Sometimes it’s nice to not get quite what you expected. I watched In Bruges expecting another post-Tarantino and post-Ritchie slice of self-conscious cool, all motor-mouthed hitmen engaging in witty pop-culture digressions and almost-slapstick bouts of graphic violence.

Now, there are elements of this in In Bruges. It is undeniably about a pair of comically mismatched hitmen, Ray and Ken (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson), who certainly engage in their fair share of witty banter as they lie low in the titular medieval Belgian city after a job in London has gone horribly wrong; and there is a fair amount of violence involved in the tale. Fundamentally, however, it is something very different. The humour (and In Bruges is a very, very funny film) is dry, desperate and often painful; it is the laugh of the doomed man who has nothing left to lose and drowns himself in the absurdity of it all. It is a momentary flicker of levity over murky depths of melancholy, ennui and moral crisis.

All of this centres around Colin Farrell, and his performance here, especially to someone who was never much of a fan of his, is a revelation. He has, to be fair, acquitted himself well in some films, notably The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005). But he has done nothing, to these eyes, that suggested the depths of talent he makes evident here. His Ray is a figure of painful vulnerability, conveying a sharp and consuming sadness in every look. He is a man inescapably haunted and tortured by crushing guilt, a manic-depressive prone to despondent brooding broken by sudden eruptions of excitement or violence.

In Bruges is a character study wrapped up in a morality play. Once we learn the nature of Ray’s sin and its repercussions, the comedy dies away, bringing the film’s true colours (accentuated by Carter Burwell’s excellent dirge-like score) to the fore.  It soon becomes evident that the choice of setting is far from arbitrary; the medieval environment, heavy with the memory of the Dark Ages, is the perfect backdrop for this tale of transgression and retribution. Ken and mob boss Harry (Ralph FIennes) arrange themselves on opposite sides of Ray’s Everyman as agents, respectively, of forgiveness and vengeance, New and Old Testament, and McDonagh loads both script and image with enough Christian symbolism to lend the film a sombre, portentous quality, without slipping into cliche or leaden allegory.The thematic fulcrum of the film is a scene where Ray and Ken view Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Last Judgement” in a gallery; Ray, defiantly unmoved by anything else he has seen in Bruges, is clearly stirred, and bares his soul, entering a heartfelt reverie on sin, guilt, atonement and judgement.

The painting’s fantastical imagery is glimpsed again, its monstrous figures erupting into garish life on the cobbled town streets, in the powerfully surreal climactic scene, where judgement finally falls on Ray. It’s a remarkably well-executed scene that culminates in an unexpected, simple yet potentially profound twist that demolishes the rigid morality play code of ethics in one fell swoop.

It’s remarkable how well In Bruges integrates its disparate elements into a whole that feels entirely natural and right. At its most sombre and allegorical, it remains riotously entertaining; at its most whimsically comic, it is nonetheless deeply melancholy. It’s a difficult balancing act, but the pay-off is one of the best films of the year to date, and a hugely promising debut for writer/director Martin McDonagh.

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Illustrating the missing link between PJ Harvey’s early 90s output and the abrasive end of hardcore, Made out of Babies’ third album ranks as one of the most satisfyingly gruelling listens of the year. It’s difficult to say whether these songs would be compelling without Julie Christmas’ remarkable voice, but it’s irrelevant -her versatile cords are never far from the forefront.

To say that Christmas’ vocal range is impressive is an understatement. On opener “Cooker” alone, she delivers an almost Bjork-like warble that soars into a full-bodied, powerful tones before exploding into ragged, gut-wrenching screams. It is this ability to shift from contained tension to savage ferocity at the drop of a coin that colours this album’s jagged and unpredictable emotional register.

If the rest of the band’s contributions struggle to match the raw power of their attention-grabbing frontwoman, there is still plenty to admire. Musically, The Ruiner never veers too far from the hardcore formula – and perhaps it’s a slight occasional reliance on off-the-peg moshpit riffing that keeps the albums from the ranks of the truly great. Nonetheless, there is more than enough variety and impressive craft here to keep one’s interest – from the grandiose melodic tones of “Invisible Ink”, perhaps the most immediately palatable song here, to the taut tension and relentless drive of “Grimace” and the driving, violent rhythms of “Bunny Boots”, the latter matched by Christmas’ most histrionic performance. For a good proportion of the album, Made Out of Babies pull off the tricky combination of strong melodies with quasi-metal intensity and power; in their finest moments, the effect is staggering.

Ultimately, The Ruiner is going to put off as many people as it attracts. It’s too bleak, unsettling and ragged to be an addictive listen, and it does make for an exhausting forty-two minutes. Nonetheless its impact is undeniable, and, even if it’s just slightly let down by a (very) occasional slide into the cliches of the genre, it comes, on its own terms, close to greatness.

Made Out of Babies on MySpace

I love 80s kiddie fantasy films, so I’ve been a bit late picking up on viewing this one…I was flipping through the appropriate nostalgia section of the DVD store with Daniel…Willow *check* The Dark Crystal *check* Never Ending Story *check* Labyrinth *check x 20+* etc…then we came across a film that is not only based on Roald Dahl’s “The Witches”, but also pairs the names Jim Henson and Nicolas Roeg…sounded like a geek-fest 🙂

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its creative team, often straining to balance a tone which seems to attempt to pull off Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) for kids. However, the implacable resilience of this approach is admirable, producing occasionally striking montages of grotesque imagery: low angles and extreme, defamiliarising close-ups of the witches’ faces and other revolting attributes. Particularly striking is the scene where the protagonist, Luke, is turned into a mouse…a scene which we witness through a series of successive first-person shots and drastic low-angles paired with trick photography and kaleidoscope camera movement. Unfortunately, the sugar rush produced by such moments is drowned amidst what appears to be an attempt to preserve as much of Dahl’s general “I’m an ever so cruel-evil-stinky-icky-poo-poo adult” dialogue as physically possible. In general, the need to preserve Dahl’s effective conspiracy with the child by making the serious and boring adult appear the villain is a move I understand and generally thoroughly enjoy, though here it results in audience unrest where what we really want is for Roeg to explode into the more visuals/less talk mode which we know from the masterpiece Don’t Look Now (1973).

Having said this, the black comedy is not completely lost, though it is generally more effective when it transgresses the realm of childhood conspiracy into adult terrain…it is at such moments, when the uneasy mixture of secondary school play dialogue and sleazy innuendo meet, that the film demonstrates the ability to disturb. Most notable in this respect is the scene where Dahl’s greedy-boy archetype Bruno Jenkins is lured into a meeting hall full of witches by the promise of six bars of chocolate, where he will act as guinea pig to a formula which turns children into mice. Amidst a sea of cackling witches disguised as little British old ladies from the RSPCC, Bruno edges closer to the platform where we see the stern and black-satin clad grand high witch (Anjelica Huston) in a medium-shot as she repeatedly thrusts her hips and bites her lower lip, the anticipation appearing to mime masturbation. The reference is misleading enough to pass for general villainous behaviour and slide past the rating board, but the take lasts a few seconds too long for comfort, and reveals Roeg’s talent for winking at the adult over directing exclusively for the child.

Returning to Rosemary’s Baby time and again, the film not only betrays its debt to the classic horror film, but also strives to adapt the most grotesque moments to a children’s film. As previously mentioned, this doesn’t always work due to a swamping amount of dialogue, though the thematic material it borrows does: we have the horror residing inside an innocuous-looking three star hotel in Britain, the sadistic hatred directed at the young by the embittered, and the effective parody of the ambitious middle-class who are duped or reveal their own corruption. In this way, as an adaptation, the film tries for a faithful rendering of a Dahl universe replete with yapping social climbers, grotesque villains and whinging minor characters who converge inside one rather grotty but pretentious British sea-side hotel. The combination is not at all uninteresting, with Rowan Atkinson playing the fumbling hotel manager, as well as a couple of scenes in the kitchen which seem like precursors to the recent Ratatouille (Brad Bird/Jan Pinkava, 2007)…

Overall however, the film often feels like a Jean Pierre Jeunet film in progress, but because of the compromise between its direction and the ratings board, it never fully lives up to its apparent scope. Moreover, what appears to be a hideous post-dub often renders the ample dialogue noxiously unbearable, and presents us with a loss of lip-synch and cast of whinging voices which we’d find only moderately acceptable in an English dub of a foreign language film (think along the lines of the English dub of City of Lost Children (Marc Caro/ Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1995), which I had the misfortune of experiencing).

Finally, if you’re into 80s/early 90s kids’ films you might enjoy the very fact of its uneven tone as an authentic feature of the period…it’s not among the best, but it has its individual iconic moments.

It’s been a pretty good summer blockbuster season. Even without the towering achievement of The Dark Knight, we’ve had some truly great films (WALL-E), some very very good ones (Hellboy II: The Golden Army), and some less-great but still thoroughly enjoyable offerings (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Iron Man). All of which makes the crushing mediocrity of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor even harder to excuse.

Now, The Mummy (Stephen Sommers, 1999) was pretty damn far from what you would call good cinema, but, call it a guilty pleasure if you must, it was good, trashy fun – melding two delightfully old-fashioned genres (the B-movie horror film and the adventure serial), with modern CG spectacle. The Mummy Returns (2001) kinda sucked overall, but it had its moments, and in its better sequences it retained the energy and wit of its predecessor. The law of diminishing returns, however, is in full swing here: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a near-worthless conveyor-belt product, joylessly going through the motions of the series and hoping a change of scenery (China instead of Egypt) will disguise the onset of rigor mortis.

There is nothing interesting, inventive or entertaining about this film, and in no part does it work well. The action takes far too long to get started, and instead, for the first half-hour or so, we’re regaled with a re-introduction to the protagonists, Rick and Evelyn O’Connell (the latter now played by Maria Bello – generally a talented and dependable actress, but here seeming bored throughout). These early scenes are played for broad comedy, but, as with all the numerous attempts at humour in the film, this falls flat. Every trite and unfunny one-liner is lingered over with nudge-wink emphasis, and none succeeds in raising as much as an amused half-smile. Also disappointing is the lack of the chemistry and witty interplay between Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz  – every scene Fraser and Bello share feels lifeless and forced, making the early scenes focusing on their relationship a chore to sit through.

Once the action finally starts, however, you start to wish it hadn’t. Rob Cohen (of The Fast and the Furious and XXX fame) directs these scenes with his trademark uninspired rapid-cutting and shaky camerawork. It’s impossible to figure out exactly what is going on, and impossible to care, because none of the numerous action sequences that make up the whole of the film’s second half offer anything interesting or memorable. More damningly, there’s never the slightest sense of peril or real danger – the lazy plotting means that, again and again, at the moment when the situation threatens to get out of hands, the O’Connells are miraculously saved by some nick-of-time deus ex machina – an ancient magical weapon no-one bothered to mention before, some sub-clause in the unwieldily complicated web of spells surrounding the undead emperor, etcetera. Most jarringly, the good guys are rescued from a battle in the Himalayas that is starting to look hopeless by a gang of Yetis that suddenly show up out of nowhere to do the rescuing and then, just as suddenly, disappear. This happens not once, but twice in the space of five minutes, after which the fluffy protectors go back to wherever the hell they came from and are never spoken of again. This sort of anything-goes plotting is the worst trap a fantasy-tinged narrative can fall into, and it’s inexcusable.

The sheer lack of ideas and facile plotting make themselves most evident when the film resorts to simply lifting scenes from earlier (better) movies. One of the central set-pieces, a brawl in a Shanghai nightclub and a subsequent car chase through the brightly-lit streets of the city, doesn’t even try to hide its plagiarism of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984) – to follow it up with a flight to the Himalayas in a rickety, livestock-laden cargo plane is just insulting.

Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. then, is neither funny, nor thrilling, nor entertaining in the slightest. It’s rarely painful to watch – it’s at least competent – but it is terminally boring, fatally uninteresting and completely forgettable. If anything, it puts Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull into focus – while it was inevitably a disappointment in the light of its unimpeachable predecessors, it had character, ideas and a film-making verve that Tomb of the Dragon Emperor cannot even dream of. Digging up the Mummy franchise a third time was clearly inadvisable – this corpse has started to rot. Perhaps it’s time to lay it to rest for good.

The most auteurist (in the original sense of the word) of major contemporary filmmakers strikes again. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a film that could not have been made by anyone else but Guillermo Del Toro. Every bit as much as Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), it is a parade of Del Toro’s recurring obsessions: the coexistence and interplay of the real world and the mythic/supernatural world, the influence of a forgotten past breaking into the present, clockwork figures and contraptions, tree, root and branch imagery, and a procession of weird and wonderful supernatural or monstrous figures

Del Toro paints his second Hellboy story on a much wider canvas than his first. Where Lovecraftian cosmic horror was the reference point in the first film, here it is Tolkienesque epic fantasy, with allusions abounding to a past age where elves, trolls and goblins lived alongside humankind.  Despite the mythic depths this opens onto, however, Hellboy II is not The Dark Knight. Although it leavens its knowing, tongue-in-cheek irony with moments of genuine wonder and poetry (or perhaps that should be the other way round), this is a film that is gleeful, riotous fun first of all. Hellboy does most of his communicating with his big handgun and his even bigger red stone right hand, and the story never wanders far from the next thrilling, no-holds-barred fight.

There is a lot in Hellboy II that works wonderfully. As with the first film, the cast of lovably endearing characters that make up the BPRD – Hellboy himself (Ron Perlman, as perfect as ever), Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and newcomer Johan Krauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) are the film’s heart and soul, and they are faultlessly judged in their very human foibles and hang-ups (Krauss perhaps comes off the worst, acting as little more than uncomplicated comic relief, but he is very effective comic relief, so that’s not really much of an issue). These are characters you care for, with the result that the two romantic relationships that underpin the film emotionally – predictable as they are – are affecting and involving. This also means that one of the best moments in the film – Hellboy and Abe’s drunken singalong to Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” – is cute, sympathetic and amusing where it could have been trite and corny.

As always with Del Toro’s films, the interlocking of the real and the fantastical worlds is perfectly judged. In this regard, Hellboy II is even more Del Toro-esque than the original, conjuring up a mystical shadow-world of fairies, elves and trolls existing in the dark and hidden places of the world that reflects the most enduring images of faerie lore and folk-tales.

The narrated prologue explaining the origin of the Golden Army (framed as a bedtime story told to a young Hellboy, and brilliantly visualized through toy-like make-believe figures) strongly recalls the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), and achieves a similar level of mythic grandeur. It’s an astonishing scene and a perfectly-judged opening, and it’s far from the only standout sequence. The forest god Prince Nuala unleashes on Hellboy (and Manhattan) about halfway through the film is a richly-imagined creation, and is responsible for the most strikingly beautiful scene in the film – a scene which, like the forest god itself, owes much to the pantheistic poetry of the Miyazaki of Princess Mononoke (1997). And this is only one of the delightfully inventive and gorgeously-imagined fantastical encounters and scenes that populate the film. The troll market, for instance, is the cantina scene from Star Wars (1977) by way of 1980s fantasy, a rich cornucopia of wondrous creatures filling every corner of the frame. And the encounter with the Angel of Death (one of the most riveting creations of Del Toro’s career, and that’s saying something) approaches the intensity and power of the best moments of Pan’s Labyrinth.

There is, then, a lot in Hellboy II, and most of it is great, and a lot of it brilliant. But it often feels like there is too much, and little of it is allowed space to breathe. The moment a scene starts digging its claws into you and dragging you somewhere wonderful, the film cuts to something else – something equally interesting, or entertaining, or awe-inspiring, but then that’s gone too just as you start getting involved in it. It’s not exactly that the film feels rushed, more that it seems like too many disparate strands and moods are squeezed into too small a space. The pacing problems therefore spill over into tonal issues; the appeal of Hellboy – in print and celluloid form – has always been the seamless blending of seemingly incongruous themes and cultural references, but here the seams start to show. Hellboy II will often move from mythic to a slapstick-inflected punch-up, to a tender romantic interlude. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle, but, while all the individual scenes are, almost invariably, great, they don’t always gel as well as they should, with the result that Hellboy II sometimes feels like less than the sum of its (impressive) parts.

There is another issue with the film, and it’s to do with the narrative structure of the series as a whole. Fundamentally, in Hellboy II we don’t learn anything new about Hellboy or any of the other members of the BPRD. No overarching story is progressed or developed; in fact, the whole film has the feel of an episode in a TV series – a stand-alone, self-contained adventure is set up and resolved, but, apart from a couple of minor plot points, everything stays the same, ready for the next episode. This does have the advantage of making the film perfectly comprehensible for newcomers in a way that, say, the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films weren’t, but you can’t help but wish Del Toro had been just a little more ambitious with his plotting for the series as a whole.

All of this probably sounds more negative than my impression of Hellboy II actually was. On a level of pure entertainment it beats just about anything else this summer, and there is rare imaginative brilliance and film-making skill in its finest moments. It is a film I will undoubtedly watch (and enjoy) again and again, but it is a film that disappointingly falls short of the greatness that lies within its grasp.

I had heard about Teeth a while back but I wasn’t holding my breath about it coming to Malta…so after its completely unexpected release in a local cinema last week (the release actually turned out to be a week after its announcement, but anyway…), I rushed off to watch it.

A couple of the inept local reviewers have received it very poorly, with as much ignorance and bitter dismissiveness as you’d generally expect…but Teeth, to anyone familiar with its blend of tones and genres, will ring as an instant cult classic.

The basic plot is simple, and without a viewing, it is difficult to persuade anyone who isn’t into horror films that it’s worth a watch: In a little back-water town over-run by a mix of fanatically Christian teens and violent eccentrics, the protagonist Dawn O’Keefe (Dawn of the teeth?) struggles with issues of religious purity and abstinence. After battling with the unconscious knowledge that her fear of sex is due to her possession of the mythical “vagina dentata”, she finally launches into a semi-quest to discover the nature of her own sexuality and possibly, her feminist purpose. See what I mean? Because of the plot level, the film is simply difficult to justify…

However, Lichtenstein’s delivery of his script is a completely different story, offering an unnerving and mildly surreal treatment of the horror/coming of age combination. After a rough calculation, I’ve drawn up an approximate formula for the whole…ask Richard Kelly and Dario Argento to co-write the script, then get Sophia Coppola and David Lynch to co-direct it, while of course channelling the spirit of Angela Carter in order to tell them where to feminist it up in an appropriately merciless way…and you have something like Teeth.


Because of this, the fact that the film often panders to the film buff’s taste is not a secret from the opening sequence, though it never deters from the overall impressiveness of Lichtenstein’s innovative mixture of main influences. In a Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001) like moment, the film opens on a gloriously exciting note as the camera ominously pans across a landscape featuring two prominent nuclear power plant towers. These smoke away to a Lynchian rumble pumped up by a stressed B-movie style chord. Slow pan and zoom into a mundane suburban scene featuring a flashback which forms a key plot device, and the scene is set for an odd ride into an indie coming of age movie.

In-keeping with Lichtenstein’s family legacy, Teeth’s development proves self-consciously postmodern as it continuously blends pop artefacts with mythological references: a giant 50s B-movie scorpion from a late night feature repeatedly interrupts Dawn’s sexual fantasies, while icons like the nuclear plant towers replace monuments of fertility as the film continues to playfully conflate phallic and yonic imagery. Most impressive of these scenes is probably a travelling interior shot of a half-submerged cave bearing rows of dangling stalactites, the mood rendered both ethereal and sinister by pools of reflected light and a continuously excellent and unpredictable soundtrack.

Teeth‘s strength admittedly lies more in its power as a coming of age story than a horror film, given that it is at its best when retro horror imagery is used to signify and emphasise the stammering awkwardness and barely suppressed hormones of its characters. Particularly striking is Jess Weixler’s performance as the neurotic Dawn, whose suppressed hysteria is amplified through disjunctive editing and a film stock which shifts between soft documentary-like grain and vivid, sharp daydream moments. Linking it to Saved (Brian Dannelly, 2004), the film also toys heavily with the moral claustrophobia evoked by Christian teen organisations. However, this isn’t the clumsy but well-meaning community of Saved, and as Dawn ekes out the most painfully awkward catchphrases about a campaign for virginity called ‘The Promise’ to a choral flock of village of the damned style pre-teens, the film possibly reaches one of its highest peaks…for anyone raised in a heavily Christian community, these scenes will ring in an eerily accurate tone.

Once the tone shifts into slasher mode, there is a considerable loss in mood and the endearing nature of the teen angst which had been developing for a large part of the running time is somewhat lost. The transition however appears calculated; Dawn is transformed along with glossier visuals and the unnervingly ambiguous motivation behind every character’s actions which had been so effective throughout is also abandoned.

By the end, the movie is decidedly pop-feminist, somewhere on the verge of launching into Tarantino’s “I’m so going to kick your ass you sick bastard!” ending to Deathproof (2007). That every man in the film is either charicaturely evil, shady or ineffectual might be a point for scepticism, but this factor is easily outnumbered by an infinite supply of misogynistic crap which passes for both Freudian tinged art house and mainstream horror. Overall, it is refreshing to watch such a quirky, original film which centers around a female protagonist, representing both the sardonic and erotic details of everyday life with intrigue and a dollop of black humour.

Worth a watch, especially for anyone into cult, indie geek and genre-bending horror 🙂 Also, watch out for the scariest old guy ever caught on film….

kuntrabanda!

September 5, 2008

In 2006 a little band called Brikkuni played two shows – one in Scaremongering’s Memento Mori exhibition in Valletta, the other, a few days later, in a hay-strewn Poxx Bar – and instantly proved themselves to be possibly the most exciting Maltese band since, well, ever. Their mixture of local and foreign folk influences, a harsh satirical eye, carnivalesque pop energy, inventive songwriting and rich instrumentation set them apart from the unambitiously derivative output many local bands unfortunately fall into. Not only did it sound like something new, it sounded like an idiosyncratically Maltese take on pop music, with its own distinct character that could not have emerged anywhere else. More importantly, their gigs were capitalized, italicized Fun, and the local scene was left wanting more.

Then…they went under the radar.

Now, with some changes in lineup, they’re back, with big news. They’ve been working hard on debut album Kuntrabanda!, which shall be out soon. Some shows are also planned for the near future, though details are still unavailable. If you’re already acquainted with the band, you need no encouragement. If you aren’t – make some space in your schedule.

You can listen to a couple of (unmastered) tracks from the album by following the link below. Those present at the 2006 gigs will remember the songs…

Brikkuni on MySpace