Breaking Down The Great Wall

Even if you live outside China and have not yet been able to see The Great Wall for yourself, you’ve probably overheard or contributed to one or both of the two conversations happening around it:

1. It’s a prime example of “whitewashing”, having cast Matt Damon in the role of a white savior anachronistically riding to the rescue of Chinese imperial armies, who are besieged by regular attacks by hordes of hungry, four-legged monsters.

2. It’s a proving ground for the future viability of Hollywood-Chinese co-productions, the most fully co-operative commercial filmmaking venture between the world’s two biggest film industries.

These are both interesting discussions. Neither of them tell you whether or not you will have any fun while you’re watching the film. So, let’s get them out of the way before turning to the film itself: Continue reading

345-Word Reviews: Train to Busan

Train-to-Busan.jpgI’m an avowed Walking Dead quitter, numbed by repetitive gore, missing the satirical bite and morbid world-building of the Romero “Dead” cycle. I’m officially bored of zombie movies, then, but a clever twist of the format can pique my interest every once in a while. Train to Busan certainly grabbed my attention by relocating a very tired concept: putting zombies on a speeding train is an efficient way to create the tension of a confined situation, and the narrative structure of a linear journey towards a possible sanctuary. But unlike Snowpiercer, that other train-based, Korean-directed disaster movie, whose vessel of apocalypse survivors was a self-contained class system, beautifully laid out in hierarchical sequence along the length of its carriages, Train to Busan has little allegorical heft or interest: this train is filled with “types”, who respond to danger in ways that distinguish or dishonour them, but that’s not the same as making them representatives of the ways power relations dictate and delimit action and experience in broader society. train-to-busan-movie-reviewWhat Busan has instead is a wickedly intense first hour, building up the tension inside the familiar and believable cabin spaces [unless you live in Europe or the USA, in which case, you’ll find the comfort and cleanliness of East Asian trains borders on science fiction] and hinting through the windows at the scale of the catastrophe unfolding outside. It is built around the relationship between a distracted, workaholic father and the daughter who yearns for his attention, a touching device that pays off at the conclusion, but is rather formulaic in its message that parenthood is about sacrifice. Once the peril and melodrama are amped up in the final third and the zombie combat begins to border on the superheroic, much of the dramatic pressure dissipates into the cliches of vehicular action cinema.
The best zombie movies indulge conflicting urges in us all: even as they tease our instinctive fears of mass-panic situations, they let us safely game-theorize possible escape routes. We gawp at disaster, while imagining ways to reconstruct society in renewed forms. Train to Busan is too slick to be completely unsettling, too narrowly focused to be enduringly thought-provoking, but it excited me for most of its running time.

Inside Out & Pixar’s Workplace Comedies of Exile

PIxar Inside Out.jpgAll Pixar movies are comedies of exile. Invariably, we are introduced to a place of equilibrium, an ordered system which is thrown into chaos when several of its members are expelled or ejected. Their return journey is a learning experience for both the exiled, who must develop skills beyond the routines learned inside the ordered system, and those left behind, who must cope with loss, failure, and who must help to reconstruct the system in a new and better image. Continue reading

Sketchin’ in the Rain

Gene Kelly in Singin' in the RainThis year I have moved from teaching university to teaching high school. Ask me about it another time: I’ll tell you in detail about it. My academic friends might be particularly interested in what the transition involves, but the main difference is something like this: being an university lecturer requires you to synthesise a vast range of sources and ideas into the conceptual understanding that makes up a scholar’s theoretical toolkit or “research profile”. Teaching high school requires you to take those big ideas and fragment them into a series of engaging, memorable and constructive tasks, enabling students to find their own way into the theoretical terrain. So, that’s what I’m doing right now. I have to remind myself what it was like not to know what semiotics is, or why film theory can be a useful tool rather than a giant muddy puddle in between me and the movies. And yes, that thing that academics often resent in education is especially true in school: you have to make the subject entertaining. Because if you don’t have their attention, you’re going to lose them, and they’re going to learn nothing. big_1409277822_1382488051_imageThis month our topic is film genre, and we’re looking at musicals.  My students were asked to sketch a diagram of the Singin’ in the Rain dance sequence to develop their skills at observing and describing filmic space. In three groups, they drew a plan of the set, indicating camera position, lines of movement, key elements of staging, the location of extras and anything else that occurred to them while watching. I also asked them, where possible, to indicate the approximate position and distance of cameras for each shot.
I think (i.e. I can’t always trust my powers of recall) that I inherited this idea from my friend and former colleague Helen Hanson after hearing that she’d used a similar technique in a class on continuity editing. I’ve used it several times since. It’s a great, fun exercise for film students. Because films often construct space in separate shots (we never get a complete long shot of the entire set in which Gene Kelly dances in Singin’ in the Rain), trying to reconstruct the entirety of the space in which a scene takes place demonstrates how we the viewers use the spatial information in those shots to stitch together the pieces of the setting in our minds. Even if a scene was shot at several different locations, you should be able to draw a complete, coherent diagram of a single set as proof of how effectively a film establishes a similarly coherent spatial location for its action. It helps that Singin’ in the Rain is meticulously choreographed around its locations, with Kelly swinging from a lamp-post or balance-beaming down the kerb, and we can map out how those movements respond to, explore and make use of the full space. IMG_3138
After the class, I did some playing with iMovie, which I haven’t used for a long time, and overlaid the students’ work onto the sequence from the film, just to show how closely their diagrams and sketches might map onto the real thing. Hope you enjoy it:

Sketchpad: Things I Only Just Noticed About Psycho

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in PsychoI’ve seen Psycho many times. It’s probably up there with Star WarsThe Wizard of OzThis is Spinal Tap and a few others which I have seen far more times than I can hope to remember. You could also count Superman II and Superman III, which I seemingly watched on a VHS loop in the early 80s and have never watched again since. But Psycho is a film that I have watched umpteen times even as an adult (you can tell how old I am by my unabashed use of the word “umpteen”). I first saw it as a spotty greasy teen, slightly disappointed that it wasn’t a raging gorefest, but I have come back to it many times, and developed a deep appreciation for the craft with which assembles its scares. But you don’t need me to tell that Psycho is good.  Continue reading

Sketchpad: Steve Coogan in The Look of Love

Steve Coogan and Anna Friel in Michael Winterbottom's The Look of LoveWith his lead role as smut-baron Paul Raymond in Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love (a sort of Poundshop Boogie Nights set in London’s Soho nightclub scene), Steve Coogan proves that he has cornered a small market in playing sadsack, seedy and eccentric entrepreneurs with delusions of grandeur and self-importance. This would include other collaborations with Winterbottom, such as 24-Hour Party People, where he starred as Tony Wilson (“the biggest prick in Manchester, played by the second”, as Noel Gallagher, as I recall, said at the time), A Cock and Bull Story, and two series/films of The Trip, in all of which he played (a version of) himself. Continue reading

One Sentence about … Shane

ShaneShane (George Stevens, 1953) contains some magnificently off-kilter action scenes, fast-cut punch-up montages such as the sequence where Alan Ladd and Van Helflin brawl in a farmyard of panicking animals, and the mountains of Wyoming look incredible, but day by day, it gets harder for me to watch the long, slow build-up towards heroic, retributive and cathartic gun violence.

Sketchpad: The Burbs

The Burbs Tom HanksWhen I watched American movies in my UK-based youth, I barely noticed that they were foreign. There was something slightly exotic about paper boys throwing newspapers over sprinklers and onto lawns from their bikes, about screen doors, pies with pumpkin in them, Halloween, and the fact of Corey Feldman’s existence, but I had little sense of the USA as a place on a distant continent, populated by another people. I’d seen so much of America on TV and film that t barely felt like a foreign land. It’s only later in life (i.e. about now) that I really feel the distinct separateness of America, the knowledge that it is not the country I grew up. This should be surprising, since many of the films I was watching (usually because they were the films most forcefully marketed into my face) deliberately set out to make the of middle-American or suburban everyday seem strange and malevolent. I’m thinking specifically of the films of Joe Dante (GremlinsExplorersTwilight Zone: The Movie, InnerspaceMatineeSmall SoldiersThe Hole…), for whom this has been something of a defining trait.

Gremlins Invasion of the Body SnatchersIn Dante’s movies, action is bordered by representation. People receive instruction and commentary from movies and TV: think of how a key scene in Gremlins is echoed by the TV on the wall showing Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as if the world of movies was issuing a dire warning. In The Burbs, there are screened references from Mr Rodgers (the ultimate and absurd example of good neighbourliness), The Exorcist (less so), and a few others. As in so many of Dante’s other works, the cartoonish, gothic excesses of American sf and horror B-movies are splashed directly all over neighbourhoods which are otherwise clean and close-knit, if a little overs-stuffed with eccentrics and obsessives.
The Burbs Wendy Schaal and Bruce Dern
This is a little like a Looney-Tunes Spielberg mashup, or maybe just a bug-eyed remake of Rear Window, where neighbourly nosiness segues into passive-aggressive territoriality before sliding down into outright paranoiac prejudice. But it does remind me now of what a delightful physical comedian Tom Hanks is (was?), and that before they straddled the globe with giant robots and crusading capers, American movies kept their allegorical turf wars picket-fenced and local.
Tom Hanks in The Burbs

One Sentence about … Wet Hot American Summer

Wet Hot American SummerThough it is intermittently very funny, and has a retroactively all-star comic cast, the tone of Wet Hot American Summer lurches widely between excessive spoof and affectionate pastiche, but it can’t even manage to skewer the soft-target satirical punching bag of 1980s teen movies, so ultimately, this is the kind of movie you make when you’re not talented or interested enough to make Dazed and Confused.

It Follows

It Follows - Maika MonroeRemember the Scream movies? What was billed at the time as a series of knowing, witty take-downs of the slasher film genre, full of self-referential jokes and a spiralling plotline of ludicrously solemn fatalism, now looks like an arrogant attempt to speak on behalf of a genre and a generation, a nauseating spectacle that managed to pander to and sneer at its target audience in equal measure. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows similarly tackles genre tropes, but without snarky citations. Instead, it sets out an intriguing premise (a slow-moving demon-thing, in multiple human forms, ceaselessly pursues any individual carrying its sexually transmitted curse, which can only be passed on to another person through sexual intercourse), and sticks to it. The film builds a distinctive atmosphere, bathes it in a throbbing, nagging electronic score, and never punctures the mood with the leavening hijinks that are routinely wedged into anything aimed at a teenaged audience. And since movies so rarely frighten me, I’m always happy to admit when it happens: It Follows is really scary. It has a plot like a ghost story told at an unusually mean-spirited sleepover, the sombre tone of a classmate’s funeral, and it lingers in the mind like a malicious rumour.
It FollowsSo, while the Scream films had their cake and stabbed it in the neck by both mocking the silliness of teenagers in horror films and marshalling a cast of very silly teenagers, It Follows has a real feeling for its protagonists’ anxieties. While Scream (you can probably tell I hate those movies, and this is, I promise the last time I’ll use them as a strawman, or even mention them at all…) wrote out the “final girl” trope in big crayons, because it just seemed, like, totally stoopid that horror films should enshrine psychosexual terrors in popular culture, It Follows takes the trope seriously: if slasher movies have traditionally punished the promiscuous and heroised the virginal, this is one film that wants not to mock but to find out why. It takes the stigma and anxiety of teen sexuality and blows it up to a full-on horror trope in its own right. Of course, plenty of horror movies are about teen sex and the punishments that come to its practitioners from primitively moral killers. But It Follows reifies that sexuality into a deathly contagion: victims are confronted with a lethal double standard, sex is what gives them the curse, but also what staves it off.
It Follows A lesser horror film would have made easy mistakes: creating some ancient mystical motivation for the curse; featuring parents or other authority figures; wisecracking sidekicks; pop soundtrack. It Follows creates an atmosphere and then maintains it, without undercutting or subverting the tension. There’s a close-quarters sensuality to many shots that puts us right next to our central subject, Jay Height (Maika Monroe).
vlcsnap-2015-08-16-22h52m41s56 vlcsnap-2015-08-16-23h01m24s167 vlcsnap-2015-08-16-23h13m11s75 Note, for instance, the early scene where she observes the critters from her backyard swimming pool, and makes the easy decision to drown an ant on her arm: hands are prominent in many shots, too, a poignant rendering of a world both perceived through, and jeopardised by, the necessity of touch. This is not an unusual neorealist technique to create a sense of immediacy, but it is absolutely the right choice for this film: aligning us with Kelly makes it all the more frightening, since whatever is coming for her must also be coming for us, and we don’t get to observe her from a safe distance. We scan the environment for approaching death just as she does, and the often shallow focus frustrates that task; rarely has often screen space been so actively weighted with dread.
It FollowsOne strange aspect of the film is its placement in time. Musically and thematically, it’s in conversation with the 1980s. The TV screens seems to show only 1950s science fiction B-movies. This is probably a deliberate strategy to avoid pinning the film down to a specific temporal location, but it also shows us how genres cyclically (50s, 80s, now) latch onto the things they find unnerving (commies/conformity, sex/knives, sex/intimacy). It does mean that a film that clearly wants to talk about young people now, is devoid of the iconography of social media. And yet, it is fundamentally a film about sharing.
vlcsnap-2015-08-16-23h02m30s62 vlcsnap-2015-08-16-23h04m08s18Probably more profound than the film’s metaphor of sexual stigma as a killer curse is the way characters react to the threat, by having sex in order to share their fear. For some in this film, without giving too much away, knowing a potential partner is scared is an opportunity to exploit their sexuality, while others have an altruistic wish to take on the curse on behalf of a friend. But it’s a complicated picture, and ends with a couple unsure of what they’ve done or how scared they should be, anxious that everybody be as cursed as they are, and knowing that they can never be free, just threatened together. It’s a film not about why we hide our shame, but about why we find security in sharing it with someone, anyone else.