Hey, yeah... the Cronenberg marathon... July hasn't been very kind to 'free time.' I have in fact watched a few films (M. Butterfly, Videodrome, The Dead Zone). The marathon is happening, but we're stretching it into August given how I haven't had the time to seriously write any thoughts yet. Consequently, 'French female directors' will be the theme for September. I want to apologize for the delay and I'll do my darndest to make this worth it.
Newcomer Steve McQueen starts his directing career in full force with his character drama Hunger, a film about the last few weeks in the life of IRA resistance fighter Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) who, once incarcerated in the infamous Maze prison, chooses to go on a hunger strike which ultimately takes his life in 1981. As such, he becomes something of a martyr and a symbol to all those who support the Irish cause against the English.
With the exception of a few moments, the movie is set mostly within the confines of the prison, where the iron will of the detainees to resist the co-operation is set against the often repressive methods of guards. There isn’t a whole lot of gloss to this movie. I find that a bucket load of films set in prisons fail to make the location of the prison seem like an unpleasant place to be, which I assume must be the case. This doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a movie that doesn’t depict a prison as an uncompromising place. I happen to find Austin Powers and The Spy Who Shagged me a very funny movie for example. It’s just that when I think of an actual prison, I imagine it as an absolute hell hole. Granted, the circumstances of the story are particular to a specific time and place in Irish history which led to intense and coordinated animosity between the prisoners and the guards, but that in no ways changes to fact that this prison looks like the last place on Earth I’d want to be in. If writer/director Steve McQueen wanted to depict a depressing, uncomfortable look at the people on the inside and outside of the prison cells, he certainly succeeded. Some of the things the inmates do are really disgusting, such as using their food to stash away various items and to draw on the walls of their cells. The catch is that the food goes bad and in certain shots the viewer can notice that it is now infested with buggers such as maggots and the like. They also make sure to simultaneously poor their urine under the doors and into the hallways of the prison just to annoy the guards and janitors. Just typing about that provided a slight shiver down my spine. As for the guards, they aren’t happy campers either. They face this imprisoned opposition and their antics on a daily basis. Each group has grown to despise the other. That hate explodes with the occasional beatings suffered by the inmates at the hands of infuriated guards and their clubs. The emotional as well as psychological toil this takes on some of the guards can be too much to bare at times, as is seen during one the orgy beatings when the camera pans away from the action to reveal one guard lying against the wall shedding tears. If at that moment the viewer hasn’t clued in that within these walls normal human behaviours and interactions can be deformed beyond recognition, it’s a lost cause. It’s a place where, regardless of which side one is on, their mental and emotional well being will tested to the limit. For that reason the movie is very difficult to digest at times, but it’s also difficult not to admire McQueen’s desire to stick to the dark tone and not hide any of the brutality.
It is worth noting that the movie is actually divided into two halves more or less, the first of which introduces the audience to the nature of the prison and the condition of the inmates as well as the employees. We follow one guard in particular played by Stuart Graham. We see him as the frustrated and angry human being he has become (or always has been perhaps). There’s a depressing look about him, and why shouldn’t there be what with the terrible job and terrible political and social climate haunting his life? By the halfway mark of the movie, the story’s concentration shifts to Bobby Sands and his hunger strike. The scene introducing his character is one of the more impressive individual scenes, both for the writing and acting involved, that I’ve had the privilege of watching in the past few years. It’s been talked about endlessly, but I couldn’t possibly overlook it here. Sands has received a visitor, father Moran (Liam Cunningham), with whom he shares a cigarette. It is then and there that Sands reveals his intention of refusing food in protest against the treatment the Irish receive from the English. This approximately 17 minute scene is very solid for several reasons. For one, it is one of the rare moments in the film in which dialogue offers some insights into the psychology of the characters. Up until that point, whatever character explorations the viewer has been privy to (consisting mostly of the Stuart Graham guard) were accomplished visually, through actions, small ticks and behaviours. In a unique fashion, this extended dialogue sequence almost serves as a kind of interlude connecting two mostly dialogue-free halves of the same film. Interludes are usually when the talking and story take a breather for a moment or two, making this section of the film all the more interesting. There was something also very theatrical about the sequence, which was in contrast to the cinematic feel to the remainder of the movie. Only a few selective edits during these 17 minutes hint at anything cinematic. There’s just something about two actors having rehearsed this long, meaty conversation, filled with particular facial interactions and idiosyncratic ticks, that has an old fashioned, classical atmosphere about it. Not to mention that the conversation the two characters have is genuinely interesting, with father Moran attempting to persuade Sands not to follow through with this wasteful gesture, with all his arguments sadly falling on deaf ears. It’s a great example of solid writing and acting shining through as opposed to any visual qualities. Personally, I’m a big fan of writers and writing in general, so scenes like this one often get me very excited (much like the famous diner table conversation between Al Pacino and Robert de Niro in Heat). Both actors sell the scene wonderfully. ` Recommending Hunger is somewhat dicey. For my movie tastes, it’s a solid, well constructed film. It goes for gritty realism while doing so in a cinematically satisfying manner (cinematography, editing, acting, etc). McQueen has made a very well shot film, and while many of the things we actually see are often cringe inducing, there’s little doubt that he handles the tone aptly. Still, it stands to reason that Hunger won’t be just anyone’s cup of tea. It’s dark material and nothing is sugar coated. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the darker film’s I’ve seen in the past couple year, and it has a lot to do with what I wrote earlier in this review: I don’t like the idea of prisons. They creep me out and the one in Hunger feels like Hell on Earth. That’s a very personal reaction of course, and so not everyone might get that visceral reaction out of it. There isn’t much of a plot happening however. It does feel a bit like a series of scenes strung together (admirably, mind you) depicting depressing, sad situations. Warning to the faint of heart, you may not enjoy the Hunger experience. Nonetheless, the movie is memorable for its brutality and the grim depiction of the antagonistic prisoner-guard relationships. The movie refuses to ever become didactic, which is a relief (that’s not saying that message movies aren’t any good however). If you’re in the mood for something bleak, go right ahead…
The poll results determining the theme for August are in! In a slight upset, 'Frenchfemale directors' garnered the highest amounts of votes, beating out 'Sergio Leone' by a single ballot. What took me by surprise is that a) Sergio Leone lost and b) Leone actually had a comfortable lead at one point. So be it, the readers have spoken.
Coming a distant third was 'romantic comedies'. Really? More people wanted to read about my views on romantic comedies than on samurai movies or comic book movies?
Further still in fourth place was 'samurai'.
Receiving 0 votes was 'comic book movies'.
Early next week the discussions on Cronenberg's work will commence. In August, French female directors.
Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen (2009, Michael Bay) 2/5
Michael Bay is a filmmaker infamous for being subservient to the Hollywood ‘machine’, creating films that generally appeal to the lowest common denominator of movie goers, offering strictly no substance at all with a whole lot of the worst kind of style possible: especially fast and especially loud. 2 years ago, Bay and his team delivered Transformers, the live-action adaptation of the 1980s cartoon, comic, and toy line of the same name. It carried all the Bay staples, that is, a weak plotline which became an excuse for expensive pyrotechnics and visual effects shots of ‘bad assery.’ From memory, the only sensible storytelling element present in that film was how Sam, played by Shia Leboeuf, obtained his first car in high school. The car is in fact the famous Bumblebee in disguise, and the two form a bond of sorts. A cute variation of the ‘boy and his dog’ story if you will (I believe Spielberg himself, who was involved in the creative process of the first film, specifically desired a ‘boy and his car’ tale). Once that was out of the way however, the film concentrated on the allspark of power or whatnot and proceeded to assault the viewer with schizophrenically edited scenes involving huge robots battling one another.
To put Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in a nutshell, and it would have to be a pretty darn big one, it’s like the first film, but with a worse sense of humour, minus the cute Sam-Bumblebee story, and longer, louder schizophrenic action sequences. There are some serious oddities about this movie. First and foremost, the film is far too long. Clocking in at a bloated 2h24, it becomes evident by the halfway mark that the movie does not have any interesting or coherent story to sustain the running time. And yet, just like that dastardly Megatron, the movie keeps on marching and pounding the audience to death with loud noises and confusing special effects. The ‘story, as I guess we shall call it for the time being, has Sam off to college without his trusted Bumblebee, hoping to live a normal life, only to soon discover that a small piece of the allspark behind left from the previous instalment uploaded critical information to his brain. The information? Something about another kind of allspark (the matrix of leadership I think) and more powerful, deadlier Decepticons named the Fallen, who desires nothing more than to destroy the Earth’s sun. Why? Jealousy perhaps. Cranky about some rusty parts could be as much a plausible explanation as any other if you ask me, which I know you are since you’ve chosen to spend time reading this review. Meanwhile, the Autobots are combating Decepticons across the globe with the help of a special human military squadron, as is seen during the opening action set piece in Shanghai. Strange that there is still a cover up regarding the existence of these machines given that it should be rather hard to miss 5 giant robots reducing downtown Shanghai to a pulp. Anyways…the Autobots are soon called in to help Sam with his problem, and thus begins this overly epic journey across the U.S. and in Egypt to destroy the Decepticons and this oddly named Fallen creature.The route the film takes to finally, finally kick the crap out of the bad guys is dragged on far too much. Every new character Sam thinks he needs to read the ancient text locked in his head can’t seem to do so, so they always have to keep marching onwards to another set piece or another robot who, we hope, can somehow decipher this gibberish. It’s not very original, nor is the pay-off, involving a machine hidden inside a pyramid that, when activated, will destroy the planet’ sun. Wow.
In the case of some action films, a silly, convoluted plot can be forgiven with solid action and some amusing dialogue and characters. I’ll get to the action in a moment, but allow me to reserve a few lines about the characters and dialogue. I realized at some point during the movie that Sam isn’t a particularly interesting character, not are any of his Autobot buddies. He’s just a young adult with a hot girlfriend who goes spastic whenever the shit hits the fan. Shia Leboeuf has shown in the past that he can deliver some good lines, as was the case even, dare I say, in the first Transformers. But here I didn’t get anything out of him. That’s not entirely Leboeuf’s fault mind you. When a script has its main character a young, naturally nervous college kid under constant threat of death, then he won’t be doing much other than acting crazy. Not to mention that this sequel gives Sam a sidekick who behaves exactly like him. Should I even mention Megan Fox? What hasn’t been said already exactly? Pretty on the eyes but hasn’t delivered any special performances yet, or at least hasn’t laid hands on any script that would allow her to do so. Revenge, alas, is no different. None of the Autobots are particularly interesting either. Optimus Prime is a commander, that’s pretty much it. Bumblebee still can’t talk and in fact isn’t even used all that much in the film in comparison to his screen time in the original. Megatron well…he still barks orders, only this time he also takes orders from the Fallen (which was a bit of an odd choice given how in every other Transformers series Megatron is usually the leader) But a worse crime committed by the film is the odd sense of humour it champions. Dogs in the act of procreation, a miniature robot shagging the leg of Megan Fox, a toothless Muslim in a butcher shop yelling that he can’t touch pork, Sam’s mother acting like she was on crack cocaine after taking in a tiny dose of pot, and, lest I forget, those god forsaken twin Autobots. I forgot what their names are and I quite frankly don’t think it matters. Their voices resemble that of Black urbanites, call their friends and foes pussies and claim that they ‘don’t do much readin’!’ If any of what I wrote above in the last few lines made you laugh while you watched the film, then fine, that’s just what tickles your funny bone. None of the above tickled mine. In fact, I was shifting uncomfortably in my seat, especially during the scenes involving the twin Auobots (many in the crowd laughed and I was sitting next to a huge Black man. Even if I did find it funny I think I would have held it in anyways).
With brings us to the action and special effects. Truth be told, anyone who says the movie has bad visual effects must be kidding themselves. I’m not referring to the ridiculously fast paced editing and cinematography. I’m merely pointing to the how seamlessly the giant robots fit into the locations, real or studio created, where the movie was filmed. The Autobots and Decepticons look like real, giant killing machines, even though it’s often hard to differentiate one from the other. Their individual designs may get repetitive after a while, but there’s no question that the effects team put their heart and soul into making these machines look freaking real and awesome. Yay, Revenge of the Fallen has scored a point! Sadly, much like in the first film, the action is often difficult to follow precisely because of the fast paced editing and close up shots of robots that, like I briefly mentioned already, do tend to look like one another after a while. Many robots tend to pop up for a brief moment to shoot things down and then disappear for long stretches at a time, such as Arcee (a popular Autobot in Transformers lore, here reduced to small action-oriented cameos). By the time Devastator appears, nothing really mattered anymore. Do you know which robot was Devastator?* The only reason I do was because I liked the franchise as a child because the film does absolutely nothing to set it up. All in all, the action sequences are a mess for the most part, which is a shame because those darn robots look impressive.
I could go on and on about other, smaller details due to my fanboy past, but I shan’t bog down into trivialities. Suffice to say that this is the last movie that needs to be seen this summer. Of course, it’s far too bloody late for such a claim to carry any weight. It has grossed close to 300 million dollars thus far and it’ll be playing in theatres for another while. Up is playing, Public Enemies is playing, even The Brothers Bloom is still playing. Any one of those three films is far more deserving of your hard earned cash. That’s just my opinion however. If you like shit blowing up on epic proportions and at an insanely fast rate without one iota of plot development, then this is the film for you. Granted, those robots do look mighty impressive, but I’m sure you’ll be able to notice that quality by renting the Blu-Ray for a few dollars.
*The giant sand eating robot formed by all the construction trucks in the final battle.
For those of you wondering just when exactly the Cronenberg discussions will begin, please be patient. The last week or so has been particularly busy. Fear not, things will get rolling soon enough, but probably not before the weekend, if not next Monday. In the meantime, I'll cap off the '2009 so far' session with some reviews of Hunger and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in the coming days.
This is an extension of I post I have at the Filmspotting message boards, where many of the members are listing all the films they watched this year, and jotting down brief top 5 lists by the end of each month.
January 1-Vampyr (1932) 2-Les Témoins (2007 3-Man on Wire (2007) 4-Up The Yangtze (2007) 5-The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) 6-Defiance (2008) 7-The Reader (2008) 8-Revolutionary Road (2008) 9-Che (2008) 10-Green Fish (1997) 11-Blue's Harp (1998) 12-Elegy (2008) 13-Gomorra (2008) 14-El Norte (1983) 15-Waltz With Bashir (2008) 16-Bolt (2008) 17-4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) January Top 5: 1:Gomorra 2:Up The Yangtze 3:The Girl Who Leapt Through Time 4:4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days 5:The Reader
February 18-Trouble Every Day (2001) 19-The Merchant of Venice (2004) 20-Our Man in Havana (1959) 21-Ghost Dog: The Ways of the Samurai (1999) 22-Sting of Death (1990) 23-Passage to Buddha (1993) 24-Ma Fille, Mon Ange (2007) 25-Vidas Secas (1963) 26-Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) 27-Hable Con Ella (2002) 28-Happy Together (1997) 29-Général Idi Amin Dada (1974) 30-Out of the Dark (1995) 31-Gojitmal (1999) 32-Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) 33-Pathar Panchali (1955) 34-Pink Panther (1963 35-Pink Panther (2006) 36-Young Aphrodites (1963) 37-Seraphim Falls (2006) 38-Pikunikku (1996) 39-The International (2009) 40-Aparajito (1956) 41-Love in the Time of Twilight (1996) 42-When We Were Kings (1996)
February Top 5: 1:Hiroshima Mon Amour 2:Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samourai 3:Our Man in Havana 4:Aparajito 5:Pikunikku
March 43-Le Samourai (1967) 44-Sita Sings the Blues (2008) 45-K-Pax (2001) 46-Le Cercle Rouge (1970) 47-Watchmen (2009) 48-Stranger than Fiction (2006) 49-Pinocchio (1940) 50-Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) 51-Virgin Suicides (1999) 52-Schindler's List (1993) 53-Layer Cake (2004) 54-Taxi Driver (1976) 55-Mouchette (1967) 56-Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) 57-Stray Dogs (1949) 58-North by Northwest (1959) 59-Fantasia (1940) 60-The Hidden Fortress (1958) 61-The Lady Vanishes (1938) 62-Vendredi Soir (2002) 63-I Love You Man (2009) 64-Yojimbo (1961) 65-L.A. Story (1991) 66-Yi Yi (2000) 67-Artists in Wonderland (1998) 68-A Quiet Life (1995) 69-The Legend of Hell House (1973) 70-The Last Man on Earth (1964) 71-La Pointe Courte (1954) 72-Portrait of Jennie (1948) 73-The Long Good Friday (1980) 74-Burnt Offerings (1976) 75-The River (1951) 76-La Double Vie de Véronique (1991) 77-Quantum of Solace (2008, bought the DVD and popped it in immediately)
March Top 5:I watched insane movies in March. If something doesn't appear on the top 5, trust me, it's not because I didn't like it. 1:Stray Dogs 2:North by Northwest 3:Au Hasard Balthazar 4:La Pointe Courte 5:Schindler's List
April 78-Spring and Chaos (1996) 79-The Power Kangwon Province (1998) 80-Dumbo (1941) 81-Planet Terror (2007) 82-Death Proof (2007) 83-Man Push Cart (2005) 84-The Decline of the American Empire (1986) 85-A Generation (1955) 86-National Lampoon Vacation (1983) 87-Falling Leaves (1966) 88-And Then There Was Light (1989) 89-Gerry (2002) 90-Rebel Without a Cause (1955) 91-Through a Glass Darkly (1961) 92-Punch-Drunk Love (2002) 93-Bambi (1942) 94-Taebaek Mountains (1994) 95-Down the Drain (1993) 96-Palermo Shooting (2008) 97-Aprili (1961) 98-Hakuchi (1999) 99-Nostalgia for the Countryside (1995) 100-Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) 101-Brick (2005) 102-Onibaba (1964) 103-The Grand Illusion (1938) 104-Saludos Amigos (1942)
April Top 5: 1:And Then There Was Light 2:Nostalgia for the Countryside 3:Glengarry Glen Ross 4:The Power of Kangwon Province 5:Bambi
May Still Walking (2008) The Holy Mountain (1973) The Brood (1979) Le Bonheur (1965) The Boys From Fengkuei (1983) 5 Minutes in Heaven (2009) Two Lovers (2008) Star Trek (2009) Felicia's Journey (1999) The Color Purple (1985) The Proposition (2006) The Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) Catch Me if You Can (2002) X-Men (2000) X2: X-Men United (2003) X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) The Soloist (2009) La Fille de L'Eau (1925) State of Play (2009) M (1931) Terminator Salvation (2009) Il Divo (2008) Tokyo Story (1953) Sin Nombre (2009) Adoration (2009) Il Vitelloni (2008) Blazing Saddles (1974) Up (2009) The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
May Top 5 (Like March, too many quality films to fit them all in a top 5): 1-La Fille D'Eau 2-Felicia's Journey 3-Il Vitelloni 4-The Brood 5-Il Divo
June The Brothers Bloom (2009) Drunken Angel (1948) Terminator 3 (2003) The Hangover (2009) Drag Me To Hell (2009) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) Sword of Doom (1965) Insomnia (1997) Hot Rod (2007 Taking Pelham 123 (2009) L'Heure d'Été (2008) Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) Election (2006) The 49th Parallel (1941) The Battle of the Kerhzenets (Norshteyn) The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) Spider-Man 3 (2007)
June Top 5: The Brothers Bloom The Sword of Doom Insomnia L'Heure D'Été Hot Rod
July Public Enemies (2009) Moon (2009) Year One (2009) M/Other (1999) Dang Birely's Young Gangsters (1997) Le Renard et L'Enfant (2007) The Hedgehog and the Fog (1975) Tale of Tales (1979) Equilibrium (2000) Videodrome (1983) The Dead Zone (1983) The Fly (1986) Dead Ringers (1988) Exiztenz (1999) Bruno (2009) De Père en Flic (2009) The Hurt Locker (2009) M Butterfly (1993) In the Loop (2009) In the Realm of the Senses (1975) Goodfellas (1990) (500) Days of Summer (2009) Three Kings (1999) Bloody Sunday (2002)
July top 5: Tale of Tales Videodrome Public Enemies M/Other In the Loop
August G Men (1935) Carlito's Way (1992) Entre Les Murs (2008) Naked Lunch (1991) The Secret of the Grain (2008) Bullets or Ballots (1936) Iron Man (2008) Each Dawn I Die (1939) San Quentin (1937) Total Recall (1990) A History of Violence (2005) Eastern Promises (2007) Dead Ringers (1988) A Slight Case of Murder (1938) G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra (2009) Dr. No (1962) City for Conquest (1940) Thirst (2009) District 9 (2009) Casino Royale (2006) Inglourious Basterds (2009)
August Top 5: 1-Thirst 2-G Men 3-Inglourious Basterds 4-Carlito's Way 5-Naked Lunch