Friday, 29 January 2010

Quirky and fun movies

First of all, let’s get something out of the way - I really do enjoy big recent films: the thought-provoking crazy endurance film Blood Diamond, the excellently entertaining new Star Trek, the wonderful addictive Slumdog Millionaire (which brilliantly celebrates life and childhood whilst threatening this on every side with corruption and brutality, a wierd mixture of realism and modern fairy tale) and what else? Up, The Bourne Ultimatum, Iron Man – the list goes on.

But I want to post a few times on quirkier films, ones where you aren’t so sure how it will all end, ones where the story is told in strange ways, or the look and tone of the movie resonate in a particularly weird way. These are films which love the unexpected.

Children of Men (2006) – watch this if you can take it. Technically it would be hard to find a film more impressively choreographed and shot. We follow Theo (Clive Owen) in a world where no children have been born for 18 years, and parts of England have become self-obsessed, madly fierce, xenophobic, fighting over their own agendas and resources, pretty much in chaos. It’s incredible because one can imagine that if this did happen, people would not know how to respond, and the feeling of impotence shared by the people in the film would be palpable; people would fear they were under a terrible curse. There's something spiritually numbing or just plain awe-full, having the knowledge that life stops with the men and women living now, and it shows that living in fear and confusion, with no hope for life or for the future, is not really living at all. Thank God the universe will not spiral out of control like this, into the finality of extinction - thank God that His people will actually last and really live life for eternity!

Back to the film though, bleak as it is: Theo makes a reckless journey through the land, as he seeks the impossible: a hope against hope for the world. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s worth it even if this is just for the enormous set-piece towards the end, or experiencing the incredibly long and action-packed handheld shots as they take us deep into the relentless trouble they encounter.

Mirrormask (2005) – Neil Gaiman, the writer of The Sandman comics and behind films such as Coraline and Stardust, is also behind this slightly eerie, fun adventure story, which is refreshingly different from the usual Hollywood family film. For instance, some of the real-world parts were filmed on some flats in Brighton, while the otherworldly realm, which is explored in most of the film, is at times framed in a way that reminds us of the theatre, or early cinema (Shots are taken from a distance, so we see the actors as performers on stage or in the circus, and the colours are grainy like an old film.) This is a world where everyone wears masks, fishes swim in the air, and strange angular sphinxes prowl around menacingly (yes, the FX could be better) looking for words (or people) to devour. These are signs of the world’s doom, as is the blackness spreading everywhere, so young heroine Helena enlists masked performer Valentine’s help to find something called the “mirrormask” which holds the key to repairing the strange world. The best bits are when you first encounter the strange and amusing sphinx, the nice touches with the “really useful book”, and the thrilling part with the massive floating giants, which look like figures from an expressionist painting.

It has to be said though the film has pacing problems and gets a little tiring by the time you get to the musical brain-washing sequence near the end. The film also deals with some interesting issues for a children’s film such as what is expected of a child by a parent and how they can escape that identity into standing on one’s own in mature adulthood. What really defines us? What we wear, what we do, who we are with, how we treat others?

Brazil (1985) – Elements of black comedy combine with satire and adventure in this, probably one of the strangest movies I’ve seen. It follows a low-level government official, who, in his occasional dreams, flies through clouds and rescues a woman by battling a giant samurai, one that bleeds flame when punctured…* yes, really! The film is great at contrasting this kind of insane fantasy with the utterly banal, anti-social and uncaring society which Sam Lowry lives in, and I think that is its basic point – that repressing creativity and devaluing humanity is the greatest tragedy of all, breeding insanity and all kinds of cruel injustice by losing touch with the value of human life; time and again we see the “system” victimising individuals through the means of endless paperwork and regulations. Or perhaps, as we root for Lowry as he overcomes obstacles to pursue a woman in the real world, we learn how noble the ideal of romantic love is, and yet how unrealistic and unachievable it can be.

Although the film is very long and quite tedious, if you have the time one evening, there are some amusing moments, such as the brief appearances of Robert De Niro as an illegal plumber, or the way one character’s expensive plastic surgery progressively makes her look worse and worse. In fact these kind of obsessive tendencies hold a bizarre mirror up to our own culture’s views of the self as “god” while many people are lonely and lack any sense of meaningful community. Finally, about the title: It is not set in Brazil, and in fact if you had to re-name it you could call it “Control” or “How a typo and a dream can slowly drive you insane”.

Terry Gilliam was behind the film, and honestly I think he does a better job directing on Twelve Monkeys (1995), his fun (but ugly) adventure story starring Bruce Willis and a young (and crazy) Brad Pitt, which raises some points about time travel I hadn’t thought of before. Living in two times should really come with a health warning: Bruce’s character gradually loses touch with reality as his brain can’t cope with him being sent back to locate and stop the spread of a virus which almost wipes out humanity. See you’re interested already, aren’t you? There’s also an interesting part where a psychologist admits that she is losing her “faith” in her profession. Seems Gilliam can’t leave the idea of insanity alone…
*These bits remind me of other films with surreal dream-like sequences, like Blade Runner or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and are rare moments in film – so very child-like.

All pictures come from Wikipedia. Please sound off about any of these films below, as I'd be interested in thoughts on the movies, especially Brazil. More picks to come soon, including the evocative, the beautiful, the plain wierd, the intensely personal, and the ludicrously action-packed....

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