Archive for the Americana Category

The (Seriously) Amazing Spider-Man 2

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review on April 20, 2014 by Spike Marshall

Amazing-Spider-Man-2-Official-High-Res-Banner

This isn’t a review and it’s hopefully not big on spoilers. It’s designed to be more of a post film analysis, rather than something designed to sell you on a movie. If you’re still unsure about seeing the movie I’d say give it a shot, I guarantee that it’s not going to be widely loved but if you do manage to synch up with it’s very peculiar wavelength you’ll be one of the cool kids, and at the end of the day isn’t that what we all want? To be one of the cool kids.

Anyway to business, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (hereby  referred to as ASM 2) is a film that feels caught between two masters. On one hand the film feels perfectly happy to focus on a self contained narrative, pitting Spider-Man against the latest freak of the week, Electro. On the other hand the film feels obligated to keep powering the meta-story of the franchise at the expense of said self contained narrative. As such we end up with a film where all three acts feels like very specific and very unique movies. The first act is Spider-Man vs. Electro, this segment establishing Spider-Man’s status quo, evaluating Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacey, introducing Max Dillon, showing his subsequent transformation into Electro and crescendoing with Spider-Man and Electro’s (spectacular) showdown. The film achieves all of the above in roughly an hour, the second act promptly remembers that this is an Orci and Kurtzman script and swiftly introduces a plotline about magic blood and sets Peter off on an internalised journey of discovery. During this period the film infrequently checks in on it’s villains, not for any plot reasons but more as a means of habeas corpus. The third act has absolutely nothing to do with the second act and serves as a pat continuation of the conflicts set up in the first act via the means of super-powered smack down. Once this is all settled the last twenty minutes of the film are essentially an internal micro-sequel to ASM 2 playing out within the movie itself and building from some of the nebulous themes explored in the second act, in much the same way the last forty minutes of THE DARK KNIGHT play more as hastily constructed sequel than an actual third act . This micro-sequel establishes a villain, deals with a villain, disrupts the status quo, teases the next sequel, establishes another villain, resolves Spider-Man’s internal conflict, dispatches the new villains and establishes a new status quo within the space of about twenty minutes.

Structurally speaking the film is a goddamn mess and it feels like there’s a lean 80 minute film that director Marc Webb is 100% invested in which has been padded out by second unit stuff designed to establish Sony’s vision of a connected Spider-Man franchise of films. The franchise aspects of the film feel as rote and unfun as the machinations of IRON MAN 2, whilst the Electro story has the giddy, anything can and will happen, tone of THE AVENGERS. It’s the equivalent of having your dessert poured over the broccoli to better expedite your meal eating experience. So as a whole I should hate the film, right? Well I kind of do and I don’t, and generally I find myself falling more into the “yay” rather than “nay” category. The reason for this is because despite the overt corporate nature, exemplified by the blatant attempts at franchising, the film feels like a wildly loony beast. On a scene by scene basis the film operates that is feverishly inventive, well acted, and beautifully shot. Webb doesn’t just have an eye for gorgeous visuals (and the film is routinely beautiful looking) but also a knack for offbeat compositions and sequences. From the exhilarating first person web slinging sections, to the use of slow motion and freeze frame to indicate thought processes all of Webb’s action sequences are not only driven by a kinetic energy, but also it’s own quirks.

A big part of this energy and quirkiness comes from Hans Zimmer’s score (which if you’re British can listen to via Spotify above). Taking over scoring duties from perennial bore James Horner, Zimmer has constructed a score that is brimming with personality. Working with a supergroup of previous Zimmer collaborators Six the score is a mixture of musical styles a world away from Zimmer’s usual rhythm and string scoring style. There are elements of Zimmer’s usual pacy scoring layered throughout the film, but they’re offset by playful woodwind accompaniments, distorted guitars, dubstep beats and ranting vocals. In particular Electro’s theme is kind of stupendous, with a muttered paranoid refrain increasing in tone and aggression as the woodwinds used to signify his more human side give way to, at times diegetic, dubstep. It’s a frenzied, multilayered, exciting piece of music and it perfectly complements the spectacular melancholy of Spider-Man and Electro’s first tet-a-tet. The entire crux of the sequence is Spider-Man trying to reach out to the newly formed Electro and the score manages to be both tragic and visceral at the same time, discordant elements bonding together to create something really memorable.

The eccentric, pulsing score, perfectly captures the gorgeous visuals of Electro, pulses of electricity peeling away from him in brilliant blue and purple strips. In comparison to the rather drab action and look of the original film, Amazing Spider-Man is constantly awash with colour both visually and in terms of it’s general tone. In fact, for better or worse, the film it reminds me of the most is BATMAN FOREVER. Largely in how willing it is to engage with the more loony aspects of the comic books. From; wonderfully malevolent German Psychiatrists, to degenerative diseases that can turn a man’s hands into talons, secret laboratories hidden in compartmentalised subway trains and giant mechanised power suits the film is practically giddy with the possibility afforded to it by it’s source material. But this unbound comic book sensibility also casts harsh light onto the moments of the film that are more grounded. With a film that can be so filled with joie de vivre it has a nasty habit of being it’s own major buzzkill. Take for example the entire second act which sees Spider-Man show up for one minor scene, and worst of all banishes Andrew Garfield to scene after scene where he’s in scenes by his lonesome. Garfield is fantastic as Spider-Man, imbuing the character with humour and warmth, but he works better as part of an ensemble. His scenes with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy and Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborne effortlessly convey the intimacy and friendship of the respective relationships, but when the film casts him adrift for it’s long middle section he feels hopelessly alone. In fact the film is very good at creating amazing pairings of actors and then doing nothing with them, giving us just enough to want more of the dynamic but not enough to leave you truly satisfied. DeHaan for example has some amazing scenes with a variety of characters in the film, but the more indelible pairings are tragically cut short. It’s essentially a casualty of the film’s bloat, the need to jam so much plot into such a short time frame that forces the movie to be fairly cutthroat at times with it’s more character led scenes.

When all is said and done I’m probably a little easy on the film, largely because the first hour perfectly encapsulates the kind of Spider-Man movie I’ve always wanted to see. Spider-Man as a superhero who helps people, who feels like part of a community, and has genuine compassion. The first act is fun, exciting and spectacular looking and the subsequent deflation in the second act and rather pat conclusion only serve to reduce the film from exceptional to great. It also has me salivating for the next film, as the film largely feels like it’s done all of the legwork vis-a-vis both rebooting Spider-Man and establishing the tone and structure of the franchise.  It’s just a shame that to get to that point it sometimes feels like this, great, film has been sacrificed for the greater good. But when the sacrificial film includes broadly evil German doctors, zany comic book action and amazing turns by all of it’s core cast I don’t particularly feel too let down.

Batman ’89

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review with tags , , , , , , , on July 12, 2008 by Spike Marshall

“What are you?”

“I’m Batman”

If you are of a certain age that exchange between a terrified mugger and psychopath in a leather bat suit is probably the most iconic Batman has ever been as a character. Whilst I am not unaware of the failings in Tim Burton’s gothic take on the character I’ll admit to having a massive amount of love for the film he created. Of course the problem is disengaging nostalgic affection from the critical process and as such I’ve had to try and take something of an objective look at a film that was a defining cinematic part of my childhood.

Back in the late 1980s Batman was going through some interesting changes. Whilst the general publics concept of the character would be rooted in the colourfully cult TV series of the sixties Batman’s comic book audience were being introduced to a darker and more introverted version of the character. Frank Miller’s 1986 comic The Dark Knight Return’ would showcase an older Batman, a battle ravaged veteran who had attempted to retire his nocturnal activities. Switching between Batman’s own introspective musings and snippets of the media reaction to his reappearance The Dark Knight Returns would show both the need for and damage done by a zealous vigilante. It would make the fascistic underpinnings of the character plain for all to see and set a precedent for grittier content in comic books.

Alan Moore’s 1988 comic The Killing Joke would take the Batman’s greatest foe and delve into his tortured and fragmented past. The comic would both provide back story to the Joker, a character who had been up to this point something of a homicidal cipher, and counterpoint his madness against the Batman’s own psychosis. Leagues away from the classic heroism of his initial run we now had a character who was only one step removed, psychologically speaking, from his foes.

“You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!”

Whilst Burton would take elements from both of these stories (to my mind the use of media in Batman is similar to the use of media in The Dark Knight returns) his main source of inspiration would seem to be the Bob Kane’s original Batman run. Showcasing a character hidden in the shadows, ready to kill and teetering on the edge of sanity. Whilst an action orientated actor would have been more of an obvious choice Tim Burton’s casting of Michael Keaton as Batman would become of the films greatest strengths. In a film almost overshadowed by one key performance (more on that later) Keaton, better known for more comedic roles, was able to deliver a performance that was nuanced, subtle and iconic.

To anyone who had seen his title role in Tim Burton’s previous feature Beetlejuice it would have been an obvious fit to cast Keaton as the maniacal Joker. However having Keaton play Batman served to create a duality of sorts between the hero and his most dangerous nemesis. Jack Nicholson would be the one to secure the role of The Joker and would craft a performance that was utterly memorable but also damaged the film as a whole.

When you watch Batman it is hard not to realise which element of the film Burton is drawn too as a director. His focus on the Joker is in hindsight not at all surprising. In fact the Joker has more in common with a traditional Tim Burton hero than anything else. The artistically oddball elements of the Joker aren’t a million miles away from the heroes of Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and A Nightmare Before Christmas. Whilst Burton would also accentuate the oddball qualities of Bruce Wayne the focus primarily rested on Nicholson’s infectious performance.

And where is the Batman? HE’S AT HOME WASHING HIS TIGHTS!!”

The problem is that Nicholson’s take on the character is perhaps a little too fun, a little too charming. It is very hard to actually view the Joker as a villain because he’s the most entertaining thing in the film. It also doesn’t help that the Joker is given the most iconic moments in the film. Really you’re supposed to be made uneasy by the Joker, but when he is raiding and redecorating posh restaurants/art galleries, killing mob bosses with electric buzzers and quills and committing mass murder by way of festival balloons he is more impishly charming than horrifying. There really is nothing to match the Joker’s sheer presence and sense of fun and as such you almost start to miss his presence when the film focuses on the Batman or its periphery characters. With his outlandish crimes and brash purple and orange motif the Joker is a blast of colour and vibrancy in Burton’s claustrophobically gothic vision of Gotham. As such he becomes one of the more identifiable and entertaining aspects of the film.

“More Like Bruce Vain”

Of course with Nicholson and Keaton giving their all in the star spots you’d expect the supporting cast to be somewhat overshadowed. In fact Burton’s quirky style actually manages to make surprisingly thin character at least a little interesting. Vicky Vale would be your standard love interest, but she is so Burtonised and kooky that Kim Basinger actually makes the role kind of fun whilst even minor roles like Knox and the Joker’s right hand man are given life by a script that occasionally sparkles. Even Alfred Pennyworth is given a little to work with as he attempts to humanise his charge’s feelings for Vicky Vale.

So the problem with the film isn’t the cast (even actors who have little more than a cameo such as Billy Dee-Williams manage to inject personality and charm into their characters) and it probably has less to do with Burton’s visual style. Tim Burton’s use of matte paintings and set based shooting makes everything feels slightly claustrophobic but the actual look of Gotham is certainly memorable. With its art-deco stylings and gothic spires Burton’s Gotham looks like a city lost in time and place. Elements of the city suggest American design other facets are decidedly European and whilst the set dressing is very much Prohibition era the actual technology in the film is bang up to date. It really is a melting pot of ideas and yet somehow the film manages to shoulder the majority of its excesses.

What is surprising about Burton as a director is his aptitude for set pieces. Sequences like an attack on a restaurant are filmed with a bizarre mix of comic book pulp and modern extravagance. Despite the fact that the leather bound Batman is completely restricted in his movements Burton actually manages to create sprawling action sequences around the character. Compared to the rapid fire editing of Batman Begins it’s refreshing to see what Batman is doing, even if at times it is painfully obvious he can’t actually move all that well and the third act whilst horribly misguided has perhaps the strongest climax of any of the Batman movies.

“Think About The Future”

Of course the thing that makes these action segments work is the score by Danny Elfman which is probably more iconic than the movie itself. His signature Batman theme is immensely evocative as well as being surprisingly suited to action sequences and it works to give yet more energy to the film. Whilst many seem to dislike Prince’s contribution to the soundtrack its use in the film is really quite clever. Prince’s proto Pop/Dance numbers do clash with the vision of Gotham that Burton has created, but that’s part of the point. The Prince songs in the film are all diagetic, pieces of music heard by the characters themselves which serve as the Joker’s own personal soundtrack. As such it is meant to be as jarring as the Joker’s façade and in that context it works incredibly well.

I’m done praising the film now, so time to focus on what I feel weighs down the whole product. Batman has charm to spare; it’s got an electric cast, a great soundtrack and a director with a unique vision. In fact the only thing it lacks is a decent script. Whilst the film is filled with some great dialogue it is also lumbered with some of the worst structuring to befall a Batman film. Batman and Robin may be the worst film in the series but it doesn’t meander anywhere near as much as Batman and that’s one of the main problems. At times the wealth of ideas makes it clear that a lot of writers have had a crack at the basic story of the film.

Whilst the Batman script would be completed by a long time comic book fan, the 1988 Writers Guild Strike would remove the original writers away from the production process. Non-union writers were brought in for rewrites during production itself and the results are sometimes palpable in the film itself. One story concerning these rewrites focuses on the finale itself, in which Batman battles to the top of a Cathedral to save Vicky Vale from the Joker. This was an element added to the script during the rewrites without Burton’s knowledge. Apparently Burton only found out after $100,000 had been spent actually building the Cathedral steps and as such he found himself with a costly set up and no idea of how to properly utilise it.

“Gentlemen, let’s broaden our minds”

If you take the studio rewrites as fact then it starts to make sense why the film would focus so much on the Joker. At the time Jack Nicholson was the films biggest asset and as such it would make sense for the studio to want to accentuate that asset. The third act in of itself is just a complete mess, with a sudden diversion away from the established tone of the film to make way for pantomime theatrics. Batman was never a serious film but seeing the Joker pull out a revolver with a 20 inch barrel and shoot down Batman’s plane took the film to a jarringly campy place. Similarly the motivation for the Joker to take Vicky to the top of the tower was never really dealt with. Whilst it seems odd to nitpick in a film which features a bleached skin hitman being sent to a brutal death by way of lassoed gargoyle the final act was rife with inconsistencies. Not to say that the final part of Batman isn’t fun, it just feels overly chaotic and very messy.

In fact messy is probably the best way to describe Batman. Its first act despite a strong start struggles to build up momentum (partially due to the emphasis put on the Joker’s origin) but it builds to a great 2nd act before going off the rails in spectacular style for its finale. For me it is a film I enjoy for its at times feverish imagination, its fantastic production design and the fact it allowed Tim Burton free reign to make one of my all time favourite films.

Over the following week I’m going to be reviewing my favourite Batman films in the run up to the Dark Knight’s release on the 18th.

So tune in next time for my review of Batman: Mask of the Phatasm.

Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel

No Country For Old Men

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review with tags , , on June 20, 2008 by Spike Marshall

You may have seen my previous take on No Country For Old Men. I was never particularly happy with that review and as such I’m taking the opportunity to re-review the film upon its DVD release.

No Country For Old Men is something of an oddity when it comes to Academy Award winners. Violent films have won Oscars before (The Departed’s win the year before confirms this) but the recently the Oscars have favoured either the lavish or the ‘important’. No Country For Old Men is certainly not a lavish film and its importance is shrouded in the tonality of a traditional thriller and yet it managed to beat off competition from far more Oscar suitable candidates to win its Best Picture award. I think more than anything else my shock at No Country For Old Men’s victory comes from the Academy Awards rewarding a film I legitimately liked. Usually films I like don’t make the Oscar shortlist or are snubbed in favour of more ‘Oscar Friendly’ fare. I certainly have more favourite films that were also rans (Lost In Translation, Gosford Park, The Insider, Secrets and Lies, LA Confidential, Fargo are all good recent examples) than actual winners.

But even amongst the films that I absolutely loved last year No Country For Old Men seemed like the least likely to win an Oscar. Certainly compared to the likes of The Assassination of Jesse James, Zodiac and There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men seemed far too unorthodox to even get short listed. The fact that only No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood got short listed goes a long way to demonstrating my lack of insight vis-à-vis the Academy Awards. If this is starting to sound like I don’t like the film then that was not my intention, No Country For Old Men is probably one of my favourite films of last year and my surprise comes merely from its recognition as a truly great piece of cinema.

Part of my love for the film comes from the fact that despite the Coen Brothers making some of my favourite films of the 1990s, I’d been having trouble connecting with their work since The Man Who Wasn’t There. The dour noir homage was a very nifty piece of filmmaking, clever and buoyed by a fantastic central performance by Billy Bob Thornton. Intolerable Cruelty would be a comedy that barely made me smile and The Ladykillers despite an energetic performance from Tom Hanks would prove to be the first film by the Coens that I actually thought wasn’t very good. Still their decision to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men had me very excited, McCarthy’s lean and punishing prose the perfect way to reenergise a pair of directors who seemed to be finally letting the bloat sink in.

Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem are our first focal points in No Country For Old Men. Jones’ Sheriff Ed-Tom Bell provides an opening narration as Bardem’s Anton Chigurh establishes himself as a man with whom not to fuck. These two characters are the central core of the film, representing the old man whose morality is no longer in line with an ever changing world and the vicious embodiment of change. In my view No Country For Old Men is about the morality that people live by, the code and rules of conduct we engage in everyday. The film is about how that code can become untenable as the world around you changes. But it is not a film about how the modern world is becoming increasingly vicious, one of the final conversations in the film shows the world has always been this way, but about how people can become outdated or lost when their own code fails them.

Llewellyn Moss extrapolates on this by choosing to enter a world he cannot hope to survive in, and the majority of No Country For Old Men’s narrative follows his attempts to survive after taking a satchel of money from a botched drug exchange. Even from our first glimpse of Moss, played by the increasingly great Josh Brolin, we understand that he could never hope to survive when squared off with the darkness represented by Chigurh. His first line is even an echo of Chigurh, whereas Moss asks a deer to stay still as he lines up a shot (and promptly misses his intended kill shot) Chigurh asks an innocent bystander to stay still moments before casually executing him with a compressed air gun. This brief moment of duality tells us a lot about the way the film is going to proceed and also sets up the way that Chigurh approaches his victims, cattle for slaying.

Centred largely on Anton Chigurh the few scenes of violence in the film are so brutal, so honest, and so nasty and mean that it creates a palpable sense of dread and unease. Chigurh becomes more than a man in the film; he becomes an ethos, an unrelenting force which destroys everything in its path on general principal. Played pitch perfectly by Bardem, Chigurh is a truly threatening and intimidating force on the screen. Fearless, ruthless and cold blooded. We are given rare insight into his method, scenes which show the careful planning required for his flawless attacks, and it just makes him even scarier. There is just something unnerving about his planning and his innate ability which makes every scene with him in unbearably tense and every scene without him creates nagging doubts and fears that he might just be around the corner.

It’s a testament to the deliberate tone of the film that Chigurh is never allowed to become ‘badass’, in the hands of lesser directors the character could consume the film in a negative way. As it is even when he’s employing cool pieces of weaponry (No Country marks the first time I’ve ever seen a silenced shotgun and it’s a fucking marvellous piece of kit, terrifying but marvellous) you’re still never cheering for or getting excited by the violence. You just want it to stop, which isn’t to say the film is totally joyless. It’s a hard film, but there is the trademark Coen wit. The humour’s there it’s just blacker than a moonless night. From remarks about dead dogs to the dry way Sheriff Bell tells the story of a cattle owner who is paralyzed when trying to kill a steer. But the humour is often incidental to the main story which skirts on the tonal edge of bleak and finds a home in brutal.

When Moss stumbles across a botched drug deal and promptly steals a satchel containing a few million dollars he enters a world his ethical code cannot hope to survive in. His going back to give a survivor some water just proves the point of his inability to live in this new dangerous world. As such his flight from Chigurh and a bunch of pissed off Mexicans is really nothing but the thrashing of an already strung up man, his death is unavoidable and all he can hope to do is prolong the inevitable. Indeed just to stay alive requires Moss to be ever vigil and his one lapse in concentration ultimately leads to his inglorious end. Despite how careful he is, despite how much of a fighter he is, Moss just doesn’t have the ethics or immorality to survive.

Much has been said about the end of No Country For Old Men and the way that Moss’s death is dealt with. Certainly following an earlier confrontation the audience assumes that Moss will be killed by Anton Chigurh. Stalking his prey across the country and leaving a trail of death in his wake, Chigurh represents an archetypal antagonist and his lack of involvement in Moss’s final moments was a point of contention amongst my friends. But having Moss fall at the hands of Chigurh would give credence to the character; he would no longer be one of the cattle. Having him be killed off-screen by an unknown Mexican assailant once again demonstrates how unprepared Moss is for the world he has found himself in.

The final section of No Country For Old Men just focuses back on the codes that the three characters use to govern their lives. Moss finally meets the end that had been looming since he set eyes on the money, Sheriff Bell realises that his code is just untenable and gives up thus securing his survival, whilst Chigurh is punished for an infraction of his own code. Anton Chigurh’s final scene takes place at the home of Llewellyn Moss’ widow Carla Jean. Previously in the film he spared a gas attendants life after his quarry won a coin toss. He offers this same deal to Carla Jean who promptly refuses to put her life into the outcome of a coin toss. Chigurh is forced to kill her without the coin flip and this infraction leads to his being hit by a car as he drives away from the scene. Whilst the accident isn’t fatal it hammers home the tonality of the film, that even a minor deviation from the codes and ethics we live our life by can result in catastrophe.

Iron Man

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review with tags , , on May 5, 2008 by Spike Marshall

I saw Iron Man on Friday, judging by box office reports so did everyone else. Whilst the film itself is worthy of discussion I’m also interested in what Iron Man’s surprise financial success means for future superhero films from the newly emancipated Marvel Enterprises. You see Iron Man represents the first film Marvel comics have funded, produced and distributed without another major business partner. Later this year we will be treated to yet more films produced solely by Marvel. So this is going to be split roughly between my musings on Iron Man and my musings on Marvel Enterprises.

Okay here is a disclaimer before I go into this review properly; I’m not a big comic book guy. I’ve read maybe half a dozen Graphic Novels in my entire life and I don’t think I’ve ever actually owned a regular comic book. However being born in 1985 would allow me to appreciate the raft of Marvel superhero cartoons that would air in the mid 90s. So despite not reading Marvel comics the cartoon versions of Iron Man, Spiderman and X-Men gave me a working knowledge of Marvel’s mythos.

It is a testament to the vitality of the Marvel universe that even exposure to the simplified mythos of the cartoon shows would become almost iconic. Due to the cartoons I knew about key elements of the Marvel franchise without having read any Marvel comic books. So I knew that Venom was a piece of alien slime, I knew that Iron Man battled a green skinned Chinese guy with alien technology embedded in his rings and I knew about Jean Grey’s eventual turn into the all powerful Phoenix. As such comic book adaptations would become exercises in nostalgia for me, a chance to see real adaptations of the stuff that had entertained me when I as nine and ten years old.

Iron Man

Iron Man is an origin story, the unwritten rule of all superhero films is that the first film is always setup, and as such it shows us why ludicrously wealthy weapons magnate Tony Stark would chose to don a suit of armour and fight the forces of evil. Following an attack on his armoured escort in Afghanistan Tony Stark is captured by a militant group known as the Ten Rings and instructed to build a multiple payload missile of the type he has just sold to the US military. Instead of doing this he builds himself a suit of battle armour and sets about planning an escape.

To be honest I was little worried about Iron Man to begin with, an early music choice making me fear the worst. The film starts and immediately Back in Black by AC/DC kicks in. I sink into my seat a little, slightly dejected, as my fears over the potential tone of the film are realised. You see as soon as I saw a trailer use Black Sabbath’s Iron Man as scoring I realised I would probably be at odds with the film, I was just hoping for a little time to get settled in before the Heavy Metal kicks in. To be honest by the time the film had finished I was practically craving Sabbath, just so that the film would at least have some vaguely stirring music. If Iron Man has one fault it is its ridiculously anaemic soundtrack which occasionally tries to evoke Black Sabbath but mostly just whimpers along in the background.

If Iron Man has another fault it is director Jon Favreau who displays a knack for character based work but is far too impassive and mundane to give life to the action scenes. Thankfully Favreau seems to understand that he is an actor’s director and sticks with his strengths by leaving a lot of the heavy lifting to an absolutely magnificent cast. Favreau is also aided by the nature of the story which negates the need for overt superhero theatrics. Telling the origin story of Iron Man allows Favreau to keep the focus purely character based and as such the action scenes are thankfully few and far between.

You will probably have heard this many times by now, but Robert Downey Jr. is utterly fantastic as Tony Stark. He takes a character that could easily have been a soulless and hollow vessel and imbibes it with humanity and warmth. There is a natural charm to Downey Jr’s performance and whenever he is on screen the rest of the cast seems to up their game immensely. So magnetic is his performance that Downey Jr. is able to make sequences in which he is acting against mechanical claws enthralling.

Backing up Robert Downey Jr. is a trio of co-stars that seem utterly energised by the spirited central performance. Terence Howard’s character Jim Rhodes feels like he is in the film purely as setup for future plot elements but even in his minimal screentime he has a sense of camaraderie with Stark which makes you accept their friendship. Gwyneth Paltrow is actually all kinds of fantastic as Pepper Potts turning a character that could be flat and cliché (doting secretary in love with playboy boss) into a viable element of the film. As well as having fantastic chemistry with Downey Jr. she is shown as being both resourceful and competent. In a lot of ways Pepper Potts works in a similar way to Batman’s Alfred providing moral support and acting as a confidant for our beleaguered heroes.

Jeff Bridges does a fantastic job with an exceptionally compromised character. Obadiah Stane is a pretty rote and hopelessly one note character, a scheming business partner to Stark who descends into outright vaudevillian villainy by the end of the film. Stane’s character arc is highlighted at the beginning of the film where a montage of magazine covers shows his position in Stark Industry slowly becoming minimised. The problem is that Bridges makes Stane a little too charming and his interactions with Stark make his sudden about turn into outright villainy seem out of the blue. It is easy to figure out that he is going to be the main threat in the film, but his scenes with Stark are so well played that you almost start to believe he is a good guy.

Of course the problem the film runs into is that its major action scenes are CGI reliant and as such become fully incumbent on Favreau’s talents as a director. Whilst the action in Iron Man isn’t bad it isn’t particularly interesting either, coming across as a perfunctory afterthought rather than a vibrant part of the film. Favreau is far more intent on the building and testing of the two suits and the few moments of genuine spectacle come not from fight scenes but from testing scenes. Stark’s initial flight in the Mark II suit is a truly great moment in the film because it perfectly captures the sense of awe and wonder prevalent in the series.

Still an unexpected benefit of Favreau’s lack of action experience was the liberal borrowing of ideas from Robocop. Iron Man punching through a wall, targeting individual terrorists, and his final battle with Iron Monger all seemed to be at the very least inspired by the Robocop films and it at the very least amused me. It is an odd paradigm really as I think a more proficient director would perhaps have given the action sequences a lot more of a kick but would not have been able to provide the focus on actors which allowed the film to truly shine.

The Future

Ever since I ventured back into a cinema screening room to retrieve a jacket after a viewing of Street Fighter: The Movie and was greeted by a slither of movie magic after the end credits I’ve always been fastidious about checking if there is anything after all the best boys had been listed. Generally speaking if there is something it is usually kind of dull ‘oh that’s cute, the dog with the keys is now the god of the cannibals’ so I approached the news that there was something super awesome after the credits of Iron Man with a little bit of trepidation.

The extra scene in Iron Man is something that is actually kind of important in terms of the new perspective Marvel Enterprises bring to their ventures. In the extra scene Nick Fury approaches Tony Stark and tells him about a group called the Avengers. I’ve been reliably informed that the Avengers are a team of Superheroes in the Marvel universe. As such it’s a nice little shout out for the fans. However news also reaches me that Robert Downey Jr. is due to make a cameo appearance in the new Incredible Hulk film.

With Marvel now producing and financing its own adaptations they are free to call the shots on how their properties are handled and it seems that from the off they are looking to create the same kind of interconnectivity that is abundant in the comics. All of the Marvel heroes inhabitant the same world and will often help each other out, a great example being Reed Richards helping Spider-Man defeat Venom and Matt Murdoch essentially being an on-call lawyer for every Marvel superhero around. Whilst the chances of an all star Avengers movie are slim, although an Iron Man led Avengers film would help divert attention from the characters lacklustre pool of villains, the idea that all Marvel films will at least acknowledge their existence in the same universe is kind of neat.

This year we are going to see The Incredible Hulk and The Punisher: War Zone, both sequels to films which weren’t particularly well received and both of which are helmed by risky directors. The Incredible Hulk’s Louise Leterrier is perhaps best known for his Transporter films and the surprisingly decent Danny The Dog. Whilst the Punisher’s Lexi Alexander had previously worked on Green Street Hooligans. Both choices could end up being disastrous but there are elements to both directors past work which suggests that they might be able to deliver on the spectacle and tonal core of their respective properties.

In the near future we’ll see Magneto and Wolverine’s back stories playout in the first two X-Men prequels, whilst Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man is now in its second draft. Most interestingly is Matthew Vaughn’s rumoured adaptation of Thor which is supposedly set entirely in the realm of Norse Legend. Given Vaughn’s sterling work on Stardust it is easy to see why they’d go this down route although a Thor film set entirely in Asgard would be a particularly difficult sell, especially from a director with one borderline cult film and one commercial miss. Edgar Wright may have a lesser known character to work with but his clout as a comedy director should at least make it an easy sell.

With Iron Man becoming something of a beast at the box office, taking 200 million dollars worldwide over its opening weekend, it is safe to assume that a sequel will be in the works. In fact of all the projects currently listed on IMDB as being produced by Marvel the one that seems the most in doubt is Captain America, a character who would need to be seriously retooled for modern day consumption. But with all of these properties currently in development the idea of them all leading into one interconnected movie doesn’t seem so absurd. If The Incredible Hulk does well at the box office, and that’s a big if judging by reaction to its trailer and general ill will garnered from its predecessor, it might embolden the company to make good on what was essentially a little bit of fan service and invest in an all star Avengers film.

In fact minutes after writing this Marvel announced that an Avengers movie was indeed slated for a release in 2011, a year after an Iron Man sequel and Captain America film. Captain America still seems like a risky venture to me, Iron Man made half of its bank overseas, but it seems like the film is setup for the Avengers film more than anything else.

Grindhouse

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review with tags , , , , on April 11, 2008 by Spike Marshall

Even the name has me at a disadvantage. My nationality and my age conspired against me to make the term Grindhouse almost meaningless. Certainly I had heard of the term, it would be bandied around in the occasional message board discussion and review, but it never particularly had context. The assumption I always held was that it was short hand for extreme cinema. Certainly to me talk of Grindhouse would bring to mind the pervasive violence of Japanese samurai films, the exploitation of Italian horror, and the paradigm shifting of films like Shaft. Whilst the term is used to describe those sorts of films it is also used to describe bad films sold entirely on their risqué elements and that is where the confusion comes into play. Is the film I’m reviewing homage to pervasive cinema on the cusps of acceptability or homage to a marketing gimmick?

Perhaps it is a little of both, perhaps it is just an excuse for two directors to get a little puerility of their system. I think the most adequate answer is that each director is attempting to get something different from the experiment. Grindhouse is a modern double feature, one film from Robert Rodriguez and one film from Quentin Tarantino, designed to invoke the feel of watching a film in a 42nd Street theatre. The term Grindhouse would be birthed on that street and for a long time it would be the only place you’d be able to watch films on the periphery of popular culture. The films once shown at these cinemas are now available to the general populace. If you want to see a Kenneth Anger film you put an order into amazon.com and wait three days for delivery. You want to see Cannibal Holocaust you can catch the entirety of the film in bite sized snippets on YouTube.

Grindhouse

Now I’m starting to talk in circles but I hope I have at least shed some light on my viewpoint. The key thing is that in 2007 Rodriguez and Tarantino teamed up to make a three hour love letter to a type of cinema so niche that even people familiar with films had trouble categorising it. Distributed by those ever lovable Weinstein scamps the film kind of bombed spectacularly forcing the two movies to be split into separate features. Grindhouse would become Planet Terror and Death Proof the original intention of a double bill lost almost immediately. Grindhouse would have a limited run in the United States but at least it was a run, the film not getting a release anywhere else. In fact after the opening fortnight the only place to see the original cut of the film, and the fake trailers placed in-between the two features, would be by importing the ludicrously expensive Japanese DVD.

For whatever reason, maybe somebody sacrificed a goat, Grindhouse made it to the United Kingdom almost a year after its American debut. We had had the two separate, and extended, films since last November but the whole package had never made it to these shores. It was not a full run, more of a touring show, playing two nights at selected cinemas across the country throughout late March and April. I was lucky enough to see the film at its second showing in this country. I had already seen the extended Planet Terror but was going into the fake trailers and Tarantino’s Death Proof completely fresh. Rather aptly the film played across midnight, starting at 11pm and finishing at around 2 the following morning. The cinema would be half deserted, the few people there already well versed in the films being shown, but the effect would be rapturous none the less.

Planet Terror

Listen to the Planet Terror OST

I first saw Planet Terror in early November on the opening night of the Leeds International Film Festival. The cinema was packed and the two previous films shown had created a palpable sense of excitement. In short my first encounter with Planet Terror was aided by a truly, truly, great audience. Planet Terror is a film designed to play to crowds, a gooey, funny, gory, gross, over the top party film. Robert Rodriguez would take his zombie apocalypse story and turn it into a truly crowd pleasing affair. I will make this clear now; I am not a particular fan of the director Robert Rodriguez has become. I legitimately love Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn and find The Faculty to be an enjoyable diversion whenever I find it on the television. Of these films only one of them seems to be an actual Rodriguez feature. From Dusk Till Dawn feels like more of a collaboration that anything else and The Faculty seemed to showcase a Rodriguez reined in by the studios.

As such Desperado would be the only true Rodriguez film I would come to appreciate and part of this appreciation was the focus the limited budget gave the film. All of Rodriguez’s films would be ultimately hollow, but Desperado would be the only one to be at least viscerally thrilling.

His further forays into action cinema would be far too messy and unfocused to have the same impact the neat and confined Desperado had. Once Upon A Time In Mexico capped off the El Mariachi trilogy and upped the scope from a battle over a town to a war over a country. This increase in scope would be the films ultimate undoing, the grand canvas allowing Rodriguez access to too many elements and not enough resolutions. His collaboration with Frank Miller on Sin City would once again showcase the faults in his fast and loose shooting style. Whilst the film visually matched Miller’s comic book its action sequences were edited so roughly and portrayed with so little weight that they almost became superfluous. Throughout these films Rodriguez would never develop intellectually either, his focus on technique and spectacle above tone making his films seem increasingly juvenile.

It is telling that Rodriguez’s most accomplished films would be those aimed at children, his Spy Kids trilogy maintaining a consistency that most of his other films couldn’t match. Rodriguez’s talents lay in being a showman, in delivering fun and spectacle and his attempts to move beyond that would, for me, be abject failures. Which is why, after failing to produce a film I’d liked in nearly a decade, my appreciation of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror was so surprising.

The Survivors

The material and the director would be perfectly suited, the master showman equipping himself with a plot that was essentially justification for jokes, set pieces and gross effects. Whereas Tarantino would deliver a pitch perfect assimilation of a Grindhouse film Rodriguez would create an over the top action spectacle and then retrograde the whole thing with digital print damage and missing loops. In doing so he would fail to capture the spirit of Grindhouse but would instead find the formula that had apparently eluded him since 1998.

Muldoon\'s EvolutionThe first film that crossed my mind when I was watching Planet Terror was Chuck Russell’s criminally underappreciated 1980s remake of The Blob. Whilst Planet Terror’s aesthetic would owe more to Carpenter and Italian horror masters, the core of the film was decidedly 1950s and as such Russell’s previous fusion of eighties gore and fifties plotting seemed an obvious comparison. Certainly Planet Terror would be a funner film than The Blob, becoming a piece of entertainment designed to wink at the audience more than anything else, but I couldn’t get that initial thought out of my head whilst watching the film.

Like The Blob the film revels in its very gory and very practical effects, lovingly framed shots of dissolving limbs, broken bones and degenerating humans littering the film. But whereas The Blob asked us to at least attempt to pity the characters involved, Planet Terror would actively encourage audience complicity in the death and destruction. There is a sense of ridiculousness to the film which makes it hard to view the film as anything other than general spectacle; this is especially true when combined with the constant digital film damage which is an almost constant reminder that what you are watching is completely fake.

The ShitThe cast do a great job with what they are given, each of them pretty much a cipher in a very elaborate spoof. Rose McGowan, Josh Brolin, Jeff Fahey and Bruce Willis all seem to understand that the film is silly enough and play their roles as straight as possible to even greater effect. In particular a short speech made by Muldoon (Willis) about the execution of Osama Bin Laden is delivered with so much fervour and gravitas that it becomes inexplicably (and intentionally) hilarious. Brolin does such a good job as Doc. Block that his sudden descent into outright villainy is a complete curveball for the audience, his initial moments of screentime setting his character up as a potential hero. McGowan is given the unenviable task of being the emotional core of the film and does an adequate job although she seems far more at ease when she just has to be pithy. It is impossible to really judge acting in a film like this, a good barometer for McGowan is the fact that she gives the ludicrous finale at least a hint of gravitas.

Gun Leg

McGowan’s character Cherry Darling loses her leg about a quarter of the way into the film. The finale of the film is built around one key visual joke, Cherry’s stump being fitted with a high powered machine gun. As a quick visual gag it is fantastic, but then it is used as the major resolution to the movie and we are subjected to the same joke for about five minutes. If that was not bad enough it is also a gag ruined in the trailer for the film and most of the films advertising material. Still McGowan manages to get her Linda Hamilton on and actually deliver a thrilling and energetic action performance, transmogrifying from pitiful go-go dancer to saviour of the world in the space of one reel. She achieves all of this despite looking inherently ridiculous and having to work with choreography which eschews the logic and physics of the rest of the film.

The rest of the cast are largely variable, Michael Biehn seems happy to be working, Naveen Andrews plays his part perhaps a little too campy, Tom Savini seems like he is just waiting for his inevitable gory death, Marley Shelton is a little all over the place and Freddy Rodriguez as the film’s second lead is unfortunately a black hole of charisma. Playing the enigmatic El Wray Rodriguez seems more interested in the action set pieces than anything else and doesn’t have the kind of fun you’d imagine a more seasoned actor would have with the character.

Tarantino Going back to what I wrote earlier one of my main quandaries about the film is exactly how it is representative of Grindhouse. Surprisingly for a Rodriguez film there is far too much gloss on show. The film, despite scratches in the print and cameras in shot now and then, looks pristine and its action sequences are staged in a way that would have been beyond most directors working on Grindhouse films. Even the score can’t help but sound polished, the quaint electronica of the soundtrack giving way to forceful, pounding, well produced rock music as soon as anything interesting happens. As such it is a film that often feels in conflict with itself, adopting the aesthetic of Grindhouse but failing to meaningfully recreate the experience.

BBQ

So if Planet Terror isn’t really a Grindhouse film what is it? It is largely a comedy, a fun film which takes the action horror genre and reveals it for its innate ridiculousness. It is a film that has a character that carries two daggers specifically designed to remove testicles, a high speed chase on a miniature motorbike, Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas getting her brain ripped out of her cranium, inexplicably exploding vehicles, Tarantino’s cock melting off and a missing reel which banks on the fact that audiences know exactly what is going to happen to the characters. It is this moment that secures Planet Terror as a fantastic parody, a sudden cut from a steamy sex scene to a point about thirty minutes later in the film. What is great about this cut is that we know what is going to happen in the second act, we know everything is going to go to shit and that the outcast loner is going to redeem himself somehow. By excising a chunk of this second act it critiques the genre whilst being a hilarious joke in of itself.

Dakota BlockBut whilst Planet Terror may be a wry spoof it is also a demonstration of Rodriguez at his most vibrant and skilful. Planet Terror is a putridly beautiful film, Rodriguez’s work on Sin City giving him an eye for design and composition he had never had before. Despite his attempts at degrading the look of the film it is visually striking, a point brought forth by the iconic marketing material. The image of Dakota Block, mascara smeared down her pearly face, was one of the marketing focal points and it is this kind of iconography that the film gets just right. Matching this visual style is writing from Rodriguez that is uncommonly sharp, his understanding of the genre allowing him to play around with audience expectations. Lines like ‘Where’s the shit’ and ‘Go Go, not Cry Cry’ are all puerile and infantile but work in setting up the tone of the film.

Death Proof

Listen to the Death Proof OST

Whereas Rodriguez would make a film that looked like an old Grindhouse movie, in terms of film damage, Tarantino would make a film that replicated the feel of an old Grindhouse movie. Whereas Planet Terror has the non-stop thrills of a big budget action movie Death Proof is constructed around two action sequences and a whole lot of talking in-between. The fact that Tarantino makes this talking almost as interesting as the automotive mayhem is a feat in of itself. Then again Tarantino has come from a background of talky films, only his fourth film containing anything you could describe as an action sequence.

Of course that fourth film was the kind of action spectacle that even cast a pall over the Matrix sequels and Rodriguez’s tale of Mariachi inspired Mexican revolution. What Kill Bill would showcase was Tarantino’s ability to absorb cinema, replicate technique and add his own twist. It seemed that by simply watching old Shaw Brothers and Chambara films he learnt how to stage and shoot action sequences which would have been legitimately impressive for any director. Yet Tarantino, despite having a start that was more theatre than film, carried it off effortlessly. The same thing happens in Death Proof, his two moments of vehicular chaos shot with the kind of precision and skill that would suggest he’d been filming chase movies for years.

Stunt Man Mike

The central conceit of Death Proof is as such, there is a man known as Stuntman Mike. He is a stuntman who used to specialise in vehicular stunts and now finds himself past his prime. With a specially ‘death proofed’ car he commits vehicular homicide by staging brutal traffic accidents. The film follows his interactions with two very different groups of girls. I will get back to Mike later, but I will warn any reader now that this review is going to be particularly spoiler ridden from this point on. Spoilers aren’t really important in a film like this, there is no real twist and the ending is as you would expect but I felt it fair to give some warning.

Death Proof opens to the car revs of Jack Nitzche’s The Last Race, the shot drifting from an inside view of a car to the inside of an apartment. Even this first shot sets up a lot of things about the film, particularly the tone and self awareness the film will have. Even the fact that the film lingers on the feet of its female stars (a noted Tarantino fascination) sets up that this is a film acutely aware of its audience knowledge base. Grindhouse is pretty much a fetish film, designed for a very particular and very insular group of cinema fans and moments like that show that Death Proof is very aware of who its audience is and what they expect from the film.

Arlene and JuliaThe girls of the film are split into two categories; the first group are the victims of the piece, their deaths avenged in a way by the actions of the second group. More screentime is given to the first set of girls who are essentially a group of young party girls. Jungle Julia is Austin’s local DJ, a miniature celebrity on the cusp of apparent greatness, Shana seems to be your archetypal rich girl (to be honest we are not given much information about or reason to care for her) and Arlene is an out of towner visiting friends. We spend a good fifty minutes in the company of these girls and the one thing that becomes abundantly clear is that Tarantino’s trademark dialogue needs exactly the right kind of context and cadence to work correctly.

Tarantino’s dialogue sounds fine when being spouted by Samuel L Jackson, or John Travolta, or Michael Parks, or even Uma Thurman. They can approach the material from the angle it needs to be approached from and give life and reality to what is very unreal writing. The “royale with cheese” exchange in Pulp Fiction works because of the way Jackson and Travolta deliver it; there is a conversational vibe which transforms it from being overly wordy into being perfectly natural. Similarly the “Like A Virgin” conversation which kicks off Reservoir Dogs has an ascribed reality due to the performances involved. The problem with Death Proof is that Tarantino seems unsure of how to write dialogue for these girls and as such he cuts back on his trademark chit chat. The result is that for fifty minutes we are forced to listen to Tarantino’s approximation of girl talk, imbued with some bizarre pop culture references every now and then. There are flourishes of humanity (oddly they are all but excised from the original cut, the actual fun conversations only appearing in the extended edition) but too often the dialogue is just nebulous and forced.

Lapdance

As such the three characters are reduced to simple archetypes. Shana doesn’t like being called Shauna and has a father rich enough to own a lake house, Jungle Julia is on the cusp of fame, is trying to screw somebody rich and famous, is a world class bitch, and takes umbrage at being relied upon to score weed and Arlene is the timid survivor girl of the trio. Despite attempts to liven up the girls with references to Zatoichi films and 70s rock bands they never serve any purpose other than to be disposable victims. Of course that is kind of the point; the first half of the film seems to be establishing the legend of Stuntman Mike.

Stuntman Mike CarStuntman Mike is of course the villain of the piece but in the first half he is also perhaps the more magnetic character in the film. Part of this is the performance from Kurt Russell who seems to be genuinely relishing his presence in the film. He gives Mike a wounded sort of pride and his previous roles kind of make you sympathetic towards him from the off. Russell is ostensibly a good guy; I think I’ve seen him play one slightly villainous role in his entire career, so we approach the character with a degree of baggage. For me in particular Kurt Russell was a childhood hero, a matinee showing of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was one of the first films I ever saw at a cinema and my teenage years would be made all the better by films like Escape from New York, The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China. Hell at one point I even had a soft spot for Stargate and Tango and Cash.

As such I was pretty much rapt by Stuntman Mike during my first viewing; particularly in the first half he plays the role of the pervasive, all knowing threat exceptionally well. Mike is an odd character in that he is on one hand quite charismatic and on one hand obviously wounded and quite pitiful. He is insightful but also cut off from people, his discussion of his stunt working failing to have any impact but his analysis of Arlene allowing him to get what he wants. He is a classic misanthrope, but a misanthrope with pretence of charm. What is interesting is the way the film views the character. Just before he kills the first set of girls his character stares at the screen and gives the viewer a cheesy grin. It is a moment, like the wink in Funny Games, which makes the audience complicit in what is about to happen.

By this point the audience are waiting for something, anything, to break the tedium. Taken in isolation the opening of Death Proof is still a lot of fun by its own merits, spotting references and some exuberant performances making the time fly by, but after the adrenaline burst of Planet Terror we’re left jonesing for something exciting to happen. Rather oddly the first victim doesn’t fall into line the way you would expect.

Rose McGowan appears in Death Proof as a completely different character, despite Death Proof and Planet Terror occurring in the same universe and apparently same city, and delivers a performance that is quietly charming. Playing a girl dumped by her boyfriend at the bar where Mike is stalking his victims she has the bad luck to accept a lift home from him. Her fate doesn’t fit into the adrenaline charged spectacle of what follows, her character is actually likeable enough and her fate vicious enough to be a sort of jolt of consciousness. What happens to her is truly horrific and yet the film continues on in its stride setting up its big car crash with great gusto and excitement.

After the mild horror of McGowan’s death Tarantino seems to falter for a moment, giving us a moment of quiet before he really amps things up. If we were meant to feel sympathy at all for Rose then surely the following scene in which four more girls are brutally killed should be just as horrific. But Tarantino doesn’t play that way, he sets the scene up for us to savour, he creates iconography and in one instant creates a focal point for the movie. As the girls drive home, all drunk and stoned and all but one of them without a seat belt, they actually put on the pop rock anthem which will make their death so iconic.

Preempt to Death

The thudding beat of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mich and Tich’s Hold Tight is supplied by Jungle Julia and we’re even offered a quick introduction to the song that will underscore their death. As the base loops in, the girls having a right old time rocking out, Mike passes their car in his souped up death proofed vehicle. His handbrake turn synchs with the music perfectly, the head on collision crescendoing with the music itself. We are then shown the crash from four different angles to highlight the individual fates of the four occupants of the car. Shana is propelled through the windscreen, the driver gets knackered by the steering column, Julia has her leg sliced off at the hip and Arlene in a cruel twist is given the worst fate. The shot of her wearing a seatbelt suggests that she is going to survive, she has already been set up as the survivor girl by her interactions with Mike and the focus the film has given her. As such when the wheel of Mike’s car literally caves in her face it comes as something of a shock.

Abernathy

The film makes a quick stop off in Planet Terror (with Earl McGraw and Dakota Block speculating on what happened) before the film jumps forward 18 months to a new set of girls. This is where the film takes its biggest diversions and actually becomes a tad more cerebral than the first half would lead you to believe. For starters the film stops using its box of Grindhouse tricks. Audio is no longer looped, the film is no longer scratched, and the image quality is comparable to Tarantino’s usual oeuvre. Whereas the first group of girls were destined to be victims, the second group seem destined to be antagonists. For starters the second group of girls are allowed to have conversations without the film breaking them off mid sentence. The girls are all part of the film world, Zoë and Kim are stuntwomen (Zoë Bell is essentially playing herself), whilst Abernathy and Lee are a make up girl and actress respectively.

Zoe car

If nothing else the second half of Death Proof is a love letter to Zoë Bell, a stunt woman who had worked with Tarantino on Kill Bill. Despite fudging some of her lines and seeming a little out of her depth acting wise Bell is almost as magnetic as Russell and provides the only real counterpoint to Mike’s rampant charisma. Rosario Dawn is cute and charming as Abernathy, whilst Lee’s only purpose in the film seems to be the victim of a particularly unsettling joke. Tracie Thom got a lot of stick when the film was released and it is easy to see why, her character is probably a little too extreme for the movie being presented.

Her constant stream of swearing and use of the word nigger makes the film almost uncomfortable at times. In fact her characters constant use of racial slurs brought to mind Denzel Washington’s famous stand off with Tarantino on the set of Crimson Tide. Washington would call Tarantino on his use of the word on set and in the script and its excessive use in Death Proof brought that to mind. Despite some sex talk, apparently Tarantino’s default dialogue for girls is about ‘the thing’, and a story about Zoë and Abernathy in the Far East the characters are defined less by what they say and more by what they do.

Jump

The majority of Death Proof’s second half is taken up by a car chase between Mike and three of the girls. Originally starting off with Mike as the pursuer, harassing the girls as they attempt a foolish and ridiculously dangerous stunt, the tone of the film completely changes when the girls start to pursue the Stuntman. Both using amped up muscle cars the chase is fast, furious and frantic and once again shows Tarantino as being a master assimilator. Certainly one of the important elements to the chase is the reality of actually having two cars driving around at insane speeds and at point having Zoë Bell actually clutched onto the bonnet of a Dodge going at full pelt.

Death ProofedOf course the most important aspect of the second half is the reaction Mike has to women who he can’t easily overwhelm. His change from hunter to hunted is done perfectly with Mike revealing himself to be a shrieking, gutless, coward. His pleading for mercy and shrill cries of pain completely changes the tone of the film. What Death Proof, in my mind, seeks to do is deconstruct the idea of the pervasive male aggressor. Mike is a stand in for an audience who watch horror films to rejoice in the slaughter, who root for Jason and Freddy and Michael Myers. Of course he is a movie character so his traits are obviously enhanced, but is easy to draw parallels to his social stunted misogyny and the social stunted misogyny of posters on AICNs talkbacks who wished that he had ‘killed those bitches’.

Bye Bye Mike

The tragedy of course is that this will be lost on many people, it is a subtle point made in a film that is often not subtle at all. A further tragedy is that Kurt Russell’s excellent portrayal of the character is probably going to get overlooked by a lot of people because of this tonal shift. To take this iconic character and then show him at his most pitiful is an incredibly brave thing to do and Russell carries it off perfectly. Originally Mickey Rourke was meant to take the role of Stuntman Mike and to be honest I don’t see how that could possible have worked. Rourke wouldn’t be able to play Mike as the coward he truly is. The sudden descent into Russ Meyer’s territory is what makes Death Proof so smart and funny. It is a film that embraces the violence inherent in the genre and then asks us to question our enjoyment of the carnage.

Dodgem

Spike’s Classics: Candyman

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review, Spike's Classics with tags , on March 19, 2008 by Spike Marshall

candyman-poster.jpegWhat do you get when you combine the talents of a director now known for his fondness of Russian Literature, a composer best known for his minimalist and ethereal scoring, a cast of unknowns and source material from professional horror weirdo Clive Barker?

The answer is one of the great Horror films of the 1990s. Between Freddy and Jason’s last hurrah and Wes Craven’s ironic revitalisation of the genre Horror cinema was in an odd place. The Franchises which had made the genre such a juggernaut in the 1980s had all reached their nadir and nothing was coming to fill their place. There would be some truly great films made in this Horror hinterland, but none of them would really impact the market in the way that the Friday The 13th and Nightmare On Elm Streets film had.

Candyman is one such film; produced in 1992 the movie would garner good reviews and would have moderate success at the box office earning close to twenty five million at the box office. It is easy to see why Candyman would become such a popular character, even when divorced from the context of his own film. Barker has always been a master of regal, intelligent and hideously beautiful villains. Pinhead, Candyman and even Nightbreed’s Dr. Decker are all villains who mix a conceptually simple and striking design with an intelligence and maleficent theatricality. Candyman is an archetypal Barker villain spouting well rehearsed prose and combining a sense of the horrific and the sensual.

candyman-hook.png

However despite the first film tripling its production budget the series would only be revisited twice. In a horror market currently dominated by remakes and reimaginings it is hard to understand why a character with such innate market appeal would be given such short shrift.

Candyman’s box office success but lack of exploitation may come from the very nature of the film itself which uses the iconography of a traditional slasher film to mask something a little more complex.

helen-2.pngThe film is based off of Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden and is focused on an ambitious graduate student named Helen Lyle (Virgina Madsen) who is conducting research for her thesis on Urban Legends. As she interviews Freshmen at her college she comes across the legend of the Candyman, a supernatural hook handed killer dispensing bloody retribution to whoever speaks his name five times whilst looking at a mirror. As Helen investigates the legend further she finds out about Candyman’s roots in the Cabrini Green housing project and about a rash of murders attributed to the mythological figure.

It is this last point that is of the most importance to the movie, the notion of an entire community generating folklore to explain away the escalating gang violence they see around them. Dozens of people have been killed with a hook in the housing project, leading to an almost cult of the Candyman being created. When Helen and her friend Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) investigate Cabrini Green, and specifically an abandoned apartment where the last Candyman killing took place, they find the housing project daubed with the iconography of the hook handed killer. The residents of Cabrini Green have become so terrified of this mythological character that a gangster has taken up the mantle of the killer dispensing his own form of brutal justice in Candyman’s name.

candyman.pngThis is the point where the film starts to play with audience expectations. As viewers we go into films with certain expectations, we subconsciously arm ourselves with information whether garnered from reviews, publicity information or word of mouth. With a movie like Candyman we approach the film already knowing about the hook handed killer, already having seen images of Candyman in promotional material and as such we make the intellectual choice to accept that within the reality of the film there exists a supernatural killer who is murdering people for the mundane crime of reciting his name.

This complicity makes us approach the film in the same way that the residents of Cabrini Green approach their daily lives. Every crime and act of villainy in the film is attributable to this killer and as we see Helen look through newspaper killings detailing the serial murders in the housing project we assume that they are all the work of the supernatural Candyman, a character who can appear at will, can murder without question and who at the start of the film even offers his own introduction.

hovering-candyman.png

They will say that I have shed innocent blood.
What’s blood for, if not for shedding?
With my hook for a hand…
I’ll split you from your groin to your gullet.
I came…
… for you.

As such when we are offered the person responsible for the serial killings halfway through the film we are forced to evaluate our own notions of how the world works. The titular killer has been revealed to be a person of flesh and blood, a gruff gang enforcer who maintains order in Cabrini Green through sheer terror.

We are shown his motives and methods, Helen discovering that the different apartments in the housing project are connected by a crawl space behind medicine cabinets. The initial supernatural elements of the film are quashed and subsequently introduce a second supernatural element, something far more interesting than an otherworldly serial killer.

here-you-looking-for-candyman-bitch.png

Candyman’s initial appearance comes late in the movie, long after we have heard his legend and seen his imagined handiwork. With Helen having succeeded in getting the ‘real’ Candyman put into prison the residents of Cabrini Green have abandoned their faith in the hook handed killer, realising the murders were perpetuated by man and not avenging ghost. This lack of faith threatens the Candyman who is a being who exists and relies upon his legend. Without faith in his existence he will fade into nothingness and as such he meets his destroyed head on and makes her a part of his legend.

I am the writing on the wall,
The whisper in the classroom!
Without these things

I am nothing.

Whereas the first half of the film deconstructs the notions of urban legends and mythology (the first scene in the film parodying the aesthetic of slasher films in general) the second half showcases the urban legends making their fight for survival. The Candyman draws Helen into his own mythology by carrying out gruesome murders and abductions and marking Helen as the prime suspect. The film takes a few interesting choices in this half, chief amongst them being the nagging sense that Helen herself is responsible for the crimes.

Bernie’s CorpseThere is an ambiguity to the murders generated largely by the deconstructive elements of the first half. Whilst a traditional horror film would have the audience understand that Helen is being framed by the murderous ghost of a 19th Century artist with a hook for a hand and passion for bees, Candyman has already sown the seeds of doubt about such things and as such it is impossible to discount that Helen is going slightly insane.

The ending of the film, in which Helen becomes a legend herself and enacts a brutal vengeance on her husband, suggests that the filmmakers expect us to believe that conceptually it is possible for the Candyman to exist as a wraith. The residents of Cabrini Green have killed the Candyman, burning him alive in a pyre and as such he stops existing, but Helen now legendary for her obsession with the Candyman and the murders of several people takes his place as a mythological spectre. This probably buggered up any plans for continuing the series.

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This intellectual pondering on the nature of folklore and myth is just one example of a product which just operates on another level to most horror. From the opening aerial shots of Chicago scored to Philip Glass’s ghostly main theme the film just exudes a sense of high minded beauty. Bernard Rose who takes credit as both writer and director would showcase a prodigious talent for horror which would sadly never be showcased again. He would have previous experience with fantasy due to his earlier work on the fantastic Paperhouse but his resume wouldn’t suggest him capable of such a great piece of cinema as the gothically regal Candyman.

candyman-helen-fire.pngWhat bolsters Rose’s vision is a cast of actors who are exceptionally comfortable in their respective roles. Tony Todd is simply fantastic as the lyrical and sinister Candyman; he has a physicality and presence which allows him to dominate the film despite his dearth of actual screentime. Virgina Madsen is probably the standout performance in the film, giving depth and humanity to a character who could be aloof and cold if not handled correctly. She takes the dual role of being the emotional and intellectual core of the film and carries it off effortlessly.

candyman-mural.pngThat is the strange thing about Candyman, the only proven element of quality in the film is Philip Glass who provides the haunting if a little magisterial soundtrack. Bernard Rose despite Paperhouse was coming off of two truly terrible films, Virgina Madsen had hardly proven herself as an actress, Tony Todd was better known for TV work than film acting his only notable work being in the remake of Night of the Living Dead and a small role in Platoon, and Barker adaptations had generated one box office smash and one well intentioned disaster.

Yet somehow these disparate performers were able to pool their talents and create something that was truly fantastic. A lyrical, beautiful, bloody, intelligent and horrifying film about a 19th Century ghost with a hook for a hand.

Munich

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review, Spike vs. His DVD Collection with tags , , , on March 15, 2008 by Spike Marshall

poster2.jpgSpielberg is the public conception of cinema, you ask the average person about their favourite directors and they will probably say Steven Spielberg. In terms of popular movie culture he is about as iconic as you can get with a string of movies that brought about and defined summer Blockbusters. With perhaps only one or two out and out failures Spielberg has become synonymous with cinematic quality, a benchmark for populist directors the world over. So why does he on the DVD release for his latest film have to defend his creative choices in a five minute long introduction?

Following his string of successful family orientated films in the late 70s and early 80s Spielberg would start to move on to more cerebral fare, ditching his aliens, killer sharks and daredevil archaeologists for true life stories about POWs, the Holocaust and the brutality of the World War Two. There is still the occasional piece of crowd pleasing fodder, Jurassic Park for one, but The Colour Purple marks the start of Spielberg’s ‘growing up’.

There is not much really to say about Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan and the justification for my positive opinion of both A.I. and Minority Report would entail me writing yet another two or three paragraphs of introduction. These films shape the course of Spielberg’s maturation and allow for the existence of Munich, a film which conflicts with Spielberg’s back catalogue on a basic tonal and aesthetic level.

The Cinéma-vérité elements of Schindler’s List and the harrowing, brutal and honest violence of Saving Private Ryan are the key considerations when viewing this film, a treatise on the nature of escalating violence and ‘eye for eye’ politics.

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Munich starts quietly, a simple act of intercontinental charity kicking off the horrific event that will become the catalyst for everything to follow. Flurries of media reports relay the situation as Palestinian terrorists kidnap and hold to ransom the Israeli Olympic Team. We already know what is going to happen, the brutality of the Munich Hostage Crisis of 1972 burnt into the public consciousness enough to allow Spielberg to focus on presenting reaction to the event rather than summarising what happened. The subsequent firefight between Munich police and the terrorists, and the murder of all eleven hostages will be dramatised later in the film but our opening experience with Munich is that wild media frenzy. As I said earlier, the film is not really concerned with documenting the factuality of the terrorist action and instead uses the massacre as a catalyst for its ruminations on vengeance and escalating violence.

munich8.pngAvner (Eric Bana) is a young Mossad agent whose low profile offers him the potential to operate without suspicion on a state funded revenge mission. Hired to eliminate eleven key members of the Palestinian Terrorist group ‘Black September’ responsible for the Munich kidnappings. Resigning from his job and becoming exiled from his home country of Israel Avner finds himself in command of a four strong team with the prerogative to pursue and eliminate his targets in any way he deems fit.

That is about as much plot as I need to go into, anymore and I’d just be rambling. The majority of the film follows this mission, as Avner and his team journey around Europe buying information and carrying out both public and secluded executions. As you would imagine from the director of Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List Munich is hardly an Israeli version of Delta Force.

munich1.pngThe action in Munich is punctuation, messy, unflinching and never particularly pleasant. Spielberg is a master of composition and he uses this to present violence in two distinct styles. Certain acts are carried out with an unreal melancholic grace, the first assassination being a prime example of artistic licence adding emotional truth to a scene. The target, gunned down in his hotel lobby whilst carrying his groceries home, pleads for his life two shots ending his life and leaving his body to fall dramatically onto the floor, milk and blood mixing as his groceries and bodily fluids spill out in front of him. There is a forlorn poetry to the entire scene that makes the directors opinion on retaliatory violence crystal clear.

When not going for artistry, the film opts to showcase violent events in a subjective way. Two key moments in the film, a bomb blast in a hotel and a Mossad assault on a Beirut fortress, are filmed in a distinctly documentary style. The camera pulled back from the action to allow for a distanced reaction to what is occurring onscreen. There is a brutal banality to both of these scenes, particularly the way in which a Mossad agent finds a wounded Palestinian and compares him to a photograph of one of the targets before summarily executing him. The dispassionate way these scenes are executed only highlights the humanity of the film, and the way it is slowly eluding our central characters.

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Avner is an easy entry point for the audience, his initial feelings of cognitive dissonance synching up with audience perceptions. We’re meant to question the retaliation from the first kill onwards and Avner initially joins us in this uneasiness. His hesitation to kill, despite his training as a soldier, showcases the same sense of uncertainty about the justness of the cause that we the audience are feeling. Balancing Avner are the conflicting ideologies of his team mates, in particular the fiery Steve (Daniel Craig) who rejoices at every Arab killed and the reticent Carl (Ciarán Hinds) who balks at initial celebrations over the death of the first target.

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As more and more of the executions are carried out Avner becomes increasingly disassociated, his initial dilemma at the gunning down of a target slowly giving way to a man willing to shoot his targets down in the street and use brutal ordnance to get the job done. By the end of the film Avner is a paranoid and schizophrenic wreck, his realisation of the futility of his action and understanding of the recompense soon to befall him twisting his character into a shell of itself.

The violence in Munich is cyclical, the Israeli occupation forcing Palestinians to kill at the Munich games, the Munich games forcing Israeli’s to kill around Europe, the Israeli killings inspiring stronger Palestinian attacks which are themselves greeted by more severe Israeli assaults.

munich3.pngThe characters themselves start to understand this, with Avner’s dreams of the hostage situation changing from being the thing that drives him, to being the thing that hounds him. His final dream, where he imagines the final moments of the Israeli Olympic team, is twisted with guilt at his own contribution to the escalating violence. There is still a hatred of the terrorists responsible, but it is mixed with a sense of self loathing brought about by his realisation of what his mission has achieved, removing moderates from Black September and replacing them with far more dangerous people.

That is the answer to the question I posited earlier on. Spielberg introduces the film to try and make people understand that his film isn’t anti Israeli; it is not a comment on Israeli politics as such as it is a comment on the nature of violence itself.

munich5.pngMunich is a film that is at once both beautiful and utterly hideous. As a director Spielberg crafts a truly luminous work of art, which is engaging, shocking, occasionally witty and always enthralling. It is a film made with skill and dedication and filled with great performances, particularly from a pre-Bond Daniel Craig and the greatly underappreciated Ciarán Hinds.

Eric Bana is a standout in the central role, bringing humanity to a character who is often hard to read and becomes increasingly disassociated from the audience.

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But it is also a film that is meant to be unpleasant, meticulous recreations of the Munich massacre and brutal, morally contemptible violence making Munich a bitter pill to swallow.