Wednesday, 23 July 2014
Animation principles haven't tended to get a lot of play in CG blockbusters. There's an ever-present sense of restraint. Nobody wants their robots or their dinosaurs slipping into capering, so movement and expression are kept rather routine. There's an inbuilt critical backlash too. Any film that spends too much time with the effects tends to get labelled as a video game - the vulgar other that most people don't even consider a worthwhile artform. So what should cinema aspire to? Three people bickering in a small room? Why are dynamics so looked down upon? Surely as a visual medium there should be space in the canon for spiky things moving incredibly fast?
Despite his assertions to the contrary, Andy Serkis' motion capture acting has ended up being a vessel for smuggling sustained computer generated animation into mainstream films. As a credible human actor Serkis has become the poster boy for acceptable simulated excess. His loud boasting, coupled with the inherent critical safety his thesp credentials offer, has allowed a feature creep. Films like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes hinge on sustained time spent with textured 3D models. Press releases tell us they're just visual approximations of physical on set acting, but it's obvious there's a lot more to it than that. Scour any article in which Serkis evangelises about mo-cap and you'll find a string of animators in the comments section casually chatting about how much, or how little, of his performance they ended up using when constructing their passes.
Serkis has then allowed filmmaking and animation to intermingle at a conceptual level. Films no longer need to stop dead for special effects sequences, the entire film can be one. The apes in Dawn and Rise of the Planet of the Apes inspire a genuine sense of wonder. Higher primates are always fascinating but seeing them act with clear, dramatically delineated agendas is spellbinding. If either film has a fault it's that the human story never grabs the attention in the same way as Caesar's. How could it though? What actor could possibly be as interesting as a photorealistic Chimp that's monarchy personified one minute, extreme personal threat the next? Ralph Fiennes came close recently with a similar kind of performance in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but that film didn't spend actual minutes gazing lovingly at Fiennes while he drew his muscled body up to its maximum height.
Tuesday, 22 July 2014
Originally conceived as a post-SNL vehicle for Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz, that is until producer Don Simpson took the pair to Vegas and horrified them by being a party animal / disgusting fucking pig, Bad Boys eventually landed with Martin Lawrence and noted bisexual Will Smith. Propaganda Films graduate Michael Bay finds himself hamstrung on his first feature trying to make sense of a reheated buddy cop script that frequently rambles off into dreadful.
Based on the evidence presented here, it's easy to see why Bay cultivated a distrust of the written word. Four credited screenwriters couldn't shift Bad Boys out of its clunky, tell-don't-show funk. The director gets far better results by just letting the two stars bicker in tight close-ups. Elsewhere, Tea Leoni tries desperately to wring some sort of pathos out of the mumbling, stuttering arc she's been assigned. Bad Boys is an object lesson in the difference between an actor and a star. Workhorse Leoni sticks to the blueprint and comes off wooden. Lawrence and Smith fuck the script off and ham it up, becoming masculine ideals to 15 year old boys everywhere.
Lawrence and Smith's contempt for the basic mechanics of the film they're in saves Bad Boys to a degree. By disengaging they get to be the audience stand-ins, commenting on the formulaic proceedings. The pair don't act like cops. They break the law and flippantly talk about killing people. Most importantly they aren't emotionally invested, because, truthfully, neither are we. This is the idea Michael Bay has built a career on. Why bother trying to construct meaningful characters or situations when you can instead shoot your actors like they're in a hypersexual music video? You make your stars the crux of the commercial. The product they are selling is cool.
Monday, 21 July 2014
Sunday, 20 July 2014
Friday, 18 July 2014
Head over here to buy up merchandise to help fund a feature length Prison Pit animated movie. In a perfect world a Japanese animation studio would snap this up and turn into an interminable serial full of nonsensical filler and minimal animation.
Tuesday, 15 July 2014
Monday, 14 July 2014
Transformers: Age of Extinction is the first film in the series I've enjoyed. Previous entries fumbled an easy sale by changing million year old soldiers into uncoordinated idiots, basing the entire third act around racist robots and, in the case of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a truly revolting performance from Shia LaBeouf. Implied domestic abuse aside, Moon did have a few cool beats. Fallen Autobot Sentinel was at least a two-dimensional idea of villainy.
Michael Bay's latest easily tops that with a PTSD Prime coming to terms with the horrors that have been visited on his kind. Prime is no longer a background player, he's Extinction's dramatic engine. In this sense the film is the closest match to the multimedia brand that was pumped into my brain as a child. So while Extinction may be vulgar, blaring trash, it has enough consistent character ideas to conjure up a few cackles.
Extinction's villain Lockdown operates as an opposite to Optimus Prime, the swaggering mercenary to Prime's rigid true believer. Lockdown has no allegiance to either the Autobots or Decepticons. He's something new - a third path. Lockdown's name and occupation springs from Transformers: Animated, were he seemed an attempt to roll Marvel UK's Death's Head character into the Hasbro canon.
Lockdown is Lamborghini grey and carries a sickle. He unpacks from a Aventador sports car, his body flayed and athletic compared to the new plate metal Prime. Like Sentinel Prime before him, Lockdown has a human face to stress cunning and duplicity. Lockdown's grasping anti-agenda opens up future conflicts beyond the strict binaries of Autobot and Decepticon, he's a cosmic character with a menagerie of violent, spiky things to command and the ability to reconfigure his face into a gun.
Lockdown, along with the rusting, cantankerous Hound, feels like he's been designed as a personality first and a toy second. He's a Spaghetti Western sharpshooter brought in to throw a spanner in the works. Riding shotgun is Megatron, resurrected as his upgraded form Galvatron. He's visually cleaner, resembling an ogre mocked up by Apple. There's none of the regal splendour of Floro Dery's original design but, like the 1986 Galvatron, he's immune to an outside force trying to rebrand him. As ever, the Megatron personality is persistent, looking for weakness.
Extinction's Autobots are no longer hulking do-gooders, they each have own individual outline and colour scheme. Their personalities are violent and disagreeable. Two of Prime's soldiers are openly insubordinate when they think he isn't looking. Fresh recruits are battered into compliance. These kinds of ideas aren't new to Transformers as a property. Flick through Marvel's The Transformers Universe character guides and you'll discover the Autobot ranks are full of sociopaths. How else do you cope with a war that has lasted forever?
Simon Furman's Transformers: Generation 2 comics featured Autobots seething with grenade pouches and belts of ammunition. Derek Yaniger using the visual vocabulary of 90s X-Men comics to rejuvenate ailing ideas and characters, making them gritty champions of war that terrify the pacifist aliens they help. Extinction goes a little further, Hound's mek-nificent four are basically 2000 AD's ABC Warriors - a cadre of treacherous killer robots who only respect strength.
There's a sense of truth in this idea though. Optimus Prime isn't Superman. He doesn't have a no kill policy when it comes to equals. He's a warrior general fronting an intergalactic establishment in a civil war. Since he carries a God artefact in his chest, he should probably be considered a religious extremist too. This punch-drunk Prime adds up. When Marky Mark finds him gathering dust in a devastated movie theatre he's literally decrepit. Peter Cullen's voice has a raspier register this time, evoking a kind of weariness.
Extinction's Prime has been betrayed by the race he tried to help. His preferred team mates have been hunted down and horrifically murdered. So when he takes a moment to lay out the fact that he absolutely will kill a human now, it doesn't feel particularly extreme. If you accept Optimus Prime as a character rather than a special effect, why wouldn't he? Especially locked into this hyper-aggressive Michael Bay milieu.
Extinction's Prime is past higher ideals. They died with his comrades. Three films have taught him humans will sanction his actions, attack him and his troops, and now dissect them in pursuit of a pay raise. Prime is a zealot from a world that has subsumed every aspect of their society into pure conflict. Currency is irrelevant to Prime, all he values is subsistence. He's used to total war. So when he brushes up against profiteering and the military-industrial complex why wouldn't he be revolted?
Prime survives in the company of Cade Yeager, a deranged possessive with a knack for engineering. Yeager repairs Prime and speaks to him like an equal. Yeager is also keen to use Cybertronian technology to join the fight. Yeager then fulfils a similar function to Prime's de-activated warrior-medic Ratchet. To a ruthless utilitarian like Optimus Prime, Yeager is genuinely useful.
Sam Witwicky was always just collateral damage waiting to happen, a human germ who had his action heroics mapped onto a secondary character. In contrast Yeager tracks after Prime providing suppressing fire. Ehren Kruger repeatedly stresses Yeager in similar masculine terms as Prime - the Father God who plays with his children's lives but will ultimately die for them. When Yeager's government threaten him and his family Prime is explosively angry.
This is an ideological clash. Optimus Prime is the supreme commander of the Autobot faction of Cybertronians. It's a position he's won through bloodshed and maintained with respect. Extinction also posits that it's a role run on fear. Prime is so terrifyingly powerful no-one dares challenge him. Even skyscraper tall Tyrannosaurs get their jaws broken trying. Prime is then the totality of a government state, a fascist ideal programmed to fulfil every executive role in an endless war. If he has found a use for Cade Yeager, who the fuck are Frasier or the American Government to disagree?
Age of Extinction has bum jokes, a peeping Tom gaze and a runtime that feels like punishment, but it also features an Optimus Prime who is so absolutely fucking disgusted by the race he's found himself protecting that he's excited to blast off into deep space on a suicide mission.
Sunday, 13 July 2014
Saturday, 12 July 2014
For all its faults Hellraiser at least had a solid dramatic idea underpinning the vivisection. Hellbound: Hellraiser II doesn't even bother. The film begins well enough - Julia is dragged out of the underworld by Dr Channard, a lobotomist who is sexually excited by flayed bodies. Early scenes of the Julia drifting around Channard's house, leaving bloody handprints all over his all-white interiors are at least visually interesting.
Julia and Channard make for an intriguing couple too. Channard's an Aleister Crowley fan who uses his position at a psychiatric hospital to requisition police evidence and stage satanic ceremonies. Julia seems to be working directly for the geometric shape that twists and turns at the centre of hell, claiming black souls for augmentation. Neither get much to do beyond that. Julia is stuck glowering at the dreary heroines, boasting about her new role as a wicked witch. Channard gets a Cenobite makeover, falling apart at a crucial moment for no particular reason. This is Hellbound's problem, characters and actions aren't tracking towards organic conclusions, they're simply grist for risible splatter effects.
Friday, 11 July 2014
Clive Barker's directorial debut takes a sunday evening television idea and thoroughly vandalises it. Hellraiser's adulterous love triangle involves married couple Larry and Julia, as well as his flick knife carrying brother Frank. Weeks before Larry and Julia's wedding, Frank made a point of fucking Julia with such expertise that she's never been able to shake the memory.
Following a prolonged disappearing act from Frank, the bickering bride and groom move into his former lodgings, the decrepit old family home. Unknown to them, Frank met a sticky end in the attic after purchasing an ornate puzzle box. Whilst moving a mattress, Larry snags his hand on a rusty nail. Being of a weedy constitution, Larry rushes upstairs to show his wife, spilling copious amounts of soupy gore on the bare floorboards. This blood offering returns the dead Frank back to life as a dessicated, vampiric corpse. Reunited with Julia, Frank sets about manipulating his former plaything into bludgeoning drippy businessmen for him to feast on.
Although Doug Bradley's Pinhead gets all the attention, Hellraiser is really Julia's film. Barker and actress Clare Higgins take what could be a sleazy, one-dimensional role and beef it up with anxiety and hesitation. Julia is willing to help her flayed lover but she isn't brazen, it's an obligation. A unpalatable task to churn through. The hammer murders she commits are also framed by her disastrous interactions with men. Julia's husband is a loud-mouthed dolt who keeps pawing at her even when she's sobbing. The suits she picks up to feed Frank are either sneering yuppies or ditherers who turn rough behind closed doors. Frank, Julia's idea of salvation, doesn't even pretend to love her.
S&M debauchery aside, a sense of sadness hangs over Hellraiser. Julia has spent her life settling. Her marriage is so lacking in passion that she's willing to cave other people's heads in to feel desired. Julia is used to putting up with slights and soldiering on. She doesn't even flinch when Frank starts making it obvious he's lusting after Julia's stepdaughter Kirsty. She simply looks the offer way.
Disappointingly, Hellraiser the film eventually loses interest in Julia as well. Despite doing all the heavy lifting in the second act, Julia is dumped as soon as the demonic Cenobties turn up. Hellraiser had developed two competing ideas of how female sexuality is commodified - youth versus experience and expertise. Sadly they barely clash. Julia's discarded, skinned offscreen. Kirsty ends up front and centre, banishing monsters by solving a Rubik's Cube.
Wednesday, 9 July 2014
After surviving a hit-and-run incident involving a plane, the thick-headed Max makes his way to Bartertown, an oasis in the endless Australian desert. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a further reorganising of the series' mythos, this time paying strict attention to the shape and heft of mid-80s blockbusters. In deference to the market the ever present sexual danger of the previous films is scaled back and action scenes are now peppered with Chuck Jones sight gags. This time Max must brave a fracturing proto-capitalist milieu, learning how to be a hero again in the process.
Max begins the film as a long-haired hermit loaded down with camels and more pistols than Carlos Ezquerra's El Mestizo. His dealings in Bartertown bring him to the attention of Aunty, a businesswoman looking to consolidate her hold on the settlement. In this section Max is willing to play assassin as long as it benefits him. Previously Max has needed an emotional investment to commit to a particular cause, even if it's something as slippery as pride. Thunderdome's Max begins as the inverse, he needs a reason not to kill.
Despite the PG-13 taming of the wasteland wanderer idea, Thuderdome proceeds from the most nihilistic point yet. Max never stopped moving. In two decades he never found anyone to share the day after with. Max has become a fallen hero, willing to murder someone he doesn't know to put money in his pocket. The third Mad Max is then about a man rediscovering himself bit by bit, testing his limits to redefine who he will be. Along the way several spectral signifiers present themselves to prod Max along.
Certain characters represent key decisions for Max, Thunderdome is rife with doppelgängers lifted from the highwayman's previous lives. The first significant signpost is Blaster, the armoured muscle that helps run Bartertown's subterranean pig farm. Blaster's true face, revealed after Max strikes off his metal helmet with a gigantic mallet, gives our hero pause. Glances are exchanged. Blaster smiles. Max relaxes. Perhaps Max remembers Benno, the strapping farmhand who lived with his friend May in Mad Max? Master talks about his beefy companion in exactly the same way May did - both are said to have the mind of a child. Either way, Max immediately snaps out out of mercenary mode, ditching his weapon and revealing Aunty's seditious plot to the assembled crowd. Noble qualities are beginning to re-emerge.
Jedediah the aircraft pilot who mugged Max at the beginning of the film is played by Bruce Spence, who previously starred as the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2. Aside from both character's aeronautical bent, there's little evidence to suggest they're both the same man. We were told by the Feral Boy's closing narration that Gyro lived out his days as head of the great Northern tribe, not as a bleach blonde sky pirate. Apart from an opportunity to bring back the wonderfully slimy Spence, Jed plays like visual shorthand to stir something in Max - lanky beanpoles as an avatar for aerial escape.
Most importantly of all there's Savannah, the surrogate mother to a tribe of lost children. Savannah is the sea change in Max, the person whose actions force him to stop and consider what he has lost and who he has become. Savannah is youth, decency and adventure, everything Max no longer is. She's Max's dead wife Jessie reimagined as a teenage warrior, a female equal to The Road Warrior. Primarily, Savannah is used to demonstrate how far Max has fallen.
After Max refuses to be recognised as a messiah, the braver factions within the child tribe set off to find their promised land. Max uses a rifle and his physical power to restrain them, striking Savannah unconscious in the process. The children collectively wince. The film cuts to a scene later that day, the kids huddled together under a primitive log ceiling. They look glum. Savannah is bound and gagged while Max, dressed in furs, gorges himself on fruit. It's a small, fleeting scene but it's probably the most important sequence for Max the character. This is his lowest point, Max falling into the same behavioural patterns as his psychotic enemies.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is an uneven film. Its hero barely drives it, preferring to take a backseat and react his way through situations. It's telling that in the film's concluding chase we spend far more time following the misadventures of Ironbar, Aunty's muscle, than Max. Thunderdome is discursive and meandering where the first two films were dynamic and relentlessly kinetic. We spend a massive amount of time in the company of white children dressed as Aboriginal Australians telling pidgin tales about a boring, specifically nuclear apocalypse. Action scenes are few and far between, seemingly built to stress the more exciting moments from the previous year's mega-hit Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
What Thunderdome has going for it is a certain kind of bravery. It doesn't just put its hero at a disadvantage, it organically takes him to place that borders on the repulsive. The desert photography is relentlessly beautiful and directors George Miller and George Ogilvie aren't afraid to stop the film dead to detail their world. These moments are were the film crackles. There's very little in the post-apocalyptic canon as poignant as a little girl and boy huddling around a dusty old record player to learn French.
Saturday, 5 July 2014
Friday, 4 July 2014
Thursday, 3 July 2014
Mad Max 2 is a narrowing of focus, a rawer model of film than its predecessor, stripped of extraneous features like hesitation or emotional availability. There's no safety net here. Everybody acts out of pure, avaricious instinct. Even the Bronze are gone. Given their highway patrol outfits, Lord Humongous' marauders might even be what's left of the police. A mono 4:3 recap gives us the skinny upfront, the Cold War boiled over and society ate itself. Max has survived, buried his family and wandered out into the wasteland to become something purely mythic.
The events of Mad Max were predicated on Max's ability to love and, when he lost those closest to him, to use that emotion to engine his hate. This Max is a burnt out veteran, an expert traversing the desert in search of the only thing that matters in this world - gasoline. Stagnation is death. Better to keep moving. Mad Max's dissolved editing process reorganised as a chase narrative. Flee and forget. For their sequel George Miller, Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant also take a leaf out of the Akira Kurosawa playbook, transforming their hero into a post-fall Ronin.
Although the morality here is a little more binary than in either Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars, the basic blueprint remains intact - a rootless wanderer antagonises two warring groups before settling down long enough to help a child. Mad Max 2 is an exceptional stranger film with the added benefit of knowing the events that shaped the man. Sergio Leone is stressed again in Max's relationship with the his foil, the Gyro Captain. Their callous deals within deals recalling Blondie and Tuco's interactions in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
George Miller is one of those rare directors that understands action as something more than punctuation. The chase sequence that swamps Mad Max 2's finale is a mini movie with its own rhythms and reveals, a silent stunt spectacular built around the idea of how a tribe of Neanderthals armed with arrows and grappling hooks might halt a speeding truck. A battered Max pilots the tanker, the greatest force of technological might we've yet seen, against the fragile insects that buzz around him. Miller's sequence is infectious and exciting primarily because it was obviously incredibly dangerous to create. Real cars buckle and break in the path of the tanker, stunt men tumble through the air with legs locked at unseemly angles. Miller hurls us back and forth, drinking in the convoy one minute, wincing at steel hands around Max's throat the next.
Action is typically resolved much how we expect in films. Cause and effect never getting much more complicated than a basic call and response. Mad Max 2 is completely different, its thinking is inventive, designed to confound. This unusual ordering best demonstrated by an early attempt to slow the eighteen wheeler. A biker hurls a tethered hook at the tanker's rear gun pod, ensnaring one of the settlers helping Max. There's a brief pause to linger on the pain of the trapped man before physics kicks in. The rusty old dune buggy at the other end of the rope weighs a fractional amount compared to the tanker. It upends and breaks, dragged behind like a trophy. Miller and his team aren't interested in brief, shocking confrontations anymore. They're remaking Buster Keaton's The General in hell. Over thirty years later, nothing else even comes close.
Wednesday, 2 July 2014
Dragon Ball: Plan to Eradicate the Super Saiyans is an updated, shortened redraft of an OAV originally released in conjunction with a NES game. Continuing the interactive tie-in theme, unless you live in Japan, this TV episode length fighter is only available with the Dragon Ball: Raging Blast 2 video game. Although stuffed with beefed up versions of pre-Cell movie villains, Eradicate centres around the throwaway idea that the Saiyans were not indigenous to the planet Frieza destroyed.
Eradicate begins with Giant Ape Saiyans trashing the science civilisation of the Tuffles. The dying race's greatest scientist Dr Lychee constructs a machine powered by grudges that gathers the animosity created by the brigandeering Saiyans, eventually giving birth to an avenging android named Hatchiyack. In this sense, Eradicate is essentially a galactic reconfiguring of Dr Gero's Red Ribbon revenge with Hatchiyack standing in for Cell.
Hatchiyack isn't really up to the high standards of Akira Toriyama's bestiary. There are few interesting design flourishes - an executioner's cowl and suspenders, both cerise coloured growths covering his milky pink flesh - but the artificial fighter reads more like a background heavy. Eradicate should be great, a short, concise rummage through Dragon Ball's action tropes, but it comes off businesslike and impersonal. It's not all drab though, a few wide shots have spikier, off-brand renders of the main cast and Hatchiyack's defeat as at least built out of a Son Goku character moment. The best bit is when all the Z cast line up to throw their ki blasts, their cataclysmic powers warping the visuals into fluid, molten energy.
Max Rockatansky is a Bronze, a mobile future cop policing the Australian outback against psychotic motorcycle gangs. Max operates out of a derelict municipal building, his fellow cops damaged children living out comic book fantasies. Any centralised sense of law and order is long gone. In Mad Max society is fundamentally unsound to the point of being almost feudal. Although the odd university lecturer pops up to berate Max and chums, it's obvious they're the last of a dwindling bourgeois. Everybody else is in deep shit and fighting for their lives.
In the face of some kind of socio-economic collapse, what's left of mankind has huddled in townships for protection. Marauder gangs zip from place to place imagining slights and forcing confrontation. Violence is flippant, spiralling out from the most mundane of interactions. Bodies remain where they fall, feast for carrion birds. Mad Max isn't post-apocalyptic in the traditional sense, there's no obvious sign of a nuclear exchange, rather everything, including people, has simply ceased to work. These survivors are beaten and living in the ruins of the twentieth century.
Environment established, Mad Max concerns itself with several sequences of visual transformation as personified by a baby-faced Mel Gibson. When we first meet Max he's a creature of stillness and limited motion, the suicidal pilot of a yellow interceptor, programmed to make criminals cry by driving straight at them. Mad Max's first chase clues is in to how events will unfold - a couple of subordinate highwaymen repeatedly crash and disfigure their vehicle, refusing to abandon the chase. During their last attempt to stay involved the car they drive is completely deformed, its hood a ruin of spiky angles and leaking machinery. Why is it still going?
After his best friend is killed, Max dumps the leathers and retreats into a white cotton minimalism that emphasises softness and youth. During this holiday Max's family are killed by pursuing bikers. Max breaks. In George Miller's film revenge is more of a punchline than a prolonged narrative state. It's short and sharp, capping a long, miserable set-up. Max becomes an unfeeling ghost disguised as a cop. Max's mission isn't glib or celebratory. He's relentlessly attacked. A chunk of his leg is blown out, his arm mangled beneath a motorcycle's wheels. An action star transformed from a louche avenger into a revolting special effect showcase. The bouncy, youthful Gibson becomes a monster. A brain full of hate dragging along an uncooperative, malfunctioning body. Miller holds on this Max. We will his broken bones to take him further, to make it to the finish line.