美人魚 Mei ren yu (Mermaid, 2016)

Stephen Chow has a directorial reputation for silliness, though I’ve only ever seen one film of his from 20 years ago now (God of Cookery). However, by all accounts, this latest one, a box office blockbuster in its native China, is very much on brand: it is utterly, ridiculously demented. The plot basically involves a colony of half-human mer-creatures (what even is the collective noun for mermaids et al.?) whose existence is threatened by ruthless capitalist Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) and his sea-life-destroying sonar technology. And so the mer-people send out Shan (Lin Yun), the mermaid of the title, to reel him in with her womanly charms, as she shuffles along, her tail awkwardly fitted into socks and shoes. For this effect — and in general throughout the movie — the CGI is pretty ropey, but presumably it’s intended to be, to point up the silliness of the conceit. By the time Xuan’s business partner Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi) is double-crossing him with a view to exterminating these aquatic pests, everything in the plot has become very contorted, but the film continues to throw out all manner of visual gags, while staying grounded in the budding romance between Shan and Xuan. Somewhere in all this there’s a strong message about environmental responsibility, and the power of love to transcend money (and, presumably, biology). Still, it’s all pitched at a sustained level of silliness that doesn’t always cohere, but at least ensures that it remains enjoyable even when the occasional aquatic bloodletting happens.

Pedantic Note: All the marketing calls the movie “The Mermaid” but I’ve gone with the English title appearing on-screen, which omits the definite article.

Mermaid film posterCREDITS
Director Stephen Chow 周星馳; Writers Chow, Kelvin Lee 李思臻, Hing-ka Chan 陳慶嘉, Chih-chiang Fung 馮志強, Miu-kei Ho 何妙祺, Ivy Kong 江玉儀, Zhengyu Lu 盧正雨 and Kan-cheung Tsang 曾瑾昌; Cinematographer Sung-fai Choi 蔡崇輝; Starring Yun Lin 林允, Chao Deng 鄧超, Yuqi Zhang 張雨綺; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Stret, London, Wednesday 24 February 2016.

Advantageous (2015)

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.

Advantageous film posterCREDITS
Director Jennifer Phang; Writers Jacqueline Kim and Phang; Cinematographer Richard Wong; Starring Jacqueline Kim, James Urbaniak; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 23 January 2016.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Finally, the review I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for, as undoubtedly you’ve all been hanging back, waiting cautiously about whether to see this film on the basis of my verdict. Well, I can unequivocally state that if you are fond of George Lucas’s original trilogy, then you’ll enjoy this new instalment from the auteur behind Star Trek Into Darkness, whereas if you are at best ambivalent about his franchise’s politically retrogressive and genocidally destructive worldview, then… it’s probably not for you? On the plus side is the welcome focus on three new and diverse young protagonists — Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. There are some heartwarming reappearances by original cast members, and there are more silly chirruping droids. Plotwise, it feels of a piece with the original film, but the spoiler police are out in force on this one, so I’m not going to go into detail and, frankly, I’m not even sure I could. Suffice to say I laughed at a joke about the Force, and in general there’s a good sense of bonhomie amid the good-vs-evil derring-do.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens film posterCREDITS
Director J.J. Abrams; Writers Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt; Cinematographer Dan Mindel; Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Sunday 20 December 2015.

Criterion Sunday 51: Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam’s films feel like a lot of work sometimes. It’s not that they’re complicated or pretentious, just that they’re filled with lots and lots of stuff. The set design is claustrophobic and packed with detail, there are gags happening in multiple parts of the frame, little visual jokes or passing fancies, the performances are hectic and filled with excess: he just constructs really very busy worlds. It was evident in Jabberwocky and Time Bandits and it’s even more so here, the film which in many ways defines his visual and directorial style. Brazil is an anarchic experience that sprawls over two-and-a-half hours, as low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) starts to discover the state-imposed limits to his freedom. The film’s interest seems not to be in that he falls in love (though he does, to the mysterious Jill, played by Kim Greist), but that his dream world unlocks a vision of a reality that has been systematically shut down by the government for whom he works. Its functionaries are buried in a mountain of papers and filing, from under which Lowry can only slowly and with great effort crawl. This Kafkaesque quality of struggle is what gives the film its style, as obstacles both technological (the cranky mechanical systems that spill across every set like human viscera) and bureaucratic (blue-collar workers like Bob Hoskins, or white-collar mandarins like Ian Holm and Michael Palin are particularly memorable) get in his way. This all should make the film-viewing experience heavygoing (and later films like The Zero Theorem return to the same milieu to lesser effect), yet there’s an underlying lightness of touch. His world is a dystopia, certainly, but it isn’t the brooding chiaroscuro of, say, 1982’s Blade Runner. Instead, it’s dystopia as comedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam; Writers Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown; Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Ian Holm, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond; Length 143 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 August 2015.

The Martian (2015)

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.

The Martian film posterCREDITS
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.

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.

Terminator Genisys (2015)

Another attempt to kick-start a veteran science-fiction franchise, this fifth Terminator film harks back to the first one, even repurposing footage from it to create an inter-generational fight scene, which is pretty much the best thing on offer here. That said, I find it difficult to write the whole thing off as awful, because despite a general lack of inspiration — bolstered by a largely vacuous young cast (Jason Clarke’s John Connor at least carries the wounds of war, but nobody really convinces as a battle-hardened veteran) — it never actively offended me, and even offered a fairly entertaining two hours. Sadly, the script is largely at fault, with characters being forced to spend large chunks of screen time explaining the convoluted time travel premise, which involves multiple timelines and allows Kyle (Jai Courtney) to retain memories from the other timeline. At least… I think? It’s hard to really be sure. The big (non-spoilery) twist is that Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor now takes the lead in her relationship with Kyle (thanks to tutelage from a second Terminator/Arnie). Beyond that, the film constantly references plot points and memorable images from the first couple of films, suggesting that were it not for the messy time travel narrative, it could have just been a simple reboot of the stripped-down original, and perhaps that would have been better.

Terminator Genisys film posterCREDITS
Director Alan Taylor; Writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier; Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau; Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Chelsea [2D], London, Wednesday 8 July 2015.

The Terminator (1984)

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.

The Terminator film posterCREDITS
Director James Cameron; Writers 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).

Jurassic World (2015)

Let’s be honest, I didn’t exactly hold high hopes for this film, which at times has seemed more interested in creating brand partner synergies for commercial tie-ins, than being actually-any-good as narrative entertainment. Sadly that seems to have been the legacy of Spielberg’s (still quite excellent) Jurassic Park, though it’s hardly something it invented — just that it managed to tap into an enthusiasm for dinosaurs that remains largely unabated over 20 years on. Still, even given that, I remain confused as to why there was an ad before the film for a Lego tie-in. There was no room in the movie for the aforesaid product because it’s a 12-rated action film for a good reason (CGI-created dinosaur terror and mayhem; certainly the human characters weren’t much more than ciphers). Anyway the film’s clear product-placement winner was Mercedes-Benz, just for that smash cut to a perfectly-framed car ad angle of their vehicle after one of the kids says the line “you wanna see something amazing?” Oh to imagine how excited their execs must’ve been when they saw that. Just thinking about such a scenario really brought on some serious feels (not all good, let’s be honest); certainly it prompted more emotions than when a bunch of human dudes were eviscerated in the film (would that they were marketing executives eh).

I could go on about how this cartoonish dehumanisation of violence is an effect of the kind of corporatised culture which was surely intended as a point of satire in the original, but has long since been subsumed under the creature effects and merchandising. However, whatever baggage I might (not unreasonably I feel) load this franchise up with, the thing is that Jurassic World was quite an entertaining ride. Chris Pratt retains an easygoing charm, even if his relationship with prickly park boss Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) remained little more than a doodle in the corner of a page credited to FOUR screenwriters. Perhaps the tenacity with which Claire manages to perform at high speed on all terrains while never shedding (or breaking) her high heels should therefore be applauded as some kind of feminist triumph, but I’ll stop short of that. Still, the kids-in-peril weren’t too annoying, while Irrfan Khan as a wealthy industralist (an heir of sorts to Richard Hammond) and Omar Sy as the French dino-wrangler were nice smaller roles, even if there was no one who could measure up to Jeff Goldblum. And on the whole the mayhem was coordinated rather well, even if it did rip off some of the setpieces almost wholesale from the original film, to lesser effect.

So for a Summer blockbuster it just about works, I just don’t expect to be revisiting it with any warmth in 20 years’ time.

Jurassic World film poster CREDITS
Director Colin Trevorrow; Writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly and Trevorrow; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Genesis [2D], London, Tuesday 16 June 2015.

May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in May which I didn’t review in full. Find reviews for the following below the cut:

Aru Kyohaku (Intimidation) (1960, Japan)
Aventurera (1950, Mexico)
Belle Époque (1992, Spain)
The Expendables (2010, USA)
Hanna (2011, UK/USA/Germany)
Hit So Hard (2011, USA)
John Wick (2014, USA)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia/USA)
Plemya (The Tribe) (2014, Ukraine/Netherlands)
Tomboy (2011, France)

Continue reading “May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”