Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mum and Dad (2008)

Olga is a young Polish immigrant working as a cleaner in a drab UK airport. She's befriended by Birdie, a fellow cleaner. After she's invited back to Birdie's home, she doesn't quite find the caring family she expected. Mum and Dad both want her to be a part of the family, and aren't keen on letting her go

Mum and Dad (2008) is as much a dark comedy as it is torture porn. There's sibling rivalry, hard-core porn playing while breakfast is served, and the ruler of the roost has his wicked way with a slab of meat.

The real star of Steven Sheil's directorial debut is the father of the eponymous family, played by Perry Benson. He has a pudgy, genial face but his hulking frame is filmed to be creepy and physically intimidating. He mood constantly shifts from one end of the sociopath spectrum to the other, and is easily provoked to acts of extreme violence. Outside the home, however, he's perfectly normal, has a stable job as a baggage handler at the airport, and boasts of long term friendships.

The home is cramped and claustrophobic, but there's enough room to store a range of stolen goods, and the usual torture rooms and creatures in the attic that you expect in a movie like this.

The movie contains the usual horror cliches, and never surprises. It's not outstanding, but watch it for Perry Benson's star turn.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Social Network

The Social Network is a witty, well-paced and intense movie about the lawsuits that surrounded the birth of Facebook. It's not, however, a movie about social networking – the drama revolves around the relationship between the founders, those who considered Facebook intellectual theft, and those who saw the potential of the social networking site.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, the intellectually precocious but socially inept computer geek who developed Facebook. It's not-so subtlety implied he appropriated the idea from three members of an exclusive fraternity, who wanted him to build a social networking site solely for students at Harvard University. Zuckerberg gets initial financial backing for Facebook from a fellow student, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). However, Saverin, is gradually eased out of his share by the arrival of Napster founder, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake).

Sean Parker is played as a hyperactive narcissist, fond of expensive lunches and listening to the sound of his own voice. He's not a particularly sympathetic character. It's implied that he structured Facebook's venture-capitalist funding to dilute Eduardo's part-ownership of Facebook.

Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg with a single emotionless expression, with only his voice occasionally betraying his exasperation with other people. He has relatively few social skills and is unable to sustain romantic relationships, but is ruthlessly single-minded in his desired direction for Facebook. This alienates those around him, and it never appears that he has any real friends after Facebook took-off, just hangers-on.

The dialogue is witty and clever, and the soundtrack by Trent Reznor is suitably haunting.

I'm not clear how much of the movie is fiction, but its pace and style keeps your attention. But even though I'm not a class-hater, I found it hard to sympathize with any of the characters since the plot revolves about over-privileged Harvard students squabbling over a lawsuit settlement.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Five Breathtaking Action Scenes From Movies

If art is defined as any form of human expression that drives human emotion, then cinematic action is a new art form that deserves recognition in its own right. Cinematic action can transcend the medium and fuse with our reptilian brain to create an experience that simply did not exist a hundred years ago.

This is a list of breathtaking movie action sequences. These scenes can be appreciated in isolation, but only have their full impact in context of the movie when we experience the emotional journey of the characters.

Action scenes that feature CG as the primary focus of the action (think Transformers) do not feature in this list because they have, for me, a limited emotional impact. I'm consciously aware that they're simply not real because the movements on screen do not reflect reality at a fundamental level – CG does not capture the right momentum, weight, and balance of real-life.  I simply do not feel the danger.  In-camera special effects are more real, more impactful, and just more believable than CG.

The Hallway Fight in Inception

The Hallway fight in Inception ranks as one of the most impressive in-camera sequences ever burned to celluloid. When first I saw a few seconds of the scene in a trailer, I was intrigued. However, only after watching the fight scene in-film did I truly appreciate its impact.

Christopher Nolan, in writing and directing Inception, created a novel plot device in which the physical actions experienced by dreaming characters affects their in-dream environment. Within the context of the Hallway scene, a van containing a dreaming Joseph Gordon Levitt tumbles down a bank. In Levitt's dream, he's fighting in a hallway, which also rotates along with the van. In doing so, gravity shifts from wall-to-wall in the hallway, sending the characters tumbling from side-to-side.

This sequence is novel, with a sublime rhythm in the action of the characters, the cutting from one dream level to another, and the thumping of the music.

Instead of CG, Nolan's team built a rotating set in an aircraft hanger in Cardington, England. Given how expensive this must have been, the hallway scene lasts a remarkably restrained forty seconds. Other directors might have been tempted to milk more out of it.

The Elevator Fight in Merantau Warrior

I'm a martial arts freak, and this is the first of two martial arts movies on this list. Merantau features the Indonesian martial art of Silat, and was the debut for the principal character, and the first commercially released film for the director (who, rather unusually, is a tall Welshman).

The most impressive fight takes place in an elevator (or lift, in British parlance).

It's what I consider a martial arts fight grounded in realism – it doesn't feature any obviously unrealistic acrobatics or outrageous moves. Despite taking place in an elevator, each movement is clearly defined, with extended takes, and no jarring edits which make the action difficult to follow.

Compare it to this sequence from the Bourne Ultimatum, one of the finer Hollywood two-man fights. The edits are much more rapid, with camera movement becoming the action, rather than enhancing it.

Read my full review of Merantau here.

The Final Fight in Drunken Master 2

I first watched Drunken Master 2 on a pirated VCD in the late nineties and became obsessed by the final fight. I've spent countless hours watching this sequence, revelling in the imaginative choreography and how movement flows smoothly from one shot to another.

I've written another blog post that dissects the nine-minute sequence in greater detail, so I won't write too much about it now. The fighting is more stylized than the sequence in Merantau, with exaggerated moves and outrageous acrobatics.

The Finale of Last of the Mohicans

What gives the sequence from The Last of the Mohicans its power is the journey of the characters through the movie, and the sacrifices they have made.

Hardly any words are spoken, with the action reaching a climax as the score is at its most sweeping. The accompanying music is called The Promontory Kiss, and is wonderfully epic, fostering a startling contrast with the on-screen trauma and enhancing the emotional loss of the characters.

The Beach Landing in Saving Private Ryan

This was film-making at its most audacious, most challenging. The Omaha beach landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan made war real, brutal, and unfathomably dangerous.

The camera serves to place the viewer in the midst of the battle, and as vulnerable to the German bullets as any of the characters. The washed-out grimy look only enhances the devastating aesthetic of the movie.

Honorable Mention: The Hospital Escape Sequence in Terminator 2

Although I thought Avatar was an indulgent mis-step, James Cameron is a highly-talented director. His success stems from his ability to create engaging characters that pull viewers through their emotional journey. Sarah Connor from the Terminator series reigns supreme as his finest creation.

What I consider the finest action sequence in the while movie stems from the confluence of three plot threads
  • Sarah begins Terminator 2 traumatized and jailed in a mental institution. When she learns that Schwarzenegger’s T-800 has reappeared, Sarah tries to escape so she can protect her son.
  • After being caught by orderlies, the liquid-metal T-1000 makes an appearance, predicting that it will catch her son John Connor saving her from itself.
  • Her son reappears, together his new best friend - the T-800 that Sarah thinks will kill him
The delight of the sequence is in experiencing Sarah's emotional roller-coaster while the action unfolds around her. When the T-800 walks out of the elevator door, the terror in Sarah's face is tangibly real. When her son appears, unfazed by the T-800, Sarah's emotional compass spins rapidly to confusion. Then, just as quickly, she turns into the fearless mother protector.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Green Zone (2010)

Green Zone (2010) bursts with the kinetic energy and authenticity that the director Paul Greengrass is known for. It mixes facts and fiction by draping a fictional hunt for weapons of mass destruction around the Iraq conflict. This is controversial and bold, but the gamble largely pays off (if you can ignore the sometimes overbearing political bluster).

Matt Damon (staring in his third movie with Greengrass) plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller. Several fruitless raids for WMD in and around Baghdad lead him to believe that the intelligence behind them is flaky. He meets an Iraqi who tips him off about a meeting of senior officials in the recently disbanded Iraqi army. This ignites a spiral of events which reveals secrets about the bureaucratic origin of the war

By placing a damning fictional narrative around the false assumptions for the Iraq war, The Green Zone makes a very political statement. This is further amplified when a sympathetic Iraqi character emotes to Roy Miller, “it is not for you to decide what happens here".

There’s more than a hint of cliché in several of the characters, but the conviction of the actors makes you forget the overbearing characterization.

The movie is filmed with hand-held cameras with quick cuts, typical of Greengrass’s style. It’s not overly distracting, but doesn't add much to the movie (apart from making the action scenes more zingy).

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Exam (2009)

Exam (2009) starts with an interesting premise, boasts sharp direction and is often tense, but the meandering script and an unsatisfying conclusion left me disappointed.

Eight ambitious young people are led into a small sterile room to sit an exam with the offer of a lucrative job. An impassive invigilator explains the rules; they are not allowed to communicate with the armed guard standing by the door, spoil their papers, or step outside the room before the 80 minutes are over. When the clock starts, the candidates turn the papers over only to find they are blank. This begins a process of character interplay, which starts at grudging cooperation but gradually descends into violence and paranoia as the candidates attempt to discover what the question actually is.

The pleasure in watching puzzle-driven thrillers is in unwrapping the who, where and why, by connecting small nuggets of information as they are gradually released. However, a significant portion of the movie has little to with the final payoff, and seems entirely like padding.  The movie meanders, with the characters moving from one pointless task to another.

In the absence of a truly clever puzzle-driven script, a movie relies on the protagonists and their interplay. None of the characters are particularly well-drawn, and several fall into convenient stereotypes – the Gambler, the Wide-Boy Narcissist, The Scientist with Logical Explanations, and The Hard-Headed Career Woman.  We do learn more about the characters and their motives for being present at the exam, but again this has little to do with the final payoff.

It's hard not to be disappointed by the finale either.  It involves some sophistry that would be more at home as a  playground trick question, and the final reveal was hard to accept as a motivation for finding the right employee through the preceding selection process.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Heartless (2009)

Heartless (2009) takes place in modern-day London, against a backdrop of gang violence and alienation. Jamie Morgan is a twenty-something photographer who lives in a house estate in London. A large birth mark on his face hsa stopped him developing meaningful relationships with women, while the death of his father has made his relationship with his mother emotionally critical.

After his mother is murdered in front of him, he meets a Mephistophelian character called Papa B, who offers to remove his birthmark in exchange for certain rather gruesome favours. He then he raises the ire of Papa B, who asks him to kill his newly-found girlfriend as compensation.

Heartless is atmospheric, and vibrantly chronicles the fears of modern day city-dwellers; gangs, guns and hoodies are the order of the day. Director Philip Ridley makes London unfriendly and positively dangerous to the outsider, and plays on the fear of hooded teenagers (even casting them as demonic figures).  While hinting at Hellraiser (which itself was inspired by Faust), the director adds his own themes of social isolation and alienation.  The movie also hints at hidden forces that control the spiraling descent of urban life into random, unexpected violence

Jim Sturgass plays Jamie with conviction; he convincingly transforms from a troubled young man afraid of showing his face, to someone brimming with confidence.  An emotionally poignant relationship with his mother is very well played by both actors

A few hokey special effect (including an vaguely unconvincing full body burn suit) made me shrug my shoulders, and a twist concerning the motives of Jamie's girlfriend and nephew are not well integrated into the primary plot.  One element had me vaguely puzzled - a young Indian girl in a Sari who Jamie met through Papa B inexplicably starts calling him Dad.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Wolfman (2010)

The WolfmanThe Wolfman (2010) draws heavily on the grand heritage of the Universal Studio horror movies of the 1920s-40s, and even shares the same ominous studio logo that preceded the films of the era. It drips with kitschy atmosphere and high production values, but unfortunately has few real scares - you shouldn't kid yourself into thinking you're watching a real horror movie.

Lawrence Talbot (Benico del Toro), a stage actor currently performing in Victorian-era London, is approached by his brother's fiancé and asked to return to his father's country estate to investigate his brother's disappearance. Soon after returning, he has a rather unfortunate encounter with a werewolf, and is accused of a spate of recent murders. His father, Sir John Talbot (Antony Hopkins) has to cope with the resulting ire of the local villagers and has his own personal demons to deal with. A major plot twists drips with cliché, and most partially-awake film-goers will pick up on it early on.

Antony Hopkins is a far superior actor than his co-stars; he spits out his dialogue with conviction and articulate grace. The relationship between John Talbot and his son is strained, and Hopkins plays the distant father with believable ease.  The standout scene in the movie takes plan in an asylum, with Hopkins declaring his love for his antagonized son, and at the same time nonchalantly throwing him a straight-razor in case he wants to take the easy way out.

A large part of the movie was filmed on location in Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.  The grace and computer-enhanced faded elegance of the location are a beautiful counterpoint to the lushness of the countryside.

The first man-to-wolf transformation scene is superbly directed, with bones cracking and elongating, hair sprouting, and vertebrae distorting under the stress of the change. The special effects are not overblown, but combine with Benico's tortured screams to deliver a viscously creepy moment. It nearly reaches the terrifying heights of the corresponding transformation in another werewolf classic, An American Werewolf in London.

Some of the special effects are, however, inadequate, and pull you out of the film. The computer-generated Wolfman running and leaping through forests and across the rooftops of London moves too fast and is too agile to be believable.

The director Joe Johnston paints the movie with high-budget Gothic gloom. However, I'd be hard pressed to call The Wolfman (2010) a true horror film - it's horror-lite for the movie-going masses. It has none of the escalating build-up and cathartic release of tension of the true horror classics, nor does it offend anyone with any truly edgy material.  There are no risks taken with the plot or the pacing, which given the high budget Hollywood-feel is no real surprise. Watch it for the production values, not the scares.