Monday, 29 March 2010

Brick: Sam Spade the Teenage Years

Brick 01 Pictures, Images and Photos
Brick is an interesting and mostly successful experiment in mixing two genres you’d normally think were un-mixable. In this case the teenage high school drama and the old fashioned hard-boiled detective film noir.

Cynical street smart loner Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets a rambling phone call full of fear and desperation from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) who recently dumped him to run around with some nefarious types including drug dealers, thugs and pot heads. Brendan can’t ignore Emily’s jumbled plea for help because he is still in love with the girl. And so he sets out to find her. Despite him being the odd man out at school, Brendan always keeps his ear close to the ground and has a quick mind and a sharp tongue that gets him in to all sorts of bloody scrapes in his mission to find Emily. And find her he does, right at films start in fact, dead in a drainage tunnel. The search for her is then told in flashback in true detective film fashion before the story moves on to the search for her killer and the reasons behind her murder. Brendan single-mindedly investigates Emily’s life since she left him and the weeks and days leading up to her death. He searches for clues and uses contacts and bluffs so as to find out what happened to the girl he loved who broke his heart. Brendan's investigations soon lead him to meet with possibly the most archetypal character in such tales: the femme fatale. In Brick this role goes to Nora Zehetner as Laura, a slinky, stylish, doe-eyed lovely who hangs out with the villains and who has her eye on Brendan. As with the best of the genre the story soon leads to convoluted plotting - who was doing what to whom, secret affairs, rip-offs, double crosses and other similar shenanigans.

What is particularly cool about Brick is how it really does play to the iconography of the detective film/film noir genre. Brendan is basically a proto-Sam Spade. He is smart, tough, cynical and quick with deadpan one-liners and vicious retorts. He travels the town and the school interrogating people, beating info out of strung out junkies and avoiding the come-on from the occasional young lady he meets along the way. But as well as dishing out the occasional bout of violence, Brendan also gets the proverbial kicked out of him throughout the story. So much so that by films end he is a blooded and broken and limping mess. Like any good hard boiled gumshoe he also has a mutually beneficial yet antagonistic relationship with the authorities - in this case the school’s Assistant Vice Principle Trueman (Richard Roundtree.) Also, at the end of the tale, Brendan kinda wins and yet doesn’t, the events of the story leaving him even more hard and cynical than he was at the start.

So, yes, many of the genre conventions and archetypes are present and correct. And that includes the dialogue too.

The words in Brick zing at a pace and are delivered in sharp, dense, aggressive monologues, expositions, one-liners and retorts. It really does sound like an old Bogart film only with its own playful style added, which is still kinda weird when coming from the mouths of teenagers in such contemporary and blandly recognisable environments. But I love stuff like that. I love stuff where language is played with and used in different and creative ways. It’s part of the reason I love Joss Whedon’s work and have loved everything so far from Diablo Cody. The only problem with the language in Brick is that it is delivered at such a pace, sometimes being mumbled as well, that it can often be difficult to make out. You have to listen pretty darn hard to what is being said.

Of the cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt is excellent as Brendan. He really does sell the tough, cynical world weary loner while also managing to appear as a vulnerable everyman with his thin body, straggly hair, plain clothing and glasses. It shouldn’t work. And yet it does. This is a testament to Gordon-Levitt’s talent. He is one of the best young actors working in films today. Nora Zehetner as femme fatale Laura is also very good. She captures the spirit of the role perfectly. You can see why any man would fall for her but can also sense the danger and manipulation behind her lovely eyes. Lukas Haas as Pin, the drug dealer, is low key, weird and pretty creepy. He reminded me of Barnabas Collins, the vampire from TV’s Dark Shadows. He looks like him, dresses like him and is similarly otherworldly. Noah Fleiss as Tugger is scary and effective in the psychotic thug role. And Matt O’Leary as Brain, Brendan’s only friend and his main source of help is strong as well. The rest of the cast are all fine with Richard Roundtree doing a fun turn as the hard ass cop…um…I mean Vice Principle who’s always on Brendan’s case.

Writer/Director Rian Johnson took nine years to write and then to finally make Brick after scraping up less than half-a-million bucks from friends and family. He shot it in twenty days in and around his own hometown using real locations (no sets) such as the local high school where he went as a kid. The script was actually written around the real key locations of the film: the high school, the drainage pipe, the phone box etc. And using the sparse locations and minimal to non-existent design and art direction lends Brick a realistic, stripped down feel. Johnson directs in an arty yet precise manner. Every shot is carefully constructed to sell story and character with the editing being just as sharp and precise. There is an excellent foot chase through the school built mostly around sound effects of shoes hitting concrete before then ending in a blackly humorous way. Also, DP Steve Yedlin did a great job in lighting the film. There is a beautifully lit sequence in a dark basement where Brendan uses sunlight and a mirror to search the room.

All in all Brick is an interesting and pretty entertaining experiment of a film helped a great deal by a strong cast - especially the ever-impressing Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I can’t say I loved Brick as I’m not a massive fan of the genre it is mostly riffing on, although I can appreciate the iconography and coolness associated with it. To take the central idea of moving that genre in to a high school setting where the emotions and experiences of everyday teen life - its angst, its first loves, its rivalries - are already heightened and seem world shattering to those involved was a bold and interesting choice. I expect a lot of people just won’t get over the film’s obvious mix of genres and will find the language used by the characters faintly ridiculous. But if people can get past that and can get in to what Rian Johnson was aiming for (and mostly hitting on target) then Brick should intrigue and entertain in equal measure.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Juno: The Cautionary Whale

juno Pictures, Images and Photos
Juno is the film that made two people in to piping hot properties. Firstly, Ellen Page, the young actress who plays the title character. Secondly, Diablo Cody, the film’s writer and one time stripper lady who won an Oscar for her wordsmithing of Juno, a small, offbeat but immensely charming film told in a visually as well as a verbally creative way by director Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman.

But even though I really liked Juno, I can certainly see it being an acquired taste for many. Looking at the boards and reviews on IMDB some people really do dislike this film. And there was me thinking the venom was entirely reserved for Cody’s follow up, the much-maligned feminist horror flick Jennifer’s Body, a film I also really like despite the countless hostile naysayers.

I get where Cody is coming from as a writer. At least I like to think I do. But I also understand how a lot of people will just find her stuff glib, annoying and utterly unrealistic. It’s not for everyone. The witty, quippy, pop culturally enhanced teen speak she invents does really seem to bug those who say things like ‘Oh but teenagers never really speak like that.’ True, most teens or adults don’t. But Cody isn’t writing a documentary here. She’s doing creative writing. Emphasis on the creative. The truth is that each new generation uses language slightly differently. They invent new words or use old words to mean new things. To my mind Cody is doing the same thing Joss Whedon did with Buffy and then later with Firefly. Or what Tarantino always does. She plays with and orchestrates language. She has fun with it. She gives it a rhythm and a meaning it wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have. Just saying her stuff is bad is like saying Tarantino’s stuff is bad because people don’t really speak like he makes his characters speak. Newsflash! In real life people don’t speak how almost everyone in movies or TV speak. In reality people mangle words, use wrong words, use slang, swear, give fractured sentences, make Freudian slips, talk over each other, forget what they were gonna say etc. Movies aren’t reality. A movie is an artificially constructed narrative. It is a form of art and entertainment. At best movies are a heightened sense of reality. And I for one love the rhythmic witty flow of Cody’s words. Especially when wonderful actors as there are in Juno deliver those words.

So what’s the story of Juno? A very simple one really.

A sparky, witty, sixteen year old girl called Juno Macguff (Page) finds herself pregnant by her quiet, timid, rather bewildered track and field dedicated friend Pauly Bleeker (Michael Cera) after engaging in what seemed like some good-idea-at-the-time sex. Knowing she doesn’t want to keep the baby, as she’s far too young and unprepared to be a mommy, Juno decides on an abortion. However, the bleak and decidedly grim clinic, plus a great Emily (Ginger Snaps) Perkins as its punky, flavoured condom obsessed receptionist sends Juno running out pretty darn quick. Plan A scuppered, Juno resorts to Plan B. Together with her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) she decides to find a suitable well-to-do couple to adopt the sprog when it finally pops out. Through some local small ads she finds Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) a yuppyish couple in their thirties living in a big house in the ‘burbs who are desperate to adopt a baby. Meeting the couple along with her supportive dad (the always awesome J. K. Simmons), Juno likes the pair and agrees to hand junior over when he or she arrives. Over the next few weeks and months, as she gets ever bigger and is nicknamed the ‘Cautionary Whale’ by her fellow students, Juno starts working out and re-evaluating her friendship with Bleeker while also getting to better know the adopting parents of her forthcoming tyke. But as the big day of baby delivery becomes imminent, Juno’s plans begin to unravel in rather dramatic fashion. And the clock is ticking, counting down fast to B-day. Just what is she going to do now?

At heart Juno is a simple romantic comedy/drama. It’s the story of a young girl who gets herself in to a situation that countless young girls have in the past and will continue to in the future. But Juno Macguff is a great character. Tough and strong willed, she takes charge from the get go. She is in control. She makes big decisions and doesn’t doubt them. She guides her own life all the way through. It is refreshing to see a story about teenage pregnancy that is neither preachy nor moralistic nor emotionally overwrought in any way. It simply presents the situation as is and the family then deal. Nobody erupts in anger or accusations or whatnot. Luckily Juno’s dad is a mellow and supportive man. Of course he tries to blame himself, in private asking his wife, Juno’s stepmom, “Is this my fault? Why did this happen?” To which his wife simply answers: “Teenagers have intercourse.” Simple, honest and true.

What makes Juno work as well as it does are two big things. Firstly, the fun, creative and witty script that doesn’t pander to any potentially moralistic issues or to where you might think this story would or should go. The dialogue is always lively and precisely constructed with lines that will make you laugh out loud. Take this little gem of a conversation that had me howling.

Juno: “...and the receptionist tried to get me to take these condoms that looked like grape suckers and was just babbling away about her freaking boyfriends pie balls! Oh an Su-Chin was there and she was like, ‘Hi babies have fingernails.’ Fingernails!!”
Leah: “Oh, gruesome. I wonder if the baby's claws could scratch your vag on the way out?”

And J. K Simmons’ classic: “Next time I see that Bleeker kid I'm going to punch him in the wiener.”

And then there is dialogue that sounds exactly like Joss Whedon had written it.

Juno: "Hey, Dad."
Dad: "Hey, big puffy version of June bug. Where you been?"
Juno: "Oh, just out dealing with things way beyond my maturity level."

But the dialogue would be useless if the right actors didn’t deliver it.

Which brings me nicely to Ellen Page.

In my mind this girl is one of the finest young actresses of her generation. She was awesome in Hard Candy and I loved her recently in Whip It. She was fine but wasted in X-Men 3. But here, in Juno, as Juno, she strikes pure solid gold. She is the film. It’s that simple. She’s in virtually every scene and just commands the screen with such natural charisma and effortless charm and skill. She makes you laugh out loud but always has a sweet vulnerability about her that makes you just want to take care of her. Possibly because, despite actually being in her early twenties, she still looks about fourteen and is so very little. But a big, big talent is bound up in that little package of cuteness. The North Americans have Ellen (she’s Canadian) and we Brits have Carey Mulligan, two young, luminous and immensely gifted actresses who are simply a joy to watch. But Ms Page is not alone in being fab in this film. The supporting cast is top notch too starting with the always brilliant J.K. Simmons as Mac, Juno’s dad. Simmons is a fantastic character actor with flawless comic instincts. He was, for me, one of the very best things about the Spider-Man films playing J. Jonah Jameson. Alison Janney plays his wife Brenda. Janney is a fine actress with plenty of kindly gravitas, who is best known for her role as CJ in The West Wing. Olivia Thirlby as Juno’s best friend Leah is also great. She is a bundle of carefree fun and energy, always ready with a sly comeback or witty retort. Michael Cera is very good too as Bleeker even if he is just doing the same schtick he always does. And Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner provide strong support as the baby’s adoptive parents to be. Bateman is playing it straighter and lower key than he normally does but is still very good while Garner is beautiful, poised, obsessive and just a little sad as the hopeful mom to be.

In the end, Juno is a great little film that tells a simple story with a lot of heart and a lot of very funny and creative language. Jason Reitman does a spot on job directing and the film always looks great with the passing of time and the seasons shown in some truly vibrant beauty. He also includes little flourishes such as animation and the odd quick cutaway to enhance a mood or a story point. But such things are few and far between and don't detract from his main directorial style of just letting the actors get on with delivering the script as written. But if nothing else Juno is worth seeing for the brilliance of Ellen Page, a young actress who is now one of my favourites and who will hopefully have a long and fruitful career. I am also looking forward to what Diablo Cody writes next. As far as I’m concerned the lady is two for two. And third times the charm.


Thursday, 18 March 2010

Being a Buffy-holic


Being a Buffy-holic

I recently rewatched the 2008 Paley Television Festival event honouring Buffy the Vampire Slayer that was attended by most of the cast as well as Joss Whedon and many of the writers. Once More with Feeling was screened and then the cast and crew did a long Q&A with the moderator and the audience. The moderator was Matt Roush of TV Guide. Roush, a long time fan of the show, got up at the start and quipped, "My name is Matt and I'm a Buffy-holic." I laughed and nodded in understanding. He wasn’t joking. I know how he feels.

I first watched Buffy the series on Sky TV back in 1998 despite my not exactly liking the original movie it was based on. Word of mouth and critical reaction made me give it a go. I’m glad I did. Season one was great. I really, really liked it. And then it moved in to season two. Spike and Dru arrived. Yay! And about half way through that season the show went and pulled the rug out from under the audience. That’s when I started to truly love it. There was simply nothing else this weird, this witty, this bold, and this emotional on television. And nothing with characters so damn vibrant and likeable who were put through so much endless pain yet kept coming back for more. By the time season three had finished I was forever smitten by this smart, often hilarious, often daft and sometimes incredibly moving show. Season three is still my favourite for two big reasons: Faith and The Mayor. Oh, and Doppelgangland (vampire Willow rocks!”)

Anyway, I realised upon rewatching the Paley Fest thing that, like Mr Roush, I am a Buffy-holic. I admit it. There it is. There has not been a time since the show ended in 2003 that I haven’t been watching it either on reruns on TV or on old taped off the TV videos or latterly on DVD. A couple years back I caved in and bought all seven seasons on DVD as the price had finally dropped to an affordable level. Since then the various seasons have been on continual rotation on my player with only a few short breaks in between. Also, for the past few months the Sci Fi channel has been showing Buffy on weekday evenings (they seem stuck with seasons one, two and three only at the mo) It’s on just after I get home from work. Perfect. A mug of tea. A choccy biscuit. The Slayer. I’ll watch them even though they are heavily edited for language and violence. I’ve also recently finished watching season five on DVD again (though I had to skip The Body this time for personal reasons) and have literally just finished season six. I wasn’t intending to, I swear. I just had a hankering to rewatch the season five opener Buffy vs. Dracula after finishing reading a great new Dracula comic adaptation. And I did watch it. And it was fab. But Whedon & co. pulled me in, so I just kept on going. Then when I got to the end of season five and the Bufster does her sacrificial swan dive from Glory’s Tower I just had to rewatch the start of season six (Bargaining parts 1 & 2) to see her return to the land of the living. And so I did watch it. But – again – Whedon & co. pulled me in. And I rewatched that whole darn season. Grr Argh!

Jeez! I nearly forgot how messed up season six is.

I love it. But, boy, do things (and a certain red headed Wiccan) go to dark places. Destructive and depraved sexual relations, ‘magic’ addiction (the drug metaphor is not well hid), attempted rape (on more than one occasion), cold blooded murder…and the list goes on. What starts out as potentially jokey and very silly with the Trio of villains Andrew, Jonathan and Warren soon gets very nasty indeed. These three regular human beings descend into sub-humanity after initially setting out to just have fun. It’s in this season that Buffy the series develops what is truly its worst villain of all. Warren. He is a human being, not a demon or a god or a vampire or a cyborg. He is a selfish, messed up, misogynistic and utterly despicable human being. Just like the ones that really are out there in the world. He is happy to rape and murder if it makes him feel better about himself. A true monster. And then there is episode 6.19 Seeing Red – probably the darkest and most disturbing episode of the entire show. There is a shocking attempted rape scene that’s very uncomfortable to watch. And there’s the attempted and the actual murder of two main characters that happens in a sudden, brutal and very human manner. The last heartbreaking words of a much loved character being, “Your shirt…?”

Yep, grim stuff indeed. But I understand why.

Joss always said that as the characters grew up then the problems and dangers they’d face should change accordingly. Season six is about adulthood, responsibility, dealing with the big bad that is life in the real world. And so we get Buffy having to work as a wage slave at The Doublemeat Palace to pay the ever growing mound of bills but still having to be bailed out financially by Giles after her house gets flooded by a burst pipe. “Full… copper… re-pipe! No… more… full… copper… re-pipe!” she cries while beating a demon to death in her flooded basement. We also get her being forced in to the mother role to Dawn, taking responsibility for her little sis’s behavioural problems. And other characters are dealing with similar things. Xander and Anya are getting married and talking about having kids and building a life…all of which is starting to freak the Xan Man out. And Willow has to deal with a dangerous addiction that threatens to destroy everything she cares about. Yep, season six is dark, dark stuff. So much so that SMG went to Joss at the time and said she had lost the character. She didn’t know who she was anymore. Which I guess was kinda the point. But Joss agreed that they had gone far enough and needed to pull Buffy back from the darkness and give back to her much of what she’d lost.

So what is it about Buffy? Why am I especially addicted to this one particular show? I mean, there are plenty of other TV shows I love and will happily re-watch from time to time. Just not with quite the same yearning I get for the Bufster’s adventures, that feeling of needing to revisit much-missed friends. The closest is probably Babylon 5. If it ain’t a season of Buffy on rotation them it’s likely to be JMS’s epic sci fi myth spinning in the disc tray. Even classic Trek doesn’t pull me in this much. And I adore classic Trek.

So why Buffy?

I blame that sod Whedon. It’s all his fault. Why did he have to create such brilliant characters with lives and issues that can resonate so well either directly or indirectly? And why did he (and his writers) have to be so damn witty and clever? And why oh why did they have to hire such perfect actors – especially for the core roles? As Buffy, SMG IS perfect. She can go from cute and littlegirlsh to troubled woman (in stylish yet affordable boots) to witty kick-ass super chick in an eye blink. As Xander, Nicky Brendan is a natural comedian with perfect comic timing and an inherent warmth and geekiness that you can’t help but love. Xander is also the everyman, the one with no powers or abilities except for his loyalty to his friends and his quick wit. Alyson Hannigan is never less than adorable as Willow the Witch – except perhaps when she’s veiny Dark Willow or S&M-y Vamp Willow. Mmm…Vamp Willow! Tony Head is stalwart and true as Buffy’s watcher and father figure, Giles, but who has his own dark and troubled side to contend with. Emma Caulfield as Anya, the 1000-year-old ex-vengeance demon turned love interest for Xander, is pure comedy gold. She says what she thinks and what nobody else is ever willing to say. The pause control most people have in their brain to stop themselves from saying something blunt or undiplomatic no matter how truthful it might be is entirely missing from Anya. Her love of money and fear of bunnies only makes her funnier. Even Michelle Trachtenberg as the much maligned Dawn is spot on. Sure, the character is often whiny and annoying, but that’s not Michelle’s fault. She does a great job playing a troubled and angsty teen.

And then there is James Marsters as Spike.

Spike is possibly my favourite television character ever and one of my favourite fictional characters ever. From his first appearance in season two’s School Hard right up to his last on-screen showing in Angel’s final episode Not Fade Away, the platinum bad boy vamp has owned it all. Spike is a mass of contradictions. Starting out as a bloody awful poet called William in 19th century London, he meets Angelus, Drusilla and Darla (Mmm…Darla) and becomes a vampire with some decidedly icky mother issues. Later on he becomes the slayer of Slayers, until, years later, he arrives in Sunnydale where he tries to bag himself a third Slayer scalp before eventually falling in love with his deadliest enemy. Spike is a demon (until season seven anyway). He is a killer, a monster. And yet he feels love and appreciates beauty and things that are good and true…even if he feels compelled to destroy them. He seems to be at some level always at war with his demonic nature, as if the decent man he once was is always trying to get back out, which is something he finally sets out to achieve after the events in season six’s Seeing Red. Spike is also just bloody funny and has a strong anti-everything punk attitude. It is no secret that Spike and Drusilla were initially modelled upon Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Even after he is re-souled at the end of season six, Spike (after going mad for a while) still retains his punk attitude and sarky nature. And James Marsters is never less than awesome in the role. Even in outtakes you can see the ‘fuck you’ attitude he keeps about him while in character. The guy is great. And his English accent is impeccable. Upon first hearing him I thought he was English. Spike also gets many of the best lines in the show.

"Delivering melted cheese on bread, doing your part to keep America constipated."

"I love syphilis more than you"


"I'm saying that Spike had a little trip to the vet, and now he doesn't chase the other puppies any more"

"Hey! What am I, a bleeding broken record? I'm bad. It's just... I can't bite anymore. Thanks to you wankers"

"Well, isn't this usually the part where you kick me in the head and run out, virtue fluttering?"

“Out. For. A. Walk.” (Pause) “BITCH!”

So, anyway, there it is. I’m a Buffy-holic. And I’m not alone. Far from it. Buffy may be gone from TV but she lives and breathes in pop culture fandom all around the world – especially with the continuing season 8 comic. The Paley Fest thing proves it. The show’s 800 plus tickets sold out in two hours flat. People came from all around the world including Asia and Europe with many camping out overnight just to get a good seat. Buffy is constantly being voted as one of the best TV shows of all time, recently making number two in Empire magazines poll. And the season five ender The Gift where Buffy dies to save her sister and the world was voted as the most memorable moment in TV history at the 60th Annual Emmy Awards in 2008. Go Bufster!

So, yeah, I’m a Buffy-holic.

And you know what? I love it.

THIS JUST IN (19/03/10): The UK's SFX Magazine's online poll for the top 25 TV shows of all time has Buffy at number two (Doctor Who is number one)


ANYA: (finishing lecturing the rest of the Scoobies) “…The workers are the tools that shape America.”

BUFFY: (off screen) “Good to know.”

We see her. The Slayer’s standing in the doorway, wearing red pants, a red-and-white striped shirt and a red hat with a cartoon cow’s head on top.

BUFFY: “I was kinda feelin' like a tool.”

The Scoobies look at her in shock

BUFFY: “And now I know why.”

Wolf howl. Opening credits.

- From the teaser of 6.12 ‘Doublemeat Palace’ written by Jane Espenson

Monday, 15 March 2010

A Kick-Ass comic

Kick-Ass (comic book)

The movie of Kick-Ass is due out in a few weeks. And I can’t wait. The trailers (especially the red band one) are crazy good and the early reviews are through the roof. If nothing else you have to see it for Hit Girl, the ten-year-old prepubescent, sword wielding, foul-mouthed ‘heroine’ who’s guaranteed to upset a lot of people. Kick-Ass is a strange beast in that legendary comic book writer Mark Millar (Wanted, The Authority, The Ultimates, Marvel Knights, Spider-Man, Civil War) sold the movie rights early on to Mathew Vaughan (producer of Lock Stock and Snatch and director of Layer Cake and Stardust.) Vaughan then developed the movie alongside the creation of the comic book. And though essentially the same story with the same characters, they do apparently diverge in some places so that they are not exact carbon copies of each other. I didn’t read the book when it was released in its usual monthly issues, instead I waited for the collected edition of the first volume – the story that forms the backbone for the film. And it is quite simply brilliant stuff and quite unlike any comic I’ve ever read. I just hope the movie will be as ballsy. I think it will.

Kick-Ass is the story of utterly average sixteen-year-old New York kid Dave Lizewski. Dave lives with his doting, widowed dad and leads a typical teenage boys life – he plays video games, hangs out with friends, lusts after hot girls at school, fantasises over a big bosomed teacher, surfs the web for porn, hangs out in chat rooms. Oh, and he’s also a major comic book geek. One day Dave wonders to his friends why nobody in real life has ever tried being a superhero, putting on a costume to fight crime. His friends tell him its obvious: you’d either be utterly ridiculed or just plain dead within days. Probably both. Comic book heroics are nothing more than unachievable fantasies and wish fulfilment whereas real life is hard and dangerous and deadly. But Dave isn’t convinced and so decides to give the superhero thing a try. Using a wetsuit he buys on Ebay and a couple of wooden clubs, Dave takes to the streets as a costumed vigilante, the self titled Kick-Ass…whereupon he promptly gets stabbed, beaten half to death and run over by a car.

After six months in hospital and then lots of physiotherapy (he managed to strip himself of the costume before he was found then told his dad he was mugged) Dave is back on his feet and back to school. But the allure of the costumed hero is too much to resist. And so Dave once again dons the Kick-Ass costume and heads out to pound the streets looking for crime to fight. And this time he succeeds…just. In a bloody brawl, Dave saves a man from a vicious mugging and ends up as a sensation on YouTube after a passer by films it all. The popularity of Kick-Ass skyrockets. Pretty soon other people are donning masks and costumes and taking to the streets as well. Dave sets up a Kick-Ass MySpace page where people can contact him if they need help ala The Equaliser. One such contact leads Dave to a drug dealers den full of very bad people indeed, and where it looks as if Kick-Ass is finally gonna be ass kicked for good. It is then, in what he thinks are to be his last moments on earth, that Dave meets the masked, foul mouthed, whirling dervish of purple hair and lethal swordsmanship that is Hit Girl. A ten year old girl who slashes and stabs and kung fu kicks her way through an apartment full of heavily armed drug dealers leaving no head un-beheaded and no guts un-spilled. It is in this first meeting that the little terror gives to the room full of thugs what is sure to become her immortal line:

“Okay, you cunts. Let’s see what you can do.”

This is a full-page iconic pose of the psycho tyke covered in the dripping blood of her victims, a severed head at her feet, a devilish smile on her lips. I laughed my ass off at the utterly disgusting, hilarious, uber-cool, absurdity of it. It turns out that Hit Girl works with her dad, named appropriately Big Daddy, another costumed type. Only these two have been working for a while now, low key, under the radar, to take down the city’s big mob boss. They have their reasons for doing so, which I won’t divulge. Suffice to say it is true comic book stuff…before then being subverted.

Dave is horrified at the violence and death meted out by the crazy kiddie. He worries that Kick-Ass will be blamed for the deaths due to his MySpace page contact, while Hit Girl thinks that they should team up as she and Big Daddy could use Kick-Ass’s help in a big final push to get the bad guys.

What will Dave do?

Who is Red Mist, another new super type who seems intent on stealing Kick-Ass’s thunder with the public?

And just how the hell did Dave manage to become his High School crushes gay best friend when he isn’t gay?

These questions and more are answered in this clever, crazy, action packed, witty, blood stained comic. There is so much to love here I don’t know where to start. Er…yes I do. Hit Girl. She is an instant icon of the comic book world. An insane inversion of what every little girl should be. For Christmas and birthdays she should want Bratz dolls or fluffy bunnies or cute clothes. Instead she wants M-16 rifles, switch blades and kevlar armour. And she has a swearing vocabulary most middle-aged Dockers couldn’t keep up with. I blame the parents myself. Apart from the awesome but rather over the top Hit Girl, the world of Kick-Ass actually rings true. Nothing here is super. Everything used is everyday or available if you know where to go. People get the crap beaten out of them and spend time in hospital as a result. Or they simply get killed. And the response of the media and the public at large is quite believable. You could see something like this actually happening. Scary.

I knew I’d love Kick-Ass from the first few panels of John Romita Jr’s stylised art and Millar’s sparky, witty dialogue. But when a few pages in Dave is reading X-Men and gives out some big love to Joss Whedon as its writer and then states that he’s the biggest Buffy maniac in the world, I loved him even more. You see I was Dave at that age. A big part of me still is - although I never had the balls (or the stupidity) to actually try being a super hero for real. As Dave soon finds out there are bloody good reasons why people don’t. Emphasis on the bloody.

Kick-Ass volume one is fantastic. It is fast paced, very funny, very violent and quite brutally realistic – not just in the violence but in how things pan out and how people behave to each other. For instance, Dave thinks he might have his very own Mary Jane Watson at school. It doesn’t quite work out that way for the poor lad. Peter Parker thought he had a rough time trying to be a normal kid and a super hero? He should try being Dave Lizewski. Now THAT’S tough!

Pure kick ass genius.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

A Legendary Book

I am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954)

This month I finally got around to reading Richard Matheson’s 1954 sci-fi/horror classic I am Legend. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years as it’s had such a major impact on modern sci-fi and horror movies and literature. I’ve seen the three films based on it - The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston and, of course, I am Legend (2007) starring The Fresh Prince and a dog. Even before reading the book I didn’t much like any of these films with the exception of The Last Man on Earth, which, though very low budget, at least seemed faithful and starred the great Vincent Price. I really do hate The Omega Man what with its trippy albino hippies while I am Legend is a decent enough blockbuster vehicle for Will Smith but I knew even before reading the book that it missed the whole point of Matheson’s story by going all CGI Hollywood on us.

For those who don’t know the story of the book, it goes like this:

A plague has swept across the world killing most of humanity and turning them in to vampires. The ones it has infected but who haven’t died have also become vampires. As such the main character Robert Neville appears to be the last human left on Earth.

Neville spends his days out of his fortress house gathering supplies and finding the living and the dead vampires and staking them for a final death. By night he holds up under siege from a horde of bloodsuckers led by one time neighbour Ben Cortman who desperately wants to get at Neville, hurling abuse and taunts at his home guarded by garlic and crosses – all of which seeming to work in the traditional way. Neville has lost his wife and young daughter to the plague and so spends a great deal of time in depression and in heavy drinking. His loneliness is always threatening to destroy him faster than any vampire could. He spends a couple of years this way until he eventually discovers a new mission and point to his life. He decides to learn about diseases and germs and sets out to discover the true source of the vampire plague. He also wants to find out how come all the traditional vampire lore seems to be true – sunlight killing them, fear of crosses, repelled by garlic, unable to cross running water, killed by a stake through the heart. And, of course, how come he alone seems immune.

I am Legend is a fascinating tale that works on several levels.

Firstly, it takes the familiar folklore of vampirism and treats it as a disease; a natural based condition rather than a supernatural one. Over time, Neville does indeed identify the cause of the plague and discover the scientific based reasons for all the familiar vampire attributes. Some of which are surprising but do make a weird kind of sense and are backed up by reasoned arguments. To my knowledge this is probably the first time this approach to vampires was ever taken. Nowadays we see it a lot with the likes of Blade, Ultraviolet, Underworld and the recent Daybreakers, that last one owing a huge debt to Matheson.

Secondly, the book works as a character study. It’s a dark and tragic tale of loneliness, isolation, guilt and regret. Neville feels constant guilt over the death of his wife, Virginia, whom he loved intensely. We see some of their life together in flashback including when she first became ill. And we also see in flashback the horrific night where she comes back to him as a vampire and what he then had to do. Neville of course feels guilty about having had to kill Virginia as a vampire, but more so about having survived the plague while she didn’t. Throughout the book he is constantly talking to her, either out loud or in his mind, saying things like “I’ll be with you soon, Virge.” Neville often falls in to deep depressions, losing track of time and of himself, resulting in sudden mortal dangers such as being caught outside for too long as the sun falls and the vampires come out to hunt. He is also constantly reminded of his old life by the nightly appearance and taunting from his old friend and neighbour Ben Cortman. One of the most interesting things in the book is the sexual nature of Neville’s guilt. Because he is all alone and still has the normal male urges, he finds himself aroused by the female vampires who come out at night and display themselves to him, trying to lure him to them. This is a familiar theme in vampire stories: the sexual undercurrent including dangerous sexual temptation. And Neville hates himself for the thoughts that go through his head and the reaction his body has to their offered flesh. More than once he almost gives in and goes to them, but manages to pull back at the last moment.

Thirdly, I am Legend works as a morality tale. A fable about ones place in the world. About seeing the wider view and not giving in to mindless fear and prejudice, about trying not to become that which you despise the most. For it eventually becomes apparent to Neville that the world has changed forever. There is no going back. Humanity as he knew it has gone, with a new species now born in its stead. A species that is trying to carve out a new society from the ruins of the old. But one thing stands in their way. The one who murders their kind by day, slaying loved ones – mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children. The object of their fear and hate, the bogeyman that comes for them while they sleep. There is only one way this story can end.

I am Legend is a great book, a justifiable classic. It is short (180 pages), simply told, lightly plotted, yet dense with ideas and character. Neville is an everyman. He is not a soldier or scientist or whatnot. He is smart and resourceful, sure, but he also has to learn about things to survive and progress. He spends years learning about diseases and germs so he can try and work out what happened to the world. Even then he gets things wrong.

Having now read the book, the Vincent Price movie is by far the closest in terms of plot and themes. The Will Smith one is pretty far removed and it irks me even more that they took a book full of such great ideas and a brilliant and challenging central one (which is the entire point of the book’s title) and discarded it in favour of standard Hollywood heroics. They entirely missed the point of Matheson’s story. Twats! Reading I am Legend I couldn’t help but think that back in his heyday John Carpenter could have made a wicked film out of it. Shame he didn’t get the chance.

But if you ever get the chance, then pick up a copy and read it. It’s a seminal work. It’s the stuff of legend.

Next up on my book pile is Handling the Undead, Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist’s follow up to his excellent Let the Right One In.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Case 39: Ferland –1. Zellweger – 0.

Case 39
How many times do we get to see the same damn movie repackaged slightly with new actors and new titles but which are all essentially the very same film? A lot is the answer - especially in Hollywood’s own formulaic take on the ‘creepy child’ horror sub-genre.

Now, I don’t mind the occasional good horror flick with a creepy/evil child at the centre. The Japanese and Koreans nailed it pretty darn good as did Richard Donner back in the 70’s with young Damien in The Omen (less said about the shite remake the better) And so did us Brits with the great Village of the Damned. And then, of course, there’s the ultimate creepy/evil movie child: Regan Macneil. This is a sub-genre of horror that seems to be (understandably) popular and to hit a nerve with the film going public. To see what is supposed to be the most innocent and pure twisted in to evil is incredibly disturbing. And when it’s done well it certainly works. Unfortunately that is a pretty rare occurrence nowadays. Which brings me to Case 39.

Case 39 has sat on the shelf since 2007. The film company didn’t know what to do with it. Early word was pretty bad. And, let’s face it, star Renee Zellweger isn’t the draw she once was. Um…actually…was she ever really, truly a draw? I really liked her as Dorothy in Jerry Maguire (one of my fave films) but after that I just found her kind of annoying. In Case 39 Renee is overworked social worker Emily Jenkins who comes to the aid of apparently abused ten year old Lillith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland). Along with a cop friend (Ian McShane???) Emily manages to rescue Lillith in the nick of time before her pale and zoned out parents can gas the child in an oven. Feeling a connection with the little girl, Emily arranges for Lillith to stay with her until an appropriate foster home can be found. She also gets the child some much needed counselling in the form of bearded love interest Bradley Cooper. But all too soon nasty things start to happen around Emily now that Lillith is in her life including deaths of people she knows and cares about. And all the clues lead back to Lillith. So far, so bog standard by the numbers storytelling. And it doesn’t get any better. The format is followed precisely complete with the occasional and obvious jump scare (sudden dog barking, alarm clock going off etc.) and the inevitable investigation by Emily in to the truth about Lillith and then no one believing her once she knows what’s actually going on. Yawn! This all leads to a highly anticlimactic ending even if it does tie in psychologically to Emily’s own past and her feelings about her own mother. Worth noting about the end sequence is that it’s obviously shot day for night but looks really unconvincing in a 1970’s Hammer film kinda way.

Case 39 was yet another workmanlike and utterly uninspired effort from Hollywood. The director creates no atmosphere or tension whatsoever and the script is just plain lazy. Zellweger is ok but looks creepier than the film’s creepy kid with her terminal squint and puffy face. Cooper is just death fodder as is McShane and as such they both just phone it in. So, as in most of these lazy efforts, it is left to the child star at the centre to carry the film. And Jodelle Ferland does a very good job as the calculating and creepy Lillith. Ferland can do cute and vulnerable with so much ease; her big, dark, innocent eyes alone can pluck at the heartstrings. But she can also switch on the cool, calm, calculating, threating attitude. And then she can combine both in to a weird yet cute and sweet malevolence. There is a pretty good scene where she turns the tables on counsellor Bradley Cooper and ends up giving him a major case of the wiggins. Ferland’s a good little actress who has impressed before in the likes of Silent Hill. I’m glad to see that her latest role is in Joss Whedon’s up coming horror flick The Cabin in the Woods. Unfortunately she has to get past a role in Twilight: Eclipse first. Poor kid.

Anyway, Case 39 was average as average can be. I didn’t hate it like I did the recently viewed and thoroughly unlikable Sorority Row, but nor did I particularly like it. It’s a rung below the superior averageness of the similar Orphan, which at least had a half-decent twist and was shot in a more stylish manner. But like Orphan, Case 39 is saved from falling in to complete obscurity by having a strong central performance from its requisite creepy child.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Whip It: Juno meets Gertie...on wheels.

Whip It is Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. And storywise it is nothing original whatsoever.

But that’s perfectly fine as the one time E.T. moppet, then hell raiser, then acclaimed movie star’s first stab at film direction is a hugely entertaining, quirky and affecting little comedy/drama that shows its newbie director has a potentially big future behind the camera lens.

Seventeen-year-old misfit Bliss Cavender (the always great Ellen Page) lives in the tiny Texan town of Bodine with her mum (the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden) and her dad (holy crap it’s Daniel Stern) and her little sister (Eulala Grace Scheel – real life daughter of Marcia Gay Harden). Bliss spends her time either at school, or working as a waitress with her best friend Pash (the funny and charming Alia Shawkat) or attending witless beauty pageants to please her mom who used to do the same in her youth. Then, one day, while on a shopping trip to Austin, Bliss catches sight of a bunch of cool looking girls on roller-skates giving out flyers for a Roller Derby league. Bliss is fascinated. And so, lying to her parents about what she’s really doing, she goes along for a look-see. And loves it. So much so that she gets invited for tryouts for the Hurl Scouts, the local rag tag, underdog roller derby team. Due to her impressive speed on wheels (plus lying about her age), Bliss makes the team despite her general lack of aggression. Now a full fledged Hurl Scout she adopts the moniker Babe Ruthless and quickly bonds with her new teammates - a gaggle of rather eccentric women in their twenties and thirties who don’t seem to really care anything about winning much to the exasperation of their long suffering coach. However with the addition of Bliss the Scouts do now actually start to win…much to their surprise. This soon leads to some big time rivalry in the form of Juliet Lewis (on good bad girl form) as Iron Maven, leader of the top team in the league, who has takes an instant dislike to Bliss and her rising Roller Derby stardom.

Now, its gotta be said…

The Hurl Scouts are a fantastic creation!

Every single one of them is a wonderfully drawn character with a daft-yet-funny team name, the only names we get to know them by. But the standouts are Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), the kindly den (single) mother of the bunch who takes Bliss under her wing and helps her out when things get tough at home. Then there’s the awesome Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore) who is just so crammed full of excitable aggression that in virtually every game she ends up being sent off for beating up a rival player after being smashed bloodily in the face or sent flying on the roller rink. And a special mention goes out to Zoe Bell as Bloody Holly. It was great to see Zoe onscreen again after her cool role in Tarantino’s Death Proof where she essentially played herself, a tough-as-nails stuntwoman. Zoe’s not the best of actresses but she does have an undeniable screen presence and an easy, likeable charm to her. Plus you just know she could kick your arse well and truly.

And so with Bliss/Babe Ruthless now a crucial part of the Scouts new found success the stage is set for an extremely fun and funny coming of age/underdog tale. Can Bliss continue to help the Scouts win? Will her new life alienate her best friend, Pash? Will her lying to her parents about what she’s been doing as well as to her teammates about her real age come back to haunt her? Will Bliss’s parents - especially her mother – see that she is truly good at something she loves and allow her to live her own life and not the one they want for her?

Like I said before, this is nothing original. And it doesn’t matter one jot as the execution of Whip It is wonderful. The script by Shauna Cross from her own semi-autobiographical novel is fun, spiky and also quite insightful in its own way. It is filled with some great characters and moments that Drew Barrymore as director translates expertly on to the screen in her own slightly offbeat way. I’ve always loved Drew. She’s a talented comedy actress full of natural charm and charisma who has now proven with Whip It that she is just as adept at staging and directing comedy as she is at performing it. But amongst all the funny she also finds the moments that work as pure cinema and pure emotion. Two that jumped out at me were when Pash and Bliss dance together around the diner to Dolly Parton’s Jolene…only making up their own lyrics about their sucky town. And a beautifully shot and edited love scene in a swimming pool using only music and no dialogue. There are plenty of other great moments too including everything with Marcia Gay Harden as Bliss’s mum. For at its heart Whip It is a story about a mother and a daughter who have to come to terms with each other. The mother must learn to let go of her growing up child, to let her begin living her own life. And the child needs to learn to listen to the wisdom and to the emotional maturity of her mother, which is there albeit hidden under a layer of hypocrisy (e.g. the running gag about mum hiding her smoking). And it is here that you can see thematic parallels to Drew’s own troubled relationship with her own mother, the stuff of tabloid news now for years.

The visual style of the film is also something worth mentioning. The story is clearly set in present day. However the aesthetic mixes in the 1970’s (music, hairstyles, d├ęcor, record players, 8 track tapes etc.) with our contemporary world outside. There is a distinct indie vibe to the whole thing including the sorts of music used and the quirky feel to the direction. This is enhanced by the stylised and colourful photography by regular Wes Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman. Put this all together and you have a very funny and warm comedy/drama that stands with one foot firmly in the mainstream but the other tiptoeing lightly in indieville.

Sadly Whip It made no impact at all at the US box office last year where it grossed a paltry total of $13m despite gaining positive critical reaction. Perhaps the cheesy idea of Roller Derby put people off. Or maybe they found the film just a bit too quirky for mainstream audiences. I dunno. But hopefully Whip It will eventually find itself an audience. It deserves to. It’s a hugely enjoyable little flick that had me smiling and laughing all the way through.

Way to go Gertie!