A colourful, brash and cheerfully perverse action film, Lori Petty seems well-matched to the title role, being every bit as quirky as a comic book character brought to life might be — somewhat hyperactive, but quirky without being grating. That said, it feels like the key here is that she isn’t constantly trying to present herself as sexually available at the same time as fighting off bad guys and blowing up compounds (a direction you imagine a male filmmaker might have gone, and one that has certainly hampered female characters in a lot of other comic-book and sci-fi films). There’s a kind of camp at play here that’s reminiscent of the Wachowskis in Jupiter Ascending (2015), with busy set design worthy of Terry Gilliam. The kangaroo creatures spoil it all somewhat, teetering too close to the cult perils of Howard the Duck, and the action sequences go on somewhat, but on the whole this remains good fun, with an iconic 90s alternative rock and ‘riot grrrl’-influenced soundtrack.
FILM REVIEW Director Rachel Talalay | Writer Tedi Sarafian (based on the comic by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett) | Cinematographer Gale Tattersall | Starring Lori Petty, Naomi Watts, Reg E. Cathey, Ice-T, Malcolm McDowell | Length 104 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 May 2017
Saturday 15 October, the penultimate day of the London Film Festival, and another heavy one for me, with four films. Two of them were archival restorations, so a bit of guaranteed classic status in amongst the new works.
Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA, dir./wr. Julie Dash, DOP Arthur Jafa)
It’s quite an achievement this film, but it’s not one that goes in for a straightforward narrative or overt central character. It’s about a whole family, if not an extended community, who are — at length — preparing to leave their home on an island in South Carolina in 1902. And it’s about their stories, and memories, and inherited customs. But none of this is presented in a particularly linear way; instead there’s a flow of characters and images (strikingly beautiful at times), and an accretion of scenes illustrating their lives. It’s not perfect either — the score sadly hasn’t dated very well at all, a wash of post-80s synths that doesn’t always add to the drama — but for the most part it’s excellent and singular. [****]
Park (2016, Greece/Poland, dir./wr. Sofia Exarchou, DOP Monika Lenczewska)
I can already see the reviews of a few people calling this film “boring” and “overlong” and… well, it would be disingenuous to claim I don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as I’m concerned films that get those labels — or at least films which aren’t superhero movies — tend to be just my kind of thing (see also: “self-indulgent”). It’s a film about a bunch of disaffected young people congregating amidst the detritus of Athens’ Olympic Park; their lives are going nowhere, so yeah, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of boredom and entropy. The two characters who come to be central, Dimitri and Anna, just mooch around, fight, fuck, dance, nothing special. But I thought it was compelling in its atmosphere of dereliction and dead-ends, a clarion call from a certain precarious position in a decaying society. [***½]
Born in Flames (1983, USA, dir./wr. Lizzie Borden)
This is a film that comes from a specific time and place (New York in the early-80s) and perhaps some choices might not have been made today — bombing the WTC seems most obvious — but there’s still an enormous amount that retains both relevance and power 35 years on. Most notably this is an expression of intersectionality in practice avant la lettre, giving strong central roles to women of colour and criticising some of the viewpoints and privilege expressed by white feminists. That’s just one aspect; I liked also the way that its imagined socialist revolution (shades of Bernie brocialism?) hasn’t materially altered the patriarchal power structure, leading to calls for continued feminist insurrection. It’s all made in a sort of pseudo-documentary collagist agitprop style that is perhaps born of its extended genesis (filmed over five years) but works admirably. A lo-fi no-wave independent feminist masterpiece of sorts. [****]
Moderation (2016, UK/Greece, dir. Anja Kirschner, wr. Kirschner/Maya Lubinsky/Anna De Filippi, DOP Mostafa El Kashef/Dimitris Kasimatis)
There’s a certain category of experimental filmmaking whose films seem more tailored to an academic appreciation, by which I mean that they are clearly carefully thought out in terms of thematics and ideas, but express themselves visually in ways that don’t always hold the casual viewer’s attention. Or maybe I was just coming down off three other films, because there was plenty in it to like, intellectually speaking. It’s a disquisition of sorts into horror cinema, without ever quite being a horror film — though it certainly flirts with generic elements both in its film-within-a-film story of strange sand-spewing pods, as well as in some of the apartment-bound scenes with actors encountering creepy poltergeist-like activity. The film is structured around a woman director and her screenwriter (Maya Lubinsky and Anna De Filippi), who are in a relationship, talking to prospective actors for their mooted horror film, and these extended scenes form a key part of the film. Indeed, storytelling, whether in dialogue by the actors or as an exercise of artistic creation dramatised between the two women, is very much the film’s most sustained theme, with horror just a heightened form of that basic need to tell stories. Also, there’s one scene where the Egyptian actor Aida’s pink hair and turquoise eye shadow perfectly matches her floral print dress, and it’s gorgeous to behold. [**½]
The increasing dominance of Netflix as a source of home entertainment may be decried by many, but it does have the benefit of making more accessible a number of more niche titles that, outside their home country, may never get a cinematic screening and often don’t show up on home media formats at all. As an Asian-American authored science-fiction film, Advantageous has plenty of interest within it, occupying a similar kind of cerebral niche to the works of Shane Carruth, with a frosty understated detachment to the acting that made me think more of Todd Haynes’s Safe, or of Canadian cinema — though that might just as easily be a comparably low budget leading to a future world of largely sterile blankness. However, for a film presumably shot with few enough means, this all looks very polished. Gwen (Jacqueline Kim, also the co-writer) is an executive at a cosmetic surgery company, feeling pressured by the high cost of living in providing for her daughter’s education and whose job is under threat from younger women. Therefore she asks her boss (James Urbaniak) to take her as a test subject in her company’s experimental procedure to transfer a person’s consciousness into a younger body, thereby securing her job and the possibility of a brighter future for her daughter. Naturally there are complications, leading the film to delve into questions of the relative value of youth and racial whiteness within society (there are, unsurprisingly, limited choices as to available body types for the cosmetic procedure). There’s a sustained creepiness to the atmosphere which even encompasses some of the familiar guest actors (Jennifer Ehle and Ken Jeong both pop up, working quite against type), and provides plenty to think about in terms of where we’re all headed.
FILM REVIEW Director Jennifer Phang | Writers Jacqueline Kim and Jennifer Phang | Cinematographer Richard Wong | Starring Jacqueline Kim, James Urbaniak | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 23 January 2016
A few years ago I went to see The Counselor and I hated it so much I called it my least favourite film of the year. Which means I haven’t exactly been seeking out the work of Ridley Scott since then. But some friends said hey this new film of his was pretty good and so finding myself with an empty day and having exhausted everything else I needed to see, I steeled myself for 141 minutes of more of his noxious worldview (whyyyyy?) and… well… it was actually pretty enjoyable stuff. But I suspect that’s partly Scott’s directorial vision being paired with a more sympathetic screenwriter in Drew Goddard — most of the battle in making a good film, after all, is starting with a good script. It’s a science-fiction film, but fairly easy on the distancing techy BS that distracts in other efforts. Sure there are actors who pop up just to be savant geniuses (like Donald Glover), but for the most part this is just about determined people trying to do their best with (apparently) very little regard to budget — I guess we should assume the future has solved all its financial problems. Therefore, amongst these driven players — including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent, the mission director, Jessica Chastain as Melissa, commanding the actual expedition, and Jeff Daniels as the NASA director Teddy — astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is just the most notable, for he’s the one stuck on Mars. Most of the extended running time just lingers on him solving problems, and Scott’s work is to build tension through emphasising his very isolation, and the impossibility of those back on Earth helping him in any meaningful way. In that sense, it has a bit of Apollo 13 to it, and it’s immensely likeable in the way that there are no villains in the piece, and everyone gets their time. Sure, our Everyman character is still a white guy (and Damon’s run into a bit of criticism for his views on that this year), but this is a well-crafted film which fits in easily alongside Gravity as a solid bit of space-based entertainment. I suspect we’ll be getting more of that as 2015 draws to a close.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Ridley Scott | Writer Drew Goddard (based on the novel by Andy Weir) | Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski | Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara | Length 141 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 31 October 2015
This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by its director and leading actor Zhao Tao.
It feels like it’s been a long road for me towards appreciating director Jia Zhangke’s films properly since his first film Xiao Wu (1997), but Tian zhu ding (A Touch of Sin) was up there at the top of my year’s favourite films of last year. This new one also takes a multi-part approach to storytelling, but rather than four separate (if interwoven) stories, here it’s three focusing on the same characters but over time (1999, 2014 and 2025). It’s very easy to recount the key ideas which Jia is going for here and make them seem banal — I think we’ve all become familiar now with films that look at technology and social media as symptomatic of a modern social disconnection that we have from one another as people. With respect to China, there’s also a link made here with westernisation and capitalism, which makes the choice of the song with which the film opens and closes (“Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, accompanied by a delightful dance sequence) seem somewhat inevitable. And yet none of this is really quite as obvious while the film is playing: it’s instead a gentle and at times subtly harrowing story of a woman growing up in provincial China (Zhao Tao), the man she marries (Yi Zhang) whose life is dedicated to wealth-creation (leading him first to Shanghai and then Australia), and their son (Daole, or “Dollar”, played by Zijian Dong), who grows up with his father after the parents split, and finally has troubling reconnecting with his mother. Each of the three time periods is presented in a different aspect ratio, which lends further artfulness to the presentation. The long final stretch set in the future is probably the most challenging (not least because the characters all speak in English, Daole having lost the ability to speak his native tongue, and because Yi Zhang’s old-age look is so transparently unconvincing), but it’s also the most fascinating section, whereas the 1999 sequence has a sort of bright sheen of hopefulness (and even, dare I say it, a hint of televisual melodrama). It’s a strong work, if not my favourite of Jia’s recent output.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival Director/Writer Jia Zhangke | Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai | Starring Zhao Tao, Yi Zhang, Zijian Dong, Sylvia Chang | Length 131 minutes || Seen at Vue West End, London, Thursday 8 October 2015
Re-released to cinemas in time for Terminator Genisys‘s upcoming return to the same events, it’s easy to think of this as an Arnie film, or as a James Cameron film — and it is those things (certainly it cemented Schwarzenegger’s stardom, and was Cameron’s breakthrough) — but it’s also a film that centres on Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, as well as being a film co-written by a woman (its producer and Cameron’s wife for the next five years, Gale Anne Hurd). In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that Arnie’s eponymous character is somewhat peripheral, like a lurking terror, leaving us with a story of two people (Connor and Michael Biehn’s military man Kyle) in a twisted time travel narrative that owes perhaps a little to the modernist Chris Marker short film La Jetée. However, far more than any of those things it’s a shlocky exploitation flick, very much in the Roger Corman mould (one of his favourite actors, Dick Miller, even shows up as a gun shop clerk), a refinement of the kind of things that Cannon Films was putting out during this era. The film’s best lines carry an unmistakable ring of campness (those bouffant 80s hairstyles certainly help), and Arnie’s iconic “I’ll be back” gets a little cheer from the audience I was watching with. It only occasionally overstretches in trying to find deeper meaning, but for the most part it stays on the right side of being a lean and pulpy action film, meaning that it’s aged perhaps a little better than some of its contemporaries.
RE-RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director James Cameron | Writers James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd | Cinematographer Adam Greenberg | Starring Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Arnold Schwarzenegger | Length 107 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Wednesday 24 June 2015 (and on VHS at home, Wellington, earlier in my life)
It’s quite difficult, it turns out, to write a coherent review of a film that you spend a lot of time saying is one of the great films of the 1980s (if not all time), but I’ll have a punt. It may have a silly, pulpy title, but what Paul Verhoeven and his screenwriters have done here is to craft a masterful satire of a society in which government has outsourced its functions to a greedy private corporation, which leverages the societal decay attendant on its own chronic underinvestment in public services as a means to impose a police state enforced by its own military hardware. In short, like a lot of Verhoeven’s work, it’s about the heady allure of fascism, with a story that’s still sadly current in our own times of austerity. In many ways, its only concession to science fiction is the title robot, although the film has two robotic cops: one is RoboCop, a wonder of brushed steel-effect costume design (which must have been quite some work for the actor underneath, Peter Weller); and the other its clunky counterpart ED-209 (animated using stop-motion techniques developed from those employed in the 1950s by Ray Harryhausen). But the effects are just the veneer, because RoboCop is about what it means to have a soul even in the absence of a body; its hero is in many ways a Christ-like figure of suffering, rebirth and redemption (though that much is to be expected from the devout Verhoeven).
All these thematics would be for naught, though, were it not for the tightly structured script, the comedic levity of the satire, and the very fine performances. Of the latter, the standouts are two actors more known for easygoing likeability, cast well against type: Ronny Cox as Dick Jones, the Vice-President of OCP (OmniConsumer Products, the corporation at the film’s dark heart); and Kurtwood Smith as the grinning, leering Clarence Boddicker, unofficial crime lord of old Detroit and a footsoldier for Jones. The comedy comes through in unlikely places, like the overextended violent death of the junior executive Mr Kinney at an early board meeting, and the repeated failings of Dick Jones’s ED-209 droid (of which this is just the first). Most effective are the newsbreaks which punctuate the film and their fake adverts, a technique that Verhoeven extended in Starship Troopers ten years later, along with a penchant for casting daytime soap actors and an attempt at gender-blind casting (there’s a hint of it in the police station locker room scene in RoboCop, not to mention the prominent role for Nancy Allen’s Detective Lewis).
I’ve seen this film so many times over the last twenty years that it’s hard for me to stand back and objectively assess it (which is partly what the five-star rating category is about). The fashion and especially the hairstyles may have dated, and the technology on view is pretty clunky as you might expect, but Verhoeven and his screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner are playing with some ideas that haven’t weakened in the ensuing years. More to the point, the characters have a deeper symbolic dimension that makes the story an effective allegory. Verhoeven speaks feelingly on the commentary track about his childhood in Holland under Nazi occupation and about the horrors he witnessed then and how it had affected his filmmaking, and there’s a lot of that wary relationship to power and its abuses to be seen in his films, particularly his strong run of US films from this one through to Starship Troopers. As a society, after all, the United States has a lot to criticise in this regard, but we all live to some extent under the power of corporations and RoboCop is a brilliant dissection as well as a cautionary tale. Your move, creep.
Criterion Extras: The Criterion release of this film leans heavily on textual sources once again, with a very lengthy piece (with some illustrations and video clips) focusing on the special effects and how they were achieved. There are also some storyboards for unshot sequences, which work a lot better with this film (with all its comic-book trappings) than some of the other titles on which they’ve cropped up as extras. The chief interest, though, is in the commentary. Too many of these are dull, but Paul Verhoeven, screenwriter Edward Neumeier and executive producer Jon Davison have a lot of interesting insights into the film, and it’s well worth a listen.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Paul Verhoeven | Writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner | Cinematographer Jost Vacano | Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Friday 7 November 2014 (and many times before and since on VHS and DVD, most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 8 February 2015)
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Seen at Vue Croydon Grant’s, London, Saturday 14 February 2015
The Wachowskis are filmmakers with a strong directorial vision, who’ve put some pretty good films together (also, admittedly, some bad ones; I do not intend to make a case for any of the Matrix sequels), so when you see the kind of critical mauling that Jupiter Ascending has been getting from some quarters, well I think that’s as good a recommendation as any to get oneself along to the film in question. Sure, it’s a big confusing mess, but there’s nothing in it that seems to invite the derision it’s been getting, though this may in fact be down to a lot of similar factors to Inherent Vice‘s reception — that the plot is so elaborate that it’s turned some viewers off. But, weirdly, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, this is a much an exercise in evoking the fabric of a lost world (or, here, an imagined universe), which should always be something worth celebrating. It’s no mean feat to try and visualise the textures of such a vast system of planets (think Star Wars) and power factions (think Dune), so if there’s a bit of recycling involved, well that’s to be expected — in fact, one sequence has such an indebtedness to Brazil that Terry Gilliam himself turns up. There’s plenty enough that’s unfamiliar — new experiences and imagery, created jargon for new technology — that as a viewer you feel sympathy for Mila Kunis’s titular heroine Jupiter when, like Vice‘s Doc, she is called on to continually express confusion at what’s happening. It’s refreshing too to see a woman playing the central character for such a big film — she is a lowly Russian cleaner who turns out to be (via some method) the owner of Earth — though Channing Tatum (with quite the silliest facial hair of the season) provides plenty of valuable support as the ‘spliced’ mercenary (think Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps) who has her back. The acting star here though is Eddie Redmayne, who chews up the scenery with such a hammy performance that it goes through badness to being sheer genius, and perfectly matches the tone of the film. Other performers can be uneven, and taken as a whole it doesn’t always hold together perfectly, but as an experience it’s every bit the equal in imagination and scope as any other big budget blockbuster, and as a “space opera” it’s more interesting than any nonsense from 1977.
CREDITS || Directors/Writers Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski | Cinematographer John Toll | Starring Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth | Length 127 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director J.J. Abrams | Writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof (based on the television series by Gene Roddenberry) | Cinematographer Daniel Mindel | Starring Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, Zoë Saldana, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch | Length 133 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue (2D), London, Wednesday 15 May 2013 || My Rating disappointing
When growing up, I was always more of a fan of Star Trek than the other popular sci-fi franchises available. Specifically I watched a lot of The Next Generation television series, which was airing just at the right age for me, really. A lot of the vague ethical issues bandied about in this newest film (the twelfth overall, and the second since its ‘reboot’ in 2009) are familiar from that show in particular, though perhaps the 40-minute small-screen format was better able to handle such complexities. Added for the film is a lot more action and a lot more explosions, but a whole lot less sense.