A lot of people have been hanging out for Joon-ho Bong’s English language debut Snowpiercer (2013) for quite some time now. It played to a fair bit of hype in a couple of festivals quite a while ago. But the Weinsteins have gotten their hands on the film and have been making a lot of cuts to the final version. So even though it has opened in a bunch of countries over the past six months, places like Australia and the USA are still waiting. The concept sees a train circling the world continously in a near-future apocalypse. Tis a great concept and this red band trailer makes it look like a film to catch, tapping into classical sci-fi notions of class and power struggles, rocking a quality cast and looking mad pretty to boot. Hopefully the Weinsteins have gone easy on Bong’s original vision and we can actually see the film soon as well. You guys keen as I am for this, or have you even managed to catch the film?
Oh yeah, you know Un Chien Andalou (1929). Rather, you probably just know that one shot, the iconic eyeball slicing scene. It is surprising how many people are so aware of that one shot, without ever having checked out the 16 minute entirety of Luis Bunuel’s surreal and absurd avant-garde classic.
As for the eye slicing, it is rightly iconic. It is also uncompromising. Even if you are well conditioned to contemporary gore it is an almost unwatchable shot. Aside from that, the film also features the weirdest maguffin you are ever likely to come across, ants flowing out of stigmata, too many dead animals for my liking and a wonderful choice of soundtrack that is both bawdy and drives the film along. I like avant-garde cinema, but for me, 16 minutes is a little long. I prefer a good 2 minute blast of Man Ray imagery. Stretching the form over this kind of length leaves me searching for meaning a little too much. Having said that, the images do link together so well in this film through plentiful match shots and other editing techniques, that for the most part you will not find yourself too bogged down.
Obviously with a surrealist, avant-garde film like this, you are never really going to know what in the world is going on. But for a film in this subgenre to be effective, at least for me personally, it must first look cool, and secondly have some sort of binding theme. This film nails it on the first. The repeated image of the ants festering around a stigmata is exceptional and probably deserves to be just as iconic as the eyeball slice and there are numerous moments when you have no idea what you are watching, but you know it looks very cool. On the second measure, Un Chien Andalou succeeds for the most part I guess. Well there are a lot of themes there. They may not be cohesive as such, but Bunuel and Dali are throwing some interesting ideas out there. Not that they all stick or even that I picked up on them all. For me though, the film was concerned with a huge amount of things including male/female relations, religion (the folly thereof?), the act of writing and creation of any art (and the investment of one’s person in doing so), the nature of time as there are temporal folds and creases and reincarnation. So basically, plenty to assault you over the course of 16 minutes.
It is easy to see why Un Chien Andalou is perhaps the most famous avant-garde film of all time. It’s pretty challenging to sit through its short running time, but for the most part is a worthwhile and rewarding experience, especially for anyone who wishes to be a student of film history. You can check the film out here:
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
2014 Progress: 14/101
Of all the iconic entries into the series of Universal Monster films, probably none can match James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) on that front. Of course starring Boris Karloff as the monster, the film is one of the earliest examples of turning an intelligent source into an intelligent, yet at times rollicking, genre film.
Frankenstein takes Mary Shelley’s rather large scoped source novel and extracts from it a taut tale, covering off on the most cinematic aspects of the novel. We see Dr Frankenstein, beset by a kind of madness, give life to his monster. We see the ‘humanity’ of this monster. Which is perfectly encapsulated in a heart wrenching, and really quite confronting scene, that is perfect in its performance and execution (I won’t spoil it, but if you have seen the film, then you should know the scene I refer to). Then we see the horrors that the created creature can reap and in a brilliantly shot finale the village folk gain their revenge, but it is safe to say that you won’t be cheering at the sight (I wonder if people did when the film was first released?). The script of the film enhances the gothic elements of the piece, which is one of the film’s strengths and also manages to be populist without being mind numbingly dumb. Watching this film does deliver a real sense of nostalgia, though that is not to say that it is a dated film. It still feels relevant and still works as a piece of cinematic enjoyment too. Perhaps it is a little nostalgic for me in particular as it beings back memories of my iconic turn as Igor (Fritz in the film) in the Mudgee High School year 7 stage production of the Frankenstein story (a production that also famously starred Josh Jordan as baby Frankenstein).
Whilst obviously not as detailed as in the source novel, there is a lot of thematic exploration in this one. Most prominently is the notion of what it means to be a god and what it means (from a very standard Christian standpoint) to toy with that. The thematic focus is on Dr Frankenstein as the man corrupted by his own intelligence and more importantly power. The themes explored through this character are universal ones, both obvious analogies such as the use of scientific progression, as well as more subtle ones such as everything from world affairs, to the use of information to really anywhere that a power structure exists and is exploited (so everywhere basically). There is so much detailed craft and imagination in this film. One of my very favourite touches comes in the opening credits where the monster is listed as being played by ‘?’ (Karloff is listed in the closing credits). Despite looking like it was modestly budgeted, the sets lend the entire film a real gothic quality. Like all of these Universal films, the filmmakers did so much with so little and the design of the sets really transcends the budget. Though some sequences do feel a little like they are taking place on a theatre stage, it is never distracting and is really as much to do with the writing as the sets.
James Whale, as a person, must be one of early cinema’s most interesting characters. An openly gay (very rare for the time), English migrant and former WWI prisoner of war who played a major role in the early invention of the horror film in the American industry with films such as this one, its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Invisible Man (1933). Like many American directors of the time, Whale seems to have been particularly influenced by the work of early German directors such as Fritz Lang and you can clearly see the influence of films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) on this film, with plenty of canted shots playing up the gothic aspect of the film. As the monster, Karloff again shows that he is more than just a vehicle for physical transformation. Just like in The Mummy (1932), Karloff brings so much emotion to the role of Frankenstein’s monster and along with the script helps to convey humanity in this creation that makes the film far superior to how it would have otherwise ended up. The acting style across the board works well. The mannerisms are quite over the top without ever becoming distracting. But the performances always feel like they are at the service of the plot and the themes, rather than the actors aiming to steal scenes. I have already mentioned that Dr Frankenstein is the thematic focus of the film and this is assisted by Colin Clive’s intense performance. A performance that culminates awesomely in the famous “it’s alive” sequence, which delivered by a lesser actor would have been cringeworthy to the point of being unwatchable.
This is the second time I had watched this film and strangely it felt less dated to me this time. The acting is better than most films of the vintage, particularly genre ones and of all the Universal monster films, this one excels the most at iconic scenes and also probably at thematic exploration.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
2014 Progress: 13/101
Unlike a lot of people, Roger Ebert was not my favourite film critic. I only read his work occasionally, finding it often insightful and often missing the point a little. But I, like everyone really must, totally respect Ebert and his position as the most popular critic of all time. He undoubtedly got more people interested in the art of cinema and challenged them to explore films that they otherwise would have passed by. Life Itself (2014) is a doco from big name director Steve James currently playing the festival circuit on Ebert’s life and work. From the awesome choice of opening quote from Ebert, to the breakdown of his sparring with Gene Siskel to the reveal of some of the great talking heads the film will include such as my man Werner Herzog, this is a film I really want to see. You guys keen for this too?
Australian horror film The Babadook (2014) has been gaining a fair bit of attention lately. From winning acclaim at international film festivals to securing a reasonable theatrical release in its home country, which is becoming increasingly rare, this is a film that has people talking. After a slow start, I think it is fair to say that writer director Jennifer Kent’s first feature film deserves absolutely everything that is said about it (assuming they are good that is).
The film centres on a single mother Amelia, played by Essie Davis, and her son Samuel, played by Noah Wiseman. Samuel’s father died in a car accident as Amelia was being driven to the hospital to give birth to him. Things are already going pretty rubbish for the family when the boy finds a book titled “The Babadook” on the shelf to read before bed. The book is amazing by the way and if they bought it out, I would snap up a copy for a prized piece of merch. Already scared of monsters, the starkly terrifying book reduces Samuel to a bawling, inconsolable mess. From there the horror part of the story really kicks in with the usual bumps in the night and aspects of the book playing out in real life. The film is really astutely made and because the tone and pacing are both so spot on, it makes it all the more terrifying. And believe me it is terrifying. It’s a very different horror film too, with its stylish shooting style, being not at all visceral and clearly influenced by though not derivative of classic haunted house films. Thematically, this is a very dark and adult horror film. It is not just about the supernatural threat to the physical body, but it also deals with grief in a very intelligent and interesting way. It is also one of the better examinations of the relationship between a mother and her child in a horror film that has been seen for quite a while.
There is so much texture in this film. The house where a lot of the action plays out has a lot of wood and a very gothic feel to it, the soundtrack and sound design both add so much without distracting at all, whilst the heavily focused on close-ups shooting style also brings a really different vibe to the film. Essie Davis is well known to Aussie audiences for her role as Phryne Fisher in the TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. She is excellent as the 1920s sleuth in that series, but she is even better in this film. As a mother close to the edge, she totally embodies the role with her physical appearance and mannerisms. The film opens on a long close-up of her face, just being mad good at acting, and from then on you know you are in for a wonderful performance. She excels at both the grounded elements of the script, as a mother who just cannot take any more and is becoming increasingly exasperated with her son’s nightmares, and also at the scream laden supernatural aspects of it. The fact that Davis’ performance is so excellent is important because the arc of her character, her disintegration, is a very good narrative through line for the film. I was expecting Essie Davis to be as wonderful as she is, but a total surprise to me was the performance from young Noah Wiseman as Samuel. It is one of the more shocking performances from a young actor I have seen in quite a while. Part of that is because he is totally invested in the role and genuinely acting, not just playing along as himself. There are a couple of sequences where the character is putting on magic shows. And so excellent is Wiseman’s performance that he is able to act as the bad actor that the character would be… if that makes any sense. In any case, he is really good at everything, from making you believe he is an annoying brat, to a genuinely troubled kid, to mortally terrified.
I saw this film on my birthday, two beers in hand down at my local cinema. Aside from the fact it scared the shit out of me, it was a perfect present. A highly original and artistically made horror film from my home country that knocked my socks off. Here is hoping that the film is a big success and it leads to Kent being able to bring some more frightening tales to the screen. If you get the chance over the next couple of months to see it, jump at the chance.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Cheap Thrills (2013) is an indie horror film that has been garnering a fair amount of hype recently. Featuring David Koechner, aka Champ Kind on the cast and a simple, relatable, yet able to be taken to the extreme premise, it is easy to see why plenty have fallen in love with this film.
Craig is a man down on his luck. His morning root was interrupted by his crying baby, a final notice has been pinned to his front door and to top it all off, he gets fired. This basic, effective, characterisation is filled out as the film progresses. We learn that the now fired mechanic was once a writer, who has clearly either fallen out of love with his art or lost the ability to produce. This back story is obviously not the point of a film like this, but it does definitely help to elevate the narrative and that level of detail and craft makes you (well me at least) a little more willing to overlook some of the film’s later flaws. Down on his luck, Craig finds himself in a dingy bar, trying to drink away the pain of losing his job, before heading home to see his wife and baby, who he now has absolutely no way of supporting. At the bar he runs across an old mate Vince, and they are in turn befriended by a rich couple played by Sara Paxton and David Koechner. These two are out for her birthday and Colin, played by Koechner, has an obsession with making memories which leads to the two old friends being challenged to a serious of dares with increasing financial stakes and correspondingly increasing levels of risked attached to them. I won’t give too much away, but the gauntlet kind of runs from taking shots to public toileting to severing limbs, with more than a few diversions into other stunts, which can be anywhere from unoriginally crude to intriguingly psychological.
I am really not sure how I feel about the ending of Cheap Thrills. I for one did not see it coming, though I think I have heard others peg it as a little obvious. At first I was really not a fan. But now after letting it stew a little bit, even though I still don’t love it, I kind of respect it as a choice of ending. I definitely feel that, even though it is briefly touched upon, the financial aspect to the motivations of these characters really should have been fleshed out a little more. The film is clearly a comment on the haves and have nots in our societies. But the idea is just plonked there a little and I wanted some interrogation of it. Having said that though, it is great that a horror film even puts the ideas out there though, plenty of films would have focused totally on the crassness and the one upmanship. Morally, it was good that the character of Craig was at least a little conflicted to begin with and again this should have played out a little more through the economic exploration that the film was lacking. Ditto the almost immediate breakdown between Craig and Vince. It is kind of plonked there but the point that could be made is either not there or it is at the very least not wholly rounded out. The performances are pretty solid overall. As one of the two leads, I thought Ethan Embry who played Vince was the pick of them, seeming to channel Tom Hardy a little and he nicely mixes up a sense of fun with a definite dash of intensity. His comedic sense is great and it would be cool to see this film lead to more opportunities for him. Koechner is probably the most famous person on the cast. Initially he is just so ‘big’ with the performance it’s distracting. You can’t help seeing him a little as Champ Kind, with his uber obnoxious loudmouth air. As the film goes on though, this tempers a little and he actually establishes pretty easily a character that stands well apart from Champ, so it is good to see that he has the ability to pull that off.
Cheap Thrills is an interesting film with a great core concept. It definitely could have taken that concept, and the commentary on us as individuals and a society further, but at the very least those ideas are there. At its best, this is really, really good. As it stands though, its just good, but the kind of good that is different enough from the norm it is probably worth your while checking out.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
I was a huge, huge fan of The Guard (2011). It is one of those films that I really could not understand someone not loving. Calvary (2014) sees the director of that film John Michael McDonagh reuniting with awesome star Brendan Gleeson. Also along for the ride are a cracking cast including Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran and Domhnall Gleeson. The film looks wonderful, like these guys will bring a dash of the boisterous from last time but really ramp up the thought provoking elements this time. Anyone else fans of The Guard and looking forward to this one too?
Revisiting Little Miss Sunshine (2006) I was struck by how much, just like Juno (2007), the reception of the film has cooled in light of the pale imitations that studios started pumping out to cash in on its success. This is a shame, because as a crowd-pleaser of a film, with something for pretty much everyone, it is bloody hard to beat.
The film is a simple, but not sentimental, long distance journey taken so that the youngest member of a family can compete in a beauty pageant. The family is a bunch of misfits, from a foul mouthed grandad, a prick of a father through to a teenager who has taken a vow of silence. The car is a bright yellow, mechanically questionable kombi van which adds to the misfit feel of it all. The results of the film, like any great team, are far superior to the constituent parts that it is made up of. Along the way, there are little moments that give the film such charm – a homophobic old dude spotting a suicidal gay Proust scholar for a porno, and a note advising ‘go hug mum’. It’s a comedy that does credit to its road film roots, having the characters overcome a range of barriers, from the comical to the heartfelt. It also does not shy away from the fact, actually it totally embraces it, that kid’s beauty pageants are the weirdest thing in the history of the world. And the whole film is topped off by a dance sequence that may be the greatest and certainly most incisive in cinema history.
You know why both Little Miss Sunshine and Juno are really good films and all the shitty pale imitations are shitty pale imitations? Both of them have really exceptional and most importantly original scripts. This one is a weird script in some ways. It is simultaneously really artistic, no one would ever say a lot of these things, but despite that it also manages to be incredibly true to life. The film is also boosted massively by the fact that the cast is exceptional, and many of the cast are giving if not career best performances, then pretty close to it – Toni Collette, Abigail Bresnan, Steve Carrell (he has never been in the same ballpark of awesomeness as he is in this film), Paul Dano and Greg Kinnear for example. Carrel’s character is an interesting one to consider the film, and its merits through. There is a lot going on there, but really his character is a peripheral figure. It says a lot about the film and the script that a fringe character is so three dimensional and well written. That is also true of Dano’s character, who aside from one big (and crushing moment) is really in the background with Carrell, adding so much colour and surprising depth to the film. Even caricature characters like that of Alan Arkin are not only expertly written, they also manage to some how sit with the tone of the film with no jarring.
Little Miss Sunshine is hilarious filmmaking that also manages to make you both care and feel. If you think about it, there are not that many films you can say that about. If you have never seen this, then you are missing one of the truly great post 2000 films. And if like me you have not checked this out since its release, then it is well and truly time to take another look.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
2014 Progress: 12/101
Planet of the Apes (1968) is a film that has become a really central part of pop culture. Not just through The Simpsons, though yes that did totally ruin the film’s ending for me some years ago. I hadn’t seen the film for a whole bunch of years, so thought I would revisit it to see if it still held up as a sci-fi classic for me.
I actually watched Planet of the Apes a good 10 years ago, long before I was into classic film. I recall being really impressed by it and blown away by the ending even though I knew what was coming. It starts exceptionally well, combining thought provocation like all the best sci-fi with some nice futuristic visuals. The exploration of the mental and philosophical issues of exceptionally long space journeys is really good stuff and it leads into a spectacular crash sequence. The camerawork here is one of the highlights of the film as the camera swirls wildly while the spaceship tumbles to the ground. There is an early sense of exploration and a final closing off of the initial ideas that the film is concerned with, particularly in the manner that George Taylor played by Charlton Heston reacts to the fact that everyone he knew has been dead for millennia and he will almost certainly never get back home. These are all great questions to ponder, especially today with manned missions to Mars possibly looming, and the very real probability that one day people will have to sign up for one way space missions. The discussions between Taylor and his rather more perturbed crewmates are really well scripted and bring all of those ideas out. Unfortunately once the three men were captured by the apes, the film really flattened out for me. Aside from that capture sequence, the action is all pretty lacklustre and the narrative never particularly goes anywhere. Most of the elements of the film that work later on have very little to do with the apes actually, which are obviously the focus of the action. Rather, it is the hallmarks of the environment that have the timeless prescience of all the best sci-fi that hit the mark. The soil is totally ruined, nothing at all will grow and much of the planet is a total wasteland.
One aspect of this film that really stands out, especially given its vintage, is that it is really quite a dark film both narratively and especially thematically. The plight of the astronauts is bleak, basically from start to finish and there is a certain meanness to much of what happens. For such a mainstream film, some of the technical elements are quite bold. There are long segments with very little dialogue, the spaceship is intricately designed, there is an almost handheld sense to some of the camera work and the soundtrack is full of (at times annoying and intrusive) electronic bleeps and bops. The ape costuming work, whilst possibly revolutionary at the time, is exceptionally dated now, just looking terrible and basic. At times, I found them to be so bad that it was actually distracting. Planet of the Apes is quite famous for a number of the philosophical messages it examines. This is cleverly done by inverting the roles of humans and apes that currently exist. Humans are used for ‘animal testing’, talked down to and generally treated abhorrently. In some ways it is a very forward argument against human exceptionalism, at least that is a reading I made of the film. Unfortunately though whilst this inversion of roles is clever, there is only so much you can achieve simply by inverting the roles. The ideas needed to be, or at the very least could have been, pushed a lot further. I guess one advantage of the limited approach of the inversion of ape and human roles is that it makes the film’s messages quite universal and open to interpretation. But I still think that overall the script needed to go further with the ideas.
I was definitely less impressed with The Planet of the Apes this time around. My impression is that if you look at various elements of the film, especially the themes and some of the design, it should be a lot better than it actually is. As a whole though, I found this to be a merely good experience rather than a truly satisfying one.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
2014 Progress: 11/101