Vampires Suck (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Vampires Suck</strong> (2010)

(In theaters, August 2010) Given that Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer have one of the most pitiful filmographies in cinema history, any savvy filmgoer willingly choosing to go see their fifth film has only themselves to blame if it ends up a terrible experience.  (Even if one’s excuse is, ahem, “I’m on a different continent, I want to see a movie and I’ve seen all of the others at the neighborhood theater.”)  Their concept of “spoof comedies” is closer to “dumb retelling”, and even if Vampires Suck takes on the much-deserving Twilight series as a target, it’s not necessarily any more interesting than its Epic Movie or Disaster Movie predecessors.  They simply re-create a few key sequences, add in more profanity, violence and pop-culture references and expect that the simple shock of recognition is enough to make audiences laugh.  There is little commentary on the source material: both times that Vampires Suck attempt to say something insightful about Twilight, it’s instantly followed by self-congratulatory “I’m so smart!” punch-lines that makes it feel dumber.  Otherwise, the film jerks from one familiar reference to another, occasionally scoring a smirk in the same way a thousand shots from a thousand shotguns will eventually hit something worthwhile.  (That the source material is so poor and so ripe for satire isn’t much of an advantage: I have seen several Livejournal posts from fans getting better laughs out of the series’ problems.)  What’s most striking, I suppose, is the poor quality of the humour and the imagination surrounding the parody: The actors do OK (Jenn Proske is particularly on-target spoofing Kristen Stewart-as-Bella) and the technical qualities of the film are good enough given its budget, but both the writing and direction aren’t anywhere near feature-film quality.  The good news, writing this review after weeks of therapy, is that Vampires Suck didn’t make all that much money: Reviewers can bark and growl impotently, but studio executives looking at financial statements can be far more effective in ensuring that we never see anything from Friedberg/Seltzer again.

Piranha 3D (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Piranha 3D</strong> (2010)

(In theaters, August 2010) I can appreciate a good monster film despite not being much of a gore-hound, but Piranha 3D caters far too much to that latter crowd to feel like an entertaining experience for all.  Oh, it starts out promisingly enough: The first half-hour sets up a light-hearted monster movie in purely classic fashion: A few plucky heroes, a town threatened by monstrous creatures, the promise of plentiful T&A and a tone that lets you know that this is all going to be awesome.  The pacing may be a touch too slow, but the direction is sure-footed and the genre’s plot structure is faithfully followed.  Where Piranha 3D is a bit more explicit than usual is in its exploitation factor: Viewers are treated to an artful underwater Sapphic interlude (in three dimensions, no less) and promising portents of doom at the intersection between Spring Break bacchanalia and flesh-eating monster fish.  Self-aware and unrepentant, it initially feels like a good old-fashioned monster feature, good for a few shocks and plenty of blood.  Ironically, it’s what Piranha 3D does too well that kills it: When the Big Scene comes around to show the piranhas attacking the spring break students, the result is so bloody, so gory and so mean-spirited that the cumulative impact of the ten-minutes sequence is more stomach-churning than horrific, let alone entertaining: It put me in the frame of mind of seeing a documentary about a massacre rather than an unpretentious monster film, and enjoying the film after that moment became an exercise in futility: the fun of Piranha 3D had been leeched out as soon as people started being gutted, scalped or gnawed to the bone.  (And that’s not even saying anything of the pacing let-down of the film’s last act.)  But, to repeat myself, I’ve never been a gore-hound –and I’m aging out of that market segment no matter what.  Despite recognizing a good chunk of the film’s up-to-the-moment soundtrack (it even features Hadouken!), I’m getting far too old for gore-fests such as Piranha 3D –and if this is the kind of nihilistic meat-grinder “entertainment” that I’m going to be “missing” from now on, I’m looking forward to old age.

For the Win, Cory Doctorow

<em class="BookTitle">For the Win</em>, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2010, 475 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-2216-6

Trying to summarize Cory Doctorow’s latest novel For the Win in a few words is an exercise in frustration, because with every “didactic” comes along a “fascinating”.  It’s a logical extension to Doctorow’s bibliography so far… except that it sometimes appears to flip over the libertarian ideology of Makers.  It’s perhaps Doctorow’s least pleasant reading experience so far… except that when it stops telling a story, it can be really good.

For the Win is Doctorow’s second novel for the Young Adult market, and like Little Brother it’s using that readership to indulge in some blatant speech-making.  It can’t help but try to explain how the world works, and those interludes are often far more interesting than the plotting surrounding them.

Briefly summarized, For the Win is about online multiplayer games and the strange economic phenomenon surrounding them.  The uninitiated may find this a trivial subject for discussion, but there’s a lot more under the surface that it may appear at first.  Consider that the target audience for those games are often first-world gamers with more money than time.  Combine that with gaming mechanics that are designed to keep players coming back to “grind” their way up in search of infrequent payoffs and you already have the raw elements for global exploitation, via the use of third-world workers (often children) who have a lot more time than money… and none of the protections afforded to employees in developed countries.  Could it be time to unionize?  Mix well, and you’ve got the elements of Doctorow’s uniquely contemporary thriller.

Does it work?  In many ways, For the Win is so admirable that it doesn’t really matter if it does.  Take, for instance, that none of the main teenage characters in the novel are purely American –the only one who hails from California is such a Sinophile that he adopts a Chinese name throughout.  The rest of the characters are largely from developing countries, lending a pleasantly globalized feeling to the entire novel.  Not that it could have been otherwise, given the networked nature of its plot devices and the globetrotting scope of the narrative.  For the Win inhabits the world of the present, not some fading refraction of yesterday’s futures.

It gets even better once Doctorow starts making links between the nature of gaming, the illusion of modern economic derivatives, the inadvertent exploitation of third-world teens by clueless first-world gamers, and the opportunities that well-connected youth have in bettering their lot in life.  Politically, I couldn’t help but be struck by the way For the Win espouses a leftish drive for unionization and tries really hard to make it fit with the increasingly swim-or-sink nature of Doctorow’s latest Makers.  There may not necessarily be a conflict once you can reconcile information-network libertarianism with worker’s right regulation, but it amounts to a complex multi-book political exploration for Doctorow, one that recalls (gasp) Heinlein’s ability to argue several points of views in successive novels –and one that also follows in Heinlein’s didactic footsteps.

Snappy exposition aside, For the Win‘s highlights also includes a number of showcase sequences that stick in mind not for their narrative content, but for their geek wish-fulfillment power.  For instance, Doctorow lavishly imagines what it would be like to engineer your own transpacific trip via a shipping container custom-modified to act as a long-haul dwelling… complete with high-speed Internet access.  It’s the kind of bravura sequence that doesn’t really need a story, which is just as well given the lessened interest that much of the book’s plot can hold for some readers.  For the Win is full of fascinating bits, but the structure holding them together is more interesting for what it allows than the way it bolts it all together.

But does it matter?  Doctorow’s fans are unlikely to be put off given how closely For the Win follows on the footsteps of his previous works.  Reviewers are unlikely to give the novel less than good notices for everything it does right, even though much of the story itself may lack narrative excitement.  Meanwhile, critics will jump on it and delight at whatever meaning they can tease from its chapters and links with other up-to-the-moment fiction like William Gibson’s Zero History.  Oh, and teenagers will love it.  Given all of those wins, why hold on to old-fashioned narrative values?

Mic Macs à tire-larigot [aka Micmacs] (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Mic Macs à tire-larigot</strong> [aka <strong class="MovieTitle">Micmacs</strong>] (2009)

(In-flight, August 2010) One of the advantages of watching a film by a visual stylist is that there’s always something to enjoy even if the story itself isn’t that interesting.  So it is that Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs is at the same time a typical Jeunet production (quirky characters, ever-shifting visual presentation, elaborate Rube-Goldenesque details, intricate cinematographic polish, etc.) and yet far short of career-best Amélie.  There just isn’t enough universally-compelling material in here to keep things interesting, especially when it feels so one-sided in favour of its protagonists.  The anti-arms-trade message is heartfelt, but becomes too-obvious at its worst.  Still, it’s entertaining to watch, in no small part due to the escalating set-pieces in which events are set in motion with grandiose consequences.  It flies past smoothly and its visual audacity is terrific.  There are a few laughs, but much of the film is just a joy to watch.  A word of warning for francophones watching the film’s original sound-track, though: Micmacs is so deeply set in Parisian argot that non-Parisians may find it more useful to turn on the English sub-title track to understand some of the dialogue.

Playing for Pizza, John Grisham

<em class="BookTitle">Playing for Pizza</em>, John Grisham

Doubleday, 2007, 262 pages, C$26.95hc, ISBN 978-0-385-52500-8

Something very strange happens to best-selling authors once it becomes clear that they can write anything and still get it published.  In some cases, their editors become powerless to stop them from ranting about their wacky pet theories, and the result is a body of work that becomes crazier and more insular as it goes on.  John Grisham’s case is a bit more complicated, as he’s been taking more and more chances writing outside the type of novel that have made his reputation.  Skipping Christmas was a first attempt, and Playing for Pizza is just as complete a departure from Grisham’s legal-thriller roots.  It’s an Italian travelogue like The Broker, except without the serious thriller angle.  And while it’s one of the least consequential pieces that Grisham ever wrote, it’s still as enjoyable to read as anything else from him… even though you may not remember much of it a day later.

The premise is a joke in itself, as a football player wakes up to find that he’s just fumbled a crucial game in the most enraging way possible.  Unable to find a job anywhere in North America after his very public humiliation, he accepts one of his agent’s most desperate suggestion and leaves for Italy, where he ends up on a quasi-amateur football team while waiting for the storm to settle back home.  Once settled in Parma, however, our protagonist comes to enjoy the scenery, make friends, settle scores with a mean American sports journalist (by punching him in the face, as football jocks are wont to do in settling their issues with impunity) and rediscover himself.  He also –spoiler- wins a few games along the way.

If you’re looking for more plot, grab another Grisham book.  There isn’t much more here to Playing for Pizza than detailed description of la dolce vita as our protagonist plays tourist, then becomes an apprentice-citizen in Parma.  The football games are always followed by pizza among friends, and it’s this kind of relaxed atmosphere that ends up being the novel’s main preoccupation.  If you’re a North American having traveled to Europe, this kind of narrative will feel intensely familiar.  Strange customs!  Language issues!  Non-American lifestyles!  No parking anywhere!  Influent friends fixing problems with the law!  (For the dark side of this charmingly corrupt Italian lifestyle, read Douglas Preston’s more harrowing experience in The Monster of Florence.)  It’s a novel where you sit back and enjoy, and maybe make a note to head for the closest Italian restaurant in order to enjoy some of the food lusciously described every few pages.

It often reads a lot like The Broker, a previous novel in which the author used his holidays as an excuse to set a novel in Italy.  This time, however, Grisham has dispensed entirely with the burden of suspense and just freed himself to write about food, tourism, football and romance, with a tone that’s all smiles.  It’s likely to appeal to a number of possible readers, but is it enough?

Part of the problem with Playing for Pizza is that the protagonist isn’t much of anything.  A failed football player who finds that it’s better to be a big fish in a small bowl; who gets the girl for no other reason that he’s the hero of the novel; who punches people in the face when they displease him and gets away with it.  You can see how that kind of character appeals to a strong streak of wish-fulfillment, but the danger of such indulgences is that they can reach a narrow public and feel obnoxious to anyone who doesn’t identify with it.  This limits the novel’s appeal and contributes to its inconsequentiality: It’s not a hard novel to read, but try to remember something from it more than a few hours later and you’re liable to picture Northern Italy, food, small cars and maybe a few football scenes.

This, obviously, is what Grisham intended, and a chunk of the novel’s charm is seeing the author indulge himself in a bit of meaningless fun.  Not everything has to be about southern lawyers tempted by corruption, or even about serious plot mechanics.  If Grisham is willing to use his bestselling credentials to write this kind of book –turning holiday memories in another crop of royalties–, then who are we to begrudge him his fun?  At least he’s not jumping on a soapbox and telling us about a shape-shifting lizard conspiracy threatening the world.

The Trotsky (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Trotsky</strong> (2009)

(In-flight, August 2010) I want a lot of people to see The Trotsky. It’s pleasant enough to discover a quirky comedy with wit and brainy allusions; but it’s even better when you realize that it has been filmed less than 200km away.  So it is that the cheerfully Montréal-based The Trotsky is a comedy starring a young intellectual convinced that he’s the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky, fated to recreate his namesake’s biography.  Hailing from the privileged ranks of Montréal Anglophones, our hero tries to organize workers at his father’s factory and ends up at a public school where he eventually leads a student revolution.  The film is too long for its own good and takes a while to truly spark up, but when it’s good –it’s great.  Jay Baruchel turns in one of his best performances yet as the Trotsky-obsessed hero, but he’s surrounded by capable actors (among them Liane Balaban, Geneviève Bujold, Colm Feore and Saul Rubinek) who each get a shining moment or two.  The film is deep in historical allusions, but the script by Jacob Tierney (who also directs) is kind enough to let in most viewers on the jokes.  The rest of The Trotsky doesn’t hesitate to tackle subversive issues of popular rights and authoritarian exploitation, making it a crowd favourite for anyone looking for high-school comedies with more ambitious goals than usual.  The added bonus as far as I’m concerned is that the film is pure Montréal (down to familiar police cruisers) and highlights why it’s such a great city: The freedom to discuss social issues, the endearing mixture of French and English, the European influences in a North-American urban setting… it’s all there, and it couldn’t have been highlighted in a better showcase.

(Second viewing, on DVD, April 2011) I like the film even more after a second viewing: It’s fresh, funny, clever and endearing at once. The director and editor’s commentary track shows that the filmmakers fully intended the film’s political content (director Tierney has an… interesting background), and their anecdotes about how the film was shot are interesting. The making-of featurette is a bit thin, but the various deleted scenes each get a chuckle or two.

Garage Days (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Garage Days</strong> (2002)

(On DVD, August 2010) Writer/Director Alex Proyas’s filmography is filled with spectacular SF/fantasy hits, but in the middle of The Crow, Dark City, I, Robot and Knowing, his musical comedy Garage Days always gets short thrift.  That’s a shame given how it features a fun script, good performances, a cool look at Sydney, some great music and Proyas’ typical gift for fast-paced visual storytelling.  Centered on a group of friends involved in a small struggling rock band, Garage Days soon spins out to include romantic complications, quirky supporting characters and the even-popular quest for the “Big Break” so beloved by other similar films.  Things don’t all end up as expected, however, and it’s one of the film’s minor triumphs that it still ends on a great note despite honouring its tagline of “What if you finally got your big break and you just plain sucked?”  Garage Days is a charming film despite its faults (many of them the kind of things you’d expect from a generally low-budget film made outside Hollywood), and it’s a good way to spend an evening.  The occasional flashes of high-concept style are welcome, Kick Gurry is particularly enjoyable as the protagonist and so is the somewhat run-down contemporary look at Sydney’s music scene.  The music is fine, as you’d expect from a comedy about a rock band: the film even features a high-energy concert sequence to the tune of 28 Days Later and Apollo’s 440 “Say What”.  For Proyas, it’s a very different film from his usual dark downbeat visions, and it’s a welcome interlude.  The story, characters and presentation may feel familiar (expect visual parallels with British movie-makers such as Danny Boyle and Guy Richie), but Garage Days is handled with a decent amount of verve, and it may even have something to say about how we don’t need to be rock stars to be happy.

Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution</strong> (1965)

(On DVD, August 2010) For a moment, I nearly hated this film.  Keep in mind that it’s a pure product of the French new Wave, which set out to challenge viewers’ expectations about the nature of films.  Here, writer/director Jean-Luc Godard takes the usual SF/thriller formula (ie; a secret agent sent to a foreign city to rescue/kill a scientist) and subverts every single facet of it.  Shot in black-and-white, the film makes references to SF plot points but blandly takes place in undisguised Paris, featuring sixties technology and clothing.  The pacing is glacial, the dialogues don’t quite make sense, the fight sequences are handled in a curiously lackadaisical fashion: clearly, it dares viewers to question themselves about what they’re expecting of a film –a process that remains as effective today than in 1965.  It quickly becomes obvious that Alphaville is as much a satire of lazy SF movies than an attempt to say something in a new way.  It’s not always enjoyable: I may have thrown my hands up in exasperation twenty minutes into the film, but the wonder of such experiments is that there’s always a reason to keep watching… just to see what else is in store.  Amazingly, Alphaville eventually clicks, not just as a screw-you to complacent audiences, but also as a modest piece of thematically deep SF filmmaking: Random flashes of equations, inverted nodding gestures ( “No” meaning “Yes” and vice-versa), disconnected bits of dialogue and heavy-handed dystopian clichés all pile up and fuse into a statement about humanity in the face of technological authoritarianism that works in part because it’s not presented like a genre film.  Other small pleasures abound, from some unusual camera work to Eddie Constantine’s wonderfully deadpan performance as the sort-of hero of the film, to a few eerie sequences that show how good SF doesn’t need special effects.  But Alphaville’s foremost quality is the very thing that makes it so unapproachable at times: The sense that a gifted filmmaker took a look at a genre and set out to mock it, while still using its techniques to examine his own artistic preoccupations.

Kaena: La prophétie [aka Kaena: The Prophecy] (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Kaena: La prophétie</strong> [aka <strong class="MovieTitle">Kaena: The Prophecy</strong>] (2003)

(On DVD, August 2010) It’s amazing to see which films go past unnoticed, ready to be discovered by curious cinephiles years later.  So it is that even hard-core SF fans may have never seen this lush computer-animated fantasy/SF feature film.  Don’t raise your expectations prematurely: Kaena remains B-grade CGI movie-making, with sometimes-unconvincing animation, confusing visual compositions, a muddled plot and plenty of other annoyances.  But the result remains so visually intriguing that it’s hard to dislike.  The back-story involves a gigantic tree between two planets, a superstitious human colony, remnants of an alien ship and liquid antagonists, but the plot comes from the good-old SF template of a curious young female teenager going off on a quest to discover the true nature of her world.  It works even when it’s too confused to make us care: The plot gives up and falls into the tired “incomprehensible light-show contest between gods” cliché by the end, but there are better moments along the way.  The visuals are particularly intriguing, although many will raise their eyebrows at the body-revealing outfits of the surprisingly curvy teen heroine.  (French standards being what they are, we even get a surreal nude scene at the climax)  For a film often marketed at kids and young adults, Kaena features a surprising amount of visual poetry, exposed thighs and anti-religious content.  While the final result may not escape that of a curiosity, at least it’s a refreshing kind of oddball film.  The R1-Quebec DVD contains an interesting making-of featurette that explains how the film was put together using consumer-grade technology, and an entertaining “virtual interview” with the heroine that even pokes fun at the sexiness of her outfits.

Scott Pilgrim, Bryan Lee O’Malley

<em class="BookTitle">Scott Pilgrim</em>, Bryan Lee O’Malley

Six-book series made of…

  • Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, 2004, Oni Press, ISBN 978-1-932664-08-9
  • Scott Pilgrim vs the World, 2005, Oni Press, ISBN 978-1-932664-12-6
  • Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness, 2006, Oni Press, ISBN 978-1-932664-22-5
  • Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together, 2007, Oni Press, ISBN 978-1-932664-49-2
  • Scott Pilgrim vs the Universe, 2009, Oni Press, ISBN 978-1-934964-10-1
  • Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, 2010, Oni Press, ISBN 978-1-934964-38-5

Publishing success doesn’t often correlate with anything resembling quality, so it’s satisfying to see that one of the biggest comic series of the past few years has been Bryan Lee O’Malley’s idiosyncratic Scott Pilgrim.  Now ending its run with a sixth volume and the near-simultaneous arrival of its movie adaptation, O’Malley’s unlikely success blends a look at post-teenage male romance, videogame-inspired personal mythmaking, a deeply Torontonian setting, sharp writing, great characters and hilarious moments.  I first climbed on board the series when the fifth volume was released, but the movie adaptation gave me a great excuse to re-read the entire story in a single gulp, and revisit what makes it click.

I am, I’ll admit, too old and too square to truly empathize with much of the series: I’m now a good decade older than the series’ cast of characters, and my own path through life has been the university-to-cubicle professional fast-track rather than the kind of erratic McJobs-and-clubs slacker universe in which Pilgrim and friends live.  But Scott Pilgrim nails that post-teenage lifestyle in stunning detail: that slice of time not quite shackled by the demands and disillusions of full adulthood, in which people come to define themselves now that they don’t have to attend classes.  Pilgrim and friends are free to exist away from their parents, live in tiny apartments, hang out at hip venues, play in garage bands, work occasionally, and get mixed-up in complex romantic entanglements.  Their universe is one of pop-culture references inspired (unlike previous generations) by videogames, their personal mythologies defined by gaming heroism as much as anything else.

So it is that the series begins with “Scott Pilgrim is dating a high-schooler!” and ends with “So… we try again.”  In-between, it’s pure Canadian magical realism as Pilgrim falls for a mysterious girl named Ramona and must fight her seven evil exes in order to earn her affections.  That’s the plan, at least: the actual path to romantic bliss isn’t quite as clear-cut, especially when Pilgrim realises how much of “a crummy boyfriend” he’s been.  The last volume of the series is particularly unkind to its hero –and surprising to readers not expecting Scott to grow up in a hurry.

But as with many other graphic novels, Scott Pilgrim is more memorable for its page-per-page execution than its narrative satisfaction.  O’Malley peppers his series with a near-constant stream of small delights, whether it’s a number of Torontonian references, self-aware patter, absurdly fantastical plot devices and musical moments.  The series breaks the fourth wall frequently, but doesn’t cheapen its characters’ problems.  It’s such a compelling reading experience that every time I reached in my stack of volumes to check details, I ended up re-reading dozens of pages.

As a hip must-read reference for the younger set, it’s something that even the older ones among us are nearly certain to enjoy.  The cutting-edge references exist alongside gaming metaphors that will be familiar to anyone who has stepped in an arcade back in the eighties, and they all serve to pump up a universally appealing male romance to sustained reading enjoyment.  Don’t miss it (especially if you live in or near Toronto) and let it comfort you that, sometimes, sale numbers do point at something worthwhile.

Luftslottet som sprängdes [Millennium 3: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest] (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Luftslottet som sprängdes</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Millennium 3: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest</strong>] (2009)

(On DVD, August 2010) This third and (presumably) last entry in the Millennium trilogy is best appreciated by fans of the lead characters: Picking up moments after the events of the second film, the narrative depends almost entirely on character quirks, plot follow-ups and existing tensions established during the second movie.  It’s not quite as slow to begin this time around, but it’s just as “carefully paced” (which quickly becomes “long and repetitive” if you’re not a fan) as the two previous films in the series, something which, in turn, can be traced back to Stieg Larsson’s procedural novels serving as source material.  For fans of the series, though, this marks an effective entry in the series as prickly protagonist Lisbeth Salander goes up against powerful renegade groups within the Swedish state’s security establishment while undergoing a trial that will determine her independence.  No fear, though: Sweet justice is measured onto those who deserve it, and Mikael Blomkvist even gets a chance to fight back in an action scene of his own.  The film itself in directed unspectacularly, which isn’t as disappointing as you may think given how it allows the actors, particularly Noomi Rapace as Salander and Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist, to underplay their roles in typical Scandinavian fashion.  There’s even an interesting moral point made at the end, as a competent democratic government takes care of its renegade elements without any typical American-style cynicism or overblown violence.  For a series cut down abruptly by the author’s untimely death, this third volume ends on a satisfying note that allow viewers to let go and imagine Blomkvist and Salander’s next adventures without anxiety.  Reflecting upon the entire trilogy, there’s no doubt that the first volume is quite a bit better, more unusual and more rewarding than the last two.  Still, it’s not a bad series, and the sheer magnetic power of Rapace as Salander makes it a recommendation.  Who knows what the Americans will do with their remake?  DVD-wise, the R1-Quebec release regrettably has no extra features whatsoever.

Immortel (ad vitam) (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Immortel (ad vitam)</strong> (2004)

(On DVD, August 2010) I’m usually the first one to complain when a film’s visuals take over its story, but I can sure make an exception when it comes to Immortel (ad vitam), an eye-popping French Science-Fiction movie that teases as much as it satisfies.  The first few sequences sets the tone, with Egyptian gods discussing philosophy in a pyramid hanging over 2095 New York.  A blue-haired woman, an escaped cryogenic prisoner and a bizarre mixture of mutants and aliens quickly follow, setting up a visually dense film that nonetheless manages to tell a story in-between divine possession, political intrigue, dystopian exploitation and a dash of eroticism.  But never mind the adequate story, since the plentiful visual effects thoroughly dominate Immortel.  The film, largely shot against green screen, incorporates digital sets with CGI characters and real-life human actors.  The effect is strange and wonderful even when the quality of the animation doesn’t quite reach beyond the uncanny valley.  The number of quirky background inventions is impressive, and they’re thankfully not all explained as soon as they are introduced: as a result, Immortel feels more alive than countless other SF films.  The quirky dialogue isn’t without its charms either, most of the highlights taking place in conversation between the human hero of the story and his possessor Horus.  In the end, it’s this delightfully weird sensibility, adapted by co-writer/director Enki Bilal from his own graphic novels, which makes the film work even when it shouldn’t: if nothing else, it’s another eloquent proof that French SF cinema tends to be quite a bit more visually adventurous than its US counterparts.  Any serious media-SF fan should make an effort to track down this one.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert</strong> (1994)

(On DVD, August 2010) I realize that I’m fifteen years behind the rest of the world in (finally) seeing this charming Australian comedy, but then again you would be horrified at some of the other curious omissions in my personal film-viewing record.  Suffice to say that hindsight has advantages of its own: It’s hard to see The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert now without spotting Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp in fearless performances that are remarkably different from the kind of roles for which they have become best known.  (Go ahead; make a joke about Agent Smith in drag: “Mis-ter An-der-son, you look… fabulous”.)  The film itself has aged remarkably well: While social attitudes toward queer issues represented in this film have hopefully evolved, the exuberant quality of the characters does a lot to bring audiences into their colourful reality.  By the end, the film reaches a quasi-idyllic acceptance that acts as inspiration.  But social issues aren’t the reason why the film has become such a self-confident camp classic: You just have to look at the astonishing visuals of a scene in which a bus drives across the desert featuring a rooftop performance by a drag queen draped in long billowing silver drapes to realize how awe-inspiring this film can be.  The Australian outback makes for a spectacular background, and the script deftly moves between emotional tones without losing track of its goals.  It’s all very impressive, and you don’t have to be interested in LGBT issues to appreciate the cinematography, the script or the fun of the bus ride.

Walkabout (1971)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Walkabout</strong> (1971)

(On DVD, August 2010) Something really strange happened to me during Walkabout: As the initial look at the metropolitan bustle of early-seventies urban Australia became a surrealistic outback reverie, I started dreading the rest of the movie: I don’t respond well to non-narrative films, and the idea of spending another hour and a half in a daze of dream-like images held a limited appeal.  It got worse as the bare essential of the plot were carelessly established: a female teenager and her kid brother, stranded in the Australian outback.  Narratively, the film never holds up: characters act in painfully unrealistic ways, the visual and thematic strangeness of the film undercutting any serious attempt at establishing narrative tension as they float from one situation to another with nonsensical dialogue that never reflects the danger of their situation.  But that’s when the strangeness occurred, because rather than fight the film for what it wasn’t trying to do, I let myself slip into the oneiric state of mind best suited to appreciate the incredible cinematography, symbolism and atmosphere of the film.  It’s not about two kids returning to civilization thanks to the help of an aborigine teen: It’s about superb pictures, meditations upon nature versus civilization, teenage sexuality, the impossibility to communicate, the way we’re set in our own limitations and the longing for rites of passage.  At least that’s what I got out of it, in-between the film’s often-surprising non-sequiturs and often-audacious editing.  What does it mean?  You tell me, in between excerpts of a meteorologist sex comedy, in-your-face juxtaposition, page-flipping, moody skin-bathing, suicidal characters, animals harmed during the making of this film and a coda that almost wraps everything together.  Some reviews of the film will promise you that no one who ever saw Walkabout ever forgot about it and this, for once, doesn’t feel like hype: In the state of mind created by the film, I gasped aloud at two particularly striking shots and couldn’t help but marvel at the impeccable depiction of the Australian Outback wildlife.  If the preachiness of the film hasn’t aged very well, its impeccable images and Jenny Agutter’s performance as a teenage girl have stood the test of time.  It’s a very zen-like film: don’t expect it to make sense and it just may start doing so.

The Expendables (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Expendables</strong> (2010)

(On DVD, August 2010) It’s said that films should be judged on the basis of their ambitions, and the least one can say about writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables is that it really wants to be a gift to 1980s action movie fans.  The ensemble cast is among the most extraordinary ever assembled for an action film, in between Stallone, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li and others, with great cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Unfortunately, the cast (Statham in particular) is about the only thing going for this film, which is so successful in recreating the eighties that it has forgotten that most action films of the era were deathly dull.  Reviving Regan-administration Latin-American politics, the film is mired in a dull banana-republic setting where only Americans can kill the right people to restore peace and deniable capitalistic hegemony.  But even worse is Stallone’s action direction, which cuts away every half-second in an effort to hide that the actions scenes don’t have a lot of interest.  The explosions are huge, but the rest is just confused: in-between the excessive self-satisfied machismo of the film, it’s not hard to grow resentful at the stunning waste of opportunities that is The Expendables.  A perfect example is a dock strafing sequence that could have been great had it actually meant something: instead, it just feels like the gratuitous hissy fit of a pair of psychopaths.  But the nadir of the film has to be found in its script, especially whenever it tackles perfunctory romance: Sixty-something Stallone may helm the film, but it’s no excuse to slobber over a girlfriend half his age.  Another dramatic monologue delivered by Rourke stops the film dead in its tracks and sticks out as the endless scene that doesn’t belong.  Too bad that the script doesn’t know what to do with what it has: despite the obvious nods and little gifts to macho cinema, The Expendables quickly indulges in the limits of the form.  Guys; don’t argue with your girlfriend if she wants both of you to see something else.