La Zona (Mexico, 2007)

Running for your life

Whilst this film may go through the steps by ‘the numbers’ (a fancy way of saying it’s a bit predictable) it is bang up to date in its take on gated communities and private security. It’s so formulaic that a crucial plot point, where the bourgeoise boy befriends the ‘slumdog’ fugitive, is not even played out of screen. However, I don’t wish to sound overly critical because the film convincingly depicts how quickly out of control things can get when the law can be abrogated.

There was the terrifying case of Jamie Leigh Jones, an employee of Halliburton’s Kellogg Brown, who found that even though she was gang raped by her colleagues, the terms of her contract meant she couldn’t press charges – see here. Recently we found out about super-injunctions; Orwellian gagging orders (ie you’re not allowed to tell anyone you’re gagged). These assaults on an already weak democracy must be resisted and, as usual, ignorance is the strongest card the powerful have to play so films like La Zona that draw attention to such anti-democratic trends in society are to be celebrated.

Despite the denouement being pretty predictable, the elan with which it is shot – and the first shot of the film is terrific too – brings home the terror vividly.

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Paranoid Park (France-US, 2007)

They are not out to get us

They are not out to get us

I found it difficult to care for the characters in this film, usually a fatal problem for a movie unless it’s a popcorn roller-coaster pic. It’s Gus van Sant’s use of non-professionals, ranging for okay to terrible, that alienated me from the film; this isn’t a problem in itself as he did the same in the brilliant Elephant (2003). Chris Doyle’s cinematography is, as usual, fabulous and though Li Rain’s skateboarding camerawork is impressive, I got bored of it rapidly; clearly another problem for me.

I’m not sure what the point was of framing the ‘murder mystery’ narrative with the protagonist’s retelling. It seemed as if it were going to be some postmodern ‘cleverness’ but, if it was, I didn’t get it.

State of Play (US-UK, 2009)

Swansong for investigative journalists?

Swansong for investigative journalists?

The remake of the excellent BBC political thriller from 2003 deftly transfers the narrative to Washington DC and updates the ‘state of the nation’ message. The original six-parter had nearly six hours to play with, however the necessary compression is skilfully wrought though the motivation of the politicians is less clear in the film.

Kevin MacDonald’s direction is efficient but blobs on the underground car park suspense sequence (and at the climax). This had shades of All the President’s Men (1976), one of the key paranoia thrillers on the ’70s and, like Michael Clayton (2007) and Syriana (2005), State of Play draws upon that era’s tropes.

Of course there was plenty of complain about in Bush’s America; maybe Obama’s ‘new hope’ will render the genre toothless (in our dreams – however I’ve just read that Obama is considering prosecuting senior Bush figures for their role in torture: that would be something!) Russell Crowe does the ‘grizzled reporter’ really well but Rachel McAdam’s literally ‘bright eyed’ newbie looks to plasticy to be real; Helen Mirren’s marvellous as the editor.

Paul Abbott’s BBC original was a complex ‘state of the nation’ piece that took in ‘urban blacks’, disillusionment with Blair’s New Labour, the role of big business in lobbying and political corruption. Obviously when addressing the international market such parachiolism won’t play so the switch to Washington DC is understandable and its focus on the privatisation of security (rather than oil) is a vital issue; yesterday’s The Guardian led with a story that UK police are feeding intelligence to private security firms on environmental protesters (it’s time someone made a film about UK’s descent into a Police State). One of the three adapters of State of Play, Tony Gilroy wrote and directed Michael Collins as well as the Bourne movies.

Another aspect of the updating was the economic threat to newspapers and the rise of the blog. It’s rather old fashioned in its view of the blogosphere but its contention that the death of newspapers is going to threaten investigative journalism (though the Huffington Post is doing something about this) is correct. It’s great to see citizen journalism putting the Metropolitan police under the microscope after their police-state handling of the G20 protests but there will always be a need to investigate what’s going on ‘behind closed doors’ and that takes skill and money.

I saw the film at a preview in Leeds with only nine other people; it was a freebie advertised in The Guardian. It included a digital relay of a Q & A with the director from a cinema in London; a cute use of digital technology. The print, though, was poor; presumably that was digital.

Monsters vs Aliens (US, 2009)

Invasion of the '50s

Invasion of the '50s

This postmodern (all the monsters are from ’50s SF movies) concoction has some interesting visuals and shedloads of limp gags (one or two are OK) and a terrible ‘girl finds career-minded fiance is not worth it’ sub plot. I saw the film at the National Media Museum’s IMAX (Bradford, UK) in 3D; the first 3D film I saw was The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) – not when it came out! – and the 3D technology has certainly moved on from then.

Mr Right?

Mr Right?

However the reasons behind Hollywood increasingly using 3D are the same: competition from other media. Although the North American box office take has remained stable in recent years the number of tickets sold are in decline and the days when DVD was a cash cow appear to be over unless consumers decide they must have Blu-Ray. So far, it seems, that cinema-goers are happy to pay a premuim for the dubious delights of 3D; James Cameron’s Avatar, slated for release at the end of the year, will be an interesting test-case as to 3D’s immediate future.

My experience of 3D, in both films, has been that you soon get used to it so after a few moments of ‘wow!’ the eye adjusts to the new perspective and so it becomes very similar to perspective in standard films. It could be that the urge to duck, as a tennis ball approaches your headi(n the Independence Day (1996) pastiche that starts Monsters) mimics the Early Cinema audience allegedly legging it out of the way from the Lumieres’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896) but the effect is short lived. As a ‘Cinema of Attraction’ 3D must do more than make us flinch for a few moments.

'Get back in the kitchen!'

'Get back in the kitchen!'

Unfortunately Monsters vs Aliens offers very little other than an attractive looking film. The subversiveness of the Attack of the 50ft Woman (1958) is wholly absent; the satire of the (non) macho President is wholly hackneyed….

Technology unbound

Technology unbound

… and the Godzilla (Gojira, Japan, 1954) stand-in is wholly anodyne; in fact I can’t think of a less characterised character. UPDATE: I got this one wrong, Kim Newman says (in the June issue of Sight and Sound) it’s Mothra from the 1961 film of that name.

The other two monsters are from The Fly and The Blob (both 1958). I don’t know where the alien comes from (comments please!) but it is very similar to those in Mars Attacks! (1996) which were based on bubble gum cards. The alien is a terrific-looking creation, well characterised with marvellous sound effects.

From a cineaste’s point of view, 3D is just not very interesting. Far more engaging is the use of deep focus where the relationship between fore and background are dramatically intertwined and so give us an emotional jolt and not the saccherine satisfaction of 3D in this film.

Defiance (US, 2008)

Hollywood comes to Belarus

Hollywood comes to Belarus

This is little-known World War II territory, a true story of Jewish resistance, in what’s now Belarus. And although its leads are obviously recognisable, the tone of the first part of the film is muted using mostly blue filters (or is the look added post-production?) to give a suitably gloomy vision. Also the heroes act with vengeance: the Bielski brothers’ father is killed by the police, collaborating with the Nazis, however his death is offscreen; Tuvia’s revenge, killing the perpetrator and his two sons, takes place over their dinner table and in cold blood.

The difficulties in having leadership thrust upon Tuvia, and its attendant moral responsiblities, is also dealt with interestingly but then the focus shifts to the rivalry between the brothers and descends into Hollywood cliche in a schmaltzy climax. While I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with ‘cliche’, or generic tropes, there appearance in a film, that is in fact independently produced, which has been offering a strong variant on the war movie is jarring to say the least.

There are some, as you would expect from Zwick, great visual set pieces (the mass migration through marshes; the beautiful wedding in softly falling snow) but I didn’t find either of the leads particularly convincing.

Blindness (Canada-Brazil-Japan, 2008)

Only the blind can see

Only the blind can see

A Lord of the Flies for the 21st century. This harrowing film , based on Nobel prize winner Jose Saramago’s novel, investigates what happens if everybody goes blind. The first sufferers are interned in an old hospital and the main section of the film investigates the dynamics of what might happen. The film is science fiction (SF) as it is set in a world that’s either not quite like ours or in the future.

The architecture of the city in which it is set, mixes skyscrapers with buildings from earlier centuries; the film was shot in Canada, Brazil and Uruguay and features Brazilian, Japanese, Mexican, as well as Hollywood, actors in the lead roles. The director, Fernando Meirelles, is also Brazilian; the novelist is Portuguese; the screenplay’s by a Canadian; cinematographer Uruguayan; there are 13 production companies involved from different countries. The is about the ‘human condition’ and not about any specific culture. All this is to explain why I’ve categorised this as ‘global cinema’: one that speaks to, and about, (most of) the world. Slumdog Millionnaire can probably be similarly categorised.

The direction and cinematography are fantastic. Objects often block our view as if our sight were deteriorating, such as circular decorations being like blotches before our eyes. Mirrors fragment the mise en scene, making it unclear what we are seeing and a very shallow depth of field is used also to blur our vision. As conditions grow worse we enter the iconography of the horror movie, all the more powerful as we clearly not watching a ‘straight’ genre movie.

I was wondering how the film could end and I won’t spoil the fantastic conclusion the film offers. The cast are uniformly good and Julianne Moore plays a fascinating variant on her ‘brittle housewife’ persona. I’d put this film up there with Children of Men (2006) as being amongst the best SF movies ever made.