Friday, 2 July 2010

Friday Night Double: The Mist/Planet Terror

One half of Grindhouse, plus one Stephen King novella adaptation, equals a great creepy science fiction combination. Beers are optional; popcorn is mandatory.

Planet Terror

You know how it goes - it's Friday night, it's another weekend where you don't get to go out, so you decide on a few beers and a night in front of the telly. You decide on a loose theme: something creepy, something fairly recent - but something unconventional, a bit different from the recent glut of lame horror remakes. Using that criteria, what do you choose?

Celebrating a return to prosthetics and mechanical effects, the two films suggested here recall the spirit of earlier 80s science fiction horror. Both movies premiered back in '07 but failed to find their target audience, which is a shame - both enjoy an eclectic cast who play with our expectations of genre stereotypes; both feature great set-piece moments and twisty endings.

  The Mist

So, start out with The Mist (evoking the spirit of those 50s 'science-gone-bad' movies), then end with Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez's celebration of early 80s video shockers. Cleverly referencing the early works of John Carpenter or the zombie films of Lucio Fulci, Rodriguez has perfectly preserved those drive-in/early VHS days. What better way to spend a Friday night?

The Mist (2007)


Frank Darabont follows his successful Stephen King adaptations of Shawshank and Green Mile with this outright horror movie on a much smaller budget. Great source material - the original novella was always deemed unfilmable due to the scope of the nasty things that come out of the mist; now we have CGI to make them real.

Part monster movie, part survivalist nightmare, this has the feel of the creepiest Twilight Zone episodes - key scenes are set in confined locations, yet we get a sense of a world suddenly thrown seriously awry...

The Mist realises the monstrosities creeping out of the fog with varying degrees of success - the best examples are things only slightly seen. And a controversial ending guarantees a slap awake before the next movie.

Planet Terror (2007)


This celebration of 70s exploitation movies was a failed experiment; originally, Planet Terror was part of a double-bill (coupled with Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof), complete with fake ads and trailers. It's all here - damaged filmstock, paper-thin characters and lurid violence, even a whole reel missing from the film, but it's done with such knowing panache, you can't help but be won over by it's charms.

The double bill was a box office disaster and was pulled from general release within a week or two of launch. Subsequently, much of the charm of the concept has been lost (besides the 20 minutes or so featuring Kurt Russell, Death Proof really isn't worth watching on it's own).

The great news for DVD viewers is that Planet Terror retains the spoof trailer for Machete - a loving, hilarious homage to exploitation movies, setting the tone for the main feature. Once the title sequence kicks in, we get Rose McGowan doing a pole-dance as the filmstock blisters and bulges, the screen burning with pumped-up primaries. Did I say it was Friday night?

This piece of the Grindhouse makes for lively, goofy, gory fun, but won't demand too much in return.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Burn After Reading (2008)

Following their Oscar Scoop in '98, Joel and Ethan Coen surprised many with this dark, if somewhat slighter outing. Burn After Reading marks their thirteenth outing - a bad omen? Depends who you ask.

It also marks the return of George Clooney to the Coen fold for the third time (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty coming before). Ever-dependable Frances McDormand is here, too, also joined by Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton and John Malkovitch. Richard Jenkins gets an honorable mention here; his name was omitted from the movie poster and DVD packaging, but is as essential to the story as everyone else.

Burn After Reading is an ensemble piece and all principals get roughly equal screen time, each delivering great performances, but it's probably Pitt's performance that lingers longest - a goofy turn as a dim-witted, over-energised gym instructor.

The Plot

The backbone of the story concerns a stolen disc which may or may not contain sensitive CIA intelligence - carelessly left in a gym locker, it falls into the hands of Pitt and McDormand, who decide to trace the owner, then blackmail them for it, more out of excitement than real malice. McDormand's character is obsessed with the idea of cosmetic surgery, and with every other financial avenue a dead-end, the disc appears like a gift from the gods.

Plot isn't the primary interest here, though. What's on offer here is a combination of spy movie pastiche, combined with an examination of middle-aged mores: even though (initially) disconnected, all the characters share a frustration with where their lives have gone, and strive to find better.

 Tilda Swinton plays a very convincing harridan.

Malkovitch seethes frustrated, impotent anger from every pore, every other word an expletive as he rages against the little men of the world; marginalised by his superiors, he quits his relatively senior position in the CIA ('third-level clearance'), telling his incredulous wife (Tilda Swinton) that he plans to write his memoirs instead. This gets as far as him hubristically narrating nonsense into a Dictaphone. Ultimately, these anecdotes end up as text, saved to the disc that will fall into the wrong hands.

So wrapped up in his world, he fails to notice Swinton's boredom, never suspecting her affair with Clooney, a boyish, sex-addicted buffoon who allows Swanson to think he's planning a new life with her. Only, he's not really likely to leave his wife, a successful author on an endless series of book launches - it just gives him plenty of time to chase skirt.

Various contrivances allow these disparate characters to bump into one another, sometimes romantically; occasionally, with violence. McDormand's ill-conceived plan to ransom off the disc creates a vortex, pulling in the rest of the cast.

 Malk turns the AngerFrenzy up to ten. Again. Which is a good thing.


Coen Themes

Expectations were high when Burn After Reading arrived at theatres. Perhaps No Country For Old Men had raised the bar a little too high; compared to that movie, Burn After Reading appears to be a breezier affair. Where the Coen's previous thrillers subverted genres (The Big Lebowski turned Chandleresque hardboiled fiction on it's head; The Man Who Wasn't There celebrated the works of James M. Cain), Burn After Reading tips a nod to espionage cinema.

Carter Burwell's excellent score evokes all the tension of a heavyweight thriller, puncuating exterior scenes shot through a voyeuristic lens as if this were a Cold War drama. The fun here is the banality of it all - there is no spy element, only the fumblings of idiocy. As with many other Coen films, this is an examination of the stupidity of people, of best-laid plans spectacularly failing.

And then there's the violence. When it happens, it happens suddenly, shockingly; scenes that start out as almost slapstick quickly turn into ugly, brutal aggression.

Summing Up

A DVD release of a movie like Burn After Reading allows us some distance from the expectations prior to a theatrical release. This certainly isn't the disaster some reviewers would have us think - OK, so it isn't as funny as Lebowski, nor as meticulous as The Man Who Wasn't There. It lacks the wonderful cinematography of Roger Deakins, who had become something of a fixture to previous Coen projects.

But Burn After Reading isn't trying that hard. It's a suburban tale, the focus turned onto the players rather than the setting. It's certainly less challenging than previous efforts - but that's no bad thing. It isn't a 'light' movie, though - the final scenes are pitch black and as cynical as anything else the brothers have offered up before.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Alien (1979) - Classic Movie Review

What Makes Ridley Scott's Seminal Sci-Fi Movie So Enduring?

Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece has rightfully assured it's place as not only a genre classic, but also as a key movie in cinema history.

A film that rewards on countless viewings, Alien stands apart from many SF movies thanks to careful, meticulous set-design and improv-based performances by the seven principals. Unlike other SF releases of the time, Alien looks like it could've been shot in any post-60s decade.

Sure, this is deep space in a distant future where a now insignificant 'earth' is spelled in lower-case, but the banter we hear between the crew of deep-space tug the Nostromo concerns the drudgery of everyday life, thankless toil, the divide between the white and the blue collars.

Sigourney Weaver's Breakthrough Role

Gender roles are blurred; a then-unknown Sigourney Weaver plays the iconic Ripley, a character who will go on to be something of a feminist icon, but for now is Warrant Officer for the nameless corporation employing the crew, stuck amidst alpha-male posturing between the ships captain (Tom Skerritt), Chief Engineer (Yaphet Kotto), Science Officer (Ian Holm) and Navigator (John Hurt). Added to the mix are Veronica Cartwright and Harry Dean Stanton as lower-rung employees, ducking from quarrels but quietly bemoaning their lot when given an opportunity.

The plot doesn't deviate from Dan O'Bannon's initial screenplay, tentatively entitled 'Star Beast', first intended as a cheapo exploitation flick. A distress beacon wakes the crew from hyper-sleep, interrupting the journey home. Company directives dictate investigation; a fossilised wreck on a hostile planetoid surface is explored, where a nest of alien eggs is discovered. A crewman is attacked by a parasitic organism, attaching to his face, inducing a coma-like state.

When the exploration party return, the crew learn the distress signal was really a warning to avoid the crash site. The casualty is taken to sickbay; in no time, the parasite dies and falls off, leaving the victim in (apparently) good health. Not for long.

The Beast is Born

In perhaps the most famous scene, the embryo - embedded in the crewman's stomach - violently emerges, killing him in the process. The thing flees and the chase is on as the remaining crew search for the intruder, now a rapidly evolving monstrosity. One by one, they fall prey to it's insatiable appetite. A clever twist (it has acid for blood) means it can't be shot, or the hull will be compromised, leaving a tiger-by-the-tail scenario. As the crew dwindles, the odds stack up against the survivors...

Much has been written about HR Giger's hugely influential alien design - a heady mix of organic, phallic imagery, creating something uniquely, psychologically disturbing. Less is said about Ron Cobb's stunning set designs for the ship interiors - a complex, grubby environment that is utterly credible, providing a jarring contrast to the sleek curves of the derelict ship containing those creepy eggs.

Ridley Scott's masterful direction pulls these elements together, adding many layers of subtext: the parental tones of the ship's computer (tellingly called Mother) wakes the crew from incubated sleep, dressed in diapers; it forbids access to information that could save their lives, then is the target of Weaver's petulant outbursts as she rebels against it. Themes of suffocation and abandonment further reinforce some deeply Freudian concepts, making for a wholly unnerving experience.

Many sequels followed, best of which is Aliens (1986). None come close to the original in terms of sheer terror. It's telling that, thirty years on, Alien holds up against any other in the genre.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Manchurian Candidate: 1962/2004 versions compared

I recently watched not only the original, but also the 2004 remake (dir: Jonathan Demme), curious to see which I’d like best.

Inexplicably, Demme's remake ditched the powerful ‘red queen’ motif of the ‘62 version; what he adds seems to dilute the basic premise. Now, the bad guys aren’t a diabolic commie cabal - it’s a (fairly vague) corporate organisation within the US. The starting point is Gulf War Pt.1, rather than Korea.

Both films explore disturbing mind experiments; the original goes for brainwashing, but the remake prefers more icky brain surgery.

2004 version on the left; 1962 on the right.

Denzel Washington is a much better actor than Sinatra, playing the guy caught up in the conspiracy, trying to unravel harrowing dreams that seem to suggest a complicit involvement in the murders of former comrades.

This works against the story - we care about his plight more than the bigger scheme. Meryl Streep fills Angela Lansbury’s shoes and stomps all over the set in them, playing the terrifying matriach.

2004 version on the left; 1962 on the right.

There’s an assassination of a mentor and his daughter in both movies, but the clumsy, rather banal nature of the killing in the original packs far more of a punch.

Needless to say, I found the original much better than the modern reworking.