Friday, 25 November 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #06, Donnie Darko

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Donnie Darko, for a sci-fi teen comedy about a boy and his imaginary friend saving/ending the world via the means of time travel and revealing paedophile's sex lairs to the world, is actually quite a small film. Perhaps the best way of explaining why it’s so good is to compare it against Richard Kelly’s next, Southland Tales, a film which is generally agreed to be a complete car-wreck.

Southland Tales touches on those same tropes, all the end-of-the-world stuff, purple prose and extreme drama mixed with comedy, but it’s swollen. There are dozens of characters vying for lead role, setpieces piling upon setpieces, musical segments… And it’s not just a (rather long) film, either- there are comic books and a fictional script, trying to fully explain all the complexities of the plot.

Donnie Darko, by contrast, is tight. It knows – and this is one of those films where the ‘it’ rather than the ‘he’ seems worth considering – exactly what it can achieve in its hour and three-quarters. The sci-fi plot is equally twisty and borderline nonsensical, but that’s just a backdrop, really, to the story of Donnie. A teenager growing up in a small town with emotional problems and fearsome intelligence, who meets a girl, grows up a little, and makes a decision. The story of one boy.

And, okay, to some extent one small community (most of whom we get to know fairly intimately at some point) too. The end of the world is bandied around, but it’s never a true threat. Not beyond the small contained world of Middlesex, at least. It’s a world populated by absolutely fantastic actors - Patrick Swayze, Holmes Osborne, Seth Rogen – and one which is laid out effortlessly, mostly by a couple of wordless sequences, some of the finest moments in the film. The camera sweeps through the suburban streets, the corridors of a school, to music plucked perfectly from the ‘80s.

One month. The film regularly turns back to a countdown, white text on black announcing how many days are left. At the very longest, it’s 28 days and all that time travel stuff I mentioned is really only over the space of a few days. At one point, Frank, the terrifying bunny thing, removes his gnarled mask to reveal idiosyncratically long hair and one destroyed eye, speaking in riddles. Why is he called Frank? “It was the name of my father and his father before me”. The film teases that maybe Frank is from the far-flung future, but in the end he’s simply not.

This is not to say, not to even momentarily suggest, that Donnie Darko is not ambitious.

(A stray paragraph here about the Gyllenhaals. I’m not really the kind of person who is a fan of particular actors; it’s not a skill I can necessarily spot – in the same way that, say, great technical guitar playing means little to me - but this film set up my love of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal for life. They deliver every line absolutely perfectly. A quick example: when his girlfriend confides her father has emotional problems, Donnie cheerily responds “Oh, I have those too! What kind of emotional problems does your dad have?”. It helps that they’re both stunningly attractive, of course.)

Within those self-established confines, it does everything. Trippy sci-fi visuals - Frank’s bunny suit, the wobbly translucent ‘spears’ that grow out of people’s chests – rub effortlessly against straight-up comedy. “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.” “How did you feel, being denied these Hungry, Hungry Hippos?” I could quote funny lines from this film as long as any comedy film on this list, and they’re deployed with precision.

A precision that leaks into all corners; Kelly has the mind of a great music video director. Not just in those montage-y soundtrack sequences, that collage of image and sound, but in simple camerawork like the first time we and Donnie meet Frank. He’s standing on a mound in a golf course in a long shot which fades into a close-up of Donnie, placing the nightmarish rabbit firmly within the outline of his head. Or how the whole screen tilts 90°, turning the letterbox on its side, to show brain-twisting moments. Donnie Darko is at its best when it’s understated, using the power of suggestion. Like how the wormhole portal – the symbol of escape – opens up in the middle of a cinema screen. Of course it does.

Again, this is all in the interests of keeping it tight. When it tries to explain its ideas directly – like in the much-maligned Director’s Commentary, or the moments of full-on cod philosophy. Some of the lines in this film, make no mistake, are of prose of deepest purple.

And make no mistake, it totally is a traditional teen film; in at least some ways. The complex web of high school relations; the stock characters- the hard-case bully and his tagalong, the inspirational teachers… There’s a Mom and Dad’re Out Of Town House Party! But they’re not cliché, quite.

People talk about how The Inbetweeners is just sooo accurate of their teenage years. And maybe it is. Donnie Darko mixes that John Hughes quality, of the youth you wish you’d had, with something that feels like exaggerated reality. (And, personal sidenote, those teachers, young and rebellious but caring, who get sacked, for me has a pretty direct correlation to two teachers I had at an impressionable point in my youth.)

I love art about the teenaged condition, more than is possibly healthy for someone of my age; Black Hole, Sleigh Bells, Buffy… They all amp those emotions up to match how how it felt, that mingling of great pop songs and girls and HIGHEST DRAMA. Everything turned up as high as it’ll go, all the comedy and love and terrifying rabbits from the future. Just like real life.


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Friday, 18 November 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #07, The Incredibles

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Here were are again: 'Alex loves Pixar films'. It's well-trodden ground at this point, yes, I'm predictable, I know, I'm sorry. But the beauty of the studio's best – Ratatouille, Wall.E, Monsters Inc – is that they're very different films, and The Incredibles is possibly the best example of that.

Being obvious: it was the first Pixar film to thrust human characters into the spotlight, rather than featuring animals/toys/monsters/beautifully-animated-inanimate-objects. Which is probably as much to do with technology as anything else – look at Andy and Sid in the first Toy Story, and compare them with the Parrs here. But that's not important, because the legacy The Incredibles is best examined alongside isn't that of Pixar; it's superhero films, And this is, by a very long way (by at least 43 spots, I guess) my favourite superhero film. There's just so much it gets right about 'supers', as the film calls them, on screen.

First of all, those powers. It cherry-picks the very best – using, more or less, the Fantastic Four template of stretchy one, invisible one, strong punchy one, but switching out fiery one for speedy one. If you ignore flying, it's pretty much the Platonic template for iconic super-powers. And then it shows them in such brilliant ways: with an opening action scene that shows Mr Incredible and Elasti-Girl in the field, establishing what kind of feats they're capable of quickly and easily. But then we cut forward 15 years, and see Mr and Mrs Incredible – Bob and Helen – in a more domestic setting, where powers are implemented casually: a crushed door handle, splitting up a fight between the kids, a car lifted over the head (possibly the strongest single image of superherodom in existence, stretching all the way back to the cover of Action Comics #1) in frustration.

The kids: Dash (speedster) and Violet (invisi-force-fielder). Their powers are teased in this setting, and only unleashed in the final third of the film. It's a family film in all senses. The super-powered setting just exaggerate a more mundane reality. Bob's secret crime-fighting trips are a mid-life crisis played out on a bigger scale; something that's never more obvious than in Helen's quiet fears that he's having an affair.
But it's designed to play to the whole family too. So it's bright and it goes pow! in all the right places. Action is pretty much constant, woven seamlessly in amongst jokes playing to both ends of the familial spectrum.

Most importantly, it's got that indefinable Disney quality, of pure sweetness. No film makes me smile more, so consistently brings a big goofy smile to my face. The ridiculous design of the throwaway characters – Bob's boss Mr. Huph; Edna Mode, fashion designer to the super-able. The beauty of the volcano lair setting. Just the way the superheroes move: take the setpiece where Mrs Incredible gets her extended limbs stuck in a series of automatic doors as she tries to take out a load of henchmen; it's a silly, funny extrapolation of her Elasti-powers, but it's genuinely thrilling too, and when she takes the bad guys down, it's easily as cool as the greatest feat of strength Mr Incredible is able to summon. Most of all, though, it's the relationships between the family members. It's touching is what it is.

This is a film, though, that understands that to have that Disney sweetness, to have it ring true without turning to cloying saccharine, you need danger, threat; grown up things. And so that mid-life crisis writ large is a threat to the marriage, to the stabilising centre of the family. It's a truism that cartoonier characters are easier to relate to, more universal, and that would explain how easily it attaches you to these characters.

And this is where we come back to the Pixar legacy. That moment that catches in your throat, a bittersweet trademark. Here, for me, it's the scene where Mr Incredible thinks he's lost his family, that the supervillain has killed them. It's not even a fake-out; the viewer knows they're fine, but still... It gets me choked up every time.

(For me, as I suspect for many people, family and Disney/Pixar films are inseparable. That Christmas of drunkenly tearing up on the sofa to Finding Nemo; cinema trips... my sister even reads the odd thing I write if it's about animation.)

And then it builds on top of that, finds every permutation of cinematic cake it can think and simultaenously both has and eats it. The James Bond set design and smooth cool of Mr Incredible's secret life, against the comedy of his out-of-shape chubbiness as he gets stuck in a pod launcher. He can be the butt of a joke without detracting from his iconic hero moments. Big action setpieces with the kind of spectacle that wouldn't be possible in live action without being plastered in ugly CG, but with the intimacy and investment I celebrated in Die Hard. It's as prismatic as any modern superhero comic.

This means it gets a bit muddled if you look too deeply at what it's saying. Is it wrong for Bob to shirk responsibility for cheap thrills and temptations (he's punished, his family are put in danger) or is he realising his true potential (it brings the family together, as a team)? Which brings us sort of neatly to the elephant in the room. What Christian “Solario” Otholm refers to as “an appalling moral to put in a children's film”. The idea that no-one should try to go beyond the limits they were born with. The villains (Bomb Voyage, Syndrome, Underminer) are all powered by technology. There's a moment where Mrs Incredible tells Violet that heroism is “in her blood”, and looked at through this filter it's wince-inducing. I spent much of my planning time for this article trying to work out a counter-argument. And I can't. It's a completely fair reading of the film.

Such are the dangers of being such an all-inclusive film in terms of material. But that message doesn't push through (or seem intentional, as if that ever mattered). The film is far too excitably scattershot for that; its only centre is family. The other stuff – like Frozone's role in the plot, for example – all kind of gets forgotten in the rush. “If the time comes, you'll know what to do. It's in your blood.” That reads very differently with a focus, optimistically blinkered as it might be, on the bonding of family than the binding of caste.
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Friday, 11 November 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #08, Die Hard

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What elevates Die Hard above every other cheesy action flick of the ‘80s?

Because make no mistake, this is precisely what it is. The sub-genre Alpha, the cheesy ‘80s action non plus ultra. What exactly differentiates it from, say, Above The Law, Steven Seagal’s debut released the same year?

It’s a scale thing. Most action films push to be bigger, more impressive. Die Hard keeps it small, confined. Look at John McClane, as we’re introduced step-by-step. It starts with a vulnerability: John McClane doesn’t like flying.

A stranger gives the invaluable advice to take his shoes off, make a fist with his toes. We’ll return to this later, but for now it’s time for the next step in our introduction: John McClane carries a gun. An action hero, maybe. Bruce Willis passes this off with easy charm. Don’t worry, I'm a cop.

Quickly, the pendulum swings back again: John McClane pulls a huge teddy bear from the overhead locker. It’s not a joke the way it would be if it was Arnie holding that teddy; not a sneer from an hard-man acting against type. It’s a warm little smile. This isn’t Arnie; it’s Bruce Willis. It’s different now, but at the time Willis was only known for his role in as the romantic lead of TV show Moonlighting.

Bruce Willis is a good everyman actor. An everyman with plenty of cool and a slight hard edge, but just a bloke like us all the same.

Lest we forget about that cool, though, we’re representing with a long shot of McClane and the bear, as he lights a cigarette and takes a single weary drag. In a series of quick signifiers – vulnerability, gun, teddy bear, cigarette – the character is laid out.

Of course, soon enough a bunch of Eurotrash terrorists take over Nakatomi Plaza and the running and gunning begins, but it’s vital that Die Hard took that time. The rest of the film cashes in what has been set up, hammering home McClane’s vulnerability over and over. He’s wearing a vest, showing all that soft squishy flesh, for a reason.

After all, most of the protagonists in action films are beyond relating to, either in what they can do or how they can act. Or, in many cases, both. To take a quick example from lower down the list, look at Arnie as the Terminator. He’s physically hardy– we see him take explosions to the face –but his behaviour is similarly inhuman, strong, invulnerable. (Which is kind of the point, as the whole film is him overcoming this and learning to be a person, but nevertheless...) It’s an interesting comparison with the other action films I love; take next week’s film, which emphasises the humanity of its heroes even more, but gives us people capable of incredible feats. John McClane is a bloke with a gun.

Die Hard goes to great lengths to set up its hero’s vulnerability, how supple and soft the flesh is, before it takes out the first nail and starts to hammer it in, as the gates and shutters come down and lock us inside Nakatomi Plaza. Looking at other action films, it’s remarkably small. John McClane isn’t saving the world, he’s fighting for the dignity of a single building. Relatively speaking, the stakes are pretty low, but they’re well established.

It’s claustrophobic, full of air vents; closed where most action films are open. The enemy are finite, laid out precisely: one guy versus twenty. Knowing the exact odds, there’s a simple mathematical pleasure to seeing them slowly climb in McClane’s favour with every baddie he takes down.

At the end of the day, Die Hard isn’t transcendent of its genre. It is precisely a cheesy ‘80s action film. But in its execution it is a masterclass, taking every opportunity to set up a credible threat. More importantly, taking every opportunity to create a fully human action hero, one who can be hurt. Most importantly, making us care that he might be.

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Friday, 4 November 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #09, The Empire Strikes Back

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The Empire Strikes Back's place here is almost token. No list would be complete without it, but it's standing in as a representative of quite how important Star Wars has been for me. After all, more than perhaps any other film ever, Star Wars has leaked out into all corners of our pop culture. Books and comics and games, sure, but far far beyond that. Lightsabers, dark sides and Wookiees, these things leaked out in the consciousness of a generation. Over the last 30 years, all this stuff bled out beyond the confines of three films so thoroughly that barely a minute of Empire's running time goes by without something you've seen riffed on elsewhere, whether on a screen or in real life. This would probably true even for someone who had never seen the films.

That kind of shared vocabulary means that Star Wars is an easy - and fun - topic to theorise and joke about. Every lazy stand-up comedian has got at least one joke referencing Star Wars in their repertoire. So what is there left to say? I already got my Kevin Smith on to talk about Return of the Jedi, positing that the films are just a huge playset, full of toys.

(I'll add a quick observation: have you ever noticed how little characters in the film seem to respect Darth Vader? Outside of the film, in our world, he's one of the most revered baddies of all time, an example to be carted out when discussing how design or mystery or costume can build a character's appeal. But most of the Imperial officers are open with their disdain for the Force, and treat him with all the hushed reverence of a Pizza Hut employee arguing with their manager.)

There's no point in telling you the story, laying out the characters or describing how things look. This is Star Wars, and that was all magically inserted into your brain when you were about seven years old. It's the middle child of the trilogy, which means it actually steps further away from traditional blockbuster structure than its siblings, and has the reputation as being the 'dark' one. It ends on an absolutely sublime cliffhanger, all moody and foreboding, but it's the film is still exceedingly warm and friendly overall. It is, however, more mature in a few other ways; there's something in the way it's shot which looks more cleanly professional than the others, and the characters crystallise best into almost-real people in this one. And it's got the bit where Han Solo says "I know", a.k.a. the coolest moment in cinema history.

(Another little point: I don't think most people realise how minimal George Lucas' influence over this film was. Lucas and Star Wars are two names married together in a way few other franchises and directors are, so it's odd to realise that not only did he not direct, but that his only writing credit is for providing the story.)

But it's all the same Star-Warsy nonsense that I love, really, with made-up words, silly voices and gigantic worms that live inside comets. Of this, too, it's possibly the best example: we're introduced to Boba Fett and Yoda, two of the series' best characters and purest action-figure fodder. It also brings in Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Space Pimp; a ridiculous character of another type and one of whom I'm increasingly fond.

It's a Star Wars film, is what I'm saying. A brilliant Star Wars film. You know what that means, don't you?
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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.