The Signal – Playing with genres

‘Films I own but have not yet watched because reasons’ – Part 2

So. I have a big pile of films that I haven’t got round to watching because they variously looked bad, confusing, or just not as good as films that I could have watched instead. This is the second in the series of reviews of these films.

The_Signal_Quad_Visual

I went into this film knowing nothing about it, kind of live reviewing again.  We’ll see how it goes.

The opening establishes our characters as techy hacker types, one of whom is disabled. The director seems to be aware of the ridicule levelled at the portrayals of hackers in films such as, uh, Hackers, and so it involves some actually techy terms – like Defcon, IP and Linux.

OK, I’m actually moderately impressed that they bothered to do this, but still, we get the typical 2 minute hacking scene instead of 6 hours of two dudes drinking Mountain Dew and looking at 2 lines of code. Fair enough, compromise is important.

23 mins in: OK, I am officially gripped.  this film is actually good so far. The sound design, in particular, has been excellent throughout, setting a refreshingly minimalistic tone. The camera work supports the sound design, the teen romance elements haven’t been annoying, and suspense is definitely occurring. It’s going well so far.

Well! Just as I typed that last sentence and settled back…EMERGENCY!

Nothing’s ever easy is it? I finally find a good film and the downstairs neighbour’s burglar alarm goes off at maximum volume at a quarter to nine at night. We don’t know how we silenced it, only that it finally stopped. Emergency over.  Please resume watching films.

See? Blogging can be rough, man.

Hmm, it just occurred to me that a particularly loud signal interrupted my viewing of The Signal, just as they were starting to talk about ‘the’ signal. Signal-ception? Enough of that, back to the film….Or, perhaps not.

To be frank with you, this review really hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would.

I got completely into this film.  I enjoyed the pacing, I enjoyed the acting, and I thought it was well executed.  I’m actually not sure how I avoided hearing about it until now.  So, rather than go through it piece by piece as I had originally intended, I stopped typing and watched it properly.  Furthermore, I don’t want to reveal any of the plot – even with big fat spoiler tags on. If you want to know what happens, you should watch it.

This film is, in my opinion, very good. It is an interesting twist on the sci-fi genre, and as such deserves to sit alongside other excellent modern and slightly off-piste takes, like Moon. I think its kind of a nice mid way point between District 9 and Inception, certainly in terms of the aesthetics of the stranger things we get to see.

The ending is slightly left field, although it’s not like it’s that bit in Interstellar where Matthew McConaughey is rearranging time through a magical bookshelf. If you can handle that, you can handle this.  Either way,  I certainly didn’t see it coming, and I liked it.

Conclusions?

I think you should watch this film. The sci-fi tag might put you off, but its a slow burner that plays with the genre enough to entertain people who might, for example, hate Star Trek.

4 Implants out of 5

 

 

Non-Stop, Unfortunately.

So. I have a big pile of films that I haven’t got round to watching because they variously looked bad, confusing, or just not as good as films that I could have watched instead. This is the first in the series of reviews of these films.  Buckle up (hur-dur plane joke. Last one, I promise).

nonstop

This is another film in which Liam Neeson is inexplicably cast as an action hero. This time, he’s a US federal air marshal on a plane  who starts getting text messages from someone claiming to be on the plane with him. The text messages go back and forth a bit, then he gets a demand for 150 million bucks or someone on the plane will die.

Dramatic, huh?

It takes about 20 mins to get to this stage, and I’m kind of live writing this review, so I’m a bit distracted.  But let’s be honest here, if the first 20 minutes hadn’t solely consisted of the by now confusingly standard moody shots of Liam Neeson looking moody in moody lighting from a moody camera angle, then I wouldn’t have gotten bored to the point of deciding to write about it while watching it at the same time.

Seriously. I don’t get it.  What’s the fixation? I mean, he was even a Jedi. What the actual fuck? Are there that few action heroes in Hollywood left that can get parts these days that people are forced to give them to Liam Neeson? Does he have something on someone? WHAT IS HIS SECRET?

**SPOILERS START HERE**

Oh and that chick from Boogie Nights is in it too, she’s one of his co-passengers.  Again, live review here, so I’m thinking she’s fairly suspicious as she’s the only other famous person in this film so far. Oh, so he just talked to Boogie Nights chick and told her what’s up. (I’ll add her name in later. Probably) oh and now there’s turbulence. Super, super exciting stuff here folks.

Jesus, the text messages just mentioned his daughter.  This is just going to be fucking Taken, but on a plane, isn’t it? Yeah there you go, he’s been betrayed by his special agent buddy, Hammond.  Quite a nice fight scene in a plane toilet has just happened though, that must have been a nightmare to film – it’s hard enough to take a shit in one of them. Imagine trying to fit a lighting rig into one.

So this film is Snakes on a Plane without snakes or being good, and Taken without the ground….And oh god, there’s an hour and ten minutes of this left…

Some honesty

…I have to level with you. I just took a 5 hour break in the middle of watching and writing this. It’s fair to say I’m not exactly gripped. Oh yeah, I think the Boogie Nights chick is called Julianne Moore. Onwards.

OK, so there’s some twists and turns in here, Agent Hammond had a suitcase full of coke and now Liam Neeson is explaining why Hammond is now a dead guy to the air hostess and OH MY GOD THERE’S AN ETHNIC GUY ON THE PLANE oh wait he’s a doctor, oh wait its molecular neuroscience and we have no idea what that means.

I, like I suspect many people who watched this film, am completely distracted by wondering what exactly the point to all this is going to be. Is it a pro TSA movie? Is it anti-surveillance? Is it all just a vehicle to further Liam Neeson’s confusing place in action cinema?

Hahahaha, pilot down. I have to be honest, this is kind of like a version of Airplane!, if Airplane! wasn’t funny or good. The situation continues escalating and a good old fashioned rabble occurs about an hour in.  Liam Neeson solves this with the healing powers of consumerism (seriously). Now some more plot twisty background stuff happens.

If I could have picked anyone for this role I would have picked Harrison Ford. Harrison Ford is cool.  He’s all craggy, and the Star Wars he was in was actually good. On the off chance that any Hollywood casting agents are reading this, give Harrison Ford a shout next time a script like this turns up. Just thinking out loud while I watch Liam Neeson be not great at action films.

Got distracted there. I’m sensing a pattern.

The sound design isn’t too bad in this, and while it’s predictably shot, it’s at least technically proficient. It’s not a terrible film at this point, it’s just not good.  I feel like I maybe would have cared about this more if I was an American who caught a lot of domestic flights.  In fact, the film has just slightly ham-handedly inserted a bit with the media being all sceptical of the TSA, approximately 1 minute before Liam Neeson (now the prime suspect because plot twists) finds a bomb. A COKE BOMB. Subtle.

So there go any moral quandaries you might be having about the film and the surrounding laws.  You are here to watch America save the day through increased surveillance, and to watch Liam Neeson be a flawed American every-man and save the day. Sort of like a really shit American version of Braveheart.  Sort of.  

OK I’m paying attention again. Yep. it’s still on. Rats.

I saw a horror film recently called Panic Button.  That was actually sort of similar to this film, but way better. Watch Panic Button instead of this.

panic button

 Right, into the last 30 minutes now. The home stretch.  We can do this.

The aforementioned last 30 minutes of this film are not for people who suffer from motion sickness or dislike shaky cams. OHHHH WAIT! Social media twist! That’s made this whole thing totally relevant. Actually, there’s quite a nice device used throughout the film, where any phone message or video is displayed as an on screen overlay.  It’s pretty cool and is helpful in the big social media reveal scene i just mentioned – but don’t get me wrong, it’s not saving the film.  The message here, with 15 minutes left, is hammered into our heads as if we’ve done something wrong and the director wants us to know it. In fact, who the hell directed this? I’ll look later. Right now its the end bit and this is clearly where a lot of the budget went so I’m going to watch it properly.

**END OF SPOILERS**

Conclusion?

Well. I went into this film with pretty low expectations, and it happily met them.  It is an attempt to humanise the TSA, a controversial part of the wider global surveillance culture that we are happily growing for ourselves.  I guess that’s my main problem with it. It’s just all so fucking obvious.  I mean, yeah there’s some twists that are, I guess, meant to make us consider our prejudices, but for a film to make an audience do that, it needs to connect on some emotional level that non-stop, in my opinion, totally fails to.

That said, the last 10 minutes or so were cool enough. There was a bit that reminded me of Max Payne, so that was nice.  Man, I should totally play Max Payne again.  Seriously though, watch Panic Button. Not this.

2 Inappropriately located Liam Neesons out of 5.

Maniac – Angry hobbit aggressively pursues hair.

Maniac is a dirty feeling film.  It’s the 2012 remake of the 1980 film of the same name, which was widely regarded as a particularly nasty piece of cinema in it’s own right.  So, is the remake any good?

Well, for starters the choice of Elijah Wood for the role of Frank, the titular maniac, has mixed results. On one hand, Wood posses exactly the sort of creepy air required to make a convincing serial killer.  Of course, on the other hand he can also look like a total wet lettuce at times, which is what made him such a convincing hobbit.  The end result of this combination is that most of the time you are relatively ‘in the film’ – engaged with his increasingly fucked up world-view and accompanying journey down the spiral of rampant psychosis, whereas at other times you just find yourself thinking  ‘Man, Frodo is being pretty fucked up right here’ or ‘Why doesn’t he just use his invisibility cloak if he wants to kill this chick so badly?’ and ‘Gandalf’s gonna be pissed when he hears about this.’

But back to the beginning.  The set up of this film is great.  The first scene plays out with Frank behind the wheel of a car stalking a potential victim.  Straight in, no credits.  We are in a POV shot.  We are Frank.  We can hear him breathing. We are instantly made complicit as he chooses and follows his target as she stumbles from a club.  We hear him talking to her, while she does not.  She notices the car following her and starts to hurry.  She stumbles, afraid. She knows something is wrong, gets up and starts to run.  Just as we become as convinced as she is that she’s about to be murdered, Frank pulls off the chase and drives down a different street, quietly explaining to her that  ‘Its OK.  I know where you live, Judy.  I’ll see you later.’  The camera pans, and we see his eyes in the rear-view mirror.  They are clearly psychotic.  We know at this point that Frank is very badly damaged, and that we are in for a ride.  Boom.  3 minutes of perfect tone setting, and a killer (hur hur) first scene.  The rest of the film, however, doesn’t quite match the pacing or direction of the set up.

We don’t have to wait long before Frank gets to kill and scalp his victim for the first time.  Yep.  Frank loves hair.  Like, a lot.  Really.  You have no idea just how much he wants hair.  This is because Frank is a refurbisher of mannequins (thank you auto-correct), having taken over the family business following the death of his sometime prostitute mother.  Frank fantasizes visions of his mother through the course of the film – either instructing and berating him, or sometimes in the form of flashbacks of watching her fuck strangers from the darkness of the doorway of his room as a child.  These visions provide motivation for Frank to go and get hair to complete his mannequins, so that he can turn them into real girls to be with him forever, and silence the visions.

This quest takes Frank into the worlds of internet dating, and art.  Neither goes particularly well, but the art world forms the main plot.  The film reminded me of American Psycho’s premise that truly self-absorbed people would never notice a murderer in their midst because they are all, essentially, psychopaths in their own right.  So when a young photographer called Anna one day wakes Frank at home while she is snapping pictures of the mannequins in the front of his shop, we can tell that her breathless enthusiasm about his art will likely get her into some trouble further down the line.

Frank and Anna start to work together.  Frank produces mannequins for her art installations in her gallery, while she waxes lyrical about the authenticity of his dolls.  It is clear to us that Frank is repressing his more murderous inclinations in order to become close to the woman he thinks could understand him, as if she could be his salvation.  But repressing his urges damages him further, sending him spiralling into the abyss of insanity.

At this point the film becomes disjointed, clearly with the intent of echoing Frank’s broken understanding of the world and difficulty in determining the difference between reality and fantasy. Unfortunately, the end result of this is that it separates you from the involvement offered by the POV film style.  That is to say that Frank becomes so fucked up, it is impossible to empathise with the situation.  We could have been forced to engage with some fairly deep questions about ourselves and the culpability of the spectator through a serial killer film shot entirely in POV, but instead we have to constantly detach ourselves because oops, there’s another fucking PCP nightmare happening, filled with dolls with human hair and flies and his dead mother yelling at him. 

This was my main complaint with the film.  It failed to capitalise on its strengths, which were the stalking scenes and the brutal efficiency of the kills and scalpings, while focusing its weaknesses in the prolonged and over frequent hallucination scenes. Also the final act is almost farcical at times.  I genuinely laughed out loud at one point in the scene where Anna is hiding in the room, which is not, i suspect, what they were going for.

To sum up.  This could have been a great film that forced the viewer to question the role they were playing in consuming a film of this nature, but instead we get a driller killer style pseudo art-house exploitation flick about a fucking angry hobbit with bloody knuckles, and a few too many breaks in the POV to make it believable for any amount of time.

The first 6 minutes though? They’re pretty badass.

Maniac: 3 unpleasant wig collections out of 5

Maniac

Dark Star – In space, no one can hear a beachball attack a man with a mop.

So Dark Star was on recently and, remembering the end scene and a general sense of confusion from when I watched it many years ago, I sky+’d it to show to my girlfriend later.

Unfortunately, there’s never really a time when most girls really feel like sitting down to watch sci-fi films from the 70’s, and my girlfriend falls into this category – probably because of all those times I forced her to watch star wars. So i resigned myself to watching it on my own. This, it turns out, was probably for the best.

Because this film is dated.  And I don’t mean in the same way as earlier series of Red Dwarf look a bit dated because Kryten was a bit shit, but in the way that 8 bit video games look a bit dated.  At one point the ship (white triangle) while racing through space (black square) hits an asteroid field (3 blue lines with grey bits), the computer then raises a shield (blue circle) and protects the crew (blue light), all while I laugh my ass off and marvel at the fact that Star Wars came out a mere 3 years later. Astounding.

But the effects are not what this film needs to be judged on.  This film needs to be judged on its use of dialogue, pacing, humour, and absurdity. This is because if you judge it on these things, Dark Star becomes awesome. In fact, this film looks almost like a prototype for the excellent Red Dwarf, as well as providing a few Hitchhikers Guide moments – I genuinely expected the bomb to be called Marvin.

Now, I’m not sure how terrible it would be to be stuck with the same 4 people for 20+ years on a spaceship with sentient bombs, aliens, and almost nothing else, but imagine it would suck, Hard. What might make this worse? How about an accident that destroys ALL the toilet paper? How about if that alien beachball makes you chase it into a lift shaft then moves your escape plank? how about a computer that the crew ignore when it’s telling them important things? what about a sentient bomb with an anti-authoritarian rebellious streak? what about if one of the crew members had those annoying joke pairs of glasses and a rubber chicken that he thought was funny? Worst of all, imagine its a 70’s spaceship so all the crew are required to wear enormous beards.

I’m sure you agree that the above scenario sounds fucking awful. Now imagine that you also miss surfing, and that there’s only one place in the universe that you know of with oceans. Dark Star explores the resultant cabin fever. Make no mistake, these characters are all either slowly losing their minds, or recovering from the last time that they did. These are people as deprived of social interaction and, paradoxically, solitude as the space around them is deprived of oxygen. Depressing, eh? Moreover, these characters are flying around the universe destroying planets. Yeah, that’s right, they are essentially piloting a Death Star (coincidence?). The planet destroying comes from the sentient bombs, who don’t get on particularly well with the ship’s computer, following a fault in the circuit that controls the signal that tells the bomb to deploy. Obviously, bombs want to explode. It’s in their nature. So how exactly would you persuade the bomb not to blow up if it REALLY wanted to? Dark Star brilliantly addresses this problem with existentialism. This alone should be all the reason you need to watch this film.

So. Dark Star has the potential to be a slightly depressing film, content wise, but after I’d pushed the yellow button of destruction on the sky remote, I was smiling for a few reasons:

1: Earth can suck sometimes. it’s all taxes, and jobs, and fucking blah fucking blah.     But at least I’m not stuck on a spaceship in the above situation.
2: it’s always a good time when a dude gets chased by a mop wielding beachball.
3: Surfing straight into the sun would be an excellent way to die.

Dark Star is awesome, go and watch it.  5 spacebeards out of 5

‘Drive’ review – A slow film about a man who goes quickly

On Saturday night i finally got around to watching the film Drive.  I’ve heard a lot of fuss about this film, comparing it to classic driving movies such as Vanishing point, the French Connection, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Death Proof.  I love all of these films –  a good driving movie is perfect popcorn fodder, not to mention the fact that the genre is normally replete with excellent anti-heroes.  i mean Kowalski isn’t referred to as the last American hero for no reason.  He is a snarling, amphetamine taking, crazy driving, unwashed throwback to the crashing end of the 60’s.  His mission a statement on the political era it was based in.

I had heard that Drive beat a similar path.  I had also heard that the first 20 minutes of the film were virtually silent.  I decided that this factoid might be best kept to myself, as it would be nigh impossible to persuade my significant other to watch a driving movie with no talking.  So.  Minor deceit complete, excitement levels high, i slid the blue-ray into the PS3, and hit play.

Drive is not Vanishing Point.  Drive, is, in fact, pretty much the exact opposite of Vanishing Point.

This became clear when he went to run his first job in in the film.  The protagonist is a stunt driver who occasionally takes jobs as a getaway driver.  He has rules for his clients – i am yours for 5 minutes.  miss the window, unlucky.  Promising.

Then the job starts.  His car is shiny.  the thieves run out and get into the car, and the chase begins.  Excellent, i think, time for popcorn and handbrake turns and….oh.  wait.  This car chase appears to involve driving sensibly.  at some points, he just stops.

Now i appreciate that this is probably a more realistic version of the getaway, but it just sort of reminded me of the Eddie Izzard sketch comparing British cinema to American.  The popcorn only makes it halfway to your mouth before you throw it back in disappointment at the snooze fest you find yourself watching….oh…I….oh.

And this to me was the real problem with Drive.  I was bored.

I understand that the director may well have been trying to make a more intelligent film, but he’s skipped all the potential to make Drive more than a one trick pony.

Let me put it another way.  Drive is a slow film about a man who drives quickly.  How slow?  You may be familiar with shot construction rules, you may not be.  Try this – watch TV.  It doesn’t really matter what you are watching, just get some on.  OK.  Now count the duration of the shots.  Normally you’ll find something around 2 seconds per shot. There is movement in longer shots, to help keep the momentum that you get from sticking together a series of short shots.  Now, while watching Drive, it occurred to me that it seemed visually slower than usual, so i decided to time the next shot.   This happened towards the end of the film, but is a fairly good indicator of how bored i was at that stage.  How long was the random shot i decided to time?  22 seconds.  i’ll say that again – 22 long, dull seconds.  it was like the cinematographer had specifically set out to give people the time to REALLY watch the amazing shot he had constructed.

Yawn.

Another thing that bothered me was that the report of minimal dialogue for the first 20 minutes was inaccurate.  There was, in fact, dialogue.  it just wasn’t particularly interesting or engaging dialogue.  I began to think that rather than being a film about a driver, it was a film about a man with a crippling social condition that precluded him from making basic conversation. Ever.  When he got a love interest,  I found that I did not particularly care about it,  other than hoping beyond hope that it might lead to a car chase.  Preferably with someone strapped to the bonnet of the car (thanks Death Proof)

No dice.  No car chase.  in fact, driving takes a bit of a backseat (hur hur) while he goes off stamping on peoples faces until their heads pop, and having a hammer which he holds with a REALLY SHAKY hand to show us all how unhinged he is, and other things that i didn’t really care about.

I think the point had to be that actually, as a driver, the majority of the protagonists time its about keeping control and composure, until he attempts a stunt, or a sudden visceral accident shatters the illusion of control that he maintains.  The brief moments of extreme violence echo this approach to portraying the loss of control he feels.

So.  the violence is like a car crash.  Driving is largely sedate, and this guy with a scorpion on his back is flirting very badly with some woman and her ex.  what would really round this off?  oh, i know,  how about some really awful 80’s sounding music.  Actually, scratch that, we’ve spent all of our money on this cinematographer who wants the world to see his long drawn out shots of the sun, is there any way we could get away with just, you know, buying 3 songs and then playing them over and over again?

Seriously.  i haven’t been this annoyed with the music from a film since i watched midnight cowboy (argh buy another song). i understand that you want a theme for your film, but sometimes variety is good too.  Especially if the rest of your film is, to put it gently, a bit dull.

So, to sum up.  i didn’t particularly like this film.  True, it was nicely shot, and true, it can be nice to have an alternative to all the explosions you get with mainstream cinema, but there are just too many negatives to enjoy it.

I will not watch drive again, and i don’t even care about it enough to google the name of the main character.  Sufficient to say, it wasn’t Kowalski.

Oh yes, and just to prove there’s no gender bias here, my girlfriend hated it too. A lot.

Drive – 2.5 car crashes out of 5