Wednesday, July 31, 2002

INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA

Extraordinary is a word I have avoided using when it comes to film criticism. It’s just not a word that seems very applicable to contemporary film. But it is hard to describe the work of Stephen and Timothy Quay in any other way. The Brothers Quay are generally considered animators and had made a dozen or so of their dark exotica shorts before embarking on a live action feature round 1995. INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA or This Dream People Call Human Life is based, amongst other stories, on the novella “Jakob Von Gunten” by Robert Walser which was first published in 1910 and said to have encouraged Kafka to begin his journals a year later. That should already tell you much about what sort of film this is. But not entirely, as it seems impossible to describe INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA. It feels too hard to capture the ethereal feel of this film, to create a vision of this melancholic fairytale, rich with symbolism and hidden meaning, but just enough self conscious humour to take any negative vibe from its pretensions. I didn’t merely watch this film, I fell into it. Especially early on when our protagonist (not the best way to describe him) spends his first night in the institute (a school for servants) exploring the bizarre rooms of strange displays, odd little draws of things, mystery doors and mystery corridors, and continual references to deer, from hunting to copulating. And this, with the rest of the film, is done in exquisite, delicate, shimmering black-n-white light and with intricate, dust-laden details of grey. This is a film that indulges and your purpose is to indulge with it. If you don’t let go to this film then I find it difficult to imagine one freely enjoying it.

I know my description so far makes INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA sound like a totally visual experience, but far from it. There is a story to tell, although it unravels in its own time, allowing you to explore the full themes as they present themselves. The themes of loneliness, madness, sexual yearnings, fear of the “real” world, desire for escape, all set within a crumbling building full of little more than repetitions of the daily order (the student’s education consists of the same lesson everyday). These themes are expressed through the esoteric characters and the wonderful performances that give them resonance within this haunting place. Gottfried John as Herr Benjamenta, the head of the school, provides the inner manic of an outwardly officious man. While Alice Krige gives a wonderful performance as Lisa Benjamenta, a seemingly cold school mistress, brimming over with quiet desperation which she targets at Mark Rylance’s Jakob, a man impotent to the goings on around him even as everything screams at him to react. You can feel for these very human people who could be normal if they weren’t locked into their own mad personas as like inmates to the asylum. Locked into their fates, their destinies, no matter how each struggles, or not, as the case may be.

At times INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA evokes the atmosphere of Cocteau’s 1946 classic LA BELLE ET LA BETE (still one of the best fantasy films), but the Quay’s film still seeks to be a modern fairytale. Indeed, as was pointed out to me, it is effectively a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. But more about the story I will not tell. And frankly it would be too hard to tell. Cause, though there is a story of sorts, and though this is an actors’ piece as much as a designer’s exploration, the most important aspect of this film is the atmosphere it evokes. Not just the mood throughout this heady, musky picture, but what it leaves haunting your skull after it has gone from your senses. It’s like a fog hiding a truth that you know you cannot quite grasp until you’ve lived your own life experiences. INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA did unnerve me in its first minutes and I did wonder if I’d enjoy the experience of watching this, but by the end I quickly realised I’d just seen one of my favourite films in years. Plus, I found something extremely rare when it comes to the movies. I’d seen a film that was truly extraordinary.

If you're curious about the Brothers Quay and their films then I recommend going here.

Saturday, July 27, 2002

TEN HIP ATTACK OF THE MONSTER HORDE MOVIES

THEM (1954)
Formal, disciplined and intelligent, this takes the idea of giant mutant ants seriously and that makes for more fun when the hairy, nasty buggers come along. Sure, the ants look a bit old now, but you find your self forgiving cause they’re put in good context, whether things are creepy or tense. No better bug movie.

ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1956)
Paper-mache crabs of extraordinary mental powers and with excellent diction! And those cardboard crabs gotta be loved as our young actors run back and forth being all-earnest. Made for less money than a Snickers bar is the prime ingredient to the film’s charm.

FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1957)
Feral brains with whiplash spinal cords! And these squirmy, leaping neck stranglers create a fairly effective climax to this modest British flick that is respectable to all concerned, even with the silly science and melodramatic plot twists.

THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1957)
Meteorites upon contact with water expand and grow into mountains of death. Doesn’t sound like a monster movie? This one gets away with it well using the monster formula and doing something different and original. It does it straight, keeps it tight and remains true to itself. And it looks good.

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957)
Nothing exceptional except you just gotta like those killer snails. All routine, but you find yourself also liking the people trying to do their jobs. Doesn’t do anything special, but shows that if you get the balance right, you make a good movie. The climax still holds up as man vs monster fights go. It’s a charmer.

ISLAND OF TERROR (1966)
Was gonna do THE BIRDS (probably the best monster film) made in the same year, but I have a fond spot for this little British film of bone sucking terrapins and how scientists and villagers get together to trump them, but only just of course. Peter Cushing is an utter charm and Edward Judd shows stuffy scientists can be romantic, heroic leads.

THE GREEN SLIME (1968)
Bad, bad movie! Good, good fun! This English spoken Japanese space adventure is the big mouse’s cheese. Mold becomes tentacled monsters on a space station and it takes American grunt to dispose of them in space military fashion. Felt sorry for the sergeant, who’s right all down the line, but who’s good looking commander still gets the girl. So unfair.

TREMORS (1989)
Reborn, refreshed is the monsters from out of the desert adventure. The right amount of humour that never whizzes on the material this takes from. A loving tribute, not a snotty parody, the guys who made this knew what worked about those old flicks in the first place. Good actors, good monsters and good pacing. An entertaining creature feature that holds its head up high.

DEEP RISING (1998)
Stir the pot, throw ‘em in there, bring on the monsters, make the players run. The fun is in the details, in the performances, the one-liners, the little interactions, the right moments for the spiky, slimy nasties to come along in all their CGI gory. Not original in any way, but the right mix of humour to horror keeps it from going stale. And a sense of the old time adventure appeals to me.

PITCH BLACK (2000)
Dark, broody, visually pleasing and the nasties have a unique unease about them. Perhaps a bit too much like a “we wanna be the next ALIENS movie”, but still a nice variation on the plane crashes in the jungle of the cannibals film. This flick keeps the drive and the atmospherics cranked up well till almost the climax and that’s doing better than most.

Wednesday, July 24, 2002

PLYMPTON INDULGENCE

As an animator and teller of humourous tales, nobody is quite like Bill Plympton. His short films, better known as "Plymptoons" - done in that guerilla hand-drawn style - have been around for a while now, turning up on animation compilations, in festivals and as fill spots on the more alternative TV networks (and on US commercials). His material is fast, sharp, surreal and often very funny in a way that can't be described, only witnessed. Anyone who has seen his 25 WAYS TO QUIT SMOKING will not have forgotten it (The Tobacco Beetle is my favourite).

Occasionally, Bill Plympton will do a feature length piece such as MUTANT ALIENS. Now he's not trying to kid us. He's not trying to make some animated epic with a sweeping storyline and with the sort of narrative discipline that commercialism demands. No, he's just being his typical indulgent self. Like with his short works, he has ideas he wants to animate, characters he wants to portray, bizarre sequences he wants to play with, but sometimes, so that their humour and their point work, he has to give them context. So he puts in a bit of a plot and makes the piece a movie. With plot he can have an astronaut fall in love with a nose, news reporters stylishly chomped in a humourous chomping style, and rampant - it could only be animated - sex orgies of different species in a manner that won't automatically get it banned in most countries (except a few in Europe).

I'm not sure MUTANT ALIENS has much of a point. Sure, it has the usual Plympton digs at conservative institutions, marketing conspiracies, insane bureaucracy and harmful prudishness, but other than a vehicle that allows various skits to be slotted in (like "You Can't Beat Jesus in a Drag Race") the film seems directionless. But who cares. It's not one of those films. It's a true independent production answering to no one but Plympton's own tastes. You can't say it's a good film or a bad film. In this case, those value judgments don't apply. Either you like Bill Plympton's way of doing things or you don't. As you can already guess, I do. But I have to admit, I prefer Plympton in shorter doses. It might sound masochistic of me, but I liked to be whacked in the face and left startled rather than pummeled at length and left exhausted. But that's just me.

Frankly, with what work Plympton has already given us, what infinitesimal impact such films as this will have on the movie marketing machine and with the obvious effort it must take to produce a work like MUTANT ALIENS, Bill has earnt every right to be indulgent. So, to Bill Plympton, all I can say is vive la indulgence!

If you want to check out more about Plympton and his works, then I suggest you go to his site here.

Sunday, July 21, 2002

BLADE & BONE

BLADE 2 was never going to be a good film, Hollywood dictated that. But BLADE 2 for a very large part is an entertaining, even involving film, thanks entirely to director Guillermo del Toro. From the very moment it begins it is "Slavic-exotica" (even more than Mamoru Oshii's melancholic marvel AVALON), a techno-gothic show ride of nosferatu nasties amongst Prague's dark streets, hallways and sewers with Euro-trashy dance sub-cultures and super-ninjas in the hippest comic-style black. For a film aestheticist like myself this film is the audio/visual equivalent of "yum". Yummy like a master chef doing the Cordon bleu on a diseased rat; I know it's disgusting but it tastes so good. But that's all that's going for BLADE 2. And it's obvious that del Toro knows this so he goes to town making it the best-made piece of empty action horror crap he can. And Guillermo del Toro, being the Peter Jackson of Mexico, means that this empty action horror crap almost transcends its material. Sadly, there's nothing del Toro could do to change the mandatory Hollywoodisms, so come climax time it turns into Streetfighter with a new add-on Nosferatu opponent for the playstation game and almost all of del Toro's "I'm so better than this" work is pushed down the plughole. Ah, but it was so nice getting there. This is a classic example of how Hollywood makes the journey better than the destination. But then BLADE 2 works best if you treat it simply as a scenic journey. The directorial journey of del Toro and as such BLADE 2 got me excited for del Toro's next project and his dream film, HELLBOY (I'm a big fan of Mike Mignola's _Hellboy).

But while we wait, go see a real movie by Guillermo del Toro. THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE is his ghost tale. Set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War you can imagine it isn't a happy story or even a comfortable one. It's about as comfortable as a bed of razors, but you're lulled into the haunting world of frightened children and not-so-distant war, hidden lusts and fruitless loves, pain and retribution. Oh and then there's the ghost. Like Jackson and Sam Raimi, del Toro comes out of the self taught school of auteur schlock that knows a cliché is only a cliché if it's hollow. So though DEVIL'S BACKBONE does a lot of what you'd expect a ghost story set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War would do it is still a good tale told with subtlety and non-subtlety in the right places, poignancy and scare-jumps in the right places and the tragic inevitables being both tragic and inevitable, all without the Hollywood and Hollywood wanna-be (remember Hollywood cinema is a style, not a place) predictability or empty meaning. Del Toro is in the details. It's in the atmosphere. It's in the image. Like in his Mexican homeland film CRONOS or his US film MIMIC, it's not in what's said and done, but in what is felt. For that THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE is a superior ghost story.

MINORITY REPORT

As an overall movie experience I'd have to say MINORITY REPORT isn't all that bad. And it does encourage one to put aside some good quality time (I suggest during dinner and coffee) to have an enjoyable discussion about all the many bits and pieces flawed throughout.

It's very pretty to look at. Cute visual SF ideas done only just past the point where they're not used for showing off rather than evoke a future setting. The action sequences are arresting and only once or twice feel irrelevant. The design work is stylish and not entirely homogenised.

The story is intelligent and even clever, provided you don't give any of it a moment's thought, during or after. The script is tight in a loose Hollywood sense with only a handful of needless digressions. I think it commendable that the film is only half an hour too long. It does borrow a bit too much from THE FUGITIVE, but it's sense of predictability is well balanced by some nice (P K Dick) moments where you genuinely don't know where it's heading before it gets on with where you knew it was going all along.

I think Spielberg should be congratulated for disciplining himself to only a modicum of distracting sentimentality and for tying it all up in a simple pink ribbon rather than a frilly pink one. The silly stuff has been sillier in other films. And I want to stress Spielberg's discipline once again. It must take discipline to make every scene the best scene it can be. Still, I'd prefer he make each scene be what's best for the film as a whole.

But despite the many little quibbles I could list, this film shows that Spielberg is still quite capable of those great entertainments of the past. However, this film shows he'll probably not make one of those films again.

But I don't want to be unfair. This is better stuff than many SF themed films of the last two decades and that has to count for something. Granted, more than most have been shit, but if this isn't much better it still means it's smelling comparatively sweet and you won't be embarrassed to find it steaming on the living room floor.

It is a superior sci-fi flick but barely okay as a science fiction film.

Yes, MINORITY REPORT is mediocrity, but it's superior mediocrity.

Hey, don't get me wrong. I say check it out.

Indeed, I give it a thumbs up. But I'm not gonna use *my* thumb.

Remember, lower your expectations and the world can be your oyster.