Monthly Archives: December 2010

Showing at the Showroom: Catfish

It’s a hopeless period for films of the less-said-the-better ilk, but the new documentary Catfish hangs on this ledge more precariously than most. Acutely aware that reviews built on nothing but vagueness and generalities make for incredibly tedious reading, I will keep it brief. The short message: go and see it, preferably before some blabbermouth spoils it.

The thumbnail synopsis is that it’s the record of a slowly blossoming internet relationship-come-romance between a young New York photographer Nev, and Megan the half-sister of an 8 year old painting prodigy that’s taken to painting Nev’s work and sending it to him. Egged on by brother and friends, a trio set off to finally unite Nev and Megan ‘in real life’. When they finally get to rural Michigan ‘all is not as it seems’ and shit gets very ‘real’.

Beyond the contrivance and thriller cliché of the film’s blurb, the film builds towards its grand reveal, the volte face, the upending of everything by almost convincing you of its predictability. The endless narcissism of the project and its filmmakers gives the whole thing a decidedly questionable whiff of the Blair Witch Project, and the rather earnest and self-involved inflection of the oh-we’re-not-fauxumentary. And then the almighty SNAP comes, and you’re just left struggling to hold onto what the hell is going on. It’s frankly terrifying, and quite brilliant for just that.This is far from the first documentary this year to have foyer-critics hemming and herring over ‘what is REAL, really, in the greater scheme of things?’ But film philosophy undergraduatese aside, it delights me that in a connected dispute over music rights, the filmmakers might be forced to swear on oath to the veracity of the film. On oath! The TRUTH will finally come out! Or maybe we could just enjoy the film for the tangled and baffling mess that it is?

Five out of Five

Catfish is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 17th of December 2010.

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Showing at the Showroom: Monsters

“A film about illegal ALIENS, the America fears of the unknown SPRAWLING issues South of the border, and the stretching TENTACLES of Latin influence into the States.” It’s all too easy to make light of Monsters‘ premise, but for an independent film in the true spirit of a B-movie it manages to deftly juggle a minimal budget, some impressive special effects, quite a few gripping moments, and that ever so essential political subtext, in really quite a brilliant fashion.

It’s an easy cop-out to state that “the less you know, the better” but Monsters is definitely one of those films. The situation is a near-future Central America, where half the sub-continent has been fenced into a quarantine zone following the destruction in low orbit of a returning NASA probe full of ‘alien matter’. Xenomorphic creatures have erupted into the area, and now the US army is effectively at war trying to keep these monsters at bay. In what remains of Mexico south of the zone, we find the Americans Samantha and Andrew, the latter being a photo-journalist tasked by his bosses to escort the former back to the States in one piece.

Needless to say it’s quite an eventful journey.

In such a curt synopsis the film can easily sound like a dunder-headed action film, but that isn’t the case, but neither is it an indie-schmindy mumblecore film either. A LOT of hoopla has been made about the film’s humble budget, and its profile as a breakout independent with a CGI edge to match many a blockbuster. But leaving value for money aside, Monsters is still an Action-SciFi-Thriller with two leads fated to be drawn together: one a pretty bottle-blond in hot-pants, and the other a tussle-haired handsome thing with well crafted stubble. The film is unashamedly pitching for the mainstream, taking as it’s starting point the child-friendly-but-wholly-terrifying 12A/PG13 perfection that is Jurassic Park. This is far from a bad thing.

The film is still brave in where it takes the audience, being more than comfortable at leaving a few things hanging, and giving those who want it something serious to chew on as well. Sometimes the symbolism can be a little blunt, perhaps self-consciously so, but equally there’s a fair portion of nuance in there as well. There are action-kicks, and things to think about, and that ticks many a box on my scorecard.

On reflection, credit goes to my friend who was along for both Monsters and Machete, to point out that both are ostensibly B-movies about real world issues (just like any B-movie worth its’ salt). It’s just that Monsters knocks Machete into a corner with a cocked sombrero in terms of actually having anything to say about something very current. A terrific achievement for a first time director with a tiny budget, but also a tremendous film quite in it’s own right.

Four and a Half out of Five

Monsters is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 3rd of December 2010

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Machete: Part (- 4) in the Seagal Odyssey

In simple terms, this film’s a triumph before the projector had even flickered on. The only time I’ve seen Seagal on the big screen is in the hallmark Orange adverts he did a few years ago, as I was too young for either his Golden or his Silver age. Only by sheer dint of fortune did my teenage self have the prescience of mind to steel well bloody clear of Exit Wounds, Ticker, or Half Past Dead. Robert Rodriguez’s Machete heralds the first time in (count ’em) eight years that the Big Man is back on the Big Screen, and being one of about 6 people in the world for whom the man is still a draw in his own right, well I’d be an idiot to miss it. The fact that the film’s a pastiche grindhouse film about Danny Trejo wielding various cutting tools of assorted sizes, well, that’s just a bonus.

The good news is that Seagal’s actually in it. This isn’t some half-a-day-on-set, calling-in-a-favour cameo that Schwarzenegger disappointed audiences with in The Expendables, no no. Seagal fills the boots of the ‘Evil Drug Lord’ Cortez with his ample frame, albeit by way of comically wobbly Meh-E-Co styled accent. A good heft of his screen presence is as the mastermind a Skype call away from the dirty work, and that mostly involves his big and surprisingly square mug leering from a laptop while he’s surrounded by nubile young things in bikinis. Recently dismissed sex trafficking charges aside, I’m sure this is a persona our man feels no acrimony in putting about. Even beyond the webcams Seagal looms large, mostly to throw taunts at poor susceptible Danny Trejo, and at the end to actually throw himself around in some vicious machete-on-katana duelling action. In a move contrary to established Seagalian convention, it doesn’t end well for our man, but he leaves with a smile on his face, and some ripe lines too boot. I couldn’t have been happier.

As for the rest of the film, well that doesn’t do quite so much to surprise and delight, despite grand promises to that effect. It certainly has its moments, and the endless conveyor belt of recognisable cameos intertwine with some frankly baffling events: Lindsey Lohan gets naked, before donning a nun’s habit; Robert De Niro dances around his best efforts of a George W. Bush impression; Don ‘Miami Vice’ Johnson hunts illegal immigrants with a rifle;  Jessica Alba sort of gets naked for no good reason at all; Cheech (but not Chong) appears as foul-mouthed priest with a shotgun; Tom Savini rocks up, shooting from the hip, but not with his patented cock-and-ball-gun.

On paper that might sound like a riot, or an appalling demonstration in crassness, but in practice it’s an exercise in SCREAMING AT THE TOP OF YOUR VOICE for the whole time. Come the rather overblown and somewhat convoluted finale, where every sodding cameo has to make an appearance, well needless to say the film’s gotten rather hoarse. Keeping the bombast of the action permanently at eleven does however hit a few sweet notes, particularly in the dialogue spitting Padre Cheech, as well as in the parody campaign videos put out by De Niro as Bush, which are funny only in matching the insane hyperbole of real-world American political ad campaigns out there. [this clip being a terrifying example for illustrative purposes]

But the film is a long way from satire, and as a piece of exploitation the film also rings sadly hollow. In making an arch imitation of the skid-row, fleapit favourite, Rodriguez seems to be missing two rather simple qualities: Machete is neither cheap nor naff. Despite the time and effort that’s been put in to digitally scuffing-up the film, for all the bearing of breasts and the bursting of over-pumped veins, at no point does it feel grotty or genuinely exploitative. For want of a better missive it doesn’t have any distinct feel at all. Momentarily funny and overblown, but not a lot else, thankfully at least one lumbering part didn’t disappoint.

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