May 31 2012

Review: A Monster in Paris

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 3:07 pm

A Monster in ParisSomething is terrorising Paris. Somewhere up in the belfries and towers lurks an enormous insect that could easily have walked out of a Hollywood horror movie. But this is not a Hollywood movie. It’s French.

So many films have served as love letters to the City of Lights and justifiably so. In recent years, Midnight in Paris, Hugo and Ratatouille provided three very different stories that are united by a nostalgic look at Paris of yesteryear. While each of those movies are lovingly crafted, they’re all outsiders’ takes on a deeply idiosyncratic city; closer to picture postcards rather than detailed portraits. A Monster in Paris doesn’t really push the boat out much further in terms of visuals and locations, but the characters and plotting are eccentric in a way that you would never see in a studio picture… and therein lies the problem.

The film opens in a cinema where Emile, a projectionist day dreams of asking the comely box office attendant on a date. We’re led to believe this is his story until he is swept away by his best friend Raoul, a deliveryman by day and mad inventor by night. Raoul’s recurring gag is that he’s wearing a coat that he insists is not made of hay.  Before long, they stumble into a laboratory and encounter a communicative ape who is also a lab assistant. In fact, the titular monster doesn’t really factor into the story for ages, but when he does, he looks to become the main character, sidelining Raoul and Emile with the story of his burgeoning Jazz career.

We’re glossing over some of the plot’s connective tissue, but the story haphazardly flies all over the place. At one point, the film is in danger of developing a love quadrangle that spans age and species. This, fortunately, does not happen. But by creating so many loose plot strands and so many central characters, A Monster in Paris can be quite an uneasy viewing experience for adults.  The English-language version also has a distinctly weak voice cast: Vanessa Paradis is good as a sultry lounge singer, but the rest of the actors sound as though they’re improvising half of their lines.

However, we are glossing over Monster’s charms, of which there are many. There are a number of great tunes sprinkled throughout and there is a breezy, innocent tone that will sit well with family audiences. Director Bibo Bergeron looks to be taking cues from the modern masters of animation, with the influence of Sylvain Chomet’s Belleville Rendez-vous seeping into the design and aesthetic while the action sequence near the end of the picture takes a page out of the Hayao Miyazaki playbook.

There is a lot to admire in A Monster in Paris: the makers could easily have tried to make a Shrek-style picture that would play more easily to the international audiences. Instead, they have created something out of the ordinary, something strange. Something distinctly… French.

May 24 2012

Annie Get Your Guns: The second coming of the action heroine

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 11:57 am

Leading LadiesWelcome back, tough women! Where have you been?

The idea of a strong competent leading woman is not necessarily a new thing, but with female-oriented action films like The Hunger Games and Snow White and the Huntsman coming out this year, it looks like the ladies are finally getting a strong foot in the door of the blockbuster arena.

A few years ago, the News of the World ran a regular feature where they would review a film from a man’s perspective and then give the contrasting woman’s opinion. Inevitably, the man (uber-hack and poster-quote prostitute Paul Ross) would love anything with shooters and explosions while the lady would not be able to wrap her head around anything that didn’t feature Hugh Grant and/or bonnets. Although this was a reductive editorial decision made by a paper otherwise known for good taste and sensitivity, it also reflected the way movies were made and publicised: men like action movies, women like to cry and stuff.

Katniss Everdeen and the new Snow White might not be the most original we’ve ever seen, but they’re in rare company when it comes to the world of movies: they’re female action heroes that look like they’ve not just been written for teenage boys, but with a young female audience in mind.


Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!It could be argued that the first wave of female action heroes came with the exploitation boom of the 60s and 70s. Self-appointed ‘king of the nudies’ Russ Meyer had made a name for himself with campy sex comedies the likes of The Immortal Mr Teas (“A ribald film classic!”) but as his career progressed, his films started focusing on assertive women (with large breasts) in stories that could be construed as somewhat feminist. While the women in his films were certainly portrayed as sex objects, they also didn’t shy away from running riot and mixing it up with the men. Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (above) featured a group of go-go dancers who go on a minor killing spree and con a lecherous old man out of his money. Later exploitation heroines like Foxy Brown mirrored their male counterparts, taking down drug dealers and cleaning up the streets (“She’s brown sugar and spice but if you don’t treat her nice… she’ll put you on ice!”). While these women were not afraid of kicking butt, they were still enormously sexualised. These movies were unquestionably made for a predominantly male audience for whom the cinema was one of the few public places where you could see that much cleavage.

Leather & Lace

CatwomanWhile the gratuitous levels of nudity from Return to the Valley of the Dolls never quite made it into mainstream movies, many aspects of the exploitation heroine have carried over into modern blockbusters. Movies like Aeon Flux, Catwoman (pictured above, on all fours), Elektra and Sucker Punch all share the same vaguely misogynistic DNA. While their stories are superficially about strong female characters, their tragic back stories and skimpy outfits are constructed to fit a common male fantasy. If ‘The Matrix’ is a world where characters project their self-images into a computer construct, are we to believe that every woman imagines themselves in a PVC catsuit? When these women get down to the business of fighting, the violence isn’t so much glamourised as it is fetishised. Sure, Lara Croft is an accomplished archaeologist and can take care of herself in a fight, but would any real woman choose to wear short shorts and figure-hugging tank-tops when their job involves sliding about in filthy crypts? Film-makers claim these women as paragons of feminism while at the same time reminding the cameraman to get a close-up of their butts.

When the movies haven’t been busy sexualising your action heroines, they’ve often gone in the opposite direction and neutered them, making tomboys out of them.  Between Terminator 1 and 2, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conner transforms from a petrified waitress into a lean, mean, future-fighting machine. She might be kicking ass to protecting her son, but she’s sacrificed her feminine identity to do so. She’s the Joan of Arc of the robot-killing set, if you will.

In the end, it comes down to female action characters often being so poorly developed. Indiana Jones is cool because he can get hurt like a regular guy and he continually manages to scrape by. John McClane is so beloved because he’s just a normal working class Joe who wants his family back. While these male heroes are often funny and relatable, our female heroes are usually vamps or ice queens (see Underworld, Resident Evil). We understand that they’re hard as nails, but couldn’t they be a little easier to like?

The Next Generation

Snow WhiteRight now, we’re feeling the first rumblings of a sea change. Earlier this year we had Haywire, the action-thriller from Steven Soderbergh starring MMA fighter Gina Carano. She plays Mallory Kane, a badass ‘independent contractor’ who is on the run after she’s betrayed by her agency. While Carano is an attractive woman, her character is neither a tomboy nor a harlot. She is not beneath having casual sex with Michael Fassbender and not above having her limbs broken in a foot chase. If we accept the (plausible) premise that she’s a lethal weapon, then we find a pretty believable woman in Mallory Kane.

Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous hero of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can also be considered a part of this group. With her piercings and avant-garde hair, she straddles the line between sexy and grotesque. At the beginning of the story, she’s under the thumb of her state-assigned guardian, domineering sadist who forces himself upon her in some very difficult scenes of a violent sexual nature. However, with cunning and brute force, she manages to extricate herself from this horrific situation.

And then we have The Hunger Games.

No matter what you think of the book or the movie, The Hunger Games is crucial in determining the future of blockbuster films. Save for all the killing she does, Katniss Everdeen is actually a pretty suitable role model for young girls. She’s a solidly portrayed character with clear and fairly noble motivations. She enters into a deadly tournament to protect her family, using her wits and her skills with a bow to overcome internal and external conflicts. Unlike certain other teen protagonists, she’s not defined by which boy she has a crush on or how good she looks. Although incidentally, she has two boys after her and she cleans up real nice!

The most significant consequence of The Hunger Games’ success comes from it being a big-budget action blockbuster with a primarily female demographic. This is something that is almost completely unprecedented. While the source novel has a popularity that spills between ages and genders, it’s pretty much a girl’s book and therefore the core audience for the film is also young women. Traditional thinking would suggest that as a group, ladies would be put off by the violence and bloodshed but the fan reaction from young women has been one of resounding approval.

In only a week, we’ll be seeing the release of Snow White and the Huntsman (above) which is also an action movie skewed towards women. If we’re to believe the press release, Snow White will feature Kristen Stewart as an independent and resourceful young woman who fights with swords while rebuffing romantic overtures from Thor.

Screenwriter William Goldman famously said that that when it comes to guaranteeing success at the box-office, “nobody knows anything.”  Despite this, studios are constantly trying to predict what films will score well with the crowds in two years time. The Hunger Games has taken over 600 million dollars at the box-office so far. While that is good for the studio, it also means that action films for women are here to stay. The market has spoken, demanding more action movies for women. And that is what they will get. Hopefully this will be the new standard and not just a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon that will be forgotten once talking cat movies come back into fashion is a year’s time.

As the old advert said: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Let’s just hope you get to stick around this time.

May 24 2012

Review: Haywire

Tag: blinkboxblinkbox @ 11:23 am

HaywireAn action thriller about a female assassin might not be the kind of film we’d normally expect from director Steven Soderbergh, but in the context of his last ten films, we quickly realise that there is no such thing as a conventional Soderbergh picture. Though he’s best known for making Traffic, Erin Brokovich and the Ocean’s Eleven movies, Soderbergh has spent the last decade flitting between genres, with no subject matter too flimsy or heavy for his tastes. In between his mainstream blockbusters, he’s made a two-part biopic on Che Guevara, a low-budget film starring a porn star, a comedy about corporate malfeasance and a black-and-white mystery set in post-war Berlin.  And considering that his next film is a romantic comedy about a male stripper, an action film starring MMA star Gina Carano makes complete sense.

Carano plays Mallory Kane, a highly trained ‘private contractor’ with a suitably bad-ass name. We quickly learn that she’s been betrayed by someone in her chain of command, which sends her running for her life. A highly skilled fighter in real life, Carano’s action scenes are shot in an unconventionally realistic way. Without the music and the exaggerated punching and kicking sounds that we’re accustomed to, the fights take on a new dimension, making them more exciting than we would ever expect.

The script by Lem Dobbs (The Limey) seems to be tailored around Carano’s range as an actress. Not much is asked of her in terms of emotional range, but she manages to hold her own in her scenes with the supporting cast. And WHAT a supporting cast it is! Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Channing Tatum all play antagonist to Carano while Michael Fassbender has a small turn as an MI-6 agent who gets into a tussle with her in a hotel bedroom. While Fassbender also had ways of seducing women in Shame, the outcome here is very different indeed.

While its fights are solid and the cast is star-studded, Haywire is ultimately let down by a less than compelling story. Perhaps Carano doesn’t quite sell her character’s desperation or maybe it’s because of the non-compelling central conspiracy involving a Chinese kidnap victim but we never feel fully invested in Mallory Kane. The trailer suggests a balls-to-the-wall thriller, but Soderbergh seems adamant on making a contemplative mood piece as well. The final product is neither of those things. Between the action choreography, the beautiful cinematography and the quality supporting cast, Haywire has all the ingredients for a great thriller but ultimately, the whole never exceeds (and barely meets) the sum of its parts.

May 11 2012

Review: Shame

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 5:56 pm

Steve McQueen (not that one) and Michael Fassbender and follow up their highly-acclaimed film Hunger with this remarkable portrait of a sex addict in Shame. The Fass plays Brendan, an executive at a finance firm who seems to have it all: good looks, decent money and his pick of the ladies. But under his cool and calm exterior lies a man whose life is dominated by his crippling addiction to sex. We see him bring assorted women home from bars, soliciting prostitutes and filling his work computer with mounds and mounds of pornography. He exerts a herculean level of effort to conceal this fact from his co-workers. But when his lounge-singer sister (Carey Mulligan) rocks into town, Brendan’s precarious balancing act is completely thrown off, threatening the empty life he’s built for himself.

2011 was Fassbender’s big year and Shame may very well have been his best performance, deserving of all the plaudits he’s been getting since the film launched at the Venice Festival. He’s able to balance lust and anguish in a way that makes his condition seem real and unbearable. Carey Mulligan also shines as his vulnerable sister: one central scene finds her performing at an upmarket bar, singing a slow, aching rendition of New York, New York. As the camera hovers over her face in close up, we’re reminded again why Mulligan is  considered one of the finest young actresses of her generation. Director McQueen also confirms his position as an enormously exciting talent. His sensibility towards small-scale visual storytelling marries beautifully with the sordid material: he’s able to squeeze more meaning out of a single glance than some directors with far greater experience.

Shame is not a movie I recommend you see with a date or with the family. There’s some full frontal nudity and a few explicit sex scenes that would make that experience very awkward. But if you’re willing to spend a quiet evening in the company of a man on the edge, I think you’ll find this a beautiful, compelling experience.

May 05 2012

American Pie: Reunion

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 9:01 pm

American Pie: ReunionIt’s been thirteen years since we were introduced to Jim, Oz, Finch, Stifler and their boring friend Kevin. The original American Pie saw this tight group of friends make a pact to lose their virginity before their high school graduation. It was arguably the iconic film of its time, tapping into the concerns and obsessions of teenagers (namely sex) and exploring them from very funny, frequently gross and unexpectedly sweet angles. In the years since, its sequels have seen the gang reunite for a holiday, for a wedding, and now, we’re invited to their 13 year high school reunion.

We catch up with Jim and Michelle, (Jason Biggs and Alyson Hannigan) whose relationship is starting to show its cracks under the pressure of parenthood; former jock Oz (Chris Klein) is now a celebrity sportscaster with a supermodel girlfriend; Stifler (Seann William Scott) is an entry level office drone who lives under the thumb of his Napoleonic boss; super-snob Finch arrives aboard a motorbike and seems to be the most thoroughly travelled of the lost; and the boring one has gone on to become something unmemorable. Though they’ve spent years apart, the one common thing that unites them all is their disappointment at where they’ve arrived in life.

For a movie replete with sex gags and poop jokes, Reunion has a strangely poignant story that will likely resonate with fans of the series. All of them have responsibilities to jobs, spouses and/or children and they can’t have fun like they used to and allow themselves. Those who caught the original in your teens will now be approaching your early thirties and will probably share many of the characters’ regrets. Unless you’ve happened to achieve everything you’ve intended to in the last decade, in which case: I hate you.

Comedy sequels commonly fall into the same trap: every sequence that was successful in the original will be repeated, mutated or heavily referenced. The Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies are particularly egregious offenders and to a certain extent, so are the American Pie movies. Of course there will be a sequence where Jim will be caught in the act of doing something embarrassing; there will also be a moment when Stifler releases waste in a place where he shouldn’t; John Cho will almost certainly make an appearance to reaffirm his appreciation for MILFs. But there’s something forgivable about he rehashed elements in Reunion. The movie is rooted in the idea that revisiting old ideas and places is something to be feel nostalgic and perhaps a little sad about.  On top of that, the writing is solid and the entire cast of actors are still very capable of being hilarious (minus the boring one, Kevin, who is still dull). Seann William Scott deserves an individual shout-out: revisiting this role after Role Models, Goon and his numerous supporting turns in other comedies, we can see how very specific Stifler is as ‘the annoying party guy’ character.

If you have never seen an American Pie movie in your life, this would not be a good place to start; but for those who have loved or just enjoyed the series, we can solidly recommend that you attend this particular reunion.