Stoker (2013)

I’ve frequently maintained that the best films stay with you. I don’t mean ‘best’ in terms of quality, necessarily — though that helps — but the best films in terms of those that actually meaningfully contribute to what we call cinema. The best films keep projecting into our temporal lobes long after the credits have rolled; they haunt us, they taunt us, they call to us to watch again, to peel back the layers of their meaning, to look beneath their skin just as they have weaved their way under ours.

A few years ago I taught a course at the University of Sydney that examined the transition from celluloid to digital. It was a wonderful course, and inspired me in many ways for the studio teaching and research I’m currently undertaking. One of the films we watched was Park Chan-wook’s Night Fishing. What a weird little film. Shot entirely on an iPhone 4, the film combines night-vision, fishing, camping, mythology, ghost stories, grief — it’s a masterful little thing. It was perfect for that course, too, because it reiterated that it doesn’t matter what tool you use to create cinema; cinema can be created with anything.

I’d been meaning to catch more of Park’s work, particularly Oldboy and the Vengeance trilogy, but they remain on the Shelf of Shame. After seeing a screengrab from Stoker in a talk on Friday though, I was immediately inspired to get the bluray. This film deserves the highest quality, as it is stunningly beautiful. Also, with this kind of movie, you need your blacks to be really black.

Briefly, and trying not to spoil anything, Stoker is a bottled drama starring Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker, Nicole Kidman as her mother Evelyn, and Matthew Goode as India’s Uncle Charlie. India and Evelyn are recovering from the death of India’s father, Richard, as Uncle Charlie moves back into their lives after a long absence. Long story short, some stuff happens.

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The Hitchcockian overtones and influences are readily apparent — the Uncle Charlie/India relationship is pilfered from Shadow of a Doubt, and the tension that slowly builds throughout the film is reminiscent of [insert name of any Hitchcock film here]. But what’s neat about this film is how that tension is woven in with the beautiful imagery. Further, their are even hints of the mobile image (as in mobile phone) that I remember from Night Fishing. In one scene, India and Charlie are playing a duet on the piano. This is a weird moment for a lot of reasons, but the weirdness is reinforced by this tracking shot, about shin-height, that snakes its way between the furniture right up behind them. The tracking shot recalls The Shining, but the movement isn’t entirely smooth. Much like the visual composition of the rest of the film, this shot is not entirely stable. You wouldn’t say its unstable, but there’s definitely something not right. Take any shot of Uncle Charlie, for example. We’re never given the full picture, something is always in the way. It doesn’t hurt, too, that Goode’s performance oozes Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

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Stoker is one of those perfect examples of a film where everything congeals into one single vision. Camera, editing, music, performance, narrative all just happen; there’s really no separating them. There is no distinction to be made here between the analogue and the digital (for what it’s worth, it was shot on 35mm). This is a stream of information, a torrent of meaning, that brings the audience wholly into the narrative in an effortless way. This may not be a quality film (it is), but it certainly is one of the best.

The Awakening (2011)

Awakening

I’ve never been a fan of horror cinema. I’m not sure whether that’s down to my experience of people hiring Saw LXII ad nauseum at Video Ezy, or my perhaps misguided decision to subject myself to The Exorcist, 28 Days Later, and Psycho in my formative years.

Quite why I decided, then, to watch The Awakening yesterday is beyond me, despite my undying love for the leading actress. The film is beautifully shot, as you’d expect from the BBC. The casting was just as impeccable, with Rebecca Hall aided by Dominic West, Imelda Staunton, and Bran from Game of Thrones. There were moments, while watching, where I thought I could almost be persuaded to watch more horror. The jump-scares weren’t terribly frequent, and the scripting actually wasn’t too cliched. There was a neat set-up — Hall plays a skeptic in 1920’s England, who is called upon to disprove the existence of a malevolent spirit in a remote boarding school. The context was wonderful, too: the characters have all been affected in some way by the war, and these scars (whether physical or psychological) affect their lives and their characters’ progressions.

The ending, though, left me cold — not chilled, but just cold. I think it’s endemic in a genre so rife with cliche to just take the easy way out. Having established the twist in the narrative (which I’ll leave out in case you’re keen to watch), the rest of the film fizzles, and we’re left with a question that’s pretty much already answered.

Period horror does tend to be the exception to the rule, in that you can explore historical themes and characterisation as well as the psychology of fear. There were just one too many hackneyed techniques in this one for me.

Spared no expense on everything but story

This is not the most unbelievable thing about Jurassic World. At least mosasaurs actually existed.
This is not the most unbelievable thing about Jurassic World. At least mosasaurs actually existed.

There are lots of things you can do with collaborators. Build a house, manage some kind of project that synergises all the paradigms, play sports. There are even things you can do with collaborators in film production: set up lights, operate cameras, run cables, produce. I am of the very strong opinion, though, that there is one thing you can’t do as a team: write a script. And if you need an absolute case-in-point as to why this is now indisputable fact: go watch Jurassic World.

I had very low expectations of this film going in, but there was still a part of me that really wanted to get swept up and then blown away. I wanted to rekindle some of that magic from that moment in Jurassic Park where Alan Grant turns Ellie Satler’s head so she can gawp at the brachiosaurs. The thing with Jurassic Park, though, is that they were restrained by technology. Time and time again, this restriction has led to some of the most innovative — and believeable — filmmaking. The combination of early CGI with models, miniatures, and animatronics, had the audience holding their breath with every T-Rex footstep. The other Spielbergian touch that really worked in the original is the idea of hiding the monster. This is something he started with Jaws (for budgetary reasons), but which ended up being so very effective. If you hide the monster, you can build the script and the characters around that suspense, such that when you do reveal the demon in full, it becomes a focal point: the final conflict, which ultimately leads to resolution.

This sense of wonder mingled with deft suspense, this ability to suspend disbelief, this logical story progression, was entirely absent from Jurassic World. Instead we get Male (Chris Pratt) off-handedly flirting with Female (Bryce Dallas Howard) while the genetically-modified hybrid dinosaur runs amok in an inexplicably fully-functioning dinosaur theme park. If the story were that simple, the film may have worked (or had a fighting chance). Instead, you’ve also got Kid 1 and Kid 2 embroiled in the chaos, military contractors led by Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) wanting to use dinosaurs to overthrow ISIS or whatever, oh, and Male (Pratt) has actually been training velociraptors to do tricks for park visitors. Also there’s 21st century Denis Nedry (played by New Girl guy) and his coworkers in Mission Control at NASA watching everyone die on big screens. Also this film is apparently a subtle dig at consumer culture and the film industry.

My biggest problem with Jurassic World isn’t the sheer amount of groundless, physics-defying CGI (at one point a velociraptor glides across the ground as though animated by me with my crappy After Effects skills). My biggest problem with Jurassic World is that all these characters I’ve mentioned are supposed to be human beings. They’re meant to have backstories and lives and motivations, and all of these things are meant to be apparent to us as soon as we meet them, because we know we won’t have enough time with all of them across the length of the film. My biggest problem with Jurassic World is that it fails so spectacularly at what Jurassic Park did so well: tell a story with a sizeable ensemble cast, and get you seeing what they see, feeling what they feel, wanting what they want. And so much of that empathy is down to the script. Shoehorning expositional shortcuts into dialogue is not the way to create empathy with characters: showing us how a character we’ve prejudged based on appearance reacts in an extraordinary situation is. To be fair, there are moments in Jurassic World like this, but they’re so few and far between that these actual character development/storytelling ‘bits’ are lost in a sea of hokiness.

These characters were profiled by committee, and their stories were written by different people in different rooms, and there was no meeting between that process and filming. The clunkiness of the script is even further exacerbated when your film does not have any acts: the audience is left with no time to breathe, and there is no logical escalation of action. Storytelling was farmed off here, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it writ so clearly on the screen. Almost every line of dialogue in the first half of the film made me cringe. I think I only stopped cringing in the second half because the final build-up of action was distracting (and my shoulders were sore).

The biggest hurdle that Jurassic World faces is that it’s part of a franchise that began with one of the most beloved films of the 1990s. It doesn’t hurt that the original film is one of the finest action-adventure films in cinematic history, with believeable characters, with pacing, and with some of the most innovative visual effects ever put on screen. Jurassic World fails for the very reasons that it attempts to satirise: it ignores its audience, giving them what it thinks they want, rather than attempting to engage them on a meaningful level.

Suffice to say this new franchise will likely not, uh, uh, find a way.

My weekend, in film

As you will have gathered on Friday, I put together a rather formidable schedule of film viewing. This was partly due to the need to do a bit of catch-up, but also because after watching Snowpiercer and Drive the previous week, I was just in the mood to get some serious movie-watching done.

I was – well – well, look, I didn’t make it through all seven films. Lastnight, after half an hour or so of Christophe Honoré’s La Belle Personne, I hit critical mass and needed to switch off. This is no reflection on poor M. Honoré: his film looks stunning, and I’ll certainly return to it in the coming days.

Of those I did watch, I enjoyed The American most of all. Rather than re-hash my thoughts all over again, though, here they are, re-posted from my Letterboxd profile. Continue reading “My weekend, in film”

On Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer is a funny one. In a lot of ways it’s a mere shadow of films like The Road or I Am Legend, in the sense that humanity’s last remnants must struggle to survive after some great global calamity. However, it’s also about the Arab Spring. Maybe. Or about the Occupy movement. But, again, it’s not. Because the film was based on an obscure French graphic novel released some thirty years ago.

The parallel most easily drawn, I think, is with Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. In terms of setting, mood, tone, colour palette, the two films work quite well in this politico-apocalyptic mode. The fact that Snowpiercer (and its originator, Le Transperceneige) take place on a train, is often secondary to the class struggles that occur within. I’ve not read the comic, but I watched the French-language adaptation documentary on the bluray, and it seems that director Bong Joon Ho was determined to adapt the story rather than just translate it directly to the screen. This works, for me, in the film’s favour. The characters are mostly changed, from what I can tell; rather the setting, mood, and overall arcs are what remain from the comic.

As a few friends have noted, the pacing is odd, and I tend to agree. Rather than build and build right to the climax, the film seems to peak and trough with no rhythm. There are some stunning sequences, including the long-distance gunfight between carriages on a long bend: possibly my favourite from the entire film. These great set-pieces, though, are disconnected, and don’t fall into any sequential logic.

Snowpiercer fits alongside the other texts I’ve mentioned as ‘political’ cinema, albeit speculative. However, more than that, it fits into a cultural movement that transcends culture: what scientists and social commentators are calling the Anthropocene. McKenzie Wark has written and spoken eloquently on the cinema of the Anthropocene, in terms of a broad definition. He suggests it is now worth exploring cinema not in terms of character, but more in terms of setting. Further, he writes that maybe we should ‘ask about cinema as both a practice and a representation of energy-using systems.’

Snowpiercer is ‘Anthropocentric’ on all counts. The setting is crucial, despite its seeming obliviousness to the narrative. All characters are aware of the cold, and know they are secondary to it. The environment, thus, is the true tyrant. The train’s engine, ‘sacred’ as it is called by all the front passengers, is a representation of mankind’s reliance on technology, but also reflects this need to present energy and its considerations on screen. The cinema of the Anthropocene is contradictory in that human characters are both central to it, and yet entirely external. Rather, it is humanity’s irrevocable ruin of the landscape, inscribed as it is now geologically and atmospherically, that truly takes a starring role.

The Unexpected Awesome of Birdman

Birdman

I’m still reeling from Birdman. And I probably will be reeling for some time. It’s definitely a film you need to see more than once, I think.

First impressions? Where before I believed The Grand Budapest Hotel deserved every Oscar it was nominated for, I’m now torn. Every performance in Birdman is sublime. The cinematography is flawless. The script, while hokey/cliched in parts, allows the actors to fill in the blanks with their performances.

There’s not much else to say at this point. I’m sure I’ll watch it again soon.

As I’ve said to a few people: A great many films make me want to write about them. But very few films make me want to write films. Birdman certainly fell instantly into the latter category.

Destiny breaks many indie records

I’ve been spending the odd hour or two mucking around with Bungie’s latest reasonably small indie game Destiny*. In a combined play time of about 4-5 hours I’ve managed to ascend to level 5 – hopefully this will increase with some more free time over the next couple of weeks.

Destiny, despite being a small indie offering, has garnered a great deal of critical attention, with gamers and critics alike being very quick to point out its shortcomings. From the lack of discernible story, to what story there is being full of gaping chasms, to problems with mechanics and the integration of RPG elements, to problems with its being a not-that-great shooter, people love taking potshots at small releases like this one.

In my small engagement with the game, I don’t really have a problem with it. My review of the game is a resounding slight shrug, but playing the game is a joy, and I’ll keep playing, and it’s hard to understand why. The game plays like a pared-back Halo, with the integration of some pared-back elements from Skyrim and Mass Effect, set in a gloriously detailed and rendered solar system that’s just damned fun to fly around.

The game markets itself as a sci-fi shooter with some RPG elements. And, lo and behold, the player is required to shoot things in a sci-fi environment in order to level up and choose some bonuses. Hardly groundbreaking, but I’m not sure what everyone was expecting from a low-budget, indie developer like Bungie.

* Irony. In point of fact, Destiny cost exactly US$72.3 bajillion to make over its 279-year-long development (No One, 2014).

It Boy (2013)

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I have a big soft spot — a cultured gooey centre, if you will — for French farces. Often romantic comedies, though also often full of slapstick and cases of mistaken identity, I’ll watch the lot.

Unfortunately, this habit is dependent on whatever French films period — let alone any from a specific genre — are imported to Australia (and adequately subtitled, etc.). To this end I’m incredibly reliant on the likes of Hopscotch and Madman.

Thankfully, Madman saw fit to include the charming little Parisian It Boy in its 2013 catalogue. This light, breezy, highly improbable comedy sees a 21-year-old become infatuated with a much older woman based on a bumpy plane ride. Perfectly reasonable.

Virginie Efira is delightful in the main role, with excellent support from the rumpled French Matt Smith aka Pierre Niney. The girl called this the French Devil Wears Prada, which I guess is kind of apt. Suitable acting, beautiful location, and perfectly-executed comedy cinematography. A solid and contented three stars. More of this, please, Mr. Madman.