Film #32: Clueless (1995)

film 32 clueless

Rating: 4/5

“Okay, so you’re probably going, ‘Is this like a Noxzema commercial or what?’ But seriously, I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl.”

It’s hard to remain objective about Clueless. I can’t think of a single slumber party of my youth that didn’t include this (or The Craft, though usually both); I first watched it when I was ten, didn’t understand half of the language or references, and developed an early crush on Paul Rudd that has continued to this day. Along with Zoolander, it’s easily the most quotable movie I know. Safe to say, I consider it a modern classic.

Loosely based on Jane Austin’s novel Emma, Clueless is the ultimate chick flick. Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is a fifteen (almost sixteen) year old living a charmed existence in Bel Air; her father’s an angry, high-flying lawyer, her mother died in a freak accident during liposuction. Cher passes her time shopping, socialising, and manipulating the people around her, but she’s not a nasty person – she’ll blag and beg and bat her eyelashes at teachers in an attempt to improve her grades, but it’s never out of spite or malice. It’s surely this fact that keeps our sympathy: as perfectly blonde, rich and popular as she is, she means well. She’s a likeable character, so it’s possible to watch her root through her incredible revolving, colour-coordinated, gigantic closet full of clothes and have only the slightest pang of jealousy. The fact is, although she seems self-assured and fully capable of recognising other peoples’ naivety, she is utterly clueless, and it’s endearing rather than annoying.

It’s strange watching Clueless now, with its huge mobile phones, flash convertibles, and micro-mini skirted ensembles, because everything looks so dated (and, it’s only fitting that the film was watched on good, old fashioned VHS). The boys have floppy hair, Cher’s pen has a fluffy bobble on top, and Ren and Stimpy ruled television. In fact, the only thing in the film that hasn’t aged is Paul Rudd who, almost twenty years later, looks almost identical. But it’s a nostalgic delight – even for those of us who never enjoyed such luxuries as a Bel Air lifestyle. Like Cher, the film seems to be firmly situated in its own little microcosm. Are there really schools like hers, where fifteen year old girls compare nose jobs and the rich, pampered, spoiled brats ignore their teachers and learn nothing? Well, to be honest, maybe. But while the reality sounds more depressing than appealing, Cher’s life is inviting. It’s ludicrous – the clothes alone are a thing to behold – but it does look like fun. Hollow, but fun.

What makes Clueless so good – genuinely good, not guilty-pleasure good – is that it is actually rather clever. It’s got a great 90’s soundtrack and a razor-sharp script, filled with quick wit and humour. Writer-director Amy Heckerling’s dialogue is filled with pop-culture references, so much so that it becomes almost a language of its own, with its Betties (pretty girls), Barneys (ugly boys) and Baldwins (eligible men). Its cast, including Breckin Meyer (Rat Race, lots of stuff with Seth Green), the late Brittany Murphy (8 Mile), Donald Faison (Scrubs), and Wallace Shawn (the voice of Rex from Toy Story), are all a delight, while Silverstone is the perfect combination of wide-eyed innocence and precociousness. Without a strong performance from its lead, Clueless could flounder, but she excels in the role; her voice-over musings are catchy and hilariously empty-headed, but she is sympathetic throughout. Her complete lack of awareness of the havoc she’s wreaking around her, from her disastrous driving lesson (in which her most “responsible ensemble” consists of micro-mini, see-through shirt, and platform shoes) to her constant meddling with other people’s romantic lives, is thoroughly entertaining to watch, especially when we are safe in the knowledge that, this being a chick flick, she will learn a valuable life lesson and find romance for herself just in time for a happy conclusion.

I wonder, do teenagers still watch Clueless at slumber parties today? Perhaps it is no longer truly appreciated by these new generations, who look at Bella Swan as being aspirational (and I say that as a Twilight fan). Cher may be “totally clueless” in many respects, but she’s actually a rather strong character – she won’t submit to peer pressure, she looks after her father, she’s saving her precious virginity for someone worthwhile and, despite her misguided belief that the survivors of the Pismo Beach disaster need caviar and skiing equipment, she means well. She wants to be more than an air-headed shopper – quite a respectable ambition, considering the hoards of desperate females parading themselves on reality television, being praised for their ignorance and sluttiness. But, I digress. Because really, Clueless is great because it’s so much fun. It’s constantly entertaining and endlessly quotable; silly, but not too silly, clever, but not too clever. And, let’s not forget, its adaptation style paved the way for the likes of Ten Things I Hate About You. Now, I’m off to the mall.

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Film 31: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)

film 31 whats eating gilbert grape

Rating: 4/5

“We don’t really move. I mean, we’d like to, but… my mom is sort of attached to the house. Attached is, I guess, not the right word. She’s pretty much wedged in.”

It’s easy to forget, given his current preference for Tim Burton caricatures and eccentric pirate roles, that Johnny Depp can do more than act quirky. While he is undoubtedly enjoying his career – he’s said he’d be happy to play Jack Sparrow forever – it’s all becoming rather formulaic, and it’s such a shame. What was once unique and impressive is now unremarkable and, with upcoming film The Lone Ranger and a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film in the pipeline, it’s all getting rather tedious. Quite frankly, it’s hard to watch What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? without at least a twinge of regret as to the progression of Depp’s acting career. As the title character, there’s not even the slightest hint of exaggeration; this is a nuanced, subtle performance, and remains one of his finest to date. It’s important to make that clear, because it could easily be forgotten when compared with that of Leonardo DiCaprio’s who, as Gilbert’s younger brother Arnie, utterly steals the show.

Before Romeo + Juliet and Titanic propelled DiCaprio into superstardom, he gained his first Oscar nomination for this role. The fact that he lost out to Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive) remains one of the worst decisions ever made by the Academy: his portrayal of a mentally handicapped teen is so entirely convincing that many people didn’t realise it was a performance. He is superb as Arnie, whose tics and twitches, shrieks and whoops never feel forced or over-emphasised. He is insufferable but harmless, infuriating and sympathetic, and every scene in which Depp and DiCaprio appear together (and there are many) is a joy to watch.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? starts and ends with a road stretching far into the horizon. It’s the entrance and exit to Endora, a dusty fictional town in America where Gilbert and his family live. Despite the vast open spaces and expansive sky, Gilbert is trapped in this sleepy hamlet, weighed down by his family responsibilities. He works at a local grocery store, which is slowly being put out of business by a new chain supermarket on the outskirts of town. He sleeps with an older, married woman. He cares for Arnie, and he lets curious children get a peek at his morbidly obese, housebound mother as a way of venting his own shame and frustration. Nothing ever changes and his life, and its accompanying burdens, seems inescapable because, crucially, Gilbert is a good person. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s the essence of the character. He can’t walk away, no matter how much he desperately wants to, because he loves his family, and they need him.

Gilbert’s mundane existence is suddenly challenged by the arrival of Becky (Juliette Lewis) and her grandmother, whose mobile home unexpectedly breaks down as they are passing through Endora. In Becky, Gilbert sees opportunity – she represents the rest of the world to him, with her free-thinking, worldly attitude and nomadic lifestyle. She’s the closest thing in the film to a cliché, but perhaps it’s necessary; her soulful philosophising and non-judgemental attitude may make her a bit saccharine, but she has to stand in contrast to the pleasant inertia of Endora and the unambitious contentment of the people in it. Gradually, Gilbert begins to acknowledge – if only to himself – that the road passing through his town could lead him out of it.

Based on a novel by Peter Heges, this is a delicate, understated, simple film filled with extraordinary performances. John C Reilly and Crispin Glover, in supporting roles as Gilbert’s likeable friends, are solid as always but, with the exception of the then unknown DiCaprio, the film’s biggest surprise is Darlene Cates as Momma. Discovered by Heges after an appearance on US talk show Sally Jessy Raphael, her weight and the real self-imposed imprisonment in her home, not to mention the ridicule and mockery she has been subjected to, are mirrored in the film. To describe Momma as a performance seems inaccurate: she embodies the role and all its complexities, presenting herself to the world and doing so with an admirable sense of self-awareness and dignity.

There are no villains in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?; instead, the film is filled with a deep sense of humanity. The characters, their motivations, and the decisions they make, are all entirely believable and, while its plot could potentially veer into the melodramatic, Heges’ screenplay demonstrates a lightness of touch and some perfectly judged moments of humour. There is a simple beauty in the film also, as director Lasse Hallström brings Endora to life with cinematic shots of the impassive landscape and the huge skies above it. It’s a wonderful glimpse into small town American life that feels natural, delivered with sincerity and kindness.

Film #30: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

film 30 twelve monkeys
Rating: 4/5

“Wiping out the human race? That’s a great idea. That’s great. But more of a long-term thing. I mean, first we have to focus on more immediate goals.”

My recent (and brief) examination of time travel movies ends with Twelve Monkeys, based on a short film called La Jetée. In both, scientists are trying to ensure the survival of the human race following a deadly, global virus. Exploiting time travel so that they may learn more about the pandemic, they send a man, plagued by a recurring dream set in an airport terminal, back in the hopes of discovering the source of the disease. Inevitably, the man’s involvement in, and interference with, the past directly affects the future (his present).

Directed by Terry Gilliam, whose surreal, playful animated segments in Monty Python’s Flying Circus offer an early indication as to his creativity, Twelve Monkeys is perhaps the least obviously Gilliamesque production. It lacks the visual flair and psychadelica of his other films, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, although there are moments. In the future (present), the scientists are updated versions of the classic mad variety, and there’s a distinctive steampunk aesthetic. It’s a grim place, however; the time travelling “volunteers” are caged and dressed in tattered, colourless clothes, while the scientists spout callous gibberish and gawp at their latest victim from a giant ball of television monitors. As with so many time travelling films, the future is not a place of peace and harmony – it’s miserable, harsh, and rather hopeless.

What is most interesting with regards to the specifics of the time travel in Twelve Monkeys is the misguided ideology of the scientists of the future. Like their latest volunteer, James Cole (Bruce Willis), they do not believe they can change the past. James has returned not to alter what has already happened, but to learn about events so that they can try to rebuild society in the future. It’s a pessimistic opinion, and it’s also an unsympathetic one – James’ mission is one of salvage, not rescue. What neither he nor the scientists have considered is the affect his presence will have on the past; they think of themselves as outsiders, observers, not as part of the past as it happens. It’s this fallibility that makes the film so interesting – these people are flawed, their theories are problematic. Even in the future, humanity appears to have learned so little.

As James, Bruce Willis reprises a now-familiar role and, while there is little to fault, it represents little departure from his repertoire and his charisma pales into insignificance when sharing the screen with Jeffrey (Brad Pitt). Nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award at the Oscars, Pitt’s performance is a tightly-wound ball of barely contained lunacy – he’s a twitching, erratic psychopath and the perfect foil for Willis’ more understated, taciturn James. When the two meet in an asylum following James’ return to the wrong time (implying once again the inadequacies and unreliability of the all-powerful scientists), Jeffrey provides a much needed injection of crazy into the film. He’s a carefully constructed character – obviously deranged but oddly insightful at the same time, a pathological nutjob whose ramblings provide a modicum of truth. Of the three leads – the other two being James and his psychiatrist and love interest Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe) – Jeffrey is by far the most dynamic, personable, and unpredictable. If the film is to be faulted, it’s due to the inclusion of Railly; Stowe gives a sincere and adequate performance, but her character’s relationship with James (her patient) develops in a rather ham-handed and cliched manner.

There’s much to praise about Twelve Monkeys. Throughout the film, there is a bleakness and a sense of inevitability that doesn’t quite fit with the scientists’ theories – they believe they cannot change the past, but that doesn’t mean it is not affected by their interference. Canny viewers will no doubt be unsurprised by James’ fate, which is well done though hardly innovative (although it may have been some twenty years ago when the film was first released), but really he is just one small part of a situation that offers plenty in the way of twists and turns. Delivered with a healthy dose of irony, the past, present and future collide in both expected and unexpected ways, resulting in a film that is fully deserving of its respected status today.

Film #29: Looper (2012)

film 29 looper

Rating: 4.5/5

“Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been.”

Perhaps you have noticed that this is the third film in a row in which time travel plays a large role, and I must admit it’s not a coincidence. This week Movie Lottery has been temporarily abandoned due to another project and, as a result, my brain has been well and truly fried. Time travel is a complicated business with a long and varied history in cinema; Looper is the most recent film to attempt to unravel the confusion that goes hand in hand with travelling through the fourth dimension and, while its inspirations are obvious, it stands out as an intelligent thriller and a welcome addition to the genre.

In 2077, time travel is invented and immediately outlawed. Because of the difficulty in disposing bodies in this time, criminal gangs exploit the illegal technology for their own benefit, sending their marks back to 2044 where young men known as “loopers” promptly dispatch them. They do so in exchange for bars of silver, knowing that one day their target will be their future self. This auto-homicide/suicide is known as “closing the loop.” Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one such assassin, whose present existence is threatened by the arrival of his future self (Bruce Willis), who arrives unbound and unmasked, and manages to escape.

Time travel is always going to be problematic, and thinking logically about the theoretical, paradoxical nature of it inevitably reveals inconsistencies and problems. Writer-director Rian Johnson wisely does not go into specifics: as Old Joe says to his younger counterpart, “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” The question then becomes whether the time travel is consistent within its own logic and, for the most part, Looper is successful. Of course there is room for debate, and there are plenty of online forums still engaged in complicated discussions, but Johnson instead concentrates on the direct physical and psychological impact of the travel, and it’s here the film is most interesting.

While it would be easy to discuss, in great detail, the complexities of Looper, it would simply take too long. Suffice to say now, Old Joe’s arrival in Joe’s present raises a number of fascinating points. Old Joe is Joe, but with the benefit of hindsight, while Joe cannot accept that Old Joe is his future. “It happened to you,” he says to Old Joe. “It doesn’t have to happen to me.” Yet both mind and body are inextricably linked, as demonstrated earlier in the film through the demise of Joe’s friend and colleague Seth. Having also letting his future self escape, the brutal, horrific consequences are dire for them both. It’s one of the most uncomfortable, harrowing scenes in the film; so little is actually shown, but Seth’s systematic dismemberment and its direct affect to Old Seth is both gruesome and unsettling. What is not immediately obvious, though no less disturbing, is the mental alterations accompanying the physical, as thirty years of Old Seth’s memories are rewritten.

Visually, Looper is a triumph – like Serenity (2005), the future is still recognisable; towering, gravity-defying skyscrapers and hover-cycles share space with old buildings and rusty cars. It’s a dystopian, cynical view of the world, shared by so many other films of this sort, from Twelve Monkeys and The Terminator (both obvious influences), to the likes of Idiocracy. Humanity’s future is bleak, apparently. Yet standing in direct contrast to the harsh, violent city is a rustic, old-fashioned farmhouse, the home of Sara (Emily Blunt) and her ten-year old son Cid, and it is here that both Joes’ paths converge. After the action, violence and complicated time travel theory of the first half of the film, Looper changes pace and direction midway – a fact the marketing chose to conceal. It’s less of a twist than an unexpected turn, in which the science-fiction of time travel is side-lined, with telekinesis, a “mutation” that was previously mentioned but dismissed as a mere parlour trick, becoming central. This decision adds a new layer of intrigue onto Looper, and brings to mind the excellent Scanners; one death in Johnson’s film plays out like a macabre, slow-motion re-imagining of Cronenberg’s iconic head shot.

Having previously worked with Johnson on Brick (2005), Gordon-Levitt continues to impress, the film’s biggest point of contention is not the philosophy of time travel, but of a prosthetic nose. Attempting to make the two Joes resemble each other, the onus is placed entirely on the younger actor – Willis’ appearance is unchanged, and his performance essentially a repeat of so many he has done before, but Gordon-Levitt is almost unrecognisable. Whether such drastic alterations are really necessary is debatable (the two Seths look nothing alike, but this in no way diminishes the horror of their shared destruction), but after the initial distraction, the strength of Gordon-Levitt’s performance is such that his nose and brow can be overlooked.

In recent years there have been a number of stand-out science fiction films, proving that even an existing concept can be re-interpreted in new and interesting ways. Looper stands firmly among them; Johnson has taken a well worn idea and created something that is intelligent without being overly pretentious and, equally importantly, consistently entertaining.

Film #28: Donnie Darko (2001)

film 28 donnie darko

Rating: 5/5

“Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

I was first made aware of Richard Kelly’s début when I happened upon a review in an Irish newspaper that described Donnie’s imaginary rabbit friend Frank as the “evil bastard brother of Harvey.” I wish I could attribute the quote to someone, but it’s been too many years. However, it was an evocative phrase that immediately captured my attention and curiosity; as someone who had adored Harvey from an early age, I simply had to see Donnie Darko, just to see precisely how similar, and how twisted, this new giant bunny really was.

While Kelly’s film is actually nothing like Harvey and, in truth, Frank shares little in common with Jimmy Stewart’s pooka friend (he’s not even an actual rabbit, but someone in a rabbit costume), I’ve never managed to get that comparison out of my head. Frank is a companion to troubled teen Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), but he’s hardly the amiable trickster that Harvey is; instead, he acts as Donnie’s guide, instructing the emotionally disturbed young man to destroy school property and commit arson. It’s all in preparation for the end of the world, set to occur on Halloween, 1988.

Donnie Darko is unapologetically pretentious, and reeks of film student; its fancy camera techniques set to a post-punk, new romantic soundtrack, its plot filled with complicated concepts concealing a surprisingly simple idea, and its dialogue featuring pseudo-intellectual philosophical debates that culminate with such profound statements as “what’s the point in living, if you don’t have a dick?” Yet it captured the imagination of a niche audience, an audience who embraced all its carefully constructed quirks. Much like Pulp Fiction provided college students with an arthouse film that they could relate to and claim as their own, Donnie Darko gave teenagers their own slice of weirdness. They could appreciate a character like Donnie, with his superhero name and his existential intelligence, his sense of desperate isolation and his fears for the future tapping into an entire generation’s similar angst. And, perhaps even more, Kelly’s film truly felt like it was made for this audience but, unlike the countless brainless blockbusters traditionally pitched at them, this was smart, and it wasn’t forced upon them. It didn’t provide all the answers, it encouraged personal analysis, it invited theories and discussions.

Kelly, however, has since destroyed at least part of his credibility by doing two things. His second film, Southland Tales, was riddled with problems from the very beginning and proved to be just too weird for most people (although, as I have said in a previous review, and no doubt will repeat again, I stand resolutely in the small camp of those who loved its sheer lunacy). While his reputation was redeemed slightly by The Box, based on a short story by Richard Matheson, even this did little to convince cynics that he was more than a one-hit wonder. These films may have damaged Kelly’s reputation somewhat, but it was his decision to release a director’s cut of Donnie Darko that did specific harm to his much loved début. Quite simply, the extra scenes provided too many answers, solved too many puzzles; suddenly, it was no longer clear whether Kelly’s creative vision was the result of deliberate decisions, or luck.

That said, Donnie Darko remains a triumph. It’s beautifully shot, with a haunting, dreamlike quality throughout. Although the relationship between the soundtrack and the film, in both this and Southland Tales, has been criticised for being too much like a series of music videos, here it works perfectly, while the delicate, simple original score captures the eerie sense of unease subtly and effectively. This haunted quality is personified in Donnie himself, played with wry humour and tightly-wound intensity by Gyllenhaal. His character is complex and damaged, but he is always sympathetic; he acts as the audience hopes he will, berating the adults who worship cheesy self-help gurus and pointing out the idiocy of their deluded importance. He is surrounded by a superb ensemble, including Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, the late Patrick Swayze, and Beth Grant, who chews the scenery with aplomb as the melodramatic, opinionated Kitty Farmer.

While my initial fascination with Kelly’s film was closely linked with my overall confusion and resulting need to understand what I had watched, repeat viewings continue to provide new areas of interest. The initial scene in the school, for example, a long, unbroken tracking shot flitting from one character to the next, set to Tears for Fears’ Head Over Heels, not only systematically introduces the individuals in the story, but explicitly reveals the interconnectivity of each one to the other. Although Donnie fears he is alone in the world, Kelly shows how everyone’s lives are irrevocably linked; one action leads to another, and the apocalypse (if that’s really what it is) cannot happen without everyone playing their role.

Now, I am no longer a teenager, but I still feel some kind of ownership of Donnie Darko. For this reason, I suppose, Kelly’s film is a true cult classic. Yet it is a modern classic too – a film that defies definition, that combines Lynchian suburbia with science fiction, melodrama with horror, psychology with theology and, most importantly, creates something new that begs for repeated viewings and remains as fascinating and involving on the tenth view as it was on the first.

Film #27: The Time Machine (1960)

film 27 the time machine

Rating: 4/5

“If that machine can do what you say it can do, destroy it, George! Destroy it before it destroys you!”

In 1985 H G Wells penned The Time Machine, in which an unnamed man recounts his extraordinary journey through the fourth dimension. It’s been widely acknowledged as popularising the idea of a vehicle that enables time travel, and has inspired countless works since its first publication. Whether it’s the Delorean in Back to the Future, the jacuzzi in Hot Tub Time Machine, or the contraption in Looper, it can all be traced back to Wells’ initial concept.

It’s perhaps surprising then that there have only been two direct adaptations of The Time Machine. George Pal’s original 1960 version remains largely faithful to its source material, while the already forgotten 2002 film, starring Guy Pearce, took a number of creative liberties. Pal’s film, however, more than holds its own among the other science-fiction films of the time, and deservedly so. Taking advantage of the ongoing social concerns that had made sci-fi so popular in the 1950s – a general distrust of scientific advancement, a fear of nuclear annihilation and the underlying worry that humanity would bring about its own inevitable demise through its curiosity and arrogance – The Time Machine has been slightly updated and provided a slightly more optimistic conclusion (for its protagonist at least, though not necessarily for humanity as a whole), but it indicates just how relevant Wells’ novel was, some seventy years after it was written.

Rod Taylor is George, a Victorian inventor who is proud to inform his friends – also scientists, or men of learning, at least – that he has discovered how to travel through the fourth dimension. Their reactions are varied, ranging from incredulous, to confused, to concerned. Even his evidence – a tiny, scaled model of the larger vehicle he has hidden in his workshop – is met with distrust; its disappearance, as one of his colleagues states, could easily be a magician’s trick. Yet George is consumed with the need to test his theory. Going into the past is not of interest to him: he wants to see the future.

There is an underlying idea that, by travelling into the future, George will see the advancement of humanity, but his enthusiasm is dashed when he stops first in 1917, then in 1940. Pausing again in 1966, he witnesses the destruction of London following a nuclear air strike that causes a volcanic eruption – the miniature sets and stop motion sequences may be dated now, but they present a terrifying and horrible event in a disturbingly tangible way. Having now witnessed what is likely a global catastrophe, George continues on his journey, travelling millennia until he arrives in the year 802701 when, hopefully, humanity will have moved beyond war to a more civilised state. In this time, he encounters the peaceful, innocent Eloi and the crude, monstrous Morlocks, and realises once again that the future of man is not necessarily the enlightened, utopian vision he had.

There are plenty of points of contention in The Time Machine, and dissecting its narrative raises a number of problems, but these pale in comparison to its overall sense of intelligence and cynicism. Both Wells’ original novel and Pal’s film present their vision of the future less as a success story, and more as a warning: follow the path we are on, and face inevitable destruction – not just of the planet, but of the ideals we hold dear. While the extreme future is visually an Eden-like environment, its inhabitants represent the most undesirable aspects of humanity. The Morlocks, cannibalistic cave dwellers, are no better than animals; lacking language as well as even the most basic of elements (fire), with disfigured, inhuman features, they retain nothing except the brutality and selfishness of a once intelligent race. In contrast, the Eloi seem to enjoy a utopian lifestyle, but they are blank – devoid of culture, not only uneducated but unaware of the very concept, they represent the apathy and ennui of the bored and uncivilised. George’s anger and frustration at discovering the two extreme and contrasting paths of human evolution feels real not just because his expectations have been dashed to smithereens, but because the idea taps into an all-too-real disillusionment with people; as history has indicated, we are more than capable of bringing about our own destruction.

As with the best science-fiction films, The Time Machine taps into topical social anxiety that remains as relevant today as ever before. Of course, its once Oscar-winning special effects are no longer cutting edge, and it feels particularly kitsch when George arrives at his final futuristic destination – the painted backdrops and psychedelic flora place it squarely alongside the likes of Star Trek: The Original Series. Yet, like Star Trek, its visual constraints, as a result of both budgetary and technological limitations, do not detract from the insight and intelligence within its narrative. The Time Machine is a thought-provoking film rooted in humanity, representing both its greatest success – the thirst for knowledge, the dogged determination to survive, the sense of compassion and community that defines and distinguishes the race – and the potentially apocalyptic damage curiosity can cause.

Cinema Lottery #7

cinema 7 epic

Just two films this time around, because this was a special extra press day. The quality of the pictures suggest, however, that the bleak months post-Oscars and pre-summer are finally drawing to a close.

Epic 3D
Release date: 22 May 2013
Rating: 3.5/5

While Pixar continues to dominate in terms of computer animation, Epic is perhaps the studio’s most worthy competitor to date. Part Fern Gully, part The Borrowers, the latest film from Blue Sky Studios – the company behind the Ice Age franchise – is by far their most accomplished work in terms of visuals. Its plot is simple, and it is rather formulaic in some of its designs – the “good” forest folk working alongside adorable hummingbirds and their villainous foes aligned with reptiles, bats, and rodents, for example – but it is a children’s film, and the contrast between the opposing groups is instantly recognisable and beautifully designed.

Set against the lush, green forest and the contrasting dank, desolate wasteland favoured by the rot-loving baddies, led by sinister Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), there are some heady action sequences – the aerial battles in particular are a triumph, and work well in 3D. As someone who is largely unimpressed with this gimmick, it is used well here and, much like in Toy Story 3, effectively captures a sense of scale between the tiny forest folk (and the formerly human-sized MK, voiced by Amanda Siefried) and their surroundings.

There are moments in which Epic falters – a jazzy, smooth talking caterpillar’s Vegas-style concert in particular feels out of place, in part at least because it is the sole venture into musical – but its general narrative is a sweet one: by discovering the forest folk, MK can not only save the forest, but rekindle her relationship with her father, and even make some friends in the process. It should also be praised for managing to make some comedy sidekicks (a slug and a snail) likeable instead of irritating. It might not steal the crown from Pixar with regards to either visual or narrative creativity, but perhaps it’s a tentative step in that direction.

The Great Gatsby
Release date: 16 May 2013
Rating: 3/5

The Great Gatsby is precisely what one expects from Baz Luhrmann – a fantastical, idealised imagining of a city at the height of its debauchery, filled with bright lights, quick cuts, sequins and parties, with a tale of star-crossed lovers at its heart. It fits perfectly alongside Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, combining the literary inspirations of the former with the glitz and pizazz of the latter, resulting in a film that is instantly recognisable as a Lurhmann creation – familiar, but accomplished.

Tobey Maguire is Nick Carraway, a would-be author and aspiring Wall Street broker whose life is irrevocably altered through his encounter with Gatsby, his enigmatic millionaire neighbour. Now a depressed alcoholic, Carraway is advised by his therapist to write about his experiences and, through flashback, the decadent, party-filled extravaganza that is Gatsby’s life unfolds. Carraway acts as narrator and as Gatsby’s enabler, but he is little more than this. As the title suggests, this is about the apparent playboy, whose past is constructed through a series of lies, and whose outwardly unflappable nature conceals a conflicted, troubled soul. Leonardo DiCaprio, whose impressive talents and boyish beauty made him an instant star in Romeo + Juliet, brings a complexity to Gatsby; having moved away from romantic leads, this is the closest he has come to his early roles for many years, and he brings an intensity to the character that perfectly balances his charm. Despite the film’s overt decadence and showy nature, both DiCaprio and his amour Daisy (Carey Mulligan) deliver nuanced, often subtle performances, adding a much needed depth to what could easily be a superficial film about superficial people.

Just as the Paris of Moulin Rouge was chaotic, highly stylised, and romanticised, so too is the New York of Gatsby’s world. The 1920’s are a riot of jazz and flapper girls, fireworks, booze, and flash cars, but it’s less an accurate portrayal, and more an outrageous re-imagining – the soulful notes of a saxaphone mingle with modern hiphop, while Gatsby’s canary yellow Rolls Royce is a glossy hotrod. It’s all shiny and luscious, capturing the hedonistic lifestyle of the wealthy, bored elite in a way that is now expected of the director. It is, however, too long, and while the 3D is particularly effective in early party scenes, becomes irrelevant as the film progresses, when the narrative turns its attentions to its primary focus – sheer, unapologetic, tragic romance.