30 October 2013

Review: Strange Days

(Dir: Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)

"The question is not whether you're paranoid... it's whether you're paranoid enough".

This quote feels like the credence of Strange Days, a film perpetually overlooked as a mid-nineties classic. It was released at a time of impending technological wonder and freak-out, alongside the likes of Hackers, The Net and Virtuosity, but whereas that trio of films veered towards trashy entertainment and a caution that the internet could not just ruin your life but unleash a digital serial-killing Russell Crowe, Strange Days has always felt like it's imbued with something more. A fear of something big impending. A fear of how our history is inescapable.

Forward looking by only five years, but still enough to earn the tag of near future sci-fi, it's primary plot driver concerns a technology capable of recording and fully playing back human experience. The SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) is worn on a users head, usually concealed under a wig or hat, recording onto mini-disc like "clips" all the sensory elements of that moment's experience ready for playback. Be it running along a beach or committing an armed robbery, everything is experienced in full first person perspective, as if the viewer is living it.

The idea behind this tech is fascinating. Surely we all live in a world where we'd love to experience things as other people do, not just for the alternative viewpoint but to live vicariously; to do things you never could or never would. Imagine if memories were not a hazy thought when you close your eyes but something you can relive over and over. How would that mean you approach life? Does everything you record thus need to be special or would you feel like you don't need to create new memories because you can live forever in the ones you already have? At the very least this seems to be what's afflicting lead character Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) who can only hope to lose himself in these recorded memories of Faith (Juliette Lewis) as every attempt of winning her back from sleazily controlling Philo Grant (Michael Wincott) becomes increasingly detrimental to his health. Inevitably in this world the film has created, this tech is illegal.

From a societal standpoint, the setting of the film is critical. Set in the final days of the millenium as the clock is ready to tick over, there's a sense of fear and pending jubilation. The Los Angeles we see on film is ready to implode, with chaos seeming to rule on the streets, where violence eventually bleeds into ecstatic celebration. It's as if society can't believe it's actually survived this far and is still going, but the crossing of this threshold is the perfect time to reset the clock and wash away past transgressions. As it builds and eventually happens there's hope that it could be a genuine turning point, and the celebration we see on screen imbues this in us.

But can we really buy into the hope that things will change? The allusions to the Rodney King killing and the riotous incension of the public towards such tragic racism suggest that in this one city alone, there's a lot more to change than can be perpetuated by this one event. Everybody feels like they're on the edge and it could go either way. Technologically speaking there was always a fear of what 2K meant (the Millenium bug for example), but in Strange Days it's more in the vein of what are the implications of everything potentially being recorded in a way that's relivable? How does this technology empower a serial killer, or cause the police to react when they find out they've just been filmed crossing so far over the line that there's no way back? Sometimes technology is just a new way to make things worse. And yet eighteen years later we're now at a point where police are wearing cameras to put evidence beyond doubt, whilst people wear them for life logging. And what about Google Glass? It's taken time but this vision of the future is getting close, sensory recreation aside.

Fiennes holds everything together. Nero is an antihero, a black market dealer of clips, the magic man, the Santa Claus of the subconscious. He's a chancer who gets by abusing the good grace of his friend Mace (Angela Bassett) and forever living on the the edge of a beating or repossession of his life. Why should we care? His pathetic obsession with Faith, who clearly doesn't want him anymore, suggests this is probably the only true connection he's had with someone. Somewhere along the way he became damaged and his vivid reliving of memories show a world far away from the combustion that surrounds him. The well-weaved story by James Cameron throws him into a situation where it appears his world may crumble and we can but root for him as in reality he's just a misguided fool. Typical of Cameron, Mace is a strong female character who begrudgingly puts up with Nero's shit because she feels she owes him, whilst Lewis plays Faith in her usual manner of unrestrained intensity and sexuality. It's almost difficult to see why Nero's so ensnared by her. Philo by comparison just seems to care about power and so that means she is his, as Wincott's mellifluous purr make it difficult not to be entranced.

In recent years Kathryn Bigelow has been lauded for The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, but by Strange Days she was coming off the fantastic run of Near Dark, Blue Steel and Point Break, with this fitting neatly into the slightly edgy but always superbly executed and visualised style she had set out before her. The breathless first person perspective scenes are testament to that for instance. It's difficult to imagine how a different director might've handled this story because she provides the necessary balance between social commentary, thriller, darkness and dystopian cyberpunk. I don't think Cameron himself would've done a better job. Strange Days may not be a revolutionary film, but it offers a thrilling and intelligent incision into a society raw from it's recent history and a fear of a new technology that could possibly set them free. This sets Strange Days apart as a piece of high quality filmmaking that incredibly remains a truly under-appreciated nineties classic.

28 October 2013

Review: Machete Kills

(Dir: Robert Rodriguez, 2013)

The original concept of Machete is a stroke of genius. As a trailer in the middle of the Grindhouse experience, and playing before Planet Terror, it runs like a two minute comedy of everything you'd want to see in an excessive trashy B-movie, hitting the nail on the head perfectly. If it was real this film would be amazing! And then this short punchy idea was suddenly a 105 minute film, with a proper story and everything, and maybe for that reason it never felt like it quite lived up to its potential. The revenge theme in the original trailer fit right, but bringing in the weighty immigration theme, though real world important, seems almost too alienating from the trashy concept of it all. Yet the casting of a bunch of actors whom you wouldn't expect to see in a film like this was inspired, and there is plenty of throwback to the grindhouse era. As such Machete the film is never less than a fun watch, but it's difficult to wish the nature of the opening sequence or some of the more insane scenes, like the man himself jumping from a window using someone's unraveling intestines as a rope, permeated throughout much more of it. Both Planet Terror and Hobo With A Shotgun did a far better job with this aesthetic.

So did we need a sequel and does it redress the potential that's lacking? Well, arguably yes on both counts. Plenty of shitty films generate many sequels so whether we need one or not is a redundant point, but the fact we get more of the character Machete is only a good thing. The question of whether Machete Kills redresses the balance enough is a tough one though. This is a film with clear intentions to amp up the ridiculousness (obviously it's looking to take that interstellar with the repeatedly suggested third part), with a story that veers more into camp stupidity. If the original trailer suggested a certain grindhouse dirtiness that was mostly scrubbed away in the first film, we're in shiny clean territory now. Sure there's lots of over-the-top violence and excessive spurting and splattering of blood, but the overall tone feels like a late seventies Bond film gone awry, mostly due to the second half of the film and chief villain Voz (Mel Gibson), with his clichéd space obsessed megalomania. 

Gibson is an example of the crazy casting that Robert Rodriguez seems to be pulling off with these films, alongside the likes of Charlie Sheen playing the President and Antonio Banderas / Cuba Gooding Jr / Lady Ga Ga / Amber Heard / Vanessa Hudgens appearing in small random roles. Most of the cast from the first film reappear in some capacity (villains aside) and Danny Trejo continues to play Machete like the badass he is, but this time round you can really tell he's starting to look old. Yet too many of these characters don't add anything and feel pointless. What's the point of El/La Camaleón? That's a character with lots of focus because of an intriguing idea, but who never actually serves the story. Whilst both Mendez and Desdemona and her band of killer ladies appear to be pointless window dressing. Like last time round these are symptoms of an overlong film - kept to a lean 85-90 minutes Machete Kills would've had way more punch.

Machete Kills other big failing is the time it spends trying to set up the third film - sure that sounds like it'll be even more batshit crazy, but this film feels purely like a conduit to get to that point and so will struggle to stand on its own. All that said, Machete Kills still delivers on the fun, it's just way less grimy than it ought to be. At least Gibson manages to bring a touch of his patented crazy. Regardless, I'm glad there's someone making films like this and that they're getting released at the cinema, although judging by box office numbers how long that continues for will be interesting to see. Machete Kills isn't great and the first is better, but it's still damn enjoyable for what it is.

12 October 2013

Short review: Prisoners

(Dir: Denis Villeneuve, 2013)

Prisoners arrived on a wave of high hopes - a bleak looking story played out by decent actors with hints of Se7en and maybe something vaguely labyrinthine suggested. And of course a bunch of reviews happily placing it up there with the best of the year. So it's a shame the film doesn't quite live up to any of this promise. The initial staging is intriguing despite being entirely unoriginal, which leads to a long, excessively bloated character piece that only feels like it has any impetus in it's initial frenzy and as it builds to it's intriguing denouement. Speaking of David Fincher films I was reminded more of the procedural Zodiac (lead star aside) as it tries to tell a slow methodical story. Except the difference between Fincher and director Denis Villeneuve is massive - cutting 30-40 mins out of Prisoners would've helped the story immeasurably.

What Prisoners has on it's side is a handful of intriguing ideas, not least how far a parent would go to get their child back and the blind ignorance to actual evidence that leads to devastating decisions in the process of doing so. Once we get more answers things become interesting, but the Se7en comparison amounts to about one sequence (hell at times it's almost more reminiscent of Saw), yet it could've done with more of this, and it's a film that feels depressing not least because of the subject matter but also the snowbound Pennsylvania setting, but lacks any of the visual verve of the aforementioned film. Hugh Jackman plays a determined everyman well, he's good in this sort of role. However Jake Gyllenhaal's detective is the more interesting character, but a frustrating lack of real development or understanding about who he is when there's clearly more to him than generic cop really limits the role. It's tempting to praise Paul Dano but he usually plays awkward misfit well so it's hardly a stretch for him. Prisoners might've been a more impactful film if it was considerably shorter, but ultimately it's a pretty standard example of an abduction film that in reality doesn't maximise the potential of it's ideas.

11 October 2013

Review: Rush

(Dir: Ron Howard, 2013)

It's a curious thing that despite Formula One being such a huge global sport, it's one mostly ignored by the film industry. Most films dedicated to automotive love seem to be in the vein of The Fast and Furious franchise or the metal fetish of the likes of Gone In Sixty Seconds. Actual motor racing appears to be a secondary consideration compared to street racing, so you get the odd trashy attempt like Renny Harlin and Sylvester Stallone's Driven, or the inevitable NASCAR films like Talladega Nights and the mighty Days of Thunder. But when you consider this is a sport renowned for glamour that's fast, dangerous and potentially fiery, especially when shot or edited in the right way, the visual impact for storytelling is there. Hell, even Iron Man 2's Monaco segment was more thrilling than the likes of Driven. Fortunately Rush goes a long way towards justifying why there should be more.

Tackling the real life rivalry of James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Nikki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), Rush touches their early days in Formula 3 before both are jolted into the big league and the fastest cars in the world, tracking the 1975 and particularly 1976 seasons. This is a sport intensely rich with rivalries and to be at the top exudes the essence of power, far more so than most other sports. These are men in control of some of the most powerfully wild man-made beasts, capable of destroying their lives with just the one tiniest miscalculation or mistake. The psychology of what drives these men to walk this knife edge is fascinating.

Hunt is the cavalier playboy for whom life should just be a party, with his dashing good looks, blonde locks and acres of charm carrying him from woman to woman with wild abandon. The desire to drive and be the best fuels his desperate need to win, paralleling his legendary sexual prowess. These are the two things he's good at so these are the two things he fully embraces in life. Hemsworth is dripping with each of these characteristics - you can see why everyone would love him and wants to be around him and why women so easily fall into his arms. Maybe there's a little bit of latent Thor still in there? 

Lauda is the more interesting, studious, detail-oriented counterpoint to Hunt. A man obsessed with the minutiae of what it takes to win, calculating every single way to make his car the perfect machine. He's a man with something to prove. His relationship with Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) is arguably his most curious characteristic, something he wants but struggles to balance with the risk of his job, so the eventual realisation of its importance is touching. Brühl is excellent, taking the awkward social aspects of the man and not making them a barrier to the intrigue surrounding him. And once covered with prosthetics he delivers a stoic heartfelt performance.

But where Rush really comes alive is in the visual department. It's a film that allows you to feel intimate with the drivers and their machines, with editing that cuts between pistons firing, engines sparking and rubber shimmering from the heat. A lot of the racing has the vague feel of being computer generated but that never detracts because it feels visceral. Although a tendency to descend into montage too regularly, something all racing films seem to do, feels like it limits the narrative, yet it still feels electric. This is aided by the music choices - always very much of the era and adding a little excitement and glamour to events. And I couldn't help but smile when a version of Steve Winwood's 'Gimme Some Lovin'' is used over a racing sequence - straight flashback to Days of Thunder!

Rush works thanks to the way it executes the racing scenes and brings the thrill of not just Formula One but motor racing as a whole onto the screen, coupled with the emotional intensity of two larger than life figures. The fact that this story is based on reality helps greatly so any thoughts of it veering into cliche are negated by the truth. By almost underplaying the inevitably fated moment of destruction and its aftermath in the latter part of the film, this actually creates a greater impact. It could be imagined that such a film is essentially costume drama for men, but putting aside the flame retardant overalls and helmets, Rush is a film that should appeal to anyone who likes gripping or superior storytelling, regardless of their thoughts on the sport, much in the way Senna expertly played out its heartbreaking story.