Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Twilight Zone: The Movie

Time Out

John Landis kicks off the anthology with Time Out, a finger-wagger about a bigot getting a taste of his own medicine. Conceptually Time Out is like one of those Star Trek episodes were the primary creative impulse seems to be that the studio had a load of period sets going spare. Vic Morrow's racist middle-manager is bounced between several confrontations in which he is no longer viewed as a well-to-do white man.

Movie money elevates the premise - instead of airless TV corners we get well-dressed spaces full of detailing and furniture for Morrow to collide with. Thanks to John Landis' cavalier / criminal approach to stunt safety and child labour laws, Morrow and (unseen in this version) co-stars Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen were killed by a falling helicopter while shooting the segment's feel good ending. Time Out is therefore truncated, Landis and his story stuck reveling in the kind of sadism needed to power a profound character change.

Kick the Can

Steven Spielberg's segment is a treacly aside about a magical old man who can reverse the ageing process. Scatman Crothers' Mr Bloom breezes between retirement homes, stirring up the residents with talk of eternal youth. Kick the Can is the most naked and malformed of Spielberg's youth deifications. Evan Richards' gangly teen prancing around like Peter Pan doesn't evoke magical whimsy, it instead registers as insistent and creepy.

Since this is a Spielberg film there's some intense emotional violence buried in the sugary premise. The exclusion of Bill Quinn's disbeliever Leo Conroy is pointed and painful, never more so than when the pensioner pleads to be taken away by his newly youthful friend (lover? There's clearly a lifelong connection between the two). Spielberg prods at Conroy's teary eyeline, capturing the exact moment that the elderly man's heart breaks.

It's a Good Life

Joe Dante pulls Twilight Zone: The Movie back on track with a contribution that revolves around a bored schoolteacher who inadvertently wanders into the realm of an omnipotent pre-teen. Jeremy Licht's Anthony is a capricious God whose idea of paradise doesn't stretch too far beyond never-ending TV sessions and plates heaving with sugary junk food.

Kathleen Quinlan's Helen is a picture of glassy eyed alarm as she creeps deeper into Anthony's subconscious. The child has surrounded himself with a collection of adult sycophants who pretend to be his family on pain of animated death. To keep them in line this little Hitler summons up rubbery Rob Bottin abominations that actualise the deranged, elastic energy of a Tex Avery cartoon. The entire segment teeters on the edge of full dementia, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre but with a family friendly rating.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

George Miller's MVP contribution is a thundering, adrenalised reworking of Richard Donner and Richard Matheson's 1963 TV episode. The original programme had a nervous William Shatner trying to keep a lid on things after he sees a gremlin vandalising the plane he's travelling on. John Lithgow takes the lead for this retelling, delivering an absolutely deranged performance. Shatner's character began his nightmare somewhat sane, a middle-aged man pleased with himself after recovering from a nervous breakdown. Lithgow's manic before he's even gone near his window seat.

The segment opens with Lithgow locked in the toilet tearing at his hair. Miller accentuates the unease with a couple of tricks designed to simulate a plane ride from hell. The camera is never stable, bobbing along as if passing through light turbulence. A constant high-pitched whine is buried in the mix, the kind of fizz you feel between your ears before they start popping. Lithgow's fellow passengers are an aggressive, uncooperative bunch, moving constantly while the poor soul tries to dredge up a memory of being relaxed. Even time seems to lurch uneasily. A child bleats in Lithgow's face one minute, then is seen curled up in a deep sleep the next. Miller uses every trick in the book to keep the mood hysterical, there's not a single second that Lithgow isn't under some form of attack.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

George Miller talks Fury Road

George Miller talking over a genuinely great fight scene from Mad Max: Fury Road and an interview with Kim Taylor Bennett for Vice. In the featured scrap, Miller uses geography and Max's obscured point of view to introduce Furiosa as a convincing physical threat.

Furiosa is established as being stood at such distance that Max feels comfortable enough to take a glance at the woman snipping his muzzle. Furiosa's already advancing. We see it before Max does.

She's on him before he even thinks to look back. There's another great touch in how Max tackles her attack, as soon as he manoeuvres her underneath him Max begins scooping sand onto her face, presumably to blind her. Max knows he's in serious danger and adjusts his tactics accordingly. He may not want to bash her head in but he knows he has to incapacitate her somehow.

Nas - Hope (BluntOne Remix)

Monday, 18 May 2015

Blur - Go Out / Ong Ong

Mayhem on the Motorway

Sean Witzke's hypnotic ode to car crash films, a companion piece to his great Anatomy of the Car Chase write-up over on Grantland.

Mad Max: Fury Road

In Mad Max: Fury Road the title role slips a little further into the mythic. George Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris deliberately posit a situation that doesn't quite align with the previous Max Rockatansky stories. Tom Hardy's take hears voices. He's haunted by visions of a woman, an Aboriginal man, and a child who calls him by his first name. Max hasn't just failed a family (his?), he's failed a community. Mel Gibson's Max wandered out into the wasteland to find something big enough to kill him. Hardy's Max seeks escape.

This Max is out of time, the factions and systems he brushes up against are well-established to the point of enjoying several distinct industries. This isn't the day after, this is decades. A generation. The Smegma Crazies have settled into a corner and started breeding. Hugh Keays-Byrne's Immortan Joe is the convoy Khan, a diseased, barrel-chested Daddy who's willing to risk everything he's made just so he can hold a perfect son. His Citadel is awash with water and greenery but his humans, his property, are still born with lumps and irradiated half-lives.

In Joe's world healthy women are fashion shoot chattel to be hoarded in bank vaults. Joe's wives flee after collectively deciding that they don't want to raise warlord juniors. Men are surplus to requirement, Joe's doing all the fathering so their shaved heads are filled up with white line fatalism, McCarthy's Skin kids swept up in a Freakwave. God is the all-powerful V8, a burning chromed skull that sits under a divine light hoarding fetishised steering wheels. These War Boys spray paint their teeth, hoping to emulate this deity on their way to the great pile-up in the sky.

The Radback teems with enemies to all, scattered gangs with graphic identities, their prevailing aesthetics weird off-shots of Joe's roughly hewn hot rods. The most striking are The Buzzards, a gang of shrivelled up sand people encased in vehicles that look like the Monster Minds from Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors as dressed by Peter Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris. Each machine is a mess of rusty bayonets, pregnant with tetanus, outfitted with grasping mechanical arms and circular saws.

Despite all this progress, Max hasn't aged. He's a raggedy man frozen in his defining moment. This free-wheeling approach to continuity recalls Akira Kurosawa's two bodyguard films, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Each film taking place in a completely different time period, the spectral, problem solving hero the only constant. There's also a touch of Seiji Miyaguchi's super swordsman from Seven Samurai in how Max casually tackles a pursuing tank. 007's in the mix as well - like Hardy, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan all cracked skulls for decades while nursing a vague, sense memory of George Lazenby's departed wife.

Since this is a reintroduction Max has to develop and change. He begins his adventure in bondage, an O-neg commodity, muzzled and manacled so he can be slowly drained to prolong Nicholas Hoult's flagging War Boy, Nux. When Max joins the freedom convoy he's violent and irritable. Max is the nervous energy in Fury Road, it falls to Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa to provide a sense of stability. She's Aliens' Ellen Ripley come again - quiet, capable and utterly commanding. If anything, Max is trying to impress her.

Theron has priors with this kind of role. Her Meredith Vickers in Prometheus was also essentially the same kind of character as Ripley was in Alien. Unfortunately Ridley Scott's newer film chose to interpret Vickers' by-the-book pragmatism as the behaviour of a spoilsport. In Fury Road Theron's allowed to sing. She drives the rig, she calls the shots. Rather than jostle for the lead Max slots into a similar role as Michael Biehn's Hicks, a comfortable component, happy to assist. Eventually their relationship transcends language entirely, both parties able to scramble around the tanker, assured that their ally is doing exactly what needs to be done. Their actions are ultimately interchangeable.

George Miller and cinematographer John Seale approach action laser focused on clarity. The frame is stable, often dreamlike in how it hovers around the conflict. Moments are expressed clearly and concisely, you never feel like editor Margaret Sixel is having to engineer excitement. Everything you need to know is communicated in an image or a sound. Since the entire film is a never-ending chase we spend a lot of that time watching fragile, barely clothed humans climbing all over speeding, filthy machinery. It's the thrill of watching Peter Kent casually hop from a pickup to a big rig in Terminator 2: Judgment Day exploded to feature length.

During Dredd's original theatrical release Alex Garland spoke about a sequel that would adapt Pat Mills, Mike McMahon and Brian Bolland's The Cursed Earth storyline. After that film tanked it seemed unlikely that we'd see a film about a highly motivated cop leading a ragtag group across an unyielding desert, pursued by radioactive mutants. As it turns out, George Miller has delivered the best possible version of that premise. Fury Road is an overcranked treat full of white impact frames and distant carrion squawks that's exactly as excellent as your memory of Mad Max 2.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Jackie Chan in the 1980s - Project A II

Jackie Chan was in his thirties when he directed and starred in Project A II, the hot-headed youth persona that had served him well during the 1970s and early 80s was starting to look a little frayed. Police Story had rounded off that identity nicely, Chan delivering a film about a man pushing himself so far in pursuit of his goals that he ends up burning his entire life to the ground.

Armour of God tinkered with the idea of mapping en vouge American action heroics onto Chan, that move floundered through injury and a resultant film that promised far more than it delivered. Project A II then is a little different, even to its predecessor. It's not about proving yourself, it's about being established, part of the system.

Although Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao are nowhere to be seen - the duo were in the Philippines shooting Eastern Condors - Chan again plays Dragon Ma, the best cop in all Hong Kong. Dragon is headhunted and transferred to the West District after the local Superintendent stages a robbery to impress his superiors. The ploy unravels when the criminals start loudly objecting to sentences more severe than previously agreed. Rather than be caught out, the Superintendent executes his accomplices in the street.

Dragon is brought in to whip the local precinct into shape, he does this purely by example. He doesn't punish or berate his men, instead he performs a series of civic feats so incredible that they all spontaneously transform into hard-working policemen out of pure respect. Dragon brushes shoulders with Chinese intellectual revolutionaries, Hong Kong's ruling class, and a squad of vengeful Pirates. He turns all their heads, impressing them with his unfailing decency. Project A II is a fable, a heartfelt ode to the politically moderate self-made man. Chan plays a person who isn't interested in praise or acclaim for his actions. He just wants to get on and be left alone to do his job.

A key component of Jackie Chan's appeal is his physical versatility, the man can very obviously do anything. This is usually noted in how he approaches props, seamlessly incorporating them into his martial arts repertoire. His talents run deeper than this, Chan is also adept at structuring his stunts around the physical locations available to him. Everything is grist. A seething modern Hong Kong, like the one seen in Police Story or Heart of Dragon, amps up the intensity, Chan caught in a suffocating glass maze.

Project A II is about encroaching modernity, both in thought (Dr Sun Yat-sen's revolutionaries) and geography. Period Hong Kong is then rendered as an expansive series of dares, towering bamboo and wood structures that demand to be climbed. We all know Chan can cope so he's saddled with a succession of normal people to be managed and protected. Handcuffed to a dastardly cop the athletic Chan must account for the man's cowardice. Chan leaps to soar, his cuff-mate oozes low.

Dotted around this relentless drive for verticality are a couple of charming comedic scenarios. First there's some parlour room hide-and-seek that falls somewhere between The Marx Brothers and Frasier but with added pistols. Unlike Chan's earlier, unsatisfying attempt at farce in Armour of God, there are five or six levels of incompatible factions shuffling around Yesan (Maggie Cheung)'s apartment. A flabbergasted Cheung is superb throughout.

As with most of her appearances in Jackie Chan films this character is bratty and prone to pouting. Fortunately, Cheung gets a little more to work with here. The actress plays everything on her face, hurtling back and forth between a momentary, self-satisfied smile when she packs someone into a wardrobe and slack-jawed horror when another warring party turns up looking for a chat.

Her expressions are silent movie big, a person completely out of their depth trying to cope with relentless upsets. Her posture and demeanour is in a constant state of change - who can see her at this moment? What emotion should she be projecting? The stress is palpable. It's an expertly layered performance from an actress not usually noted for her comedic chops. When no-one's looking Cheung collapses ever so slightly, exhausted.

Next is Dragon's desperate attempt to gain an advantage in a prolonged fight with several imperial enforcers. Finding himself in a dusty market, Dragon shovels fistfuls of chilli peppers into his mouth. His intent seems to be harking back to the wacky martial arts styles of Chan's late 70s output, in particular Drunken Master and Fearless Hyena, the hero imbibing something ruinous to get them looser and fired up.

The chillies have the opposite effect. Dragon is reduced to a wheezing wreck but not before he's spat the contents of his mouth all over his hands and rubbed them on his enemy's faces. It's haphazard and thrilling, a bad call turned into a brief benefit. Dragon doesn't become numb and unbeatable, he's a man-sized Mace can.

Chan also isn't interested in portraying a succession of stand-and-fights. Dragon is usually outnumbered and outmatched, confrontations are therefore fleeting, embroiled in extended chases that focus on comedy rather than a martial arts back-and-forth. Project A II's last opponent isn't even an equal for Dragon, he's a snake attempting to slither away while a series of paper craft buildings topple to the ground.

This destruction is the film's true finale, allowing Chan to work in an homage to Buster Keaton's collapsing house gag from Steamboat Bill Jr. Dragon can shrug off a massive wall falling on him. His foe can't. Project A II represents Chan further differentiating himself from Sammo Hung, the action movie polymath committing himself to delivering a wholly different product focused around death-defying stunts.