Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: Top 10

I've been seeing top ten lists popping up everywhere, so I finally thought why the hell not: here's my own. There are a lot of good films I've managed to miss though - A Serious Man, The Hurt Locker, Moon to name but three (I know, it's a travesty) - but I'm fairly sure much of this list would remain the same. The list has a vague order to it, but some films could probably easily switch positions!

Without further ado, here are my top ten films of 2009. Feel free to agree/disagree/laugh at my taste ;)

1. La Horde (Yannick Dahan)

This French action-horror is fist-in-the-air, cheer-for-the-heroes, balls-to-the-wall brilliance. Not remotely original or clever, the film is full of interesting characters (although many are introduced with an utterly pointless prelude) and directed with such gusto that it's impossible not to love it.

2. Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

Up. What on earth can I say about Up that hasn't been said already? While Wall-E remains my favourite Pixar movie (and is, pretty much, my favourite film ever), Up is an exquisitely made film which treats children as future grown-ups and grown-ups as eternal children. Just...gorgeous.

3. Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie)

Rip-roaring good fun, Sherlock Holmes is a perfect event movie: great fun, great excitement, great set-pieces, great dialogue, great music...the smile that was plastered on my face for most of the movie was still there hours later. And I've not even mentioned the chemistry between Downey Jr. and Law...

4. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)

A film I reviewed earlier in the year, District 9 proves that sci-fi can still be interesting, while providing silly guns and tentacled aliens. As exciting on a third viewing as it was on the first, District 9 is a true triumph.

5. Mesrine, parts 1 and 2 (Jean-Francois Richet)

This two-parter is an exercise in thrills, with an absolutely electric lead performance by Cassel. While the supporting cast - including Cecile de France, Samuel le Bihan and the wonderful Mathieu Amalric - all put in great performances and the direction keeps the action alive, Cassel really steals the show.

6. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe)

I'm still not even sure if Enter the Void can be called a 'good' film, but my god, it's an experience. That it's still not been picked up for distribution is baffling, as it's a visual and aural feast. Noe does not disappoint in continuing to challenge his audience.

7. Antichrist (Lars Von Trier)

The utterly graphic Antichrist might not be as shocking as some people have made out (though shocking it is), it's a truly dark film that explores grief and insanity like no other. And thank goodness for the courage of an actress like Charlotte Gainsbourg.

8. Avatar (James Cameron)

The story might be something we've heard before, and its morals might be didactic, but there is no fault to Avatar's visuals. There's not an instant in the film where the Na'vi and their world don't convince as being completely and utterly real.

9. Thirst (Park Chan-wook)

A darkly funny twist on the vampire tale, Chan-wook breathes life into the poor, abused blood-suckers. I'm looking forward to the DVD release, because a double-bill with Let the Right One In would be divine!

10. Orphan (Jaume Collet-Serra)

Orphan may not have gained massive critical acclaim, but it's one the films that I most enjoyed this year. It's accessible, but brave, mainstream horror with an absolutely stellar performance from young Isabelle Fuhrman as the titular orphan, Esther, who deserves to go down in the annals of great creepy kids.

Honourable mentions go to: Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi), Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn), St. Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold (Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson) and Dorian Gray (Oliver Parker). Stop sniggering at the back, I really mean those last two!

Happy new year everyone - here's hoping 2010's a good year for film!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Women and the Box Office

In response to:

Oh, Hollywood. Hollywood, Hollywood, Hollywood. And oh, popular reporting on Hollywood. Do you really think that by providing an infinite loop of this kind of reporting that the big bad male studio execs you refer to will ever change? No, they won’t.

New Moon, The Blind Side, The Devil Wears Prada, Sex and the City, Mamma Mia, Julie and Julia, 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth. I’m female, and I’ve seen three of these films – Mamma Mia on DVD (because I was literally forced to, by my parents), New Moon because it’s stupidly entertaining and The Ugly Truth because I mistakenly thought that Gerard Butler would make up for the shitty script.

"There's no difference in movie-going by gender; women are just as likely to go to the movies as men," the director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, Martha Lauzen, is quoted as saying. Well, good for her. The next paragraph along, however, and we get this gem: “If you give women movies reflecting their experience and interests, Lauzen says, they will go -- even on opening weekend.” Oh my gosh, go to the cinema on an opening weekend?! But I always wait a few weeks so the horrible boy smell has gone?! Puh-lease – a film doesn’t have to reflect my experience nor my interests for me to go see it, opening weekend or not. The article goes on to comment that “the movie industry always seems surprised to find out that women go to the movies” – this is true, but I think there’s a confusion here too, between films with lots of women in them, and cinemas with lots of women in them.

Another quote by Lauzen: "Women are a dramatically underserved segment of the moviegoing population, and if the industry would produce films that are not, by the way, just about shoes and clothes, but really had multidimensional female characters doing interesting things, women will go to see these movies in droves." True, and that’s all well and good, but this same article has just listed New Moon, Sex and the City and The Ugly Truth amongst recent successes – multidimensional and interesting they are not. A quote from a different commentator: "studios are run by stubborn men, so it'll take more than this to make substantial changes." While I’ve no doubt that this is true, maybe if women (and men!) stopped showing up in droves to watch drivel like The Ugly Truth (guilty, as charged, although that was a rare slip-up), then said stubborn men would stop hiring hacks (male and female) to make backward rom-coms and might instead hire more Kathryn Bigelows and Lexi Alexanders. Of course, if the same stubborn men stopped peppering their ‘man films’ (god, what a horrible turn of phrase) with semi-naked ‘actresses’, they might find more female bums on seats for those films too.

But, most of all, guess what, CNN? A hell of a lot of women go watch horror movies, too, and I’ll bet the same's true for other sorts of films. Recently an internet radio show host expressed her absolute surprise (nay, disbelief) that at least half of horror audiences are women. I’m going to go take a guess as to why that’s a surprise – because outlets like CNN don’t talk about it. They definitely do talk about The Blind Side and The Ugly Truth, though. Maybe if we celebrated and talked about women going to watch all sorts of films, then those big bad Hollywood men would think about changing their ways too.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Short Film: The Return, Elli Raynai

The Return is a short film with a lot of ambition. It tells the tale of a teenager who runs away from home only to return – transformed. As a meditation on revenge and guilt, the film makes a lovely twist on the zombie genre. Personally, however, the one thing it truly strives for – exciting VFX – is the one thing that lets it down most.

This short has a great concept and a strong script to go with it and Raynai directs the action wonderfully. These strengths are only somewhat undermined by the shaky acting, but in a film of this budget such a weakness is only to be expected and does not distract too much from the concept.

So, the visual effects. I should qualify my thoughts on this aspect of the film by pointing out that I have issues with the over use of digital effects in horror (or any genre). The visual effects used in The Return are far from terrible, however, I dislike the extent to which they’re used. The practical make-up effects used in The Return are wonderful, and it seems a shame that more make-up effects weren’t used in place of the digital effects. Personally, I’d rather see slightly cheap-looking make-up effects on a zombie, than nice-looking digital ones. Instead of thinking ‘oh my god, he’s a zombie!’ in this film, I found myself thinking ‘huh, check out those digital effects’. This may be due to my own aversion to the pervasive use of computer-generated effects, but my point is thus: make up is actually there, a digital effect isn’t. I’m far more likely to believe in a less-than-perfect make-up effect than a less-than-perfect digital effect.

The Return shows a lot of potential, but a reliance on digital effects won’t, in my opinion, allow that potential to shine.

For more information on the film, check out the website:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Enter the Void (Noe, 2009)

On Friday I took a 5:30am train to travel to London in order to see Gaspar Noe’s latest film, Enter the Void, screening as part of this year’s London Film Festival. As I stood outside the Vue cinema in Leicester Square a young man approached the box office and asked, quite confidently, for a ticket to see ‘Entering the Void’. I wondered if he couldn’t get the title right, if he knew quite what he was letting himself in for. Having now seen the film, it’s safe to say that it doesn’t matter how familiar you are with the film before going to see it for yourself – it’s impossible to know what you’re letting yourself in for.

Read the rest of the review HERE @!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009)

District 9 is a film that arrives in cinemas following a very heavy marketing campaign, which deemed Earth “for humans only”. It would be easy to be disappointed following the heavy hype around it; however District 9 is well worth the wait.

The story takes place in Johannesburg, above which an alien ship hangs dormant, while millions of its inhabitants live in rudimentary shacks in an area known as ‘District 9’. Here, they’re kept away from the human population (aside from ruthless gangsters keen to exploit the situation), but following much public pressure Multi-National United, a technology company, is drafted in by the government to lead the displacement of the aliens from District 9 to a newer compound, District 10, away from the city. District 9 is shot part-documentary style, and part-straight actioner. There are times when people talk to camera about the events that unfold during the course of the film, at other times people explode after being shot by an alien ray gun.

Central to this story is Wikus wan de Merwe, a pencil pusher who is appointed to lead the evacuation of District 9. He’s appointed by his father-in-law, who is an MNU higher-up. Wikus leads us around District 9 as he begins evicting aliens, and we come to realise that Wikus is not especially likeable as he undermines, manipulates and mocks the aliens – and when he gleeful orders the burning of a shack-full of alien eggs, and comments that it sounds like popcorn, he truly cements that unlikeability. Unfortunately for Wikus, he’s exposed to an alien fluid, and so begins a slow and painful transformation into a ‘prawn’ – a derogatory nickname for the aliens.

I would, for a minute, compare Wikus to another civil servant shoved into a situation far beyond his – or anyone else’s – capabilities: Torchwood’s John Frobisher. John Frobisher is a civil servant tasked with communicating and negotiating with an alien life-form who wants to exchange 10% of the Earth’s children in exchange for not destroying the planet. Frobisher must allow and commit terrible things – such as negotiate the number of children to deliver to the alien. But John Frobisher is a sympathetic man. He is clearly in over his head, he is downtrodden, and he is a scapegoat for the puppet masters who are the true human villains. Personally, however, I did not find Wikus to be a sympathetic man. He gleefully accepts the position he is given. He happily treats the aliens as lesser beings, has no qualms about demonstrating the manual abortion of an alien egg by removing the pipes that feed it, and he calmly stands by as aliens are beaten and shot. Even when it becomes clearer that Wikus is our hero, he behaves in highly unlikeable ways, turning on Christopher, an alien he must turn to for help, in order to save his own skin. Wikus gets his redemption, certainly, but he’s a hateful hero for most of the film.

How can a film with a hateful hero succeed in being so involving? The answer is two-fold: he is only as hateful as he is human, and the aliens he must work with show more humanity than, at times, he does. District 9 is achieves this through some wonderful dialogue, which is truly the film’s strength. Wikus’ occasional monstrosity is highlighted through some subtle moments from the aliens, who are more often seen mindlessly destroying their surroundings, fighting, or eating. For example, when told that he’s about to be evicted, one alien responds (in an alien language, subtitled – the aliens never speak English) “What is eviction?” while another, when asked if he understands, simply says “No.” The alien rabble does not understand what is happening to them, and no effort is made to explain.

But these are just anonymous aliens. The real pathos comes in the form of Christopher Johnson, a particularly intelligent alien, who is striving to fix a shuttle to return to the mothership, and so home. With him is his son, an adorable, half-sized alien. In Christopher we see some marvellously human behaviour. When Wikus scuppers their chances of fixing the shuttle, Christopher sits his son down and tries to explain to him that they can’t go home yet, but that they can go to a new home, all while showing him an MNU-produced leaflet advertising District 10. He displays anger much like a human would, punching and kicking a wall. Perhaps most subtly, Christopher displays a cleverly human trait of manipulating Wikus, who has just made fun of his attempts to fly home, by simply saying “Too bad,” drawing Wikus to ask more questions, before revealing that he could help Wikus’ condition if he could make it to the mothership. Not only does Christopher not rise to Wikus’ mockery, he twists the situation on its head by making Wikus agree that fixing the shuttle is a good idea.

The idea of going home is what links Wikus and Christopher. Wikus desperately wants to return home to his wife, Tania, but cannot because his father-in-law is part of the campaign to keep him captive and to use him to further MNU’s knowledge of alien weaponry. Christopher simply wants to return, with his son and his people, to their home planet. A wonderful moment takes place when Christopher’s son holds his arm out alongside Wikus’ arm – which has transformed into an alien arm - and the child says “We’re the same.” Through Christopher’s striving to save his people, the aliens display more brotherly humanity than any of the humans. The humans of the film have almost as little regard for each other as they do for the aliens, exemplified by MNU. Through the course of the film, Wikus’ transformation into an alien accelerates, and it is only as he is further transformed that he finds his humanity and his redemption.

Another film I would compare District 9 with would be Wall-E. These two films appear to be infinitely different, but they deal with very similar themes, namely the theme of returning home, and of non-humans reminding humans how to be, well, human. While Wall-E, a robot, succeeds in showing all of what’s left of humanity that they need to look further than simply inward, and in doing so helps facilitate their return home, Christopher succeeds in showing just Wikus what it means to be truly human: by striving to help his own people, and by being unfailingly kind to Wikus, despite all his injustice.

It can be said that the second half of District 9 simply resorts to generic shoot-outs and man-on-the-run action. That may be so, but such a strong foundation is laid with the story and the characters that this is hardly a bad thing. It allows for a little showmanship in Neill Blomkamp’s direction, and some truly great action sequences. Blomkamp makes effective use of special effects, with the CGI aliens convincingly real. Although Blomkamp displays great potential with his debut feature film, the real star of District 9 is, without a doubt, its lead actor, Sharlto Copley, who reportedly adlibbed all his lines. His performance is utterly convincing and full of subtleties – despite the fact that he is undeniably cruel at the beginning of the film, there is a great deal of humour in his character. I sincerely hope he’s rewarded accordingly come the awards season.

There are subtle hints in District 9 to how the situation regarding the aliens is shrouded in propaganda. In scrolling news, the aliens are described as politically correct ‘space creatures’, rather than the racist term ‘prawn’ used by almost everyone actually involved with the aliens; while a training tape played in the background of an MNU truck cheerily informs that “a smile is cheaper than a bullet”, after we’ve just witnessed the massive mistreatment of the aliens. These hint at an unreality created about the situation that is presented to the public. This makes for a wonderful parallel to Wikus himself, who, we come to realise is still human, underneath the pencil pusher – and even then, it is because of, not in spite of, the monstrous way in which see him behave. It just takes a whole lot of prawns for him to learn how to behave with some true humanity.

Edited to add: I realise I don't bring up the more obvious ways in which District 9 acts as a metaphor - for racism, segregation and apartheid. I haven't mentioned it as I believe it's fairly obvious that District 9 takes inspiration from such events, and I'm sure it's been written about better elsewhere.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (Sommers, 2009)

There’s no doubting that GI Joe is meant to be a Big Dumb Movie. I enjoy Big Dumb Movies (probably little too much...I enjoyed Doom, for crying out loud). I can’t say that I’d been especially excited for GI Joe, knowing nothing of the toys or the media franchises, but thought it certainly looked pretty dumb. Then, out of nowhere, positive responses start appearing online and suddenly I wonder if maybe this could be a rare beast – a Big Dumb Movie that’s actually good.

The answer to that is no, it isn’t a Big Dumb Movie that’s good. It’s big, certainly, and very, very dumb. I know that films like that aren’t designed to have their glossy surfaces scratched, but if the film isn’t entertaining me, then that’s what I’ll do – and I won’t like what I find. Before I get to my major gripe with the film – the portrayal of women – there’s plenty else to complain about.

For an action movie, there’s not as much action as one would hope. There’s far too much dull exposition about characters you end up not caring about anyway, and this exposition is often presented through awful, terribly-timed flashbacks. Aside from a few scattered moments and the great sequence set in Paris, the action itself is pretty dull too. Additionally, although the lengthy Paris-based set-piece is the most entertaining part of the film, the end of the sequence is clearly seen in trailers for the film, so you wonder where the tension is.

The acting and the script is fairly damn dire, but GI Joe is hardly the place for Oscar-worthy performances or writing. Amongst some rubbish leads – Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller – and the hamming of Christopher Ecclestone, Dennis Quaid and even Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I was surprised to find a talented supporting cast – Jonathan Pryce, Saïd Taghmaoui – which of course goes to waste. There are several questionable accents in the film, but perhaps most baffling of all is Jonathan Pryce playing the US President with his British accent intact.

So, I’ve established that the acting, script and action is all disappointing, but what was genuinely making me angry while watching the film was the portrayal of its two female leads – Ana, played by Sienna Miller, and Scarlett, played by Rachel Nichols. I can overlook the more obvious, expected gender inequalities – their skin-tight uniforms, their impractical hair, their one-liners about shoes – however, these two characters just plain bothered me. To begin with, Ana is a primary antagonist, having been in a serious relationship with Channing Tatum’s Duke, who had promised to protect her brother in the army. Duke failed and her brother died, and she is now kicking his ass, stealing WMDs, and married to a scientist for the purposes of her mission. Scarlet, on the other hand, is all brain and no emotion, spurning the advances of Duke’s army buddy Ripcord because she believes that emotions ‘don’t exist because they can’t be quantified’.

Let’s just start here, shall we? So, Ana is now evil all because her fiancé couldn’t face her after her brother died. And the only reason Scarlett is turning down romance is because she’s just such a brainiac? Pardon me if I find these starting points a little weak – god forbid Ana should be a bad guy just because she feels like it, or that Scarlett isn’t interested in romance because she’s just plain not interested. But wait! This actually isn’t so bad.

(Here be spoilers!) At the end of the film, we discover Ana’s brother is not dead, and has in fact become a megalomaniac, and injected Ana with technology in order to get her to work for the evil Cobra organization. Naturally, she snaps out of this, remembering her love for Duke and she’s heroically rescued by him – carried away in his arms and all - when her evil brother almost kills her. In other words, for all Ana’s apparent femme fatale-ness (her aggressive use of sexuality to meet her own ends, her belief in a cause, her apparent comfort with murder), her entire story is controlled by the men around her. Nice. Meanwhile, Scarlet barely even gets to spend any time being the emotionless brainiac, as she soon simply becomes the brainiac who falls for the comedy side-kick, and turns out to actually be quite useless at doing anything else other than tagging along on missions, despite the fact that she’s the best marks(wo)man amongst them.

It would certainly have been nice to have Ana snap out of her evil brother’s control to still be angry with Duke for being unable to face her after he though her brother had died, and for Scarlet to not fall for the charmless man pursuing her (I’m all for sexual tension, don’t get me wrong, but come on).

I’ll repeat what I said earlier, though – I know films like this aren’t meant to be read into so deeply, but if the film isn’t entertaining me enough that my mind starts thinking about these sorts of things, that’s the filmmakers’ problem, not mine.

GI Joe very blatantly sets the stage for a sequel – I sincerely hope the inevitable franchise to come has some considerable changes made to it. It’ll take a lot to get me back in front of a GI Joe movie.