26 November 2012

Branching Out

For some reason there are certain things that just seem impossible to photograph. The Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot, and Terrence Malick are all undeniably camera shy with some people even doubting whether or not they actually exist. Since his feature film debuted in 1973, there have been many reported sightings of the reclusive filmmaker although most have been debunked as simple hoaxes. If the camera isn't out of focus or too shaky, then the odds are that it's just someone wearing a rubber Malick suit in the distance. In actual fact I once thought I'd spotted the legendary movie maker surfacing for air in the middle of a lake. Turns out it was just a rotten log and a dead badger.

Since releasing Badlands almost forty years ago, Malick has become one of the most respected and critically adored filmmakers of all time, which is impressive considering that in the entirety of the last four decades he's only made about five fucking films. In half that time alone, Michael Bay has produced enough shite to fill an entire cathedral with bollocks movies. Until recently, the only two Malick films that I'd seen were Badlands and The Thin Red Line and I was obviously a huge fan of both. They were meditations on the nature of humanity and both were shot with a poetic love for life. The Thin Red Line has a huge cast consisting of cinema’s most famous faces and yet it’s shots of leaves and crocodile shit that Malick decides to focus on the most.

The latest of his films to be released is The Tree of Life which, despite being heckled at Cannes, managed to end up winning the 2011 Palme D'or. I know a film being booed is usually considered a bad thing but when it's coming from the French, I'll generally make an absolute effort to love it. With this in mind I finally got around to watching it the other night and was absolutely blown away. How the French can boo what is obviously a masterpiece is completely beyond me. First they surrendered Paris to the Nazi's and now this. It's just one stupid mistake after another with them, isn't it.

Jeff Spicoli: Earth's Mightiest Hero
It's hard to kind of describe the plot of The Tree of Life, but I'll have a go anyway. So- for some reason it starts with Sean Penn walking around aimlessly in a modern day city. I'm not sure what he's doing there but I don't think it really matters. It's Sean Penn, so he's probably just roaming the Earth, looking for some political injustice to get angry about. When the world is controlled by shadowy Corporations and corrupt Governments, it honestly makes me feel so much safer to know that we're being protected by an ageing Jeff Spicoli.

The film then starts to depict Penn's birth and childhood. He was raised in the 50's in Texas by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. He has two brothers with the family grieving over the sudden death of their oldest son. His mother is depicted angelically as a woman who wants to instil her children with a sense of wonder for the natural world. Brad Pitt on the other hand has the temper of a cunt and thinks the world's going to shit. Whilst she's outside pissing about with butterflies, he's inside teaching the kids that society is a manipulative rapist that will sly-fuck them into the grave. At one point, he educates his son on how to defend himself by asking him to punch him in the face. For some reason though the child seems bizarrely reluctant to physically assault his own Dad. As we all know though, when Brad Pitt asks you to hit him, you do so immediately and you aim straight for his fucking ear.

Whilst Penn's character’s childhood does take up the bulk of the film, there's also a few other things thrown in for good measure. Every so often, we're randomly treated to some scenes from the creation of the Universe which, to be fair, are absolutely mesmerising. Responsible for these shots was legendary special effects Supervisor Doug Trumbull who had worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and whose previous film had been Blade Runner almost thirty years previous. I watched his work on The Tree of Life and was in absolute awe of how eye-bleedingly gorgeous everything looked. I seriously wouldn't recommend watching whilst stoned though as you could easily lose a few hours to gawping at any single frame of this film, though having said that, I did also once lose about fifteen long minutes by just staring intently at a door handle. It looked so plastic and shiny that in my stupor, I seriously couldn't believe my luck.

"Clever girl..."
There's another scene thrown into this film too which actually received a little bit of criticism. A dinosaur is lying helpless by the side of a stream when a larger carnivore heads over to eat it. Before the sharp tooth chows down however, he has a second thought and decides instead to scuttle off without murdering his intended victim. If only OJ Simpson had a similar epiphany then perhaps that murder that he 'didn't' commit wouldn't have happened either. This is apparently supposed to represent the birth of conscience with the meat eater feeling too guilty to kill its helpless meal. Most critics seem to think that overall this section is just a little bit out of place but fuck it, they're all wrong. In fact I don't think there's a single film out there that couldn't be improved with a few extra dinosaur scenes thrown in for good measure. Sure The Godfather is great but is a T-Rex's head not more threatening than a horse’s? If there was a risk of a Raptor attack in any of Katherine Heigl's movies, one of them might even be in danger of being watchable. There's a big emphasis on the word ‘might’, there.

So as is probably obvious, The Tree of Life doesn't have a standard and straight forward narrative. In a way, this film actually consists of two separate halves. The first is a montage of those above sections, highlighting the poetry of love, death and nature. There's the beauty of the universe, the kindness of a species and the sheer joy of Penn's youth. In fact I think this could be the most exuberant depiction of childhood that could exist without an XBox or widescreen TV. On one of the rare occasions that my boyhood self decided to play outside, I ended up finding cans of beer and grotty pornography in the bushes. It was one of those ‘reader’s wife’ magazines featuring such a manky standard of fanny that I think I was genuinely traumatised for a good few years by it. The young Penn however luckily just plays ball games and frolics in fields with his brothers.

"Ah... Flash back humour."
If it wasn't for Pitt's brooding bulk of insecurities then everything in the boy’s life would be great. It's not that Pitt doesn't love his kids; it's more that he wants to ensure they're hardened to a world that's disappointed him. He'd dreamed of being a musician but ended up being a failed business man. In fact everything that irks Pitt here was cheerfully summed up by Pitt in 1999, “We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off”.

The second half of the film tones down the collage of beauty and instead focuses a little more on the 50's upbringing. The young Penn also starts to become angry and disillusioned by his father after noticing the hypocrisies of what he preaches and how he acts. In fact the film surprisingly starts heading slightly into Badlands territory as the young boy goes a little off the rails turning slightly into Sid from Toy Story. He starts vandalising buildings, assaulting people and abusing animals. At one point he ties a frog to a firework and sets it off. I'd like to say this scene ends with the frog, “falling with style”, but it doesn't, he just explodes like a big green twat. I can't say for sure, but I suspect this is about the point that the French audience probably started booing.

Moustache, coffee stain or caterpillar?
Easily every single thing about this film can be described as beautiful. Generally I hate that word because it has too many vowels and makes me sound either a little pretentious or a little gay. However it really does apply to every single aspect of The Tree of Life. The visuals, the music, the themes and Jessica Chastain are all heart stabbingly beautiful here. The acting is also inspiringly great with particular praise being owed to Hunter McCracken. McCracken is the chap who brilliantly plays the young Penn with the character really appearing in his more youthful form for ninety-nine percent of the film. It would have been fairer for me to instead refer to Penn's performance as the Older McCracken but fuck it, since when was life fair? If he wants to compete with Penn for fame then he's got to spend the next few decades churning out brooding performances, engaging in political activism and growing a distinctively shitty moustache. Beating the living shit out of Madonna once or twice would probably help too.

"I'm 21 and wearing nothing but nipple tassles."
So anyway I guess I should say what The Tree of Life is actually all about but in honesty I haven't got a fucking clue. I mean, I can see that it's examining the meaning of life and exploring the presence of God or divinity in nature but I'm not sure what's concluded. However I don't think that it's a film that intends to provide any definitive answers either. It's one of those movies with enough openness and ambiguity that I think it will just feed back to you with whatever you go in looking for. Kind of like having a conversation on one of those sex lines where they're always just going to tell you what you want to hear.

Special Effects aside, this film obviously has a lot of thematic and narrative similarities with 2001: A Space Odyssey as both are films that look at the origins of life, the purpose of existence and how everything links together. However, where Kubrick's film can appear cold-hearted and pretentious, Malick's plays out like it's straight from his heart. In my opinion, 2001 has a kind of lecturing feel whilst The Tree of Life is more like a poetry of observations and of optimistic expressions.  If Kubrick was the strict Professor shutting the class room blinds on a sunny day then, Malick would be the soon-to-be-fired hippy teacher dicking about in the leaves and mud outside.

Malick on set of latest film?
It should probably also be pointed out just quite how autobiographical and personal this is for Malick too. He was raised in a similar place at a similar time and within a similar family setup. The film contains all of his usual nuances such as whispering voice-overs, use of natural light, a warm but smothering sense of existentialism and of course, a couple of neglected A-List actors. Sean Penn was allegedly pissed off with the film because his character ended up with significantly less scenes than he'd filmed. Although I can see why he'd be annoyed, I wasn't the one who spent time filming them, so fuck him.

The Tree of Life is such a phenomenal and joyous movie that I genuinely think it should be shown and discussed in schools. Teachers put plenty of effort into convincing kids to read books but not enough into weaning them onto decent movies. It might sound like a sit off, but encouraging children to write an essay on their perceived philosophies of this film would probably be more beneficial than pretending to read Macbeth for the five-hundredth time. If we taught them the joy and truth of cinema then perhaps cunts like Michael Bay wouldn't be so rich. When I was in school, there was a teacher who was a domestically abused, alcoholic with a lesson plan consisting of simply handing out word searches. As much as we used to enjoy how her horrific personal life would allow us an easy lesson, a movie from Terrence Malick would probably have been somewhat more educational.

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19 November 2012

The C Word

Right before my Granddad died of cancer he gave me some very memorable advice. We were trying to decide what I should do for a living when he remembered that I enjoy drinking tea. This reminded him about a swarm of bees that somehow manage to make tea by simply flying honey up and down a hill. Before I had chance to question this, he then informed me that perhaps I should seriously consider doing that as a career. Now unless he was suggesting that I should start a job that had the pre-requisit of me being a bee, then I haven't got a fucking clue what he was talking about. I can't say for sure but I'm going to assume that he'd had a few too many pain killers that day. Having said that, he did at one point also say he was going to stop using his morphine so that he could instead sell it to some drug dealers. I guess there's a chance that, cancer aside, he may have just been a little bit mental. 

Stick to 'Nanu-nanu', Robin.
Released in 2011, 50/50 is a comedy that centres  around the story of a young cancer victim and despite its tragic subject, actually manages to be quite funny. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a twenty-seven year old who is enjoying a healthy lifestyle when he discovers a tumour attached to his spine. Before seeing this, I didn't even know that you could get cancer there so I'm glad I now have something else to worry about. Occasionally I'll check my balls for lumps but not very often and not without getting instantly distracted by just violently wanking. Considering that the last big comedy that dealt with illness was Patch Adams, I'm sure we're all a little apprehensive about returning to the subject. If I was ever in hospital and Robin Williams walked in dressed as a clown, I'd discharge myself immediately and plonk my head straight into an oven. If Patch Adams was attempting to find something that was less funny than dying of cancer then I suppose it can consider itself a success. Actually thinking about it, there was also Funny People, but considering that every-bodies forgotten about it and I haven't seen it, fuck it- let's just pretend it never happened.

Those aren't real bruises, lest we forget.
So regarding this story, the structure of 50/50 is interestingly very similar to that of your classic underdog movie. It's about somebody reluctantly being forced to battle against the odds with the film heading towards an inevitable and final confrontation. I obviously won't ruin the end but just because it's about an underdog, don't be under the impression that there'll definitely be a happy and feel-good conclusion. As shite as Rocky is, it's also your classic underdog film but even there Stallone's boxing, mumbler-frump was beaten by Apollo Creed. With formulaically placed emotional peaks and troughs, the narrative of  both the Rocky films and 50/50 are pretty much identical to each other. Having said that, Rocky did then go on to beat Clubber Lang's tacky bulk of bling in Rocky 3 so I guess there's always hope. Basically the point that I'm trying to make is that whether Adam lives or dies is completely dependant on whether his cancer is the tumour equivalent of either Carl Weathers or Mr T.   

... Simplicity incarnate.
Not that I'm saying an uncomplicated narrative is a problem by the way. Paris Hilton has made millions of dollars which, with her questionable intelligence, proves that being hugely simple sometimes has its advantages. By following a relatively straightforward tangent, the film instead focuses on Adam as a character as well as the friends and loved ones that orbit his life. It goes without saying that the performances are all great with Joseph Gordon-Levitt here continuously proving his talent and likeability. Sure he started off his career as a child actor, but since Mysterious Skin had him arse fucked and beaten by a big gay trucker, he's done everything he can to earn credibility. When not shining in knock-out indie films like Brick and Hesher, he also manages to do action movies like Looper during which he delivered the best Bruce Willis performance since Unbreakable.

After Adam receives the news of his illness, he's told that his body will go into survival mode. In actual fact, coincidentally, my body does that every time I go camping at a music festival. For me however, this means that I don't need as much food or sleep and thankfully feel no urge to shit. For Adam on the other hand, it apparently means going through shock, and a haunting sense of calm and numbness. So it's kind of like how I feel everytime I spaff. This also of course allows JGL to show off his emotional range as he convincingly proves how little fun having cancer must be. Adam spends the duration of the movie repressing his feelings and bottling them up in an attempt to stay strong. If I was him, I think I'd probably just have a full-blown breakdown by spending the film marching naked through the streets and chunnering loudly about God.

To help Adam remain positive however, there is his best friend, mother, therapist and girlfriend. His best friend is played by Seth Rogan, with their bromantic relationship being one of the film’s key highlights. Rogan himself here brilliantly shows off his range by doing the usual trick of making jokes and getting stoned. Luckily, that happens to be a trick that I find quite enjoyable, relatable and aspirational. It should also be noted though that for a change, Rogan actually has a little more depth than usual which isn't surprising considering that he's kind of reliving his real life past. 50/50 was written by Will Reiser who is not only a friend of Rogan's but actually suffered from cancer a few years ago. That's not to say this film is autobiographical however, with it instead just taking inspiration from the writers experiences. Kind of like what Nil By Mouth is to Gary Oldman and the Jew hating Borat is to Mel Gibson. Also it obviously goes without saying that Reiser thankfully survived as nobody has made a film whilst dead since Steven Seagal's fat bloated corpse last appeared on screen.

If there's been any criticism of 50/50, it's in its depiction of the female characters. From reading reviews it seems that some critics have found the writing of Adams Mum and Girlfriend slightly misogynistic. I'm not sure why, but I'd guess this is probably mostly due to how ball achingly irritating they can occasionally be. Luckily though for me at least that just wasn't the case, although I can see why people might have that view. His mother does at times appear to be a bit of a bitch and her attempts to care for Adam are at times a little too smothering. However she's clearly acting out of love and a sense of helplessness having found out that her son could be about to pop his clogs. Also, in reality, since when are parental figures not massively annoying anyway? A few years ago my Mum got drunk, starting arguing and genuinely warned me that the Queen could be planning my assassination. Having said all that, it does probably help that I'm a massive fan of Wes Anderson and so will love any film in which Anjelica Huston appears as the Mum. And that's even if she does decide to turn up whilst dressed like a randomly tranny-fied Rod Stewart.

As for Adam's girlfriend, I genuinely can't see how people don't sympathise with her. She's a woman who unwillingly stays in a relationship because she'd feel too guilty to leave it. Sure she makes mistakes but it's not like she's having a good time. As unfairly disliked girlfriends go, it's worth noting that Bryce Dallas Howard does a good job in a role that film critic Mark Kermode considered to be “thankless”. To be honest, I'm just always a little creeped out whenever I see Bryce Dallas Howard. It's nothing against her, I just don't like finding myself attracted to something that originated life in Ron Howard's balls.

Considering that there's only one character left, it would seem unfair not to mention Anna Kendrick's performance. She plays Adams warm but inexperienced therapist who kindly tries to help, despite his obvious cynicism. To be honest I'm not sure why he's so resistant towards her because I'd fucking love a trip to the psychiatrist. Getting my issues sorted professionally would certainly seem more productive than writing this shit on a weekly basis. Plus Anna Kendrick's timid vulnerability is just so endearing that I don't know who wouldn't want to spend time with her. Having said that, her teeth are so ridiculously white that they must be radioactive. As much as I'd enjoy her company, every time she smiles, my retinas start to scream as though I'm staring at the sun through a telescope. Having seen her in a few things I would say this is possibly her best performance although she was also pretty good in Up in the Air. In that I particularly enjoyed the scene in which George Clooney slagged of marriage so much that he made her cry. Batnipples aside, he can be a proper hero at times.

I actually first saw 50/50 at the cinema where somehow, it just felt a little out of place. It's not that it's in anyway like a TV movie, but for some reason it just suits being watched on DVD whilst surrounded by home comforts. Thinking about it though, listening to some plebs nonchalantly grazing on popcorn whilst witnessing a man’s slow deterioration could also be one of the reasons. I know I've kind of banged on about the characters here but I think that's really where the joy of this film is. As great as everything else might be, the guaranteed replay value will be just so that you can spend time with those people again. It's one of those movies in which you wish you were part of the gang and everyone’s mate, kind of like Stand By Me, Superbad and Get Carter. That last example is probably just for me.

In the end, I don't know how the fuck people cope with the stress of cancer and I don't look forward to finding out. With all that in mind, I strongly suggest people instead donate the price of this movie to cancer research and just take my word that it's a good film. Considering how many people die of it, I've always been under the assumption that it's what will kill me too and I'd like you all to save me. They say that every little helps so if everybody who reads this blog gives just ten pence then who knows, by the end of the week we might be almost up to a quid. 

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12 November 2012

A Dog's Death

Last night I watched 13 Assassins which is a 2010 Samurai movie directed by the controversial Japanese film-maker Takashi Miike. On average, it seems that Miike releases about two or three films a year which is, to put it bluntly, completely fucking mental. There was this one time that I was climbing around the bathroom, pretending to be Tarzan when I slipped and actually cracked my cock on the sink. Because of this, I then had to go and spend a few hours in hospital whilst doctors made sure that I didn't die of a bruised knob-shaft. In the time it took me to tit about and waste valuable NHS time and money, Miike would probably have completed about nine new movies. If I have any national pride, it's in our ability to dismiss a huge achievement because it dared to impress us. I don't know about Japan, but over here in Britain we have a saying that says 'nobody likes a show off'.

Despite his immense back catalogue however, and up until last night, I'd actually only seen a couple of his films. Audition was one of them and is probably my favourite Japanese horror-rom-com to feature someone desperately drinking from a bowl of genuine puke. The other was Ichi the Killer which has got to be one of the most mental films of all time. It starts with its title being spelt out in real jizz and then degrades down hill from there. From those two films alone I was kind of under the impression that Takashi Miike is a man of extremes. Apparently he's also made a few kids films too which suggests that he's either a lot more diverse than I'd released or that there's a lot of fucked up children now out there.

Set in the 1840's, 13 Assassins starts with a scene in which a lone Japanese chap commits the act of Hara-kiri. This is basically when somebody uses a dagger to tear themselves open and rip their own guts out. Apparently it's got something to do with the Samurai honour code but in reality it just looks like suicide for the hardcore. According to wikipedia, “it is usually part of a more elaborate ritual and performed in front of spectators”. With that in mind I think I know exactly what I'd like to see Piers Morgan do to improve his ratings on his next show. Despite its graphic nature, Miike shows distinctive restraint here by keeping the majority of violence off screen. I guess this instead has the effect of showing us the emotional pain of the scene rather than simply shocking us with a gratuitous shot of Shogun offal. In this case Hara-Kiri was committed as a way for the character to express his disdain towards the films main villain. Thank God then that Facebook was invented so that now all we'd have to do is de-friend the cunt and tag him as a picture of a shit.

The villainous Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira looks a bit like a cheap Chow Yun-Fat action figure and really is a massive wanker. I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover but when someone practices archery by committing infanticide, I think it's safe to assume they're probably a wrong'un. In another horrendous scene we're introduced to a woman who has had her family killed, her tongue removed and all of her limbs chopped off by him. Simply because of his twatish whims, he's turned her into an orphaned, meaty, draft-excluder. On top of all that, he also likes to shag the occasional woman using the same favoured position as British personality Jimmy Saville. The immoral position of course being that there's nothing ever wrong with a good hard rape. So yeah overall, Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira is really kind of a rotten Japan-apple. Thankfully though, the noble Samurai are on hand to dole out their honourable justice which apparently doesn't require a trial or evidence but will result in an on-the-spot execution. So I guess they basically have a similar legal system to that of Texas.

The story from here on in is hardly complicated, which isn't particularly a bad thing. You don't exactly need a brain to be able to follow the plot of porn and I've got no qualms with that... Here, the first half is spent recruiting assassins and the second half is the inevitable showdown. This is all fair enough although I do question some of the manipulation used to convince people to join their dangerous mission. At one point a group of Samurai are told to fight on the grounds that, “he who values his life dies a dogs death.” Most dogs are peacefully put to sleep to avoid any more suffering when they've reached a fine old age. Kurt Cobain on the other hand had a shotgun in his mouth and then blew his fucking brains out. Unless the dog was Korean and given a choice I'd definitely go for the one that doesn’t involve Courtney Love faking my suicide.

Not that killing themselves would be a problem for any of these characters by the way. They all seem so eager to die that you could be forgiven into thinking that this film was the lucid hallucinations of fame obsessed teen girl. I'd hate to disrespect the Samurai traditions but the only time that I'm that desperate for death is when I accidentally catch a glimpse of Psychic Sally Morgans shrivelled face of bullshit. I'm usually not a fan of censorship but with its constant themes of suicide and honour, my suggestion would be that maybe we shouldn't show 13 Assassins in Bridgend. That's presuming of course that there's anyone there left to watch it anyway.

I've read several reviews of this film and the majority seem to be under the impression that the first half is a little dull. I think I'm going to have a disagree slightly but that might be a fault of my own more than anything. Admittedly it's a little slow and talky but I've not seen that many Samurai movies and so this was all quite new to me. I therefore found it all quite interesting, just as a glimpse into how that culture worked. I guess being able to see how somebody else lives is one of the great things about cinema. Another example like that could be something like City of God which brilliantly depicted life in the Brazilian slums. Oh, and there's also Lord of the Rings which taught me that all New Zealanders are hairy little midgets and also a tiny bit gay.

In regards to the second half of the film, there's no doubt that the action is both exciting and well handled. For a director more renowned for flicking body juice at the screen, the gore here is also admirably held back. In fact, there's more emphasis on kineticism and choreography than splatter and spaff. Personally, I would say that there's no doubt that here, Miike has drawn significant inspiration from legendary director Akira Kurosawa. 13 Assassins has an old school and classic feel to it that's more in line with Seven Samurai than whatever sex fuelled snuff films Miike usually seems influenced by. The final showdown involves the Assassins rigging up a town with so many traps that in the end it plays out like an ancient and lethal re-enactment of the tacky 90's game-show Fun House. If there's any mistake then it would probably be the inclusion of a herd of obviously CG'd cows that charge through the town. Having said that, it's nice to see that the herd have found work since appearing in the opening scene of Mars Attacks.

Another criticism could be that overall, the characterisation does at times seem a little bland. On Team Honour, there's thirteen individuals but only a couple of them have any memorable personality. The leader is your usual angry Obi-Wan and there's also some Japanese Brundlefly that falls out of a tree and refuses to fuck off. With long hair on top of a bald head, the rest really just come across as a gang of miscellaneous Easterners attempting mimic the look of musical comedian Bill Bailey. I realise that we don't have time to delve too deeply into every-body's back story, but as things stand they're all just a little too disposable. When people die I should feel emotion but here I just found myself ticking each new death off like a nonchalant Nazi reluctantly working the late shift in Auschwitz.

In the end, 13 Assassins is a perfectly decent action flick set up by an interesting first half of exposition and off screen mutilation. Compared to learning what's in Auditions' sack, this might not be the most memorable of Miike's films but it's still worth the ride. Also, considering how many movies the show-off makes per year, it's a shame that only a handful leak out into the rest of the world. Beyond the fun of just watching the movie, this taught me so much about Japan that I didn't previously know. I've been doing a Newspaper round for about ten years and these days I'm a little lazy with it. I'm meant to deliver about three-hundred papers but in reality I think I post about two and then throw the rest in the canal. In comparison to my act of complacent efficiency, the Samurai take their job way too fucking seriously.

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