Archive for the 'Films' Category

Oh hai, I iz all over ur internetz

I miss doing film reviews somewhat, so I’ve plugged that void with a quick(ish) review of the wonderful LA Confidential Special Edition DVD over at Den of Geek.

And for those of you wondering what on earth I’ve written this week’s Soccerlens column on the answer consists of two words: Luton Town.

When I get the time, I actually quite enjoy writing. Whether you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it, mind, is somewhat more debatable.

MORE: And I’ve done a quick update on the very strange situation at Weymouth over a Soccerlens. I know, I know, two Soccerlens pieces in a week. I’m really spoiling you.

I’m also in this month’s When Saturday Comes. The piece isn’t currently the the internetz but is available in all good newsagents.

Why so serious?

Even without Heath Ledger’s untimely death, The Dark Knight would have attracted large amount of hype. And following large amounts of hype generally follows disappointment, especially with the superhero genre. Thankfully Christopher Nolan’s film doesn’t just live up to the hype and some, it raises the bar for the genre so high that all other films should just give up for the next couple of years. It’s that good.

The Dark Knight is over two hours but you don’t notice it. From the first set-piece with six paranoid goons carrying out a robbery for the unknown ‘Joker’ to the final climax, the film rattles through at a fantastic pace, but never losing track of the deep characterisation that’s become a feature of Nolan’s films.

The stunts are breath-taking (you can only wonder what they must have looked like on the IMAX) and the whole plot unravels with a plenty of twists and turns that drive the film to even darker depths. Were this a Bond film, oreven a one-off non-superhero action thriller it would be rightly hailed as one of the finest examples of its genre. That it features a man in a rubber-bat suit and another with pasty face paint shouldn’t lessen this on iota.

Then there’s Heath Ledger. It’s impossible not to mention the late actor’s performance. Ledger has completely immersed himself in the character to the point you can forget who the actor is and be completely taken in by this strangely compelling villain, who is a world away from Jack Nicholson’s enjoyable but hammy turn. Ledger’s Joker comes far closer to catching the sinister nature of the character in the graphic novels. than Nicholson ever does and is a fitting epitaph for an actor who, if he was still alive, would be one of the hottest properties in Hollywood off the back of it.

The biggest problem for Nolan is where does he go from here. He could easily spent the rest of his career in the Batman franchise, and that would be no bad thing, although you do wonder if he’ll ever be able to make a better Batman film than The Dark Knight.

But Nolan is also an interesting director even without the Batman films. Memento still stands out as a masterpiece, Insomnia was gripping and The Prestige was a better film than many gave credit. Nolan could literally do anything right now. He could never make another film. The Dark Knight is unlikely to be bettered in a long time.

In some respects, you’ve got to feel a bit of sympathy for all other superhero movies that follow The Dark knight. On the other hand, there have been so many God-awful adaptations (Elektra, Daredevil) that it makes you realise that it’s not hard to do a decent job.

No doubt there will be more to come. Most likely a second Iron Man film, although the first instalment left me distinctly underwhelmed and the film already felt like it was running out of steam by the end. The last Spiderman film was an utter mess but won’t stop another one being hurried out. Maybe somebody will think it a good idea to made another X-Men film (although I enjoyed these a lot more than Spiderman and thought they were a bit underrated. Yes, even X-Men 3). Every minor character will get an outing, I’d expect.

But there is still hope – and excitement for graphic novel fans. First up, Hellboy 2 from the ever-excellent Guillermo del Toro. The first film was a bit of a treat, with the director’s distinctive visual style playing well against a film that had more depth than your average comic book adaptation. Hellboy 2 looks like it’s going to be a solid sequel.

But that is nothing compared to the buzz surrounding The Watchmen. Either this film will rival The Dark Knight or prove such a crushing disappointment (and certainly fanboys and girls will be scrutinising this far more than either of Nolan’s Batman films) that it’ll sink like a stone.

But in the meantime, go and watch The Dark Knight. And if you’ve already seen it watch it again. And again. And again. It’s that good.

Media Studies: Not completely useless

Wat Tyler has a list of subjects that won’t get A level students into Cambridge, along with a bit more about dumbing down. Given that nearly all the A levels I took were on the list [1], I doubt Oxbridge would come calling to me nowadays.

(Although, unless the standard of physics GCSEs has risen significantly over the summer, the sciences hardly inspire confidence for our great young minds.)

As somebody who spent the majority of his A level and university life studying soft subjects, I always feel slightly compelled to defend them. Or rather, the ones I studied, or near-as studied, in this case communication studies and media studies.

The latter may be perceived as soft. In some cases the syllabus and teaching methods probably are softer than they should be. But it doesn’t mean that media studies isn’t important. On the contrary, taught well media studies could be an important and useful subject for those who chose to take it.

The media is a wonderful and vague area, compassing everything from television to radio to newspapers, magazines, mobile technology, iPods, the music industry, blogs, podcasts, downloads and the internet in general to name but a few. The media is all pervasive in today’s society: our lives are surrounding by media of all sorts and, like it or not, the media will continue to play a key role in shaping the world around us, be it traditional mainstream media, online technologies, or a mixture of new and traditional [2].

So, if something is as all-consuming as the media, doesn’t it deserve to be studied? And if there are certain phenomenons occurring within this field, don’t these also deserve to be studied? And if the media is going to play an even more key role in the future of today’s teenagers lives, doesn’t that also deserve to be studied? [3]

Take Facebook, and social networking sites in general, which were the buzzword online of 2007, and have become an essential part of everyday life for some people. At university level, social networks, blogs, and other such internet phenomenons deserve to be studied: if something becomes successful or has a major impact on our lives, it’s worth asking why. And depending on what these studies produces, and what’s taught in modules on blogging and Facebooking, it’s not inconceivable such topics could filter into A level syllabuses sooner rather than later. If this enhances student’s understanding of the world they inhabit, and inspires them further, this can only be a good thing.

Of course, there are two things needed to pull up a soft subject such as media studies: a good syllabus and a good teacher. A quick look at a basic syllabus for media studies shows things haven’t moved on too much since I was at college nearly ten years ago. Certainly, more recognition of the impact media has on our lives would be a good thing. And I’m still to be persuaded on how shooting a quick short will enhance understanding of the media. But even so, there’s still much in there that can be used, applied and turn the teenagers into better informed citizens and consumers.

Media studies shouldn’t be seen as a better or worse option than more traditional subjects; all have their merits. It also shouldn’t be pushed as a soft option, or used by schools to massage figures. But if you’ve got a teenagers genuinely interested in the media then there’s no reason to discourage them from taking it. Similarly, if you’ve got a teen who has no clue what they’re interested in, it’s a case of directing them towards the course they’d get most stimulus out of.

This isn’t to say I’m a great fan of the plethora of media studies available at degree level – if anything there’s a few too many of them around, and they do their bit to keep wages in the sector reasonably low. But that’s another discussion for another blog post.

One final thought: Ten years ago, Film Studies was by far the hardest A level I took – I found it much more difficult than Philosophy. But it was also probably the most interesting. This was down in no small part to the inspirational teacher I had, who cut no slack to those who saw it as a way to coast through college and pushed us all hard, but if you were interested and keen to learn, she’d go out of her way to help you go that bit further. An the syllabus included elements of business, economics, and history among other aspects. It didn’t just view film in its own bubble, it took into account the wider effects of cinema. Result: not only did it increase my appreciation of film, it also taught me stuff I didn’t know about the world beyond that, and has proved useful from time to time on a practical level, which is what any good GCSE or A Level should be doing.

[1] Philosophy being the one that doesn’t appear. I’m not entirely sure whether that makes me more or less of a soft-subject man. I did, however, get a lot better in arguing and could throw out references to Aristotle, Descartes et al in an effort to make me look intelligent.

[2] Although it really is time to stop referring to line and mobile media as new media. It’s been around for long enough and is, by and large, nearly fully integrated into the MSM.

[3] This is an argument you could justifiably apply to other subjects such as ooh, I dunno, economics and physics, two subjects I’d love to see have a broader appeal, as they, like media, both explain how things work. I’d argue economics should really be pushed as an option at GCSE level, as the basics could easily be explained to a 15-year-old. And it ties up nicely with media studies as well.

Three’s company

Last night saw one of the few, if only, films I’ve genuinely excited or interested in seeing this summer: Taking Liberties. In itself, this is quite a sorry state of affairs. Normally June, July and August can be relied upon to provide at least one or two enjoyably entertaining blockbusters with maybe the same number of quirky, independent or serious movies. Instead I’m getting excited about a wry look at civil liberties in Britain, and Michael Moore isn’t anywhere to be seen.

Ok, so complaining about a summer release schedule is somewhat akin to commenting the gastropub is a touch overpriced. But for me so far, this year has been one of the worst in recent memory for the quality on offer. The only film I’ve seen I’ve really raved about has been Kevin Macdonald’s wonderful Last King of Scotland. The last film I’ve seen that I’ve truly enjoyed was Zodiac.

Neither may be your typical blockbuster, but there’s no real blockbuster to get truly excited about. Compare this to a few years ago when you had the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek alongside films such as The Constant Gardner and Sin City, while throwing in flicks like the underrated Inside Man and enjoyable cult sci-fi Serenity. Flipping through this year’s schedules since January and up to the end of the summer, and there’s little to compare on the same level.

The love of the sequel in Hollywood’s another common moan but it seems in 2007 we’ve really reached saturation point. Spiderman 3, Pirates 3, Hostel 2, Fantastic Four 2: The Rise of the Silver Surfer, Harry Potter 5, Ocean’s Thirteen, Shrek 3, Die Hard 4. It’s pretty depressing viewing, with only Bruce Willis’ latest outing as John McClane giving any cause for optimistic, largely based on the hope that it won’t remotely try to take itself seriously in any way, shape or form.

Not that this deters the movie-going public. The Silver Surfer took a respectable 29 million in its opening weekend, while the Pirates juggernaut’s over 250 million and shows no sign of slowing down. And, frankly, as long as the bums on seats keep coming, its unlikely Hollywood will cut down on adding numbers. It’ll take two or three high profile crash and burns before they’ll counter the idea of trying something different. Indeed, in the current climate, you could give a five-year-old the director’s chair for Pirates 4 and it’d still do the business at the box office. The question is how long will the current climate last for?

Sooner or later the audience will cotton onto the fact they’ve either just watched a rerun or inferior version of the original or another, similar film. Harry Potter aside, as it actually has an already-written largely decent source, the rest of the sequels largely pale in comparison to the original. The first Pirates was a gem: a blockbuster that had humour, intelligence, action and a cracking storyline. Third time around some of the ingredients may still be there but is it really any better than the original? Whilst it can’t be classed as a turkey, the feeling isn’t the same as the one you get after the first one.

Spiderman 3’s budget of $350 million could have easily been used to fund 3 new blockbusters plus a quirky smaller movie. Would living without the poor third installment of the webslinger been such an ordeal, especially if we were introduced to a fresh set of characters to fall in love with?

This isn’t dismissing all sequels out of hand. Alien did the right thing by bringing in the gung-ho James Cameron after Ridley Scott’s cool, terrifying movie, Cameron’s Terminator 2 is probably up there with the greatest sequels of all time and then there’s the daddy of all second visits: The Godfather part 2. But generally once a franchise starts motoring past its second installment, the ideas start to dry up and we’re left with a sub-standard cut and paste of previous plots that usually don’t make for a terrible move, just a distinctly average one (examples in case: Terminator 3, the Godfather part 3. I’m probably one of the few who actually liked Alien 3).

But there is a bit of hope on the horizon, both sequel-wise and on a more general level. The 3rd Jason Bourne film may just buck the average-threequel trend and Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film, The Dark Knight, could well be even better than Batman Begins. Away from the sequels, we’ll have to wait until next year in the UK for the Coen Brothers’ new offering, No Country for Old Men and by all accounts its closer to Blood Simple than it is to Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, which is reason to get excited indeed.

But until that time, go see Taking Liberties, then hibernate for the rest of the summer will all the DVDs you said you’d watch but haven’t quite got time to see. And if you are poking your head round the cinema door, Bergman’s Seventh Seal is re-released on July 20th, which is well worth anyone’s hard earned cash.

Watch Star Wars, steal a spaceship

It had to happen eventually: somebody makes a link between campus killer Cho Seung-Hui and violent films, in this case Oldboy and John Woo movies.

I’ve seen Oldboy. It’s a film I’d recommend, but you’ll need a strong stomach. When I came out of the cinema my first reaction was that I’d seen an excellent film, not let’s shoot a lot of people.

In my film collection I’ve got the following movies which depict fairly graphic violence, or have a strong killing theme: Memento, Goodfellas, The Godfather trilogy, Heathers, Audition, Lady Vengeance, Amores Perros, and Taxi Driver. I’ll also throw in Dogville, which is quite unpleasant in places, and The Searchers, Day of the Jackal and The Talented Mr. Ripley because of their amoral protagonists. Funnily enough, I’ve not felt the urge to shoot anybody yet. [1]

If, and this is a big if, anybody was inspired to commit murder by a film or reenact parts of Oldboy, they’ve clearly got serious mental health issues. Funnily enough, that’s one thing most people are agreed on about Cho.

That doesn’t stop some people from trying, chief among them one of the most idiotic pieces I’ve read from Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post, which is deserving of a good fisking.

He gets off to a great start:

So the movies seem like a propitious place to start, given the photographs in the package Cho sent to NBC News in his now infamous posthumous statement of principles. Thus “Oldboy” must feature prominently in the discussion, even if no one has yet confirmed that Cho saw it

Excellent. So, you’ve no idea if the killer saw the film, but that’s not going to stop you writing an article on it. As Ordo points out, Dr. Dre’s carried out a similar pose.

On the surface, it seems a natural fit, at least in the way it can be presumed that Cho’s hyper-fervid brain worked. It’s a Korean story — he would have passed on the subtitles and listened to it in his native language — of unjust persecution and bloody revenge

Ah that’s why. Cho was Korean, the film’s Korean. A natural link. Just as Foster’s markets itself as an Australian lager, therefore all Australians drink Foster’s. And because there’s violence, there must be a link.

A narcissist with a persecution complex would identify with its plot: A man named Oh Dae Su is simply snatched off the streets and made to endure 20 years in a cell without explanation. Released to the rubble of a life interrupted, he begins a quest to understand and achieve vengeance, which he finally does with a great spurt of violence, most of it employed with a hammer in extreme close quarters

I’m sure there are hundreds of narcissists with persecution complexes watching that film going, “That’s me, that is.”

But there are problems as well. For one, “Oldboy” wasn’t a gun picture. The only gun in it is a derringer that figures in the denouement. It’s a movie about the bone-shattering force of hammers on limbs and skulls and the physical exhaustion of fighting. Its violence, though pervasive, is never beautiful or graceful. The violence is never idealized; you cannot look at it and be seduced by it. The capacity of a movie to enthrall, then gull, and finally seduce is not deployed. For that we must turn to other sources

Hang on, you’ve just said Cho could identify perfectly with Oldboy. Now you’ve just contradicted yourself and said he wouldn’t be seduced by it.

Many of Cho’s pictures — 11 out of 43 — featured guns. And when I looked at them, another name struck me as far more relevant than Park Chan Wook. That’s John Woo.

Woo, the Hong Kong director now working in the United States (“Face/Off” was one of his most successful films), almost redefined the action genre with a series of Hong Kong gangster movies made in the late ’80s and early ’90s, starring the Chinese actor Chow Yun-Fat and virtually every Beretta ever shipped to the Far East. As with the Park movie, it is not certain that Cho saw Woo’s films, though any kid taken by violent popular culture in the past 15 or 20 years almost certainly would have, on DVD, alone in the dark, in his bedroom or downstairs after the family’s gone to bed

Oh good Lord. Again, no idea if he’s seen John Woo films but on the basis that everybody else has, allegedly, it’s ok to assume Cho has. And, to be honest, John Woo isn’t the only director who uses guns excessively. But again, because he’s Asian, the link is obviously evident.

They’re not family fare; they’re dreamy, angry adolescent fare. They were gun-crazed ballets, full of whirling imagery, grace, masculine power and a strange but perhaps not irrelevant religiosity. They were close to outlaw works of art: They celebrated violence even as they aesthetized it, streamlined it and made it seem fabulous fun. Their possible influence on Cho can be clearly seen in 11 of the photos that feature handguns.

So only angry adolescents can enjoy John Woo films. Funny, I’ve seen Face/Off a few times, most recently a year ago. I quite enjoyed it again.

Note also we have a possible influence that can clearly be seen. I despair, I honestly do.

Woo pioneered postures with guns not seen in movies until that time (discounting cornball pre-World War II westerns). He was the first modern filmmaker (though there was Don Siegel’s “Madigan” of 1968) to embrace the stylistic advantages of putting a gun in both hands of his hero, which became almost his signature. So when you see any of the famous photos of Cho with his arms outstretched and a gun in each hand, you cannot help but think, if you’ve seen any of them, of the Hong Kong gangster movies and the super-cool Chow.

But it goes even further than the resemblance between the photos of the blasphemy and the movies of the ’80s. In at least three regards, Cho’s activities so closely reflect the Woo oeuvre that it seems somewhat fair to conclude that in his last moments, before he blew his brains out, he was shooting a John Woo movie in his head.

Right, so far you’ve built your argument on suppositions and your own conclusions, which naturally is convincing evidence that he was imagining he was in a John Woo film. Because you said so. And unless Stephen Hunter was actually there, which its fair to assume he wasn’t, how the hell does he know it looked like a John Woo film. It may have more closely resembled a Martin Scorsese feature.

First is the peculiar nature of the gun violence. Cho, it seems, wasn’t a sniper, a marksman. He wasn’t shooting carefully, at a distance. He wasn’t, one can assume, aiming. He was shooting very much like Chow in the Woo pictures, with a gun in each hand, as witnesses state, up close, very fast. Woo saw gunfights in musical terms: His primary conceit was the shootout as dance number, with great attention paid to choreography, the movement of both actors within the frame. He loved to send his shooters flying through the air in surprising ways, far more poetically than in any real-life scenario. He frequently diverted to slow motion and he specialized in shooting not merely to kill, but to riddle — his shooters often blast their opponents five and six times. Perhaps all that was at play in Cho’s mind as well.

So, you’re a stressed out person with mental problems about to go on a killing spree. Naturally, you’ll be thinking how can I make this look like a musical as you pull the trigger. Now I’m no expert, but if I had two guns in my hand and was a bit stressed chances are I’d be firing them very fast as well.

Second is the nature of the guns themselves. Cho’s choice of weapons may well have been based on movie influences. The first and most famous was the Glock 19. This is the mid-size Glock, not the smallest for deep concealment (in pockets or under shirts), not the largest for maximum firepower, but basically a service automatic for undercover men who can carry guns comfortably in holsters, with a 15-shot magazine. The Glock, of course, is ubiquitous in popular culture as the firearm of choice of both the police and the bad guys, but it doesn’t figure much, if at all, in the works of Woo, which were made before the Glock really took over. But the Beretta is about $200 more expensive than a Glock, and when Cho went to the Roanoke gun store, he may well have found it beyond his budget. Both guns fire 9mm cartridges; at the receiving end, the impact is the same.

His second gun is clearly another budget choice, a .22-caliber pistol that sells for about $300 and most closely replicates the plasticized aesthetic of the modern service pistol, the Glock, the Beretta or the Sig Sauer. It’s a Walther P22 — its design derived from a larger Walther 9mm service pistol, called a P99 — a gun that looks more powerful than it is (it’s still extremely lethal). Perhaps he chose it to resemble Chow in the photos he knew he would be taking of himself.

And no other film ever uses a Walther. Bond mentions them a lot.

There are other weird handgun concordances in the work of Woo and the frenzy of Cho. For example, many have noted the peculiarity of the young man’s careful removal of the serial numbers from the two pistols. What was the point of that? The point may be found in “The Killer,” Woo’s greatest movie, where the hero Jeffrey Chow (Chow Yun-Fat) is handed guns by his best friend before going off on a terrible job that will result in tragedy for all: “They’re clean guns. No serial numbers. Untraceable.” When he ground off the serial numbers, Cho may have been turning himself into Jeffrey Chow.

Err, again, there’s any number of reasons why he could have ground the serial numbers off.

Then there’s the issue of the two guns, one for each hand. Cho could certainly have done as much damage with the single Glock, given how quickly one can learn (and you strongly suspect he practiced) to reload them proficiently. That answer comes from Woo’s 1992 “Hard-Boiled,” or rather it is codified there, while evident in all the gangster pictures: “Give a guy a gun, he thinks he’s Superman. Give him two and he thinks he’s God.”

Or maybe he just wanted to shoot as many people as possible?

The third weird Woo vibration echoing through the Cho madness is thematic. “The Killer,” for example, is almost lush with religious themes, as it tells a story of redemption through sacrifice. In the film, Jeffrey Chow has accidentally blinded a singer in an assassination. Consumed with guilt, he becomes her guardian and sets out to raise money to get her a restorative operation, which compels him to take on yet crazier and less survivable jobs. In a wild finish, he and a police officer, who’s become his only ally, engage in a massive gunfight against evil gangsters in a church, through which, like symbols of Christian grace, doves flap majestically. Jeffrey Chow dies, saving the singer’s life, and the money he’s secured restores her vision. Many critics noted Jeffrey Chow’s initials — J.C. — and that he is frequently seen in Christlike postures of the sort Cho later affected in at least one of his photos.

I’m sorry, exactly where did Cho blind a singer then save her sight? I know plenty of people with the initials JC. And, frankly, it’s not as if there aren’t hundreds of Christ-like images in other films and art.

“The Killer” also features an intellectual posture that might have been extremely attractive to Cho’s mental state. In it, the killer is presented as both hero and victim, rather than villain. His difference from other men, his moral nature, is repeatedly stressed. “He’s no ordinary assassin,” a cop says almost lovingly about him. “Fate controls everything,” the killer muses, seeing himself as a puppet reacting to the larger forces beyond his control. “I always save the last bullet either for myself or my enemy.”

And that’s a theme that’s clearly never been used in any other film. Ever.

These similarities between fact and fiction, of course, raise striking issues that all creative artists — but especially those who deal in stories that offer visceral violence as part of their pleasure principle — must deal with. Woo built engines of excitement and stimulation that pleased millions and made him a wealthy, internationally known man. Yet now, all these years later, a young man might have used them as the vessel of his rage and alienation, taken the icon of the movie gun and moved from the intimacy of the DVD player and the arena of his imagination to the public arena, and there reenacted the ritual. This time the carnage is for real.

Yes, because I’m sure John Woo was hoping, secretly, that one day somebody would chose to reenact his films. And despite the use of the word might here, Hunter accepts this all as fact. What an utter load of bollocks.

I’ve heard other psychiatrists saying Cho rationalised his thinking by fitting what he believed to justify his actions.

Funnily enough, Stephen Hunter’s got an argument where he takes his conclusion then fits everything else in around it to justify that conclusion.

[1] By far my favourite film in my collection is Amelie, though.


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