films

A review of Monsters in less than five words

About four years ago I saw a film called Primer, a no budget science fiction film about two engineers who accidentally invent a time machine, and try to wrap their heads around the complexity of their actions, and the power at their disposal. Primer won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, and Kermode gave it a decent enough review, and in spite of it being at times impenetrable and wilfully ambiguous, it really left its mark on me.

It’s a film I often recommend to people, even though really, it’s definitely more to be admired than enjoyed. Primer commands repeat viewing, which is always a bonus. It also makes no concessions to its audience, in fact, it probably credits them with too much intelligence at times. This approach has earned Primer a cult following, and its story sparked one of the most fevered and complicated debates that I’ve seen anywhere online. That’s not the real reason I like it.

The main reason I love Primer is because it’s the work of a first time director, Shane Carruth, who also wrote, starred in, scored, edited, and performed countless other tasks to turn the film around (his parents are even listed in the credits as the film’s caterers). And he did all of this on a reported budget of $7,000.

Anyone watching the film might find that hard to believe. Its shots are grainy and burnt out (it was shot on super 16mm and then blown up to 32mm), but Primer looks very much like a credible movie, and there’s nothing that really that gives its budget away. What really impressed me was that Carruth had no prior experience of filmmaking. No shorts. No ads. He was an engineer, with a pretty brilliant idea, and he taught himself everything he needed to realise that idea.

It’s this sort of endeavour that I find truly inspiring, and one that the film industry should be holding up as an exemplar of what can be achieved for very little money. But apart from some warm reviews, I can’t say I was ever swept away by the media’s coverage of Primer.

Thankfully, there’s no such danger of overlooking Monsters, which doesn’t really deliver any of its B movie promise, but somehow manages to be compelling, beautiful and thought-provoking (if only just to try and figure out what kind of film it actually is).

It’s the first feature-length effort from visual effects whizz Gareth Edwards, and you’d be hard pressed to read anything on it that doesn’t trumpet the fact that it was brought in at around $15,000.

You won’t believe it.

I came out of a screening thinking it was made for $100,000 and was still impressed. Then I read that it was made for a sixth of that sum, and I can’t decide if that’s not just a brilliant bit of marketing and a punt at trying to shift some “pro-sumer” cameras. This post from Slashfilm explains how the film was made for so little money, and it’s probably feasible, but I don’t know. The film feels a little too polished (the sound and score are just superb) and some of those extras were just a little too good.

It doesn’t matter really. If Monsters is a $15,000 film then it’s a great sign that even if we’re all broke and the Film Council is dead, we can still have great cinema (that doesn’t involve gangsters). And even though Edwards is not a novice with only interest and time on his hands, his efforts will hopefully inspire more people to get up and get involved.

If that was all that could be said about Monsters, it would be enough. But luckily, it’s also [Review alert] somehow very bloody good [As you were].

Just don’t ask me what kind of film it is.

Shut up, Wilhelm

For anyone living in blissful ignorance of the Wilhelm Scream, prepare to have your consciousness rogered by insidious movie trivia. But a little bit of knowledge never hurt anyone, right? WRONG! Becoming aware off the Scream is a curse, and once you spot the use of the most over-relied upon and annoying sound effect in cinematic history, there really is no escape.

The Wilhelm is most commonly found in actions films, usually at the point when some poor schmo is called upon to fall off or out of something from a great great height. It’s origins are still contested, but some claim the Scream made its debut in the 1951 film Distant Drums. Right or wrong, it took one of George Lucas’s Stormtroopers screaming like a little girl while tumbling down a bottomless chasm – for the Wilhelm to begin its short journey to inevitable overkill. Since then, it’s been used in… well actually, it’s easier to list the films it hasn’t appeared in. Ready?

No. 1: Er…

Yeah, that’s right, the Wilhelm Scream has appeared in EVERY FILM SINCE STAR WARS. Yeah it has.

OK, it hasn’t really, but the Scream has now appeared in more films than not, so it’s safer and more accurate to round up (probably).*

And as if calling it the Wilhelm wasn’t evidence enough of its ubiquity, here are just a few hundred of the millions and millions of films in which you’ll find it.

So why the overkill? Laziness? In joke? Homage? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that enough is enough. The sound of one more offed bad guy sounding like he’s being lowered balls first into ice water is one too many.

Unless of course, it’s Zac Effron…

*In no way accurate at the time of going to press. Or any other time.

From The Man Who Borrowed Your Hope (And Never Returned It)…

As The Last Airbender tumbleweeds its way through the cinemas of the West, you have to wonder at what point M Night Shyamalan’s career will just stop. Not slow down. Not get to the point where it’s just embarrassing (we’re already there). Just flat out stop.

The title might momentarily delight us Brits, but it doesn’t save The Last Airbender (smirk) from being the latest in a long line of frankly disappointing movies from Mm… Night.

But that’s it now, surely? It’s over, right? Apparently not.

Devil, a forthcoming horror film that sees several strangers trapped in a lift together, is not a Shyamalan film, but according to the marketing, it is a product of his mind. Here’s the trailer:

If like me, this proclamation doesn’t fill you with cautious excitement, you could always hope that M’s input extends no further than the trailer’s statement that: “everything (whoosh) happens (whoosh) for. a. reason,” (which is also the central tenet from Signs). But this is Shyamalan, and sadly, I abandoned all hope, by degrees, from Unbreakable onwards.

In a post Airbender world, “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” is about as appealing a phrase as  “From the pants of John McCririck” or “from the childhood memories of Mel Gibson…”

Like Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) after him, Shyamalan seems to have got lucky with the Sixth Sense, and in that heady time, he borrowed our hope, and never gave it back. And far from moving on to pastures new, he stuck around, leaving our peripheries besmirched by the omnipresent bumcrack of his subsequent failures.

I’m really not convinced about the whole producer/director endorsement thing. I might be wrong about this, but I certainly would like to meet the person who cares that the director of the Spider-Man films will allow a so-so horror remake of The Grudge out of the stable. Nor should anyone care if the guy who did the majority of the shouting on the sets of the Pirates films is on shouting duties on the next eight National Treasure films (although Nic Cage pretending to be drunk and speaking in mock English is always welcome).

In fact, the one instance I can remember of this sales tactic actually working goes too far; many people have told me that they really enjoyed The Orphanage (dir: Juan Antonio Bayona), and that yes, it might even be their favourite Guillermo Del Toro film. Yeah! In your face,  Bayona! Where has your brilliant handling of tone and genre shocks got you now, eh?

At best, such poster-friendly footnotes seem more for the benefit of critics (who know already and don’t really care) or uber-niche film nuts (who possibly care too much). But if these tactics do work, then surely it takes actual success to drum up expectation? Surely “from the mind of M Night. Shyamalan” isn’t quite what we’re looking for as an audience? It’s like looking at the specials board in a McDonalds.

The logical conclusions are a bit depressing (“from the director of Transformers 2”) but if such lofty praise as “from the writers of Saw IV, V and VI” is deemed fit for purpose to sell a film like The Collector, then maybe Shyamalan shouldn’t have too much to worry about any time soon.

The book/film quandry

OK, here’s the dilemma. The adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo hits cinemas on Friday. So, do I rush through the book in time to see the film, or read the book afterwards (assuming I feel the need to)?

Perhaps this raises the question of why would anyone even want to read a book after having seen the film. Well, given the amount of praise lavished on both the book and film, the chances are I might want to read it after. Here’re my thoughts as to why:

Film adaptations are a tricky thing, but good ones pretty much rely on the strength of the source material. I can’t think of many examples of mediocre books that get adapted for screen (Flashforward might count, but the show is more of a re-imagining).

My reasons for not having read Tattoo yet are a) because it’s now impossible to avoid the hype around the book and b), I hate the looks that commuters and the like give when I read something popular. That’s right, their screwed up eyes and knowing looks are stunting my literary appreciations. Damn them!

Obviously it depends on the film, but reading a book afterwards can serve several functions:

1) It can clarify points that don’t come across too well in the film
2) It offers a chance to spend a little more time in that world and its characters (Frank Herbert’s Dune being an extreme but prime example)
3) It can often serve as a kind of literary DVD extra, providing background details on aspects that the film couldn’t or wouldn’t cover (Let The Right One In is a good case in point)

Here are a couple of examples of books that actually add something to their film adaptations.

No Country For Old Men
Well, actually, this doesn’t add anything to its film adaptation, but that’s pretty much the point here (or anti-point); comparing film and book confirms how slavishly the Coens stuck to the source. Apparently, when asked how they went about adapting the book, the Coens describe the process as one of them reading aloud while the other types. It’s intended as a joke, but that approach definitely comes out in the reading/viewing. In the most positive way, the book is exactly like the film, almost page for page, and it’s interesting to see that play out.

Let The Right One In
The questions raised in the film made me immediately want to read the book. And the book answers those questions. But these do not rise out of poor storytelling. There’s a definite effort to credit the viewer with the intelligence to puzzle over some of the story. I imagine that reading the book first might make for a slightly less enchanting viewing of the film, but then that can be said of most film adaptations.

In fact, for its intended audience, Let The Right One In feels like a film that’s designed to compliment the book instead of offer an easier way to consume its story. There’s a neat connect in what you can take from the film, which sustains it easily without giving everything away, and how you can “go further” with the book, which gives you the whole story. It’s almost certainly accidental, but I would love to see more of this approach in adapting books for the screen.

Generally though, film adaptations are forced to leave out reams of detail to fit the format, and they’re destined to fall short of the expectations of avid readers ([don’t] See Time Traveller’s Wife, The Lovely Bones etc).

All of which means that there are no solid conclusions to be drawn. Bad stories can make good films or TV. Amazing books can make for poor movies. Generally, the book tells the stronger story, except when it doesn’t… and that every now and then, a film manages to take everything that mattered about the book, and leave out just enough to make you want to read it anyway.

Which is either the product of a true artist, or a twisted genius (neither of which have gone anywhere near the Predator novelisation).

The Cr-Oh FFS!

Yeah yeah, I’m way behind the curve on this (for a rough idea of how much my finger’s on the pulse, see my last post), but all things point to a remake of The Crow actually happening.

Young me would probably be vehemently opposed to this; when I saw this film, I came away from it loving the idea of running across rooftops, wearing eyeliner and kicking arse like Brandon Lee. The Crow was the late teens answer to Casablanca or something. “It’s mine, and you can’t have it. HUFF! I’M GOING OUT! (STOMP STOMP STOMP stomp stomp).”

The film spoke to me, to the point that it made me listen to the Cure, eight years after it was anywhere near credible to do so. It was that bad.

I haven’t tested it on actual teenagers yet, but looking back now, it seems like The Crow was a perfect teen film; it’s tragic, dark, angsty, angry and steeped in real life tragedy. At the time, my young person’s brain actually went in for its glorification of revenge, believing it was probably morally justifiable. That’s more than a little embarrassing to admit.

I’d like to think that I have evolved a bit since then, and away from such simplistic tosh, I have drawn some fairly logical conclusions about revenge (=bad), vigilantism (=bad) and black plastic trousers (= impractical).

But this isn’t really why I think remaking the Crow is a bad idea. Here are two things that spring immediately to mind:

1) If rumours are to be believed, the remake will be helmed by Steve Norrington, who hasn’t made a good film since Blade, and whose last film was LXG. Yes.

2) The content of films, or what you can get into a rated film, has changed. On its release, The Crow was a cert 18 film. Now, at some point in the late 90s, something happened, and what seemed like quite graphic violence wasn’t actually so bad anymore.

I first noticed this when seeing Starship Troopers (cert 15) in 1996 (aged 22). After this, it seemed like you you could get away with a lot more in a 15 cert than ever before (see any Final Destination film). And now, check out the Dark Knight – that’s a 12a.

I’m not anti-gore. Far from it. I can watch no end of zombie movies (but I draw the line at a remake of Last House On The Left). However, in view of this trend for gorier films, a remade Crow surely has to try and capture the late teens/early 20s market by including gorier demises and a nastier rape scene. If it did, won’t all that graphically depicted wrongdoing and its equally graphic retribution just reinforce the notion among the impressionable that revenge = good?

I should probably credit today’s audiences with the intelligence to differentiate between entertainment and any kind of moral lesson. But yikes, if they are as impressionable as I was at that age… oh boy!

Scott Pilgrim = Awesome

I was going to write something about how Stardust might be the Princess Bride of the 21st Century, but then got distracted by other stuff and, oh wait… it’s probably a bit rubbish to write about writing, right? Huff! Hang on then…

No one likes a half rave about something. But sometimes a half rave is the best I can do (actually many people would be shocked I can even manage that), so here goes…

Ashamed as I am to admit it, I’ve been using movies production slates as a way to get into great comic books lately. This is because I am a) too lazy to keep abuzz of the best comics and b) more likely to see what’s in development on IMDB than actually read any kind of blog about comics. There’s really no good reason why this would be. I just don’t know any good comics sites, and it’s not like it’s my whole world or anything. God! Give me a break will you?

Anyway, my latest cool “find” (smirk) is/are the Scott Pilgrim comics (Incidentally, these are being made into a film by Edgar Wright and starring Michael Cera).

The first book, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life is just superb, and while books two and three are OK, the fourth and fifth books are back on great form (not book one great, but still worth checking out).

I won’t go on about the story. You can get that from the first paragraph of wikipedia. This is more about why you should read them. Yes, I’m that pompous.

For me, the charm of the books is basically that everyone around Scott has pretty much grown up into proper twentysomethings, but Scott is still a teenager at heart, and his innate sense of childish glee permeates his entire outlook. It’s this glee, and Scott’s general inability to grasp simple concepts immediately that makes him so loveable.

He also reminds me of me (a little bit), in that he’s crap at remembering to do stuff, he’s a bit slow to process developments, he’s rubbish at planning things, and is easily distracted. I’m mostly accused of being dour and grumpy, and occasionally I am full of joy, and this surprises people. This feels very Scott Pilgrim (substituting grumpiness with perpetual confusion)

Now that I think about it, the books remind me a bit of the cell-shaded look of Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker. They’re manga cute, with brilliantly laid out panelling. They’re peppered with all kinds of nerdy gaming references (eg, when Scott achieves any kind of personal progression, he levels up, RPG style), and they’re full of great, snarky asides.

And yet, this is a half rave. Mainly because the middle of the story so far is a bit saggy and confusing. That said, it’s now getting great again, as if O’Malley needed that middle section to plot everything out, establish characters, and has settled into focussing again on what makes this comic great (Oh, wait, hmm… maybe I should read what’s left before posting. Erm… oh I dunno!).

So yes! If you like funny, slightly nerdy comics about love, gaming and playing in bands, or if you like being able to say “Oh yeah, I’ve not seen it yet, but I’ve read the comic…” then check out these books. I whole-half-heartedly* recommend them!

*Average number of hearts could go up as well as down.