Cinema Lottery #9

cinema 9 only god forgives

Only God Forgives
Release date: 2 August 2013
Rating: 4.5/5

It’s interesting that, since Drive, there have been two Ryan Gosling films that were initially dismissed as Drive Part 2, yet both, despite their marketing, emerged as entirely different films. The Place Beyond the Pines, released earlier this year, was the first and more tenuously connected; Only God Forgives is the second. Of the two, it is the latter that is truly divisive. Audiences walked out en masse in Cannes, its level of violence and lack of characterisation has been met with claims of vapid pretentiousness – a case of style over substance, perhaps. And it’s true that director Nicholas Winding Refn, along with cinematographer Larry Smith, have chosen to concentrate on style but, really, is there anything wrong with that?

Curiously, despite the apparent superficiality, other reviews have adopted an entirely different approach to Only God Forgives’ simple plot (so simple and sparse, in fact, that to go into any more detail than to say it’s a classic revenge story would be to spoil it). Empire claims the entire narrative is like a fevered dream, with Vithaya Pansringarm as an Angel of Vengeance, a supernatural being “summoned from Julian’s subconscious.” Perhaps he is; passages of the film are undeniably dreamlike – even hallucinatory. Julian (Gosling) emerges as a passive observer, only capable of action in his imagination, whether it’s finally touching his prostitute girlfriend or committing acts of violence. He’s barely a person at all, and Gosling barely acts, although there remains something captivating about his blank visage. He is tortured, tormented, and plenty could be (and no doubt will be) written about his Oedipus complex; he’s also a less-than-subtle, though undoubtedly effective, example of a man desperately trying to prove (validate?) his masculinity – just consider that awkward lunch date with his girlfriend and his icy, profane bitch of a mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Yet how much of it is a dream remains up for debate: Pansringarm’s Chang is, for me, less a supernatural being than a man with strict beliefs about revenge, retaliation, and retribution – he’s the embodiment of the concept of an eye for an eye (and, in one particularly harrowing scene, that eye is literal).

As is to be expected, visually Only God Forgives is a thing of morbid beauty. Bangkok is displayed like a neo-noir, the seediness and sleaziness of the city reflected in neon lighting, sumptuously ornate patterns, and deep reds contrasting with the blackest of shadows. It’s haunting and mesmerising – every scene, and every moment within every scene feels deliberate and controlled. The imagery works perfectly with Cliff Martinez’ pulsating score, which often dominates the soundtrack, adding to the dreaminess of scenes by silencing the film’s limited dialogue. It is alternately eerie, soothing, exciting, or unpleasantly loud; in an entirely stylised world, the relationship between the visuals and the score is more important than words uttered by the characters.

No doubt there will be some that hate Only God Forgives, that wanted (and simultaneously didn’t want) Drive Part 2. This is not that film. Winding Refn has created a piece of abstract art; uncompromising, brutal, limited in characterisation and lush in visual style. It’s slow – so slow, in fact, that scenes look more like tableaux than moving images – and narratively sparse, but for those willing to give it a chance, it’s a rare spectacle, both beautiful and horrific in equal measures.

Red 2
Release date: 2 August 2013
Rating: 2.5/5

Much like its predecessor, Red 2 is entertaining but strangely forgettable; with the exception of Helen Mirren’s ex-MI6 agent Victoria, there is almost nothing memorable about it. Following directly from Red, this film sees Bruce Willis’ now-retired CIA agent embracing domesticity, much to the disappointment of his younger girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) but, inevitably, he’s forced to resume his former life in an attempt to clear his name and stop a deadly bomb. Brian Cox (in a small cameo), Catherine Zeta Jones, and Anthony Hopkins join the core cast and they, along with John Malkovich and Mirren (who even lampoons herself, infiltrating a mental institute by claiming she’s the queen), do appear to be having lots of fun, but it’s all rather messy and convoluted. Most problematically, Willis and Parker are the least interesting or engaging characters – Willis appears to barely even be trying any more, relying instead on his now trademark wry smile and deadpan expressions to carry his performance.

Filled with bloodless action and fairly standard intrigue, Red 2 acknowledges its graphic novel origins – there are car chases, daft set pieces, the occasional comic book insert and, despite the potential genocide, a constant lack of real tension or danger. As the action flits from Paris, to London, to Moscow, its quick pace and sometimes frantic editing are a distraction from the cluttered narrative, but it never becomes anything more than mediocre.

The Smurfs 2
Release date: 31 July 2013
Rating: 1/5

There’s little to enjoy or appreciate about The Smurfs 2, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone older than five even wanting to see this dire, juvenile piece of tripe. Its generic narrative, in which evil wizard Gargamel (buck-toothed, hunchbacked, big-nosed Hank Azaria) is still trying to destroy the peaceful Smurfs, is terrible and, despite its simplicity, is given a whopping 105 minutes to reach its inevitable conclusion; after twenty minutes I remembered this is supposed to be a comedy (albeit on the level of bad spoofs and fart jokes); after an hour I started to nod off out of sheer boredom.

The Smurfs themselves are a limited selection of stereotypes – Grumpy, Clumsy, Vanity, Brainy, Passive Aggressive (!), etc – who are all infatuated with equally stereotypical Smurfette (Katy Perry). After a surprise birthday goes awry, the only female in Smurfsville (or whatever it’s called) ends up in the clutches of Gargamel, who has become a world famous magician due to his wondrous talents and slapstick inteptitude. Enter Neil Patrick Harris and his cutsie wife Grace who, along with step-dad Brendan Gleeson (who at least has the wherewithal to be transformed into a duck for some of the running time, thus limiting his screen-time and, by default, the indignity of appearing in the film), must save the day for all Smurfkind, and learn a valuable lesson in the process. There are some bizarre interludes that, presumably, are intended to entertain the parents dragged to this dreck, but they are so desperately jammed in that they just irritate. It’s also just plain weird when, for example, the Smurfs accidentally interrupt a photoshoot involving, inexplicably, pregnant brides. Meanwhile, the CGI is frequently ropey – Gargamel’s cat, possibly the most annoying character, switches constantly, and obviously, between actual cat and computerised cat. Rendered in entirely pointless 3D (of course), the filmmakers haven’t even bothered to exploit this as a gimmick; I can’t think of a single scene in which I even noticed it.

While this is obviously specifically aimed at children, and therefore does not necessarily need to appeal to adults in a similar fashion, The Smurfs 2 is an insult to all audiences; generic, stupid, hammy, boring, and stereotyped. Quite frankly, it’s a smurfing great example of a big, steaming pile of smurf.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
Release date: 7 August 2013
Rating: 3/5

Squarely aimed at fans of I’m Alan Partridge, this long-awaited big screen outing sees the action somewhat ramped up, but retains the series’ small-scale atmosphere – it feels small-budget and familiar, with some nice nods to its origins. It also, in part due to the involvement of Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It) and Steve Coogan (who takes on both writing and acting roles as before), matches ludicrous slapstick (Alan’s attempts to climb in through a window, for example) with deadpan humour; there are plenty of opportunities to snicker, smile, and cringe at Alan’s ineptitude and awkwardness, but not as many chances to really laugh out loud. Yet I was only ever a casual viewer, who watched the show on repeat due to a friend’s obsession more than my own, so perhaps I am not really the right person to judge the effectiveness of its comedy.

Those uninitiated in the world of Alan Partridge will, however, still gain some pleasure from Alpha Papa if they actually bother going. The narrative follows a standard hostage scenario formula, but remains pleasantly low-key; Colm Meaney’s aggrieved ex-employee at the newly rebranded Shape radio station in Norwich is less a criminal mastermind than a slightly unhinged, fairly normal guy and, instead of succumbing to an unrealistic world of explosions and Hollywoodised action, the situation escalates because of Alan’s sheer obliviousness and socially inappropriate behaviour. He remains dogmatic and utterly deluded in his self-belief, and events unfold in a suitably ridiculous manner.

Despite the small scale, Alpha Papa is well executed. It moves briskly through its relatively short running time (90 minutes) and this economy and lack of ego works well – more often than not, attempts to bring a much-loved sitcom character from the constraints of a twenty-five minute show to feature length simply reveal that characters limitations, but this is not the case here. Yet, at the same time, the big screen really adds little to this intimate little film; indeed, it may benefit from repeat viewings at home, where lines can be repeated and paused over. It may not necessarily open Alan Partridge up to a new audience, but the fans will be delighted.

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Film #44: Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)

film 44 tombs of the blind dead

Rating: 2.5/5

The first of a series of four films, Tombs of the Blind Dead has been described as Spain’s Night of the Living Dead, although its undead foes resemble resurrected, vengeful mummies more than zombies. It’s short on gore, concentrating more on creating a tense, slow-burning atmosphere and, while there are times when this is no doubt effective, overall – with the exception of some memorable sequences – it fails to make much of an impression.

It’s clear early on that it’s necessary to suspend one’s disbelief and accept that much of the simple plot relies on characters making illogical and daft decisions – most notably Virginia’s (Maria Elena Arpon) decision to abandon her friends Betty (Lone Flemming) and Roger (Cesar Burner) and spend the night alone in an abandoned town in the middle of nowhere. With an ominous monastery dominating the ruins, and a ramshackle graveyard in the grounds, it’s inevitable that things will end badly for the stubborn brunette. Despite a lengthy portion of the film’s running time devoted to Virginia’s evening in the crumbling town, we learn next to nothing about the character; earlier conversations between her and her companions regularly slip into overwrought or stilted melodrama (although they also provide an opportunity for a gratuitous lesbian flashback, as the two girls remember their time at a convent school). Following Virginia’s petulant decision to leave her pals, due to their newfound interest in each other, she wanders around the ruins, dresses for bed and, in an impressive display of complete nonchalance regarding her surroundings, settles down to read a book. Unbeknownst to her, when night falls the Knights of the East (clearly Templars, though they are never explicitly referred to as such) rise from their graves, and soon she’s being terrorised by hooded, eyeless monsters.

The Knights themselves are, initially at least, unsettling and creepy – blind because several centuries ago their fearsome, ritualistic sect had their eyes pecked out by crows following their hanging. They hunt by listening for their prey, though poor Virginia never realises this and helpfully screams constantly. Although both their appearance and purpose differs from traditional zombies (they rise each night from their graves, and make deliberate, specific decisions), they share the former’s slow movements – director Amando de Ossorio has slowed down their scenes, creating a haunting delicacy to their motions. With the exception of the sound of their horses’ hooves pounding across the town’s stone streets, they glide silently across the landscape and, despite Virginia’s best efforts, the hunt is soon over.

Curiously, the film’s most effective aesthetic is also narratively one of the weakest points – like George A Romero’s zombies, the Knights could logically easily be bested because of their slowness. Their horses (draped in rags, but apparently still living and breathing) do increase their range and speed, but the undead men barely move, instead apparently relying on their prey’s similar lack of movement. It’s difficult to watch without wanting to shout at the screen, “just run, RUN AWAY!” and this irritation is an unfortunate distraction. Problematic too is the repetition of certain scenes, namely those involving the Knights’ resurrection – not because they are not reasonably impressive considering the film’s obviously low budget, but because they naturally are less effective once it becomes clear they are recycled. The film’s budget reveals itself a number of times, detracting from the more accomplished features (the score in particular works well) – day and night are interchangeable, while a flashback cannibalistic, ritualistic rape suffers from disappointing special effects, particularly the bizarre decision to use a fake female torso in close-ups.

Yet a film like Tombs of the Blind Dead is rarely watched by viewers expecting, or desiring, an in-depth character study, flawless narrative structure or impeccable effects. The pacing improves following Virginia’s death, and the decision to move beyond the isolated, abandoned monastery works in the film’s favour. Subsequent sequences, particularly those in the morgue and in a mannequin workshop, are by far the most memorable; the latter in particular is horribly creepy and tense, and visually creates a lasting impression.

The film’s final moments are frequently discussed (in vague terms) in other reviews and, while the events are fairly inevitable, they efficiently broaden the Knights’ opportunities for carnage and mayhem – although in this outing at least, said carnage predominantly occurs off camera. Although it is clear that de Ossorio deliberately chose to focus on atmosphere over blood and guts, and there is nothing wrong with this, in an era and genre that includes Zombie Flesh Eaters , The Beyond, and numerous others, this film makes considerably less of an impact. As I don’t have the sequels (Return of the Blind Dead, The Ghost Galleon, and Night of the Seagulls) in my collection, I cannot say whether the action is ramped up in the sequels or not; unfortunately, while Tombs of the Blind Dead was occasionally eerie and generally adequate, it failed to inspire me enough to find out.

Film #43: The Score (2001)

film 43 the score

Rating: 3/5

“When was it you started thinking you were better than me?”

Despite an excellent core cast, The Score never really manages to be anything other than a fairly run of the mill, standard heist movie. That’s not to say it’s not engaging – it’s well shot, well acted and, once the actual robbery gets under way, is effectively tense – but it’s all rather understated. It’s probably because of this that Frank Oz’s film has left little mark on what is often a big budget, high concept, flashy genre.

There’s very little originality in The Score‘s plot, yet its conventions are included without any sense of irony – this is a film filled with serious actors, and each treat the screenplay and their roles within it with an intensity that has now come to be expected of them. Two of the main four are also notoriously difficult to work with – Edward Norton, who plays the cocky young thief assigned to work with Robert De Niro’s more seasoned professional, was famously removed from the Bruce Banner role in the Marvel franchise after making unreasonable demands about the script of The Incredible Hulk. Similarly, Marlon Brando (in his last feature performance), made this film’s shoot a decidedly unpleasant place to work – he walked around naked because of the heat, played practical jokes on De Niro, called the director “Miss Piggy”, and even refused to smile for his final scene (it was added in digitally in post-production). It is perhaps no wonder that, despite the calibre of acting on set, none of the ensemble produce their best work.

De Niro is Nick, owner of a jazz club in Montreal and part-time thief. He’s careful and conscientious, avoids violence, and plans everything down to the finest detail. His boss, Max (Brando) asks him to do one last job (of course) and, naturally, it proves to be the most difficult – weighing the risks (the object in question, a sceptre, is locked in the vaults of the Custom House in Montreal) against the payload (Max offers him $4 million), Nick decides to flout all his previous rules (don’t rob in your back yard, don’t work with a stranger, etc) and commit his final crime. Yet it’s his partner who causes the most problems. Jack (Norton) has managed to infiltrate the Custom House by posing as a mentally handicapped night janitor, and while he’s undoubtedly gifted, he’s unreliable and egotistical. His recklessness is most problematic for Nick, who just wants to retire in peace and enjoy life with his air steward girlfriend Diane (Angela Bassett).

So far, so formulaic. The Score remains formulaic right to the end – there are no surprises as to the outcome or how the characters will reach it. That being said, an essential aspect of the heist movie genre is the heist itself, and the intrigue, complexity, and innovation of the criminals in getting their target and, in this respect, The Score is perfectly adequate; it is less focused on confusing the audience than on creating a tense and suspenseful final act. After all, Nick is always careful, he doesn’t leave anything up to chance, and even the addition of the more unruly Jack is not enough to really disrupt his plans. There are no unexpected explosions, no ridiculous twists (at least none that aren’t inevitable), no silly decisions that make everything spiral out of control. Like Nick, The Score is careful; the only problem with the screenplay is that it’s not quite as clever as it appears to think it is.

It is, however, entertaining enough. Instead of fast-paced action, it concentrates on the characters, allowing the actors to perform average roles with reasonable success. Brando dominates the few scenes he appears in, both in terms of stature and performance; even in old age, despite his apparent disregard for the film itself, there is something quite captivating about him, so much so that De Niro fades into the background when they share the screen. This is perhaps because, of the two actors, it is Brando who appears to be enjoying himself – De Niro lacks the twinkle in the eye that audiences have now become accustomed to due to his re-establishment as a comedy performer.

Norton is tasked with the biggest challenge and, like the others, is perfectly adequate as both the rebellious thief and his adopted persona, Brian the simpleton. Brian is well-realised, both in terms of Jack-as-Brian and Norton-as-Jack-as-Brian, but because we are aware it is a performance almost as soon as the character appears, he is never quite believable – Brian only exists within the Custom House, and Jack freely roams the streets of Montreal without ever considering that someone from within the building might recognise him. It’s this strange lack of nuance within the screenplay that causes the most problems for the film’s reception. However, it must be said that, although Norton’s performance hardly matches that of, for example, Leonardo Di Caprio’s in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, the most poignant scenes in the film are those shared by Brian and his janitorial mentor Danny (Paul Soles).

The Score may not have created any waves when it was first released, and it will never match the excitement and pizazz of later heist movies (Gone in Sixty Seconds, Oceans Eleven, even the recently released Now You See Me) but it’s not trying to. Oz’s film emerges as a more mature movie, in comparison to the entertaining immaturity of many other examples. It’s a more subtle, serious film, slow-burning and tense – generic, but effective.

Film #42: Waking Life (2001)

film 42 waking life

Rating: 2/5

“They say that dreams are only real as long as they last. Couldn’t you say the same thing about life?”

Ten years after his feature debut Slacker, indie favourite Richard Linklater returns to the meandering, narrativeless form he started with. Waking Life, however, has a more recognisable purpose, despite its lack of plot (in the traditional sense): its protagonist wanders through dreams, meeting a number of pretentious intellectuals who discuss the meaning of life and dreams. Yet “discuss” is really the wrong word, suggesting some kind of interaction or debate – for the majority of the film, the nameless main character (Wiley Wiggins) is a passive observer and listener and, as a result, much of the movie seems like a series of lectures. Whether this appeals or not will most likely be determined by individual taste; personally, I was frequently bored, and found their lengthy philosophical monologues more tiresome and condescending than insightful or deep.

What makes these lectures marginally more interesting is the visual form of the film. After the unconventional animated form of the previous Movie Lottery pick, Waltz With Bashir, Waking Life also eschews live action for animation. Here, however, it is even more hallucinatory in style, taking on the qualities of a delirious trip rather than a dream. Initially shot on hand-held video cameras, the live action of Waking Life has been rotoscope-animated in post-production, and the result is a curious, not always pleasant, experience. While early scenes are fully capable of inducing motion-sickness, with buildings and backgrounds warping and wobbling constantly, thankfully this calms down somewhat as the film progresses, though it never really stops. It’s highly stylised and abstract, reminiscent of cubism and surrealism; faces are unfinished, scenery is roughly implied, and the characters’ dialogue is reflected back in the animated form of the sequences. Yet while I was undoubtedly impressed by the film’s visual flair, it was less enjoyable than disorienting – although, considering the subject matter, perhaps this is the point.

And what about the subject matter? Waking Life‘s intellectualism is at the fore throughout, and Linklater name-drops all the right people (Bazin, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Truffaut) and all the right -isms (existentialism, humanism, nihilism, and so on) to delight the pretentious college student. Its intellectual capital is front and centre at all times, and the way in which it is presented could alternately be viewed as smart, or annoying. There were times I struggled to not roll my eyes at the clichés – a free-thinking quirky twenty-something claiming “I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to be ant, you know?” before proceeding to talk about her plans for a self-aware, ironic, meta soap opera, for instance. These comments, and the many others, are all delivered with an overt sense of sincerity, seriousness and, dare I say, smugness, and perhaps were the film to have adopted a slightly more tongue-in-cheek approach, it may have held my attention for longer. It’s only in the final few minutes that the main character becomes anything more than a blank canvass; his frustration at the never-ending nature of his dream is something that I could relate to.

If I seem especially derisory towards Waking Life, perhaps I can temper that by saying this is not really my kind of movie. Bought on a whim because it looked intriguing, it quickly became clear that I would struggle to stay interested. Fans of Linklater will no doubt get more from it than I did. For example, having not seen Before Sunrise or its two sequels, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s appearance meant nothing to me, although their bedroom scene, jarring in that our dreamer-protagonist is entirely absent, makes more sense now that I have discovered they were reprising their previous roles. Similarly, certain scenes are reminiscent of Slacker, and a number of familiar faces re-emerge (in a fashion). Yet I found my mind constantly wandering away from the film; I zoned in an out, found myself staring blankly at the screen without hearing anything. Perhaps this is a good way to watch a movie that it in essence about the nature of dreaming, and of mindlessly walking through life, but none of the messages, delivered in their incessantly intellectual manner, actually made any impression on me. By writing a screenplay as a series of monologues, Linklater offers no counter-argument to balance what is being claimed and, without debate, my attention rapidly waned. There is no opportunity for self-discovery, no chance to formulate your own opinions, no need to reach your own conclusions. While I can appreciate Waking Life for its visuals, and can understand how certain audiences could praise both its animated style and intellectual content, neither of these aspects were enough; as an experiment, the film is an interesting curio, but I remain underwhelmed.

Film #41: Waltz With Bashir (2008)

film 41 waltz with bashir

Rating: 5/5

“Do you ever have flashbacks from Lebanon?”

Were it not for Movie Lottery, Waltz With Bashir would have languished on my shelves, unopened and unwatched, possibly forever. I should point out that I did see this documentary in the cinema, and was overwhelmingly impressed by it, but its subject matter – the Lebanon war in the 1980s – is not necessarily the most inviting when sitting at home in the evening after working all day. It’s a great example of the kind of film that benefits most from the enforced randomness of our viewing selection and, while I must still confess to know or understand little of the complex politics of the events portrayed, I was horrified and captivated in equal measures.

Writer-director Ari Folman’s Oscar-nominated animated documentary is fascinating on both a technical and a psychological level; recollections of war represented through a distinctively comic-book-inspired aesthetic. Folman’s personal journey is triggered by a friend and former comrade’s recurring dream, which opens the film – a pack of wild, snarling, rabid dogs charging through an urban landscape. There are twenty-six of them, as there always are, and they don’t stop running. It’s a violent onslaught to the senses; as Folman’s friend later explains, his dream is directly related to a specific moment during his war service. While his friend is tormented nightly by his memories of war, Folman doesn’t dream, but this conversation unleashes something in him. Waltz With Bashir is the filmmaker’s attempts to discover why he can’t remember anything about his involvement in one particularly tragic, terrible event – the Sabra and Shatila massacre, when up to 3500 civilians were brutally murdered in refugee camps in Beirut – and why he is suddenly plagued by his own memory, in which he emerges, naked, from the ocean with some colleagues as the sky above him is lit brightly with falling flares.

Folman’s decision to present his story in animated form raises some interesting points. On a purely opportunistic level, it is perhaps the only way his documentary could be made. One interviewee states that he’ll only talk if he’s not filmed; Folman instead asks if he can draw the man and his son playing in the snow. Yet his reasons are not just to ensure his colleagues’ anonymity. Today, with the almost constant images of war on the news and recreated in movies, I’d argue that the general viewing public has become somewhat desensitised. Here, Folman shows us something unique – his memories, and the memories of his friends, are haunting and dreamlike. The animation subtly acknowledges that the images shown are the product of fallible recollections; they can be twisted and warped, they may not be accurate, they are the product of a mind that has been, quite probably, traumatised. Just as Folman himself has apparently locked away the truth to protect himself from his own memories, the images on screen can be fragmented, unreal, stylised, and edited.

The animation also has a direct impact on how the audience relate to the events being portrayed. The images, set against an evocative post-punk 80’s soundtrack, are shown in a detached manner – the lack of realism and the high-contrast graphics remove the viewer from the action, just as Folman has apparently emotionally removed himself from it. In flashbacks, his younger self’s handsome face is tinged with constant sadness but his expression never changes; he is blank, absent. Yet the stylised animation, which is beautifully rendered, creates an emotional barrier between the audience and the events, while simultaneously emphasising the true impact of the violence on those involved – and I mean here the soldiers, rather than the civilians caught in the crossfire. Their coping mechanisms – denial, amnesia, broken memories – reflect their sheer inability to deal with what they have witnessed and what they have done. In a sense, the animation reveals what Werner Herzog might describe as “ecstatic truth” and, just as Folman gets one recurring image stuck in his head, there are many moments in Waltz With Bashir that linger long after the film has finished.

In the film’s final moments, Folman makes the decision to suddenly jolt the audience into reality, showing newsreel footage of the aftermath of the massacre. It’s manipulative, but effective, and serves as a stark reminder that, despite the dreamy beauty that has enveloped the story to this point, these events were real, and dreadful. Thinking retrospectively about the film, I realise that much remains unanswered; yet maybe that is the point. As memories, the truth is only what we convince ourselves of, and our recollections are constantly changing, growing, evolving. Waltz With Bashir seems to acknowledge this, and the result is a harrowing, haunting, and profound documentary that, somewhat ironically considering its aesthetic choices, puts a very human face on a complex war.

Film #40: Twister (1996)

film 40 twister

Rating: 3/5

“When you used to tell me that you chase tornadoes, deep down I thought it was just a metaphor.”

Twister may have been the first film ever released on DVD, but I watched it on an ancient, second-hand VHS (or possibly it’s third-hand – it came from a charity shop, so who knows how many people have enjoyed what is now my copy), and I can’t help but think that the grainy, less-than-perfect quality has helped to mask some of the once-Oscar nominated special effects’ less successful moments. In 1996, its tornadoes were a thing to behold, rendered in then-state-of-the-art CGI; today the flaws are clearly visible, even on scratchy video. It remains, however, very fun – fast paced, daft, filled with spectacle, with a screenplay consisting almost entirely of disaster movie clichés. Its effects may be dated today, but it’s still an exhilarating ride.

With writer Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) delivering a perfectly perfunctory script, and director Jan de Bont (Speed) infusing set piece after set piece with tension and excitement, Twister is a blatant blockbuster. Its estimated $92 million budget is used to great effect, with cows, buildings, cars, and petrol tankers all gleefully thrown into the air and unceremoniously dumped right in front of our intrepid troupe of storm chasers. The group – a ramshackle assortment of eccentric friends living on the breadline, fuelled by passion and adrenaline (and, some might rightly argue, irresponsibility) – are led by Jo (Helen Hunt), who has been obsessed with tornadoes ever since her father was killed by one when she was a child. Of all the members of her team (including Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his slightly less awkward, more mainstream roles), she is the one with the apparent death wish, but her motivations are noble, of course. In contrast, the opposition (with Cary Elwes at the helm) lacks heart but has funding in abundance; during twister season both teams battle to get their suspiciously similar devices, which could assist in extending warning times, in operation. Jo’s mission is further complicated by the return of her former colleague and estranged husband (Bill Paxton, one of the film’s weaker performances) and his therapist fiancée, the latter of whom adds some ditsy humour to the perilous situations.

In a film like Twister, however, does anyone really care about the plot? There is nothing unexpected or innovative about it, although undoubtedly it achieves the desired effect. The good guys are good, the bad guys get their comeuppance, the dog survives, and the unpredictable tornadoes are guaranteed to land precisely wherever the heroes are. In fact, Jo’s recklessness is downright hazardous to anyone nearby, and thinking about it rationally, she’s probably not the best example of either a scientific investigator or a storm chaser. Similarly, the situations she and her ex-husband get themselves into are ludicrous – consider one scene, in which they drive into a ravine and are forced to take shelter under a bridge, during which time their truck is catapulted into the air, but they are unmoved by the twister’s power due to the fact that they are hugging a wooden post. The final sequence, featuring an indomitable, mile-wide F5 twister, strains plausibility to the extreme, but it is as entertaining and inevitable as it is ridiculous.

Clearly, I am a disaster movie fan, but even I must concede that some of the best moments are not those filled with rapidly-revolving CGI wind. Two scenes in particular stand out: the sweetly tinkling sounds of Jo’s aunt’s garden sculptures, idly warning the old woman that a potentially deadly tornado is mere moments away; and the eerie calm before the storm that wipes out a drive-in movie theatre. Like Jurassic Park‘s iconic ripples in the glass of water, these scenes clearly indicate an ominous inevitability – as viewers, we know exactly what is coming, and there is a rather perverse sense of satisfaction at witnessing the devastation that occurs mere seconds later.

As with the majority of geological disaster films, both the frequency of the element in question and their speed (particularly the twisters’ amazing ability to appear, disappear, and reappear in the blink of an eye) are exaggerated. However, there is something slightly unsettling about watching movies like this in light of the increasingly erratic weather systems witnessed across the globe today. It has only been a few weeks since Oklahoma was devastated by a series of tornadoes, for instance, and the events in the film may be silly and stereotyped, but one can not help but be reminded that tornadoes themselves are both real and deadly. In a sense, disaster movies like Twister provide a chance to be excited by, rather than scared of, the sheer power of mother nature – we can gaze in awe (depending on the technical success of the movie), but know we are safe. Watching disaster films allows viewers to vicariously experience events that most will (hopefully) never witness first hand, safe in the knowledge that, by the time the credits roll, the good guys will have prevailed, scientific research will have benefited, and the deadly tornado will have dissipated into thin air.

Film #39: Turn it Up (2008)

film 39 turn it up

Rating: 2.5/5

“Okay, we have got to get serious here. Dancing is about trust. And connecting.”

A sort-of sequel to 2000’s Center Stage, Turn it Up attempts to cash in on the far greater success of Step Up and the subsequent popularity of dance movies that combine ballet (or other classical forms of dance) with street. Interestingly, the little known Center Stage is, to my knowledge, one of the first films that attempted to do this; it’s also interesting to see how dated its modern dance looks when viewed today, despite its relatively recent release. Both films, however, use street dance as an opportunity to display its protagonists’ more relaxed style and their vitality, before returning back to the technical precision and grace of ballet and, despite the impressive spectacle street dance can embody (the final showdown in Step Up 2: The Streets is a good example), both Center Stage and, to a lesser extent, its sequel’s greatest success is making ballet just as dynamic.

Turn it Up‘s screenplay is entirely formulaic – its plot follows an almost identical path as Burlesque, Coyote Ugly and Make It Happen (and there are probably others). A self-taught dancer, Kate (Rachele Brooke Smith), leaves her small town for an audition at the American Ballet Academy in New York. Despite one of the more innovative judges, Cooper Nielsen (Ethan Stiefel, one of only two returning characters from the original), seeing potential, she fails to secure a spot. Too embarrassed to admit to her little sister back home that she was unsuccessful, she gets a job at an up-and-coming club, where her dance moves impress. Her love interest is a hockey player-turned-ballerina studying at the ABA, who is told by Cooper that he needs to find some “fire” – ballet is not just about complicated technical manoeuvres, but about passion, which Kate has in abundance. They both act as a contrast to the other students at the ABA, largely consisting of stereotypes like flamboyantly camp men and women who only drink low-calorie cocktails. It’s a simple narrative that shares the optimism and general niceness of the likes of High School Musical; uncomplicated, with its characters focused on achieving their dreams. A simple screenplay can, however, still be well-written, and Turn it Up frequently slips into clichés and stilted dialogue – there’s lots of talk about being yourself, following your heart, and never giving up, for example.

The generic, weak script may provide frequent displays of dancing, but it’s not helped by the actors. As the Step Up franchise is increasingly choosing, Turn it Up‘s leads have clearly been selected for their dance abilities, not their acting. Kate and her beau Tommy (Kenny Wormald) come to life when performing routines, but everything in between is flat and uninspiring. They are surrounded by a cast with similar capabilities – Peter Gallagher is the only notable exception, but his role as ABA’s director (also a returning character) is brief. Similarly, Stiefel’s character – one of the leads (and weaker actors) in Center Stage – is almost entirely devoid of personality, and his role is a strangely watered-down repeat of his previous although, like the other performers, his ballet skills are undeniable.

As with all contemporary dance movies, however, the real deciding factor is the dancing. Although some of the street routines do veer into cheesy, they are still more memorable than any featured in Step Up, but Turn it Up‘s selling point is the ballet. While some people may snicker at lines of handsome men in tights, their physical prowess and delicacy is often more impressive than any number of pops and grinds; yet, while the dancers (both male and female) all display a considerable amount of talent in this area, even here the film fails to match the standards set by its predecessor. In fact, Turn it Up is generally rather forgettable – with the exception of a few notable routines, what stays with me the most is its narrative averageness and the woodenness of its actors. That’s not to say, however, that its a total disaster but, even as a fan of dance movies (and of Center Stage in particular), I would consider it as little more than a reasonably entertaining example of the genre.