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