Looper

The very first day I moved into Exeter, I met my new housemates, Alex and Hannah, who told me they had just got back from seeing Looper, a film I wasn’t then aware of. They billed it as being an awesome sci-fi film. Looper was the very first thing I knew about my new friends. Over three months later, the film was showing in a cinema in Holland, because Dutch theatre is just a little bit behind. After seeing the film with my family, I can finally agree with their opinions heartily.

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Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe (not very creative), in a futuristic sci-fi action film. Much like Total Recall, this film is both heavy on the actionand the sci-fi. His job is to execute prisoners that a mob send to him 30 years backwards through time. He is supposed to shoot blindly, not asking questions about who the people are that he is mercilessly slaughtering. He is in the full knowledge that he may encounter himself one day and not know it. However, when the time comes, his future self, played by Bruce Willis, is more than ready for him, and manages to escape. This results in a thrilling sci-fi enhanced action story, worthy of Paul Verhoeven or better.

Perhaps the one odd thing about the story was the inclusion of ‘TK’, short for telekinesis, a power that supposedly 10% of the population in 2044 have. While there’s nothing wrong with adding a little more unexplained sci-fi into your movie, the TK seems rather tacked on in the first half of the film, and isn’t integral at all until the second half. I’d almost forgotten about it by the time it reappeared.

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Perhaps now is the time to start my ramble on time travel in films. On the way home, I was disappointed to engage in the inevitable pedantic arguments about time travel with my dad and brother. In the film, Bruce Willis is depicted travelling through time in two different manners. One time, he travels back and is killed by his younger self, but the next time, he manages to escape. The question was, roughly, why wasn’t the first Bruce Willis able to escape? Surely he would have been in exactly the same situation as the second Bruce Willis. I tried to argue that it wasn’t a given that Willis was in that situation, but they weren’t convinced.

Time travel has been the inspiration for many forms of sci-fi literature, but there’s a fine balance that must be observed: the balance between how many rules your ‘time travel’ has, and how much freedom you have to make thought provoking sci-fi. For example, if you state that there is only one timeline, this makes the idea of time travel less interesting, since it is impossible to change anything that has happened. In The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger still managed to make this idea interesting, because she found ways to connect time travel to emotion and made the protagonist’s point of view seem helpless. On the other hand, when you allow the future to be erased, and be replaced by a different future, then things get interesting. Unfortunately, this results in a lot of rules needing to be laid down, or carefully overlooked, to be made solid. Back To The Future or The Terminator are good examples of these types of film. Examples of bad rules are: ‘you can’t change the future’ to mean ‘you can’t stop someone from dying, even if it means they’ll die in a different way’, because that’s a little bit wishy-washy, wouldn’t you agree? H. G. Wells, I’m looking at you.

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In this film, the time travel made sense to me – just about. I know not to go looking for plot holes, or asking unnecessary questions, and with a film like this, I simply didn’t need to. Bruce Willis is on top form, racking up the body count and giving Arnie a run for his money. Like Total Recall – the original that is – this is a fantastic brains and brawn film that’ll titillate anyone with a bit of grey matter. Now I think Joseph Gordon-Levitt wants to sing us something:

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Grave of the Fireflies

While I’m not usually a fan of anime films, Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, released in 1988, had me moved nearly to tears. This is certainly one of the better anti-war films I’ve seen in my time. Any of you who have seen this film will know just why the music in the above YouTube clip is so deeply saddening.

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The film follows two Japanese children, Seita and his younger sister Setsuko, who are orphaned near the close of the Second World War by American bombing. The story follows the children as they learn to grow up quickly, first living with their unfriendly aunt, then living in a disused shelter. As time moves on, the children become more desperate, with Seita reduced to stealing food from fields. In the meantime, Setsuko gets more and more ill in this bleak tragedy.

Interestingly, Takahata does not appear interested in using anime for its surrealist properties, and very rarely am I reminded that I’m simply watching a cartoon. The attention to detail gives this film a sense of realism which makes it so gripping. The story is very simple, but the characters within are complex, holding in their sadness for the majority of the film, making their grief ever more painful. The film doesn’t seek to blame the Americans, or those soldiers who destroy innocent lives, but focuses on the silent victims of war. To think that this story has been repeated thousands, possibly millions of times throughout history is almost too much to bear.

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This is a profound emotional experience from Takahata, though not an uncomfortable one. One of the most natural, yet painful anti-war films I’ve ever witnessed, this film knows exactly what it’s trying to achieve, and knows how to achieve it. Utterly recommended.

Total Recall (2012)

Total Recall is a brilliant film, a masterpiece of sci-fi action, and a triumph for director Paul Verhoeven and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. On the other hand, it’s remake is a huge smelly mess, clearly made by somebody who didn’t understand the original film.

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This film stars Colin Farrell in place of Arnie, Kate Beckinsale in place of Sharon Stone and a few other great actors, including Bryan Cranston and Bill Nighy, whom I exchanged greetings with in a small sandwich shop in Cambridge. Sadly the calibre of the actors does nothing to save the lacklustre plot that is thoroughly inferior to the original.

The first big difference is that none of the action takes place on Mars. Instead, we are told that a global war has devastated the Earth, the only habitable territories are Britain and Australia, which are given silly names in a faux-1984 style. While this at first intrigued me, the dystopian aspect of the tale is not very well fleshed out, and is just an excuse for the MacGuffin elevator that allows members of each territory to travel through the centre of the Earth to reach the other side. I’m usually able to take on board wacky sci-fi ideas, but this elevator is completely ridiculous for a few reasons:

  1. If Britain and Australia were the only habitable places on Earth, how would they be able to find the resources to construct such an enormous shaft? How would such a shaft be constructed anyway? It’s not exactly like going on the Channel Tunnel you know.
  2. Why would be a motive for doing such a thing? Surely the top priority would be to make the Earth habitable once more.
  3. I can accept that the lift is pulled through the Earth by gravity, but this would surely mean that the commuters on board would experience free fall for the entire journey, and not just ‘whilst passing the core’. Movie physics fail.
  4. Why on earth can we see outside the shaft whilst they’re passing the core? Each time gravity changes, a bright light enters the elevator. If I can’t see the fish whilst travelling on the Chunnel, then there’s no excuse for having bright lava in the centre of the Earth.

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I’ll give credit where credit is due. The graphics and effects are very good, and the action scenes are quite satisfying, although not as cool as Verhoeven’s gory scenes. The dystopian future is amazingly detailed, and in true Minority Report style, has all kinds of technology that may be available in the future, but simply looks sexy for the moment, such as hovering cars and phones in the palm of your hand. Also, the parts that follow the original plot work quite nicely, simply because the original film was so good.¬†However, the triple-breasted lady, a reference to her better explained and fleshed out counterpart in the original, seems rather non sequitur and out of place in this film.

However, that one bead of sweat in the original film made all the difference. In this film, the question of whether Quaid is still in Rekall or not is not answered, and is left quite ambiguous. Seeing this version before the original, I was quite sure that he was going to wake up at some point and realise he was not a secret agent after all. When he didn’t, I suddenly realised that the film had been a complete sham. It would have been much more worthwhile to create a film where he had actually been in Rekall all this time, and then create another twist outside Rekall to explain what had happened.

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This is a terrible remake of a real classic. While I’d never consider an Arnie film to be the most intellectual source of inspiration, this version manages to be even dumber than its predecessor. The special effects are fantastic, but as a wise man once said, “you can’t polish a turd”. I’ll take Arnie over Farrell any day.

Total Recall

Arnie has a few entries in the 1001 Movies book, so they were among the first to be checked out. This particular addition is directed by the fantastic Dutchman Paul Verhoeven, who is well known in Holland for Soldier of Orange, and elsewhere for RoboCop. Verhoeven is also known for his graphic violence and dark sense of humour, and this movie certainly lives up to those expectations.

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The year is 2084, and Douglas Quaid (Arnie) is a construction worker who suffers from repetitive dreams of being on Mars. His wife Lori (Sharon Stone) tries to comfort him but to no avail. He discovers ‘Rekall’, a company that uses memory implants to give its customers the experience of a holiday right from their building. These holidays can be anything, so Quaid decides to be a secret agent on Mars. However, while preparations are being made to give him the implant, Quaid suddenly awakes: ‘You’ve blown my cah-ver!’

Arnie on Mars

The staff of Rekall decide that something’s gone wrong, so they make him forget his trip to Rekall, and bundle him on a futuristic cab to go home. However, he is intercepted by one of his co-workers who, rather than help Quaid remember, try to kill him instead. Arnie does what he does best and kills all four men in a trice. Quite brutally too. He falls back into his apartment and explains to Lori just what has happened, but she starts to attack him too. She then explains that he is not who he thinks he is. I’ll leave the plot there I think.

At this point, we’re not even a quarter of the way into the film, and the twists and turns don’t end there. Neither does the brutal violence. Arnie’s acting is suddenly rather credible, and his role in Total Recall is a match made in heaven. Eventually, the action gets its ass to Mars (finally I understand why that’s an Arnie quote), and the special effects, which are well above par for 1990, make the hostile planet very believable. In the Mars Hilton, Arnie is confronted by the man from Rekall, who explains that this is all part of the dream he paid for back on Earth. Arnie doesn’t believe him at first, but he then starts to question what has happened to him. However, a brilliant piece of logic in the form of a bead of sweat helps Arnie make the right decision. The writing of this film is simply excellent.

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I could go on and on about how awesome this sci-fi action film is, but I’d rather you saw it yourself. A film with brains as well as brawn, it manages to meld both action and sci-fi without compromising either genre. Simultaneously, Arnie is on top form, shooting guns, pumping muscles and of course, delivering his characteristic one-liners. This might just be one of the best sci-fi action films out there!

Rebel Without a Cause

James Dean has become a cultural icon for his role in Rebel Without a Cause, but I don’t know if anyone in my friend group has ever seen it. As my conquest of 1001 Movies continues, I decided to look at this classic of the mid-50s.

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Since Rebel Without a Cause – directed by Nicholas Ray in 1955 – was such a classic, I had always assumed it would be aimed at the lowest common denominator. As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. Rebel Without a Cause is a film that is very ahead of its time; had it been released in 2012, it would still seem current.

James Dean plays Jim Stark, a teenager confused and angered by his parents inability to make the big decisions and take responsibility. Having recently moved to a new high school, he immediately falls in with the wrong crowd, resulting in a horrific knife battle, and a ‘chickie run’ towards the edge of a cliff. Afterwards, he gets in even more trouble, so much that he needs to hide in old mansion, but this has even worse consequences. Keeping it vague for all you spoiler-haters.

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I was amazed at how well-made this film was. In an era when Hollywood were making simple sensationalist films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, this film is delightfully subtle, with complex, conflicted characters. The moral of the film is hardly clear either, and it’s up to each viewer to take what they can from the film. While the film would stand up against contemporary films as it did back in the 50s, it is notable for being the first film to properly deal with the then-new ‘teenage phenomenon’, where teenagers would begin to hang out after school and cause trouble.

The acting is excellent all around. I had always assumed that James Dean was nothing more than a pretty face, but his acting is very convincing in this movie. Oddly enough, he reminds me greatly of Brad Pitt, an actor that would not be born for another eight years. It’s tragic that a car crash would prevent Dean from ever seeing the finished film, but also ironic given the ‘chickie run’ in the film. If there was just one character that annoyed me, it was Jim’s ultra-sycophantic friend known as Plato. In the first half of the film, he is completely unnecessary, and just looks sad. However, he proves his worth in the second half of the film.

I was also pleasantly surprised to turn on the film and find it was in colour; in fact it very nearly wasn’t this way. The film started life as a B-movie and was thus deemed black-and-white worthy. However, once Warner discovered that James Dean was a rising star, they quickly decided to change their minds and supply Ray with colour stock instead. As a result, many of the film’s scenes needed to be reshot. While the use of colour wasn’t strictly necessary for this movie, it is very much appreciated. To me, watching a film in colour means less pretending that the world looks realistic, and I simply feel more relaxed. Of course, there are still great movies that are black-and-white, and I’d never argue that these films were any worse than colour films, but I still feel more comfortable watching a film in colour.

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Rebel Without a Cause is an important, cultural film, with brilliant acting and subtle storytelling. To say it is a good film simply for having James Dean in his most famous role is to completely underestimate the movie. While this type of film isn’t usually my cup of tea, I still found it to be a rewarding, educational watch.

Avatar

After being told by someone that I ‘reviewed too many films that nobody cares about’, I asked what I should review instead. I was instructed to review James Cameron’s Avatar. However, despite pleas that I should watch the film again with an open mind, I decided I could tackle this one based on the sole cinematic experience I had three years ago.

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It was the Christmas holidays, and Sammit, his sister Pari, Saad and I agreed to go and see a movie. When we arrived at the cinema, it was decided that Avatar would be the perfect choice. The 3D craze was still a novelty, so we needed to pay an extra two euros for the glasses. We sat down, and watched the film that had been pelted our way on the sides of busses, on TV adverts, in McDonalds, on Facebook and in almost every other advertising medium known to man. I don’t think I’ve ever known the hype of one film to be so high. Naturally, I was utterly disappointed.

Previously, I had watched Transformers 2: Revenge of Michael Bay at the cinema, a film that took quantity over quality, explosions over interesting characters, and mindless computer-generated action over a solid plot. While the film itself was, let’s face it, a bit misguided, it was difficult not to be blown away by the special effects. That they could integrate giant transforming robots so seamlessly with live action, and so consistently over two and a half hours, led me to believe that anything could now be done using computers. I decided then and there that I would never be impressed by computer graphics again.

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Unfortunately, the next film I saw at the cinema was Avatar, a film whose entire plot was a pathetic excuse to blow the budget on special effects and CGI. The special effects are indeed some of the most impressive I’ve ever seen, but in the end, they simply act as a garish advertisement for unnecessary commodities such as Blu-ray players and 3D televisions. The entire point of watching the film is to watch it in better quality than you would any other movie, and watching it at the cinema in 3D still didn’t impress me; Optimus Prime was still in my mind.

After folding away the countless layers of computer generated spunk, it’s pretty obvious how crap the premise for the film is. It’s simply Pocahontas with blue aliens instead of Native Americans. Don’t believe me? Read here! The mineral that the humans are trying to find is called unobtanium. Unobtanium! It may as well be called difficulttofindium or hardtogetium. Absolute tosh!

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You can add all the special effects you like to a film, but at the end of the day, if the plot isn’t convincing, then you’ve got a crap movie. The only time I like to see floating mountains is in a good Roger Dean painting. It disgusted me that the film received applause from members of the audience as the credits began to roll, as there is nothing thought-provoking or original about this computer-generated wankery.

Triumph of the Will

One must remember that films aren’t always for entertainment, or even artistic statement. Films can be used to inform, exaggerate, and in the worst case, brainwash. Officially, Triumph of the Will was created to document the sixth Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, but of course, Hitler’s real goal was to create a propaganda film to manipulate and take hold of the collective hearts and minds of Germany. Despite being relatively new to directing, Leni Riefenstahl was commissioned directly by Hitler to document the event, saying that her artistic approach would appeal to those who weren’t even so interested in politics.

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Since the film was propaganda, Hitler’s specialty, she was given an enormous budget, and unparalleled control over filming, erecting bridges around Nuremberg, and lighting up impressive buildings like Christmas trees. Camera tracks were laid down in strategic locations to give the film a more dynamic air. Technically, Riefenstahl’s film is quite an accomplishment!

At the same time, it’s a very simple film. Riefenstahl, rather than clutter the film with commentary, lets the images speak for themselves, giving a very brief introduction in the first minute. Afterwards, it’s marching bands, happy Aryan children, gargantuan arenas filled with countless Nazis, and gracing the stage, Hitler himself, delivering powerful patriotic messages without so much as a stammer. That he was one of the greatest orators of the 20th Century is surely without question. To merely stand up in front of tens of thousands of people requires a great amount of stamina, yet he does it unflinchingly, and with conviction. It’s no wonder he inspired such confidence in a nation that just 19 months earlier had been experiencing darkness and confusion.

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Hitler is the main event, there’s no question about this, but to my grief, there’s quite a bit of unwanted, uninteresting material also. It’s a full half an hour before Addy gets a turn on the mic, so to watch this film, you need to be prepared to wade through loads of scenes with marching music – honestly, I’m sick to death of it now – and shots of happy people saluting Hitler. I was fine with this for the first ten minutes, since it clearly shows the side of Germany that Hitler wanted other Germans to see, but it does grow quite tiresome after a while.

Historically, of course, this is a very interesting document. Just as historians read Mein Kampf, so should they watch Triumph des Willens. Personally, I’ve seen so many documentaries about the darkness and the drudgery of Nazi Germany that it’s interesting for once to see just how Hitler believed his creation was; a country on the road to a utopia that would last for millennia. It’s easy to criticise him for the delusions of grandeur after only a couple of years in office, but if this film has told me anything, it’s that Hitler was a man of ambition; the rest of history tells me just how dark and repulsive this ambition was.

Ironically however, this film that should be aesthetically perfect does not depict a world I would enjoy living in. All the marches, rallies and gaudy displays of power are not something I would find pleasing. I noted that Hitler used the word Deutschland a disproportionate number of times, blatantly to provoke any kind of patriotic response from his audience, but as an expatriate, I can’t ever imagine that repeating the name of a country would have that effect on me. With the benefit of hindsight, I disagree with the ‘perfect’ world that Riefenstahl creates through her camera.

Adolf Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl

Adolf Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl

So after watching two hours of propaganda, have I become a Nazi? Certainly not, but Triumph of the Will is a fascinating insight into the machinery of Nazi Germany. Knowing what I do about the Germany of that era, I’ve found it rewarding to see the country from a Nazi perspective. In the same way, I’d be very interested to see the world of 1984 from an Ingsoc perspective. George Orwell makes 1984 sound so terrible that I cannot comprehend how anybody could see that their predicament was a positive one. I wouldn’t recommend Triumph of the Will for ‘movie night’, but there’s no denying its historic significance, or its technical merits. Riefenstahl would go on to direct the two part Olympia, an epic documentary of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, a film I may find myself watching in the near future.