Tuesday, 24 August 2010

PIRANHA 3D review: the third dimension finally grows some teeth

Avatar ushered it in – only for Alice in Wonderland to have worked better without it, while Toy Story 3seemed completely indifferent to it. 3D has arrived, but has it really sunk its teeth in yet?

When you find yourself submerged in a dark polluted lake, and suddenly, out from the gnarled weeds and empty cans in one knicker-soiling second, a shoal of thrashing piranhas makes its way towards you, you know that 3D has finally found its purpose.

Piranha 3D makes no false claims to cinematic originality, but in doing so comes up trumps. It wears its gimmicks on its sleeve, the poster telling us to expect a Piranha/Jaws rehash while announcing glorious 3D as the unique selling point. Doing exactly what it promises, its refreshingly satisfying fun. By focusing purely on the visuals, in Alice in Wonderland Tim Burton neglected his talent for telling a good story, somehow managing to turn Lewis Carol’s psychedelic tale into 2 hours of grey, limp austerity. Even James Cameron missed the three-dimensional point, more than anything else wowing audiences with just how annoying it is to watch a film from between the leaves of a tropical bush. But in the horror genre, 3D seems to have made itself useful.

Juggling predictably cheap shocks with almost unbearable tension, Piranha 3D drags us down into that phobia-rich territory of the dark, unexplored watery depths and puts us face to face with those hidden carnivores we always suspected since that first beach holiday to Devon. With 3D horror, that pane of glass which protects us from on-screen danger has been shattered.

In this example, a pick and mix assortment of actors – all selected, presumably, from wet t-shirt competitions rather than auditions – make their way through a script full of lines that sounded better on the trailer: An earthquake has split the floor of a lake somewhere in America, opening up a sealed-off underwater cave unfortunately inhabited by prehistoric man-eating fish. And all this just in time for the boat parties of spring break. Aquatic experts are drafted in from afar, while the police have a hard time evacuating drunk teens from the waters, etc etc.

But despite this thrill-by-numbers plot, you can’t fault Piranha 3D for being unfocused. Its lean 90 minutes afford little room for the fatty plot stunts and (inevitably dull) characterisation dialogues in which the third dimension becomes obsolete. What we get instead is set piece after grizzly set piece of dire situation, all of which end with the inevitable satisfaction of the kill, (which, by the way, range from predictable and swift to imaginative and memorable).

There’s an erotic subplot in there too, with Kelly Brook as the porn star shooting out on the lake threatening to capsize the film with her avid gyrating, but before long the gore flows thick and fast enough to prevent any long-term erections. Breasts, for example: one minute they’re having tequila drizzled over them, and the next they having chunks torn out of them. You’re never quite sure where to look. The producers evidently did their research when aiming a hook for the testosterone-haemorrhaging 17 year olds males in the audience, although viewers with blood still remaining in their head might see Brook and co’s slow-mo nude swimming as the shameless, fun and unapologetic joke that it is.

Considering his subject matter he probably didn’t have much choice, but director Alexandre Aja seems fine to let his film loose into the pools of absurdity – a piranha spitting out the porn-director’s over-worked penis, for example, or a desiccated victim making a sudden and unwelcome encore – before reeling it back to just this side of believability (almost).

It all makes for bloody good fun that meat-eaters and pescatarians alike should lap up. And for the first time I left the cinema convinced that 3D is here to stay...

Thursday, 19 August 2010

SIX IN THE HEAD: Interview with Tom Six, writer-director of The Human Centipede

Still two weeks ahead of its release in UK cinemas, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE has already won a notoriety that most horror films can only dream of. Word-of-mouth publicity twinned with the sort of flash-phenomenon that only Facebook can conjure have done their bit, but both are owed to the film’s attention-grabbing concept of biological invention and grizzly creation. I peeled back the hype to probe the mind of writer-director Tom Six for the film’s brains. Here are my findings...

"The idea came from a joke I made while watching television one time with friends. There was a paedophile on television and I said ‘They should stitch his mouth to the ass of a very fat truck driver’. Everybody said ‘Oh that’s disgusting, what a horrible idea!’ – but I thought ‘that’s a great basic idea for a horror film’.”

Although this is Six’s first horror film, the many references he makes during our conversation towards Hollywood teen movies, as well as his Americanised accent and phrasing, suggest a life spent gleefully devouring every US horror film he can get his hands on. Unsurprisingly, this influence has found its way into The Human Centipede, particularly Six’s cruel choice of victims: two American teens on a European road trip.

“I had seen so many horror films in my teens which were always about naïve American girls getting into trouble, and my idea was so crazy and sick I wanted to start the film off as a complete cliché. So that’s why I used the two American girls getting into trouble – then a lot of trouble.

Many people watch the trailer, its clichés and elements of parody, with suspicion, assuming it to be yet another YouTube spoof: two attractive teens (who, incidentally, can’t act) get lost in a forest on their way to a nightclub, suffer a flat tyre and, unable to ring for help, make their way through the rain to the nearest dodgey looking house, etc etc. But, by 20 minutes into the film itself, there is clearly something a bit more intelligent going on.

“I used all those clichés because I knew that the audience would think ‘Hey, I’ve seen this film thousands of times before’, then bam – it really pulls the rug out from under our feet. It really blows you away.”

As well as seducing us into a precariously false sense of security, the flatpack characterisation of these American unfortunates serves to heighten the excellently original performance by German screen veteran Dieter Laser as the surgeon waiting on the other side of the door, stealing every scene with the flexing of his angular jaw, the craning of his sinewy neck, and the strained drone of his voice.

“I call Dieter an acting dinosaur because he has made almost 60 films. When I was writing the script I happened to watch Dieter in a film. I was amazed by his face and his charisma, and I thought ‘Man, this guy has to play Dr. Heiter’. I never had any other actors in mind after that. So we contacted him and met him in Berlin, and explained to him the complete story of the script. He absolutely loved it, so we were very lucky. I think he was born to play this role.”

And the role was written to be played by him?

“Yeh! His face and the way he spoke was always on my mind, so when I wrote the script I always thought about him.”

During the writing process, Six also received inspiration from elsewhere, namely the surgeon whose advise he sought to ensure a chilling level of medical accuracy in creating a human centipede comprised of three people sharing one dietary system.

“When I explained to the surgeon my idea of having arses sewn to mouths, he said ‘Are you crazy? This is completely against my medical oath,’ but in the end he made this very detailed operation report for me. He said that it’s actually possible to perform this operation in a hospital – which is pretty scary. Imagine being operated on by the guy who came up with The Human Centipede...”

In fact, one of the film’s most rattling scenes is the one in which the doctor presents his plans, complete with diagrams, to his ‘patients’, introducing a scientific authenticity which offsets the parody elements of the earlier half. It’s the film’s turning point, dragging it back from the edges of comedy and into a darkly absurd territory not usually seen on film. And so the sound of knowing laughs and tuts is soon replaced by the rustle of sick bags and the creak of people squirming in their seats...

For a director who has made just five films to date, Six boasts an impressive CV. As one of the pioneer directors of Holland’s Big Brother, Six has since been recruited worldwide by producers keen to emulate the show’s success in Europe. His pride in this is marked by a more sedate thoughtfulness in his voice: “I was directing and teaching people in America, Germany and South Africa how the programme works, from a director’s point of view.”

Knowing Six’s work on the show, it’s easy to see similarities between Big Brother and The Human Centipede: a peaceful domestic is disturbed by dysfunction and perverse experimentation, the warren-like layout of a glass-walled house fulfilling the role of prison. And, of course, the fact that all of this is being filmed and watched.

“Yeh definitely! I really observe the people who are in the film. There are a lot of horror films where the victims are slashed up very quickly – the bad guy gets through a lot of victims and we don’t really feel for the victims. But here I really focus on their drama for the whole movie. So I really think observing how they behave and react in a situation like that is maybe a little thing from Big Brother. And also the editing of the film – it’s really slow, it really dwells on the situation. It’s not edited very fast like a lot of horror films nowadays where we don’t see what’s going on because it’s been cut so very fast. So many things happen that you’re not involved on any dramatic level, and that wasn’t my goal at all.”

Earlier this month, filming for the sequel – The Human Centipede (Second Sequence) – already began in London, where the film will be set. First Sequence finishes with the middle piece of the ‘centipede’ ending up in a less-than flattering position, and I’m curious to know what Six has in store for us second time round. Do we ever find out what happens to the girl sewn in the middle?

“Well a lot of people are asking me what happens to the middle girl, but if I answer that I will spoil it.” Needless to say, Six promises “a big surprise”, announcing “a twelve people human centipede” this time round.

Removed from the isolated rural setting of First Sequence and translated to the urban heave and pull of London, Second Sequence looks set to be quite different in tone. “Almost all actors are British – people from television and stage, and all very professional actors. You will recognise them” he adds. Although I can’t help thinking that, by the time Six has finished with them, we might not recognise them at all...

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

REVIEW : Inception

Introducing Matrix-lite: the sugar-free, colour-free, fun-free alternative to a full fat sci-fi. (Now with 25% less imagination than a Charlie Kaufman film.)

Dream hackers, business deals, vengeful dream-wives and “The Subconscious”, the summer's best film...? Have I missed something?

As a professional dream invader, DiCaprio leads a good cast of decent performances in a film which fits the bill of summer blockbuster for thrills and spills. But hailed by most for an intricate plot ambitiously executed, the most puzzling thing about
Inception is how writer-director Christopher Nolan has got away with it.

After coming up with an interesting (if not entirely original) premise, it's taken Nolan nine years to grout over his flaky concept with a thick paste of bullshit, pre-empting any scrutiny with lengthy explanations designed to confuse rather than enlighten. The aim is of course to send audiences home believing they have seen a film which they know was 'very deep' – shorthand for any movie which mixes reality and non-reality, contains big words like "The Subconcious", and requires viewers to stop grazing on popcorn for a moment to consider briefly the plot. And somehow it’s worked: audiences are flooding back for seconds, literally in their dozens.

Inception has none of that tongue-in-cheek comic book bravado which most science fiction needs to embrace to avoid embarrassing itself.

Even when Nolan eases on the explanatory dialogue, leaving us to suspend our own disbelief and get on with being entertained, the crimescene of millionaire Fischer's mind which the film enters is disappointingly neat. There is little of the imagination, the probing ambiguity, or the tantalising emotion of a Charlie Kaufmann psy-fi (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche: New York), nor the stylised finesse of The Matrix as the film which Inception has been compared with most. All this said, it does begin to get fun with the 'dreams within dreams' (even if it’s not quite the stroke of genius that Nolan evidently thinks it is), the shifts in gravity seeping through to the lower level dreams to give the film one its memorable set pieces: a spinning hotel corridor where Nolan stages a (half-hearted) tussle and a falling van of sleeping passengers, filmed in terrific slow motion. Here things finally speed up, the final hour gathering pace thanks to the creatively used special effects, an orchestra of Hanz Zimmer horns, and the impending fate of DiCaprio's team.

Normally in these films, the main man's (and it usually is a man) love interest / personal baggage hampers the film with untimely and distractive plot-threads, but here Cobb's personal beef with his deceased wife provides the film with its most intriguing aspect (although ultimately this says as much about the blandness of the film's clumsily edited action sequences than it does about Nolan's ability to write an engaging love story).

But my main problem with Inception runs thus: Whereas The Matrix took real life and pinned it to an absurdly watertight concept, or Momento, with its dizzyingly post-modern structure adapted from the short story by Nolan's brother Jonathan, survives repeated scrutiny, with Inception, Nolan's fault is that he takes a wild hypothesis full of holes and expects us to swallow it whole. The film has none of that tongue in cheek comic book bravado which most science fiction needs to embrace to avoid embarrassing itself. Instead, as in The Dark Knight, in which Nolan did away with the comic book camp of the Burton Batman films, Inception is all frowns and furrowed brows, and ends up taking itself far too seriously.

Coming close to redeeming himself with a playful final twist, Nolan lets Dom Cobb’s totem (the determiner of dream or reality) spin ambiguously – is he still sleeping or has he genuinely returned to a concrete life with his children?

(Just pretend you didn’t notice the totem begin to topple, confirming the happy ending that Nolan just can't resist... kerdunk!)

Saturday, 17 July 2010

REVIEW: The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

"Four legs good, two legs bad…"

But twelve legs are better in Tom Six’s

already infamous and gripping horror flick.

By now you’ll have seen the trailer and probably doubted whether The Human Centipede is really a genuine film at all or just another online spoof clip. But next month the full film makes its way, on all fours, to cinemas nationwide – and it’s bloody brilliant.

It’s not entirely spoof-free either. The unthinkable premise (for those who’ve spent the past few months in a state of Facebookless, YouTubeless exile) takes us to Germany where Dr. Heiter, an esteemed surgeon, is rounding up tourists with which to create his dream pet: a human centipede compiled of three humans sewn together, arse to mouth, and sharing one long dietary system. Although writer/director Tom Six (Gay In Amsterdam) sought the advice of a qualified surgeon to ensure complete medical authenticity, he paints a thick gloss of parody over his absurd 21st century gothic tale.

From the offset we know who the victims are going to be – and rightly so. Despite their generously aesthetically pleasing qualities, the two backpacking bimbos who say things like “kisses!” and get confused by roadmaps are not only incredibly annoying, they also can’t act (presumably intentional). So when they lose their way and get a puncture while driving through a forest at night and, unable to work their phones to call for help, head for the porch light of the isolated house nearby, we sit back and relax thinking we’ve seen this film a thousand times before. That is until Dr. Heiter reaches for the scalpel.

For all the close ups of anesthetised flesh being pierced and retailored by surgical implements which follow, Six does extremely well to resist the pitfalls of most horror films which make it to UK screens. Favouring almost unbearably intense levels of suspense as much the unflinching gore, the film squats somewhere between the two in relatively untrodden territory. No embittered, disfigured sub-humans with their twisted moralities here, only a superbly cast Dieter Laser (the LEXX series) as our esteemed surgeon who, for all his humanity and longing, has no qualms about making corrective changes to his prisoners in search of the perfect pet.

With excellent comic timing, flicking from smooth criminal to gaunt nutcase with the slightest clench of his razor sharp jaw, Laser takes a bizarre premise and pins it to a character who we love and hate in equal measures. Burlesquing his German accent to the max (“rrrohipnol”), Laser makes the best of Six’s sparse but hilarious dialogue. “Are you alooone?” Dr. Heiter sneers as he welcomes in two fatally naïve American teens soaked through to the skin by sudden rain. Comedy horror disturbing middle-class tranquility will remind horror fans of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which the film's opening motorway sequence no doubt references.

The setting is unique too. In Heiter’s house, Six has staged a pristinely calm and tastefully furnished domestic space around which his victims must crawl in agony, the different rooms providing the backdrops of each scene and making the film feel grimly voyeuristic and episodic, until the final chase scenes. The swimming pool annex also supplies the film with a couple of memorable and particularly tense set pieces. While the centipede (literally) eats its own shit, Dr. Heiter takes a knife to a juicy slab of steak – it all makes for some very dark comedy indeed.

While diehard horror fans might not fill any of the sick bags distributed by cinema staff, I’d suggest only a light dinner afterwards. There’s plenty of originality here to make this the most essential horror viewing of the past five years.

The Human Centipede: crawling to a screen near you on 20 August.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Interview: Fernando Meirelles

On the eve of his first retrospective outside of Brazil, I spoke to director Fernando Meirelles about the lasting legacy of his outstanding masterpiece, City of God...

I am sat in the office of Lúcia Nagib, a published academic authority on world cinema. Opposite me, from behind thick-lensed glasses, smiles the man whom she calls “one of the very best film directors in the world today.”

Fernando Meirelles is in Leeds to give a workshop to the university’s Spanish and Portuguese students before attending his own retrospective at the Bradford International Film Festival, but I find him surprisingly uncomfortable about the opportunity to reflect on his own work. “I try and look forward” he says, “I don’t look back, so I don’t watch my films after they’re released. Maybe when I’m 80 I’ll want to see what I’ve done, but not now.”

“When I shot City of God I was thinking about my Brazilian audience, and showing Brazil to the Brazilians – middle class Brazilians.”

Pushing him to name a favourite, it’s perhaps not surprising that he names City of God, his epic adaptation of Paulo Lins’ autobiographical account of life in Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious favela. Although it has enjoyed unprecedented worldwide popularity since its release in 2002, Meirelles appears just as proud with its domestic popularity amongst Brazilians (a rare accolade for a Brazilian film) as he is with its several Oscar nominations and long list of international awards.

“When I shot the film I was thinking about my Brazilian audience, and showing Brazil to the Brazilians – middle class Brazilians. I read the book and was so amazed to think that these stories were happening next to my house in São Paulo too. So I decided to make that film to help us understand the world which was so close to us. The worldwide success was an accident.”

The film’s influence can be seen in both 2005’s Tsotsi and its depiction of adolescent slum life in South Africa, and 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, the dizzying opening chase scene from which could almost have been lifted directly from Meirelles’ film (down to the very last petrified chicken). But the film has also made its influence felt in more pertinent terms than cinema stylistics.

At the beginning of the century, about one in five of Rio de Janeiro’s population lived (and continue to live) below the poverty line in one of the city’s 600-odd favelas, yet, Meirelles tells me, few people would have even known what a favela was. “To solve a problem the first thing you have to do is see the problem. So first there was the book, and then there was the film, and then television shows and other films all about favelas. Now, Brazil is getting better. There’s still the ‘official’ society and then this invisible society, but now [that the favelas are well-known issue, Rio] is getting much better.

“In the last four years they’ve been trying out what they call the ‘pacifier police’. Usually the police working in the favelas were just about confrontation – at least once every week they would invade to try and hunt the criminals. But now they realised that it’s much more effective to be on the inside rather than invading and parting the community.

“So, in one favela in the centre of Rio, they created a police station in the middle of the favela, which itself is something completely new. And instead of using a man they assigned a woman to control the area, unarmed. She started talking to people and getting the community involved, so that all the people who lived in the favela supported the police and not the criminals. And the project worked so well that now they are setting up these pacifier police stations all over Rio.

“There was a sort of invisibility to the favelas – we couldn’t see them. But with his book Paulo showed us. The drug dealers aren’t controlling the areas anymore – they’ve really been kicked out of the favelas. So the book really triggered a process that made change possible, and it’s working extremely well.” Meirelles’ speech, always very animated, now undulates with enthusiasm.

The process of shooting the film itself seemed to precede this emerging collaboration between the ‘official’ society and those marginalised in the favelas. From a cast which was comprised of children who were themselves from the City of God, Meirelles captured performances which were as close to reality as possible.

“I would ask them to improvise scenes that were already in the script. Then every day I would take notes of whatever they’d say and email them to the writer [Bráulio Mantovani] who would write them into the finished script. The reason [that the boys’ acting] is so good is because they are saying their own words.

“When we were filming all the scenes were rehearsed, but because the actors were not professional actors, instead of saying ‘walk here, stop here, then give this line’ they could walk wherever they wanted and really improvise. Then the camera would tell the story like a documentary.”

Meirelles’ technique of filming unstaged action isn’t surprising considering an early fascination with TV documentaries. “I’m always regretting that I’m not making a documentary. During the ‘80s I had a TV show in Brazil with some friends. It was mostly video journalism but it was normally fake news, and we would talk with real people about subjects that we’d just made up.” He shakes his head nostalgically and gives one of his ever-so-slightly goofy chuckles.
The show was called Olhar Eletrônico, or Electronic Eye, and it had an immediate effect in injecting a new satirical dynamism into Brazilian television. Its daring mixture of genres – faux-investigative reportage laced with quite slapstick comedy, to end up with irreverent satire – and innovative presentation is something that we see throughout all of Meirelles’ feature films since. 2001’s low-budget short Domésticas mixes deadpan comedy with candid talking head confessionals; 2008’s Blindness courted much criticism for its controversial use of blindness as an extended metaphor for humanity’s evil; City of God itself has a dark comic vein pulsing through the film that is sometimes, in the violent context, difficult to stomach.

Clearly well-rehearsed by now at defending the film’s frank representation of such an unforgiving existence, Meirelles is quick to remind me of what the film spares the viewer when I suggest the violence is gratuitous.

“I don’t think the film is gratuitous, at all. On the contrary, I think the film really softens the situation. I mean, we had us about six months of preparation before shooting the film in Rio, and by chance our production company offices were right by the City of God neighbourhood. So during that period I started to collect news from newspapers about what was happening inside the City of God. And in six months 64 boys were killed. In the film we see 20 or 30 boys. But in the reality of just six months it was much more. And the violence is not graphic. If you see any film on television, the violence is much more graphic than in City of God. You don’t see anyone getting shot and falling towards the camera. There is the presence of violence, and at the end of the film see a guy getting shot [in the chest] but it’s a wide shot. You see people dead, but we don’t see people being cut or killed, so the violence is really hidden in the film. And I think that when you hide something, you almost see more of it than when you show it. The mind fills the gap more vividly than the real image.

“Anyway” he continues, a grin creeping across his face, “I think it’s important to be challenging. I really like to be able to establish a dialogue with the audience. I don’t see the point in doing a film if it doesn’t do that, and if it doesn’t give an experience. Cinema is a bit of ritual for us today. We go to the cinema and then when we’re sat around a table later we’ll talk about the film.”
With its brash colours, growling soundtrack of Brazilian beats and brass, and Meirelles’ innovative use of quick-cutting, City of God is a film that is brimming with the presence of aggression, but resists going anywhere near the ultra-violence of many films.

This mastery of suggestion is something that is easy to trace to Meirelles’ early work. Since the ‘80s, Meirelles has been a highly regular presence on Brazilian TV, not only prolific in producing hugely successful comedies and dramas but also the thousands of commercials which he has filmed.

“Shooting commercials was really what taught me how to tell stories with images – it was my film school, and it was a very good film school to learn at. I mean, I’m an editor. I love to edit. That’s really when I feel I’m making the film – in the cutting room. On the set I’m just collecting materials.”

Our 20 minute interview has overrun to become an hour’s talk, and now Meirelles’ and Nagib’s nostalgic talk of life in São Paulo is making the ever-laidback Meirelles late for a Q&A in the Michael Sadler hall. I finish off by asking Meirelles if he has any other feature films in the pipeline. His reply is tentative. “I’m starting to prepare a film to be shot in America, in August, but I can’t say what because it’s not been officially announced yet. It’s about rock and roll, in California, in the ‘60s” he beams, before howling “Oh my God. I’ve told you too much!”
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