Sunday, 23 November 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)

 

In this current era of comic-book obsessed filmmaking, the archaic trait whereby a villain is bit by/hit by/falls into radioactive elements, we automatically relate it to our current heroes. Of course, these heroes were created in the atomic age, whereby fear was rife regarding the power of nuclear energy. The atomic age not only inspired comic book heroes and villains but also impacted on cinema, providing the path for films including Forbidden Planet, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. All of which are either due to be shown, or have been shown, at the BFI in their outstanding Sci-Fi season: Days of Fear and Wonder.

Bookended by a Cabinet-of-Dr-Caligari, mad-man narration, we’re introduced to Dr. Miles Bennett (Kevin McCarthy) in Invasion of the Body Snatcehrs. He is dishevelled and panicked. He is calmed by an investigator and he tells us his story. After he is called back home to the fictional town of Santa Mira, he begins to realise that everything isn’t what it seems. Patients were desperate to meet him, and now they are flippant about the request and claim it “was nothing”. A young boy who runs from his family argues they’ve changed – while a close friend claims the same about her own Aunt and Uncle. Dr. Bennett turns to his young love Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) and the two discuss the strange happenings. One night, they find a body that appears to be slowly becoming more human – without finger prints and appearing to be dead, Miles and Becky are confused. But it all comes to light as strange seed-like pods are found in the garden shed and, bursting open, they slowly witness the birth of these body snatchers. Miles and Becky have to escape as it is clear that Santa Mira has been overrun by these alien creatures.


It’s a story that, upon its release in 1956, clearly alluded to the political landscape. There is a palpable fear, not only of the atom, but of the communist persuasions of others. Indeed, the loss of identity and lack of humanity is considered the true evil. The horror-trait of an alien domination of the planet only serves to support the idea of a Cold War plot arguing non-American principles as a threat to society. Ironically, characters biggest fears in the film are about what they lose: “I don’t want a world without love or grief or beauty” Becky days. You could argue that in the modern world (in a capitalist, consumerist economy) these traits are eroded away for the sake of financial success.

This is what makes science-fiction so endlessly fascinating. It allegorises issues and threats to the world. Replace a social-threat with an “alien” or “monster” and you can speak honestly and bluntly about the actions and consequences of such an “invasion”. This is why so many people across the world saw 9/11 as “straight from a Hollywood movie”, as it seemed too similar to Sci-Fi films including Independence Day and Armageddon. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, at its time, represents the responses to the post-war era in the USA, and continues to be relevant to this day.

Of course, Don Siegel’s film didn’t end in the 1950’s. Its influence continues today. Whether it is in the eggs within Gremlins, or the goo seen bubbling within Cronenberg’s The Fly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers continues to act as an inspiration for low-budget, but incredibly effective, science-fiction. In fact, you can go further – the sleepy, small town with a dark past bleeds into David Lynch’s nightmarish visions of the USA; the slow but terrifying spread of a people-controlling force in Night of the Living Dead shortly over a decade later; the distrust of psychiatry or fear of what it may not be able to explain within Shock Corridor. Invasion of the Body Snatchers pre-dated them all. The plot alone continued to become relevant with remakes in the 1970’s and 1990’s (are we due another this decade?). It is core to the history of cinema, let alone science-fiction, and with so many themes embedded within its simple, but poignant, narrative, it is an endlessly, re-watchable cult-classic.   

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

150W: Scoop

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...


Scoop (Dir. Woody Allen/2006)

Magic, death and murder are often found in Woody Allen films. Scoop is no different, as Joe Stromble (McShane), from beyond the grave, appears to reporter Sondra (Johannson) in the middle of a magician’s (Allen) show. He gives her the ‘scoop’ of a lifetime, revealing the tarot-card killer as upper-class businessman Peter Lyman (Jackman). Pretending to play Father and daughter in many scenes, Scarlett Johansson is channelling her inner Woody Allen while acting with him. This means Scoop includes two neurotic, awkward Allen-esque characters, for the price of one. Considering the previous year saw the incredibly successful Match Point mark a high-point for Allen, similarly Scoop touches on wealth and power – and how it can corrupt. Including prat-falls and deft one-liners, Allen seems to be in comfortable territory. Far from perfect, Scoop includes playful comedy and, truthfully, it’s nice to see classic Woody back to his old tricks on screen.

Rating: 5/10

Friday, 17 October 2014

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2008)

At the end of 2009, I noticed somewhat of an anomaly in Sight and Sound. Ranking the best films of the year, the magazine highlighted two films by director Claire Denis within the top ten: White Material and 35 Shots of Rum (on the festival circuit in 2008, 35 Shots was released in 2009 in the UK). In fact, 35 Shots of Rum earned joint second position alongside The Hurt Locker (The Prophet trumped both at No.1). Therefore, in a recent ‘Jim Jarmusch and Friends’ season, the BFI took the opportunity to screen the film again to celebrate her influences. And Jim Jarmusch was more than an influence too as she worked as Assistant Director on Down by Law only two years before her own directorial debut.

In the case of 35 Shots of Rum, though it focuses on relationships akin to Jarmusch, it holds a central story that evokes the quiet tenderness of Yasujirō Ozu. Living within a small, tight-knit community is Lionel (Alex Descas) and his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop). We see an evening routine as the two return home from a long day. Lionel, a widower, works on the metro while Josephine studies. Their relationship is very close and it is clear that they depend on each other. We are introduced also to a neighbour, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue). She has feelings for Lionel, and has had these for a long time. The young man in an apartment below, Noe (Gregoire Colin), is detached and unsettled. He doesn’t know whether he is coming or going, but we know Josephine means more to him than he lets on. These four characters depend on each other and we glide through their lives and await a change – or as Roger Ebert put it in his review, a “shift”.

What makes 35 Shots of Rum so engaging is the calmness of the story. The opening moments, as Jo and Lionel busy themselves in the cramped apartment, is almost without words. In fact, the only reason we realise they are Father and daughter is the passing, flippant “Merci, Papa”, noted by many as a shock when revealed. While this personal story can be considered poetic on its own small-scale, Claire Denis hints at larger themes that have always interested her. The use of transport alludes to a different social standing between the characters. Noe drives his own car; something that Lionel seems unimpressed to hear. Lionel himself is an experienced train engineer while Gabrielle operates her own taxi. Their clear connection to public services show roots of socialism that no doubt pulls the two together. Lionel’s passing remark, “we have everything here” as Noe leaves their flat assures us that he is aware of young men and their reliance on material possessions – opposed to strong, loving relationships and the importance of playing a vital role in society. Noe’s treatment of his cat, for example, seems somewhat shocking.


But Denis doesn’t force the issue. These are nuanced characteristics that float in the back of our minds. In a city whereby hot drinks steam in the windy weather and shabby interiors are almost claustrophobic, 35 Shots of Rum feels true. A contrast between the open plains of a beach coast against the urban city mirrors Ozu’s influence further, but 35 Shots of Rum stands on its own and deserves the praise it receives. Subtle and personal, 35 Shots of Rum is a film that tells of the inevitable changes to come and its effect on a family – and the unexpected future they will have to accept.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Maze Runner (Wes Ball, 2014)

It’s true that The Maze Runner owes a debt to The Hunger Games. While it lacks the political context and Battle-Royale-survival plot, it does have a sense of fun and playful adventure that bogged down the Katniss-led series. As the first of a franchise (the sequel has been greenlit) with a trilogy of books, a prequel novel and a further novel in the works, The Maze Runner has a lot to live up to.

Using the same trope as many horror films, The Maze Runner begins with a shock. A teenager (Dylan O’Brien) is trapped in a lift. It is rising higher and higher in the dark. Loose chains rattle and mechanical noises litter the air. He looks around and coughs until he reaches the top. Opening onto a vast field, he has entered ‘The Glade’. A community led by Alby (Aml Ameen) and his second-in-command Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), this is a group of young men trapped between four towering walls. They are in the centre of ‘The Maze’.  Runners race through the labyrinth each day to map out the area but it constantly changes. Our nameless protagonist befriends a tubby-teen (Blake Cooper) and makes an enemy in “angry-face” Gally (Will Poulter), but still believes there is hope for the group to escape the dangers of the maze.

Limited primarily to a large field, grey corridors and small ramshackle tents mean that locations can be tiring and repetitive. They run down vine-covered hallways, turn a corner to reveal… another hallway. Surely a little more creativity in the context of a man-made maze wouldn’t have been a bad move? The Hunger Games hint at a world outside, while The Maze Runner locks you in. The threats within the world, named “Greavers”, are Cronenbergian creatures. Fleshy centres held up by mechanical spider-like legs mean they sprint across, above and around the walls. They’re more akin to the raptors in Jurassic Park than Shelob in Lord of the Rings. The directorial-debut from Wes Ball, this is a filmmaker who clearly looks to Spielberg and the Wachowski’s for inspiration. Many moments often hint at themes and stylistic flourishes that echo The Matrix. In both films our protagonist is trapped in a world he is desperate to escape, and there is a conflict whereby Gally has acclimatised to ‘The Glade’ in the same manner Cypher preferred the matrix.

But these comparisons are not meant as negative criticism. Clunky lines and predictable dialogue aside (“What if he doesn’t come back?”/”He’ll come back”/”But what if he doesn’t?”/”He’ll be back.”) it remains thoroughly entertaining. The characters are likeable and the story nonsensical (When Kaya Scodelario turns up she seems to only create more confusion - barely any of these "haven't-seen-a-woman-in-years" teenage boys fancy her?) , but the childish enjoyment of getting lost in a vast space of interlocking walls and rooms proves itself once again. On some level, there is game of logic at play – and this life-size puzzle is what keeps you sat in your seat, in the same way as SawCube and the final part of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire did.

The Maze Runner is flawed, as many teenage book-adaptations are (Twilight, The Hunger Games, etc), but it’s influenced by the better blockbusters (from before the comic-book take-over). The small-scale of the story is the centre-piece and it wisely hints at the larger picture in the final act only. When we meet the cliché suited woman-in-white, you know you’ve met her before but it’s all part of the fun (was she in the background of Elysium?) A diverse cast, fast-pace and boardgame-like story manages to keep you thoroughly interested. It’s like a rollercoaster – fun and fast-paced, but everything sometimes looks the same.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014)

Judging the poster, Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow looks like a computer game – I wonder, is this the new state of cinema? The clunky, robotic military gear harks back to Total Recall or Starship Troopers – or, in games, Gears of War. Tom Cruise, last seen in similar dystopian-future film Oblivion, is Major Cage, a press-face for the military who suddenly finds himself on the front line of the fight against the alien. Emily Blunt, returning to time-travel films after Looper, is Rita, an outstanding soldier who knows what Cage is going through. In true Groundhog Day fashion, Cage wakes up every time he is killed to relive the final two days of an epic battle, and Rita is the key to his redemption and to saving planet Earth itself.

Located in London, Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow is initially a fish-out-of-water plot, fused with a socio-political edge. The charming, cheeky Major Cage is a high-ranking official who appears on TV but doesn’t fight himself. Confronted by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), he is ordered to serve alongside the troops in France (in an invasion modelled on the opening attack in Saving Private Ryan). Glibly, he refuses. He attempts to bribe the General too, only to wake up in make-shift army barracks on Heathrow’s airstrips. What begins as a subtle criticism of those in power lacking awareness of those on the front line is soon forgotten though, as the time-travel plot begins. Suddenly, the focus is primarily on Tom Cruise’s need to survive. It harks back to the socio-economical subtext of Elysium, which again, is forgotten about once one-man’s survival is at stake.

Outside of Cruise, the majority of roles are standard caricatures for a sci-fi/war genre film. Almost immediately after waking, we repetitively meet Master Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton), a Kentucky-born disciplinarian. Reciting lines of literature to rank himself amongst the hard-nuts of army officers in cinema, his approach is so stern as to direct gambling soldiers to preposterously eat their own playing-cards. Emily Blunt herself seems bland and lacks authority to truly support her ‘Angel of Verdun’ credibility. Against Ellen Ripley or Sarah Conner, the angel would have her wings clipped.

But (going by its cinematic title) Edge of Tomorrow is not aiming to showcase complicated characters, or make profound political points. In Gareth Evans’ The Raid, many noted the computer-game progression of the narrative. Level-by-level, working your way through the building, to the big-boss at the end. Edge of Tomorrow is the same, with “extra lives” and advanced weapons to make the stakes higher. Except some people (though not the target-market for this film perhaps) don’t play computer games – let alone play them for the nearly two-hour runtime of this film. For some the relentless action is too chaotic.  The frustration with repeating a sequence can grate, while the more profound elements are left to the side for the sake of a plot-beat that keeps you engaged. Edge of Tomorrow does manage to showcase some breath-taking war-torn landscapes while the comedic-moments as Cruise plays with his time-travel skills are fun. But the story lacks the philosophical scope of The Matrix, and misses the political points of District 9. This is fun, goofy action, with a quirky unique-selling-point, but it can’t break free from the formulaic core at its centre. It feels like we’ve seen most of this before.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on 1st June 2014 and adjusted for the change of title when released on DVD/Bluray