Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Martian (US 2015: Dir Ridley Scott)

Mark Watney, one of a team of astronauts exploring the surface of Mars, is left for dead following a freak storm on the planet from which the rest of his crew manage to escape. Coming to after the storm, Watney realises he is alone on the planet, and after Mission Control back on Earth learn of his existence, they strategise to bring him back.

That's the fairly simple premise of The Martian, and to be honest 'simple' remains the watchword of this uneven but nevertheless reasonably entertaining sci-fi flick. Scott focuses much of the film on Watney, played by a slightly more animated than usual Matt Damon (who in the latter phases of his isolation - where the actor looks a lot older than his 45 years - reminded me of the unravelled Tom Hanks at the end of Paul Greengrass's 2013 movie Captain Phillips). Watney's Robinson Crusoe approach to his survival, rigging up a hothouse to grow his own food and using his scientific resources to work out how to overcome the tricky issue of communicating with Earth, is perhaps the most satisfying part of the film, although Damon's limited acting palette fails to fully capture the pathos and futility of his situation. It's when Scott adds in the other only very sketchily drawn characters - the occupants of the ship that abandoned him and the stressed Mission Control personnel - that the drama becomes rather fractured.

The last half of the film plays like an old fashioned disaster movie, but where movies of that genre would have delighted in showing off the hardware, Scott refuses to detail the mechanics, so we're left with all the tension being created by the actors - but this has neither the personal drama of Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity (2013) or the ensemble tension of, say, Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995). The Martian is shot through with humour - some of it broad, some more subtle (even the title is not without levity) but this only serves to confuse - is this an action movie, a serious drama, or a film that shows that humour can be found in the strangest of situations?

Ultimately I wasn't convinced by The Martian, although I can't deny that it does look good. The depiction of Mars - actually Jordan - is particularly impressive (although I'm old enough to remember being wowed by a similar use of Death Valley in Byron Haskin's Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) - a film to which The Martian is also heavily indebted but so far unmentioned by the critics) and the detail of the scenes on board ship depict a crew at home in their surroundings and with their hardware - but then Scott's a past master at this. But thinking about the film afterwards, the confusion of styles and general messiness militate against it remaining in the memory for very long, and one is left thinking just how much of a return to form this is for Scott, who has, we should remember, only recently served up the dubious thrills of Prometheus (2013).

Saturday, 29 August 2015

The Diabolical (US 2015: Dir Alistair Legrand)

You've got to be pretty confident when giving your movie a title like The Diabolical that it's not the word that's going to be used to describe it. In first time director Alistair Legrand's case I'm afraid it's just one of a lexicon of similar adjectives that will be trotted out to sum up this terrible genre mash up 'fright' flick.

Ali (Heroes (2006-10)) Larter plays Madison, a single mum struggling to make ends meet after separating from her violent husband, and being threatened with eviction by the company to whom her house is mortgaged. Her woes are added to by a series of threatening apparitions that pop up (and disappear) with almost nightly regularity. Baffled and frightened, Madison enlists the help of local scientist Nikolai, with whom she's been having a thing. After Nikolai witnesses the haunting he rigs up the house to film the goings on, which leads to Madison understanding that the apparitions are linked to the company wishing to repossess the house.

The fact that The Diabolical is being advertised as a blend of genres says a lot about the formulaic nature of many of today's horror films, and Legrand should be at least credited with trying something different. But the unevenness of tone and its shift from very un-scary spook movie to 'what the...did that just happen?' sci fi about two thirds of the way through is frankly embarrassing. I can't give too much away, but think The Terminator (1984), Millennium (1989) or The Frighteners (1996) and you're on the right track. Ali Larter is probably the best thing in this, eliciting genuine sympathy as a woman battling against bankruptcy while living in a haunted house, and convincingly portraying the protective mother role with the equally effective Chloe Perrin and Thomas Kuc as her young daughter and son. The rest of the cast are merely supporting players in a story which would probably have been better realised as an episode of The X Files (1993-2002). The audience response at the end of the showing I attended, running for the exits rather than sitting through a post movie Q&A with the inexperienced and obviously deluded director, says a lot.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Eden (France 2014: Dir Mia Hansen-Løve)

I'm old enough to admit that I never really 'got' the concept of DJing. To me the idea of somebody with a good taste in music, playing a load of their favourite records on a couple of turntables in front of hundreds of adoring fans, was always just a bit bizarre. EDEN does a lot both to change that view and, perversely, reinforce it.

EDEN is the story of Paul, a cool (or detached) teenager in Paris who abandons his creative writing studies in favour of his real passion - house music. It's also the story of youth, friendship and its fickleness, and how different souls navigate the path to adulthood - or not.

We see Paul gradually ascending to superstar DJ status, but never without money worries. The whole concept of DJing is shown as something which can induce euphoria - and these scenes are truly exciting - but has the same downside as more mainstream 'musicians' - the grind of setting up, the hangers on, seedy clubs and promoter disappointments. Paul is a complex soul whose interactions give us different perspectives: seen through the eyes of his mother (who constantly helps him financially) he's a bit of a loser; seen through the eyes of his girlfriends he's cut off and inconstant; but to the audience in his clubs he's an exciting route to a great evening.

EDEN takes place over a period of nearly twenty years, and in an interesting and bold move, the director chooses not to age Paul over this time, analogising his total commitment to his music despite it falling out of fashion and at the expense of other parts of his life. It also highlights Paul as a Peter Pan persona, remaining fixed in his own world while those around him grow up, have families and, in one very moving scene, take their own life. Around him the world also changes and moves on - decks get smaller and door security staff trade clipboards for tablets. When is commitment to a dream no longer a virtue to be admired but simply foolhardy? In one of his darker moments, a drunken Paul is helped home, and an elderly woman passing by mutters "Kids today..." to which Paul responds "I'm 34!" Does he want to be seen as young and mature at the same time?

Without giving too much away, this dichotomy eventually leads to a crisis of the soul. As a DJ is Paul really a relevant musician? The question is answered in two scenes; in one he witnesses a singer - all diva excesses and bling - PAing at a club night, demonstrating a vibrant vocal talent that shows up the relative inertia of Paul's art; and in another, towards the end of the movie, he observes the future of DJing - a woman with a single laptop playing a Daft Punk track to a swaying but otherwise immobile club audience (Daft Punk feature in the movie via a running gag in which, because of their anonymity, they always fail to make it onto clubs' VIP lists despite being ultra successful in their own right).

This isn't a perfect film by any means - it takes a while to find its groove, and the use of real artists sometimes gives the movie a rather flat feel - but ultimately it's very clever, generally extremely well paced, and the constantly roving camera perfectly captures the restlessness of youth. And my goodness it spoke to me about the challenges of getting older and leaving childish things behind.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Hard to be a God (Russia 2013: Dir Aleksey German)

When is science fiction not science fiction? The 1964 novel 'Hard To Be a God' - on which Aleksey German's extraordinary and frustrating film is based - was SF almost by association. Set some time in the future, a group of observers from Earth are posted to a distant planet, also containing human life, which it is assumed has evolved in the same way as our world. At the point of the occupation the planet is roughly at the medieval stage of development. The observers are there to learn and study, but not to intervene in the race's progress, but this proves increasingly difficult in the face of a totalitarian takeover which sees an army of thugs - the Grays - killing all of the planet's intellectuals and artists. Do the alien observers stand by and watch as the massacre continues, intervene and alter the course of the planet's history, or just leave? While the book made some references to the technology deployed by the Earth observers, and was written from a perspective of the central character - Rumata, a man gradually losing his civilised Earth persona as he disappears into his adopted guise as a wealthy Don - it is entirely set within its medieval environment and thus is only marginally a science fiction novel. The book can be read as a treatise on statecraft and a savage attack on power and hierarchy, but is also disturbing, claustrophobic and surprisingly funny.

German's film retains the claustrophobia but similarly abandons almost all of the science fiction elements, apart from one brief shot showing a transportation device which could only have come from future Earth, and the final scenes which also demonstrate that the handkerchief has finally been invented. of which more later. Instead it concentrates over the course of its 177 minutes in totally immersing the audience in a medieval world. The closest cinematic comparisons are probably Tarkovsky's equally lengthy Andrei Rublev (1966) combined with the grotesquerie of Ken Russell's The Devils (1971) or maybe Annaud's The Name of the Rose (1986). But, and believe me, nothing will have prepared you for this. From the breathtaking opening scenes depicting the panoply of village life, like a Breugel painting made real, the camera restlessly and incessantly patrols and roams this world, itself an active participant and material presence in the cares, intrigues and double dealings of its people - no static Tarkovsky lens here. And these people live in filth. They cough, spit, defecate, void the contents of their noses, urinate publicly, eat pretty much anything, smear themselves with excreta, and show their bottoms regularly. Over the course of nearly three hours the viewer longs for the sight of some clean cutlery or even a handkerchief to provide a glint of civilisation, but those luxuries are clearly some centuries from development. Instead the mundanity and sheer relentlessness of the grim life on display rendered this viewer amazed, bored and aghast in roughly equal measures.

Unfortunately much of the source novel's plot, about the attempts of Don Ramata to intervene in the massacre and his exposure as an alien visitor, are totally lost. German's concern is the creation of a world rather than telling a story, and this ultimately renders Hard To Be a God a frustrating and rather soporific viewing experience. Arguably, how successful can a film be if it offers no real chance for the viewer to understand what's happening? However, a couple of days after seeing it, it's a difficult movie to shake off. This is a film that is far easier to write about than to experience. As I type this I'm aware of the need to categorise and understand the film to help describe and make sense of it. Yet, and rather like life itself, scenes from Hard To Be a God replay in my head making me realise that I haven't really understood anything. So maybe German, who sadly is no longer with us, has succeeded in his intentions.