it comes to persuading A-list actors to appear in very, very strange films.

So it is with this one. If you haven’t seen it, you may be wondering how on Earth the film goes about selling the notion of a metaphysical portal into someone’s mind to the audience – well, it is a ridiculous idea, but Kaufman and Jonze make it work by setting the whole film in a ridiculous world. No-one in the film behaves entirely normally – Craig is forever getting punched in the face for putting on age-inappropriate puppet shows in the street, the LesterCorp receptionist appears to have some kind of bizarre problem with her hearing, and the company itself is on the Seventh-and-a-Half floor of its building, with the result that everyone has to go around stooped over all the time. Given that all the characters accept these various elements without questioning them in the slightest, the existence of the Malkovich portal seems relatively less weird when it first appears.

Not that this makes the presence of John Malkovich himself in the film any less astounding – getting him to participate at all is possibly its greatest achievement. ‘If the film is bad, my name’s not just above the title, it is the title,’ Malkovich reportedly complained to Jonze, ‘and if it’s any good, everyone’s just going to assume I am this character.’ It’s not even as if this is a particularly flattering depiction of Malkovich – there’s a running joke about how he is universally acclaimed as a great thespian, but none of the other characters can actually name any of the films he’s appeared in. The fictional Malkovich takes himself very seriously, too – which presumably the real one doesn’t, or he wouldn’t be anywhere near it (apparently the studio head would have preferred Being Tom Cruise, as well).

If you’re the kind of person who likes to try and guess what the theme of a film is before watching it, you would be forgiven for assuming that this is essentially a comedy about our contemporary obsession with fame – everyone gets their fifteen minutes of Malkovich, after all. And while this is a consistently funny film, if you come to it with the right attitude at least, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It may sound like a comedy, but it doesn’t behave like one – neither the performances nor the direction do anything to suggest that this is anything other than a straight drama, admittedly one with an outlandish element of fantasy, perhaps even of horror: after all, the plot resolves itself as ultimately being about a secret immortal who has hit upon a method of vastly extending his life by overpowering the free will of unsuspecting victims. Only the deadpan seriousness of the presentation makes it funny (an engaging paradox).

You can’t fault the film for its entertainment value, or endless inventiveness – as Roger Ebert said at the time, this is one of those incredibly rare films which is as surprising in its last thirty minutes as it is in its first. It is consistently funny, surprising, and… well, I’m not quite sure I’d call it thought-provoking, but it does delight in throwing strange ideas at the audience. The problem is that the price of this is that the film departs from any kind of recognisable dramatic structure – who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Just which way is this going to go? Bereft of any of the usual signposts or markers, my memory of this movie after my initial VHS encounter was one of a collection of wildly disparate individual bits rather than a coherent narrative, and I’m not sure meeting it again on DVD has done much to change that impression. A very well-made, very funny film, but a total oddity on nearly every level.

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Further extracts from The Lacklustre Film Blogger’s Guide to Behaving Badly at the Cinema:

June 10th, in the Earth Year 1997 – your correspondent and a bloke called Pete are leaving Huddersfield’s premier fleapit cinema, having just watched Luc Besson’s new sci-fi spectacular, The Fifth Element.

‘I really don’t know what to make of that,’ I said. ‘That was either one of the greatest, most imaginative films I’ve ever seen, or a massive load of poo.’

Pete considered this for about a quarter of a second. ‘Poo,’ he said.

I gave his answer equally careful appraisal. ‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ I said.

Earlier Today – and, despite my experience a couple of decades ago, I make it to the front of the queue for Luc Besson’s new sci-fi spectacular.

‘Hello. One for Valerian and the Unnecessarily Long Title, please.’

I have to hand it to the serving minions at the city centre multiplex, they’re getting quite used to this sort of thing, and I got my ticket with barely a raised eyebrow. I note that even the exhibitors agree with me on the name thing, for on the ticket it’s just called Valerian.

The full title is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and it is based on the long-running French SF comic strip Valerian and Laureline. As you might therefore expect, this is a distinctly pulp-SF influenced movie, all served up with the restraint, self-awareness, and iron narrative control that are the hallmarks of a Luc Besson movie (NB: irony is present).

The movie is set in the kind of universe where you expect everyone to have ‘Space’ in front of their job titles just to make it absolutely clear what’s going on. After some prefatory goings-on, we meet Space Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Space Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who are space government security agents. They are initially engaged in retrieving an extremely endangered space animal from the clutches of space gangsters in a very peculiar market, surrounded by space tourists, and things become a little awkward when Valerian gets his arm stuck in another dimension.

All this resolved, the duo head off to Alpha Station, which is basically the International Space Station, shoved off into deep space when it became too big and unwieldy (look, just go with it). Now it is the titular hub of galactic diplomacy and commerce, but a mysterious force is threatening to destroy it. Space Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), Valerian and Laureline’s space boss, has summoned them (and the space animal) as he thinks it may help in resolving the crisis. But before they can get anywhere, the meeting of top space brass comes under attack from mysterious aliens…

I feel I should go on record and reiterate that I am genuinely a fan of Luc Besson and his uniquely uninhibited style of film-making – whatever else you can say about the Besson canon, the movies themselves are rarely dull. That said, my experiences watching The Fifth Element, together with the fact that Valerian (I’m not typing that whole title every time) has already been declared a box ofice bomb in the States, did lead me to lower my expectations in this particular case. Was this justified? Well…

Actually, for the first few minutes I had real hopes that the States had got it wrong, for the opening sequence of Valerian is very nearly magical: Bowie plays on the soundtrack, and Besson moves from the manned space missions of the 1970s into a lavishly imagined future depicting the human race spreading out into the galaxy and befriending alien races. It’s rare to come across something so unashamedly optimistic in modern SF, and it’s quite charming.

However, from here we go to the alien CGI planet of Mul, where androgynous aliens do peculiar alien things while conversing in an alien language. All of this eventually turns out to be relevant to the plot, but while you’re watching it, it just seems like a lot of rather smug CGI aliens prancing about endlessly, and all that goodwill rapidly drains away.

The introduction of our two heroes doesn’t help much, and here I feel we must digress momentarily to issues of casting: Valerian appears to have been written as a loveable, wisecracking rogue, someone who on the face of things is a slightly dubious character, but who’s really a reliable and principled hero when the chips are down. The part is really crying out for someone like Guy Pearce – perhaps I’m thinking of him because his performance from the 2012 Besson movie Lockout would have been note-perfect here – or another actor who can do that effortless, tough guy charisma. Instead, they have cast Dane DeHaan, a capable actor but one whose most distinctive quality is that he always gives the impression he’s in dire need of a nice hot meal and a long lie down.

On the other hand, one of the notable things about Valerian is that it reveals Cara Delevingne to be a rather engaging screen presence – she shows every sign of being able to act a bit, unlike many other MTAs, and (obviously) the camera seems very fond of her, especially when she’s working with the right hair and costume people. Just goes to show you shouldn’t judge anyone on the strength of their contribution to Suicide Squad, I guess, and given she’s at least as integral to the action as DeHaan’s character, I wonder why the whole movie isn’t called Valerian and Laureline? Hey ho.

That said, DeHaan and Delevingne are not noticeably gifted with chemistry when they’re sharing the screen, which is a problem as many of their scenes revolve around Valerian’s somewhat febrile eagerness to take their relationship to the next level, and her problematic reluctance (I guess rank has lost some of its privileges in the future). Lack of chemistry, a shortage of snap in the supposedly snappy dialogue, and the fact that the two experienced space security agents seem to be characterised as snarky Millennials meant that it took me a long time to warm up to the duo.

In the end, what successes the film has are largely down to its visual imagination – this is a vast, whimsical galaxy that isn’t obviously derived from any single source, although there are obviously touches of the stellar conflict franchise, Flash Gordon, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sprinkled across it. It all looks very lavish and vibrant, even in 2D, but if you have an issue with endless CGI characters and backgrounds this is not the movie for you. There is lots of creative imagery and some inventively silly high-tech weaponry on display.

How much you enjoy Valerian will probably boil down to your ability to just lie back and enjoy the look and feel of the thing, while ignoring the many and serious issues with the plot and scripting. I’ve been assimilating every book on story structure I can lay my grubby little protuberances on recently, so perhaps I’m over-sensitive to this kind of thing, but given Luc Besson is credited with writing nearly fifty movies, Valerian is strikingly shoddy and haphazard in the script department. The plot is about trying to stop the destruction of an imaginary place we don’t know much about by an abstract force, the hero seems more concerned with his love life than any weightier concerns, and there are vast rambling detours away from the main plot – a major, lengthy sequence featuring Ethan Hawke as a space pimp and Rihanna as a shape-shifting space pole dancer could be totally excised without materially affecting the actual story of the film.

People have a go at the stellar conflict prequel movies for focusing on CGI and spectacle over actually having a coherent narrative, but only at their very worst are they quite as self-indulgent and lacking in focus as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Now, I like this kind of sci-fi (I’m on record as preferring the prequel trilogy to the recent Disney-Abrams stellar conflict offering), but even so I find it quite hard to say anything especially positive about Valerian beyond vaguely praising its incidental imagination, and of course Cara Delevingne’s hair. I’m not sure any audience will be quite captivated by the film’s impressive visuals sufficiently to overlook its serious shortcomings in the storytelling department.

 

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