Film #119: The Lego Movie (2014)

film 119 the lego movie

Rating: 4/5

“Everything is awesome!!!!”

Despite the fact that this film is the most blatant and shameless example of product placement, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also probably the only time we’ll ever get an ensemble cast quite as epic: Gandalf, Batman, Abraham Lincoln, Wonderwoman, Han Solo, and half of the LA Lakers together? When Wreck-It Ralph promised to feature all the classic video game characters in one movie, the results were crushingly inadequate. Here, The Lego Movie delivers, and the interactions between the various cameos – no matter how brief – are very entertaining. It’s the cameo characters that have some of the best running jokes in the movie – poor loser Green Lantern, for example, or 1950’s Space Man Benny desperately trying to build a spaceship. The voice cast is excellent too – kudos to Liam Neeson in particular, sending himself up as split personality Good Cop/ Bad Cop, one of the best characters in the movie.

As well as a seemingly endless number of super-awesome cameos to keep an eye out for, the movie itself is jam-packed. Visually it’s a treat – not quite as puntastic as Aardman’s stop-motion, but just as eye-catching. It’s like a regular movie that’s eaten six bags of sugar in under thirty seconds, washed down with five energy drinks: it’s chaotic, manic, delirious. The pace is non-stop and, quite brilliantly, acknowledged as being such – it’s revealed that the action is apparently playing out in real time. Jack Bauer would be proud (or green with envy at these characters’ productivity). It’s also truly vast in scope, with the action racing from a perfectly ordered city, to the wild west (complete with beautiful panoramic views), to the high seas and beyond. I wonder if the writers had watched A Town Called Panic for inspiration – the films share more than a passing resemblance. Both feature crazy stop motion, non-stop action, hugely ambitious landscapes, and a barely contained insanity. I have to admit, however, A Town Called Panic is the better film. I don’t mind the product placement in The Lego Movie (although it becomes a bit too explicit towards the end) – the biggest issue I have is its confused message about the product placement. Poor Lego seems very muddled about what its purpose and appeal is, and the attempts to unite the sentiment of the product with the most effective marketing ploys don’t really work.

The film itself focuses on Emmet, a generic construction worker who has boundless energy and optimism, but no friends. He likes to conform, to fit in – everything has its place and thinking outside the box is definitely a bad thing. Yet Emmet’s structured life leaves him feeling isolated and unfulfilled until one day, when everything changes. Accidentally becoming the fabled “Special” – the only person who can stop evil Lord Business’ dastardly plans for Taco Tuesday, whatever that is, Emmet finds himself working with a band of “master builders” – an assortment of characters, including Batman, love interest Wyld Style, and Morgan Freeman (sorry, Vitruvius, played by Morgan Freeman), who can create anything in seconds using the Lego pieces around them. The message is clear: conformity bad, creativity good. The structured world preferred by Lord Business is perfect, perfectly ordered, and perfectly boring. In contrast, Cloud Cuckoo Land, a place where imagination runs wild, is a veritable utopia. Meanwhile, Emmet has to unlock his imagination to become the “Special” and save the world. The potential for invention is endless, and the movie makes it very clear that this is the “right” way of thinking about Lego. This is great, and seems to really embody the original concept of Lego, which came in buckets or could be bought like bags of pick ‘n’ mix. It’s a wonderful idea: let your imagination run wild, using simple blocks of plastic that can become whatever you want – cities, animals, whole worlds, anything. Problem is, however, that Lego now comes in pre-packaged assembly kits. Do you want a pirate boat? Buy the pirate boat kit. Want a race-car, a farm, a house, a spaceship? Buy the kit. Most depressing about this whole situation is that now you can even buy kits for the creatures and objects made by the master builders in the movie – the things that work precisely because they don’t conform. Hell, you can buy a Cloud Cuckoo landscape and a Unikitty.

It’s this kind of basic inner conflict that makes The Lego Movie such a problematic product and, no matter how fun and entertaining it is – and it is, absolutely – I can’t help but feel that the creators have really proved how troubled the whole Lego world really is now. There’s another movie planned, of course, but it’s unclear what direction a sequel can really go in. This film loses momentum as it reaches its conclusion: there are hints throughout as to how it’s going to end, but the sudden shift from hyped-up craziness to solemn sentimentality is underwhelming. Yet until this point, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just a shame that the product itself seems to be having a complete identity crisis.

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Film #117: The Monster of Camp Sunshine (1964)

film 117 the monster of camp sunshine

Rating: 1.5/5
Enjoyment: 4/5

“The motion picture that follows is a fable. In it there are many nudists but only one monster. In life, it is generally the other way around.”

The strange, Gilliam-esque opening credits may hint at the oddity that is The Monster of Camp Sunshine, but even they can’t really prepare you for what’s to come. It’s a nudie cutie with a horror twist and, in our collection, comes as part of a double feature released by Something Weird Video – if there are any other versions of it available, avoid them. Something Weird have created an entire drive-in movie experience, complete with retro adverts for hotdogs, beer, and Vespas, with the added bonus of a whole selection of nudie trailers and short movies (including a particularly entertaining one featuring a large woman and a rather scathing voice-over narrator). The first film in the double feature, The Beast that Killed Women, is reasonably amusing for its badness; The Monster of Camp Sunshine matches that badness with complete and utter deliriousness.

Shot as a silent film with shoddy dubbing in post-production and a ponderous, haphazard voice-over narrator, The Monster of Camp Sunshine has not aged well. It’s delightfully quaint and retro now, of course, but chances are that even when it was first released it looked dated – the swinging 60s fashion is spot-on, and New York looks pretty hip, but the film’s frequent use of intertitles, its uninspiring special effects, and monochrome cinematography make it more like a 40s exploitation movie than a mid-60s nudie flick. The intertitles in particular are a strange addition – the film begins with them, harking back to a far earlier type of cinema, although they are increasingly revealed to be rather tongue-in-cheek. In truth, much of the film is silent – once the leading ladies and their small party leave the Big Apple and arrive at Camp Sunshine upstate, the voice-over is abandoned, the intertitles take precedence, and dialogue is virtually non-existent.

The film opens in New York, in the cluttered apartment of Claire (Deborah Spray) and Marta (Sally Parfait), two young nudists with what is easily the coolest hanging ashtray in existence. Claire narrates the first half of the movie, filling the narrative with flashbacks and events that she couldn’t possibly know about. She’s a fashion model, while Marta works as a nurse in a hospital that appears to have no patients but lots of animal testing. While Claire models topless swimsuits on top of a New York skyscraper (the Empire State Building looming in the background – it’s a dizzying photoshoot, beautifully captured on film), Marta accidentally pours toxic liquid onto some of the lab mice, turning them into vicious monsters who attack her so violently that she ends up precariously hanging out the window, about to plummet to her death. Fortunately, a kindly doctor happens by, and this proactive man quickly disposes of the deadly liquid – by casually chucking it into the Hudson. In a series of highly unlikely events relying entirely on coincidence, the jar ends up contaminating the stream running through nudist retreat Camp Sunshine, transforming the owner’s simpleton brother Hugo into a rabid monster (his dodgy black wig and tissue-paper boils would be the envy of Tor Johnson’s Joseph Javorsky).

As nudie cuties go, The Monster of Camp Sunshine is surprisingly focused on narrative. The film itself is slow – despite the opening intertitles claiming there are many nudists, there really aren’t, and they only feature for a few scenes. That being said, they are proper nudists – whereas films like Nude on the Moon and Orgy of the Dead make sure that their naked beauties resolutely keep their knickers on, here both men and women are fully nude, although modesty is preserved through an assortment of carefully positioned hats, towels, books and musical instruments, while men in particular seem to be constantly walking away from camera. (On a side note, the men’s tan lines are so vividly pronounced that it frequently looks like they’re wearing white shorts.)

Claire’s voice-over disappears once the party – now including Claire’s photographer boss and an inexperienced office assistant who hopes to lose her inhibitions through nudism – leave New York, and after some long, slow scenes in which not much happens, everything kicks off. After fifty minutes or so of fairly generic, mildly entertaining badness, the Hugo-monster escapes his shed-prison and all hell breaks loose, with a quite literal explosion of stock footage. Marta, somehow instantly arriving at the highly improbable yet correct conclusion that the chemicals from the hospital are the cause of Hugo’s new insanity, calls her doctor friend, who races off to the nearest airfield, boards a plane and parachutes into the camp holding a syringe. He may be the “forces of mercy” but somehow the “forces of violence” have also been contacted and, sure enough, soon they also arrive, complete with vast armies. The cavalry arrive. Cannons are let off. There’s a beach invasion! Soldiers from what appears to be the War of Independence drop by, while others peer through the viewfinder of giant missiles. It becomes dark, but Marta, who Hugo ruthlessly attacked with an axe, is still lying in the middle of the field rolling around. The doctor continues making silent pleas from the top of the van, where he expertly landed. More soldiers! Bombs go off, Claire’s boss shoots Hugo with a small pistol, before lobbing a whole load of dynamite (!!) at him. In the midst of the chaos, the small group of naked ladies run amok. It’s deranged, completely unexpected, and quite possibly the most insane, exaggerated, and utterly ludicrous conclusion to a film I’ve ever seen. Nothing quite prepared me for the barrage of lunacy. Badfilm fans will find plenty to love about The Monster of Camp Sunshine, but it’s these five minutes of utter surrealism that really make it.

Film #116: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

film 116 the nightmare before christmas
Rating: 5/5

“Yet year after year,
It’s the same routine
And I grow so weary
Of the sound of screams
And I Jack, the pumpkin king,
Have grown so tired of the same old thing.”

Although it’s probably been about ten years since I last watched this, as soon as the opening credits began, I was immediately transported back, and everything felt so completely familiar. Watching the film on a surprisingly undamaged VHS (quite possibly the tape I’ve had longest in my collection – this is one of the few films I’ve owned since my childhood), I couldn’t help but be impressed at just how good The Nightmare Before Christmas is. I liked it as a kid, but as an adult I really appreciate the nuance of it, notice the little details that fill every scene (this time around, I noticed that the Christmas Land folk have pet penguins).

Of course, this is the most quintessentially Tim Burton picture around. His name is synonymous with the film, and its glorious gothic expressionism and unconventional protagonists are so completely and utterly Burtonesque that it seems to exemplify the contemporary auteur’s style even more than Edward Scissorhands. Yet, of course, this is not a Tim Burton picture – not really. In fact, he didn’t even write the screenplay, though the story and characters are based on his concepts. Yes, this is Henry Selick’s picture, and the director has created a vast, rich world, one that he came very close to matching in Coraline some fifteen years later. Tim Burton finally created his own feature-length stop-motion world in 2005 with one of his many collaborations with Johnny Depp, Corpse Bride, and ironically that film never comes close to reaching the same levels of immersive gothic fantasy that Selick’s creations inspire.

The story is probably well known to most people. Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king, has led the inhabitants of Halloween Town in another successful, scare-filled holiday, but is having a mid-life crisis. Knowing that he’s great at his job, nevertheless he craves something new, and finds inspiration when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Land. Overwhelmed by the concept of laughter, joy, and happiness, he returns to his home and announces his plans to do Christmas this year. Yet despite their enthusiasm, the townspeople are incapable of looking beyond their own nature, and their attempts to recreate Christmas with the inevitable Halloween influence are wonderfully misguided, transforming the happiest time of the year into something horribly disturbing. People expect to be scared on Halloween, but no one expects their holiday wreath to kill their granny. (On a side note, they should be praised for managing to organise any kind of Yuletide celebrations in such a short time frame – they start after Halloween, and most shops now begin in September at the latest.)

Jack is understandably the most iconic character in the film, and props to Selick and his animators for bringing such a warmth and emotion to what is essentially a skeleton. When he first lands in Christmas Land – the warm colours, cosy homes and twinkling lights in stark contrast to the grey, almost-monochrome world of Halloween Town – his amazement and sense of wonder is instantly conveyed. With only the slightest change in eye-socket-size, Jack Skellington is vulnerable, terrifying, childishly enthusiastic, and world-weary. The rest of the characters are afforded just as much care and attention. Halloween Town is filled with all the creatures and grotesquerie that your nightmares can conceive – all the Universal monsters are present in some guise, and there’s a wonderful array of new characters too. Among my favourites, it’s hard not to love the Mayor, with his alternating faces, and Oogie Boogie, the only real villain in the film, and one of my favourite villains in general. His jazz-inspired number, gambling with the captured Santa Claus’s life, is wonderfully catchy, and genuinely intimidating.

This brings me onto the final point – the music in The Nightmare Before Christmas. While there has(understandably, I would say) been a critical backlash towards Tim Burton in recent years, and also with his continuing collaborations with people who once seemed inspired and now appear unoriginal and lazy, composer Danny Elfman is a perfect match for the unconventional filmmaker. A household name – a rarity for screen composers – Elfman’s soundtrack is perfect here, bringing real emotion to the little stop motion characters on screen. And it’s perhaps surprising to realise just how much of a musical this is – in fact, almost the entire story is relayed in song, and Elfman’s score permeates every scene regardless, bringing life and atmosphere to both Christmas Land and Halloween Town alike.

Although today The Nightmare Before Christmas has become slightly tainted by the over-saturation of film-related products – it’s become one of the ultimate “alternative” films for angsty youngsters, and for a while it seemed like every emo or goth came complete with a Jack Skellington backpack – ignoring all the merchandising and paraphernalia, the film itself remains a triumph. It’s a small world, filled with big characters with even bigger plans, yet at its core, it’s a tender romance, and a film about accepting who you are, about learning to embrace your own natural weirdness. As morals go, it’s a pretty good one.

Film #115: But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

film 115 but i'm a cheerleader

Rating: 3.5/5

“Oh my god… they were right. I’m a homo. Oh, my god!”

With its lurid colours and Stepford-style 50’s inspired kitsch, But I’m a Cheerleader revels in its campness. Although slightly quaint today – gay rights have come along in leaps and bounds in the last fifteen years – it tackles a serious topic in a overtly tongue-in-cheek manner, revealing the absurdity and hypocrisy of the entirely real schools and camps that promise to rid people of their undesirable homosexual tendencies. In doing so, the film takes a light-hearted satirical dig at the often Christian-based groups who believe that being gay is a lifestyle choice, with heterosexual living being the only desirable, “normal” way of living, while simultaneously downplaying the religious aspect of such camps. Although Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is openly Christian, and the facility her straight-laced parents send her is clearly inspired by the Christian “conversion camps”, once the girl’s lodged at True Directions, there is no real mention of religion in the rest of the film. While this seems slightly like a missed opportunity, it safeguards against possible backlash – despite the controversial subject matter, the film is inoffensive and entertaining, with the blossoming romance at its core often surprisingly tender.

Megan is first introduced living her normal life – she has a boyfriend, although she doesn’t appear to like kissing him much, says grace before dinner, is polite and well spoken, and is a cheerleader. Arriving home one day, she finds herself confronted with her well-meaning friends and family, who proceed to inform her of her latent homosexuality. She has to be a lesbian, because she’s a vegetarian. She has pictures of women in her locker, and posters of gay icons on her bedroom walls. Despite her insistence that she’s not gay, she’s packed off to True Directions, a Barbie-esque residential facility in the middle of nowhere, where she has to complete five steps before she graduates, a happy and well adjusted heterosexual. At the camp, she meets a small but varied group of other teens – an androgynous girl with a shaved head, a flamboyant boy, a Jew (further distancing the film from its overtly Christian inspirations), a goth, a varsity quarterback, and a girl called Graham (Clea DuVall), who seems certain to be ejected from the course due to her insolence and disdain for the whole project.

There are plenty of funny moments – the group’s admissions regarding what “made them gay” are particularly absurd, ranging from “my mother got married in pants” to “I was born in France.” Curiously, however, despite the film taking great pains to show that being gay doesn’t mean necessarily conforming to the expected stereotype, these are almost validated by Megan’s realisation that she is a lesbian – despite their “evidence” being entirely circumstantial, her family and friends are ultimately proved right. In contrast, True Direction’s methodology conforms entirely to heterosexual gender stereotypes. The girls all wear frilly pink dresses and practise childcare and cleaning, the boys dress in blue and learn mechanics and sports. All the tasks are, however, saturated in homoeroticism, which is particularly obvious with the boys’ classes – “accidental” pelvic thrusting during a car maintenance class, for example. It’s not exactly subtle, but it’s effective, bringing a surreal camp twist to everyday activities – in the end, the film seems to be saying, there’s queerness in everyone.

At its core, of course, is Megan’s relationship with Graham, and it’s a slowly developing romance that delicately reveals the intricacies of flirtation. Ironically, of course, if her parents hadn’t made her confront her unrealised gayness, Megan would quite possibly have lived out her days in precisely the kind of denial True Directions aims to teach, shacked up with her jock boyfriend in a sexless marriage. Instead, her incarceration at the facility enables her to finally stop living a lie – admitting her homosexuality is the first step, and a gay relationship is the inevitable conclusion. It’s in the conclusion that the film really falters – there are no surprises (except the discovery that Megan’s cheerleading abilities are thoroughly underwhelming), and it ends abruptly. Megan and Graham are the only characters who really find any kind of resolution, and it’s a shame that the fates of the majority of the True Directions camp remain unknown. Do the camp’s male mentor Mike (played by uber famous drag queen RuPaul) and the owner’s obviously gay son finally acknowledge their attraction for each other? Is the conversion really a success when only a tiny fraction of students end up graduating? Do the graduates accept their gayness, or do they live in denial? Is there a happy ending for anyone, really? Who knows. Yet despite the weak ending, the film itself is entertaining, revelling in campness and knowingly addressing the nuances of gender and sexuality in particularly unsubtle ways. Fun, light-hearted, flamboyant yet touching, But I’m a Cheerleader starts to wear thin in the end, and its satire might not be as biting as people might like, but it’s a welcome alternative to the traditional teen/ high school movies so prevalent in the late 90s.

Cinema Lottery #14

cinema 14 into the storm

Into the Storm; Two Days, One Night; Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For; Obvious Child

Into the Storm
Release date: 20 August 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Almost twenty years after Twister, it’s quite surprising that it’s taken this long for a new tornado-themed disaster movie to make it to the big screen. The trailers for Into the Storm looked mildly promising: trashy, no doubt, and clichéd, naturally, but with the promise of some full blown destruction. Yet what the trailers don’t show is that the whole film is shot as a found footage movie – a pointless, incoherent decision. Whether the footage originates from professional tornado-chasing documentary makers or by two redneck adrenaline morons, it all looks the same. Even worse, there are frequently unmotivated camera angles – conversations are framed in the classic shot-reverse-shot technique, despite there being only one cameraman in the scene, overhead shots come from nowhere. Ostensibly the “found footage” style exists to add tension, but it never achieves this.

The characters themselves are all nondescript, and subplots like a blossoming teen romance are abandoned quickly. At one point a character instructs another to look after the footage because the film “might save lives one day” – how it could ever achieve this is unknown, because the science is non-existent. Like Twister, the final setpiece involves characters seeing the eye of the tornado – as though this is something new, when it’s already been achieved by both professional and amateur storm chasers in real life. Yet this is a film with the most generic, uninspiring of screenplays, so it’s little surprise that the motivation is mundane. That being said, some of the destruction is pretty nifty. It makes no sense, of course – whether a tiny little spout or a mile-wide behemoth (all of which instantaneously appear), all the tornadoes cause the same amount of damage: total carnage. Yet although it’s no doubt fun (for disaster movie fans, at least) to watch an airport be destroyed, or to see a fire-nado (a real thing), the best bits are all shown in the trailer. There’s simply not enough in the rest of the film to be worth watching. Perhaps the biggest problem is it takes itself too seriously. It appears to actually have honourable, educational intentions, despite being little better than a SyFy original movie. Truth is, if you want a good disaster movie, watch Twister and, if you want a bad one, why would you watch this when you could watch Sharknado?

Two Days, One Night
Release date: 22 August 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

The latest film by the Dardenne brothers, this is a gentle drama following Sandra (Marion Cotillard) over a weekend as she attempts to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. It’s a simple premise but an interesting one, and there are no real villains here – just normal people, trying to survive in a difficult world where, unfortunately, being selfish is often a necessity. Cotillard is entirely convincing as Sandra, who is hoping to return to work following extended sick leave due to a bout of depression. Her problems are cited as one of the reasons why she should not be brought back – her work may be compromised by her mental state. And if there is a problem with the Dardennes’ screenplay it is that she doesn’t seem to be ready. She cries over the smallest thing, is clearly stressed and fragile, and seems to barely be keeping herself together. Gaining equal support and rejection, as Monday looms closer she takes even more drastic measures, surely indicating that there is still a long way to go before she is truly stable, but it passes by with almost as little ceremony as any other moment in the film.

Despite the film’s simplicity, it’s not boring, largely due to the variety of characters Sandra meets. Two Days, One Night adopts an almost segmented structure, as Sandra goes to speak to each of her sixteen colleagues, hoping to sway them to her side. Although some of the conversations become a bit repetitive (particularly her having to explain why the vote is being recast), such is the strength of the performances that it feels authentic rather than tedious. Although Sandra is the film’s focus, Cotillard is fully supported by the rest of the cast, all of whom bring the characters to life, if only for a scene or two. There are no real surprises, no significant twists (apart from the aforementioned, which seems to have been included for a moment of drama, but I could have happily done without) – it’s a gentle, simple, well-crafted yet quite unremarkable movie, one that is pleasant but, ultimately, largely forgettable.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Release date: 25 August 2014
Rating: 3/5

When Sin City was first released in 2005 it burst onto the screens, a grimy, dirty, adults-only noir the likes of which had never been seen. It’s a shame, therefore that, nine years later, the once eagerly awaited sequel proves to offer absolutely nothing new. Gone is the innovation of the first film; this one looks and sounds the same. Whether it could have done something vastly different is less the point than the fact that this is nine years later, and what was impressive in the mid-2000s is barely noticeable today. A Dame to Kill For, then, is in many ways the worst kind of sequel – outdated, unimaginative, uninspiring, routine. Yet for all that can be criticised about it, stylistically it still ticked the boxes for me. There are no complex characters or profound storylines here, of course, and anyone expecting them has been sorely misled. Instead, there is the usual bevy of hot, scantily clad, ass-kicking females, Eva Green in her typical vamp seductress role, heavy use of voice-over, and a bunch of actors punching well below their weight technically and well above their weight figuratively. Josh Brolin in particular is wasted in his role, while Joseph Gordon Levitt is adequate but largely irrelevant. I’ll always have a soft spot for Mickey Rourke, however, and despite the heavy prosthetics, he’s the only one who brings any life to his character – it seems he understands best of all that he need not take himself entirely seriously.

Sin City was a triumph of style over substance, and its sequel is no different. It may not be as original as the first (obviously), but visually it’s still quite beautiful. Heavily stylised, it’s hyper-noir, deliberately fantastical, explicitly acknowledging its graphic novel roots. In a time when the primary goal of most comic book movies appears to be realism, it’s quite a relief to see a film that rejects any guise of authenticity so entirely. That being said, the 3D is completely pointless – in a film that’s deliberately flat, all the 3D does is dull the bright white of the contrasting monochrome. As a final point, it should be said that, while A Dame to Kill For is violent (stylishly so), it barely seems to warrant its 18-rating – though perhaps this says more about the relaxation of the BBFC’s rating system than anything else. At a time when even Saw films can be a 15, Sin City‘s violence barely even matches that of a post-watershed television show – indeed, with shadows conveniently covering people’s lower halves, and blood shed in pretty arcs of white light, this is actually tamer than many series. Perhaps this is the final nail in the coffin for the movie, proving that in the nine years separating it from its predecessor, the world has changed, but Sin City has failed to keep up.

Obvious Child

Release date: 29 August 2014
Rating: 3/5

There’s usually a wild card at these press days – the film that no one’s heard of. Today, this was it, a small indie “comedy” about womanhood and the issues that matter. Whether you like it or not will most likely depend on a few factors: are you a woman, are you a feminist, do you enjoy jokes about bodily functions, how do you feel about abortion. Personally, I find it tedious that these films by women, for women still seem to be incapable of thinking outside the box, instead focusing, inevitably, on relationships and pregnancy. Is that really all that matters to the female human? If this film is anything to go by, as a gender we reclaim our femininity by discussing stains on knickers and saying the word “vagina” a lot (literally airing our dirty laundry in public), we drunk-phone ex-boyfriends like lunatics, and believe that it’s somehow acceptable to make the decision to have an abortion following a one-night stand yet – this is the important bit – not feel the need to inform the man about any of it. Obvious Child, the title taken from a Paul Simon song, offended me in the way that Sex and the City offended me, with its crudeness and self-obsessed whining.

Here, despite a strong performance from Jenny Slate as Donna, the almost-thirty woman-child forced to grow up after discovering she’s pregnant, it was difficult to really empathise with anyone on screen. Gaby Hoffmann, once a child actor seen saving LA from a volcano in Volcano, is one of the only recognisable faces, and her choice of roles in recent years seems to be deliberately based on feminist ideals, but her tirade about “a woman’s choice” is uninspiring. It’s particularly annoying that the men of the film are given such a raw deal. Donna’s dad pops up briefly, but serves no purpose. The ex boyfriend, ditto. The most rounded male character is gay (but stereotypically so), while the one-night-stand-turned-possible-love-interest (despite Jewish Donna worrying that he’s too “obviously Christian” to date) is easily one of the blandest characters ever – having not been told about the proposed abortion, he learns of Donna’s pregnancy when she uses the entire tale (including the forthcoming abortion) as part of her stand-up comedy routine. Yet even this isn’t enough to rouse Max, who is infuriatingly placid, supportive, and doesn’t even think to question Donna’s decision. Surely he should be at least the slightest bit annoyed at learning something so important at a comedy club? Shouldn’t he demand answers, or an explanation? Well, apparently not. In this movie, it appears to be only the females that are afforded any depth or complexity. Yet in the end, the writers seem to equate female empowerment with discussions about farting and defecation, as though that’s somehow something to aspire to. I remain unconvinced, and unamused.

Film #112: Southland Tales (2006)

film 112 southland tales

Rating: 5/5

“This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.”

Having attained cult status and acclaim for his feature debut Donnie Darko, writer-director Richard Kelly’s second film was eagerly anticipated by many – until it premièred at Cannes in 2006. Having already been significantly delayed, it received arguably the worst reception at the festival: audiences were not even interested in booing it, preferring to simply walk out. The film ended up with the lowest ratings of the festival, a meagre 1.1/5, and Kelly returned to the editing suite in a last-ditch attempt to salvage what was widely acknowledged as an incoherent mess. The work is visible in the film, which was eventually released at the end of 2007 – extensive voice-over, a mass of information at the beginning overloading the brain with facts and throwing the audience straight into the action, strange animated shots taken from the prequel comic books (another attempt to provide some coherence to the plot), new special effects. Characters who once possibly featured prominently now pop up for brief scenes – an unrecognisable Kevin Smith, for example, or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Janeane Garofalo in one of the final shots. It still barely makes sense – I’ve seen it dozens of times by now, and every time I realise something new, notice something crucial that I’d completely missed, lose track of the plot. It emerges like a fevered dream, hypnotic and surreal, a bizarre mixture of pop culture and theology, a supremely convoluted plot with a vast cast of eccentrics and weirdos spouting nonsense. It’s a marmite movie: you’ll either love it or hate it. I love it.

To recount the plot would, quite simply, take too long, but it goes something like this. It’s 2008, the future, and the government has become a paranoid Big Brother. Travel is restricted between states, but an actor with amnesia called Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, billed as his real name for the first time) has somehow ended up writing a screenplay with a psychic porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) that foretells the end of the world. Meanwhile Sean Patrick Scott is identical twin brothers, one impersonating the other, while the Neo-Marxists, a rebel organisation, collect fingers in an attempt to bring down Usident, the government surveillance operation led by Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson), wife of senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne). Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a war veteran turned drug addict also monitors from his platform above Venice Beach, looking over the newly built Fluid Karma factory, a new technology developed by Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) that could spell the end of global fuel shortages. And so it goes on. In this confused, and confusing, tangled web of a narrative, characters come and go, scandals are revealed, and the apocalypse begins. No pressure or anything.

It could either be a criticism or praise (I mean it as the latter) that Kelly’s screenplay throws the audience right into the middle of the story. The film is divided into three chapters, which are parts four, five, and six, each one named after a song (Temptation Waits by Garbage, Memory Gospel by Moby, and Wave of Mutilation by The Pixies). The first three chapters have subsequently been released in comic book form, but they, like the Donnie Darko director’s cut, are a complete disappointment, revealing that, in reality, Kelly never intended his story to be incoherent. The comics are far more linear – still bizarre – and much of the film’s impact is lost as a result. A brilliantly bonkers scene in the middle of the film, when a large number of the cast meet and all accuse each other of betrayal, is made redundant if one has read the comics, for example. The beauty of the film is that, like Donnie Darko, the audience is expected to fill in the blanks, to reach its own conclusions – the comic books take away that authority, reducing the film’s power to something far more mundane.

There’s so much to praise about Southland Tales. The cast, largely comprised of character actors and those who had previously been typecast in specific roles, all ham up their roles to perfection. Gellar is great as Krysta Now, the porn star with lofty intentions. Timberlake excels, and features in one of the film’s finest scenes, a surreal drug trip that comes out of nowhere. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson took a chance here, but it remains my favourite role of his – he’s charismatic, ironic, twitchy, funny and sympathetic – none of his other roles to date have offered him the chance to expand his repertoire as much as this one.

Kelly’s style is evident as well. There are moments that are reminiscent of Donnie Darko: the importance of music (he has been criticised for basically delivering a series of music videos); the slow motion dance sequences that become unsettling and strangely sinister; the apocalyptic narrative with, at its core, one man’s opportunity for salvation; that stunning tracking shot in the mega zeppelin near the film’s end, as the camera follows Bai Ling through the crowd. Southland Tales is an assault on the senses, each scene filled with beauty and chaos and new things to look for. It’s hectic and manic, seemingly spewing forth without direction, but it all ties together just enough. With references to Revelations, Robert Frost, TS Eliot and others, the characters diverge together, each one responsible for bringing the end of days a little closer, yet all the philosophy is ultimately reduced to one simple question: are you a pimp or not? It’s this kind of audacious combination of high concept and low culture that emphasises the film’s tongue-in-cheek stance – it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously, but there’s plenty to think about regardless.

I have always maintained that, given enough time, Southland Tales will be reclaimed as a masterpiece. That has yet to happen, but time has been favourable for the most part. In its year of release, it was – like Only God Forgives last year – found on both the “best films” and the “worst films” lists. Its almost perfectly average rating on IMDb (5.5/10) is the result of extreme opinions – everyone either gives it one or ten. For me, this is precisely the kind of film that is interesting: not the average and mundane, but the divisive, the controversial. For better or worse, Southland Tales is the latter – a film that has so much to say it perhaps forgets to say any of it properly, a film that is messy and muddled, stylish and superficial yet complex. For me, it’s one of the finest films of the last ten years. I welcome the counter-arguments!

Film #111: She’s All That (1999)

film 111 shes all that

Rating: 3.5/5

“I feel just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. You know, except for the whole hooker thing.”

If any film could hope to challenge Clueless as the ultimate high school movie, surely it’s She’s All That. So filled with clichés that in some ways it’s difficult to figure out whether it was the first of its kind or just another lame copy, it’s stupid but likeable, with an impressive cast including Freddie Prinze Jr, Rachael Leigh Cook, the late Paul Walker (I always forget he’s in it), Anna Paquin, Clea Duvall, Kieran Culkin – even Usher pops up, proving the movie’s pop-culture credentials, and so does Sarah Michelle Gellar, for a split second, in homage to the fact that this was shot in the same school as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

To be honest, it’s quite difficult to review She’s All That without being constantly reminded of Not Another Teen Movie, which quite perfectly parodied the more ridiculous moments – and, the fact that it’s this film that forms the basis of the spoof’s plot indicates how popular and influential it was. Cook is Laney Boggs, an anti-social poor girl filled with inner darkness, as evidenced by her moody abstract art. She’s beautiful, of course, but has the misfortune of wearing glasses, never plucking her eyebrows, and wearing paint-covered dungarees (see, I’m already slipping into Not Another Teen Movie…) Nevertheless, she’s the one popular-but-recently-dumped jock-hunk Zac (Prinze Jr) is tasked with transforming into the prom queen – the result of a bet between him and his jock buddy Dean (Walker). To be fair, she is not considered a challenge because of her looks, really, but because of her personality – but, naturally, a makeover is imminent, thanks to Zac’s sister Mackenzie (Paquin), and it seems to be mostly a result of her newfound contact lenses that, overnight, inexplicably, she becomes the most popular girl in school.

There are actually quite a few interesting possibilities borne out of this new popularity, but the film mostly ignores them. Honestly, if you scratch the surface of this movie, there’s mostly just more surface, and attempting any in depth analysis is a fairly pointless exercise. Laney’s nomination for prom queen doesn’t make her become a brat (a la Cady in Mean Girls, for example) but it does appear to bring all the nerds out of the woodwork – whereas the school initially seemed to be entirely populated by beautiful twenty-somethings (Walker was twenty-six; the only person even close to being actual high school age was Paquin, and she looks like a child in comparison; on a side note, realising this made me feel particularly old), following her nomination the student-extras more fully represent the less fortunate too. Yet this isn’t a “nerd-uprising” sort of film, and the likes of the Hygiene Club remain firmly in the background. There’s never even the slightest pause to consider how Laney actually feels about her makeover – she stops wearing her glasses but continues with her (more figure-hugging) paint-covered clothes, for example. What matters is not the exterior changes, but the internal ones – having avoided her classmates for years, she finally begins to realise that they’re not all as bad as she might have thought. Of course, some of them are precisely as bad as she thought: Dean has ulterior motives, while Zac’s ex Taylor will let nothing stop her from becoming prom queen. While Taylor is the pre-Mean Girls mean girl, her new flame, reality “star” Brock Hudson (Matthew Lilliard) is great fun – egotistical, self-obsessed and utterly deluded, his overly energetic moronics brighten up the film and provide arguably the best dance scene of the piece (sorry Usher, the prom dance is unexpected, but Brock’s fist-pumping worm takes the biscuit).

Seeped in pop-culture of the 90s, perhaps I’m again showing my age when I say that in many ways the film hasn’t dated as badly as it might have. Yes, there are several references to Hanson and yes, kids today might not know what The Real World is, but it’s by no means inaccessible today. Its biggest problem (if you can call it that) is the fact that, like I said earlier, everything seems so clichéd – and even that’s not really its own fault, but that of Not Another Teen Movie. Everything in this film reminds me of that one: the token black guy who features solely to react in exaggerated ways to the white kids; Laney contemplating her latest expression of artistic pain, which is really not particularly good, but we’re supposed to think it is; her father’s strange terms of endearment (“pumpkin nose”?!); Zac’s misunderstood rich-boy problems; Laney refusing to let anyone see her cry at the party… Every moment has been lampooned, highlighting the inanity of it all, and it’s really difficult for me to separate the two movies now. Yet I’ll happily watch She’s All That any time – its lead actors have a nice chemistry, its got a happy ending and, while I remember Clueless with great fondness from my childhood, it’s this film that captures the essence of my teen years. Besides, any film with a Buffy cameo gets my vote.