LOOPER

Sitting here the day after viewing Rian Johnson’s Looper, parts of it are still falling in to place. Standing out amongst this years crop of mostly underwhelming sequels and comic book adaptations, Looper thunders onto the screen, showing, much like Inception did two years ago, that there is a place in 2012 for fresh material and just how good it can be when it’s done right.

The film tells the story of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hitman for an organised crime syndicate tasked with assassinating targets sent from the future. After being confronted with his future self (Bruce Willis) and failing to perform, Young Joe is forced to track down Old Joe and finish the job before being tracked down himself by the nefarious mob led by Abe (Jeff Daniels). However there is much more to the story than the basic premise, and Johnson isn’t afraid to keep details close to his chest until later in the film than most movies of this type, so I won’t spoil them here.

While certainly paying subtle homage to its predecessors, Looper is a stunningly original sci-fi masterpiece, vastly superior to any of the higher profile action releases this year. While certainly made on a much larger playing field than Johnson’s previous work (Brick, The Brothers Bloom), there is still a small-scale, independent feel to the film, and it benefits from clearly staying completely under the control of the young director. Delivering excitement sprinkled with thoughtful themes of personal sacrifice, he offers us much to chew on.

Johnson understands that a successful action film doesn’t need an explosion every ten minutes, and allows ample time for developing character and story, something which will likely divide audiences. Looper is very deliberately constructed, and after the highly charged opening establishing the intricate time-travel premise and direction of the plot, Johnson scales back the action almost too much as he ambitiously juggles the many and varied story elements he has created. Thankfully, any weakness in the middle of the film is largely overshadowed as Johnson launches the third act with such ferocity that the stark change of pace leaves you breathless.

Despite the problems in the middle of the film, Looper overcomes its flaws purely by being that rare beast in Hollywood nowadays, the totally original script. Not an adaptation, not a sequel or remake, but a fresh idea from the mind of an immensely talented young film-maker. In a perfect world, Looper would be the game changer it deserves to be, slapping Hollywood studios across the face and announcing that not everything has to be a PG-13 franchise based on a comic book. It’s unlikely that this will be the case, and it remains to be seen whether or not the film will even be a success, but it’s encouraging to see that there are young auteurs at work who are fighting to craft new and exciting stories, even if we only get to see the results every year or two.

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PANDORA’S BOX: WHY I REFUSE TO GIVE UP ON JAMES CAMERON

Over the past couple of weeks, director James Cameron has been out on the publicity trail, promoting the remastered 3-D blu-ray release of his classic 1998 film Titanic, and unsurprisingly talk has turned to his progress regarding the development of his two, possibly three, Avatar sequels. While it’s true that a significant backlash has built up over the past 15 years, the legacy of Titanic endures in the hearts of many; however the same could seemingly not be said for Avatar, the most financially successful film of all time.

Despite a respectable reception from critics (as well as its unprecedented box-office success), Cameron’s environmental opus quickly fell victim to the vitriolic blogosphere, dismissed by many as little more than a didactic and derivative spectacle. Given Cameron’s recent appearances, the ire of the internet has been raised again as many have jumped on the anti-Avatar bandwagon, lobbing complaints at the sequels before writing has even been completed.

This type of early judgement is nothing new in the online world, however it is reaching obscene levels. The films are two years away at the absolute earliest, yet anonymous pundits are already decrying their inevitable failure. While I personally wouldn’t consider Avatar to be amongst Cameron’s best work, I simply refuse to put any stock in what faceless haters may claim about films they cannot possibly have any knowledge of, but instead offer up a more optimistic viewpoint.

Nothing I might write here is based on any kind of knowledge of what Cameron is cooking up for the world of Pandora. I know nothing more than anyone else at this point. This is purely theoretical musing, taking what I know of Avatar, and, more importantly, Cameron’s career as a whole. And that’s the whole point. I hadn’t read anything hopeful about the prospects for Avatar 2 & 3, so I figured I should come up with something myself.

So why should I (or anyone) be optimistic about the future of Avatar? After recently sitting down and taking another look at some of Cameron’s work, I was reminded of something that many seem to have forgotten: the man gave us two of the finest sequels ever made. Whether continuing a series started by another film-maker (Aliens), or a story of his own (the Terminator films), Cameron managed to take hold of what made the first entries great and expand everything, adding more depth and thematic richness to characters and story years before he would try to do the same with visuals. This is why I’m excited for Avatar: once he has an established idea, Cameron is uniquely unafraid to take it to the absolute limit.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Cameron’s Aliens is better than Ridley Scott’s Alien, although it is a close one. The two films are about as different as any consecutive sequels that I can think of, so much so that the debate over which is superior is more or less redundant. What Cameron was able to do however was take the bones of Scott’s moody and pensive original and reanimate them as an action-packed juggernaut, and by seeing the potential in the Ellen Ripley character, develop her into the tough-as-nails heroine that we all remember. Some may see it as a controversial claim, but Cameron is unquestionably more responsible for the Ripley that audiences love than Scott.

In Alien, Ripley is an evolved version of the final girl trope seen in many horror films, certainly more independent and strong-willed than most, but still a narrative device as much as a fully fleshed-out character. With Aliens, Cameron maintained the strength and determination, yet introduced so much more. Ripley, emotionally wounded after learning her own daughter has grown to old-age and passed away during the 57 years she drifted in space, has a reason to fight beyond her own survival instinct, as Newt becomes a surrogate for the child she lost. While arguably a manipulative move, the introduction of a Newt upped the stakes from the basic haunted house structure of Scott’s original film, showing a powerful maternal side to Ripley’s character and adding much more weight than might be expected from an action-heavy film such as this.

Never claiming to be anything other than a populist film-maker, the director also deftly tapped into audience fears and sympathies, showing a rare understanding of his audience. At a time when multiplexes were filled with testosterone-fueled action fare (some of which Cameron himself had a hand in) and repetitive slasher movies, Aliens gave pumped-up, macho male audience members something to truly fear in the terrifying alien queen, a symbol of unrestrained feminine maternalism. If Ripley embodies the acceptable, culturally validated version of motherhood, the queen is a purely primal animal monstrosity, spawning wave after wave of enslaved offspring, all powerful and unencumbered by any semblance of patriarchal oppression. The significance of the final battle, in which the two poles of motherhood clash in brutal hand-to-hand fashion, allows Ripley to defeat the monstrous side of maternity, returning equilibrium for audiences yet still maintaining a potent feminist individualism. For Cameron and Sigourney Weaver to craft such a layered and unique character went against the Hollywood grain, and Ripley remains the film’s greatest asset, something we can thank Cameron for.

The Terminator, Cameron’s break-out picture, doesn’t really hold up as well as many people seem to think. Famously conceived following a nightmare involving a robot walking out of an inferno, the film works best when embracing its exploitation core, but gets bogged down about two-thirds of the way in, only to salvage a tense and memorable conclusion. This is clearly the work of a man who, confident in his idea, saw a chance to announce himself in a big way. Exploding out of the gate, Cameron moves the film at breakneck pace, so much so that the later, tender moments between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese don’t deliver the emotional hit they should, but grind the film to an unnecessary halt. However, the central conceit of a cyborg assassin sent back through time remains powerful, aided by the inspired casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the ground-breaking effects work of Stan Winston (a collaboration that would continue right up until Avatar).

If Aliens is Cameron’s motherhood film, then Terminator 2: Judgement Day is an interesting companion piece about fathers. Taking another early idea ripe with potential and expanding it, T2 saw the film-maker raise the bar on visual effects once again, with revolutionary use of CGI which to this day looks as good as or better than many modern blockbusters. The effects, excellent as they are, are essentially audience bait however, with the real rewards from the film coming from the story, most notably the relationship between John Connor and the terminator. John, having grown up in numerous foster homes and never experiencing the feeling of security a father can offer, latches on to the machine’s ceaseless protective nature, whilst taking on an oddly paternal role himself, teaching the T-800 the value of human compassion and empathy. Schwarzenegger excels in the role he was born to play, yet it is Cameron who masterfully interweaves the thoughtful and philosophical themes with the complex special effects. Allowing audiences to not only distance their feelings from the terrifying T-800 of The Terminator, but to cheer for, even cry over, the tragic story of a machine (over a decade before Pixar’s Wall-E did the same), is a Herculean task that Cameron pulled off with panache.

So where does Avatar fit into all of this? I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that once he has an established idea to work with, history would suggest that Cameron delivers his best. Alien and The Terminator introduced us to concepts and characters, allowing Cameron’s sequels to branch out beyond their predecessors’ comparatively limited scope. Even with Titanic he was working with a story audiences were already familiar with, and simply placed a highly relatable Romeo and Juliet story on top. With Avatar, for better or worse the story perhaps wasn’t the most important part of the film, which seems to be the biggest complaint.

I’ll agree that the narrative of Avatar isn’t the most original writing of Cameron’s career. We’ve seen the same type of story countless times, with some of the most common comparisons being to films like Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. Re-watching the film as I thought about writing this however led me to the belief that Cameron very deliberately gave us the most familiar story he could in order to ease the acceptance of the many other unfamiliar aspects of the film. Avatar‘s stunning technical achievements, most notably the huge volume of performance capture/CG character content coupled with the heavy promotion of 3-D, were for the majority of audiences unknown territory. Therefore, in order for audiences to be able to process the state-of-the-art visuals fully, the story unfortunately suffered. I’m not sure that this approach worked all that well in terms of artistic value (as I said earlier, the film didn’t really work for me), but it seems to me that this was the approach Cameron decided to take, and the massive success of the film is clear evidence that the man knows how to please a mainstream audience.

Think of Avatar as a hugely elaborate and expensive test reel. In 2009, 3-D and performance capture were still relatively new, at least in their current incarnations. In 2012, they are a much more common and widely accepted facet of blockbuster film-making. With the proposed Avatar sequels, Cameron doesn’t have to concern himself with how audiences will respond to the technological advancements he was largely responsible for introducing.

And (finally!), this is why I’m choosing to be hopeful about the future of this film series. Cameron’s track record with sequels is stellar, and now that the world of Avatar is established, not to mention the method of presentation, nothing would make me happier than to see him dive deep into the mythology of Pandora and the Na’vi, and show the world that he hasn’t lost his knack for creating thoughtful and thematically rich blockbuster entertainment. Will he do it? Obviously I’m in no position to say, but at this stage no-one else is either. All I’m saying is that the potential is there. Whatever your thoughts on the first film, it’s far too early to give up on Avatar

RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION 3-D

Until this point, for all intents and purposes I hadn’t seen any of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil films (I think I saw the first, but don’t remember it at all. Were there scary dogs in it?). Entering into a franchise at the fifth installment is probably not the best strategy, but so it was that I found myself sitting down for Resident Evil: Retribution, not entirely sure what to expect. I played a few of the games as a teenager, but again, nothing has really stuck with me. So, how does the movie fare with (essentially) a newcomer such as myself?

Not well. Not well at all.

Thankfully (or so I thought), Anderson opens the film with a lengthy sequence bringing viewers up to speed with the story so far, and surprisingly it seems that the Resident Evil film series has all but evolved past being about zombies. There are a few sequences involving the undead in Retribution, but the real antagonist here is a malevolent artificial intelligence, the Red Queen, who controls the central computer system of the nefarious Umbrella Corporation.

Early on the film is actually pretty fun, and shows potential. Our heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) finds herself in an Umbrella testing facility, where the Red Queen runs simulations to see how the company’s biological weapons affect various cities around the globe. Jovovich, perhaps the only thing holding this series together, fights her way through the Tokyo simulation, culminating in a highly entertaining hallway battle with a dozen zombies.

Unfortunately, it’s at this point that Anderson drops Alice into the real story, which I can only assume is continuing from the previous films, as I really didn’t understand or care what was happening. As a stand-alone film, Retribution simply doesn’t do enough for first-time viewers. What little structure the narrative has never really builds to anything, and it’s more or less one long gunfight with an inexplicable rescue mission mixed in. Aside from Jovovich, the acting is atrocious across the board, with particularly shoddy work from Sienna Guillory and Bingbing Li. The performances, and Anderson’s direction, are appropriately on par with that of a bad video game cut-scene, and get so bad at times that it almost seems intentional.

Resident Evil: Retribution is not a film for new audiences but for die-hard followers of the franchise, although it’s difficult to imagine even the most ardent fans finding much to enjoy here. Jovovich looks terrific and delivers the necessary butt-kicking, but that’s really all there is to enjoy. Judging by the conclusion, the inevitable sixth film is probably going to be the last, although so little happens in Retribution that Anderson perhaps should have skipped this story all together and moved on the finish Alice’s story sooner.

Side note: I’m no fan of 3-D, but surprisingly Anderson seems to be unafraid to have fun with the format. Although the film suffers from some of the worst light-loss (one of the biggest arguments against 3-D) I can remember, Anderson grabs the gimmick with both hands and is clearly having a blast throwing bullets, axes, and gallons of blood at the audience. The native 3-D (not post-converted) actually makes a difference, and if you must see this movie, then shelling out the extra couple of bucks might be worth it.

Sight and Sound Odyssey, pt. 2

OK, so the story here is I’m going to try and work my way through the BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine critics poll, conducted once a decade, in which they ask hundreds of film critics to submit their selections for the greatest films of all time. I’m limiting myself to the top 50, around half of which I have seen before, the rest I’ll (hopefully) be enjoying for the first time. A lot of these films are well known, and as such shouldn’t be too hard to track down, but some are potentially harder to acquire so getting through the list might take some time. As I work through the list (in no particular order), I’m going to write up some thoughts, most likely at five film intervals.

This is the second crop of five films, the first post can be found here.

SOME LIKE IT HOT (Wilder, 1959)

I don’t know what it is about Some Like It Hot (#43) that has never really grabbed me all that much. As much as I love Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, and certainly Marilyn Monroe, the film to me just isn’t the classic that most people seem to think, and doesn’t even come close to reaching the heights of Wilder and Lemmon’s other masterpiece, The Apartment.

As fascinated as I am with Marilyn, even she seems a little off for me in Some Like It Hot. When she’s on point she still lights up the screen, but much of her performance seems disinterested and is delivered without much of the energy she was capable of. I guess that, this being only three years before her death, her personal problems were already in play, and there are well-known stories about her becoming very difficult to manage during this portion of her career. That said, she absolutely comes alive during her final song, “Through With Love”, delivering one of those moments that reminds you why she is such an enduring icon, likely to never be matched. Perhaps the sadness of the song allowed her to tap into something more authentic from her own tragic life.

So Some Like It Hot is an enjoyable, madcap film with a touch of the dark undercurrent that showed up in so much of Wilder’s work, but for me it’s never going to be a classic. I personally would have liked to see The Apartment in the top 50, or certainly ahead of this film, but alas, it wasn’t to be.

TAXI DRIVER (Scorsese, 1976)

Martin Scorsese has a pretty miraculous track record. I haven’t yet seen everything he’s done, but I think the only film of his that I don’t really enjoy is Hugo, and even that is a film which I could probably watch again. Taxi Driver (#32) really does stand out though, not only as his most important work, but as the film that really defined him as one of the greatest filmmakers we have.

I always thought of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) as like the Terminator without a target. He prowls the filth of New York City by night in his taxi, endlessly scanning the wretched, neon-soaked environment, not so much searching as absorbing the world around him and letting his disgust and rage build. It’s such a stylish film, as Scorsese drenches the city with bold colours reflecting off the rainy streets, and with Bernard Herrman’s jazzy noir score setting an incredibly uneasy mood, there’s never any doubt that things are going to get ugly. De Niro is electrifying, building his character to it’s inevitable, yet still somewhat surprising conclusion.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Kubrick, 1968)

Hmm, I’m not exactly sure what I can write about 2001: A Space Odyssey (#6). I love it and can see its importance not only to science fiction, but cinema in general. But more than anything else, I’m kind of in awe of it. I don’t pretend to understand the ending (the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence), but I’ve been told that the sequel

2010: The Year We Make Contact might shed some light on what it means. Yet, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want the ending explained to me, so I’m yet to decide whether I’ll watch 2010 or not.

2001 is a film that took me several viewings to unpack and enjoy. I can see some of what Kubrick was getting at; the dangers of technological reliance, the human need to explore and conquer, but every time any theories I might have come completely unspooled in the last 20 minutes.

And that’s what I love about 2001 more than anything else. I want to try and figure it out. I enjoy tying my brain up in knots thinking about the white room and the space baby. I’m sure I’ll never form any solid conclusions, but it doesn’t matter to me. A film that still poses questions after a dozen viewings is such a rarity that, rather than frustrating me, which I know it does some, it just makes me more involved. It’s not my favourite Kubrick film, but I completely understand why it’s the one film on this list from arguably the greatest filmmaker of all time.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE (Lynch, 2001)

Looking back over the films I’ve watched so far over the course of this project, I already mentioned that there seems to be a theme of uniqueness amongst the top 50. What’s becoming clear, in terms of my personal reactions, is I tend to be most involved with and affected by films that I don’t altogether understand. Certainly that’s the case with Mulholland Drive (#28), probably my favourite of the bunch thus far.

In truth, having seen Mulholland Drive several times previously, I think that I do have a pretty decent understanding of David Lynch’s dark, surreal masterpiece, although what someone sees in it is probably very different from person to person. The film veers from absurd to terrifying better than any I’ve ever seen, and Lynch, never one for audience hand-holding, keeps you scratching your head right through his bleak tale, the rotten heart of the American dream. Critiques of Hollywood don’t come more savage than this. Naomi Watts throws everything she has at a difficult character, by turns adorable, naive, and pitiable, and is supported by a ravishing Laura Harring as the epitome of Hollywood glamour, the ambitious film director Justin Theroux, and the usual assortment of Lynchian oddballs.

Mulholland Drive really requires at least three or four viewings to decipher, yet (for me at least) it’s brilliance grows each time. It’s not pleasant, but for those who haven’t yet experienced it, or dismissed it as too offbeat after a single watch, it’s absolutely a must-see.

THE 400 BLOWS (Truffaut, 1959)

Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (#39) is the second film of the list I hadn’t previously seen, and, as I kind of expected, I wasn’t all that crazy about it. I’ve watched several French New Wave pictures over the years, and for whatever reason it’s just not a movement I really connect with. The only example I can remember enjoying is Godard’s Jules et Jim (which I actually really love).

The 400 Blows is at times charming and funny, but really it’s a pretty grim story of how a young boy’s life is affected by his disinterested, self-involved parents. The film feels very personal, and I was wondering how much of Truffaut’s own childhood was in play when he was conceiving the story, although I know nothing about his personal life. It hinges on a remarkable lead performance from Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine, and he’s so natural and truthful that you simply believe in what he’s experiencing. Several moments in the film reminded me of other films released decades after this, so I guess I can see its influence and importance, but really what I’ve seen of the French New Wave just doesn’t do it for me. 

OK, so after 10 films, I’m maybe beginning to see a few patterns emerging. Hopefully sometime in the next week I’ll get through 5 more and will have another post up.