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!)

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