Monday, 30 August 2010

Human Desire (Fritz Lang, 1954) DVD Review

Vicki: "When I first came here, I thought I'd never get used to the trains. Now when it's quiet, I get nervous."

Re-teaming Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame from Lang's film noir The Big Heat (1953), Human Desire tells a story of secrets and lies in '50s America. Train conductor Jeff Warren (Ford, in a role originally intended for Peter Lorre) returns from Japan only to become embroiled in murder... and fall in love with the killers wife, Vicki (Grahame). Blackmail, revenge and sex are the themes of this crime drama, which plays out in a brilliantly photographed black and white (Burnett Guffey, who also lensed 1953's From Here To Eternity, Fred Zinnemann), setting the mood for an intense affair.

Lang, clearly struggling under the Hays Code (an industry censorship law that ruled Hollywood from 1930 - 1968, prohibiting graphic depictions of sex and violence, among other things) still shows a firm grasp of the material and directs with a great degree of assurance and style. The early shots of Jeff on the train back home are excellent - the camera tracks from a birds eye view before cutting to a P.O.V. of the train swooping into a black tunnel and coming out to be met by a wide, open landscape. Lang had obviously dealt in the crime genre before (he directed film noirs throughout the 1940s after his move to America in 1936 - he was fleeing the Nazi's) but in this case the film plays out against more of a character-driven drama. The script, written by Alfred Hayes and adapted from the novel by Émile Zola, focuses not on crime or police procedure but on an unlawful love in a town where news travels fast. The smart screenplay allows the relationship between Jeff and Gloria to advance awkwardly, without the smart pitter-patter of most Bogart noirs. The relationship is damaged from the off, based on lies and deceit - themselves framed around a picture perfect murder. It's an interesting angle and one which sets the film apart from others of the time and also Lang's crime oeuvre. The problem lies in some of the execution. A key scene sees killer Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) threaten his wife. He throws her against the bedroom wall, raises his fist and just as she screams out for help, the censorship gears start to grind the relationship into safer ground. The threat is still believable - in fact, the film may have been worse had he hit her - but the way in which editor Aaron Stell (who spent his career flipping between B-movies like Killer Shrews, Ray Kellogg, 1959 and award winning dramas such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Robert Mulligan, 1962) arranges the scene feels too precisely judged to be effective. Rather than being a shocking, out-of-the-blue moment it becomes a well-rehearsed exercise in guideline-to-the-letter censorship. A shame, because the rest of the film works marvelously.

At just 87 minutes it moves along at a great pace and the performances keep you hooked. Grahame isn't the best actress in the world but Ford, with his steely charisma, grounds the relationship in a wounded realism. He's a truly underrated screen presence who mostly earned his wage in Westerns such as 3:10 To Yuma (Delmer Daves, 1957) and The Man From Colorado (Henry Levin, 1948) but here shows another layer to his persona. The best performance though, is by Kathleen Case as Ellen Simmons, who brings a vulnerability and charm to the film and also devastates in a subtly emotional confession to Jeff in the latter half of the film.

Arriving just a year before the boundary-breaking Rebel Without A Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1950), which advertised itself as being "a story that daringly meets the challenge of today's most vital controversy", Human Desire feels just as sexy and dangerous as that film ever did, if not as exciting or angsty. The film is sadly forgotten by most film fans now but hopefully this rerelease (the first of a few upcoming Lang features) will encourage those new to his work to delve back in time to a town where news travels fast and a quiet life is never an option...

DVD Extras: None, sadly. But the film is transferred well. There are some cracks in the sound and jumps in the film but it's the best print of the film so far and makes the most of Guffey's photography.

Friday, 20 August 2010

The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, 2010) Review

The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone's eighth venture as director, is perhaps the least pretentious film ever made. It may take place in a democracy free warzone, ruled by an evil dictator who has been slaughtering locals, but political debate is the last priority of this slam-bang homage to the action flicks of the 1980s - and Sly's invited some of the old gang along for the ride. Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Jet Li, Steve Austin, Eric Roberts and Dolph Lundgren (always underrated, cooler than ever, in need of a bigger part) make up the principle cast - and they, much like the films locations, are having a blast.

For anyone expecting something approaching the avant-garde awareness of JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008), you may as well not bother. The Expendables doesn't waste its time with subtlety or pondering. Bodies are severed, heads are blown off, bones are broken - and it's all very, very loud. Stallone and co don't even attempt to parody or slyly nod towards convention - this is a textbook excersise in machismo. The closest it gets to intelligence or politics is a send-off gag for Arnold 'The Governator' Schwarzenegger's cameo ("He wants to be President"). It's not worth telling you the plot, because if you've seen any film the cast have made over the past 30 years, you'll have heard it all before. What matters is the way in which it is done. And in the case of The Expendables, it's practically and effectively.

Riding off the success of Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008), Stallone has took it upon himself to direct the ultimate action epic - a mish-mash of talent and style, combined for hopefully explosive effect. Does he succeed? Well, yes and no. Sadly the film also displays some of Stallone's most uninspired and confusing direction. Featuring lots of handheld camera and some grainy cinematography (with moments of flashy gloss) it can be hard to tell both where the characters are and exactly who they're fighting. Unlike the days of Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988), The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) and Rambo: First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982), audiences now demand five cuts a second, even when characters are just walking across the street. It's sad to see an actor and filmmaker from the golden age of action cinema conforming to the standards set by Michael Bay (Transformers, 2007). Thank god then, that he actually knows how to stage the action, practically and without the use of CGI (for the most part). It may be the best American action movie made in the past 10 years (we have to consider foreign efforts such as District B13, Pierre Morel, 2004 and A Bittersweet Life, Kim Ji-woon, 2005). The finale, 20 minutes in length, sees the crew practically laying waste to a small island and its inhabitants - beginning like a stealth mission and building up to a body-ridden fireworks display. To say the action is back to basics would make it sound unjustly retrograde and also underestimate the level of carnage that takes place, but it does feel like something from the period it lovingly takes from.

The problems, obviously, lie elsewhere. Outside of the clumsy direction the screenplay and acting is, even for this kind of material, cringeworthy and embarrassing. One-dimensional knuckleheads speaking in exposition and one-liners pretty much covers it, but even then, it's a head-scratching case. Sly intended to make an action movie with a 1980s style. Sadly he's just made a film from the 1980s and anything apart from the aforementioned (awesome) action feels incredibly lazy. One peculiar moment sees Tool (Mickey Rourke) attempting to add some depth to the proceedings with some misty eyed back-story about why this gang of rag-tag mercenaries do what they do. Besides Rourke's baffling decision to actually act (and do so rather well) it's absolute nonsense. In a film that revels in blowing a persons body in half, the last thing we need is awkwardly scripted moralising. This is the sort of film that, rather than using its brains, prefers to blast them over the nearest shiny surface. Worst of all is how most of the cast are shoe-horned in. Bruce Willis turns up for a 2 minute cameo, Schwarzenegger has a pointless minute within that time, Jet Li just kicks a few people and Lundgren gets some of the worst character twists in recent memory and a hair-tearing conclusion. The chemistry between Stallone and Statham works, but only because they're having such a good time setting fire to an entire country! Before going into The Expendables I said " the only saving grace will be the action". Sometimes I hate it when I'm right.

This isn't to say you won't have fun. Anyone expecting intelligence and intrigue clearly needs their head examined but I should think that most Stallone fans were expecting something more than this. The action is over-edited but it's practical, blood thirsty, nostalgic and in abundance. If that's all you're there for, your money is well spent. Such a shame though that everything else feels embarrassingly rotten. I mean, Stallone wrote Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976). He starred in Cliffhanger (Renny Harlin, 1993). He's got to know better than this. Hasn't he?

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Nightcast (Marco von Moos, 2007) Review

Movies on shoestring budgets often accept their limitations. A lesser writer/director might have looked at their accountancy sheet and opted for a drama or rom-com (which isn't to diminish these kind of efforts). Not so with von Moos, the Swiss director behind superhero adventure Nightcast, an homage to B-movies of the 90s. Of course, being a B-movie itself the look is spot-on (the film definitely reflects its budget) so what really matters is entertainment value and, for an independent filmmaker, style. Luckily von Moos and Nightcast have both.

The story focuses on Harry Brighton (Fabian Ramseyer), a police officer who is near fatally burnt when trying to apprehend the son of a Crimelord, Jack Wallace (Moos himself). The military turn him into a superhero and, after escaping, he joins a gang of underground rebels and names himself Nightcast in an attempt to regain his memory... and get revenge.
Nightcast, a masked avenger of the night, definitely has his heritage in superhero culture - both comic book and cinematic. Half Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990) and half Dark Avenger (Guy Magar, 1990, TV), by way of The Crow (Alex Proyas, 1994) and hinting at Wolverine (X-Men, Bryan Singer, 2000), the world created by Moos is a familiar one, but it never becomes a problem. Nightcast doesn't have a particularly distinct style, yet its hero feels fresh and the feelings of familiarity never overpower our response to the character and his plight. As a confessed superhero geek I understand Moos' frame of reference so it's to his credit that I never felt like I was watching the cogs working, or suffering a been-there-done-that routine. Part of the appeal is that, like Darkman, Nightcast isn't actually based on a comic book, TV show or existing franchise - it's not a sequel or spin-off. It simply uses a template and genre convention to mould its own fantasy, albeit cliched, world.
Or is it? The dialogue in the film is predictable and at times stilted - in fact, it can seem like it's following the Superhero Handbook 101. It gets to a point however, just after this exchange: "Do I need to worry?" "No. The next time we meet... will be the last." " You will take care of this problem?" "You can count on me father", where you wonder if there is actually a sly parody also at work. Nightcast feels definitively 90s, not just as an homage - but like it's actually from that time. The opening credits (fiery, arriving just after a scarred hand reaches from debris) are intercut between dramatic plot exposition; shady dealings and the evolution of our hero. It rattles along at a decent pace with some above-average direction (Moos has a definite sense of space for such a limited production budget and some of his camerawork is impressively stylish) but at the mid-way point, a small moment occurs which made me question the projection of the rest of the film. After a crucial shootout, peace is declared between Wallace's gang and the military. "Excellent. No pointlessly prolonged shootout" he declares, slimily. Postmodern nod or just a slip in the script? I can't be sure, but judging from the design and background of the movie, i'd say Moos is smart enough to know how his target audience will respond to the dialogue.
As a critic it's vitally important to review in context - therefore remembering that this is a deliberately B-level independent homage to a cinematic genre that was contrived and gimmicky in the first place. To knock the CGI or acting in Nightcast would be harsh; because it's well above average for most productions of this kind and fits the tone of the world being created. It's not in my interests to knock a filmmaker who is clearly doing his best with limited resources - because he's coming out on top. Go in expecting War Of The Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005) with Daniel Day-Lewis style performing and you'll be disappointed. But that's not what the film is trying to be. It's a lovingly made homage, complete in its vision and bringing a unique sense of nostalgia, while being somewhat original. Not even Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002) (in my opinion a benchmark for the genre) had OSCAR-worthy character development, but it did have something in common with Nightcast. Action. Moos was sensible enough to hire Fabian, a gymnast and dancer, for the lead role and combined with his action sensibilities and perfect editing, it makes for a Hollywood rivaling spectacle. Watching Nightcast dispatch bad guys, without having a million cuts a second and abundant computer generated nonsense, is hugely exciting and the sequences are well choreographed and, vitally, believable. Sure, Nightcast takes place in an elevated, fantasy world. But we have to be able to relate to the character and respond to his actions. Moos doesn't make him fly, shoot webs, grow claws or hulk out - he just makes him fight with determination. It's great to see a hero driven by himself - not a predictably saccharine love interest (although a wife is involved), nagging aunt or even a sense of morality. It's a singular character arc. A mission.
Nightcast, of course, isn't perfect. But it's a really fun, well produced ride that will appeal and be familiar to comic book geeks and B-movie fans, while still retaining its own spirit and individuality. Its dialogue is sometimes cringeworthy but that's perfectly countered by the solid and well-filmed action sequences, which, while not on a par with John Woo, gives bean-counters like Michael Bay more than a run for their money.

Lymelife (Derick Martini, 2008) Review

Official review at

Monday, 16 August 2010

Crime Of The Century... Part 2

Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)
Alfred Hitchcock once said "drama is life with the dull bits cut out." Elephant, Gus Van Sant's controversial Cannes winner, is like life with the drama cut out - and pretty dull. Specifically, of course, we're talking about film drama. A character is set up, a complex situation is introduced and they must try to overcome it etc. Those who have seen Elephant will know it operates in a slightly different way. Sure there are characters, sure they have relationships and you could argue that the whole film is the 'situation' which I suggest. But Elephant is a film without drama - it's merely an observation. A slice of art reflecting life. Some would argue that it is going for the feel of a documentary - I would counter by saying that the film feels too cinematic and show-offy to be taken as a documentary. It is however, a document. Pretty complex stuff isn't it? In this short essay I won't be tackling the political or moral essence of Elephant but rather its cinematic style and how it fits into the body of work of one of our most interesting auteurs, Van Sant (best known for Good Will Hunting, 1997). Political context and concepts of morality surely deserve acknowledgment, but an exploration of them belongs in a whole other essay. For now, we concentrate on the filmmaker and his tale. A tale of tragedy... (It must be noted that i've intentionally left out any plot synopsis; fans of the film will already know how it unfolds and newcomers are best left to be surprised).

"We're used to making films and observing films with a sort of shorthand. You see the car going down the road. O.K. Got it. Then it's the next shot. Usually what happens then is people start talking about something that will relate to the story instead of something random and more lifelike; like dental work. We learn in English class not to have it be about dental work. But maybe watching the car going down the road is important. To really watch it - as if you were in the car."

So that's Van Sant's position sorted. It's easy to see why a filmmaker would take this stance; equally why certain audience members would respond to it. Even the most grounded and realistic of films are concerned with plot mechanics; every conversation about a dishwasher must be countered by exposition. Such is the nature of film, or even storytelling. It's hard to be subtle about changing gears when you're working a mechanical process. Van Sant's idealism is, however, important to acknowledge in the essaying of Elephant, a film that spends a good deal of its time simply following cars or people in elaborate (and stunning) tracking shots. The conversations consist of the everyday; home life, relationships, how much school sucks etc. The conversations you and I would have. As aforementioned, it sounds pretty dull. But maybe it's meant to. Here's where the theory comes in.

Maybe Elephant (a unique title in the fact that it's a portentous idiom) is more self-aware than we care to think? The movie (81 minutes in length) is dull, but so is school and so was life for these kids on that fateful day. People think of Van Sant as a serious, artistic filmmaker but I think he's a little more playful than people give him credit for. This is the guy who remade Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) shot-for-shot "so no one else would have to." People criticize his effort for being unintentionally comic, and look at the ammunition for their argument: (try and pause on Vince Vaughn in the wig). But Hitchcock once said of Psycho, "To me Psycho was a big comedy. Had to be." So, where do we draw the line? I'm not defending Van Sant's version - it clearly shouldn't exist. But seeing as it does, it's interesting co compare the two versions, knowing the perspectives both filmmakers had about the matter. Van Sant is also the guy, of course, who made gay hustlers speak like Shakespeare in My Own Private Idaho (1991). Some choice dialogue may include "Are you not a coward? Answer that, and that goes double." "You're calling me a coward? You fat duck." And consider Gerry (2002), a 100-minute trek through the desert (yes, it's as boring as it sounds). This isn't to say that Van Sant doesn't respect the weight of his subject. I'm not accusing him of being a prankster in the same way as, say, Lars von Trier ( Elephant is without doubt a serious, dramatic work. But I think stylistically it's tracking shots are a little more tongue-in-cheek than we care to suspect. It's Van Sant intentionally using the ordinary to lull us into a state of boredom before shocking us with the devastating and emotional finale. Films can be accused of style over substance and vice versa but I believe that Elephant is a rare case in which the style helps inform the substance. The deliberately slow pacing and complex tracking shots (think Week End, Jean-Luc Godard, 1967, but navigating a school rather than a roadblock) allow us to feel a part of school life. It allows us to soak up the cliques of the lunch hall and eagerly await the school bell. It allows us to really watch it - as if we were there. And it allows us to be bored.

This also goes someway to outlining a proof for why the film doesn't feel like a documentary, but rather a document. A documentary is often retrospective; it will be intercut with opinions (talking heads). I don't even think Elephant has a documentary style - the camerawork is intrinsically cinematic, it's clear we're being directed by a storyteller. If it were documentary it would have perhaps been shot on video, featured handheld camerawork and limited access to the events of the day. It serves as a document in the way that it provides a record (albeit a fictionalized one) of a day in the life. It's self-aware style is totally appropriate; but for a film, not a documentary.

Elephant is wearing a mask. Behind a deeply serious, personal, affecting piece of cinema there is a filmmaker playfully toying with the conventions of film, perhaps in the same way that Kubrick did. Think of Full Metal Jacket (1987) - a harrowing and serious depiction of war, but also cinematically alive. Think of the tracking shot in that film - set to the tune of The Trashmen's 'Surfin Bird'. As the camera moves past a line of wounded soldiers you can't help but feel a sense of satisfaction amid the horror - such is the quality of the cinema. Van Sant has listed Kubrick as his favorite director stating that he "was a good model." Perhaps it's a little more than that. Perhaps behind the mask of Elephant there lies a filmmaker so confident, so assured and so skilled that even when he's boring you to death with a grin on his face he can make you cry with the sincerity of a mature and impassioned adult. Seek it out and see what you think...

Saturday, 14 August 2010

All You Cats Better Watch Out!

Regular visitors to the blog will have read my Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders, 2009) review back in June: Since then you may have been wondering when the super-cool Blaxploitation homage would be hitting UK cinemas. Well allow me to apologise for my belated announcement because it is now thankfully on our shores, albeit with a very small release schedule. All that could be changed however, by signing the 'Bring Black Dynamite To Your Hood!' petition:
I re-watched the film last night and while the films postmodern sexism and high concept plotting still work against it, it's a smart and sporadically funny film, lovingly created and beautifully designed. So, what are you waiting for? Sign the petition, get down to the cinema and enjoy what many are calling "the best spoof since Airplane!" Dynamite.