Sunday, December 24, 2006

DJ Santa on the wheels of steel

I don't watch telly any more.

I haven't really watched telly in about a year, not conventional telly that you turn on and absorb.
These past months I've been picking and choosing, taking in morsels of programming like flotsam and jetsam, thanks to the TV-on-demand service I get from my internet peoples.
It's down to this that I get to see stuff I might otherwise have missed, like the excellent State of Play, watching the first episode to see what it was like and then ending up watching every episode back-to-back until four in the morning.

Just tonight I caught Born Equal, an excellent ensemble drama dealing with the highs and lows of life in London, from City boy to down-and-out, every word and performance ringing true. But damn is it depressing.
A world of bleak hopelessness and washed-out colour, all of the characters are trapped no matter what their circumstances.
All the locations are recognisable whilst staying away from postcard London, the grime and the drab straight out of reality.

It was a little anticlimatic, then, to have a teaser after the credits rolled telling us that Dracula is back, and he's a buffoon - clicky for duh
Marc Warren? Cuh.
I mean, I don't really care about how the legend of Robin hood gets portrayed, but where will it all end?

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The aforementioned TV-on-demand thing is how I keep up to date with Torchwood, never having watched it at the same time as your common or garden viewer.
The second to last episode was unbelievably awful, based around a corny voice-overing dead moron like some twisted sci-fi Starter for Ten, almost vaporising the very idea of entertainment for good.
Then in the last episode they bring out a mostly well-written and acted episode of genuine warmth and free of the 'adult timeslot' bombast of some of the other shows (apart from a bit of sex, which in this case is wrapped in a love story), completely throwing the quality curve of the show, peaks and troughs like the ocean floor.
A fairly unoriginal tale of people from the 50s getting stuck here and how they cope offers only a few glaring "isn't it funny how things change?" and instead goes for the feelings, looking at how people deal with being lost and alone and doing it in a much more successful way than, say, that one with Mel Gibson.
A new angle comes from Captain Jack, ideas of loneliness and immortality - again nothing new but thankfully well handled.
Along with the recent episode dealing with ex-Torchwood member and incredible criminal mastermind this episode is an example of what could have been, had the show not become bogged down in the need for an alien that kills through sex and the "terrifying" stilted movement of a half-cyberwoman who happens to look a lot like the iconic Metropolis Maria-bot. But crap.

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You can take the horror director out of the genre, but you can't take the genre out of the director.
This can be shown time and again, as the creators of little indie gore-fests become recognised for their flair and vision and are recruited to helm the studios' latest blockbuster franchise.
Sam Raimi went from the Evil Dead to the international 12A hit Spiderman series, but his roots show through in the octopus arms sequence in number 2, a horror scene to its very pores.
Peter Jackson started out on Bad Taste and the spectacular gunge fest that is Brain Dead, so it's little surprise that his uber-epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy featured a fair few fang-tastic moments, the death of Boromir springing to mind.

Guillermo Del Toro, on the other hand, has never really left horror.
Starting out on his quirky Mexican vampire flick Cronos, Del Toro went on to a typical piece of Hollywood horror fluff, Mimic, which he managed to raise above the average premise (the old chestnut of man-meddling-with-nature) into something halfway decent.
Then entering franchiseland proper, he got to hold the reins on Blade 2 which again, despite being a bit of throwaway action/horror, showed quite a bit of flair hither and thither especially with the hideous new vampire strain unleashed on Blade.
At this point Del Toro felt a little chafed by the restraints of the studios that led to the glass ceiling of above-average films, and produced the Spanish Civli War ghost story The Devil's Backbone, proving that Cronos was not a fluke by filming a picture of remarkable tension in the Old Dark House vein.
After flexing his cinematic muscles, Del Toro returned to Lalaland to take on a new comicbook franchise, Hellboy, whose supernatural origins perfectly suited his genre leanings. Hellboy is one of the better of the recent rash of comicbook adaptations, managing to juggle character development alongside the spectacle as well as bringing the sumptious art of Mike Mignola to life, which for some reason makes me wish it had been Del Toro at the helm of the dire League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

His most recent film, Pan's Labyrinth, comes before the Hellboy sequel and is another marriage of horror and the Spanish Civil War. I'm going to assume you've seen it so spoiler alert.
This time around the fantastical elements of the film do not sit as well with those of the 'real world' of the civil war. With little integration it is easy to believe that the stranger moments of fantasy are all in our heroine Carmen's head, which may help to explain the brutal violence which often is a part of the reality. With the ultra-fascist captain Vidal such an evil baddie, the threat of the fantasy characters is lessened, and the case for the fantasy being just that is strengthened all the more due to the unbearable nature of reality.
Having said this, Pan is still a decent film with some strong ideas and lovely images, not to mention cringeworthy violence and body-horror; the bottling still remaining lodged in the mind, so to speak, with the spectacle of Vidal stitching his own face shut seeming tame in comparison. The fantasy world is suitably earthy, scenes of Carmen squirming in the mud of the bowels of a tree and Pan seemingly hewn from rock and bark himself, the images here all have an edge to them down to the fairies that begin as Del Toro's trademark insectoids. The fantasy of the Labyrinth is a foreboding place but is still preferable to a world where the adults are all mad and no-one listens to little Carmen.
One niggle I can't get over, though, is when Carmen sets off to retrieve the knife and is warned not to touch the food. Of course she can't resist a grape and escapes in the nick of time, but it was maddening to see the rubbish temptation get the most of her. Yes, she'd gone wihtout supper, but she had been warned in no uncertain terms and then had seen the horrible post-liposuction beast at the table, followed by the numerous paintings of it chasing and eating babies. After all this and the fairies desperately warning her, she goes for a grape. So, she's too hungry to be scared, which is bollocks as she's the type of girl to sneak to the kitchen, but even accepting that she doesn't go hog-out and grab a side of beef or handful cake, but risks her neck for a couple of fat grapes. Pah!
Worse than this, perhaps, is the underlying message of the film - to avoid fascism, not take orders blindly but to think for yourself, as pointed out by the couragoeus doctor and Pan himself. This is fair enough, but crazily for a film which unashamedly supports the rebels in the Civil War and their struggle for socialism against the ruthless fascists, the dream end for Carmen is that of the princess of the underworld, ruling her subjects as a monarch.
Unfortunately Pan fares better on the spectacle rather than the content, but is undoubtedly worth watching.


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Latest publications include contributions to the Sci fi London anime reviews for November and December and the Big Boss Platinum Edition review for hkcinema. Have a look!

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Being a regular reader, you will of course remember my incoherent rant about Hollywood remakes a few months back. With a heavy heart I point you in the direction of the Hitcher trailer, from the producers of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Amityville Horror remakes indeed!
Replacing the more or less everyday looking actors from the original with a bimbo and himbo, and the otherwordly menace of Rutger "Guiness" Hauer with the pie and chips grimace of Sean "Give Blood with 02 in Somerfields" Bean, it can only hope to scale the giddy heights of bearable. God help us all.
Makes the new Die Hard trailer look like a project of breathtaking invention.

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You may have seen the advert "Christmas designed by Debenhams" in amongst all the other desperate, screaming snippets urging you to part with cash. Featuring a younger, hipper santa, what once may have sounded like a good idea has turned into some bizarre sub-Aphex Twin clay-faced nightmare. Run Away!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

I build myself an effigy

November has been the month for my American Trilogy, three different perspectives on America all presented in the medium of film:

Rampage is a documentary made by George Gittoes.
Gittoes has been a war photographer for decades and made his first documentary, A Soundtrack to War in 2004. It looked at the music listened to by the American army troops in Iraq, and Rampage leads directly on from that by examining the lives of the Lovett brothers in Miami.
Elliot Lovett was one of the standout soldiers in the first documentary; a wannabe rapper who was little fazed by the violence in Iraq due to his upbringing in the Brown Sub low rises of Miami.
Rampage follows Elliot home to meet his brothers Marcus, Alton and Denzell, their family and friends and to see what life is really like in the ghettos of the USA.

Rampage throws up a lot of conflict. Not just in the situation faced by its subjects, stuck in the rut of gang violence and poverty, but within the issues raised in the film.

On the one hand it is crushingly depressing to see so many people seemingly chained into the vicious circle of ‘urban’ culture, of macho posturing and the urgency of seeking a quick, dangerous buck over any planning. It is astounding how everyone in the neighbourhood seems so accepting, let alone resigned, to the horrifically violent culture that they live in; granma Lovett looking on with fondness as her grandson Marcus tells everyone just how he would torture and murder anyone that messed with his family. Here the conflict comes from condemning the eagerness to violence, but is it hypocritical to judge when Marcus and his neighbours are all under constant danger of death? Marcus himself is assassinated by a teen hitman during the course of the documentary, punctuating the different situation they all face. It’s one thing to criticise the reverence for violence in the ghetto culture, but from a position of relative safety it is hard to dictate how to live.

The area is more dangerous than Iraq, with the local professor of criminology estimating that 1 in 8 young men die violent deaths before their 23rd birthday, which the wounds of the majority of the Lovett brothers’ friends attest to.

On the other hand you have Gittoes, who breaks with documentary tradition and steps in to try and get Denzell, the youngest Lovett, a record deal in New York and a life out of the Brown Sub.
Denzell is turned down by all the record company men as he is told that he is too young to rap about what he is living everyday, as if the horrific reality of gangland life is only fantasy.
But then you have the problem of Denzell’s rap: why would he want to continue reliving such a hell? Why would he want to dwell on the violence and petty squabbles for dubious respect? The fact that Denzell should be able to rap about the drug deals and murders that he has witnessed first hand doesn’t address how are his stories any different to the endless run of MCs year after year telling you how their skill with a mic is only surpassed by their skill with a 9?
It’s a weird paradox, the hope that the promotion and glorification of the stereotypical gangsta lifestyle will help Denzell and his family to stop living it.

Then you have that subjective element of Gittoes getting involved with his subjects. It seems that becoming the focus of filming may have made the Lovetts a target for rival gangbangers and guilt for his role in the death of Marcus spurs Gittoes into doing his utmost to help out Denzell. Would Marcus still be alive? Would Denzell have received as much exposure?
Again, it’s easy to blame those stuck in the projects for sticking to the self-fulfilling prophecy of a violent thug life, but without having to live it perhaps it isn’t fair to judge.

After years of gangsta rap culture played out through music and movies it is easy to see it as fantasy, clich├ęs so recognisable as to be easily dismissed as fiction, but the look on Denzell’s face during his brother’s funeral brings you back to reality with a crash.

Rampage is potent stuff and serves as a reminder that even if the mess in Iraq gets to a point peaceful enough so the GIs can go home, there are old war zones still festering in the heart of America, but there are no media campaigns to end these wars.

Not having learnt the wonderful ability of posting videos within the page as if altering the very fabric of existence, I furnish you with a link to the Rampage trailer: Depress mouse button once pointer icon has alighted 'pon these words

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Whilst on the subject of questionable reality, I found Borat quite an odd film.
A weird mixture of the usual skits lifted straight from the TV shows where Mr. Cohen has one of his characters perplex ‘real people’, and bizarre scripted moments hanging around a mutant plot, it is sometimes hard to work out where the reality ends and the fiction begins.
All of the moments that seem to involve unscripted people tend to be straight lifts from Borat or Ali G sketches, and whilst it is alarming to receive the apparently genuine thoughts of honest-to-goodness Aymericans, the addition of fiction into the mix only dulls the impact. It’s easy to believe that people were paid to say they wanted gays killed, or that people only acted so astoundingly confrontational in New York to further the film, rather than being filmed unawares. And if the shock element of watching people believe that the character of Borat is a real person or revealing their hidden controversial thoughts has been dulled, then Borat the movie has to rely on comedy for a backup

The film does have it’s moments, but I’ve never been one for the ‘cringe’ school of comedy so it’s enjoyable but there’s little in the way of belly-laughs outside the more bizarre moments and now-familiar bad taste gags.

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The third film I’ve seen is a slightly less chaotic portrayal of the United States.

Little Children is a film of depths.
Deceptively smooth, it plays out like this year’s American Beauty, depicting the ennui and desperate yearnings of American suburbia, far removed from the turbulence of Rampage.

With a steady pace and flattering photography, it could be forgiven for appearing staid, but it crackles with the energy of the characters who seek a metaphorical escape from surburban restraint.
Of course, these themes have been covered as intensely as the OJ trial by French and Spanish cinema for decades, but American cinema rarely affords itself the opportunity to suggest that adultery may not be such a sin and that paedophiles may have lives beyond the monstrous.

Kate Winslet continues her taste for getting nekkid and is used to taking less-than flattering roles, here playing a bookish and alienated housewife, but here role is brave for the portrayal of a mother who seems less than enamoured with her little miracle. It’s a move virtually unheard of outside the horror genre, but brings some welcome authenticity to the film.
In a less challenging but still comparatively rare role, Patrick Wilson plays a house husband, a man not defined by his career (or lack of) and with little interest in passing the bar exam he keeps failing.

Both characters share a distance from their other halves, finding a bond with each other in their afternoons together with their children, a bond which soon develops.
All the while a flasher of kiddies has been released from prison and someone has been fly posting the neighbourhood with warnings.
The character is both monster and human, Jackie Earle Haley presenting a suitably pale and wizened figure, with a self-awareness of his less than normal tastes (Jane Adams playing one unfortunate on the receiving end, continuing a bad run of things from Happiness). But he also has a world outside his desires, a factor usually ignored in most cinematic portrayals.

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I Still Know What You Did Last Summer is notable for having Lamb play over the ending credits, a feat matched by last week’s episode of Torchwood which again was a strangely pleasing mix of interesting ideas and slightly clumsy execution.