Criterion Sunday 40: Armageddon (1998)

If my eyes were raised at the inclusion in Criterion’s august collection of the respective pairs of John Woo’s Hong Kong gangster films or Paul Morrissey’s 70s Euro-horror exploitation flicks, then this blockbusting Michael Bay action film is surely the most idiosyncratic choice yet. It’s not that a case can’t be made for it: the liner notes set out an adulatory essay on the film’s claim to greatness, while reading the comments on Criterion’s own page for the film suggest that there’s value in its inclusion just as a gesture of épater le bourgeois (cinéaste). I might add that it does, after all, exemplify a certain trend in Hollywood filmmaking, of which Michael Bay is surely the auteurist hero — the tradition of bigger, louder, stupider explosiveness on all counts. This doesn’t make it a good film, though. It’s not even the pummelling sound design and frenetic editing which do it in, but the utterly predictable character arcs — gung-ho and grizzled miner Harry (Bruce Willis) assembles a team to save the world from an asteroid collision, in the process accepting the feckless A.J. (Ben Affleck) as a suitable husband for his equally gung-ho daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) — all of which are punctuated by the most perfunctorily saccharine music cues. It’s not that I hate the film — though the characterisation of Steve Buscemi as a ladies’ man, while surely intended as comic, just seems gratuitous — it’s that I find it on the whole rather boring and forgettable. In the end, you’d be best advised to save yourself the two and a half hours, and instead just watch the Aerosmith music video, which distills it down to around three minutes without sacrificing any of the drama.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay; Writers Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi; Length 153 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 June 2015.

Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (all 2014)

Unlike in 2013, I haven’t been writing reviews of every film I’ve seen this year. I also had trouble finding enough enthusiasm to write about some of the big tentpole blockbusters of the year, mainly because so many others have cast in their two cents, that mine seem entirely beside the point. Still, you’re more likely to have seen these films, so I thought I should at least write a few sentences to give my opinions, and you can disagree with me in the comments if you wish! (For what it’s worth, I’ve also taken to adding my ratings for unreviewed films on my film reviews by year page.)

Continue reading “Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (all 2014)”

The World’s End (2013)

It seems like the 1990s was a fertile time for the emergence of a new generation of British comedy, when there were a number of new star writers and performers coming through on television who in the following decade would go on to make their first films. Among these, comedian Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright made a strong impression with their Spaced TV series and then the film Shaun of the Dead (2004), a witty parody of the zombie genre transposed to leafy middle-class North London. Like many I’ve been a big fan of their work, particularly the second film Hot Fuzz (2007), which takes a quite different genre (the cop film) and imbues it with a great deal of generosity towards its small town setting and well-meaning central characters.

So there has been a great deal of anticipation, not least by myself, for the third in this self-proclaimed ‘Cornetto’ trilogy of small town films (and yes I know the first is set in London, but it’s a peculiarly leafy suburban vision, focused on one of the many villages that make up the capital). And like the recent This Is the End it comedically references the apocalypse — which should be no surprise to those who’ve seen the poster or the trailer. The tone here is more wistful, though both films deal with characters who are cut off from reality — the one narcissistic actors, the other a man overly attached to a nostalgic vision of his past.

In truth, there’s a great deal of pathos in Simon Pegg’s Gary King. He’s a middle-aged man who’s never really grown out of his late-teenage years, still clinging to the same counter-cultural fashion statements and love of early-90s pop culture: his clichés are as likely to be quotes from Primal Scream’s “Loaded” (a totemic song which appears in both the trailer and the film) as anything else. In fact, the first act of the film does a really nice job of sketching out this character, as he tries to get his old clique of friends back together for a return to their home town. He wants them to complete the ‘Golden Mile’, a pub crawl taking in the 12 village pubs, which they tried once when they were 18 but never completed, and his insistence on this peculiarly teenage veneration of the power of alcoholic excess as a means of social bonding seems by this point strangely misplaced. All his friends are, after all, now well-adjusted and successful members of society (a banker, an estate agent, an architect, and a car salesman).

The film also does a great job at linking this to observations about the homogenisation of the English high street, particularly in the identikit chain pubs that inhabit such towns: the first two that the gang return to look exactly the same in every detail. It’s not just the pubs either that are the same, but many of those drinking in them and serving behind the bars have not changed; it’s the kind of stasis that infected the town of Hot Fuzz, and in both cases (though in different ways) the inhabitants seem to have succumbed to a very literal possession. This, after all, is the grand allegory that the ‘body snatchers’ theme is tied into.

However, it’s that very overdetermination in the last third of the film that ends up making me feel a little cold towards it. It’s not that I don’t like or appreciate the genre trappings, it’s just that they’re too obvious, and (for me, at least) somewhat undercut the foregoing scenes that have gently built up the characters through acutely-detailed observational humour. Moreover, the focus on Pegg’s Gary and Nick Frost’s Andrew, a banker who has unresolved issues with Gary stemming from a mysterious incident earlier in their lives, means that the other three fine actors who are part of the ensemble (Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman) seem rather underutilised.

Anyway, I feel like I’m being too harsh on what is, still, after all, one of the better British comedies of recent memory. It definitely hits the laugh quotient, and makes lots of salient points. Maybe I just find the overweening nostalgia the film shows for a time which was also during my own teenage years a little bit too close to the bone, or maybe I still retain an optimism that there’s a way out that needn’t involve the end of the world.

The World's End film posterCREDITS
Director Edgar Wright; Writers Wright and Simon Pegg; Cinematographer Bill Pope; Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 24 July 2013.

Last Night (1998)

When I first started going to the cinema seriously in the 1990s, Canadian films had a particular arthouse cachet, most likely due to Atom Egoyan, whose elegantly interwoven narratives had become quite the hit on the festival circuit. As a result, a number of Canadian films reached cinemas that decade, even ones as far afield as New Zealand, where I was living. I remember trying to pin down then what was distinctively ‘Canadian’ about them — there was something to the wry, dark humour that might be related to being an ex-colonial nation dwarfed by a larger neighbour (or at least, so it seemed to me in New Zealand). Certainly, though, a lot of those 90s films (like earlier films by the veteran director David Cronenberg) shared a dark subject matter — whether, for example, the necrophilia in Kissed (1996), or the deaths of miners in Margaret’s Museum (1995). So, Last Night, with its frank acceptance of the end of the world, seems a natural fit with this morbidity.

Is the way the characters deal with the inevitable end of days ‘Canadian’, for example? There’s anger around the edges, sure, but this is bourgeois, metropolitan Toronto, so there’s also a sort of decency still — Sandra Oh’s character Sandra scours what’s left on the shelves of a supermarket, but assiduously puts back what she doesn’t want. She’s on her way to her husband, but her car is destroyed by the rowdy youths on the streets. This leads her to the apartment of a local resident, Peter (Don McKellar), where she finds herself making (unanswered) phone calls to her husband, increasingly anxious as the end of world is counted down, by now mere hours away. Her husband meanwhile is working late at a gas company, likewise making unanswered calls to his customers (including Peter) to advise them that the gas service will be maintained until the very end.

As befits a script by an actor originally hailing from the theatre, Last Night has a staginess to it; I can easily imagine its small number of interior locations being recreated in that setting. But in some ways, the larger cinematic canvas seems to suit such an insular story: it makes the characters appear that much more alone together. There are several intertwined stories of couples: Peter’s parents who want to stage one last family Christmas (it’s not winter), his sister Jenny (Sarah Polley) and her boyfriend, David Cronenberg’s aforementioned gas company executive and his dedicated female employee Donna, and Peter’s friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie), more interested in fulfilling his sexual fantasies via a series of transitory hook-ups.

Perhaps it’s this last reaction that’s the most explicable given the apocalyptic framing story — it’s not getting darker, implying some kind of fiery comet strike — but what the stories all share in common is a need for human connection. McKellar uses the end of the world to focus on what’s most important for these people. Maybe this then is what’s most Canadian: an unflinching look at what is most primal in humanity, presented in a largely unadorned manner. Not a great deal happens in the film — it’s made up of a small number of little stories — but cumulatively they are about the connection of each of us to our fellow humans. Even the end of the world cannot sever that, McKellar ultimately suggests.

Last Night film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Don McKellar; Cinematographer Douglas Koch; Starring Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, August 2000 (and more recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 6 July 2013).

This Is the End (2013)

No matter where this directorial debut from Canadian actor Seth Rogen may go — and it goes to some pretty ridiculous places — it always seems to retain the goofy charm of a low-key stoner movie, something like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) but far more self-referential. After all, everyone in the film is playing a (clearly fictionalised) version of themselves, partying and hanging out in Los Angeles. It’s a brittle conceit, and it works better than by all rights it should, but you can at least imagine all the guys in this film — and it is very much a guys’ film — being friends in real life.

The set-up sees Jay Baruchel arriving at LAX to stay with his old friend Seth Rogen while he’s in town. Both grew up in Canada, and while Jay is concerned Seth is being swallowed up by Los Angeles, Seth’s LA friends see Jay as a last link to the Canadian past he needs to slough off, leading to tension between Jay and the rest of the cast. After a bit of bonding over video games and weed, Seth drags Jay along to James Franco’s housewarming, at a deranged brutalist bunker decorated with kitschy art and populated by a large number of familiar faces. It’s here that the core cast is introduced. If Franco is a preening whiner, then Jonah Hill is chanelling a more right-on holistic West Coast vibe as the ‘sensitive’ emotional actor, while Craig Robinson is a no-nonsense party guy who spends the whole movie wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Take Yo Panties Off”. There’s little point mentioning any of the celebrity cameos here, as part of the fun is in spotting the faces, but it’s fair to say that (as many critics have already pointed out) Michael Cera gets the standout role.

These are enjoyable scenes, certainly, but this is a film about the Apocalypse, and it doesn’t take too long before things get biblical. Part of the joke is that when it comes — and it starts with the Rapture, when the souls of the worthy ascend to Heaven — only actors are left behind, such that Franco’s party becomes something like a gathering of the living damned. Eventually only a handful are left holed up in Franco’s home; they must try to survive and find a way out of the apocalyptic hellscape that Los Angeles has become.

For a film that trades so heavily on Christan iconography, it’s interesting that almost all of the film’s creators are of Jewish upbringing, but perhaps that’s a key to the film’s success. They get plenty of anarchic fun out of their premise, one which trades on the more skewed aspects of theistic belief that are part of the American cultural upbringing, and which have naturally been inculcated through generations of Hollywood fantasies. For the most part Rogen and Goldberg tap into that (there are all kinds of movie-literate quotes, not least from The Exorcist), abetted by their ensemble cast.

It does at times feel strained by its limitations. One such is the fact that this is a very male-dominated film. These kinds of apocalyptic fantasies do, after all, tend to be the preserve of a certain kind of nerdy fanboy and indeed, the opening scenes position Rogen and Baruchel rather neatly as such. To be fair, the film tries to critique its own limitations, such as when Emma Watson shows up briefly, but the guys’ subsequent conversation — with its self-consciously parodic ease at outing one another as potential rapists — still feels in rather poor taste, even if Watson’s response is just right.

However, it always manages to pull itself back on track, with goofy and well-meaning charm. Some of that may be dependent on how much you like the core cast members — they are playing versions of themselves, after all — but for me, the insouciance at the heart of the enterprise was sufficient to carry me through even the most adolescent of dick jokes. There are quite a few adolescent dick jokes. But I laughed even so.

This Is the End film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; Cinematographer Brandon Trost; Starring Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Saturday 29 June 2013.