Movies

Cabaret

As I’ve mentioned in some other reviews, musicals are not really my cuppa, so if you bring up a classic movie musical chances are I haven’t seen it. Same went for this 1972 film directed by Bob Fosse; the only two things I knew about it was that 1) it starred Liza Minnelli and 2) it’s set in Weimar era Germany, at the time when the Nazi Party was on the rise. After watching the film, I can happily add one more musical I really like to my short list. Maybe my issue is more that I don’t care for the wholesome happy musicals?

One thing I noticed straight away is that the song-and-dance numbers in Cabaret are confined strictly to the stage of the grimy, kinky and seedy Kit Kat Club in Berlin, where Minnelli’s Sally Bowles performs, so there are no characters spontaneously bursting into a song mid-scene (not that there’s anything wrong with that). All the songs and musical sequences are effusive, superbly choreographed, and metaphorical to the main story about the turbulent relationship between Sally and Brian Roberts (Michael York), a young bisexual English language teacher. The depiction of sexuality kinda took me by surprise, as it must have been pretty daring for a film of its time.

Liza Minnelli is easily the most outstanding thing in the movie, with her unusual, almost-stylised features and huge saucer eyes fringed by impossibly long lashes, and her performance rightly won her an Oscar. Sally is flighty, self-centred, amoral and greedy, but so charming and child-like she’s impossible to dislike, as Brian finds even when she does something terrible that punches him right in the gut. Another memorable creation is the impish, androgynous, leering and frequently creepy Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey), who also performs at the club, sometimes with Sally and sometimes with a gang of sleazy female musicians and dancers (and mud wrestlers), and whose song topics include threesomes and anti-Semitism.

The rise of the Nazi Party is shown indirectly: at first they’re a silly group who nobody takes seriously and whose members get kicked out of the club, then much later, a chilling scene in a beer garden shows a young Nazi youth sing Tomorrow Belongs to Me, a scary call to nationalism that’s enthusiastically embraced by the other patrons. In the last scene, the dominance of swastika bands in the audience makes the seemingly happy and joyful concluding song (life is a cabaret!) sound desperate and depressing. This darkness beneath the thrill-seeking and hunt for pleasures is what ultimately made this film appealing, but who knows, maybe I should give The Sound of Music a chance after all.

Wonder Woman

With the quality of the recent DC output, Wonder Woman basically needed to be merely decent and competent to qualify as the best of the bunch. And compared to something like Suicide Squad, Patty Jenkins’s film is an outright revelation, but to someone who’s had their fill of merely decent superhero movies, it comes off as mostly rote and by-the-numbers origin story except that, this time, it stars a female superhero. Which yes yes is a cause for celebration, but I just wish there was more to distinguish this movie other than its femaleness.

If there’s anything in the film I could freely gush about, it’s Gal Gadot’s charismatic, star-making turn as Diana (who is never actually referred to as Wonder Woman in the movie, but nevermind). While I’m undecided whether she’s in fact a good actress, it doesn’t matter when she owns the role in a way rarely seen onscreen, and her acting limitations are in a strange way suited for the character. A protagonist who is pretty much perfect in every way except for their naivety can be a terrible pious bore when done badly, and utterly irresistible when done right; I loved how good, empathetic and earnest Diana was and how the film handled its uplifting message without a shade of cynicism. More than anything else, it’s fantastic to see a female superhero who is also unabashedly feminine. In one of the movie’s most wonderful moments, Diana, who’s just arrived to London, rushes away to coo delightedly over a stranger’s baby – a human instinct that is, more specifically, typically female.

A great lead character however is not quite enough, and the story is where Wonder Woman feels thin. It starts well enough on the all-female island of Themyscira where Diana grows up as the daughter of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and receives training from her warrior aunt Antiope (Robin Wright, who is the second-best thing in the film and deserves her own badass prequel). Themyscira is one of the film’s loveliest settings, looking like a fabulous Mediterranean island straight from the Greek mythology, even if the CGI effects make it look a tad unnatural.

Blissfully unaware of the outside world beyond her magically protected island, Diana gets a rude shock when, one day, a plane crashes near the shore bearing Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a soldier and spy who tells the Amazons about the devastation of the Great War. Believing the bloodthirsty god of war Ares, the sworn enemy of the Amazons, responsible for corrupting the minds of men, Diana leaves with Steve in hope of finding and defeating Ares. In her innocence, Diana thinks that, with Ares gone, men will be good again and cease all fighting; no prizes for guessing whether this black-and-white view of the world gets ruthlessly shattered before the end.

There’s some nice fish-out-of-water humour in Diana’s encounters with the 1910s London, but this is also where the film shifts the focus to Chris Pine’s character and a subplot involving deadly mustard gas, neither of which are terribly compelling. I enjoyed Pine’s turn as Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek series, but his performance here didn’t work for me: he’s too smarmy to be a straightforward good guy, yet not cocky and smarmy enough to be a charming rogue either. As a result, Diane and Steve’s talky scenes and romance felt rather like a chore to sit through. The forgettable gang of supporting characters Steve recruits for their journey to the war front have their ethnicities to distinguish them (Scottish, Native American and Arab) and little else. Villains are introduced in the form of a barking German general (Danny Huston) and his sinister chemist henchwoman, Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya). While the latter has a striking look to her and starts off intriguing (especially as it dispenses with the stereotype of women as uniformly nurturing and compassionate), Doctor’s character unfortunately doesn’t go anywhere interesting.

I’ve seen complaints about the ending of the film turning into the usual overwrought CGI extravaganza, but to my surprise I honestly didn’t mind it, nor the fact that Ares doesn’t get much of a characterisation. While I had some issues with him, Ares worked fine for me as less of a three-dimensional character and more like an obstacle or test for Diana. What bothered me way more is that, for someone who believes men to be essentially good and acting under an evil influence, Diana seems to have zero regret for the many German soldiers she kills during the course of the film. Because this is a summer blockbuster, our heroes must have faceless fodder they can mow down without regrets in a kickass action scene, but I found the use of WWI as a setting for this sort of sequence a tad distasteful, particularly when the movie itself gives the hero a solid reason to have compassion for the slain. Also, the overuse of slo-mo got a bit obnoxious; it was cool when 300 did it but 300 came out more than ten years ago, guys.

Wonder Woman is rightly praised for giving the world a charismatic, strong, likeable heroine for the ages (I would so play as Diana if I saw this as a little girl), I just really wish she was in a less formulaic and safe movie.

Alien: Covenant

I was on the fence about this one, but in the end I decided to catch it before it disappeared from the cinemas. I can’t say I regret the decision and I’m glad I’ve watched the film, because no one shoots sci-fi like Ridley Scott, but the most damning thing I can say about Alien: Covenant is that it’s the first entry in the series that doesn’t offer anything new, and instead plays like the Alien: Greatest Hits. Even the runts of the franchise had some individuality about them, whether it was the director’s unique visual style or some new ideas, and even when these ideas were terrible, *cough* human/alien hybrid from Alien: Resurrection *cough*, at least they were still memorable. My biggest complaint about Alien: Covenant is how little of this adequate movie was truly memorable.

I liked the divisive Prometheus way more than many people did, and the ending of that film teased some intriguing possibilities, as its heroine Elizabeth Shaw packed the head of David the android in a duffel bag and set off towards the home planet of Engineers. While Covenant still acts as a direct sequel to Prometheus, it jumps ten years ahead and opens with the scenes aboard Covenant, a colony ship with thousands of passengers in cryogenic sleep, plus preserved embryos. When the ship is hit by a massive solar flare and suffers casualties, the crew pick up a strange transmission, human in origin, while doing repairs. The signal comes from a planet that’s much closer than their original destination and appears to be a perfect choice for human colonization. Ignoring the lessons of dozens of sci-fi movies where veering off course spells certain doom and death, the crew decide to stop by and investigate. If you thought that the scientists in Prometheus made some inexplicably dumb choices, this lot decide to explore an alien planet while not wearing any protective helmets whatsoever, presumably because they decided that hey, since this place looks a lot like Norway, it must be safe.

Visually, Covenant may not be as beautiful and striking as Prometheus, but it still delivers, with the majestic landscape shots and lived-in sets typical of Scott movies. It’s a pity then that the human characters don’t receive anywhere as much love and attention: this bunch is as nondescript and generic as they come, including the new Ripley-esque heroine Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Other characters’ personalities, when they do have hints of any, can be summed up in a couple of words – this guy is quirky and wears a cowboy hat! This guy believes in God! The only two interesting characters are synthetic: David (Michael Fassbender), the inquisitive and amoral android who was the highlight of Prometheus, returns here as the sole inhabitant of the planet, and is rather more unhinged than the last time we’ve seen him. Then there’s Walter, the android crew member of Covenant, also played by Fassbender. Unlike the creative David, Walter’s generation of androids were made to be more machine-like and less creepily human, an upgrade David finds disappointing. The interactions between the two, with David teaching Walter to play the flute among other things, are weird, funny, philosophical, and make for the film’s best scenes.

Rather than answering the question posed by Prometheus – why did the Engineers wish to destroy the humankind? – Covenant instead chooses to focus on edging closer to the original Alien film and exploring the origins of the xenomorph. Which means that, at some point in the movie, it’s time for the usual: running down corridors, dark and drippy interiors, eggs, facehuggers, chestbursters and xenomorphs. While Covenant ramps up the gore and body horror, the problem is that a) it can’t muster the same level of tension as Alien, or the breakneck excitement of Aliens, and b) I can’t say I ever wondered about where the xenomorph came from. There’s no real point explaining something that was always effective simply as a horrifying, mysterious thing from outer space. So while Covenant is by no means a disaster and makes for a watchable, well-shot sci-fi thriller/horror, it’s short on new ideas and, unlike Prometheus, does nothing to stoke my excitement for a hinted-on sequel. Maybe it’s finally time to blow this franchise out of the airlock.

The Mist

Written and directed by Frank Darabont, The Mist is a third story by Stephen King that Darabont adapted for the screen after The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. It would have been a pretty solid if unremarkable horror movie except for two things: a truly awe-inspiring monster sequence near the end, and the ending itself, which I suspect left many people feeling angry, depressed or both (I’m in the “depressed, but wow what a bold ending” camp, myself).

As far as horror film settings go, a supermarket probably wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind, but this is in fact where most of the movie takes place. The Mist doesn’t waste much time on the setup: when a bad storm leaves their house without power, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son drive into town for some emergency supplies. Everyone else in their small Maine town had the same idea, and so the store is full of locals, weekenders and a few soldiers from the nearby military base. Soon, all hell breaks loose: a bloodied and distressed man runs into the store, air raid sirens begin screeching, and in a blink of an eye the supermarket is enveloped in an unnatural mist.

It’s not a spoiler to say that there are Terrible Things lurking in the mist that will attack and devour anyone attempting to leave. It begins with a pretty humdrum tentacle creature, but through the course of the film the monsters get more and more fantastical and unnerving, particularly if you’re not a big fan of insects and spiders. The actual explanation for the mist and the creepy-crawlies is not particularly interesting, but they’re mostly there to examine the dynamics within the group of terrified survivors, and what ordinary people will be driven to do when their ordinary world collapses. It doesn’t take long for the various tensions to arise, initially between the locals and out-of-towners. A far greater source of friction however is the local religious nut, Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), who sees the events as God’s divine punishment for the sins of mankind. At first her doomsday mongering goes ignored by the rest, but as the situation gets more desperate and the body count increases, more and more people join her congregation, and start thinking that maybe a human sacrifice to the monsters outside is not such a bad idea.

I was about halfway into the film before I realised that there was barely any music in it, a decision which is quite effective and complements the documentary feel. Thomas Jane (who reminded me a bit of Christopher Lambert, of all people) is solid as the lead, but a bit too bland and lacking in charisma, as far as “everyman” actors go he’s no Tom Hanks. The rest of the cast do their best to breathe in some individuality into their stock characters, and I was amused to see the lady who played Charlotte’s snobby mother-in-law on Sex and the City pop up here. Overall, it’s a well-executed horror film which probably wouldn’t be that memorable if it wasn’t for its ending; hate it or love it, it does stick in the memory.

Things to Come

Our trip to the cinema to see this French film with the incomparable Isabelle Huppert started off with a bit of drama: as the room went dark and the opening credits rolled in, Mum and I realised we were in a wrong cinema and instead were watching a British war film, which explained the trailer for Dunkirk. Oops. We hurried across into the right theatre and luckily our session hasn’t started yet.

The film itself was in a way an anti-drama; we are so conditioned to constant dramatic developments and turns in the movies that it’s almost disorienting to watch something that’s actually much closer to real life. In a different film, a character suddenly bursting into tears would generally be followed by some shocking confession or revelation, but here it’s just a random burst from a new mother whose emotions run high after the birth and which doesn’t necessarily suggest a shift in the narrative.

Not to say that there wasn’t any drama period – Huppert plays Nathalie, a Parisian philosophy professor, who in the course of the film loses things and people most important in her life. The most devastating loss comes when her husband of 25 years, another philosophy teacher and fellow lover of books, leaves her for another woman. Not that Nathalie lets any of these losses unravel her – even though she doesn’t go through anywhere as much trauma as Huppert’s memorable character in Elle from last year, the two women respond to their misfortunes with a similar lack of self-pity. In the case of fiercely intellectual Nathalie, she leans on the tenets of philosophy to get her through hard times.

Huppert is brilliant and luminous, the gorgeous and serene shots of Paris and French countryside are francophile’s manna, and the movie is best seen as a collection of slice-of-life observations, rather than something that builds up to anything major. This is not How A Mature Philosophy Professor Got Her Groove Back, despite the presence of a younger man, Nathalie’s former student and now a fellow philosopher, who invites her to spend time at the commune-like rural house he shares with his anti-establishment friends. The film tantalises you with possibilities that their relationship might take a sexual turn, but like everything else this doesn’t play like your regular movie drama. In fact the most dramatic thing in the film might be Nathalie’s mother’s fickle black cat.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

It’s been forever since I read Bram Stoker’s classic gothic horror novel, but I can’t really remember Dracula giving the female heroine her sexual awakening. Nevermind, I do have a soft spot for the Beauty and the Beast trope and Gary Oldman as the monstrous yet tragic Dracula is captivating and sensual… well at least when he’s in his young human Gary Oldman form with the fabulous long hair. Not so much when he’s hanging from a ceiling as a hideous human-sized bat.

In this version, Vlad the Impaler turns to vampirism after the tragic death of his wife, who hurls herself off a parapet at the false news of his death. The priests tell him that a suicide will never enter heaven, which enrages Vlad; he renounces God and embraces the immortal life of a blood-sucking monster. Fast forward 400 years to the end of the 19th century, and Dracula sees a spitting image of his wife staring at him from a photograph belonging to a young attorney (Keanu Reeves, a.k.a. What the Heck Am I Doing In A Period Piece) who visits Dracula in his picturesquely sinister castle.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this adaptation is by no means perfect, but it’s a gloriously decadent feast for the eyes. I first watched this movie almost twenty years ago and its opulent imagery imprinted on my brain just from that one viewing. The imaginative production design, the sumptuous costumes, the unrestrained romanticism, the fantastic horror score are all a thing of beauty. There are billowing Victorian dresses, creepy shadows, long red cloaks, rooms full of candles, evil vampire succubi, bleeding crosses, and many many transitions between various circular shapes (like the eye of a peacock feather transforming into a railroad tunnel at the start of the film). The special effects and make-up still look good, other than a few decidedly cheesy shots of Dracula in his animal shapes. At the very least, even when the practical effects look dated and clunky you know that what you see onscreen is actually there.

The original novel was written as a series of documents, and the film largely preserves this episodic structure, switching between several protagonists and multiple narrators. This is somewhat to the detriment of the film, which feels like a succession of set pieces rather than a story with a real drive. The performances are a mixed bag; as mentioned before Gary Oldman is utterly magnetic and his line readings in the first half of the film as the bouffanted old Dracula (Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!) are just delicious. I couldn’t decide whether Winona Ryder is actually good as Mina, or whether it’s just that she has such a perfect look for the film with her huge dark eyes and her angelic beauty. Anthony Hopkins’ over-the-top turn as the vampire hunter Van Helsing is hit-and-miss, sometimes it works and other times his wacky ways fall flat. Tom Waits is heaps of fun as the deranged bug-eating Renfield.

Keanu Reeves… ooh dear. I confess, I can never really hate Keanu Reeves even when his performance is like a walking wooden plank, but god he’s terrible here. Jonathan Harker is a pretty dull character to start with, and Reeves almost made me wish for Mina to dump her boring husband and go for the depraved immortality. Despite these shortcomings, there’s still plenty to love about the movie, especially from the visual standpoint, and it’s a fantastic take on the classic monster.

Get Out

My only regret with this film is that I already knew the big reveal beforehand from watching a spoiler-filled review. I’ve no idea why I did this to myself, I can’t even blame the reviewer who was thoughtful enough to include a spoiler warning – but I just kept on watching. The movie was still hugely enjoyable and suspenseful, and had other twists and surprises up its sleeve, I just wish I came into it knowing as little as possible.

The hero of Get Out is Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, in an instantly sympathetic turn), a young black man who is about to meet the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for the first time in their affluent rural home. Rose never told her parents that her boyfriend is black, and Chris worries about their reception despite Rose’s assurances that her father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could. A different, simpler movie might have played it so that Rose’s parents are awful in an obvious racist way, but in Get Out Chris’s visit turns into a nightmare because Rose’s liberal neurosurgeon father and psychiatrist/hypnotherapist mother are just so hellbent on broadcasting how totally fine they are with Chris. But this awkwardness might be the least of his problems, as he gets increasingly creeped out by the very odd behaviour of the other two black people in the house, a groundsman and a housekeeper. They move around the place in a ghostly, silent manner, and when Chris tries to be friendly with them they’re cold and just plain unnerving.

If you briefly summarised the main mystery to someone who hasn’t watched the film it would sound incredibly silly, but it totally works in the context of the film, much like the potentially silly reveal of The Stepford Wives works in Ira Levin’s classic satirical thriller (Ira Levin I think would have enjoyed Get Out a lot). It takes care to lay the foundations for the reveal, so that when it happens it’s genuinely horrifying rather than inviting ridicule. There are certainly implausibilities, but you’re generally too busy being carried away by the film and its suburban-Gothic vibe to stop for nitpicking. It’s a superbly made thriller that juggles horror and humour, most of the latter coming from Chris’s lovable best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), TSA Officer whose natural inclinations to conspiracy theories come in handy.

One unexpected delight of the film for me was its score, which often sounds like it was lifted from the old-school horror movies with their shrieking violins, an interesting juxtaposition with the modern-day setting. My Mum who watched the film with me remarked that, just when you think that nothing new can be done anymore, a film like this comes along, and yes Get Out is the sort of fresh take on the genre you cherish.

P.S. The actor who plays Rose’s douchy brother looked naggingly familiar to me, and I only realised later that the same guy played the sweet-natured Banshee in X-Men: First Class. He’s certainly no sweetikins here!