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Monday, 22 December 2014

Top 10 Muppet Movie Moments

As Homer Simpson once sagely said, a Muppet is "not quite a mop, not quite a puppet". But after seven film outings, Jim Henson's fun creations are one of the most successful entertainment franchises in the world. Everyone seems to love the Muppets. Here is a countdown of their best cinema cuttings:

10 Marley and Marley (Muppets Christmas Carol)

Two heads are better than one when it comes to adapting Dickens. Statler and Waldorf scare the Ebenezer out of Michael Caine's Scrooge with their spooky song. The moment when their face appears in the doorknob is sure to frighten the little ones while older fans will be pleased by the lyrics. Not a humbug in sight.


9 My badge is bigger (Muppets Most Wanted)

Ty Burrell and Sam the eagle clash in the funniest Euro-cop partnership since Clousseau and Cato. But who's badge is bigger? The Muppets are arguably at their best with simple visual gags and this is the best of the offerings from their most recent and underrated film, under the direction of James Bobin.

8 The Admiral Benbow (Muppets Treasure Island)

Another Victorian literary titan was tackled after the success of the Muppets' winter warmer in the mid 1990s.  Their take on Robert Louis Stevenson's swashbuckling adventure introduces the opening setting of Jim Hawkins and Gonzo's Admiral Benbow Inn with gusto. Billy Connolly plays the drunken Billy Bones alongside a young Kevin Bishop and a mischievous moving moose head displayed on the wall. And if that sounds odd, well, you haven't quite grasped the Muppets ethos yet.

7 Happiness Hotel (The Great Muppet Caper)

It has been many years since I last saw the second feature film in the series, set in London during a crime spree by a slick diamond thief. The Happiness Hotel is one of the few moments I can remember with any clarity. As Fozzy says, "If that is the Happiness Hotel, I'd hate to see the sad one."
6 Brick House (Muppets from Space)

When the full Muppet gang live in their own house, all manner of antics go on during the course of an everyday morning routine. To the tune of a funky Motown hit, Kermit and his pals prepare for breakfast in a brilliant expositional sequence.


5 Bear eyes (Muppets from Space)

Another bog standard visual joke executed to perfection. Bobo the bear is a scene stealer for most of this juvenile spoof of the X-Files. Whenever I see it, the laughter is impossible to hold back.



4 Muppet or a man (The Muppets)

Brett Mckenzie's score from 2011 won an Academy Award. Yes, that's right; the Muppets are Oscar winners. Unrecognised greats such as Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton and Marilyn Monroe can only look on with jealousy. On the evidence of this funny but poignant song, in addition to another mention later in this list, the award was undoubtedly deserved.



3 Hey, wait for me! (The Muppet Movie)

His name remains a mystery (to me, at least) and his appearances are always fleeting. Nevertheless, the big, hairy helper grabs a hilarious recurring gag in the original cinematic debut of Henson's characters when he chases their cruising car across America. For all its silliness, I absolutely love it.

2 Pictures in my head (The Muppets)

As seen in my quick countdown, musical numbers are one of the Muppets' most bankable features. In this heartbreaking sonnet from James Bobin's 2011 comeback script, Kermit reminisces about the gang's glory days on the small screen. Having the paintings come to life was a touch of genius, especially that of the Swedish chef and his beloved chicken. Be honest, how many of you watched this with tears in your eyes?



1 Ghost of Christmas Present (Muppets Christmas Carol)

Its that time of year again! The highlight of all highlights, the gem which inspired this entire list, proves that anything - and I mean anything - can be improved by the inclusion of the Muppets. When the affable, ebullient and ever-likable ghost of Christmas present visits Scrooge to warm his curmudgeonly heart, he runs amok in a gloriously picturesque city scape of Dickensian London. Sing along with me, if you know the words, "wherever you find love...It feels like Christmas, it feels like Christmas, hohoho!" If only he actually existed, the world would be such a happy place.


ST

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Hobbit and The Hunger Games: Which is Better?

Both The Hobbit and The Hunger Games have been the box office highlights of the winter over the past three years, with last year’s instalments finishing as the fourth and fifth highest grossing films of 2013 respectively. The Battle of the Five Armies and Mockingjay: Part 1 have both once again been very successful this year - but which is better? We break both films down to their basic components.

Characters

Is there any hero in current Hollywood franchises as compelling and as convincing as Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen? The cocksure Marvel superheroes all possess plenty of charisma and can be great fun to watch, but none of them are as humane nor identifiable as the reluctant hero Katniss.

Three films into the series and the supporting characters are similarly fleshed out, while some of the best character actors in the business (Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, the recently deceased Philip Seymour Hoffman) ensure that the film remains a compelling spectacle whoever is on screen.

There’s plenty of talent on Five Armies’ cast list too, but is ill-served by near-unanimously two-dimensional characters. Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen buck the trend with their always watchable characters Bilbo and Gandalf, but are both in this final instalment almost completely side-lined.

Script

Virtually every line in Mockingjay expands its dystopian universe and deepens the political allegory at the heart of the film, giving us a rich and detailed picture of a society struggling against a repressive regime. Pretty much every line of Battle of the Five Armies is exposition.

Both films are structured around battles, but whereas that of Five Armies is exclusively of the swords-and-shields kind and all for the sake of a mountain full of gold, Mockingjay dramatises a far more subtle and fascinating war of propaganda, and the struggle to breakdown the aura of fear that helps protect the suppressive state.
 
Special Effects

The raison d’etre of The Hobbit films seems to be to showcase the best CGI has to offer, and in the case of Smaug the results are spectacular. But the monumental dragon is only in Five Armies for a few minutes, after which follows a procession of forgettable creatures and exhausting fights.

The perfectly choreographed moves of each of the armies may be impressive, but ultimately looks like little more than thousands of computer pixels moving perfectly in unison, rather than real characters doing real things. Mockingjay may not feature any ground-breaking special effects, but whenever there is a CGI explosion it at least feels as though something is at stake and that real people are in peril.


Actually being about something

Mockingjay looks at the struggle for revolution at both a societal and intimate level, and contains such themes as the sacrifices necessary for freedom, how the masses can be unified and inspired by a hero, what it’s like to be that hero, how an all-powerful state manipulates via the media, and not forgetting the intricacies of a romantic love triangle.

Five Armies isn't really about anything. All plot strands are only there in order to converge in the lengthy battle sequence that give its name to the title, which adds up to one of the more vacuous experiences at the cinema this year. Any past notion of the story being about how the biggest things can be achieved by the smallest people has long disappeared under a rubble of excessive computer-generated destruction.

Conclusion
So it’s a resounding victory for the Mockingjay, which does better in every department. Hopefully Hollywood will realise that it is new, fresh premises like this that make the best blockbusters, and won't continue to be so reliant on rebooting tired old franchises in the future. 

SP



Monday, 15 December 2014

St. Vincent

Murray Mint

The cult of Bill Murray shows no signs of abating. Walk on parts in Wes Anderson films are greeted with hoots of joy, his face adorns the galactic corners of geeky cyberspace, and the comedian holds the record for playing himself the most times in movies (four). Considering, however, how rarely his sardonic routine differs, you might say he has been playing Bill Murray all along. No matter how many times the star of Ghostbusters repeats the same deadpan expression, it seems he never loses his appeal.

With St. Vincent, familiar ground is tread in a tidy, undemanding piece of independent cinema. Without necessarily falling in love with its quiet tone, I was struck by its tale of a boy finding an unconventional role model in his grouchy old neighbour. For £4 on a Saturday afternoon in the lovely auditorium of the Watershed in Bristol, I do not have any room for complaint.

When a struggling mother and son (Melissa McCarthy and Jaeden Lieberher) move into a new home, they are confronted by the crass misanthrope next door (Murray). As an emergency measure, the young boy is taken under Vincent's wing as an impromptu babysitter arrangement. Despite plenty of upheavals - not least the eponymous character's destructive behaviour and drinking - the two form an unlikely bond.

As a story without obvious comedy or dramatic potential, St. Vincent was always going to be a tough sell. Nevertheless, modest box office figures should not deter any Murray aficionados from giving it a watch. It may not possess the kooky confidence of Broken Flowers or Rushmore, but with some delicious supporting performances from McCarthy and the newcomer Lieberher, there is still much indie sensitivity to savour.

Although Naomi Watts is well-cast in the role, the character of Daka - a heavily pregnant Russian prostitute - was perhaps misjudged. She provides most of the funnier moments but does not quite fit with the ongoing homely tone. I have a niggling thought in the back of my mind that a sizable chunk of her screentime would have been better served by carving more from McCarthy's uncharacteristically restrained performance as the lonely mother. Then again, that might totally uneven the balance of the narrative, especially when Watts does such a successful job.

Ultimately though, there is only one star of the show. The irrepressible Murray is never pushed outside of his comfort zone but his cantankerous antics still raise a smile.

ST

Monday, 8 December 2014

The Imitation Game

Benedict at Bletchley

Oscar bait rarely arrives in a more worthy or sentimental package. Of all war stories, that of code-breaking mathematician Alan Turing is perhaps the most unusual. In his competent performance as the precocious prodigy, Benedict Cumberbatch implores the Academy to recognise this most plucky and tragic of tales from modern history. Current rumours suggest that the LA glitterati might be besotted by this very British fare of a maverick genius. As of yet, however, few commentators seem to have noticed how strikingly similar it is to the BBC's Sherlock.

Without getting overly excited, The Imitation Game is a deserving film which carries an awful lot of emotional baggage. As a closet homosexual, Turing was treated appallingly by the British authorities when, in fact, he should have been celebrated as a national hero. Sadly for this unconventional man, his greatest triumphs were carried out in total secrecy, ruining any hope of proper recognition during his own lifetime. At least with this cinematic venture, the British public can say they have finally 'done right' by one of its greatest minds.

Although fluttering between its subject's youth and final years, this straightforward biopic primarily focusses on Bletchley Park and the extraordinary work which was accomplished there. It was in this unassuming locale that the allegedly 'unbreakable' German Enigma code was deciphered by Turing's computerised machine. By breaking the codes, Britain turned the tide of the war in its favour, laying the death knell of the Third Reich in the process.

Despite collecting a cast of esteemed screen actors, such as Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley and Mark Strong, the story fails to acknowledge the contribution of other characters in the painstaking work at GCHQ. We are given the impression that Turing worked alone - facing stark hostility amongst his peers - to achieve a unique brilliance against the odds. With that in mind, the theme of teamwork which the film tries to convey falls down, fulfilling nothing more than a tokenistic nod to the collaboration which made Britain's codebreaking effort so effective.

In a similar vein, this perennial focus on the individual distracts from the unique environment of wartime Bletchley. For a more insightful take on the culture within this hectic, thriving and suffocatingly secretive hubbub of nerdy endeavour, you would be better off reading Robert Harris' novel Engima.

Nevertheless, Turing remains a fascinating figure. Indeed, as time and attitudes continue to progress, he should become a more significant inspiration in people's minds. Cumberbatch captures his uneasy, asperger-like sensibilities, portraying him as a lost but ultimately likable soul. Oscar or no Oscar, his depiction is a cause for applause, if not quite wholesome adulation.

ST

Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Top 10 Film Titles

What’s in a name? If the hype surrounding yesterday’s announcement of the new Bond film title as ‘Spectre’ is anything to go by, quite a lot. Here are ten of the best in film history:

10 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
There are plenty of mysterious sounding long names for films, but none that flow quite as nicely as this one. In fact, such is its quality that it could have been written by Shakespeare; with ten syllables and a bouncing rhythm, it is, like the work of the Bard, written in Iambic pentameter. Then there’s its meaning, which increases in profundity as the film explores its themes of memory and happiness.

9 À bout de souffle
Known in English as Breathless, a more accurate translation would be ‘Out of Breath’. That’s certainly an accurate way of describing the experience of watching Jean Luc Godard’s seminal French New Wave film, which thrills and exhausts with its manic editing and radical dismissal of conventionality. No film since has delivered as successfully on its promise of taking your breath away.

8 Dude, Where’s My Car?
Proof that great names don’t necessarily have to come from great films. In four small words Dude, Where’s My Car? manages to perfectly evoke the kind of dense, nonchalant attitudes and speech patterns of the characters in stoner comedies, while at the same time establishing the scenario from which the rest of the plot will unfold. Kudos also to the planned title for the unmade sequel, Seriously Dude, Where’s My Car?

7 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
43 years on and the title of Melvin Van Peebles’s hugely influential film remains as bracing as ever. Its brazen disregard for the limitations of correct spelling reflected the independent and rebellious spirit of the movie itself, which gave black people a voice in an industry that was dominated by white men.  

6 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The title of Andrew Dominik’s 2007 Western may at first sight come across as over-the-top and a bit silly, but by the end credits it becomes clear that this was the intention. The film is about the making of myths and how certain individuals are mythologised and others villainised, and how however much the sympathetic on-screen protagonist tries, he is doomed to be forever remembered as the 'Coward Robert Ford’.

5 Rebel Without a Cause
Although the phrase ‘rebel without a cause’ had been coined a decade earlier by author and psychologist Robert M. Linder, the choice to name Nicholas Rey’s groundbreaking 1955 film after it was inspired. This was a film title that came to represent not only a generation, but several subsequent generations of teenagers up until today. The rebel in question was James Dean, who did more than anyone to define what the idea of a ‘teenager’ - a word only invented as recently as the 1950s - was to be.

4 Ladri di biciclette
How you translate the misleadingly simple sounding title of this famous Italian film significantly alters how is it interpreted; is it The Bicycle Thief, about the individual that steals the protagonist's bike, or is it The Bicycle Thieves, about more widespread crime? Either way, the devastating moment at the end when the protagonist succumbs to desperation and himself steals a bike flips the title on its head, and prompts us to reconsider who exactly it is referring to.

3 Aliens
Never has one letter said so much. Whereas Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror Alien was characterised by slow-building tension and a minimalistic approach, the sequel Aliens - as you’d expect from a James Cameron film - was all about action and excess. Adding multiple Xenomorphs to the first film’s sole antagonist did dilute the creature’s invincibility, but made for a thrilling spectacle nonetheless.

2 Snakes on a Plane
Half the job of making a successful B-movie is coming up with a name that will instantly amuse and attract the target audience. Hence the plethora of titles like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Surf Nazis Must Die. But never has the public’s imagination been so captured as it was by the brilliantly concise Snakes on a Plane, which became an internet sensation in the run-in to the the film’s release. Aside from giving us what is perhaps the greatest title drop of all time (see video above) the eventual film was a disappointment, but its name remains a classic. 


1 The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Even people who have not seen the film will have heard of the now commonly-used phrase. Its genius lies in the expansion of moral codes to go beyond the simple good-bad dichotomy and introduce a third dimension - ugliness, and therefore also its opposite, beauty. Although the film’s characters are given names as simplistic as ‘The Good’ and ‘The Bad’, the presence of ‘The Ugly’ prompts us to reconsider what is usually meant by such adjectives. The film does, after all, and in contrast to more traditional westerns, take aesthetic beauty a lot more seriously than codes of morality.

A special mention also to Sergio Leone’s other great film title, the fairy-tale evoking Once Upon a Time in the West, which has inspired many copycats. 

SP

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Horrible Bosses 2

The American Dream is still alive and kicking among Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) despite their less-than-smooth attempts to get one over their superiors in the original Horrible Bosses. In this second outing they quit their jobs to start their own business making and selling showers that release water and soap simultaneously, determined to build and manufacture the materials themselves in old-fashioned entrepreneurial American spirit.



Anyone hoping for a satire on the contemporary US economy, however, will be left disappointed. While the gags in these early scenes involving the trio’s efforts to get their business up and running and their dealings with Christoph Waltz’s ruthless investor relate directly to modern day business, their subsequent decision to embark on another hair-brained criminal revenge scheme  - this time a kidnapping rather than murder - veers the material away from satirical and towards farce.

But anyone hoping for the kind of broad humour that the first film delivered will laugh frequently and leave satisfied. The kidnapping plot may be far from original, but it supplies a basic structure for writer and director Sean Anders to fit plenty of gags and set-ups, and for the leading trio of Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day to bounce off each other.

The chemistry between these three is what pulls the film through some of its weaker material. Anyone who has seen It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia will know about the twitchy, unstable qualities of Charlie Day’s hilarious comic acting, and once again he’s the standout performer in a very talented cast full of alumni from the likes of Arrested Development, Modern Family and Friends.

Despite the phallocentrism of the leads this isn't quite the testosterone-fueled outing of a Judd Apatow movie or an Adam Sandler vehicle, although things do revert to stereotype whenever a character who isn’t a white male is on screen. Some of the material is problematic and resorts to the occasionally sexist/racist lowest common denominator, but for the most part this is a consistently funny sequel. 


SP

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Interstellar

Any film that makes overt parallels to 2001: A Space Odyssey and is publicised by trailers like this ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WzHXI5HizQ ) is evidently very ambitious, and in his latest film Interstellar Christopher Nolan reaches or the stars in just about every sense of the word.

The plot is suitably audacious and absurd, and bursting with as many ideas as you’d expect from a Nolan-directed sci-fi. Set in a near-future where civilisation has regressed to the point where mankind can barely produce enough food to survive amidst an increasingly hostile climate (global warming is a never directly mentioned elephant in the room), ex-pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is directed by what seems to be a ghost in his daughter Murph’s (played by Mackenzie Foy as a child and Jessica Chastain as an adult) room towards the location of a secret NASA base planning to repopulate humanity on another planet outside of the solar system via a wormhole.

With such a grandiose premise, it comes as a surprise just how down the earth the film is. In the past Nolan has struggled to make an emotional connection with his characters, but Interstellar is grounded by a central relationship between Cooper and his daughter that is both involving and convincing. Perhaps that’s down to the choice to focus on a father-daughter dynamic rather than that between two lovers, where even actresses as talented as Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson and Maggie Gyllenhaal failed bring to life the partially-conceived love interests in his past films.

It’s just as well Nolan has succeeded in establishing this emotional heart to the film, as individual relationships are crucial to what is perhaps the film’s main conflict; whether to save the people currently living on earth who we already know and love, or to start again with a new colony though frozen embryos. “We must think not as individuals, but as a species” posits the professor in charge of the mission (played by Michael Cane), but the film itself, through highlighting Cooper and Murph’s relationship, does resolutely the opposite. In fact, the only people depicted in Interstellar are those living in a remote cornfield and those in the secret NASA base. There’s no montage or parallel storylines to widen the scope, and we never get a sense of humanity as a whole - or, indeed, as a ‘species’.

In this sense Interstellar differs largely from its most obvious forbearer 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was intentionally cold in its depictions of human characters. But aside from this there are plenty of similarities, from startling jump cuts to mesmerising versions of the famous ‘stargate’ sequence. Nolan is as good as you’d expect as sci-fi visuals, and there’s plenty here to take your breath away, while Hans Zimmer’ well-judged soundtrack switches deftly from tension building to triumphant crescendos without ever, as is sometimes the case with his scores, becoming overbearing.


For all its innovation and emphasis on big philosophical ideas, there’s an unmistakably Hollywood-feel to proceedings, and it comes as no surprise that the ending chooses to both have its cake and eat it. But it’s easy to look past such flaws and acknowledge how great it is that at least one director left in Hollywood is licenced to make big-budget films as ambitious as this. Interstellar may not reach the highs of 2001: A Space Odyssey (will any film ever?), but its very existence shows that the spirit of Kubrick’s classic just about lives on. 

SP

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Paths of Glory: Remembrance Day

“The paths of glory lead but to the grave”

“Lest we forget” is a phrase commonly quoted this time of year, but what exactly is it we’re supposed to be remembering? The lives of our ancestors who perished in the Great War? The bravery of those who fought for their country?

Paths of Glory is a film that reminds us how the real tragedy of the First World War was how figures of authority allowed so may to die for so little purpose. The plot describes how a general in the French army (General Mireau, played by George Macready) instructs his division to embark on a suicidal mission to take from the Germans a territory called the ‘Anthill’, all in order for him to strengthen his claim for a promotion. After the mission inevitably goes wrong and his men retreat, a kangaroo court is held to put on trial three men singled out for cowardice, with the decent Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) volunteering to defend them.   

The film demonstrates how the real villains of World War One were not the soldiers fighting for the Germans and the Central Powers, but the authority figures on either side who sent the young men to their deaths. Although the rhetoric surrounding Remembrance Day is occasionally in danger of blurring both WW1 and WW2 into the same conflict, it’s important to remember that the Germans who fought in the former war were not Nazis, but instead from a similar society to Britain’s at the time. Neither can the modern virtue of ‘fighting for our freedom’ be retrospectively applied, given how much of the world was under the British Empire.

The conflict in Paths of Glory is that of the internal struggle between the French soldiers and their superiors, rather than between the French soldiers and the German soldiers. Despite being a war movie, little of Paths of Glory actually takes place on the battlefield with both sides shooting at each other. Instead, the focus is on the events leading towards a specific battle, and the subsequent aftermath of when the men refuse to comply with their superiors’ reckless and careless demands. When General Miseau even attempts to fire on his own men, the message of the film becomes clear – the soldiers are in even more danger from their leaders than they are from the opposite side.

None of the soldiers in the film come across as noble and heroic; rather, they’re presented instead as tragic victims, who from the very first scene are shown to be mere sacrifices for the unworthy cause of their general’s promotion. When the horror of war becomes too much  and a soldier is shown breaking down in tears or suffering from shellshock, we’re prompted to condemn those who condemn them for lack of bravery, and instead recognise that such despairing outpourings are the natural response to such tragic circumstances.

The final and most famous scene epitomises how this film, unlike the generals, treats the soldiers as human beings. A montage of close-ups of the soldiers’ faces whilst they take part in a sing-a-long is undeniably moving, and bitterly poignant with the knowledge that most of them will soon be dead. That the tune they hum along to is a German folk song led by German captive is especially telling – these solders feel far more of an affinity to this girl on the enemy side than they do their mansion-residing commanding officers.

Watching this scene and observing the sadness in each soldier’s face is perhaps the best way to remember World War One. It is of course crucial to remember the tragedy of all those lives lost, but to also not legitimise those deaths by saying their cause was worthy and noble.

SP




Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Babadook

The horror film genre has in recent years come to denote two characteristics – excessive gore and startling jump scares. Both can certainly be frightening and have formed the basis for some good films, but there is far more to being horrified than copious amounts of blood and things that go bump in the night.

The Babadook is a fresh reminder of how the most deeply disturbing horror can come from the dark recesses of people’s minds. In the first half hour it becomes clear that first time director Jennifer Kent is more interested in character than most contemporary horror filmmakers. She withholds scares and takes time to establish the relationship at the heart of the film and flesh them both out as fully-formed characters – Amelia (Essie Davis), a stressed out nurse and mother still haunted by the death of her husband, and her son Samuel (Noah Wieseman), a disturbed six year-old with a fear of monsters.

While the beginning is reminiscent of We Need to Talk About Kevin (another film primarily about a mother-son relationship, a dynamic that is strangely underused in cinema), the discovery on the shelf of a mysterious pop-up storybook called Mr Babadook prompts the film into more frightening psychological horror territory akin to Roman Polanksi’s Repulsion, as Amelia gradually starts to lose grip of reality cooped up in her home.
  
Perhaps the film The Babadook most resembles though is The Shining. Like that film, much of The Babadook is confined to a claustrophobic four-walled setting, with a mixture of supernatural and psychological forces all provoking characters to commit awful deeds that somewhere deep in their subconscious they desire.

It is to Kent’s great credit that her film is, in some sense, better than Stanley Kubrick’s classic. The Shining is remembered and loved mostly for its deeply unsettling atmosphere and typically extroverted performance from Jack Nicholson, but as a representation of one character descending into psychosis, The Babadook is more convincing. Kubrick was more about cold detachment and form than he was about character, and that hardly distracted from the brilliance of his output, but there is a sense of intimacy and even believability in the psychological realism of The Babadook that exposes just how little the protagonists of The Shining felt like real people.

All the early work to establish character, as well as some brilliantly convincing acting from Essie Davis, help build the foundations for the psychological horror and internal struggle that ensues. So much so that as the film develops we find ourselves relating to and adopting the point of view the kind of person who we’d otherwise only hear about in sensationalised tabloid stories.

Aside from all these fascinating psychological insights, Kent demonstrates some great stylistic touches and unlikely humour. She’s especially brilliant at depicting the disorientating state of mind between being awake and asleep that insomnia causes, and the experience of watching the second half is all the more disconcerting for our lost sense of time.

She still makes use of the horror staples of gore and scare jumps, but underpins them with such intense emotional feeling that they feel more like manifestations of our deepest darkest thoughts than mere cheap thrills, and render most other recent entries into the genre as shallow and superficial. Rounded off by an ending that withholds from offering an easy answer to the questions of mental illnesses raised in a manner that a lesser film would have neatly resolved, The Babadook is one of the most interesting and involving horror films in recent years. 

SP


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Importance of M*A*S*H

Helicopters are spotted across the hilltops, their propellers whirr as a bittersweet tune begins, while Khaki-clad onlookers rush towards their landing spot. Within the anxious crowd is a prematurely greying man, striking a separate figure in his blue Hawaiian shirt. The choppers land and occupied stretchers are dragged from their sides. This is M*A*S*H: the most revolutionary television comedy of its day. As a visionary milestone, it is debatably the most important entertainment series of the twentieth century.

The tale of an American field army hospital, set during the height of the Korean War, began life as a Richard Hooker novel, later translated into a smash-hit film starring Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland. As the Vietman conflict raged on with little hope of a meaningful conclusion, audiences went in their droves to laugh through a comedy about another modern military fiasco. The reflection was there for all to see, and the script never shirked from pointing out the enduring pity of war.

It was daring and bold, offering up crude protagonists who failed to meet patriotic American ideals. In 1970, doctors were still hailed as infallible heroes of virtue, and yet, here they were making sexist jokes whilst sticking two fingers up to authority. It was truly shocking stuff for the time. Its uncompromising opening song, moreover, still has the power to offend certain sensibilities to this day. Ah yes, 'Suicide is painless'; a deeply cynical tune to say the least.

By this point the peace truce (still not totally settled) between the war's participants had only been in effect for 17 years. Imagine creating the same dark tone about the Iraq War today. It wouldn't take long for the tabloids to spew their outrage in every direction. Chris Morris knows all about that kind of misguided reaction.

Back in the 1970s critics loved the extreme gallows humour, the recalcitrant political message, and the sardonic wise-cracking. But, to be honest, 44 years after its release, I think this film has aged terribly. Audiences would struggle to identify with the misogyny that drives the main characters to consistently undermine and abuse their female officer. But, a revisionist viewing says that is the whole point - to highlight how the brutality of war barbarises us all.

Despite these ongoing debates, however, M*A*S*H  remains a cultural landmark through its incredible run as a television series, continuing for over 250 episodes across eleven years. This is where the story held a real emotional potency. Its secret weapon was the overpowering likability of its star, Alan Alda. Playing Ben 'Hawkeye' Pierce (Sutherland's character in the movie), Alda possessed an unbelievably tender pathos. Unlike his depiction in the film, Hawkeye proved to be a much more sympathetic medic. He treated all his colleagues fairly and honestly, only disagreeing with his military and political masters when their arrogant incompetency was endangering lives.

It is no exaggeration to say that Alda held the show together, particularly when the inevitable dud script wriggled its way into such a long broadcasting run. Other popular characters include Loretta Swit as Major Margaret Houlihan and Gary Burghoff as Corporal 'Radar' O'Reilly. Together they made for a heck of a team.

Although it exuded a friendlier tone, the television series still had enough bite to inspire peaceful stirrings in all its viewers. To watch M*A*S*H, to laugh at its jokes and to share in its themes is to be almost certainly anti-war.

Remember that guy in the flamboyant shirt, crouching to the turf as the helicopter swooped in? It is Alda in all his glory. Every episode we see him peer over the camera, concern swamping his face, as he inspects his new patient. For all his one-liners and witty dialogue, this is his essence. A good man, an excellent surgeon; these are the things that will always resonate.

ST



Friday, 31 October 2014

A Halloween Carol - Fiction

Introduction: What is Halloween? Why do we celebrate it? I have no doubt there are many intellectual answers to these questions but this is my gentle reminder of the fun this festival brings. Believe it or not, a lot of the story came from a dream I had recently.

“You want me to be a statue. That’s all I mean to you.”

Ian began to protest but lost all power of articulation as he struggled to keep up. Her heels clacked feverishly on the grey pavement slabs as she rushed away, back turned, hair bobbing in the prickly breeze. How could Abby be a statue? It was a total overreaction, a miscommunication. Damn it, he loved her. The last thing he wanted was to somehow restrain her vitality, her passion. Of course, he had never actually said how he felt about her. Tonight was meant to be the right moment. But she had read it all wrong. If only he had planned it right, Ian thought, perhaps chosen another day instead of Halloween. Now he was losing her in the swelling crowd of costumed revellers.

“That’s not what I meant!” he called out. His feet shuffled to match her short, punchy strides. “I was trying to be romantic but, look, I’ve made a mess of it, ok? I’m sorry.”

“No”, came Abby’s weak response, “I won’t stand still for you. I...I...want more than that.”

“I don’t think that! Just let me explain.” He let his fingers trail across her arm. It tightened, moving away from his apologetic touch. It would be the last time he could reach out to her. In a matter of minutes she would be dead.

Abby cried, “I don’t want to see you again!”

And yet, she would. Ian’s crumpled face would be the last sight her eyes gazed on as every drop of life seeped out of the bloody tears in her black cocktail dress.

Abby had been his girlfriend for a month, sort of. Her fiery intelligence had attracted him from the start, teasing Ian towards a gradual adoration of her quirky humour and sincere kindness. As everyone thought but never seemed to appreciate, her beauty was practical, modest, but no less striking. Almost like a tragic heroine from a Steinbeck novel, as Ian dreamily imagined. She was the only one who seemed to mellow him. When they were together, all the petty worries that clotted the avenues of his existence were gone. She freed him.

And yet he was the only one to have spotted this grace, or humble elegance, from the quiet girl in seminars, the one who always had an opinion but never seemed to air it. When she finally said yes to that awkward question, after the bashful compliment and Ian’s fumbling small-talk, he felt like every episode of embarrassment in his long record of humiliations had been instantly erased. A date (although it wasn’t cool to admit it) had been arranged with the enigmatic and fascinating girl. More followed. With every new encounter, Ian’s bond grew stronger to the object of his desire. 
Nevertheless, Abby remained as mysterious as ever, her emotions unreadable and elusive.

But now every chance was gone. He had wasted his shot at a romance with the shy girl of his pastoral fantasies. On this night Abby looked more like Holly Golightly, her back wildly twisting against oncoming crowds. Even in her sadness, that unrefined beauty still bore a striking allure. He could no longer see her face, but Ian could picture her tears accentuating each dimple in those soft cheeks. How could she get upset over something so stupid? How could she abandon him?

The sad, misguided fool had resumed his natural state; standing lost in the midnight street with the stench of stagnant urine encroaching on his gloom. Clubbers queued in their inebriated droves for hollow evening attractions. Witches cackled as they swigged the last of their vodka potions, while others persisted in empty thrills under names of ‘sexy nurse’, ‘playmate bunny’ or whatever else was meant to justify their meaningless disguises. On the other side of the road a tribe of lads marched in formation towards their next lewd encounter. Each partygoer swayed to a tuneless beat hollering into the cold, autumnal air. Any other night might have embraced Ian into its rowdy, boisterous and unconsciously fun carnival, but on this late October twilight hour, he found himself stranded from his only care – marooned in a sea of unthinking, unsparing partiers as his love grew steadily more distant, slipping ever further out of sight.

Hallow’s End is no longer just the holiday of the spirits. Nor is it the occasion for childish merrymaking of yesteryear. As Ian could see for himself, a much older crowd was using the superstitious event as an excuse to indulge in raids on sweet treats. The hedonistic contentment of such travails is merely a distraction, a ruse, from the true horror of the pagan festival. As a great malignance stirs forth in its annual release, evil fails to respect the pageantry of the living.

Finally Ian realised, it was not too late to lose her; he could still make amends (for what? He had done nothing wrong). He began walking along his departed lover’s trail, remembering her route home, desperately hoping their paths might cross.

He would reach her; but only when it was too late.
 
After leaving the main strip, Ian found himself in a dormant residential street, the buzz of the clubs replaced by a blanket silence. It lay thinly over the high, tiled roofs, where the occasional television peeked through clumsily-drawn curtains, splaying thin light into the urban sprawl. Up ahead, a street lamp flickered. Suddenly the television glares crept back inside their apartment windows. Faint flickers spread along the whole row of amber bulbs, gradually slowing until they died altogether. Darkness consumed the path. Then Ian heard it scream.

No animal could make such a fraught, pitiless sound. Its high, leering pitch echoed a barbarous aggression, like a berserker’s frantic bark as it charged into battle. Despite a helpless shudder of fright, Ian could feel his legs pound, muscle by muscle, as he raced towards the source of the noise. He had to get there... Had to, no matter what. Spurred on by a feeling of impending doom, he continued running, round one corner, then the next. The road ahead was invisible, masked by impenetrable darkness, yet he ran headless into the shadow.

Another scream flew out of the opaque black. It was closer, maybe only a few yards away. But this time it was not from the same source. A girl...Alone... Abby! The latent doubt that had caused his sprint now transformed into outright dread. The last few leaps sent jolts down Ian’s skeleton as he desperately bounded across the uneven concrete slabs. Then, in front of his path, forming blank silhouettes in the dim street, lay Abby, with something hideous at her side. It crouched over her feeble, motionless body, head titled back, transfixed by the few visible stars. It’s eyes were the only source of light on the dreadful scene. They shone with a manic intensity, directed upwards, ignoring Ian’s gasping horror.

Abby was almost gone. Her blood ran across the ground in thick pools from each wound. She was covered in them, slices here, cuts there, and worst of all, chunks of skin torn away on her neck and shoulder. With one last swell of life, her eyes confronted Ian directly. Even in his panic, he could not refuse her attention. Still, Ian could not understand her expression – what was she saying? Anger? Regret? Comfort? Love? Frightened, for certain, but the rest passed too quickly to sense. Slowly, gently, her head dropped, eyes remaining still, as she fell into an unshakeable slumber. Dried spots of tears were still clear on her sunken chin.

Then the creature with shining eyes stood straight and stretched back, as if he were inhaling all of Ian’s fear and distress. It was shaped like a man but had the stance and poise of another species entirely. Much of its face remained hidden in the shroud of darkness. Only the eyes stood out, alongside silver chains that tightly encircled its torso and arms. Abby’s blood dripped from thin, ghoulishly pointed hands, specks of scarlet falling back towards her limp remnants.

How could this be happening? She must be fine... Abby? She had to be alright... She couldn’t leave him again. And this... this... monster! It was not possible.

Terror had sent Ian into a fixed state, every nerve in his body refusing to fight as he commanded. They would not yield. His jaw locked in an iron grip. He wanted to cry for help, or to attack this figure, or even to weep. But his body would not allow any of those reactions to happen. Involuntary stillness imprisoned him.

The human beast fixed its attention on its sole spectator. Once again, its head arched upwards to the sky.

“I’ve seen them all,” it said quietly, “...So pretty”. It pronounced the last word with relish. “But so few still clear.”

Stepping over Abby’s corpse, the chains rattling in long clasping rasps, it stood a metre from Ian. He stayed frozen. Blood did not just cover the creature’s hands but also its face and torso. What had it done to her? Ian’s only response was a tremor in his hands, still tightly knotted to his sides.

“Do you think she suffered?” it whined. “Do you even care? It is you who should be bound by these chains, not I. An eternity in irons... But tonight I have liberty.”

The beast was too close. Life had finally been returned to Ian’s limbs. Every nerve in his body screamed to run. Too late. It seized his throat and lifted him off the ground. His legs kicked into empty air. Both arms grasped the long claws, trying to twist the chains, but they could not be gripped, the metal fell through his fingers like smoke.

With fading breath Ian coughed out “A-A-Abby”.

Its laugh echoed across the dark lane. “Your dearest departed? Don’t be foolish. She was a slut. Everyone has had her, apart from you. I killed her out of pity… I’ll do the same to you.”

Those glowing eyes narrowed to fixate on Ian’s choking face. All he could do in return was force all his strength on removing the monster’s grip. It reeked of dust and age. He was beyond the point of questioning this nightmare, panic was the only concern now. Nothing could save him.

Teeth gleamed in the sparse light. Sharp jaws, cut like daggers, smirking in sadistic joy. They too had crimson speckles swirling down their points. It leaned closer, jaw widening, awaiting its pleasure.

The chains rattled once again. “Sweet dreams… Sweet dreams. Your Halloween is no more.”

ST - A big thanks to Alex Smith for helping to edit this piece as well as the advice of Oscar McArthur, from which I took this title.

Friday, 24 October 2014

London Film Festival round-up: October 18

 - Heists, prison breaks, car chases, double-crossings, a twist ending – Son of a Gun features pretty much every staple of the action genre you can think of. Fortunately things don’t get too bloated thanks to a compelling relationship between protagonist JR (Brenton Twaites) and father figure Brendan (a typically watchable Ewan McGregor), who become criminal partners after meeting in prison.

Above all though this is a sleek, zippy action thriller with an emphasis on thrills over character, but with just enough personal interest to make you care about them


 - Crucially, David Alvardo and Jason Sussberg’s new documentary is called The Immortalists and not, say, ‘Immortality’. This subtle semantic difference confirms that the filmmakers’ interests are more geared towards the type of people who dedicate their lives to ‘curing’ aging and what drives them to do so, rather than the scientific possibility and the moral implications of living forever.

That’s not to say these fascinating questions aren’t raised at all – there are handy on-screen graphics to explain the more complex scientific theories, for instance - but that the film is more concerned with prompting us to consider the motives of people preoccupied with eradicating the aging process. Do they fear dying? Or the death of loved one? Or do they have the benefit of all humanity in mind?

As you’d perhaps expect the scientists documented are somewhat eccentric, especially the bearded, pint-guzzling Aubrey de Grey, the man who came up with the often quoted idea that the first person to live to 1000 might already be alive. They make for fascinating character studies and prompt plenty of poignant reflections that will occupy your mind long after the credits have rolled.  


 - In some ways Monsters: Dark Continent is a distinct departure from Gareth Edwards’ preceding film Monsters, with a shift in tone from subdued romance to macho warfare. But its positioning of the alien invaders at only the periphery of the story is very reminiscent of the original.

Where the first film used the sci-fi set-up to explore themes of immigration, Dark Continent imagines a war against the aliens to occur alongside the ongoing US involvement in the Middle-East, and in doing so raises questions of the effectiveness and morality of foreign military intervention. It’s an intriguing premise, but one that the film shows little interest for the first 2/3rds of its running time, where instead a bunch of bland, one-dimensional soldiers are introduced, and long kinetic sequences of them fighting that fail to draw us in.

But the final third becomes strangely contemplative and philosophical, while the characters are placed into scenarios that finally give them some overdue depth. This final part somewhat redeems the film, and offers something to mull over for those willing to stick with it to the end.


 - In Chinese film Shadow Days, Liang Rewei (Liang Ming) and his pregnant girlfriend Pomegranate (Li Ziqian) move from the city to a small rural village of his childhood, to find a lifestyle at odds with his fond memories. Director Zhao Dayong uses drained colours, a still camera, music-less soundtrack, long takes and sparse dialogue, that rids the enforcers of the government’s one-child policy of any of the glamour they perceive themselves as having.


The film can get bogged down in this sparse naturalism and at times fail to grab our attention, especially in scenes with little dialogue or narrative purpose, although the very occasional break into the realm of the supernatural are made all the more creepy for their disparity. The climax is devastating, but might have had a greater impact with more emphasis on building character.   

SP

Thursday, 23 October 2014

London Film Festival round-up:October 17

Stephen Puddicombe brings you the latest from the London Film Festival

 - There’s been countless coming-of-age films made over the years, but very few about black teenage girls growing up in France. As director of Girlhood Celine Sciamma says herself, black women are virtually ‘invisible’ in French cinema, while portrayals of them in the media are often negative.

Admirably, Sciamma tells her film from the perspective of a young black girl (Karidja Toure in her first feature film, whose excellent and natural performance carries the film) as she leaves school and joins an all-girl gang. By dramatizing her life in such an empathetic and non-judgmental manner, Sciamma humanises the kind of person who might be frowned upon or mistrusted if passed in the street.

Her life story is also moving and relatable, and does not suffer from being made exotic as some films about ‘others’ in society are guilty of. The politics of being an outsider are inevitably tangled up in the story and are handled very deftly by Sciamma, and makes for a fascinating counterpoint to Richard Linklater’s similar but white male-orientated Boyhood.


 - French house music in the 1990s was undoubtedly an exciting scene to be involved with, but the excitement never quite translates to the screen in Eden. The soundtrack is great, but we never get a sense for the craft and creativity that goes into making the music, nor the thrill of experiencing it in a club.

The characters are all quite dull and difficult to engage with, especially the protagonist (Felix de Givry), whose rise and fall shapes the structure of the film. The usual staples of heavy drug taking, world tours and romantic entanglements are present, but all unfortunately fall a little flat.


- Lisandro Alonso’s latest typically idiosyncratic film Jauja will intrigue some with its strange atmosphere and mysterious symbolism, and frustrate others with its deliberate pacing and thin plot.

That plot involves Viggo Mortensen playing a Danish engineer in Argentina taking part in the Conquest of the Desert, who sets out to find his daughter when she disappears. His search is more L’avventura than it is The Searchers, as dialogue gradually decreases and he is absorbed more and more into the landscape, before the film enters yet stranger territory in the final third.


Alonso shot on location in the extraordinary looking rural South America and manipulates lighting to give everything a stark, dreamy colouring, while the narrow 4:3 aspect ratio gives a great sense of depth to the vast landscape yet disarmingly offers little peripheral vision. It’s beautiful to behold, but any meaning or message is oblique.  

SP