Friday, January 11, 2008

Richard Linklater - A Scanner Darkly (2006)

First up, I'll have to confess to not having read the 1977 novel by Philip K. Dick of the same name. Films based on Dick's works range from the sublime (Blade Runner) to the ridiculous (Minority Report) but even when they're done badly the ideas are always interesting. I'd read some lacklustre reviews of this one, but it pleasantly surprised me.

The first thing to say about the film itself is that, visually, it's stunning. It was shot in live action, and then animated in a 'painterly' style (by a team of artists), a technique which works beautifully with the surreal plot. Indeed, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed the film nearly so much live.

The action takes place 'seven years from now'; a deadly new drug, 'Substance D', is sweeping the USA, leading to a massive government response in terms of criminal law and surveillance. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover agent, living in the drug underworld along with Donna (Winona Ryder), Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and various other unsavoury characters. But Bob is getting addicted to Substance D himself - and meanwhile, New Path, a seemingly-omnipresent corporation running rehabilitation clinics, begins to loom large... The plot is convoluted, containing numerous 'switches' (I was reminded of The Matrix, though ASD is far less fantastical in a scifi sense), but this only adds to the pervasive atmosphere of paranoia and unreality which is the film's chosen metier.

This is a film about drugs with a clear and definite moral take, but not a preachy message. In its approach to the topic, it's also (metaphorically) political in terms of the operation of drugs in society, and seems very contemporary in that regard. Reeves is for the most part good (I'll admit that I have a soft spot for him despite his fairly limited acting skills - but given what's happening to his character, this might be seen as appropriate) although some ponderously portentous monologues are problematic at times. I also found Downey Jr.'s hyperactive character irritating, but not to the point of exasperation. The dystopic setting itself is very nicely done. Overall, by no means a classic, but a very interesting little work - the gorgeous visual spectacle alone is worth the price of admission.

Francis Lawrence - I Am Legend (2007)

While it had its flaws, I'd enjoyed the 1964 film The Last Man On Earth (with Vincent Price), like this film based on Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend (which I haven't read), so I was curious to see what this treatment was like. This film, however, didn't have a whole lot to recommend it despite a few nice moments.

Will Smith stars as Robert Neville, a virologist who failed to prevent a cure for cancer mutating into a hideous disease which killed most of the population, and turned the rest into ravening zombies, except much speedier than 'zombies' would normally imply. Neville, who may be the last survivor, and whose wife and daughter may be dead, is still working on a cure in post-apocalyptic New York, with only his faithful hound for company. One of the film's worst scenes involves the death of said canine. There's also an awful, bathetically angsty scene between Smith and some mannequins (seriously).

I'll admit that I like Will Smith; he's got an easy charisma that's rare among male Hollywood stars. And he's certainly smoking hot in this film - we get to see a lot of flesh, though nothing too intimate - this is Hollywood, after all. However, as other reviewers have noted, in this film, playing such a tortured role and without (for the most part) other characters to bounce off, his charisma (his strong point) is muted. Another flaw is the completely illogical plot; why, for example, does Neville still have access to electricity and running water for his experiments? This example could be multiplied many times over.

A more serious issue is the not-so-subtle Christian propagandising the film engages in throughout. I really didn't appreciate being evangelised to in this propagandistic, concealed way.

Strengths? The aforementioned Will Smith eye candy - and there were some very nice, atmospheric scenes set in an abandoned New York city (though in conception that's nothing we haven't already seen in 28 Days Later, a more interesting failure), and also in Neville's underground laboratory. But overall, I'd stick with The Last Man On Earth.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Susanna Clarke - The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories (2006)

Since leaving my teens, I've never been a fan of the updated fairy tale, perhaps because it tends either to simply (re)include heavy sexuality, or else put a heavily obvious ideological spin on the proceedings. And (in contrast to a former self) I rarely read short stories these days. But Susanna Clarke's fantastic (in all senses), monumental novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an epic story of faeries and magicians set in a Victorian alterna-history in which magic took the place of the Industrial Revolution (this sells the work extremely short, and I can't recommend it highly enough), was a feast - and so I gave her new work, a collection of short stories based on magical and, in particular, faerie themes, a go.

As a complete Victoriana-phile, I'm always looking for modern fiction set in the Victorian period which actually manages to pull off the period detail, society, and language, rather than Mills & Boon cod-Victoriana, or an unfunny, over-the-top send-up of Victorian manners. It's a difficult quality to find, but Clarke has it in spades (some others I'd recommend in this vein, though without the fantasy aspect, are D. J. Taylor's Kept and Wesley Stace's Misfortune). The best of the stories here are set in the world of Strange and Norrell (and some familiar characters recur), that is, the late-Regency to Victorian period in Britain, in which a familiar opposition takes place between the magic of the 'head' (modern, rational, booklearning, technological prowess) and of the 'heart' (ancient, emotional, connected to gods and faeries, natural, uncontrollable). The theme of the cunning mortal outwitting the faerie is also a recurring plot.

The most successful stories are those which most inhabit the world of Strange and Norrell, while the least are those which simply retell old fairy tales. Overall, in opposition to JS&MN, plot is not the point here: even the more elaborate stories are fairy tale retellings, cast into a different world, or else based heavily on traditional fairytale narratives. But, unusually for me, I didn't find this a problem - all the stories held my interest, and I devoured the whole (modest) book in one sitting.

There are some other interesting points to the work; the one 'retelling' aspect which comes up fresh, original and shiny is a fascinating piece which compares the situation of Jews and Faeries in the society created by Clarke. There's also a story set in the village of Wall (where the human and fairy realms meet), created by Neil Gaiman in Stardust (having said which, I've never liked anything of Gaiman's except for his original Sandman series).

This work threw a lot of things at me which I don't usually have much time for (these days, at least): short stories, 'updated' fairytales and myths, and modern genre fantasy (Clarke thanks Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow, among others) - but I devoured it. I wouldn't lay money, however, on whether it would universally find the same reception amongst those who haven't read JS&MN. The work, to me, was a tease, a little taster of what's been happening in that world since and contemporaneously with the original novel - I can only hope Clarke doesn't keep me waiting too long for something more significant to sink my teeth into.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Eli Roth - Hostel (2005)

Presenting the second, and possibly final, instalment in my grumpy-underculture-snob-meets-horror-of-the-noughties series... this film really had no redeeming features whatsoever, and I don't mean that in a good way.

We follow the story, such as it is, of American backpackers Josh and Paxton, and the Icelandic Oli, who are hanging around Europe doing what backpackers do (drinking, taking drugs and looking to get laid) when they find themselves in a whole passel o' trouble when they fall prey to an organisation 'sourcing' subjects for the snuff play of the rich and perverted. There is a skerrick of character development in the juxtaposition of uninhibited Pax with the supposedly more bookish Josh (I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief when he mentioned Kafka), but overall there's little here in the way of character or plot: boys meet psychos, boys get tortured, boys try to escape from psychos.

What's interesting, though not, I think, intended, is what this film says and doesn't say about the relationship between the USA and Europe. Made by Eli Roth (I quite enjoyed his Cabin Fever, which had a shadow more of the original, and of the b-grade, about it than Hostel) with the support of a cinematic bete noir of mine, Quentin Tarantino (did you know that in France they call it 'bete noir'? Leaves 'Royale with Cheese' in the shade anyday - I think I'm freaking out!), this film plays very heavily on stereotypes of Europe in general, and Eastern Europe in particular, as an old and evil place where a thin veneer of civilisation overlies a deeply cynical barbarism. In this world, the young and naive Americans (along with the hapless party animal Oli) find themselves entirely out of their depth and easy prey.

But the film doesn't seem sure what it wants to say. Are we to view the protagonists, who are a typical amalgam of the privileged (they're studying law and English) and the boozing party animal, as stereotypical idiot, ignorant American tourists who are only concerned with the gratification of their own desires on whatever object presents itself, and deserve all they get? Are we to see them as understandably hedonistic, carefree young men indulging a last bender, for whom we should feel sympathy? Given the lack of character development or emotional involvement, this seems unlikely... What isn't in doubt in terms of perception is that Eastern Europeans themselves (and indeed all Europeans, with the exception of Oli) are seen as black-and-white figures of evil. There's a long tradition of the Anglo colonies holding this view, of Europe as corrupt and corrupting of the youthful, naive and innocent colonial, from the works of Henry James through to David Cronenberg's latest, Eastern Promises. But I wouldn't call this Oedipal stereotype a proud pedigree.

Hostel has been both highly praised and highly damned; but I don't particularly think it merits either. Despite the plaudits given to the film as a horror film, I didn't find it scary at all - even the usual chase-scene-shrieking-violins-suspense, which most modern slasher flicks have on tap (because it's an easily achievable emotional trick), don't really work in this film, where they're let down by a soundtrack that goes beyond the standard 'noticeable violin cheese' into the realm of fondue.

On the other hand, accusations that the film has led to a new genre of 'torture porn' or 'gorno' also seem overblown; certainly as a one-time gore aficionado I didn't find it particularly confronting, and we might think both of historical predecessors such as Bloodsucking Freaks, the Troma films, or Mexican and Italian horror exploitation films, all of which are much more interesting than this little work. Indeed, perhaps the novelty was that this film brought splatter-gore out of the cult underground and into the popular mainstream; but even then I don't think this argument would hold, given the popularity of big-budget movies like the recent ...of the Dead films, or House of 1000 Corpses. Or perhaps (I can't speak for Corpses here, as I haven't seen it) the novelty is that the only thing about Hostel which makes an impact is the gore. I suspect the latter...