Saturday, 18 May 2013

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

There really isn't too much to say on Hansel and Gretel. It's a bit of fun and was never going to be a hit with the critics.

It bucks the trend set by gritty and dark fairytale films like Snow White and the Hunstman and Jack the Giant Slayer by not being super serious and revelling in how grim everything is. It could have benefited from going a bit further and edging into full on parody but it reigns it in every time things get a bit too much. Either way, this is a lot more Van Hellsing than any recent takes on fairytales we've had. There's ridiculous action sequences, people getting thrown about all over the place and not getting really hurt, weapons that have no place being in this time period and more blood than you can shake a vial of holy water at.

The sheer amount of blood is telling of another thing. Hansel and Gretel is a bit more "adult" than the vaguely child targeted film I expected. I say "adult" because I mean it's really juvenile, but there's a lot more swearing and blood and guts than I really anticipated going in and it all added to the feeling that this wasn't a serious movie and was all about having fun.

Hansel and Gretel was clearly an excuse to put two of Hollywood's beautiful people in tight leather and have them kick some arse and look good doing it (and holy shit, Gemma Arterton, wow). It's nothing more than that so just switch off your brain and enjoy it.

Mama (2013)

The last thing I've seen that Guillermo del Toro had to do with was Pan's Labyrinth so when I saw his name pop up on the intro to Mama, even only in a producing role, I got pretty stoked.

I went in knowing only two things: 1) that this was a pretty standard horror movie and 2) apparently this is what Jessica Chastain decided to follow up Zero Dark Thirty with and it seemed like a bit of a step down. It turns out, both of these assumptions are pretty true, but not in as a bad way, as I thought.

Mama is a pretty standard horror film. Two very young girls find themselves lost and alone in the woods after their family kind of breaks down. They're later found, five years later, having survived in the wilderness somehow. They're placed by social services with what's left of their family: their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau a.k.a Jaime fucking Lannister) and his girlfriend Annabelle (Jessica Chastain). Only, they soon find out that whatever it was that was protecting the girls in the woods isn't quite ready to give up its motherhood just like that.

The film feels a lot like a good old fashioned, proper ghost story. It's as if someone took one of the better short stories from Are you Afraid of the Dark? and gave it some talent, a budget and a feature length timeslot. And if you had a decent childhood, you'll know that that's awesome.

There aren't really any gimmicks here. It's a ghost. No it doesn't exist through image taken of itself or it isn't some misunderstood benevolent spirit or there isn't actually a twists where it turns out to be aliens or a being from another dimension. There's no playing around with conventions of the genre to appear clever and, thank god, it's not a first person found-footage film. It's a fucking ghost story, what more does it need? Let's be honest here, ghosts are pretty damn scary all on their own. Even with a multitude of traditional scares and a not-exactly-groundbreaking plot, it's all done well and Mama is a good example of a simple horror story done well.

In no small part is the effect of the film down to the lead actors. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is the main supporting actor as Lucas and this guy is solid. I may be biased because I'm really into the whole redemption arc his character in Game of Thrones has going on right now, but this guy's gonna be a round for a while. He's had his foot in the door of English-language productions for a while now, but he's really turning the boot to crack it open now.

Jessica Chastain, fast becoming one of my favourite actresses, is centre stage and rightfully so as Annabelle. First off I've got to say I love the styling of her character. The goth-rock chic look she has going on is like Alice Glass of Crystal Castles, only she'd had a normal adolescence. T-shirts plastered with Fear and Loathing references and The Misfits logo, along with the short, sharply styled black hair and dark makeup give Chastian a remarkably different appearance to her CIA Maya of ZDT and she pulls of this massively different character just as well. Embodying both the audience's compassion for and frustration with these two troubled little girls, Chastain gives us a believably conflicted and empathetic performance with this punk turned mother.

These two are definitely a pair who've got a lot more to give, hopefully as good as what they have delivered so far. Not to mention that this was director Andrés Muschietti's first full length film so hopefully we'll see more from him.

Mama is a resoundingly solid horror film that demonstrates you don't always have to have a gimmick. As long as you've got good foundations and strong talent, you can scare the shit out of people with the simplest toolset you have.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Room 237

If you've either not seen The Shining or absolutely hate people who "read too much into things" (or both!) just stop reading now, you'll save yourself a lot of time.

Room 237 is a sort of documentary. I say "sort of " because the entire film is conjecture, theories and different readings all surrounding Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror classic. It's essentially a collection of people who have very indepth pet theories about what they think The Shining is *really* all about.

Most of the theories do come across as a bit insane. One in particular uses the film as supposed evidence that Kubrick was slyly admitting that he was part of the faked moon landing videos. Eye rolls all around for that one. It might just be Stockholm Syndrome setting in after spending an hour and a while with these disembodied voices (this documentary is made up entirely of archive footage, footage from the film itself and a little original photography) but I found myself buying in to some of them towards the end. I'm not saying I do believe that Kubrick was making a criticism of the genocide of the Native Americans or that he was confronting the horrors of the holocaust via subtext, but I am saying there are a few little details that can only be explained by the fact that he was clearly trying to say something at least.

Attention to craft is something that runs through all the analysts and their theories. There is no doubt among anyone, be they academics, film scholars, or just general fans of movies, that Stanley Kubrick was a master of his craft and his attention to detail was bordering on the obsessive. If anything can be taken away from Room 237 it's just how far Kubrick went in producing the Shining, whether it's something little like the numerous middle fingers he gives Stephen King (author of the source material) or something subtler like the impossible geometry of the Overlook Hotel. (The impossible shape of the hotel has to be one of my favourite things about the film. Even if you don't consciously notice it, it subconsciously instils the idea with you that there is something just plain wrong with this place even if you don't know what it is. More on that here, and then here)

It feels a lot like something that you'd more usually find as an extra feature on a blu-ray release or something similar, but that's not to say Room 237 isn't an interesting watch. Don't go in expecting to be convinced of any great truth about the film or anything enlightening. This is just a handful of ideas that some people take away from what they saw. None of it's wrong and none of it's right, it's all just really interesting opinion.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Upstream Color (2013)

I don't really have any idea what the hell I just watched, to be honest with you.

Shane Carruth, of Primer fame, gives us his second and even more confusing film. Primer was a film about time travel that was so complicated that it became almost impossible to follow (seriously, if anyone can explain it to me without graphs or flowcharts they get a gold star) but at least you knew what it was that was confusing you (numerous alternate timelines and the jumps between). But with Upstream Color I'm not quite sure what it was that I didn't get.

I'd tell you what it's about but I'm still not quite so sure, so I'll just stick with Carruth's own description:
"Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives."

It's all very abstract and tied up in underlying themes rather than than direct plot and action. There's a lot of subtext (in my opinion) about the ideas of how much control we have, and how much we think we have over our everyday lives. Things like outside influences operating on us without our knowledge or acknowledgement, and being scared of something but not knowing what it is you're scared of.

Fans of films like Terrence Malick's Tree of Life will find Upstream Color delightful I imagine. The film plays with high concepts that are never explicitly stated (in fact, little is actually stated at all, Upstream Color is light on dialogue) and there is a heavy emphasis on soft framed and subdued but beautiful shots.

If you were to compare films to visual art, films like Upstream Color falls into the same category as modern art. Historically, especially so before photography, painting and visual art had an emphasis on recreating things exactly as they looked. Painters like Da Vinci were able to craft beautiful works that were lifelike and coherent much like say... a Spielberg film. Then you get to more modern types of art where it's all about triggering emotion and ideas. We don't need to strive for photorealism all the time now we have cameras, and we don't always need things like traditional storytelling or being hit over the head with themes in film either. Both types of both things are great. Sit me down in front of Saving Private Ryan or the Mona Lisa and I'll follow you through the entire experience and say "Wow, that was fantastically done!" when I finish. Just the same way, sit me down in front of one of Damien Hirst's dead animals in formaldehyde or Upstream Color and I'll be all "I don't know exactly what this means, but I'm gonna have fun trying to figure it out!".

Upstream Color is an interesting experience, but don't expect to get too much out of it. This is a movie where you're really going to have to make up your own mind what you take away from it.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The House I Live In (Documentary) (2012)

America is currently engaged in it's longest war to date. This isn't a war born of ideology. It's not a war being fought in a desert. There aren't any army troops even fighting in the war. Shit, the war isn't even in another country.

The "War on Drugs" was declared by President Richard Nixon over 40 years ago now and Eugene Jarecki's film aims to display how mismanaged, misdirected, ineffective and outright harmful the entire endeavour has been. It reports in the opening that there has been an estimate $1 TRILLION spent on the war and over 45m arrests made directly under War on Drugs legislation, yet drug use rates haven't dropped one bit and have in many cases actually increased.

Although the overall selection may be a bit biased in terms of Jarecki's message, the interviewees come from a wide range of people involved and affected by the war and present a number of arguments that show just how bad and ineffective the war has been. From prisoners to judges, police officers to low-level dealers and activists to TV writers (namely David Simon, journalist turned creator of The Wire) the perspectives come thick and fast and fill out the 108 minutes to the brim.

Born initially of hate and fear, the war has become one that's even colder than hatred. With the privatised prison system in the US, the massive amounts of prisoners, the monetary incentives for police to target drug users above everyone else and systemic discrimination against huge groups of people, it's a recipe for a war on the lower classes that just perpetuates such class traps and essentially locks out the lower classes from ever lifting themselves out of terrible circumstances. When there is absolutely no other opportunity to make money, when you literally cannot put food on the table for yourself and your family, it's understandable that anyone will turn to drugs whether it's dealing them to get by or just to take you away from the miserable existence that you're systematically trapped in for an hour or two.

It's not a war on drugs it's the war on these people, the innercity ghetto apparent blocks populated by the African American working class and the trailer parks populated by the so called "white trash", that's being waged. Issues such as the incredibly harsh sentences on cheaper but equally harmful drugs highlight this perfectly. Specifically, Jarecki makes a point to cover the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine mandatory sentences. It was put into law that possession of crack (the cheaper, typically "poor" version of the drug) was to be handled with sentences literally 100x harsher than those of the powdered drug (which is needed to make crack, and is usually associated with wealthy types such as bankers and high level professionals).

The House I Live In takes you through a crash course of the history of drug laws in the US, and why and how they were enforced. It paints a picture of a situation that's been carried out, in truth, for over a century. It was an effort that went unchecked and felt no sympathy for the specific groups it was targeting, and they weren't being targeted for drugs but because of race and social class to begin with (hence the film's tagline: "The war on drugs has never been about drugs"). Drugs have always been the excuse, not the reason, to imprison, persecute and discriminate specific and ever-expanding groups of people.

It's no doubt that America has a serious problem with drugs like meth, cocaine, heroin crack and other destructive hard drugs. But the way the country has gone about tackling it is completely wrong from the top down. Instead of helping people with problems it is just simply rounding up anyone that it can and throwing away the key. Rehabilitation and proper education are left on the backburner and forgotten about. And that's disgusting.