Alien Supremacy: a brutally minimalist film with a shock surprise

Felix M Aller, “Alien Supremacy” (April 2017)

One of many numerous fan-fiction films based on the original Alien quadrilogy begun by Ridley Scott and continued by James Cameron and David Fincher, this short piece is a brutally minimalist work in which the last survivors of a colony in Hadley Hope Valley on planet LV-426 desperately fight and try to obliterate those tiresomely deadly Xenomorphs. With dialogue cut down to its most essential, and most of the conversation being carried out by the Xenomorphs themselves, the focus is on Juan Jose Fernandez’s facial expressions (flitting between fear and determination) and actions as he takes down as many monsters as he can, knowing that eventually his ammunition will run out and the Xenomorphs will win by sheer force of numbers. He gets some help from co-star Angel Carlos Perez whose character unfortunately doesn’t last long.

The film is fast-paced with quick and sharp editing that helps to ratchet up the tension. We all know how it ends up for Fernandez’s character, the hope is that his suffering is quick and the Xenomorphs don’t leave too much mess behind. The surprise though is that the character’s death leads to a chain reaction resulting in an Almighty explosion that just about wipes out everybody and everything in the colony save for one unexpected survivor awaiting the arrival of Ellen Ripley and the marines in James Cameron’s “Aliens”.

The film is well made with steady though fast camera work for the live action scenes. The animated scenes featuring the Xenomorphs are quite good though not well integrated with the live action series – the film was made on a tight budget after all. The plot is simple though it does pack in a final surprise that will leave viewers feeling satisfied that Fernandez’s character does not die in vain.

The Fisherman: character study of outsider-turned-superhero in alien invasion short

Alejandro Suarez Lozano, “The Fisherman” (2015)

A cleverly made and succinct little SF horror film set in Hong Kong, “The Fisherman” combines a character study that might have been inspired by the Ernest Hemingway classic “The Old Man and the Sea” with a theme about how people become marginalised and impoverished by changes in society and technology that leave them, their work and skills behind. Fisherman Wong (Andrew Ng) who specialises in fishing for squid is down on his luck and in danger of losing his fishing boat (where he also lives), being three months behind on his rent, because overcrowding in the harbour and the proliferation of tourist boats and dance party cruises have scared away the marine life. Wong promises his irate landlord that he’ll make a big catch on his next trip that will pay off what he owes. During the evening he sails his vessel far out of the harbour and witnesses an odd electrical storm that sends a lightning bolt into the sea and spawns an odd underwater being. The bell on his line tinkles and the fisherman draws up an odd-looking mewling squid. He puts it into a holding basket but it escapes and all his dreams of instant wealth vanish. Despondent, Wong almost considers suicide until the bell rings again, more insistently this time, and Wong goes out to draw up what turns out to be the catch of his life …

For most of its running time the film builds up in a leisurely way that fills viewers in on Wong’s taciturn nature, his determination and greed, and this concentration on Wong’s character helps add to the suspense that gradually escalates during the fishing trip. His is not a complicated character, being motivated by what he can get in the next catch and how he can spend the money. Unfortunately with living expenses being high in Hong Kong – many working-class people of Wong’s generation having to live in virtual rabbit-hutch conditions in crowded shared accommodation – Wong probably can only hope that he’ll be able to spend the rest of his days living on his old rented fishing vessel. It’s in the last few minutes that the plot twists come that test Wong’s toughness, resilience and ability to come back from the dead. The film turns into instant horror flick as Wong fights for his life, and then into an alien invasion movie as he returns into the harbour and sees his home city on fire from an invasion of monsters high in the sky. Somehow the thought that he might be the only survivor and that he no longer need pay any outstanding debts on his boat and equipment briefly flashes through his mind. A new career as bounty alien hunter beckons him as the bell on his line starts ringing again …

Ng does well as the hardened fisherman who has seen all and experienced all, and who now has more than a few tall tales to tell tourists. Wong doesn’t say a lot in the film but film close-ups of his face and eyes, even in the dark, show his fear and wariness despite his bravado.

Hardly a moment goes to waste in this film; every scene, every bit of dialogue helps to build up Wong’s character and the world he lives in (and which later turns upside down). Wong starts out as a poor fisherman left behind by greedy materialist capitalist society and technology but at the film’s end he becomes potentially indispensable to a society barely surviving under alien onslaught. Who would have thought that the hordes led by cephalopod capo di capi Cthulhu would turn out to be the saviours of humanity by attacking the citadels of global financial capitalism?

Pain and Glory: a self-referential film of an artist entering a winter of discontent

Pedro Almodovar, “Pain and Glory” (2019)

A film investigating how creation can be inspired by personal memories and suffering, “Pain and Glory” is a fiction biographical drama, whereby director Almodovar, seemingly on the verge of his twilight years as a director and artist, might be seen as taking stock of his career and the themes that have informed his body of work. In comparison with past work, “Pain and Glory” appears as quite a sombre film though there is still plenty of colour and visual artistic style, and the acting is very restrained.

At the beginning of “Pain and Glory”, famous writer and film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) has been living hermet-like in his Madrid mansion for several years, his depression and various physical health problems preventing him from doing the work he has long loved to do. During this time he has been caring for his aged mother Jacinta (Julieta Serrano) in her final years. Her death, and a film retrospective dedicated to his past work, featuring his break-out film that also gave actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) his best-known role, prompt Mallo to contact Crespo despite the two not having spoken to each other for 32 years after a bad fall-out during that film’s production. The meeting with Crespo introduces Mallo to heroin, to which the film director becomes addicted after smoking the drug helps to relieve his chronic pains and puts him in a reverie during which past childhood memories return to him. Thereafter, throughout the film, Mallo smokes heroin to rediscover aspects of his childhood of 50 years ago, during which he and his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) move into a grotto that his impoverished father has been able to find in a village and which Jacinta spruces up with the help of local youth Eduardo (Cesar Vicente) who, in exchange for lessons from Salvador in learning to read and write, paints and tiles the walls.

During a later visit to Mallo’s tastefully decorated house, Crespo finds a script “Addiction” that Mallo put aside some years ago and wants to perform it on stage. “Addiction” happens to be about a past lover who had been addicted to heroin and suffered greatly for it. Mallo initially refuses but some time afterwards – and especially after a disastrous Q&A session at the film retrospective during which Mallo and Crespo fight – he relents and Crespo performs the work. By sheer coincidence, a former flame of Mallo’s, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the subject of “Addiction” no less, is visiting Madrid from Buenos Aires, has seen a flyer for the performance, and sees the show. Crespo puts Federico in contact with Mallo and the two meet again, perhaps for the last time. Federico tells Mallo that he got off the heroin, married an Argentine girl, had a family with her and is running a successful restaurant business with his two sons.

After meeting Federico, Mallo resolves to give up the heroin and sort out his medical issues. While waiting for surgery, he and his assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas) visit an art gallery and discover a picture of himself as a child hanging in the gallery. He buys the picture and reads a message on the back of the canvas – written by none other than Eduardo, all those 50 years ago. This remarkable coincidence helps him to resolve to take up film-making once again.

Banderas puts in a remarkable virtuoso performance as Mallo in all his suffering and his petty, self-obsessed behaviour, and the rest of the cast does good work. The flashbacks to Mallo’s past are well done, though an element of mischievous surprise comes at the very end which puts those flashbacks in another light and explains why Jacinta’s eyes seem to change colour as she ages! Apart from the performances and the arresting visual style of the film (which of course indicates good cinematography among other things), there really isn’t much in the film’s narrative that would elevate it to the status of a great film: viewers are no better informed at the end of the film than at the beginning what made Mallo a great film director or his break-out film with Crespo the remarkable work that it was. How Crespo faded out as an actor is not explored; indeed the character disappears from “Pain and Glory” around the halfway point of the film. The episode with Federico is brief and after that character leaves, the film’s narrative marches on to another topic with no more reference to Crespo, Federico and whatever they inspire Mallo to do next.

One gets the impression that “Pain and Glory” is no more than an ordinary and banal story about an artist having a creative mid-life crisis and making a huge fuss out of it. As one character, Dr Galindo (Pedro Casablanc) says, “there are people worse off than you [Mallo]” and that could be advice someone already gave to Almodovar.

Ana by Day: exploring identity and the limits of freedom and pursuing one’s dreams

Andrea Jaurrieta, “Ana by Day / Ana de Dia” (2017)

You feel vaguely dissatisfied with and trapped by your life as a lawyer studying for a doctorate and engaged to a rather colourless though very nice and polite man of your own upper middle class set. You secretly wish you had followed your childhood dream and become a dancer. One day you call home and are shocked to discover that a stranger with a voice exactly like your own and who answers to your name, Ana, picks up the phone. You call home, then the place where you work, and are horrified to find that someone is impersonating you and doing all the work you should be doing. What do you do next? Do you confront the imposter? Do you call the police and tell them someone has stolen your identity?

In this film, the directing debut of Andrea Jaurrieta, you as Ana (played by Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson) seize the unexpected freedom from family, relationship and work ties and demands, and fly away from Barcelona to Madrid where, calling yourself Nina, you board with an eccentric family and find a job as a dancer at a rather seedy cabaret club called the Radio City Music Hall. Your work colleagues are people who have seen better days as entertainers and singers, and who (like you) are running away from past entanglements or even the law. You strike up a relationship with Marcelo (Alvaro Ogalla), a man with a shadowy background who doesn’t want you to know where he’s from, where he’s going to and what sort of work he does that allows him to live in expensive digs and take you out to high-class restaurants and meet socialite friends. (Scars on his back might suggest he’s a gangster or a professional hit-man.) Eventually though, your new family in the boarding-house discover that you had a past life and start pressing you to give up the late nights, the excessive drinking and drug-taking, and the shady boyfriend; your boyfriend discovers you blurted out his secret and now tells you he must leave town; and your newfound reputation as a dancer of note attracts an audience whom you’d rather didn’t follow you.

The film investigates, in quite original ways, issues of alienation, the limits and consequences of freedom, the loss and recovery of identity, the fulfillment of lost dreams, and the tension arising from accepting one’s place and obligations and having security versus striking out on one’s own to discover one’s real self and fulfill personal dreams and ambitions but experiencing loneliness, disillusionment and frustration along the way. Ana / Nina finds she can’t completely escape from her past: the irony is that becoming the lead dancer at the club is bringing into its audience people from Barcelona who know her.

With shots in confined spaces, and an emphasis on night-time scenes or scenes in shadow or under coloured lighting, close-ups and people going in and out of Ana / Nina’s room and rummaging through her belongings, the film highlights the fragility and changeable nature of identity and takes on a distinct look that suggests suspense and danger are never far away and any minute Ana / Nina will be exposed or her life is put at risk. We never completely know who the real woman behind Ana / Nina is. Perhaps the only time when Ana / Nina is truly herself is when she is on stage dancing and miming to an old Hollywood or Broadway number from decades ago.

While the acting is very good – Garcia-Jonsson is the stand-out here in playing two character types who gradually become very different women as a result of the decisions they make, the people they interact with and the environments they live and work in – and the issue Jaurrieta puts to the audience about how much of one’s personality and character comes from one’s inner nature or the social setting is dealt with in a bold and intriguing way, the resolution of this and other philosophical problems about identity and freedom that arise may not be satisfactory to most viewers. Initially bold in taking up a new way of living to live out her dream, Ana / Nina discovers that she ends up living another lie and ends up fleeing her new family and friends. Her romance with Marcelo ultimately goes nowhere. The paradox that arises is that, in following her dream, Ana / Nina ends up as lost as she was when her doppelganger first took over her old life. As a result, as the film progresses, it seems to lose focus and direction and becomes a bit confused about what it really wants. An easy resolution and tying off all loose ends are definitely not what the film wants or needs, because that would defeat the aim of what the film is pursuing: that breaking away from one’s old life to follow a new life also means that certain opportunities and choices that you could have enjoyed if you had stayed as you are, will be lost forever to you.

Suppose you confront your unwanted twin and discover that your twin has changed your old life in ways you hadn’t anticipated and which mean you can no longer return to it: what are you going to do then?

The Bookshop: one-dimensional characters and a pedestrian plot in a kitsch provincial English setting

Isabel Coixet, “The Bookshop” (2017)

Directed by a Catalan-Spanish director, this film exudes provincial English kitsch in its setting, its stereotyped and sometimes frosty characters, and its plot which often jumps ahead of itself and features some unexpected twists and turns. The film appears to be quite faithful to the source novel by Penelope Fitzgerald.

Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) fulfills a long-held dream to open her own bookshop in the seaside village of Hardborough in Suffolk. The bookshop is located in a historic building known as The Old House (after which the bookshop is named) which had previously been idle for several years due to apparent problems with damp and a supposed ghost infestation. After overcoming various obstacles – one of which is local wealthy socialite Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) who desires to open an arts centre in The Old House – Green finally starts her business. Employing 13-year-old schoolgirl Christine (Honor Kneafsey) in the weekday afternoons and Saturdays, Green makes quite a splash among the villagers, especially as she stocks eyebrow raisers like Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and the recently released “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. Reclusive Edward Brundish (Bill Nighy), living at the top of a hill, becomes Green’s best customer and friend who starts inviting her for afternoon tea on a regular basis.

After some months, a rival bookshop opens in a former fish-and-chips shop and school inspectors pull Christine away Green’s employ for being under-age. From this point on, Green’s business starts to suffer, especially after Green takes on local louche layabout Milo North (James Lance) as assistant. The film hints that North may be colluding with Mrs Gamart to evict Green and seize The Old House building. Meanwhile Mrs Gamart’s nephew, a politician, sponsors a bill that enables local councils to buy historical buildings that have not been inhabited for more than five years. The bill passes and the council that governs Hardborough buys out Green and she is forced to leave the village.

While the acting is very good if restrained, few characters have much to do and the plot is very pedestrian. Characters are one-dimensional and viewers are hard put to decide why Green should have chosen a place like Hardborough to set up her shop as there is little distinctive about the postcard-pretty village or its inhabitants. An opportunity for Coixet to show how parochial or hostile the villagers might have been towards Green initially, then perhaps slowly to defend her against Mrs Gamart’s machinations as they realise that Green’s bookshop is the only business that makes their village stand out from all the other seaside villages in Suffolk, that could have given the film and its characters more spine, is missed. A later twist in which Green discovers that the later admiration from the villagers for her courage and stubborn resistance and then support, then collapses when Mrs Gamart persuades some, maybe most, of the villagers to betray her, could have been the film’s climax after which (spoiler alert) Green finally admits defeat and leaves Hardborough.

After nearly a year of running her bookshop, Green appears not to understand Hardborough and its people no more than she first did when she came to the place, and while viewers get plenty of clues throughout the film that, for all her kindness, honesty and braveness, Green is ignorant of events occurring around her, still audiences will wonder how such a capable woman couldn’t have seen what was going on and tried to sound out people for news of Mrs Gamart’s machinations.

Ultimately what the film suggests is that courage, early success and the support of a few well-meaning people of integrity like Brundish are not enough against the combination of money, higher social standing, political connections and the indifference of a community, many of whose members may be jealous of Green. That a village might need a bookshop unfortunately is not the same as wanting a bookshop if its inhabitants are suspicious of reading and what it may represent: new ideas, change, a threat to their settled and predictable lives, the possibility that their world may be invaded and eventually absorbed into a bigger, more impersonal universe.

The English class system and the social hierarchy and attitudes it breeds in upper and lower classes alike could have had a bollocking here but Coixet chooses to ignore and avoid this particular proverbial elephant in the room. As a result the film feels small and not a little stale – in short, it feels much like the village it subtly criticises.


The Impossible: a real human story is the ultimate victim in this pedestrian disaster movie

Juan Antonio Bayona, “The Impossible / Lo Impossible” (2012)

Someone should have told Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts before they signed up to this film the quote by W C Fields: “Never act with animals or children”. In this otherwise pedestrian film, the child actors are easily the stars and Tom Holland in particular is the star around whom the entire film eventually revolves. Based on the experiences of a Spanish family, the film retells the events surrounding the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami that took the lives of over 230,000 people in Southeast Asia from a particular point of view.

McGregor and Watts play British couple Henry and Maria Bennett who take their three boys on holiday to a beach-side resort in Khao Lak in Thailand. They fuss over the usual things like who was the last to leave the house and turn the alarms on. The parents fret that they might return to find the house full of squatting hippies sleeping in their beds and (eek!) wearing all their clothes. The boys tease one another and one child refuses to sit next to big brother Lucas (Holland). After the usual problems of going through customs and convincing the inspectors they’re not sex tourists, drug couriers or fundamentalist fruitcake missionaries out to steal children for their adoption agency back in London or Wales or wherever, the parents haul the brood over to the Khao Lak where they pig out along with all the other European tourists while Thai waiters, masseurs and the odd prostitute (male, female, dog) wait on them hand and foot. After a couple of days of sheer boredom, it’s time to jack up the plot level to 11, at which point the tsunami hits and washes everything far inland.

The rest of the film is about the Bennetts’ travails in finding one another and getting Maria, severely wounded from being smacked into glass and debris and half-strangled by vines by the force of the waves, to immediate medical help. McGregor and Watts do all they can to play fairly one-dimensional and stereotypical characters and infuse them with some character without making them look histrionic. Unfortunately Watts has perhaps played too many “brave and stubborn mother” characters for her portrayal to appear credible and her best acting is all done in bed under a respirator. McGregor is better in his role as the desperate father searching for Maria and Lucas while keeping the other boys together and in his despair making dumb decisions that endanger his life. Indeed, the film appears to privilege the Bennett children over their parents. Lucas is forced very quickly to mature in order to protect his mother and get medical help, and to occupy himself in the makeshift hospital; he reunites a Swedish man with his son and sees to it that a toddler he and Maria have saved finds his parents. Lucas’ siblings Thomas and Simon (Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast) cope with the aftermath of the tsunami with stoic and innocent good humour and cheer up a Scottish lady (Geraldine Chaplin) with their wonder at the stars in the night-sky.

One problem with this film is its underlying ethnic bias in appealing to a Western, and in particular an English-speaking, audience. Why did the original Spanish family have to be made over into a white British family? The family members’ first names were kept and I would have thought that if the film were pitched at an American audience (a considerable percentage of whom is Spanish-speaking by linguistic background), the family should have remained Spanish. There would be additional problems for the family in trying to communicate with the Thai authorities and other tourists, and we would see Lucas turning from boy to man in five seconds flat trying to act as impromptu interpreter as well as carer. Although the film portrays the Thai people quite sympathetically, it is odd to see mostly faceless Thai people in positions of servitude again while white people are lolling about horizontally, just in a different context. Indeed, given that the vast majority of people who died in the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami in Thailand were Thai, I’m astonished that the film omits any mention of their tragedy, even in the end credits.

The plot feels very manipulative and rather top-heavy with its first half dominated by Watts and Holland fighting the waves and managing to find each other, scramble to safety, save a small child and get help. The switch to McGregor and the younger children seems just a bit too rushed and glib – it seems the littlies saved themselves by grabbing fronds attached to palm trees in waters rushing at over 100 km/ hour – and the second half of the film pales in comparison with the first half. The climax is of a classic multiple-shot “will they find each other? will they miss each other?” plot device that scrambles around looking for a set of coincidences that will bring everyone together. The little guys need to pee so they delay their transport driver, another transport driver has problems starting his engine and Lucas thinks he’s spotted Dad.

The cheesiest and most manipulative part of the film is in the dream sequence in which Maria, under anaesthetic, relives being hit by the waves and smacked into a brown watery hell in which she gets cut after cut on her body. Predictably the dream experience pushes her towards a light and the audience wonders whether reaching the light means she dies on the operating table or not …

When all was said and done and the lights came on in the cinema, it was telling that the mostly middle-aged and affluent audience started bolting for the doors instead of staying for the credits: what we had just seen was little more than a disaster movie with disaster movie narrative elements (dramatic music, strong and stubborn parents, one family member in dire straits needing emergency treatment, resourceful teenage son, cute little kids who all manage to survive with no cuts, wounds or psychological trauma) and nothing more. Everything is reduced to the banal and the film offers no great insight into the characters and how much they might have changed, how closer they might have come as a family as a result of the disaster. The pity is that there was perhaps a real human story in that film if the film-makers had taken a little more liberty with it in a different direction: spoiled teenage son thrust into a situation where he must look after mum after she has saved his life, being forced to grow up, making friends with strangers and in the process learning something about the Thai people, and acknowledging that he and they share a common humanity.

The Diadem / MiniKillers: two trashy films that highlight how good a good actor can be

?, “The Diadem” (1966)

Wolfgang von Chmielewski, “MiniKillers” (1969)

Two curious short films from Germany and Spain respectively, both feature the English actor Diana Rigg in the starring role of an unnamed spy – the films have no dialogue – carrying out a mission for an unnamed employer or agency. Quite why and how the actor ended up in these shorts, both very low budget films and the later one with a very cheesy look and music soundtrack, is unknown since Rigg apparently does not talk about them and she made them at times when her career was ascendant on television and film respectively. It’s possible that Rigg agreed to appear in the films as the lack of dialogue meant that the focus would be on her acting to carry them all the way. The films will be of interest mainly to diehard Rigg fans who know her work in the TV series “The Avengers”.

In the first film “The Diadem”, Rigg’s action-girl spy rather carelessly loses the key to her safe where she is protecting a valuable diadem. Naturally a crook who’s been following her nicks the key, goes back to her house and tries to steal the box but Rigg wallops him and takes the box off him, only to discover that a piggy bank is inside. She then finds a map with a route to a derelict house and goes there. She discovers the diadem at last but has to evade three more crooks who try to kill her with a venomous snake.

The plot is very flimsy and one scratches one’s head at why Rigg is so careless with the key but at least the film is fairly well made and edited. The night-time setting for Rigg’s investigation of the abandoned house adds some suspense and justifies one scene where Rigg blows out a candle and fights a crook in the dark. Close-ups of characters’ faces and the use of unusual angling in the camera work assist in bulking up what tension can be wrung out of the plot. At least Rigg has the authority and style to bring off a forgettable short and make it believable as a sort-of promotional film for “The Avengers”, even though her character is not named.

“MiniKillers” is a 28-minute film divided into four parts in which Rigg’s action girl, on holiday in the Costa Brava region of Spain, stumbles across a bizarre murder in which a tourist is killed by a cute toy doll. She quickly discovers that the doll shot poison at its victim and sets out to find the man’s killers. She is trailed by the bad guys of whom the most notable are the Boss and his No 1 henchman (played by Jose Nieto and Moises Augusto Rocha). They try to kill her with a doll, ambush her on a beach with mannequins and a net, put a booby-trapped doll in her car (which she tosses back at them) and trap her under a cliff-hanger device (a stone wine-press). Coolly our heroine wriggles out of danger each and every time with the most improbable (and for male viewers, the most memorable) scramble being in the second part where somehow she slips out of her dress and the trawler-net and swims to a boat; she hauls herself into the boat clad in underwear. She discovers in the course of her investigation that the man killed is an Interpol agent on the trail of the crooks for drug-running and that another Interpol agent (Sali), masquerading as a flamenco dancer, is next on the crooks’ hit-list.

The plot barely exists with holes large enough for a pod of humpbacks to swim through. Fight scenes at least are well choreographed though highly improbable: you can’t tell me a skinny English woman can beat off four or five very hunky bodyguard types with a few judo chops and flip-overs. Although a rifle with sights appears in the first part of the film, no shots are ever fired. One would think also that if you stick your victim into a wine-press, you should make sure she never wakes up or at least stand by to see that the lady does not stop the cogs with her ring and stall the wine-press. The quality of the film is bad with washed-out colours but not so bad that we can’t see Rigg’s luminous face express subtle feelings and thoughts. Music is of the trashy Europop sort with bubbly acid-toned church organ melodies that go through the ears and brain like annoying muzak poison.

The film’s saving grace is its lead actor who at least looks as if she’s enjoying herself and glows throughout all four parts of the film. Rigg adds humorous touches such as wagging a stern finger at one minikiller doll when she discovers it’s carrying drugs and the No 1 henchman even throws an exaggerated look of exhaustion when the Boss tells him to go after Rigg for the umpteenth time. With no dialogue and hardly any substance to the plot which turns out to be fairly mundane – Rigg discovers an underground drug-running racket – the film relies heavily on its lead actor to carry it. Suffice to say that Rigg does an excellent job of salvaging her character and acting reputation, if not the film. The bad guys are hammy but the actors seem happy playing support to Rigg.

Here is proof if any is needed that it’s not good films that make good actors shine … it’s actually bad films that prove whether actors are good or not. A good actor can at least make his/her character look credible and salvage a good part of a bad film.

28 Weeks Later: film has more Swiss-cheese holes than the zombies make in their victims

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, “28 Weeks Later” (2007)

On paper it looked like a good idea: a sequel to the original zombies-on-the-run flick “28 Days Later” by Danny Boyle – but “28 Weeks Later” turns out to be more Swiss-cheese in plot and character development than the monsters themselves can make of their victims. Supposedly an exercise in forcing viewers to experience vicariously London as a deserted city in lockdown after an experiment in rehabilitating its refugees goes awry and the returnees are abandoned in a virtual prison, the film descends into cliche and a tatty plot in which two children, a soldier, a scientist and a few others play survivor against a horde of zombies and trigger-happy US soldiers.

Two kids, Andy and Tammy (Mackintosh Muggleton and Imogen Poots), are among the survivors of the first zombie outbreak caused by a mysterious virus called Rage. The survivors are taken away from Britain and the entire island, caught up in the mass zombie contagion, has had to be sealed off from the rest of the world, purged of its infected people, made squeaky-clean and off-limits to human penetration for six months. A few tears may have been shed for the loss of whatever passed for modern British culture before the Rage virus took over; the Russians are probably upset that there is no longer an educated enemy spy agency to match wits against but apart from that, few are sad to see the culture and society that produced Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron snuffed out. The Americans decide to allow a few hundred refugees to return to London, Andy and Tammy among them. They are reunited with Dad (Robert Carlyle) and almost immediately the three fall into trouble: the kids discover their lost mum (Catherine McCormack) who is infected with the zombie virus but hasn’t undergone the transformation to rabid brute. The Americans pick her up and install her under supposedly tight security in a medical facility and put the children under close observation. Dad however sneaks into Mum’s supposedly sealed room and ends up infected with the zombie virus; mayhem ensues and Andy and Tammy once again find themselves on the run, befriended by a scientist (Rose Byrne) and US soldier Doyle (Jeremy Renner) as they try to avoid being shot down by the US Army or chewed over by Dad’s army of frenzied fiends.

The film depends a great deal on dark shadows and night scenes that can be shot in infra-red camera so that viewers don’t see the straining seams that barely keep the story together. The plot depends on people doing the most gobsmacking idiotic things: the US Army commander (Idris Elba) fails to keep the children’s mother under strict surveillance, enabling the father to gain unhindered access to her room; the father himself kisses her and she bites him for betraying her in the film’s opening scenes and leaving her exposed to the zombie threat; Andy wanders off and gets lost much of the time; and American soldiers are ordered to try to shoot zombies milling in a crowd of panicking people from afar! Characters are stereotyped or act in ways inconsistent with what they’re supposed to be: Andy sometimes is brave and resourceful but is also incredibly stupid when the plot goes flat and a nail-biting scene of suspense and terror is called for; Tammy either hyperventilates or screams for much of the film’s second half but stays amazingly calm for the climactic scene (because, hey, the film is PC so it allows girls to kill!); and the soldier Doyle plays heroic and self-sacrificing in a spectacular fiery scene.

The handheld camera technique becomes tiresome in a film of this nature: critical scenes become merely blurry and when one scene of pointless gore follows another, the jumpy film ends up playing a curiously censorious role – viewers have little idea of how much blood is actually split when the camera is bouncing everywhere.

If there is a theme, it’s weakly developed: the Americans should have been portrayed as more cynical in allowing a resettlement experiment to proceed with the refugees as obvious guinea pigs; the US Army is merely brutal but the film should also have shown Elba’s character and others as panicky and incompetent at controlling the experiment and containing the new zombie outbreak. There could have been a sub-plot involving the cynical use of Andy and Tammy as guinea pigs in another bizarre science experiment involving the development of a vaccine for the Rage virus but this would have been beyond whatever little intelligence the plot possesses.

Worst of all, the film paves the way for a second pointless sequel which will take place in Paris in France. Now we really have to cry over the loss of what passes for modern Parisian culture – or celebrate more like, come to think of it.

Carnage: comedy of no-manners patronises Americans and diminishes its audiences

Roman Polanski, “Carnage” (2011)

Not one of his better efforts due to the nature of the original play but then again, a comedy from Polanski is almost as rare as teeth in a chicken, especially one as entirely dialogue and character-driven as this. Two school-age boys have scuffled and one has whacked the other in the face with a switch, breaking two of his teeth, so the culprit’s parents agree to meet the victim’s at his home. Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), the parents of the miscreant, have jobs as investment banker and corporate lawyer respectively; the victim’s folks, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly), are somewhat lower class where income is concerned but are more cultured, or at least Penelope is (or pretends to be). In attempting to call a truce and assign financial responsibility for the victim’s dental expenses, the two couples allow their personal lives to take over the conversation via their cellphone calls and their respective civilised veneers, loosened by too many glasses of scotch, fall away; before long, their hang-ups about their marriages, class differences, social consciences, general outlook on life, obligations to their families and a pet hamster explode into the open in the confines of the Longstreets’ apartment.

Polanski is wise to keep all the action based in one room (the Longstreets’ lounge-room) so as to allow the actors to fly freely with their characters. Foster and Winslet excel with their particular characters: Foster the socially conscious and caring writer-cum-artist activist is revealed as an ambitious, narrow-minded and controlling shrew who always has to be top dog; Winslet the high-maintenance trophy wife loses control of herself from drinking too much and vomiting. Reilly and Waltz have rather more limited roles with Reilly playing a mediator and failing dismally and Waltz a workaholic more interested in winning lawsuits on behalf of crooked corporate clients in order to avoid dealing with a failing marriage and a child affected by his parents’ fights and faults. We start to see why the children of these parents might have behaved the way they did: the Cowans’ son wants the attention his parents are not giving him and the Longstreets’ son may be a passive child vulnerable to bullying because his mother coddles him and his father is too laidback to show him how to stand up for himself.

There are incongruities in the characters: what Penelope, who more or less conforms to the popular “champagne socialist” type (socially conscientious, skimming the surface of art and culture so as to appear sophisticated), found attractive in Michael with his non-PC prejudices and cavalier attitude towards small animals is never explained though their differences provide plenty of laughs; and Nancy and Michael are equally mismatched (she a brittle upper class princess, he a dull one-dimensional corporate robot whose life revolves around work) and contemptuous of each other. It’s likely though that the common bonds between them are love of money and status and who married whom for the money is perhaps not too difficult to work out. Initially the conflict is between morally upright do-gooding Penelope and cynical Alan with Michael trying to calm down and jolly people along and Nancy performing her simpering debutante act. The action clearly takes place in a claustrophobic and labyrinthine hot-house apartment though the Longstreets refer to their home as a “house”; usually in Polanski’s films, such a setting reflects characters’ inner states of mind but in this movie the setting merely looks picturesque.

Although the actors are very capable and the comedy is fast-paced and well-timed, the plot itself ends up in a rut: the characters simply keep on finding new scabs to pick at and make bleed and the bickering becomes tiresome. Script-writers Yasmina Reza (who wrote the original play) and Polanski pile on one unpleasantry after another on the characters until they become caricatures of themselves and the action is forced to stop rather suddenly when Nancy petulantly flings flowers about. One presumes the film-makers discovered at the last minute that there were no custard pies in the Longstreets’ fridge.

What themes exist in the film – how the rapacity of Wall Street and corporate culture has found its way into the lives of people like the Cowans and reduced them to mean-spirited, hollowed-out shells who can’t connect with their son; the snootiness of self-styled “liberal” and “progressive” types like Penelope loudly proclaiming their new versions of the 19th-century “white man’s burden” by writing books about wars and poverty in Africa while perhaps ignoring the poverty in their own neighbourhoods; the redneck vulgarity of Michael – are treated in a patronising way. The audience is expected to laugh at these foolish Americans for their self-obsession and identity politics. Yet in laughing at them, we ourselves are diminished; aren’t we just as obsessed with our social identities, how we want people to view us and admire us, and aren’t we also just as unconcerned about the poor people in our midst while we express horror and concern for poor people in distant countries whom we hope we never have to see?

Interestingly the most important part of the film occurs right at the end where we see the couples’ sons being friendly as if nothing had happened between them earlier. This suggests the world in a microcosm: while the parents, self-important and materially wealthy but spiritually lacking, quarrel and treat their children like objects or trophies, the children themselves overcome any social differences and conflicts between them and become pals. If only our elites, obsessed with ideology, destructive economic growth and controlling the public, would just disappear and let the common people sort out the mess the world is in through working together and finding common ground, the planet will regenerate and humanity’s future would be bright indeed. Dream on.

The Skin I Live In: tricked-up film about identity change misses some deep lessons about obsession, control and revenge

Pedro Almodóvar, “The Skin I Live In / La Piel Que Habito” (2011)

Georges Franju’s sci-fi horror classic “Eyes without a Face” was overdue for a remake with updated cosmetic surgery and stem cell technologies and, seeing as how these days the Spanish are making the arthouse flicks that the French used to be so good at, it’s fitting that Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has remade that film in his own wacky Almodóvar way. Familiar motifs such as the narrative posing in flashback form, family skeleton secrets falling out of closets and reconciliations between mothers and children flesh out the original “Eyes …” plot and break every known moral convention to explore issues about identity, especially identity based on superficial criteria such as facial appearance and beauty, and stereotypes about gender.

Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a brilliant plastic surgeon whose wife was disfigured in a fire when her car caught alight. Although he saves the wife’s life and repairs what damage has been done to her face, she later kills herself by defenestration in front of their daughter Norma. Norma becomes psychotic and stays that way for years until doctors judge her well enough to attend a wedding and its reception with her father. The girl meets Vicente (Jan Cornet) and the two sneak off into the garden for a pash. While making out, Norma hears the wedding singer warbling the song that had been playing when her mother threw herself out the window and the girl has a severe reaction. Vicente, frightened, runs away and Ledgard, searching for Norma, finds her catatonic in the garden. With the girl regressing permanently to her psychotic state, Ledgard hunts down Vicente, imprisons him and subjects him to a series of cosmetic surgery operations that include castration, a sex change and other changes: the result is the lovely Vera (Elena Anaya) who becomes the focus for Ledgard’s obsessive desires and manias.

The script is skilfully written and proceeds at a fast pace yet by using a narrative structure of a series of introductions followed by flashback history, it sets before viewers a bunch of characters of whom we form first-impression opinions; all of these impressions are undermined by the film’s second half which takes the form of memories seen through Ledgard and Vera’s dreams. We begin to understand the true horror of Vera’s experience at the hands of Ledgard who experiments on her as much out of curiosity and thirst for career fame and advancement of scientific knowledge as for vengeance. There could have been some very instructive lessons delivered about the seductive nature of scientific inquiry and how it can blind people to issues of ethical responsibility, exploitation of subjects (especially human subjects) and abusing their freedom and rights, and about the nature of freedom itself: can a person experience freedom and individuality even while imprisoned in an unwanted body and sexual identity and surrounded by another beautiful prison layer (Ledgard’s palatial home)? We see Vera educate herself with yoga and art while trapped in her beautiful jail; would Vicente have become a more educated person if he had not been captured and tormented the way he has been? Who is actually more free, Vera or Ledgard? – Vera believes herself the prisoner but Ledgard, in thrall to his obsessions and desire for vengeance, may actually be the less free of the two. But this movie being an Almodóvar movie, deep lessons about obsession, revenge and power and control over other people are avoided; we get instead a moderately convoluted story that piles shock upon shock and laugh upon laugh while the background reverberates with the invisible noise of shattering moral conventions and continuous breaches of audience tolerance.

Visually the film is beautiful and, despite the use of muted blues and green, flamboyant in that distinctive Almodóvar way: there is an added clinical precision that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cronenberg film, thanks to the subject matter and its treatment in the plot. Banderas does an excellent job as the quietly manic doctor / researcher who is as reasonable as a mad man can be, and Anaya acquits herself well as his victim. Maria Paredes as Ledgard’s housekeeper (and secret biological mother) Marilia helps to keep the plot going smoothly. Minor characters are little more than cardboard cut-outs; even Vicente rarely rises from ardent young would-be lover and wronged prisoner.

“Eyes without a Face” was a deep, thoughtful film, efficient and almost minimal in its delivery, turning on the issue of free will; “The Skin I Live In” may be more glamorous and arty in appearance, and the plot may twist and turn effortlessly with the skill and grace of a dancer, but I find this effort an inferior film compared to Franju’s effort. Tricksiness in plot and themes is never a good substitute for substance.