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.