Encounters at the End of The World

Werner Herzog documentary, about life at an Antarctic station, makes the sweeping polar landscapes look eerie and the people he meets even stranger.

McMurdo station has a population of 1000; made up of scientists, forklift drivers, computer techs and a penguin analyst, all of whom are really philosophers and dreamers masquerading as professionals. These travellers all agree that meeting at the South Pole seems to have been build into their destiny, the logical conclusion to years of trekking the globe looking for answers to life.

The station is clinical, climate controlled and complete with Frosty Boy ice-cream machine, much to Herzog’s disgust. But the home comforts and practical necessities of living in the frozen landscape of Antarctica don’t seem to distract those living there as to why they chose to be there. Almost everyone is studying an area of pole life; penguins, active volcanoes (more accessible than the Congo due to political unrest), icebergs the size of Texas or the amoebas existing under the 12ft thick ice they stand on.

Peter Zeitlinger’s photography creates beautiful, almost space like imagery of the ice-frosted landscape. The underwater world of swimming clams, strange phosphorus creatures and shy, tentacled fish glimmers in the lights from the divers in this dark, undiscovered Atlantis. Then there’s the Volcanoes, it’s contrasting fiery heat, spews gases and steam from its icy crater. These steam vents over the years have created a Labyrinth of tunnels to explore, carving up the ice under the scientist’s feet, leading the cameras through like mice in a run.

I loved this film, Herzog’s commentary is dry and witty as usual but with acute observations. Like all good films the mystery to his question “do penguins ever go mad, get fed up and feel like they just want to leave the colony” seem perplexing at first, (after all this was not “another film about penguins” as Herzog states at the beginning), but are answered later in the film leaving the viewer with a haunting image of life for one penguin. However combined with the beautiful imagery, the individuals he speaks to seem blissfully at peace with the landscape and state of mind quite enviable to those sat in an urban city centre cinema.

Best scene: under the ice diving, the deep walls of ice which appear around the magical Antarctic creatures.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

The Fountain (2006) Sci-fi religious fun

A film which is 484 on Empire’s list of 500 Greatest Films you’d think, even for it’s low rank, might have achieved more widespread acknowledgement, but having bought Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 sci-fi adventure for £3 this weekend, no-one I’ve spoken to seems to have heard of it. To be fair neither had I, but for £3 I thought it was worth a watch.

Originally, The Fountain started filming in 2002 with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett on a huge studio funded budget, which was slashed and the project abandoned when Aronofsky wouldn’t incorporate Pitt’s script amends. Production started again in 2005 with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz as the leads and a severely reduced budget – all of which promoted a creative flair for effects without (refreshingly) the need for CGI.

The Fountain follows three interwoven narratives that take place in the age of conquistadors, the modern-day period, and the far future. Jackman’s character is a futuristic astronaut, a modern day research scientist and Spanish conquistador, who journey’s through time attempting to stop the fate of his beloved “Izzi”. The film discusses themes of life, rebirth, mortality and our eternal relationships.

Aronofsky uses a quote from Genesis to start The Fountain making clear reference to the two trees in the garden of Eden; the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. The latter was hidden and protected after the fall of man. The fall of man separated man from maker with “death” ultimately being what makes us unique as only we can experience it and it is the force which re-unites us with our maker.

Jackman’s character as the conquistador literally seeks the Tree of Life out of the Guatemalan Mayan pyramids and jungles. As a scientist, he desperately seeks the scientific knowledge to “cure” death, treating it like “any other disease”. It’s only as the yoga-practising, futuristic astronaut, haunted by visions of Izzi, that he accepts that death is the only way to be re-united with both maker and his eternal love. Ironically as an astronaut he travels with a tree, similar to the Tree of Life in the Mayan temple, which dies moments before he chooses his fatal ending.

There is a precise and calculated use of repeated imagery throughout The Fountain: the stars hanging in the distance space behind the orb-space craft, the hanging candles of the Spanish palace and the astrological research Izzi delights in at the lab all show a hidden agenda between showing the relationship between light and dark: life and death. The use of light is also part of the physical presence of the actors with Jackman existing in the shadows and Izzi highlighted and pinpointed by shards of light (in the snow filled doorway, in the museum sunbeam, in the palace throne) to further separate the two lovers.

The film ends as Xibalba (the dying star of the Mayan underworld) collapses and supernovas destroying and scattering the astronaut’s body into the dead tree rejuvenating it. In the present day the scientist is seen planting a tree seed over Izzi's grave, symbolising his acceptance of his wife's death. At the same moment, in the sky above, we see Xibalba's supernova event.

The Fountain is difficult to get into, this is coming from someone who loves films which don’t offer easy or obvious narratives, so you can understand my point. The narrative feels too jarred to seamlessly interweave the three stories. The use of imagery and effects is impressive, especially for the creative alternatives to CGI, but the cinematography of the film is a bit overbearing at times.

I get that we are steadily taken from darkness into light, it’s just that that dichotomy is too broken by having to switch from the dark and light parts of the story. The visual style obviously has to be sacrificed in order to interweave the narrative, otherwise it would be very boring, predictable and linear. It’s just the conquistador’s Mayan adventure is sooo dark and the supernova moment with the astronaut is sooo light that’s it’s unpleasantly obvious.

I love the idea that Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchet were almost the lead roles, it seems impossible they would have been appropriate after watching Jackman and Weisz. Blanchet I think would have been too ethereal and mysterious (too tempting to slip into ‘Galadrial’ I suspect) for the role of Izzi - this would have made it so much harder to relate to her as real, dying person. Pitt, even though I think he’s a credible actor, wouldn’t have managed the broody, dark persona that Jackman seems to so easily create. Not that Jackman turns into a pseudo Wolverine, far from it, there are glimmers of genuine vulnerability and innocence in his performance, I think it’s more his onscreen, physically presence is far more suited than Pitt’s.

Best scene: Hugh Jackman entering Xibalba and his body pouring away like sand, it reminded me of ‘Sunshine’ and is a mind-etchingly vibrant moment in the film.

Score: 3.5 out of 5, very interesting to try and work it out and lots of great acting, just not sure I got the point of it without the help of the Internet.

Digital Lynch: The end?

After Mulholland Drive (2001) Lynch is “done” with film. Celluloid is slow, big, cumbersome, disjointed, scratched, and “ancient technology” so Lynch decides to tackle his latest shiny, new toy and is like a puppy at Christmas with the idea of digital film making. Digital, in contrast, is lightweight, smooth, fast there is an immediacy which is almost addictive, instant editing, autofocus all allows for the full artist's freedom from the clunky technical requirements of celluloid.

For Lynch you can see why this is so important, the ability to zoom in close to a scene (without the constraints of a boom operator, grips, camera men) the financial freedom of knowing a scene can keep going without the audio whirl of money being spent (celluloid films are expensive which is why we can “thank” digital for making programmes like Big Brother financially viable.). The organic nature of digital seems to fit Lynch’s creative vision so well, if a director can keep focused on a scene, keep seeing what is unveiled from the actors, the subtle changes in pace, emotion or tension then the end result will surely be better. There’s no one likes to dwell on a scene more than Lynch, his love of “quiet” space to jar so aggressively against “loud” space in his films is unique and as a auteur it’s almost what defines him.

Digital production

So as we’ve established digital production allows for self indulgence. With whizzy cameras and the right editing software digital film-making has been blown open to the masses, allowing everyone to edit, prepare and distribute at a click of a button their film to a potential audience of millions with little cost. For Lynch, this means two fingers to the studios who for so many years tried to control his vision, making it available to the masses, but on their commercial terms. As an auteur Lynch in a digital world is completely free and don’t we know it.

Inland Empire is a film you can appreciate but not love, easy to respect as an experiment, hard to sit through. Without the outside perspective of a studio boss, Lynch’s freedom runs wild, his love of fractured identities, disjointed stories (Twin Peaks style) takes on an existentialist quality of its own, leaving even hardcore Lynch fans somewhat hungering for closure on at least one storyline.

Much like Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire started out as an experiment, a series of monologues with leading lady and Lynch favourite Laura Dern. Fragments which become feature.

Digital quality

What is lost with digital? The compressed nature of digital files means that the “warmth” of film has been coldly wiped away, one megapixel at a time. The richness that comes from analogue distortions has been replaced with cold technical silence (there’s no background click, buzz or whir or the camera in those “silent” moments). As an audience we de-value digital – it misses the “luxury” quality we associate with celluloid – we like our TV to look like film afterall (Sopranos, ER etc)

Digital distribution

With little cost involved with production, surely digital ensures a healthy profit when it comes to distribution? Inland Empire was distributed by Lynch but as with all new technologies not all cinema’s had caught up with the digital trend and as such as limited ways to show the film. Using the Internet to launch the marketing, Lynch has used viral, communities and blogs to his advantage to gather the force of hardcore fans to leave their home comforts and head for the cinema. But why? A digitally produced movie, using digital components to edit, produce and add a digital soundtrack, using digital mediums to drive traffic and interest and then ask people to leave their digital arena and watch it in a cinema? A holistic effort gone too far. These digital fans were already with Lynch, they were sat there waiting for the film, in an instant he could have uploaded the movie and in another instant millions could have seen it.

Digital reception

Nope. This is not how Lynch wants you to see the film. He’s old school at heart. The tiny nuances of his soundtracks, his imagery, his cinematography, the painstakingly hand-carved film sets are not there to be viewed on your MP3 or PC. Hell no. This is a “putrified, false” experience according to Lynch.

The freedom of digital comes with a price. Death of the auteur, in a digital world a director has even less freedom to control how people view his work. What makes movies great is the tension between artistic freedom and business between culture/ industry. Let’s face it, a I pod with great headphones will probably let you hear those tiny nuances better than an old cinema with fading Dolby surround sound.

The question is now, is Lynch done with film? Will he next turn full circle and with the artistic and financial freedom of digital return to “moving pictures” will the artistic ambitions of youth finally be realised?

Angels and Demons - No 'Thrills' Value

Well, there certainly was no mystery with Ron Howard’s latest film, the sequel to the Davinci Code, Angels and Demons. Tom Hanks returns as the professor Robert Langdon and we’re introduced to him gracefully powering the lengths of the Harvard sports swimming pool. Quite rightly Audrey Tatou thought it wise to give this sequel a miss.

The story kicks off with a gruesome murder of a research scientist in Grenoble, who, oh yeah that’s right, happens to be a catholic priest (of course). The Vatican Police are sent to investigate and are send a warning by the Catholic Church’s old enemies, The Illuminate. With scary warning letter in hand, the Vatican Police track down professor Robert Langdon to help them stop find four missing cardinals, the “prefferati” to replace the recently deceased Pope.

Ron Howard has a strange relationship with the audience in Angels and Demons - in one hand he assumes you’ve read the book, or at least seen the DaVinci code. In one hand Howard offers little background about Langdon, and why he seems so motivated to help the Vatican Police and in the other hand he uses the other characters around him as tedious plot devices, asking obvious and boring questions to sum up or move on the plot. Yawn. It’s a good job every other character in Angels and Demons is an idiot, incapable of working out the most obvious of clues, otherwise Hanks would have had nothing to say. What an appalling script. Even the moronic, lowest common denominator of Blockbuster filmgoer would have been screaming the obvious at the screen.

The pace of the narrative is the same; it takes the same amount of time to kill each cardinal and in cinema terms that makes for a dull 40 minutes as you drearily watch Langdon prance about the Vatican City. For a thriller this was poor. You don’t care what happens to the Cardinals, you just want the film to end.

The Church really had no reason to boycott Angels and Demons, or ban Howard and his chums from filming in any Italian churches, as no one should waste two hours of their life sitting through this drivel. Christianity is (unusually) not given a beating, and in fact Howard (through Brown’s book) seems to advocate there is an easy way to reach an understanding between religion and science. How nice and easy. Nuclear science is now proving the existence of God? Not sure everyone would agree.

The worst part is that this film has two brilliant actors in the lead roles, Ewan McGregor and Tom Hanks, so you know that the reason they come across as blank, dull, monosyllabic morons is because the script is so poor. Agh, very frustrating. The best part is how amazing, romantic, impressive, over bearing and awe inspiring Vatican City looks. I think I will be definitely booking a holiday as soon as the credit crunch clears!

Best scene: McGregor as the skydiving hero priest, less ridiculous than the book made it seem, but still absolute comedy.

Score: 1 out of 5 for the cinematography

Blue Velvet - Modern Folklore 2

This week we had a deep dive into the world of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. As a mere film geek and not ‘buff’ my understanding is somewhat limited, so I was keen to see what the other geeks on my course thought – and especially what our course leader, Jake, thought.

Jake explained that after the success/failure of Dune Lynch was willing to take a substantial pay cut to have full creative control over Blue Velvet (1986) and this film ultimately became the first full narrative. Lynch’s “final cut” demands were not written into the contract, just to secure the studio control over future directors, but the studio boss was happy to shake on it and a gentleman’s agreement was made.

Here’s what the others thought about Blue Velvet:

Blue Velvet is Jeffrey’s dream – the narrative starts by entering the severed, grotesque ear where the audience descends into the dreamlike, psychological world of Jeffrey, where the other characters “act out” Jeffrey’s deepest, darkest desires, the narrative then ends with the camera panning out of his ear.

This theory does explain some of the stinted melodrama, the unreal reactions from people and the calm way in which Jeffrey paces through the events of the film, it also explains the nightmarish, surreal moments with Ben (Dean Stockwell). It also helps define the over male desire, the whore/angel representation of women and the Freudian scenes with Frank and Dorothy. However, the film’s overly kitsch, Americana ending is outside of the dream, the narrative has left the ear. Does this suggest that the outside world is more artificial than the truth we find in our dreams? Maybe.

Product placements – Heinekken or Budweiser? Joke or paid product placement? With Lynch, unlikely to be the latter. This discussion of the everyday, the normal products Joe Public enjoys paved a new “Lynchian tone” which others like Tarrantino developed – Pulp Fiction, gangsters discussing the merits of cheeseburgers while on a killing spree.

It’s a “joy ride” of a film – the phrase Frank delights in screaming at Jeffrey whilst at Ben’s place is one way to describe the emotional registers within the film. Starts out as a kind of Nancy Drew teen mystery drama, but as soon as Jeffrey witnesses Frank and Dorothy in the apartment Lynch pulls the carpet from under the audience. Jeffrey’s disbelieve and un-real “calm” is delayed shock, things have escalated so far out of control Jeffrey is now the voice of the audience. The scenes swing rapidly from the horrific to the comic to the sexual.

Post modern director – the 70s TV cop show references with the car chases, the hub caps spinning away, the melodrama point to Lynch being a post modern director, drawing more inspiration from television rather than cinema history.

Love story – for Jeffrey the “love interest” is one woman split into two personalities, played by two women (another Lynchian tone, see Mulholland Drive for doubles) The two women merge into one love when Dorothy shows up naked, beaten and vulnerable at Sandy’s house. The sexual dominator is cast to damsel in distress and his innocent; girl next door is now the object of his adult feelings of true love. Frank is a sentimentalist (arguably) he coverts the small piece of velvet from Dorothy’s coat, he cries as she sings her songs. Frank is a man so in love he has no other way to handle these over powering emotions than through violence. As he turns to Jeffrey he shouts, “you’re just like me” where in turn Jeffrey punches him, fulfilling the circle and becoming like Frank – he has already changed from innocent bystander to aggressive lover (already consenting to hit Dorothy during intercourse).

Fantasy – Frank acts out his fantasies, it’s mechanistic, the bourbon, the dark, “it has to be dark”, the robe, the lipstick and the music. Frank puts these things in place to start the fantasy. This view leads the audience to suspect he may have raped Jeffrey during the “joy ride scene” as these fantasy elements are slowly put into place. Whose fantasy is this? Jeffrey’s voyeur fantasy? Dorothy’s domination fantasy? Frank’s fantasy of masochism and who does the audience identify with? Or this Lynch’s fantasy to pull the audience into this world, to provoke a reaction from them, to start a debate, to make you watch the darker side of society?

Violence – Jeffrey’s moral code is rejected with shockingly quick speed – he goes from out right, offended objection to hitting Dorothy to violently striking her in a matter of narrative minutes, the moment he loses his innocence the screen fills with flames and the audience is thrust into this troubling life of Jeffrey. Lynch’s idea is to make the audience focus on this horrifying violence, if you were to have no reaction to these disturbing scenes then you’re the disturbing aspect of society. Lynch is not like Scorsese who casually passes over violence towards women, he in contrast makes the audience dwell, focus, become involved with the violence (through us identifying with Jeffrey).

Exploiting the audience – could have been a fair reaction from 1980s audiences used to slasher horror movies, entirely there to exploit, scare and shock the audience. An 80s audience could have assumed Blue Velvet was a post modern way for Lynch to exploit, scare and shock his audience – but this doesn’t ring true, the violence is not graphic, Lynch is asking the audience to think, to be engaged by the unsettling aspects of this film, not merely exploit the emotions temporarily. The disturbing part of the film is not the violence, it’s the un-natural fragmentation, and it’s inglorious portrayal of nudity, the tender innocence behind monstrous characters.

The Unloved (2009) – No charitable heroes in Nottingham

Last night I watched the much anticipated, feature length directorial debut from Samantha Morton, “The Unloved”. Set in Nottingham the film is a semi-autobiographical depiction of life in a care home. The protagonist is the quiet and “and risk” Lucy, who, rejected by her Mother and beaten by her Father is forced to become a ward of the state. Her gentle manner is at stark odds to the frantic, loud and volatile world of the care home and it’s troubled inhabitants.

Being a current resident of Nottingham it was distracting to see so many landmarks slipped into the film, but brilliant to see this city as it really is, not some Robin Hood tourist attraction. What makes The Unloved original is the uncompromised approach Morton has taken, there are long drawn out scenes with little action, movement or dialogue with just an ethereal soundtrack gently surrounding the images on screen – a technique which would have surely been cut if The Unloved was for a mass cinema audience. It seems to suggest that Lucy has her own private dream world, a place of tranquillity to escape to, an ability to shut out the world around her, even though the situation is bleak. Also, The Unloved only shows Lucy’s perspective, there’s no attempt to show the scenes from another’s point of view.

Lucy’s social worker is cold and distant, shuffling paper work, having temporarily been unavailable for Lucy due to “the office not paying mileage” she offers only adult ‘management speak’ answers to a confused and saddened Lucy. The care home workers are an equally troubled bunch, a set of poor role models for the vulnerable children housed there. Lucy often leaves the home to wander the streets of Nottingham for hours and there seems to be little in place to stop her.

‘Lauren’ Lucy’s older room mate is there to open the audience’s eye to why those mouthy kids you see in shopping centres are like they are. At 16, time is running out for Lauren and the care she will receive from the state, well known to the local police is seems as though her fate is sealed, especially when Lucy catches her abusing substances. Lauren’s lover is the care home manager, though their ‘romance’ seems one sided. Night time sexual encounters are not always enthusiastically met and Lucy has to hide from Lauren’s objections under the covers.

The Unloved culminates in the care home’s Christmas party, a drunken bonfire rave, with kids of all ages necking back the WKDs and revelling like a 90s Prodigy concert. The care home staff start a fight, revealing their own inadequacies and intolerances, one shouting “I don’t give a shit about this job” and accusing the care home manager of underage sex with Lauren. Lucy is left to witness this violent scene from the sidelines - suddenly her bleak home life with her parents seems a far more appealing option.

Best scene: Lucy seeking solace and comfort by wandering the streets of Nottingham - seeing a deer in the cemetery and the leaves dance in The Park Tunnel.

Star Trek (2009) a humorous homage

Last night I experienced the first of what I expect will be a summer filled with Hollywood blockbusters and it wasn’t a disappointment. For someone who’s not the biggest Sci-Fi fan (I didn’t watch Star Wars until I was 18, and that was voluntary) it was an enjoyable, easy and entertaining film. My understanding of the original television series is vague to say the least and, admittedly, has been formed though cultural references rather than watching the show itself (I owe The Simpsons for that) but I still managed to pick up on the odd joke, or wink to the original fan base, the film makes. The best being Spok the younger, meeting Spok the elder and being informed that his previously said, and usual farewell would seem “oddly self serving” – which in turn let the film continue to live long and prosper. There was no “beam me up Scotty” but I have a suspicion that a Trekkie could tell me this is a classic misquote and was never mentioned in the original show, so perhaps why it was omitted, or maybe it would have been one sound bite too far.

There are some interesting twists to the usual formulaic approach blockbusters take, the most notable being that it’s Spok who gets the girl and not the dashing action hero, Kirk. Hot girls like logic, clearly. There were no overbearing or endless action scenes, the pace of the narrative was engaging moving the plot along at the right speed to keep interest but not complicate things.

It’s a pretty basic story line man destroys planet by accident, war lord seeks revenge, the bad guys die, the good guy gets the girl, but with a sufficiently odd twist to keep interest. Time, space, continuum for a mass-market - Stephen Hawkins must be spewing. But the cinematography is spectacular if not limited. There is the slick, clinical hustle of the Starship Enterprise set against the jarred, industrial bleakness of the warlord, Nero’s ship. The space scenes are restricted to beautiful stand offs between the two ships, to sinister, creeping black holes to supernova and warp speed whizzery. I liked the fact that this was the first Sci-Fi I’ve seen which seemed to keep space localised.

I also liked the way the “future” was portrayed – Star Trek’s original 60s costume department was given a modern re-vamp but essential stayed the same, as did the hair and 60s flick’s make up for the women. The opening sequence sees Kirk driving an “antique” mustang being chased by a cross between Robocop and the Terminator. There’s shamelessly no explanation of how this car could have survived 2000 years of rust or where the petrol came from to run it, but I think that’s why it works, the “future” seems oddly real, which is essential if you’re going to engage with the narrative.

To boldly go? Definitely, worth a watch and without the big screen the effect could be lost.

Best scene: Skydiving to the top of the drill, Kirk and companions battle atop a blazing piece of planet destroying kit.

Blue Velvet - Modern Folklore

As part of the David Lynch course at the Broadway, last night I had the pleasure of watching Blue Velvet on the big screen. The pre-screening talk was excellent and highlighted the ways in which this film could be viewed. Jake Smith who is hosting this course introduced the idea of Blue Velvet being a modern folklore – a fairy tale for adults. He revealed the horrifying truth that the original Little Red Riding Hood saw the innocent young girl not only being tricked into drinking the blood of her dead grandmother, but also being forced to strip naked to “feel the touch of the wolf’s” skin before being devoured herself. I could see why the brother’s Grimm felt the need to smarten it up for a middle class audience - bedtime stories might not have had such a comforting effect otherwise.

Blue Velvet certainly shows an uncomfortable portrayal of modern life (well, 80s American suburbia) and the dark underside of society that bubbles beneath the surface of white picket fences and immaculate lawns. The infamous line from Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLaughlin) “why are there people like Frank in the world” has split critics to ask if this is ironic or not? Is this a desperate plea from a young man who has lost his innocence or just postmodern irony? It’s hard to tell to be honest.

It’s a pretty straightforward film for Lynch, the narrative is pretty linear, there’s a beginning, middle and end, which is perhaps why it received so much critical and cult acclaim, despite the content, it’s a very accessible film.

I felt this was a film about the loss of innocence, a young boy, Jeffrey, is forced to “man up” in several obvious and some unobvious ways. The first is his loss of child like freedom: Jeffrey’s father is left incapacitated after a presumed heart attack, so he takes the reins of the family business and begins to experience respect and power for the first time. Finding an ear in his neighbourhood he feels emboldened by his new experiences to solve the mystery behind this horrifying treasure.

The second his is loss of sexual innocence: Dorothy Vallens (isobella Rossellini) catches Jeffrey spying at her apartment; mistaking his detective intentions as voyeurism she becomes sexually aggressive and fellates Jeffery at knifepoint. This experience is immediately followed by Jeffrey being forced, out of circumstance, to watch Frank (Dennis Hopper) sexually abuse Dorothy Vallens (Isobella Rosellini). Like a child hearing the unsettling creaks and groans of parents in a distant room, Lynch magnifies this child-like experience of sexual revelation to the same disturbing experience for adults. How very Freudian.

The third is his exposure to a world outside his own: Frank kidnaps Jeffrey for a “joyride” through the dark streets of Lumberton. Frank’s home becomes a macabre, fabricated commercial in contrast to the “real world” – a bit like Tim Burton’s ‘perfect’ town in Edward Scissorhands which politely ignores the gothic horror which is built at the end of the road. His known world falls about him as he realises what

The film has been criticised for portraying violence against women, but I found this film difficult to take offence at. The violence is administered by Frank, a man with some serious Freudian hang ups about his mother and a drug addled maniac, it’s not surprising he’s violent towards women. Also, I don’t genuinely believe Dorothy enjoys the violence in any sexual manner, it seemed rather she had been programmed to expect this from men – though that could be wishful thinking as there’s no indication what her husband is like.

Dorothy and Sandy (Laura Dern) are such one sided characters that it’s hard to empathise or criticize them. It’s an all too obvious, dark-seductive-older- woman versus light-innocent-girl-next-door scenario. I guess they represent the two sides of male sexual desire – a fantasy of the bedroom and a saint – and it’s written and filmed from such a male gaze that it’s hard to see they’re real people at all – for example, Sandy cries melodramatically into the phone that she forgives Jeffrey for sleeping with Dorothy because she loves him. Please, what a male fantasy.

Visually it’s stunning, a modern twist on film noir. The soundtrack shows signs of classic Lynchian techniques – mechanical noises, the unsettling use of silence – and the theme song by Roy Orbison doesn’t seem to leave a scene. As a modern fairytale for adults I’m not sure what the moral of the story is, but I can guarantee that you won’t be able to easily get this film or “Blue Velvet” out of your mind for days afterwards.

Best scene: Ben, (Dean Stockwell – Al from Quantum Leap!), Frank’s partner in crime, lip-syncs a performance of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" into a lamp in a full face of make up.

State of Play

oops, been a while since my last post, but with holidays and the lack of interesting films at the cinema I seem to avoided venturing out of the house to the local movie theatres. Anywho, having a Wednesday afternoon free I decided to hang out with the elderly and watch a film at 2.30pm in the afternoon. The film of choice? State of Play, the Hollywood adaptation of the successful BBC TV series.

Overall I felt this film was about as entertaining as a BBC drama series (I mean that in a positive way) but I just didn't feel it pulled off the "Thriller" (with a capital T) in the way that other political thrillers have done previously. I still don't really know why. The soundtrack has a suitable amount of high strings and pounding, ominous bass lines to heighten a sense of dred (particularly in the car park scene), the acting is solid though not exceptional and the cinematography diverse getting the 'gritty' underside of Washington to contrast well with the slick, polished corridors of Capitol Hill.

I guess I just couldn't quite marry the idea of Russel Crowe (who plays lead investigative journalist Cal McAffey) being 'old college buddies' with Ben Affleck (who plays Senetor Stephen Collins) i don't think it was a miss casting as both actors played thier roles extremely well. I already think Afflect is slick, so playing a politician seemed perfectly appropriate, but a polician who used to be a millitary hero? No, that's just Hollywood farce - perhaps an attempt to give some credibility to their heavily criticised previous government official? Who knows, even though it was vaguely important to the plot (the evil private security firm Point Corp ruined his army buddies) but it seemed ridiculous.

Also, the whole, you're-out-of-date-stick-in-the-mus-I'm-new-hip-exciting-blogger idea didn't really work for me. Rachel McAdams is pretty good at playing the Washington Globe's sassy, young internet blogger, Della Frye, but it's just to obvious a set up between her and Crowe's character. Yes, yes we get it old school journalism has little respect for opinionated blogging, and vice vera. But what's this, they are working together? Overcoming thier lack of understanding of each other's disicplines.. and what's this, they've produced a fantastic piece of joint journalism which, my goodness, they are jointly taking credit for. Well, as a writer, and working with many other, far better, more successful writers too, I find it hard to believe that it would be a joint effort. In my experience there would only be one name printed next to that title, and it sure wouldn't have been the blogger's. What a predictable and sappy resolution to that little conflict.

Helen Mirren is an interesting character too, but I felt she was an American's idea of a British female editor. Throwing around phrases like "tosser" and "bugger off" just sound a bit contrived to me. I think it was a lost opportunity as Mirren is an excellent actress, but the script was going to do her no favours.

Overall, I was unsure who were the police in this investigative thriller film? The Washington police seemed to be the distant parents who would stride into the Washington Globe's office and give McAffrey and his team a slap on the wrist for withholding evidence, and yet it is the newspaper who solve the riddle? Odd. But maybe that's how investigative journalists work, having the freedom to take an unorthodox route to finding information that the Police are restricted to follow.

State of Play opens with a double shooting in the dark, g'rimey back streets of Washington. Cal McAffrey arrives on the scene to start another day's work investigating the murder of one and the injury of the other party. Sonia Baker is congressional aide to Senetor Collins and Della is tasked to tune her detective skills and investigate her apparant suicide. All three murders are linked to private security firm Point Corp and there seems an imminate threat to the credibility of Senetor Collins. As Collins friend, McAffrey sets out to clear his friend's name and secure a front page story and along the way stumbles into a huge government conspiracy (of course).

Best Scene: the opening scene where a young man chases through the streets of Washington, to hide, desperate and panting in the bins of an underpass. Bang bang you're dead.

Overall: 3 out 5, definetly entertaining

Robin Hood – Sneak Peak

Love it, Ridley Scott is bringing my (present) home town hero to live on the big screen again, and who better to play the tough man in tights but Russel Crowe. Yes, Robin Hood is re-visited for cinema entertainment as “Nottingham”. Judging from the picture’s released the other day it won’t be a modern day tale (no drunken hen do’s to rescue from market square, no taxes to take from the offshore tax dodging rich residents of The Park, and no depiction of the all too sad reality that Sherwood Forest is just a field in north Nottingham).

The BBC today has posted an interesting feature about this country’s obsession with this midland’s legend. With Alistair Darlings budget being deemed to be “taking from the rich to give to the poor” I’m guessing it’s a theme that’s still a hot topic today. You can read it here http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8013179.stm

Week 2 Lynchian Tone

David Lynch spent his childhood being raised in several towns across the Pacific Northwest and North Carolina, with an occasional visit to his grandparents in Brooklyn, New York. As a student he spent a portion of his early adult life in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. This odd combination of small town America and industrial metropolis may well have influenced his work, and seems to be a good place to try and figure out what the “Lynchian tone” is.

Lynch was an Eagle Scout and occasionally joined his father, who was a US Department of Agriculture scientist on research trips. As an artist, Lynch would fuse the biological textures of the real world with his work, incorporating dead flies, moths and even a dead mouse into his paintings. After a successful art show where his animated film entitled “Six Men Getting Sick” (1966) received critical praise Lynch acquired funding to produce “the Alphabet”.

The Alphabet is a nightmarish short film about the fear of learning - the sin of knowledge that leads to corruption and the destruction of innocence. As a painter and photographer Lynch seems to have slipped into film making as a way to bring images to life - his first films had no dialogue and used unique soundtracks to express emotions - he’s also consistently reluctant to offer explanations of his films and to put his thoughts on paper. Hmmm …

The Grandmother (1970), his first funded film was produced from a $5,000 grant from the newly formed American Film Institute. This might be a good place to see what the ‘Lynchian tone’ is. Well, not being an expert I didn’t know, so I rely on what the tutor told us. “The Grandmother” is grotesque, surreal and sentimental – a narrative theme which is repeated in some of Lynch’s later work, it is also the first chance to hear the work of Alan Splet, the sound technician Lynch has worked with on many films. The film (again) has no narrative and relies on the score to set the nightmarish atmosphere. Splet uses natural sounds like thunderstorms while the boy ‘grows’ the grandma and distorted dog barks for the parents.

The boy is dressed in a suit, and stands isolated against his possessions in rooms with black walls. It’s surreal; it makes the characters look disconnected and their white faces look dream-like and stark in contrast. The boy’s suit serves to further disconnect him from his animal-like parents and also illustrate the formality of Middle American society. I think Lynch is hinting that the surreal infiltrates the normal; the subconscious lives with the conscious and we live in a world where dreams and reality are seamlessly merged.

I think this idea of inner/outer psychological experience is best expressed in the Terry Gilliam style animations Lynch intersects with the film. The animations tell the same story, but as a different media, they represent imagination or subconscious. In later films Lynch moves away from film/ animation to show this and works towards film/ film and even further with dual characters (Betty/ Diane in Mulholland drive). Mulholland Drive I think shows perfectly how conscious and subconscious lives together and are one way the ‘Lynchian tone’ resonates in his work.

The animation also suggests that all the characters were ‘grown’ in the same way the grandmother was. It highlights Lynches themes of the natural and artificial world merging – an idea Lynch illustrated in his paintings. He seems pre-occupied with the biology of birth, of botanic things ‘oozing’ and dripping and this is a theme we see in grotesque detail in the infamous midnight movie, “Eraserhead” (1976).

Lynch’s work has been described here as “uncanny”, “surreal” and “grotesque” where his nightmarish images are perfectly matched to a sweeping sound scape designs. The ‘uncanny’ is the best way to sum up Lynch’s work – this Freudian idea explains why everything we see makes us feel uncomfortable - it is darkly familiar, it awakens primeval, repressed memories, in other words, the inner hidden voice is given a very visible outer amplifier. Inner/ outer, repressed/ expressed, dreamed/ experienced, nature/manmade – there is a duality in Lynch’s work and this can be seen as the “Lynchian tone” in my mind.

Auteur Theory: David Lynch

What is an auteur? Well blame the French for this. Cinema critics of the 1950s were tired of the conveyer belt approach that studio directors had taken towards filmmaking. There were no distinguishable characteristics by each director - just formulaic, commercial pap which was churned out time and time again.

Auteur critics wanted a new wave of cinema and argued the camera should be an instrument for art, just as the brush is for the artist. As a instrument, the camera should provide artistic integrity; the auteur should demonstrate technical mastery, a distinguished personality and provoke an interior meaning to their work. As such a group of select auteur directors deemed to meet these standards were born: Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and in recent times Kubrick, Lynch, Tarrantino and Wes Anderson.

This might seem strange to today’s cinema audiences, after all many film lovers could name their favourite director - suggesting that most films have a distinct look and feel. But a director like Stephen Spielberg is not an auteur (debatable) - even though his work is distinct and has repeated themes it arguably does not stir an interior meaning. Also, his work is commercial successful suggesting a popularist approach to filmmaking and a willingness to be influenced by the financial ambitions of the studio. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spielberg films, I’m just playing devils advocate.

An auteur might be a critic’s dream, but what are the limitations? Withstanding artistic integrity and vision in an industry which inherently relies on a team (sometimes an army) of people to produce. Keeping their unique stamp on the finished work without turning out the same old recognisable tricks. And finally, the medium. Producing a cinematic masterpiece is reliant on the theatre – the sound system, the oversized screen, the darkness, and the all-encompassing sensory experience. Once taken into the home, arguably, the film is no longer the work of an auteur.

Critics seem to deem the cinema as the pinnacle and playground of auteur work, and assign only directors to be worthy of this title (not producers or cinematographers) so can TV create auteurs who are producers? Or is this a ‘lesser’ medium not worthy of true, artistic and critical acclaim?

Well, we discussed today how a director like Lynch consistently manages to keep a distinct identity within his work. In an interview he described the film making process as an abstract cloud of ideas. He maintains the vision and everyone working with him subscribes to this - they can makes suggestions (which might be included in the work) but their suggestions only work as part of this wider cloud of ideas which is gently floating through the process with him at the centre. Nice and direct.

As a trans media artist Lynch manages to keep a “lynchian” tone to all his work – it’s always distinctly his whether it’s TV, film or painting. He uses repeated metaphors (red curtains, mystery sinister figures), music (industrial, ambient soundtracks) and a unique directorial style (camera angles, disjointed narrative) to make this stamp.

We watched a 1-minute short Lynch created to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Lumiere Camera. 60 seconds of continuous filming with no edits, no sound (other than a dubbed on soundtrack) Lynch still manages to display extraordinary technical skill, style and authorship. The mark of a genuine auteur – to not have to rely on any one medium or additional people! It was a magical, engaging and eerie piece which even not knowing it was Lynch, you could make an educated guess by the tone and feel.

Sadly we were shown a “making of” clip which had filmed Lynch filming the short. Now, I’m not a fan of behind the scenes sections or even DVD director’s commentary to be honest. I prefer Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author” approach to cinema going – I don’t need a director to tell me what their vision was, or how they created it – I don’t want it to influence my experience as ultimately it doesn’t matter what the director intended, it’s what I took away from it that counts.

The strange thing about films, which is unlike authorship in novels, is that with a book you don’t get the back-story – there isn’t an introduction which explains how Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles or what was happening socially at the time to influence him (well sometimes). Good thing too, it’s really got nothing to do with how you interpret the book, the story, the narrative. This is why I like Lynch, he refuses to help out the audience, he doesn’t offer explanation, he doesn’t care if you draw conclusions or flap about in frustration. I watched Mulholland Drive for the first time 2 days ago and it’s still going round and round in my head, that’s why I think it’s an auteur film – anyone got any explanations they want to share, then I’ll pleased to hear what you got from it!

“Poisonous Valentine for Hollywood” – Mulholland Drive

This week I start a new film course at the Broadway in Nottingham, this time the theme is David Lynch. Ouch. I could have picked Hitchock and studied movies with clear constructs and narratives which follow a logical path, but where would be the fun in that? So last night I decided to watch Mulholland Drive (2001) and get stuck into the surreal workings of Lynch’s mind and films.

For anyone who’s seen the film you may well have had the same reaction to me when it ended; WTF. Well, exactly, it’s no clear story. This morning I decided to seek the advice of professionals and hit Google hard. It seems to be fairly conclusive that most critics assign the narrative to be first a dream sequence and second a gritty reality of the characters.

Betty (Naomi Watts), a “gee golly wiz” girl from Ontario arrives in LA to stay at her Aunts Sunset Boulevard apartment, on arrival she finds the injured doe, “Rita” (Laura Elena Harring), who’s suffering amnesia from a car accident the night before. In the process of trying to find out whom “Rita” really is and what the blue key opens Betty auditions successfully for a film role and the two women fall in love. Their story ends at the eerie club Silencio where on returning to the apartment with the blue box Betty found, “Rita” turns the key, Betty disappears and the audience are sucked into the black hole.

This section does seem dream like to me – Betty’s lines feel so “wholesome” and out of synch with those around her, her upbeat nature, her inability to feel fear, her extremely talented performance at the audition (smooth transition from naive girl to Hollywood seductress) all point to an idealistic attitude towards life. The beautiful “Rita”, a genuine 50s bombshell who’s dependant and submissive in nature, yet wiley and astute enough to work out how to break into Aunt Ruth’s apartment undetected. The fact the two girls are called Betty and Rita (harks back to 50s Hollywood), the easy way in which they break into Diane’s apartment and the fact they’re unfazed later that night by the horror of what they had seen. Lynch’s camera angles drift upwards as the characters speak (symbolising an out of body experience?) which gives the scenes a surreal edge, as do the winding (almost drunken) views of walking through the corridors of Aunt Ruth’s apartment.

The second half of the film depicts the sad, embittered life of Dianne (Naomi Watts) and her unrequited relationship with the cruel, beautiful and teasing Camilla (Laura Elena Harring). The audience sees her hung-over (drink and drugs?) tired and lack being awoken by the terrifying cowboy figure (twice, so we know things have gone wrong - his earlier warning to the director Adam, played by Justin Theroux) and in her morning stupor hallucinating that the Camilla has returned to her. Her sad tale at Adam’s party forces her publicly announce her failed movie dreams and re-live the broken promises by industry professionals while the twisted and successful Camilla openly taunts her (kissing another woman and fawning over Adam). The reality is Dianne works as a waitress and the vicious rejection she receives forces her hand to hire the assassin to kill Camilla, unable to live with her guilt she shoots herself. The camera angles change in this section too, no high angles (out of body style), no soft focus stylised close ups – rather the opposite, intimate, uncomfortable angles which show every imperfection.

Well, what about the old couple? Diane could be haunted by her own conscious, a failure to herself and her parents? Or are they simple demons in disguise? Are Betty and Rita the dream of what Dianne really wanted - her subconscious desire, her daydream? Or did everything really happen and all four characters exist together in some parallel universe?

Mulholland Drive is like the road itself, a winding, twisted route through Hollywood with some clear pointers and clues along the route, which, if you chose to ignore them do not stop you getting to your destination. Perhaps that’s the point, there are clues like the red lamp, the ashtray, the blue keys the people at Winkies but ultimately if you see them or miss them you’re none the wiser at the end, having reached the conclusion of the film with hopefully your own interpretation. I think it’s always a good film if you spend days afterwards thinking about it, and perhaps that’s the point as Lynch has never offered an explanation – maybe it’s one huge joke, made up as he went along like Twin Peaks to frustrate and tantalise the audience – the clues are not there to be sensibly analysed but rather to anchor the narrative with traditional repeated metaphors? Who knows?

I loved it; I need to watch it again but hopefully this film course will throw up some good insights along the way.

Best scene: the scary as hell club “Silencio” where we are told in several different languages that, “it’s all an illusion.”

In the Loop Film Sneak

Well, I’ve been delivered a treat this month in GQ (for work purposes, I’m not usually a fan of man mags) by reading an interview with political satirist and general comic legend Armando Iannucci about his new film “In the Loop”. In The Loop is a dry, honest and balanced portrayal of what happens in Washington. There’s no glamorous women, no noble presidents, no dramatic, witty dialogue and you won’t see a sniff of Rob Lowe or Charlie Sheen. No, this film appears to want to show the startling reality of political mechanics in America, the fact that decisions are made by fallible, frightened procrastinator who are just like the rest of us. A scary thought, especially when you realise the film is showing the decision making process in the lead up to a war in an “middle eastern country”. Well, I think Iannucci is keen to show just how involved the Brits are in the “special relationship” or how screwed Blair really was. I’m looking forward to seeing Peter Capaldi’s foul mouthed portrayal of a brash British spin doctor (definitely not Alistair Campbell!) and James Gandolfini’s pentagon general (I wonder if the Sopranos star will draw on his mob acting background to add fuel to the role?)

In the Loop is released April 17th 2009.

Trailer: http://uk.video.yahoo.com/watch/4681277/12509678

Running In Heels

Lucky me, my review for Vicky Cristina Barcelona has been put onto brand new, Pan-European magazine for girls, Running In Heels!

Check out the link here http://runninginheels.co.uk/articles/review-vicky-cristina-barcelona/

The Young Victoria Film Review

I'm a bit late with this review, but definitely still worth mentioning. If you’re a fan of The Dutchess then this film won’t disappoint, but it also won’t promise the excitement and fraught drama which the walls of Chatsworth offered Kiera Knightly’s film.

The Young Victoria paints a (albeit overly romantic) portrait of Britain’s Victorian monarch from the age of 17 through to her first years as ruling leader.

The film brilliantly shows how youth can benefit and hinder for those blessed with leadership. Victoria’s youth gives her the confidence and fight to stand up to those wishing to take it from her and also the arrogance and pride to fall blindsided to those who wish to manipulate it through her. Emily Blunt is admirable as Victoria, excellently portraying the balance of emotions the young queen faced - apathy at court rituals, pride and ambition to protect her rightful throne, naivety and inexperience with parliament and playfulness and passion for Albert, played by the endearing Rupert Fiend.

I wasn’t a fan of Fiend in Pride and Prejudice, I felt his portrayal of Wickham wasn’t nearly as nasty as it could have been, in contrast his portrayal of Albert is sweet and understated and perfect for The Young Victoria. Albert understands the Victoria, the rules and politics of court and the inevitable tasks which lie ahead, but without apathy he confidently entrusts her to do the ruling (unlike the other men in her life) and is happy to pursue a more noble task of setting the foundations for a welfare state.

Paul Bettany’s Lord Melbourne, is the Iago in this drama. His villainous behaviour is understated and deliberate – a flickering sneer, a softly spoken controlling voice and yet, unlike Iago, he shows the heart broken resignation that the better man won.

I loved the film, it’s beautiful to watch, the clothes and fashions are exquisite and it’s refreshing to see the playful, mischievous and desperately romantic side of a Queen usually portrayed as a fat, miserable frump. Even though some of the film’s events fall short of reality (Albert never took a bullet for Victoria) it does help cement the idea their love story was genuine and something rare and precious at the time.

Next time I’m visiting London I think the architecturally acclaimed Albert Memorial in Hyde Park and the existence of the V&A will now have a more poignant meaning.

Best scene: Jim Broadbent’s rant at the King’s dinner party, Miranda Richardson’s quick exit and the snide, whispered conversations of the surrounding guests.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona Film Review

Woody Allen’s latest offering sees him steer away from the metropolis and the disaffected types who dwell in New York and London. Instead, Allen seeks to explore how the Europeans live and he presents a comic clash between American sensibilities and European liberalism.

The stubborn and sensible Vicky (Rebecca Hall) has come to Spain to research Catalan culture for her thesis, the transient and passionate Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) joins her for the summer. One evening, in a tapas bar, Cristina, love-struck by Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) throws caution to the wind and agrees to a spontaneous weekend away with this passionate painter. The weekend ends, leaving the obstinate Rachel frustrated and questioning her future with her chino-wearing-investment-banking fiancé. Herein starts the love triangle.

The addition of Juan’s ex wife, the explosive, chain-smoking Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) adds a new dynamic to the narrative with the sharp tongued, fast paced conversations she and Juan have, or should I say, shout. Cruz’s character is there to show the despair, passion, freedom and restraints that encircle every relationship. Maria Elena is an exaggeration, but Cruz’s is not – her acting is fantastic in this film and worthy of her awards.

The characters are all likeable, even the smooth talking, womanising Juan. Each one has pre-conceptions of love and each fail to realise it. It’s not sad, it’s more a reflection of the true nature of love – it does change, it doesn’t always meet our expectations, we always search for perfection.

There’s the loveless marriage of companionship living vicariously through their young guests, the artist who seeks to replace and destroy the love he has for his ex-wife, the ex-wife who cannot live with or without love, the idealist who dreams of something intangible, the New Yorker who loves normality and security and the insecure girl who loves the idea that she could be more exciting than her friend.

The setting is a bit kitsch. Having been to Barcelona, I’m pretty sure there’s more to the city than Gaudi, tapas, Picasso and Spanish guitar – but this film would make you think otherwise. The colours are vibrant - reds, oranges and warm hues that saturate each scene signalling the undercurrent of passion seeping out the edges of each scene.

I wouldn’t say this film is a triumph, and will not appeal to fans of classic Allen hits like Manhattan, but the subject matter is interesting and the acting superb; with a special mention to Oscar winning Penelope Cruz.

Best Scene: Marie Elena's acid tongue Spanish comebacks having lunch with Juan and Cristina in the garden of his house. The enraged Javier and the innocent hospitality of Cristina.

Film Review: Watchmen

Leaving the cinema after watching Watchmen was a unique experience. I’ve never felt more void of love for the human race and simultaneous re-awakened to how precious and miraculous earth and mankind is. Strange doesn’t come close to explaining how I felt last night.

Watchmen as a film is beautiful to look at – the opening sequence is original, engaging and draws you into what is a cinematography triumph and a neat way to show 40 years of character back stories.

Set in an alternative 1980s where the Doomsday clock is symbolically indicates the imminent threat of nuclear destruction we watch as a disbanded group of vigilantes, re-unite in a fractured manner to solve the mystery of “The Comedian’s” death and the biggest joke of all – saving the pond scum of mankind from self destruction.

As a fan of graphic novels, Watchmen as a film doesn’t quite work – it felt disjointed. Like the original serialisation of the comic book the story changes to focus on individual characters intermittently during the film, but as a film medium this makes it harder to tie all the characters together. I like the way you can flip back through the pages in a comic to see how symbolism or narrative repeats itself and interlinks, it’s a bit harder to do that at 24 frames a second. However, Zak Synder is clearly a fan of the graphic novel Watchmen and that’s why he stayed (relatively) true to its form.

Sex is a theme which throws some light on the messages of this film. The romantic tryst between the overweight Daniel Dreiberg (Night Owl 2) and awkward Laurie Jupiter (Silk Spectre 2) is one of humble honesty reflecting awkward realities. Once re-awakened to their superhero duty and casting aside the “fears” they have as good citizens (the war and being stalked by a killer) they celebrate in leather clad, theatrical, confident and passionate form (hilarious symbolism in the climatic gas explosion). I’m not sure Alan Moore was trying to say that if you live your life to fight for what you believe in and not succumb to the propaganda and fear that the institutions of society create then you’ll have better sex, but it was implied!

The backdrop to this metropolis shows a society rife with nude shows, xxx clubs, prostitution, rape and child molestation. Society devoid of hope (no religion, leadership) living with the imminent threat of nuclear war and ruled by a corrupt president has lost all morals. Even the god like Dr Manhattan who cannot bring himself to fully indulge his sexual desire with his lover Laurie claims, in his Mars exile, he no longer cares for the human race.

Man has become a cancer to himself. This is what the beautiful, restrained Ozyimandias see and uses as motivation to set his drastic and ruthless plan of redemption into action. Of course Dr Manhattan is blamed as Ozyimandias has replicated his unique energy to destroy and save the world – a mirror to the real life Manhattan Project – developing the A Bomb to end one war and star another.

I’m naieve. The Watchmen made it clear to me that Chris Nolan is not as clever as I thought he was. The Dark Knight and Watchmen could be mistaken for being a genre of ‘new’ superhero movies, except it’s a concept Moore thought up 20 years ago. By turning the idea of a superhero on its head Moore, and the mixed bag of hero/ villains/ saviours that he created as the Watchmen, simply shows an age-old distrust and apathy for government and ruling institutions.

Moore mocks the concept of the traditional superhero – even though the Watchmen wear the fantastical costumes of traditional DC heroes, their roles are darkly more complicated and disturbing. Both realistic and absurd. The Minute Men who preceded the Watchmen were ex cops and themselves masked vigilanties. The next generation has Dr Manhattan, a supernatural being created by a man made nuclear accident.

Dr Manhattan rejects ‘costumes’ and is nude – his godlike status shows he has no man made constraints. Like a god he has the power to change the outcome of real events (Vietnam War and presidency of Richard Nixon) yet he is the one who needs to be convinced of mankind’s worth. As a godlike character, he ironically needs a miracle to be convinced of mankind’s worth. In recognising the random, chaotic way in which cells merge to make life he realises the value of man. But after 2 hours of watching the violent scum of society I was too depressed to share his enthusiasm.

I’m off for a dose of Disney to cheer myself up.

Best scene
: Ozyimandias set to destroy the world from his polar temple, in full costume, stood atop a fabricated pyramid claiming “I’m not a comic book villain”. The irony was not lost on me.

Watchmen Trailer: http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/1808406490/video/10658091

Trailer Week - Terminator Salvation etc

One week off, a trip to the snow covered Alps and I’ve missed the Oscars. Oh well, there’s always Hello magazine to catch up on the fashion and Empire for the reviews.

Whilst in France I was surprised to see how many posters were up for Terminator Salvation (or Renaissance if you’re French) so once off the plane and safely back at the flat I logged onto Yahoo Movies to catch up.

So last night, feeling out of the loop on the film front I logged onto Yahoo Movies and caught on the trailers. Christian Bale’s voice over is sufficiently tough guy ‘gruff’ but a whiff away from ridiculous. I guess we need to see how the years have hardened John Connor from wayward teenager to military master. The trailer gives a glimmer of fantastic action sequences and star performances (Bryce Dallas Howard) and exciting directing (McG) so we know we’re in for a blockbuster treat. The only confusing issue is Connor’s (Bale) response to a ‘human’ Terminator – surely this would be obvious to him (you’d think his experience with Arnie would have made a lasting impact) but all in all Terminator Salvation looks set to quench the thirst of every Terminator fan who wishes to forget the terrible Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Out 5th June. See it here http://uk.movies.yahoo.com/t/Terminator-Salvation-The-Future-Begins/index-6276340.html

Next I checked out “The Boat that Rocked”, Richard Curtis’s film about a team of pirate radio stars in the swinging 60s. I’m not a fan of Richard Curtis, for me, the less said about “Love Actually” and “4 Weddings” the better. However, I am glad to see Curtis has ditched his favourite leading man (the gibbering Grant) to take on some great new talent (though Bill Nighy did slip through the net).

I’m excited to see Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Nick Frost (Spaced, Hot Fuzz, Sean of the Dead) appear together as the star DJs of this pirate radio station. I read an interview with Frost who claimed Hoffman had such a presence on set that the other British actors didn’t know how to behave around him, so after a couple of days he just said “Oh, stop going on about your Oscar” and successfully broke the ice.

Based on the trailer it looks dangerously close to becoming a parody and potentially borrowing some ‘shagadelic’ Austin Powers’s style jokes. Let’s hope not. I think Hoffman and Frost could save it so I’ll make the effort to go.

Out 1st April 09. Watch the trailer here http://uk.movies.yahoo.com/b/Boat-That-Rocked-The/index-6385571.html.

Valkyrie Film Review

After months of reading about Valkyrie I finally went to see it this weekend. It was supposed to be launched last June, but United Artists’ marketing campaign flopped and in typical movie mogul style they held off for a more positive audience response. I’m glad they did, as I liked Valkyrie and took it for what it is - a Hollywood movie – it’s not an arthouse, authentic, gritty indie film, it’s a movie, entertainment, showbiz. So, it’s a bit strange to read some critics moan about the historical inaccuracies and the use of British and American accents. It’s a star-studded film, with Cruise at the forefront, what did they expect?

Well, of course Valkyrie isn’t historically accurate, these kinds of films rarely ever are. Director, Bryan Singer’s, taken a good story and made it accessible and entertaining for a wide audience and manages to offer an insight into the rarely portrayed Nazi side of the war – he gets across the story, after all it’s not a documentary.

I remember by GCSE History lessons, so I sympathise that it’s difficult to make a thriller when the audience knows the outcome. Which is why Singer does an excellent job with Valkyrie. He keeps the film exciting and engaging and the characters human and not cartoonish. Even the baddies aren’t pantomime villains. Hitler seems wizened and feeble, not monstourous and insane, and the German Captain of the Reserve Army seems apathetic and inpatient for the war to end – not a dedicated idealist of the Fatherland.

It’s unusual to see a mainstream film from the ‘German perspective’ (though I am aware of the many German protests about this film) but to show the ‘Nazi’s’ to have heart, even the ones who aren’t involved in Valkerie. Tom Wilkinson’s Colonel General Friedrich Fromm shows the attitude, I’m sure many Nazi party members had, the struggle for survival. Who is the right side to be on? It’s not about ideology; it’s about self-preservation.

The accent issue is conveniently side stepped with a nice German to American montage at the beginning (according to Cruise on the Jonathan Ross show, he does actually speak German as a result of his dedicated research as part of this film). Yar, vot a neat vay to zide ztep a potentially laughable mistake. Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard and Cruise are excellent and I think it’s because they’re free to concentrate on their performance without the distraction of maintaining an accent.

Interesting how Tom Cruise was filmed. As the ‘big’ star, Singer’s direction has nicely levelled Cruise with his contemporary’s. There are few glory shots (upwards, heroic) and his natural height is not hidden with clever angles, though he did have a conveniently Cruise-sized sidekick, but that’s fair enough.

If anything Valkyrie made me sad my grandparents had lived through such a fearful and terrible period of history and sadder still that they never wanted to talk about it with younger generations.

Best scene: Taking the revised plan of Valkyrie to Hitler’s lair to have it signed, very tense and the fake eye is creepy.

Week 5 - The Non Filmstar Filmstar Continues...

So what other techniques have directors employed to keep the audiences' focus on the narrative and not on the actors? Well, how about cramming as many stars as you can into one film so the audience is overwhelmed with stars? Robert Altman's film Gosford Park (2001) reads as a veritable who's who of British stars: Steven Fry, Maggie Smith, Richard E Grant, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, Alan Bates etc the list just goes on and on. And don't be fooled to think the bigger stars are "upstairs" as Helen Mirren rules the "downstairs" while Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) is indebted to her maid, Mary played by Kelly McDonald. And that's part of the joke, neither upstairs or downstairs can survive without each other and the interesting power plays that occur between this hierarchical household.

The opening scene of Gosford Park is brilliant, Constance (Maggie Smith) slips into her Bentley (almost unnoticed by the audience) and on route she encounters another party on their way to the house. Matinee idol Ivor Novello and his friend Hollywood producer Morris Weissman, clearly offended that someone of such low rank should presume to speak to her she cuts short the pleasantries to continue on her way. Her maid Mary (Kelly McDonald) plays the role of the audience, she is oblivious to social rank and in awe of this "star" being in such close proximity.

Finally it’s back to subversive genius Stanley Kubrick and his 1968 masterpiece, 2001 A Space Odyssey. Set in the distant future (eight years ago) a team of astronauts are on spaceship Discovery One bound for Jupiter with the ship’s on-board computer HAL 9000, addressed as "Hal" and voiced by Douglas Rain, who has human-like intelligence and runs most of the ship’s operations. The lead characters are Dr. David Bowman played by Keir Dullea and Dr. Francis Poole played by Gary Lockwood. Lockwood and Dullea? Who? Exactly.

Kubrick knew the power of the “star” that’s why he chose to use actors almost unrecognisable to the audience, that way the force of the narractive, the action, the protagnist could be a faceless computer. Brave move. Kubrick manipulated stars for other films: The Shining built on Jack Nicholson’s already proven reputation for being “crazy” and Eyes Wide Shut seeks to subversivly emasculate the ultimate “lead man” Tom Cruise.

It’s an interesting tactic: either a director can bamboozle an audience with too many film star’s for them to focus on, or they can remove them entirely. I’ve always enjoyed films where I don’t recognise the lead. The best example was when I first saw the Motorcycle Diaries, I had no idea who Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, and Argentine actor Rodrigo de la Serna were so I could easily accept they were Che and Alberto Granado and this in turn meant I could comfortably believe the actions and narrative of the film without thinking, isn’t Bernal convincing as Che? However, with Che Part 1 and 2 released and starring Benicio Del Toro I think I won’t have the same response… isn’t he that lawyer from Fear and Loathing?

Week 5 - Jaws The Non Filmstar Filmstar

Week 4 is epic, so I'm holding off writing about that until I've got time to do it justice. However Week 5 was much more easy to digest.

This week we talked about films which were actively anti-film star. I'm not talking indie films, world cinema or foreign films, I'm talking about regular block buster movies which deliberately chose to use actors who were unknown. Sam asked us to name films which had taken this status and to honest it was difficult to do. I've seen many quirky independent films which, probably through cost restraints chose to make the "story the star" rather than hire the big names, but I couldn't think of any mainstream cinema hits. Hmmm.
The first example we watched was Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), the films producers (in agreement from Spielberg) Zanuck and Brown decided to ignore the pleas from Charlton Heston to play Police Chief Martin Brody and instead pick Roy Scheider (sadly passed away this year if anyone caught the BAFTAs). We watched the "you're going to need a bigger boat scene" and studied the way the actors appear on screen. Schieder doesn't demonstrate any of the stylised movements of typical "stars" of the era - he's positively clumsy and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) mocks him in the dialogue. The three men (Brody, Quint and Hooper) have a similar presence on screen - even though Quint is the obvious leader (upwards shots of him in the crows nest signify this) he calls Brody "chief" over and over to re-iterate the audience who the lead is. Can you imagine if Charlton Heston had been the lead? How many close ups? How much over stage presence he would have had? Because, let's face it, Jaws is the real star and as much as I would have liked to see him try and attack Charlton Heston, it just seems weird now.

Rachel Getting Married

Went to see this last night and absolutely loved it, by far my favourite Oscar nom film this year - though I am going to watch Milk and Frost/ Nixon this weekend, so things could change! There is so much to look at in this film, the attention to detail is fantastic and I definitely going to steal some of the Buchanon’s home decorating ideas for my place.

Hathaway is the only “star” in a Hollywood sense and she is brilliant, a far cry from Disney princesses or ‘comedy’ spy associate. The first time since Brokeback Mountain when you can really believe Hathaway is interested in acting and not in fame. She comfortably fits the indie film scene and she was a pleasure to watch.

The relationships and emotions of the characters all revolve around Kim’s (Hathaway) dark past. As the narrative unravels, the family tragedy is not as clear-cut as it seems. The family hang in the balance between blame and forgiveness not knowing what to do to move on. And for Kim, no closure, just continuing limbo both scrutinised and shunned.

The script is genius and very realistic, achieving a good equilibrium between things that need to be said (to move the plot) and things which are not, (because no-one ever would). The audience has to fill in the gaps, just as a real observer of the scene would. It’s not handed to you on a plate, and that’s just fine. Conversations undulate between fraught screaming matches to giggling, sisterly childhood reflections. This dichotomy between blame and forgiveness, between siblings and parents is fascinating, you’re always waiting for everyone to explode –sometimes they do, sometimes the atmosphere is cut dead, left flat, un-resolved.

The pivotal scene in the film is where Kim confronts her distant and artificial mother. Previously an ex-rehab inmate of Kim’s reveals she had been lying about the root of her additions. Confronting her mother, Kim shows the audience the selfish abandonment and irresponsibility of her mother who’s happy for Kim to shoulder all the blame. It’s then we understand Kim doesn’t forgive herself for Ethan’s death, but she doesn’t blame herself either. Maybe her sister and father understand this too, and that’s why they don’t blame her but don’t forgive her either. At the end of the scene you believe she will fulfil her destiny and career off the edge of the cliff, but just like the tense conversations, the scene cut’s short and lies flat, sad and poignant. You almost want her to end it, rather than hang in the balance forever.

Music in the film is very organic; it flows around the characters from within the characters. No score, just the guest musicians jamming and twiddling in the background. It’s a nice trick, and just as the audience might be tiring of their ever audible presence so too do the characters, asking, in one scene, politely but firmly that they shut it.

Best scenes: Kim’s self obsessed attention seeking wedding speech and the wedding when Samuel sings.

Cabot Circus A Revolutionary Road

This weekend I had the privilege to visit the new Showcase DeLux part of the Cabot Circus development in Bristol and watch Sam Mendes new flick, Revolutionary Road. If you like your cinemas to look like 5 star hotels and your seats to rock back and forth in a squishy fashion then this cinema is for you. Everything about the theatre screamed deluxe, all except the mad, old cat lady who chose, inexplicably, to sit next to me in an empty cinema. Nice. I always attract the weirdoes.

Anyway, my thoughts on Revolutionary Road were mixed, I generally felt a bit ‘so-so’. It’s a good melodrama, not over acting, just over emotion I think. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are, of course, excellent as the Wheelers and the tensions between their relationship stretch and snap throughout the narrative with dynamic crackle. It’s a firecracker waiting to go off, simmer down and then go off again.

The most intriguing character in the film is the asylum bound son of busy body neighbour, Kathy Bates. This “madman” is a kind of Greek Chorus, entering the drama at critical intervals to speak the truth of the characters feelings to the audience. It’s a bit clichéd, the crazy guy is the only one who understands them, and that he’s not “crazy” just ahead of his time. But then there are so many films which talk about 1950s American suburban conformity and the inevitable misery it caused, “the problem with no name” has a voice, but not one that any can take seriously.

The “empty hopelessness” of their situation is what I felt about the film. It’s not a tearjerker and it’s not depressing, it’s just flat. It’s an obvious conclusion and one you expect from early on in the film which is why it’s not shocking. My lust for life had been drained by the drama so when Winslet appears blood soaked and tragic I wasn’t that empathetic, I just flatly watched with no sense of horror. Maybe that’s the point?

The main problem for me was I didn’t care they didn’t realise their dream. Maybe that is the point, Winslet’s character talks about living on a hope that DiCaprio shared her dream of escape and bohemian living (bohemian in the sense that it was not the democratic liberalism of 50s suburbia) and maybe the audience are supposed to empathise with her because we too are living on a hope. It’s interesting that DiCaprio’s character is the only one to have gone (apart from their lusty neighbour) and is less motivated. Maybe ‘hope’ is more driving than ‘experience’ in life?

Also, as part of the tragic conclusion DiCaprio opts to leave suburbia to live in the city, living out the exciting life he hoped they could have lived in America. I just don’t know why he didn’t instigate this sooner. Also, did he not go to Paris because of his Dad? Because of social pressure? Because he was a realist? Who knows?

In conclusion, it is a good film; the cinematography, art direction and musical score all reflect Mendes other films (The Road to Perdition especially) and it’s probably one of those films you like more, as you think about it more…