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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

29/04/2012

[First published in Filmstar.]

Variegated robots locked in combat, Megan Fox as a pouting grease monkey, and the US military sweeping around the globe defending human/machine freedom: it can only be the Transformers sequel, the latest masterpiece from huckster of spectacle and purveyor of awesomeness Michael Bay. Sitting through all 150 minutes of Revenge of the Fallen is like spending five hours on ketamine in a drill factory. As was the case with 2007’s Transformers, writers Orci and Kurtzman spend the first half of the film entertaining the possibility of irony – the alien machine disguised as an ice cream van is as good a representation as any of this franchise’s cynicism – but instead choose to climax with a good 4o minutes of toyetic metal-on-metal fury, maybe longer. Director Bay recently appeared in a promotion for Verizo FiOS spoofing his devotion to spectacle, but his explosive piety really does run deep. The only thing that could possibly tempt him away from this jamboree of machinery, cleavage and pyrotechnics is dog sex, scenes of which are edited into the feature like a clip from You’ve Been Framed lodged into the middle of a Linkin Park video.

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Wendy and Lucy (2008)

29/04/2012

[First published in Filmstar.]

Already seized by New York Times critic A.O. Scott as a formative example of ‘neo-neorealism’, Wendy and Lucy is Kelly Reichardt’s second feature to be adapted from a Jonathan Raymond story, and it’s an unqualified success in restrained – and recessional – filmmaking.

Driving north and west from Indiana, Wendy is a boyish American alien in her ’20s, played by Michelle Williams with quiet but fecund anonymity. She’s more meticulous than the pot-smoking drifters she meets on the way, their piercings illuminated by campfire to give them the look of refugees from Mad Max. Wendy keeps a notebook documenting every expenditure (she’s down to $525, strapped around her stomach), and her first priority is the upkeep of her dog, Lucy (the Pedigree biscuits are also running low). Aiming for a seasonal job at a salmon cannery in Ketchikan, Alaska, her ’88 Honda Accord instead comes to a halt in an unnamed Oregon town, where she makes a vague but vital friendship with an elderly security guard, abortively attempts to shoplift dogfood, and loses Lucy.

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Timecrimes (2007)

29/04/2012

[First published in Death Ray.]

A brilliant exercise in pursuing the implications of time travel to their final ends, and in doing so interrogating much what we take for granted in the thriller genre, Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes is a debut feature that demonstrates just how creatively freeing a tiny budget can be.

It’s best to go into the film cold, so I’ll just say that the limber plot involves a man, Héctor, who when sitting in the sun one afternoon, spies with his trusty binoculars a busty young woman undressing in the woods behind his house. His inevitable investigation plunges him into a temporal labyrinth involving untested time machinery, paradox avoidance, and a mysterious bandaged figure wielding scissors. The tiny cast is superb, especially Karra Elejade as the overweight Héctor, who is at first a sedentary potato of a man, but seems to physically transform, and become distressingly unknowable, as the film pursues its tragic course.

As well as belonging to the select group of films that involve time travel and manage to remain logically watertight, Timecrimes is also an existential nightmare that implicitly asks questions about how predetermined our lives are, and also how preset genre films are, and why – Héctor is both hopelessly in thrall to the nubile temptress at the bottom of the garden, and in way her author. He is both guilty and guilt-free; in a losing war with generic convention. A wise and limitless film.

We Live in Public (2009)

29/04/2012

[First published in Filmstar.]

Ondi Timoner’s propulsive, provocative We Live In Public deserves wide and specific recognition, not just because it tackles head-on a topic that was once cinematically evasive, but because its technique is so immersive: an unsubtle, virtuoso feat of editing and conceptual expression.

The film runs on parallel tracks: opening as the story of dotcom tycoon and art impresario Josh Harris, it’s also a potted history of the Internet, from the comparatively hesitant technology workshops of early ’80s New York, through the late ’90s boom and into the present moment, and ‘the way we live now’. Harris was an IT whizzkid when the whizzkids were becoming obscenely rich, but he was also an aesthete, with a masochistic interest in voyeurism and heinous self-belief, here advertising himself as ‘one of the first great artists of the 21st century’, fame as his Grail. Having made his millions from Jupiter Communications, Harris founded Pseudo.com and launched Internet TV years before it was practicable. He became a sybaritic Lord of Misrule, throwing extravagant parties, hiring flocks of hipsters and attending corporate parties dressed as his alter-ego, a nauseating clown called ‘Luvvie’. Forced out with his share of the stock in 1999, he moved on to increasingly avant garde projects, first marking the turn of the millennium with a 30-day surveillance state party: ‘Everything is free except your image, which we own.’ And on weliveinpublic.com, he put himself and his girlfriend under 24-hour surveillance, for anyone interested enough to watch.

Timoner’s sting is that everything Harris was up to was in some haunting way prophetic. He understands television, in particular Gilligan’s Island (1964–67), to be his most consistently comforting parent, and has spent his adult life looking for ways to crawl into the set, for his childhood relationship with Natalie Schafer’s maternal character ‘Lovey’ to be genuinely interactive. The psychoanalysis is somewhat pre-emptive, and Harris’s commentary is uncritically mixed up with Timoner’s editorialising in such a way that it’s unclear where metaphor and interpretation begin. But this is in the service of turning 90 minutes of film into an accelerating lesson in history. Few films have expressed the exponential maturation of technology so viscerally as We Live In Public. Context is lost: there is scant reference to cyberpunk, The Truman Show and Big Brother, which all give lie to the notion that Harris was the only visionary around. And there are all kinds of problems with mapping his neuroses onto society at large. But the film is not definitive: it advances a theory with as much gut-feeling as argument, and Timoner is a great communicator of anxiety. Its existence also gives Harris the largest public he’s ever had: as if this was always the plan.

Thirst (2009)

29/04/2012

[First published in Filmstar.]

Since Park Chan-wook’s giddy excursion to the sanatorium in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, the Korean director has transferred his hyperactive talent to a different monster, but retained the lunacy: Thirst is vampirism as a romantic farce.

It’s the story of Sang-hyo (Chan-wook regular Song Kang-ho), a Catholic priest in urgent pursuit of martyrdom, who takes a ‘sudden vacation’ to Africa, and volunteers as a test subject in a clinic developing vaccines for the deadly Emmanuel Virus, which endows its Caucasian and Asian hosts with all manner of pustular pain. To get a measure of Chan-wook’s visual restlessness, know that at one point Sang-hyo vomits blood down the cavity of his flute.

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

29/04/2012

[First published in Death Ray.]

After the vague shame that characterised Brett Ratner’s X-Men 3: The Last Stand, all of the ambition Brian Singer wrought with the first two entries into the X-franchise (films partly responsible for the last decade’s glut of summertime vigilantism) seems to have evaporated. It’s possible to argue the case for X-Men Origins: Wolverine as a post-Vietnam movie, as the dark beginning of a pop culture icon à la Batman Begins and Casino Royale, even as another stage of Hollywood’s hesitant interrogation of American foreign policy. And none of this would be wrong. Superficially, and entertainingly, Wolverine does all of these things. But it’s foremost a mindless action movie, blunt and dumb, more John Rambo than Travis Bickle.

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Year One (2009)

29/04/2012

[First published in Filmstar.]

Monty Python’s Life of Brian excepted, the Bible has proved unhelpful to producers in search of an exotic but recognisable milieu to fill with slapstick and knob jokes. In 29 films, the Carry On team steered clear. Zuckerman/Abraham/ Zucker have shown no interest in gutting the Torah for material. Only Mel Brooks, no friend of good taste, dared to dip a big toe in, and History of the World, Part I is duly one of his least beloved works.

But producer Judd Apatow has not acknowledged the omens, and the preeminent impresario of American comedy has inadvisably launched an utterly flat BC buddy-romp at our ungrateful screens. Time-stamped Year One, it is mostly concerned with the least hygienic bodily functions, and there is a semi-audible hur-hur when Michael Cera, hanging upside-down in a Sodomite dungeon, urinates over his own face, although the sound doesn’t seem to be coming from anyone in the audience.

There is a moment, after hunting-gathering duo Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Cera) have run first into farmers and then chariot-piloting slave traders, when you imagine the film will continue travelling at the same historical pace throughout. Maybe we’ll witness onanism in the Middle Ages and defecation in the Renaissance, before Zed and Oh, unaged and still in bearskins, turn up in contemporary Tokyo to wrestle psychoanalysts and web developers. There is no such fun. The scriptwriters have clearly imagined the very notion of a city called Sodom is enough to keep the laughs coming indefinitely, and they have promptly stuffed the film’s logic to one side in favour of spending the entire second half in the city of sexual deviation. Or perhaps they were hoping for a Year Two? But mindful of the MPAA’s rating system, Apatow’s team have neglected to include anything particularly licentious. Sodom’s citizens are simply putting olive oil to good use.

Black and Cera put in about as much effort as they would in an average Saturday Night Live sketch, and sail through on charisma alone – which is not nothing. But they do little for each other, for the most part existing as mutually exclusive gurns: Zed teenage and bullish and in danger of hoisting an air guitar at any given moment, Oh frowzy and always disappointing himself: ‘I’ve lost my sense of right and wrong.’ Often, sketches will end with a wild animal landing on Oh’s head and the next scene will pick up as if nothing had happened. Sometimes – for example when Zed shares a bed with a lesbian – there are actually moments of silence where a punchline should go.

Most of the jokes are wearily conceptual. In prehistory, hunting and gathering are ‘the only two jobs we have here’. The forbidden fruit has a ‘knowledgey taste’. This stuff comes with the territory, but appears smug and clinical, and since there is no rapport to build on, we never escape it. Hank Azaria’s cameo as Abraham, preparing to commit fillicide on God’s order, and later developing a passion for circumcision, is the blinding highlight in a sluggish, careless film.

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