Sci-fi

The Frobisher Sequences in Cloud Atlas

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Before I saw Sense8, I thought the sequence at the end of Cloud Atlas to be amongst the most romantic representations of gay romance I’d ever seen. Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), composer/prostitute/petty-thief,  is enjoying his last day of life amidst the rooftops of Cambridge when he sees Rufus Sixmith (James D’Arcy) —  the love of his life — and finds meaning in the beauty of the sunset, the rake of a hat, the sight of his love. It so moved me then and moves me still. In order to try to make sense of why this is so, I re-edited all the Frobisher sequences in the movie together in chronological order, an interesting and illuminating process.

The Frobisher sequences strung together in chronological order are  almost like a mini-movie. Certain elements are drawn out more clearly by extracting them in this fashion: the melodrama, the clichéd tropes of art and its creation, the formal questions raised by making the scene that ends the Frobisher episode the scene that precedes the title sequence of the film, the connection in gay culture between art/sex/love/death, the idea of true love that crosses time and even re-incarnation; it’s what culture, particularly in its Barbara Cartland variant, tells us love should be; it’s what we want it to be but know it’s not; it’s what female audiences wanted it to be when they saw Bette Davis films in the Forties; it might be a false want but one which gay men have historically been denied. It’s a want I wanted to be presented with, one which gay men of my generation have to now been deprived one and one which Cloud Atlas so beautifully provides.

Very few of you will want to spend the 22 minutes necessary to see the rough re-cut presented above so I have provided merely the rooftop sequence and its aftermath below for those of you with less time or inclination though there is one edit I made to remove material not related to Frobisher and Sixpence . The reason for doing the re-cut was sparked by my understanding that what I felt when watching the roof-top sequence was the result of accumulating plot, characterisation, incident, mise-en-scène, a series of ideas; when I was trying to show friends the sequence I realised that the sequence itself, on its own, pretty as it is, did not quite incur the desired effect…but it hints at it and is better than nothing.

I think Cloud Atlas a flawed or even hackneyed masterpiece. It’s too melodramatic,some of the performances are really dreadful (Tom Hanks’ stands out), it feels unwieldly; and yet, few films are as ambitious and few films offer as much. It’s not only that one could do a re-cut of each of the characters such as the one above, but that the cross-cutting between one character to another, past and present, and so on, in itself create connections and meanings (which I have lost in doing the re-cut). This is just one little example, a brief one, and in my view completely great.

 

José Arroyo

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay, USA, 2014)

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I have now seen Transformers: Age of Extinction which I find crude, ugly in spirit, a kind of barbarism in culture. In keeping with the rest, the ‘girl’ screamed a lot. The only thing barely human is Mark Wahlberg. The rests seem like an illustration of The Dialectic of Enlightenment: all that science, all that knowledge, all that artistry, marvellous shots; all now directed at destruction, and of ideals too not just of things

 

I went to see it hoping to understand why the franchise remains so popular. I do see that not all expensive movies that make a great big noise and that have shooting flames as a background to people leaping over things are alike; and some of them can be quite beautiful (though of this type of film, I’ve only liked Edge of Darkness so far this year). This is neither beautiful nor did I get any insight into what audiences are getting from it. Plus I mistrust criticism in the press to such an extent (and with excellent reasons) that I think I should check these things for myself and have my own views, which I now do. That’s what I expected and got from seeing the latest Transformers I suppose.

 

Another reason I go is because when I was young I remember critics saying those Schwarzenegger and other action/spectacle films of the 80s were the way I now see the Transformer films and I think some of the Schwarzenegger films are some of the great masterpieces of the cinema so I keep thinking maybe I’m missing something:

Terminator, Total Recall etc. are now recognised as classics of the genre (and this applies to the Robocop, Aliens, Batman etc. as well); so I’m just curious to see if younger people have reasons for loving these films that I’m not getting (I think most people would now agree with me about the aforementioned Schwarzenegger and so on; and I think the older people who dismissed them in the 80s just didn’t bother to look, or look carefully, it was partly not seeing, partly not knowing how to see). So I go to these to find out if I need to learn a new or different way of seeing or whether there’s simply not much to see beyond what I already do.

 

What I do see is a chasing of the Chinese market, product placement trying to sell us things, sexism, all the crash and bang and explosions and metal twisting, a militarist, gun-loving play on destruction: thousand of buildings get destroyed, loads of people die, nobody cares. I thought this of a show the Black Eyed peas did in the middle of the Super Bowl a few years ago: all military outfits, regimented movement, thousands of dancers, like soulless robots out for the kill; and one begins to see that these are signs of empire in decline; all the filmmakers cannibalise Arthurian legends without understanding what was at stake in them. The Transfomers  talk of freedom without taking into account everything they’re destroying to achieve it. It’s like the collective, the common good, a sense of common humanity and individual rights have no place in this vision of the world.

 

 

The movie is making money and that is receiving substantial coverage. But there are more important things than money. If what movies say and how they make us feel don’t matter, then movies don’t matter; and if movies do matter, we should care more; and if movies matter as much as I think they do, the filmmakers should be ashamed to put such shit out into the universe. Hardened whores have more of a conscience than is evident in this type of cynical filmmaking.

 

 

José Arroyo

The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Marc Webb, USA, 2014)

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The areal sequences at the beginning are thrilling. Sally Field is the best Aunt May ever, her feelings so close to the surface that you just want to give her a hug and let her know that she really has  been a good Mom to Peter and that her world will end up alright; her scenes with Peter Parker are to me the best in the film. Andrew Garfield is a dilemma: on the one hand, he seems perfectly cast; on the other, all that neediness, couched in virtue, and spoken slowly, with each emotion separated from another by a pause in the dialogue and a shift of the head, ends up seeming rather twee and more than a bit tiresome. I liked Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon very much but then the actor and what an actor can bring to a role seems so effaced by the CGI when he becomes Electro that they could have gotten anyone to voice that ‘animation’. Emma Stone is rather perfect as Gwen and she and Garfield have a definite chemistry though one that could have been directed with more wit: the earnestness drags everything down. The plot is serviceable and Dane DeHaan is brilliant casting as the Green Goblin, he brings something jagged, excessive, dangerous, diseased; he spikes the story with much needed and sour malevolence. It’s all enjoyable but a bit underwhelming and makes one ask at what point special effects detract rather than enhance a production? Whatever that point is, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has reached it.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Robocop (José Padilha, USA, 2014)

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The Robocop remake is a mixed bag. I think Joel Kinnaman is a brand new star. In the original, Paul Weller seemed a little robotic and inhuman even before he became a cyborg. Here, Kinneman runs the whole gamut from romantic longing to mechanical catatonia but lets the audience into every aspect of it. The rest of the cast is a treat too. I’ve not seen Michael Keaton better since Beetlejuice. He’s lithe, charismatic and oozes the kind of menacing and sleazy charm that can bribe politicians with one hand and pick your pocket with the other. He’s like a Mafia Don of robocops but one who’ll bring out the jazz hands if needed to seal the sale. His scenes with Gary Oldman — as a scientist emollient to the point of weakness and ambitious past the point of ethics — have a real snap.

Samuel L. Jackson, hair high, almost but not quite straightened  and set with enough hairspray to stop any onslaught is a delight as a manipulative Fox-style news presenter: reasonable in a speaking-from-the-pulpit kind of way when setting out a case, impatient when he’s not, and bombastic when speaking directly to the audience. It was lovely to see Jennifer Ehle as well wearing clothes as dark as her morals and with elegant features arranged into a poker face until called to action. I also liked Abbie Cornish as Murphy’s wife though the spectre of Nancy Allen – curvy, saucy, crisp and acid – like biting into a tart apple —  is bound to haunt anything ever connected with her.

The film is set in 2028; in a Detroit that seems prosperously reconstructed but still crime-ridden and corrupt;  thus is license afforded to critique present-day America. But Robocop doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: corporations rule above governments unimpeded by checks and balances; we live in a surveillance culture that surveys and manipulates the weak and powerless; the media is brutally manipulative and mendacious; life is cheap. The original told us all of that and with a lot more wit, in a setting that seemed more spectacular, and with dialogue that was spare but with enough cutting lines to pack a punch: they relied on irony, conveyed satire, and earned belly-laughs from the audience – who can forget ‘you’re fired!’?

This Robocop doesn’t really overcome the failings that plague cinema in the digital age: the image still seems too thin to me, Padilha hasn’t learned how to make action exciting, lots of people get killed but there’s nothing at stake in their death – or indeed in Alex Murphy/Robocop avoiding his own — and the narrative still hasn’t figured out how to make use of all of story-telling possibilities new technology both diegetically and extra-diegetically make possible. I think what’s really missing is thought on how the new possibilities of dealing with time and the new challenges posed by changing standards of what is believable can result in different ways of communicating meanings and conveying pleasures.

If one could stop thinking about the original however, the film is very enjoyable and worth seeing for the actors alone.

José Arroyo

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, USA, 2012)

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I didn’t think much of this when I first saw it and seeing it again  on DVD leaves an even worse impression. The only thing that’s still fresh and interesting is Jennifer Lawrence. The rest is very clunky and already rather cheap-looking. Even having District 12 look like a photo of the Great Depression and having the place where all the rich people live look like Berlin circa 1936, à la Leni Riefenstahl, is too obvious, too uninteresting; and the Marie Antoniette haircuts and so on — I understand the rationale but it’s over-emphatic and inelegant: does even the makeup have to be slathered on to make these people ugly? The film doesn’t have the same kind of sympathy for these characters that the novel had and that the film will have to earn in the sequels. Nobody and nothing is really good or sharp. I particularly disliked Stanley Tucci, who keeps playing fey cultural deviants in one smug note, one that would kiss itself with glee were it able to pop in from another dimension … and yet, the film was one of the most popular of its year. But was it loved? I doubt it.

José Arroyo

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, USA, 2013)

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Thor: The Dark World is much better than Thor. Visually, it’s a fan-boy’s delight, with the comic-book world a dream cinematic rendering. The filmmakers have succeeded in creating a believable world that is nonetheless not too far removed from the three-strip colour comic of adolescent memory. The CGI works beautifully for this type of superhero film as, even when its detectable, it only reinforces the ‘illustrated’ dimension of the comic-book world that is being created for us.

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The look of the film, surely the most beautiful and imaginative production design of the year, exceeds expectations. Thor’s world is a wonderful intersection of Gothic Viking imagery, a knowable and iconic London, and that which its sci-fi/ fantasy setting makes permissible (super-powers, the aligning of dimensions, magic). One comes out of the film with an appreciation of the brilliance of its imagery: Odin’s throne-room, Frigga’s funeral, Loki’s prison, each is recognisably what one expects, yet better composed and executed than one dared imagine.

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There are also fantastic set-pieces that do make one gawp: the initial battle sequence, Malekith’s entrance into Asgard, the aerial fight as Thor and Jane Foster try to escape it, the magnificent way Thor calls for his hammer in the final fight. I found all of this viscerally exciting and visually thrilling. But if the whole look of the film is spectacular, the actors who people that world and bring these characters to life are also deserving of praise.

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Chris Hemsworth is clearly born to that part; with his hair, his colouring and his musculature, it’s hard to think of anyone else in the role. But then there’s also Tom Hiddlestone with his wonderfully theatrical performance of Loki, and the way Anthony Hopkins as Odin creates effects just by the way he enunciates the final consonants in key words; and Christopher Eccleston unrecognizable but also vocally superb as Malekeith, and the way Idris Elba’s face is used almost sculpturally to create a  superb visually iconic myth of Heimdall — note how the yellow of his eyes is co-ordinated with his armour and helmet makes for very memorable close-ups — but one which also creates the illusion of three-dimensions. Aside from these, there’s also Kat Dennings and Chris O’Dowd for comic relief (which I found tired but which I attribute to my age as the younger audience seemed to lap it up) and Natalie Portman, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgaard. It’s an extraordinary all-star cast.

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The particulars of the story are sometimes hard to follow and I’m not sure if the story is as tightly plotted as one would have wished. However, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t much matter here. There other pleasures that more than compensated: the self-referential cameo by Chris Evans as Captain America, the jokey way the portals between dimensions is introduced, the appearance of Chris O’Dowd and other minor aspects of the film are delightful. But the main thing is how Thor: The Dark World looks true to the original yet newly striking, how the film moves beautifully and how it plays so well; and with some exciting action and a few laughs thrown in for good measure. Whiners may quibble; but it’s one to see again, preferably on IMAX.

José Arroyo

Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, USA, 2013)

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In Elysium, rich people have extracted everything they can from earth and made it so dirty, dangerous, ugly and poor in the process that they refuse to live in it. They’ve created a satellite colony, Elysium, where only they can live. It’s like Earth is East LA and Elysium is a super-rich gated community like Beverly Hills. We are introduced to our protagonist Max de Costa (Matt Damon) as a boy, an orphan brought up by nuns in a slum along with Frey (Alice Braga). He’s very intelligent but he’s always in trouble with the law.  His dream is to get to Elysium. As the film gets underway in 2154, he’s on probation, a sentence which gets extended because, in his time like in ours, a poor man can’t even get sarcastic with a law enforcer without paying for it, even if the officer is a machine.

Max has got a shit job, no guaranteed shifts, and he’s made to do hazardous work at the risk of getting fired. As a result, he gets radiation poisoning; but the machines that can cure everything are only available to the 1% living in Elysium. Frey, his childhood companion and not-quite-requited love, is now a nurse. She has a daughter with leukemia who also needs urgent access to those cure-all machines. Max has five days to live, five days to act and try and save himself and the child of his childhood love.

At the same time, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the Secretary of Defense for Elysium is planning a re-boot of the whole system to stage a coup and accede to total power. Max allows himself to be turned into a cyborg so that a hard drive can be fitted into his brain and an exoskeleton grafted onto his body to give himself enough strength to fight for his life.  Can Max steal this programme, reboot the system so that everyone on earth gets re-enfranchised as citizens and get free healthcare for all, including himself and Frey’s daughter? That’s the film’s plot, a good one, and one in dialogue with key works in the genre: the novels of Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson; but also Lang’s Metropolis, the Robocop films, the Terminator Films, Total Recall, Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic.

Although the plot is serviceable, it’s badly structured. We expect Max’s nemesis to be Delacourt but Damon barely gets to exchange a line with Foster. There are three villains in this film: Delacourt, who is motivated by fascist ideals of strength and security at any cost: John Carlyle, the super-rich industrialist who invented and designed Elysium’s security system and who owns the company that manufactures police robots that Max works for and whose main motivation is mere money; and Kruger, a covert mercenary who Delacourt has on tap to do her dirty work whenever it suits her. Delacourt signifies power though it is illusory in that she relies on others to carry out her commands. Carlyle is rampant capitalism, and his function is to first show his disdain for people and then to have the knowledge that is the basis of his wealth taken from him by Max (William Fichtner gives a superb, very still, dry and funny performance). Max’s true enemy, the one he has to fight throughout the film so that he can achieve his goals, is really Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a covert mercenary, who represents brute and destructive chaos in the service of power.

If Carlyle is a mere plot point, Delacourt is bare symbol. The film could have lost most of her story-line without losing much; and the film is further imbalanced by having Jodie Foster play the character. It’s not that she’s bad, indeed I find her excellent; she doesn’t have much of a character to play with, any in fact; but she makes the most out of the little she’s got with minimal gestures and the kind of accent one imagines in white supremacists. It’s just that she’s Jodie Foster! Everyone under fifty has grown up with her. We know her as the tomboy in the Disney films, the underage prostitute in Taxi Driver, her great Tallullah in Bugsy Malone, the woman for whose attention John Hinckley shot Reagan, and from The Silence of the Lambs until Julia Roberts career picked up again after My Best Friend’s Wedding in 1997, the only female star in Hollywood who could carry a film on her own. When one sees a great actress and a legendary star top-billed in a movie one expects to see more than a cliché making a few phone calls to her minions. Further, I suspect that the nastier aspects of what Delacourt symbolises are drawing on those elements of Foster’s star persona that intersect with the audience’s knowledge of her as a lesbian; and to me, the film’s misuse of Foster feels like a betrayal.

Elysium has a problem in maintaining tone as well. The early child-hood scenes are sappy, and as is illustrated by Sharlto Copley’s performance as Krugor, the film wavers uncomfortably wildly between realism and melodrama. This extends to the whole film. For example, the dystopian world the film depicts is gritty and ‘realistic’. It could be any third-world metropolis (I understand Mexico DF was used a location), or even parts of the US today. The technology is futuristic but the buildings, workplace, lifestyles are all too recognizable. However, the people are not, or not quite, and it should be the other way around.

If who the characters are, what they feel and what they hope for are something we know and can identify with then the external world can be as odd and different as imagination can make it. But here, though the structure of the story is melodramatic, and the tone in which its told also at least touches on the melodramatic, the film itself doesn’t allow for the identification or provide the release essential to melodrama. We know what is at stake in Max’s quest but we’re not able to feel it with him. It seems that Hollywood cinema has given up on trying to make audiences cry and simply retired one of its greatest pleasures and a central element of its art over to television, much to its detriment.

Elysium is a liberal sci-fi film. Let’s not overestimate what that means, sci-fi has been one of the few genres in which Hollywood cinema has allowed any kind of political critique (Oblivion is but the most recent example). It’s as if it’s ok to offer social critique on film so long as it applies to the future and not to the now. But let’s not underestimate what that means either. The less integral American cinema is to American culture, the greater the critique allowed. However, this is as potent a demonstration of de-facto disenfranchisement and as clear an argument for universal health-care as I remember seeing.

Elysium, like the recent 2 Guns, is another example of how race is being re-signified in American cinema. Why is Max’s surname De Costa? Why are most of the supporting characters Latin American (not only Alice Braga but also Walter Moura; and Diego Luna brings a burst of sparkle every time he appears)? Why is there so much dialogue in Spanish (it sometimes feels close to a bilingual film). Why does the film side with those poor people trying to enter Elysium just the same way Hispanics try to cross into the US border from Mexico? It’s like Elysium is Versailles, the Hispanics are the sans-culottes, and the film is showing why storming Versailles and brining on the revolution is a good and necessary thing. That’s quite something in a big-budget American film.

Visually, Elysium is a masterpiece. The first few panoramic shots showing us the contrast between earth and Elysium are extraordinary, you can even see people moving in their lush gardens as the camera circles and moves through the Elysium satellite. There are also some shots of Jodie Foster seated in her control console that are breathtaking achievements in shot composition. Matt Damon’s transformation into a cyborg (indeed the whole design of his look for the film), a shot of a robot exploding in slow motion and the villain’s face being re-composed after its been blown off are also indelible visual moments. However, there is also too much hand-held camera throughout the film. I saw it in IMAX and the camera bopping up and down constantly on such a huge screen and in such detail was unpleasant and dizzying. However, that didn’t put me off seeing it twice; it was even more beautiful the second time around; and I suspect it’s a value, a very considerable one, only truly visible on a big screen. Don’t be put off by the reviews (perhaps including mine); it’s very much worth seeing.

José Arroyo

The Wolverine (James Mangold, USA, 2013)

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You gift filmmakers a fantastic imaginary world, characters that are mythic yet three-dimensional, wonderful actors who can play them; and you get…. The Wolverine? It doesn’t seem a fair exchange. The story is good if predictable but structured around dream sequences with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) that don’t quite work; the set-pieces are sometimes very imaginative (I love the tactile bed we see in the trailer) and there is a truly superb villain in The Viper (a magnificent Svetlana Khodchenkova). For fans of the comic book, the fact that the story is set in Japan, will also have special resonance (and the way Japan is designed for this film makes for a joyous setting). The film seems to have all the ingredients for a great film but everything seems slack, even the humour seems off-rhythm and badly timed, the punch-line arriving after the audience’s already got the joke.

It’s a proficient movie but I didn’t feel moved or thrilled; and the film never once made me feel part of a somewhat embittered community of the alienated and disaffected who shared higher morals and ideals than the world depicted, the way the various x-men comic books at their best did. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about declining audiences and the industry trying to figure out whether it’s changing ways of viewing, or marketing, or delivery platforms. But really they should look at the films; all the big-budget ones seem to be made by a transnational committee and by-the-book but also by-passing feeling altogether; and if films don’t engage with dreams, hopes, aspiration, conditions of existence or the way people think and feel, see and/or experience, what’s the point of them (other than to make one feel a feeder for some corporation’s bank-balance)? And I suppose that’s the problem with this film; it’s ok but so what? And that in itself is a condemnation of the present industry because these are great characters in a superb imaginary world that audiences have loved and identified with for decades and the filmmakers have been given a lot of money to turn it all into a movie. If ok but so what is the response you get, you didn’t deserve to get to make the movie.

José Arroyo

Looper (Rian Johnson, USA, 2012)

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Visually disappointing but narratively enthralling film about a Looper, an executioner who kills people from the future in the present. Time travel doesn’t exist in the present but it does in the future, thus people from the future get shipped back to the film’s present, the looper shoots them as they appear, disposes of the body and gets paid. No one is looking for the bodies in the present and nobody can find them in the future. But who is disposing of these bodies and why? That’s what the rest of the story tries to tell in this dystopian futuristic thriller in which one can detect elements of The Omen (Richard Donner, USA, 1976) and The Fury (Brian de Palman, USA, 1978). The story lacks tension and feels a bit long but it does fascinate. The drugs, the want, the sense of a failed state with no law and order, with hungry people rummaging the countryside and those prairies full of rotting fields are a subtle critique of America now and, like many contemporary films, Looper deals with current anxieties by depicting, denouncing and somewhat resolving the most hateful aspects of this new Depression we’re living in, albeit tangentially. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a subtle imitation of a young Bruce Willis, it’s mostly the nose, but with a few mannerisms thrown in; then he shows what a truly brilliant actor he is because he can let go of the disguise; it’s not straightforward imitation. Emily Blunt disappoints; sadly, because she’s so sympathetic one wants her to be good. Looper is intelligent and enjoyable sci-fi thriller that offers well-executed action and also leaves audiences with an interesting set of ideas to think about and discuss.

José Arroyo

World War Z (Marc Foster, USA, 2013)

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It’s so much better than I expected, so intelligent and visually impressive that I almost had to remind myself that World War Z  isn’t quite good. The film is about zombies — that’s what finally got me to the cinema. They’re everywhere at the moment and I like them in almost all their variations: on TV in the wonderful The Walking Dead (created by Frank Darabont, USA, AMC, 2010-); as quasi-teen romantic horror played for laughs in Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, USA, 2013); in foreign films, even from Cuba, such as Juan of the Dead/ Juan de los Muertos (Alejandro Brugés, Cuba, 2011) and even in the most far-out variations such as The Happiness of the Katakuris [Takashi Miike, Japan, admittedly a while ago, 2001) — musical zombie films from Japan anyone? Just as interestingly, they’ve become a political symbol for the Chilean Student Movement, with masses of students protesting against the government dressed as zombies doing gigantic flash-mobs to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.

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This particular take on zombies is based on Max Brooks wonderful 2006 novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War but is very different to it. Brooks’ book has no central protagonist but is instead structured like Studs Terkel’s classic books on World Word II and the Depression such as Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. The influence is clear from the title of the books alone and Brooks’ novel is indeed structured as an oral history of the Zombie War, told by different survivors of it from different countries and from different walks of life. The idea is to evoke with panoramic sweep yet retain all the particularities; to not lose sight of the big picture but to also focus on people. This permits Brooks in his novel to allow for  allegory whilst also keeping a sharp eye on narrative and action. One can see why the book was so attractive to producers (though its natural form seems to be more as a basis for an HBO series than what is permissible in feature film form).

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Film buffs may be interested in knowing that Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. Zombie fanatics will already know about his also being the author of The Zombie Survival Guide. What is interesting to me about Brooks in relation to the film is that he’s also written for comic books such as The Extinction Parade and even new takes on established franchises such as his Hearts and Minds graphic novel in the G.I.Joe franchise. What interests me about Brooks’ work here, his curt no-nonsense noir dialogue, the political point-of-view necessary for allegory and critique, the brutal, corrupt world in which all is not yet hopeless, the superb marriage of story/action/dialogue evident in his work for comic books, is only as a measure of the extent to which it is absent in the movie of World War Z.

2013-07-01 20.11.09Marc Foster’s take on World War Z does make you glad that you are watching it in a cinema and does seem to provide what a smaller screen can’t quite, a travelogue of spectacular disasters in various, and variously exotic, parts of the world — those masses of zombies swarming, climbing on top of each other like ants jacked up on methamphetamines, jumping into cars and even planes- — sometimes in really thrilling areal shots that reveal a world unraveling — whilst being able to see every element of these composition of disaster in great detail. You can definitely see where the money went. (estimated cost is  $190 million after tax breaks).

It’s not boring either. The narrative has a melodramatic basis: Gerry Lane’s (Brad Pitt)  family is being sheltered only because of his skills; and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two girls are under threat not only from the zombies but from the authorities, as they are in an ‘essential-personnel-only’ facility. Their  presence in the shelter is conditional on Brad’s continuing existence and eventual success.

In ‘Brad’s War’, a very interesting cover story on the troubled production of the film that made the cover of the June issue of Vanity Fair, Laura M. Helson tells us ‘What the ending of World War Z needed was for its hero to be re-united with his wife and children’ According to Helson,  when screenwriter Damon Lindeloff was asked in to view a 72 minute rough- cut of the picture that didn’t work and to offer some possible solutions, he noted that, “Lane (Brad Pitt) has to ‘save the world’ to get back to his family,” said Lindelof, adding, “It is an emotional task.”

However, though the family is central to the film’s functioning as melodrama, World War Z never puts what family might really mean to the test:  What would have happened if his wife had been rendered a zombie and was on the verge of converting his child, what would he do? or, if both of his children where to be converted and he could only choose one?

The film doesn’t want to rock the boat too much. And because it doesn’t, it is never once as moving or as complex in terms of human feeling of survival, loss, and transformation as various episodes of AMC’s Walking Dead . The series tangled with really important questions (what is society? What is community? What is it to be human? What does it mean to love? What is morality? How does one live ethically in a chaotic world filled with disasters?) that this film, busy as it is with its pile-up of disasters, doesn’t even begin to broach.

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World War Z  has a nice central idea; that survival depends on movement and change; but if films don’t work emotionally, they simply don’t work, no matter how much they cost.  This particular film works in terms of immediate sensation rather than of depth or complexity of feeling; though here even the sensational elements succeed only up to a point: it’s only mildly scare, a little creepy, somewhat horrifying; it’s the kind of zombie film people who don’t like zombie films will enjoy, which I suppose is the kind of audience a film budgeted at World War Z’s level is aiming for.

There is no question that it is spectacular, and that it has some terrific set-pieces such as the zombies on a plane (which could be the basis for an entire, very exciting film). But overall, I found it much better than I had expected and then not as good as it had led me to hope. Pitt is effective and has a very good moment when his eyes well with emotion at the thought of never seeing his daughters again. But it’s almost the only time we get a hint of anything happening underneath his practical façade (contrast Pitt’s performance here to Andrew Lincoln’s in The Walking Dead). As an actor, Pitt is a little like World War Z is as a film: all externals, spectacular to look at, moves thrillingly, but with something unfathomable and likely to be blank under the surface.

…And yet, as David Denby so interestingly notes in his New Yorker review in the July1, 2013 issue, ”the movie…evokes  the hectic density of modern life; it stirs fears of plague and anarchy, and the feeling everything is constantly accelerating. At times, it has the tone and tempo of a panic…The zombies aren’t like us; they are us, just degraded a little’. That sense of the film being a refraction of who we think  we are; and  also a refraction of how the world we live in makes us feel, is part of what makes it so interesting; much more interesting than one initially thought.

José Arroyo

Superman (Zack Snyder, USA, 2013)

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man of steel

Henry Cavill in Man of Steel looks more like the Superman of my imagination than Brandon Routh ever did in Superman Returns; he’s got the better curls; more defined cheekbones and squarer jaw; a beefier, hairier and more masculine body. Routh looked too nice and insubstantial, like a scared rabbit suddenly comforted by a gentle stroke. However, Christopher Reeve’s gee-gosh Superman remains the definitive one; and that goes for Margot Kidder’s klutzy Lois and Terence Stamp’s glamorously decadent Zod as well. No one I’ve seen since has erased my memory or lessened my affection for those three actors in those roles.

Man of Steel also suffers in comparison to the earlier films in other ways: it lacks the sense of wonder and amazement we felt when watching Superman fly or use his super-powers in the 1978 film directed by Richard Donner; it also lacks the wit and charm Richard Lester brought to Superman II (1980), though to be fair, wit and charm is not what’s aimed for here:  Zac Snyder was probably chosen to direct because of the ‘mythic seriousness’ he brought to Wachmen; but he unfortunately also ends up bringing way too much of the heavy-handed portentousness evident in 300 .

The film is long and feels it. The myth of origin story that would be periodically retold in comic books since  the 1940s via only a few panels  is here slow to get going and then ends up taking almost two and half-hours to finish. There is some flashy design: I particularly like how the Krypton story is visualized as molten metal that looks like fascist coin reliefs. But quite a lot of the film drags There’s not a single joke. The only time the audience seems to react to the movie at all is when a young female soldier can’t stop staring at Henry Cavill because ‘he’s hot’. He is indeed, and the film has some dazzling scenes, mostly towards the end with the aerial fight sequences. I also like how Michael Shannon brings an air of Boris Karloff to his playing of Zod. But there’s not much that truly delights.

Man of Steel looks grayish-blue, as if darkening everything made it ‘deeper’. But really, it just means we neither see well not get to experience the aesthetic pleasure of a fuller colour palette. There’s so much destruction of buildings and cars that one gets beyond caring. Special effects were once prized because they filled the audience with awe and wonder; in seeming to make us see the impossible they evoked feeling; now effects seems to have lost touch with affect; there’s nothing at stake in all of these bombs blowing up and buildings falling; it just seems to be a matter of perspective and scale, as in drawing. Explosions are bigger, we can see costumes and space ships with greater clarity. But the effect of bigger and clearer does not end up being more intense, or complex or more fun.

I can see what attracted Russell Crowe to the part of Jor-El — the challenge of filling Brando’s shoes — but they weren’t very big shoes in that role, and they remain unfilled – Brando’s performance was pretty lazy but he had that zaftig silvery look that connoted something extraterrestrial or deific. Crowe is fine but doesn’t erase the memory of Brando or add anything new. And what I truly don’t understand is why they go to so much trouble to avoid saying Superman, it’s almost always Clark or Jor-El, they also pretty much avoid association with the American flag (which would have been unthinkable once; Superman was as much a symbol of America as the Red, White, and Blue) but the film still can’t help getting all misty eyed with the boys in uniform. It looks like the filmmakers spent a lot of time thinking through these changes but they didn’t resolve them well.

I suppose when I think of it, one can’t resist going to see it.  It’s a big-budget spectacle with lots of big stars and a name director on one of the great visually iconic myths of 20th Century pop culture. The connection to Christ is clunky and explicit but woven in so tightly on so many levels of the narrative that it’s bound to keep fan boys and scholars busy ‘interpreting’ for years to come. On another level, there are also interesting connections that can be made in relation to the Galactus figure in the Silver Surfer and how some elements of those story-lines are woven here. Viewers may be interested in the casting of Larry Fishbourne as Perry White; or that the Jimmy Olson character is now named something else and runs a website; or that some fool decided to cast the glorious Diane Lane as Ma Kent (MA Kent!). Admittedly, the set-pieces are good, with the areal fight between Zod and Superman better than that, genuinely exciting in fact. But really, it’s a dud of a film.

José Arroyo

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (Ten Shimoyama, Japan, 2005)

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shinobi

Kids of all  ages should enjoy this story of teenagers who fall in love but belong to different warrior clans. It’s like a Romeo and Juliette story but here each member of the family has special warrior skills (superpowers really). The Lord whom they serve decides they are too powerful and sets them in conflict against each other with the aim of wiping them out. The protagonists struggle to reconcile their love for one  another with their loyalty to their family and clan; sadly, the latter wins out. A difference between at least some Eastern and Western cultures is the way that this narrative plays out in narrative: in my experience, in movies from the East the protagonists always, ultimately, finally, and in spite of any number of always motivated rebellions, bow down to authority. It is worth mentioning here the superb special effects that can now be created on smaller budgets. Hollywood better wake up or it will soon be playing on an even playing field and start losing. It’s losing now. With Yukie Nakama, Jô Odagiri, Tomoka Kurotani

José Arroyo

Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, USA, 2012)

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oblivion

This lingers interestingly on the mind for a while after one’s seen it. The design, cinematography, the whole look of the film is sublime if rather different to the gorgeous play of light we got to see in Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, USA, 2010). It was extraordinary to see Tom Cruise with flushed cheeks at his age, every pore on his face clearly made visible by Claudio Miranda’s crack camerawork and lighting. The film too is beautiful to look at, with a spare aesthetic that empties the frame of things and fills it with wonderful use of line and striking and original compositions. Andrea Riseborough, displaying nervy intelligence and emotional neediness, and Tom Cruise, iconic yet also emotionally transparent, are both wonderful. Olga Kurylenko obviously needs to prance as she did in To the Wonder (Terece Malick, USA, 2012) in order to be watchable at all because here no prancing, dud performance, and rather dull to look at in spite of her beauty.

     Oblivion suffers from a story that isn’t properly dramatised. I loved the whole of the minimalism of the first half and then when more people arrived on the scene it made the film seem less interesting. People have been saying it’s dull, and I do know what they mean; if one isn’t particularly attuned to the various delights cinema can offer on a purely visual plane, the film can seem slow as it doesn’t really compensate or underline story points or dramatise tension effectively with other dimensions of cinematic storytelling. However,  I think Joseph Kosinski is a most fascinating director and would happily see this again, preferably on a big screen.

José Arroyo

The Purge (James DeMonaco, USA, 2013)

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The Purge

The Purge is a B-movie in conception and execution but, as is often the case with B-movies, it is also a timely and entertaining commentary on present-day America.

The film is set in 2022. The economy is booming, unemployment is barely 1% and America seems to have recovered from the violence and unrest of its recent past (i.e. our present). Why is that? Well because once a year Americans are legally allowed to go and kill anyone they feel like for a 12-hour period. This ‘purge’ is seen as a patriotic duty as it gets rid of all the criminals, all who are seen as ‘detritus’ (here black, poor, homeless) and simply anyone who is hated (which could include pretty much everyone, even in, or especially in, a gated community).

This purge is believed to flush out all bad people as well as all bad feeling leading to both social and psychological well being for the rest of the 364 days. Households are allowed to protect themselves against those who want them purged from this world of course…but that takes money. Thus at the heart of this seemingly banal sci-fi horror is a scathing critique of race and class in contemporary America. It’s been released under the title of  American Nightmare  (not Le cauchemar Américain).

The film is rather wonderful at inverting some of the conventions of the genre (What happens to nubile young girls who do naughty things? What’s the cost to the hero of protecting his family?), at re-attributing symbols (what it does here with the Occupy movement masks) and at indicating how close the language of politics, society, identity and community in America now is to that depicted in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  The Purge  is also excellent at communicating a sense of  social hatred for the poor, for the failures, for the different or simply for those that have what you want.

The Purge cops out at the end (it wants to do the moral thing but also  keep the diamond rings), its analysis and critique are a bit muddled  and it is perhaps not as scary as it should be. I note that some message boards find the premise unbelievable because they can’t imagine emergency services not running for 12-hours (though welcome to most of the rest of the world friends!) or, as the film rather underlines, because of the psychological, social and economic cost of those 12-hours of purge.

If  you allow yourself to buy into the film’s premise, however, you’ll find that the film moves well; that Ethan Hawke is rather wonderful as an ordinary, slightly put-upon middle-class father; that he makes a good couple with Lena Hedley (best known for her Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones); that Rhys Wakefield is a superbly chilling villain and that the film is enjoyably scary whilst leaving you with a thing or two to think about.

José Arroyo

Total Recall (Len Wiseman, USA, 2012)

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total recall

It sometimes feels cinema today is making the world a muddier, greyer place. That may be why animated films rule the box-office: they’re bright, colourful; they create and convey a world of romance, action and adventure, a cheerful one. All the romance, action and adventure in most other types of cinema take place in a world made grey or yellow/brown by digital. It’s all the colour of steel and smog. This is part of the problem with Total Recall. It has fantastic sets; when you look closely you see how marvelously designed they all are …but they’re so grey and unattractive; and as the original Total Recall from 1990 showed, the depiction of dystopia can go together with a more cheerful colour palette and pleasing design, at least for the world above-ground.  Also, the action here doesn’t quite work. Each individual shot is fine but the architecture of a scene seems arbitrary. One doesn’t know who’s shooting whom and why; or why one has to shoot someone at all; or where one has to go to in order to escape being shot. One ends up simply not caring. Everyone (Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston) is ok in it but no one is really good and there are no audience moments, like the jokes we got in the original; the Paul Verhoeven version included the audience in on the joke and gave them something else (it’s like an existential quest within a cartoon; between Arnie socking people it’s not afraid to ask what is being? what is a person? who am I? how do I know? – it’s a great movie). Here, one asks why was this movie made? Who was it made for? Why am I bothering with it? There was almost no reaction from the audience to any of it.

José Arroyo