Hot cosmic mess

Filmmaker Luc Besson has twice made the most expensive French movie ever. The Fifth Element held the title back in 1997, it cost $100m, and twenty years later he’s grabbed it again, for around $100m more, with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Both movies are science fiction/fantasy adventures, heavily influenced by the comic book work of Jean-Claude Mézières. Whereas The Fifth Element was based on a screenplay Besson wrote when he was sixteen, and inspired also by the fantasy art of Moebius (Jean Giraud), his new movie is based strictly on the comic books of Mézières. Both are two sides of the same coin, and both are space junk, or cosmic bubblegum, depending on one’s sensibilities. 

Yes, I freely admit The Fifth Element is not my cup of cartoon tea. It rubbed me up the wrong way back in 1996, and I voiced my opinion in the local newspaper. I got a fair amount of flak for it, but I continue to stick by my guns. I attempted to watch it again around fifteen years ago, but I couldn’t finish it. It’s a pet loathing of mine, you could say.

So, I’m not quite sure what compelled me to run Luc’s intergalactic gauntlet again, but I did. Perhaps I was appealing to the residuals of joy that Besson’s early movies gave me. I saw Subway, The Big Blue, and La Femme Nikita at film festivals when they were first released and, yes, they definitely have silly moments, but the screenplays and characterisations aren’t as obnoxious and offensive than in Besson’s later work.

I’m not going to bore you with the plot shenanigans of Valerian, suffice to say that it’s as ludicrous as The Fifth Element, which Besson co-wrote. Besson wrote Valerian on his own, using the central characters from Mézières’ comic book stories, and conjuring his own space opera. But both The Fifth Element and Valerian come across as written by a fifteen-year-old. They are as juvenile and puerile as they are colourful and comic. But Besson doesn’t really know any better, he creates extravagant, flamboyant, self-indulgent cartoons that the French seem to love, and which polarise audiences elsewhere.

Okay then, two special operatives, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), are assigned to investigate and sort out a mysterious situation that has arisen on Alpha, a mega-city in space, home to a thousand interstellar species. The two challenged romantics must safeguard a threatened alien race and serve justice, and maybe, just maybe, Valerian will get Laureline to marry him too.

If you’re not easily annoyed then Valerian might be enjoyed on a so-bad-it’s-good level, but I’ve always found that defence a cop-out. A bad movie is a bad movie is a bad movie. If Valerian’s lead roles weren’t so poorly written and badly cast, but DeHaan is woefully wooden and bleary-eyed. There is zero chemistry between DeHaan and Delevingne. She certainly has charisma in spades, and she does the best she can with what she's got, but, really, the movie should be called Laureline, not Valerian.

I have to concede, the people who loved The Fifth Element will probably love Valerian. Both movies are cut from the same cloth. Which brings me to aesthetics. Other critics are hailing Valerian for being gorgeous and beautiful, but it’s not my style of science fantasy. The production design and art direction is cheesy, too clean and smooth, the lighting reminds me of flat 80s television, and the costuming is like a camp carnival parade. The entire movie is a trainwreck of nods and inspiration from half a dozen or so other movies and television; Barbarella, Flash Gordon, Return of the Jedi, Babylon 5, Doctor Who, Avatar, even the worlds of Jim Henson are present.

Throw in cameos from Ethan Hawke (mildly amusing) and John Goodman (voice only), a sexy, but utterly indulgent cabaret performance from Rihanna (Besson couldn’t help himself, he does this kind of thing in almost every movie), and Rutger Hauer (billed on the poster, but has about 30-seconds screen time, and acts terribly), and a supporting role by Clive Owen (who really should've known better, but I guess the pay cheque was too good to resist).

Yes, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one very hot cosmic mess.

Or, as I mentioned earlier, you could treat the whole thing like bubblegum. It might taste full and fruity for the first twenty minutes or so, but the movie runs for nearly two-and-a-half hours. I never chew gum that long.



Tame tulip

Zalman King had a lengthy career as an actor, from the mid-60s to the early 80s. The only movie I’ve seen him in was the sci-fi horror cult “classic” Galaxy of Terror from 1981. After co-writing the screenplay to Adrian Lyne’s erotic drama 9-and-a-half Weeks (1986) with Patricia Knopp he re-invented himself as a filmmaker of erotic fare. Firstly with Two Moon Junction in 1988, starring a young Sherilyn Fenn (yet to become a household name with the success of Twin Peaks), and then in 1990 with his directorial follow up Wild Orchid (also co-penned with Knopp), starring Mickey Rourke, Jacqueline Bisset, and introducing Carré Otis, who had been a teenage model, fast becoming the visage du jour of the fashion world.

King became very successful making erotic dramas, most notably the Red Shoe Diaries series for cable television. But it was the international success of both 9-and-a-half Weeks and Wild Orchid, which cost $US7m and made $US100m worldwide that enabled him to leave the acting world behind. The Europeans loved Wild Orchid, but it performed poorly elsewhere (notching up a couple of Razzie nominations for Rourke and Otis). I saw it on its original theatrical release; like everyone else I was curious about the controversy surrounding the movie’s major sex scene, and I won’t lie, I’ve always had a hardened soft spot for a lush, erotic movie, but Wild Orchid is not a a very decent one, my memory of it had been blurred through deep rose-coloured glasses. 

At the time of its production Mickey Rourke had already made moves into the world of boxing. As a result he’d had facial reconstruction, and you can see there is definitely something different about his appearance, compared to the Mickey Rourke of Angel Heart two years earlier. He looks puffy (cheek implants and a brow lift), a result of recent surgery and the humidity of Rio, where the movie was filmed. It wouldn’t be long before he would be unrecognisable, the rugged good looks gone, replaced by years of pummelling in the ring, and more and more plastic surgery.

Rourke and Otis married shortly after Wild Orchid was completed, and it’s undeniable there is a chemistry between them, but it doesn’t make for compelling viewing. Otis is no thespian, and Rourke is sleepwalking, in complete French vanilla (read: over-tanned) mode. Meanwhile Jacqueline Bisset chews every last piece of scenery she’s placed amidst. A young Bruce Greenwood plays a small part and, surprisingly, gets his kit off, although it’s very doubtful that’s his taut naked butt on screen. Spanish star Assumpta Serna, star of Almodovar’s searingly erotic Matador (1986)also has a small role, but neither of these accomplished actors are able to lift Wild Orchid’s tame game. 

Otis plays Emily, a smart, young, beautiful ingenue who travels to NYC and immediately gets a job with a law firm. Her first job is to fly to South America with one of the firm’s top executives, Claudia (Bisset), to assist on a hotel sale. It is here in exotic Rio that Otis meets Wheeler (Rourke), a wealthy mystery man who swiftly makes Emily both his muse and his conquest. Otis is used as a pawn for Wheeler’s perverse gratification, yet she falls for his wily charms, even if he is a creepy sleaze machine with major intimacy problems. 

Not even the locations of Salvadar, Bahia, and Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, can save Wild Orchid from floundering in the tepid shallow end of the pool. The writing's on the wall from the moment a porn-flavoured saxophone wails over a blistering sunset silhouette as the movie's opening montage and garish title credit fills the screen. Later, a local couple are having passionate, but oh-so-very choreographed sex in a derelict hotel, with Emily as awkward voyeur. Later still, a sultry masquerade dance, and sex with a stranger while el creepo looks on, do little to stir the loins. But not even the long anticipated, apparently unsimulated (though both actors deny it) intercourse between Wheeler and Emily, which happens in the movie’s final minutes, raises the brow. It was this “torrid” scene which made the MPAA threaten to slap the movie with the dreaded X rating. So King trimmed a few overhead shots (revealing pubic hair, and slightly more convincing rhythmic action from both parties) and the movie was given the far more distributable R-rating. But, let's call this spade a spade, even the uncut version holds little raunch factor. 

Wild Orchid was the flower that scuttled Rourke’s acting career for more than ten years. It’s strictly one for the Mickey Rourke completists, the Carré Otis enthusiasts, or the Jacqueline Bisset aficionados. Now I'm feeling the strange urge to re-watch Nicolas Cage's Zandalee ... 

Wild Orchid is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Via Vision Entertainment in the cut R-rated version, with no extras. 

Where are my friends?

“All it takes to be a DJ is a laptop, some talent, and one track.” As I hear/see that line my eyes roll back into my head and my body starts to convulse. I’m having a toxic reaction to what is, essentially, Hollywood’s jump-on-the-band-wagon manifestation of Electronic Dance Music (EDM) culture. But before I launch into my vitriolic froth, I must point out that I have been a professional DJ for more than twenty years. Yes, I am a grumpy old man, I will freely admit this. But I must also stress that, as an X-Genner, I have been lucky enough to experience clubbing the good old-fashioned way, when fashion wasn't so uniform, when house music was proper, you worked up a real sweat, and the disco biscuits didn’t crumble. 

We Are Your Friends stars Zac Ephron as Cole, a 23-year-old San Fernando Valley boy with a big pair of Pioneer (product placement slap) headphones perpetually around his neck and three buddies, each with their own angle; Mason (Jonny Weston) - the cocky, pushy socialite, Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) - the wannabe actor who deals drugs, and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) - the mousey, slightly nerdy one. It’s Squirrel who gets the best line in the whole movie, when he raises his shot glass with this mates to say, “This is my favourite part of the night … The moment before it begins.” Yup, all know that moment, we can all empathise

“Are we ever going to be better than this?” [Ed: Geez, I hope so!] This is another line of Squirrel’s which Cole records (it’s revealed at movie’s end he has been secretly recording and archiving dialogue and the natural sounds around him) and ultimately uses as a hook in his own original EDM piece, which eventually gets played in full at movie’s end during the Summer Fest scene when Cole lands his first big gig, courtesy of his mentor, the older, seemingly washed-up DJ, and alcoholic to boot, James Reed (Wes Bentley). Reed has done more than just take Cole under his wing, he’s inadvertently introduced him to his beautiful girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), and, as Sophie later rationalises with a shrug, the inevitable happens. Cole and Sophie get it on, James finds out, James is not happy Jan, and the shit hits the fan, but the boy ultimately gets the girl, because this is a romance at the end of the day. 

But let’s forget about the romantic sub-plot for a minute, and focus on the main narrative thread; the rise, stumble, and rise of DJ Cole. “These days you can invent an app, start a blog, sell shit online, but if you’re a DJ you’re gonna need to start with one track. And if it’s real enough, and honest enough, and if it’s made of everything that’s made you; where you come from, who you knew, your history, then you may have a chance of connecting with everyone else, and maybe that’s your ticket, to everything.” 

What a load of fluking bollocks. This is a movie about entitlement and greased opportunities. There is almost no real friction, there is virtually no sweat broken, and the beats are encased in a sheen so bright and clean you could snort coke off of them. Where's the underground?? Where's the authenticity? Apparently an LA DJ who goes by the moniker of Them Jeans was the technical consultant and gave Zac Ephron a crash course in How To DJ on a pair of Pioneer CDJ-2000s. 

Well, okay, maybe this whole "one track" magic trick is true for the i-Generation. But then, with the exception of the synth intro to Cole’s original piece, I found all of the music in We Are Your Friends to be soulless, poppy rubbish. There was no “jazz” swing floating on the four-to-the-floor, or “funk” grind to be found behind the groove, no human space in between the synthetic rhythm, no real room to move. This is the main gripe I have with 95% of “EDM”. But the issue runs deeper than this. 

The producer of We Are Your Friends, one Robert Silverman, with no other movies to his credit, is a fan of EDM. He supplied the hackneyed story, which was then turned into a screenplay by director Max Joseph, on his feature debut, and co-scripted with Meaghan Oppenheimer, who apparently had a feature script on the 2013 Black List. I think these two read about clubbing and DJ culture in an article in a magazine. Silverman refers to EDM as a genre of music. For fuck’s sake, it’s not a genre. It’s a damn American pigeon-hole for everything electronic that throbs and pulses. Genres are “house”, “techno”, “drum and bass”, etc. Electronic Dance Music is not a fucking genre, it's a broad sweeping term that didn't exist until commercial America realised the revenue that could be made from it. It’s a blight on the dancefloor and festival circuit, if anything. 

But, hey, what do I know? I’m just a veteran DJ and independent music producer. 

I’m just a grumpy old man. 

Joseph and Oppenheimer’s screenplay is riddled with cliches. You can see the plot points on the distant horizon. Everything is so homogenised, so sub-culture lite. Cole and his buddies look more like Calvin Klein models than Valley kids. There is no grime, it's all polished and ultra-pretty. Even the inevitable tragedy is treated with kid gloves. The movie would’ve been a damn sight more interesting if it had been set in the mid-70s, with Cole and his mates being young, gay, black, pot-smoking, street kids and misfits, hanging around Coney Island, and Cole is seduced by the sounds of underground uptempo funk and dirty disco, introduced to the Brooklyn club scene, then lured into the city, being mistreated as bridge and tunnel trash, eventually meeting some cool cats, tasting MDA for the first time, playing vinyl at a house party, subsequently landing a gig in the downtown party network, then finally a storming set at the Gallery. And maybe if the movie had been called Music Dance Addiction.

Or something like that. But, that’s because I’m an X-Genner. 

EDM is the sound of the younger generation. So, We Are Your Friends supposedly speaks to them, and not to me. What a wash-out. 

“Rocking a party, step one. So it's the DJ's job to get the crowd out of their heads, and into their bodies. So in order to do that, you need, at the very least a caveman's sense of rhythm, a cursory knowledge of mathematics, and the broad strokes of ninth grade biology. For example, the bassline controls this region of the body right here [pelvis, hips] … Next you want to zero in on their heartbeats. I like to start 'em off at about 120 beats-per-minute. That's equivalent to the heartbeat of a long-distant runner. You see BPM is the name of the game. It governs how your body moves … Once you've locked on to their heart rate, you start bringing them up song by song. There's a popular myth that 128 beats-per-minute is the rate that synergizes most with your heartbeat. That's the magic number. Once you've gotten your crowd there, you're controlling their entire circulatory system.”

I’m having another toxic reaction … My eyes are rolling back into my head. 

Apparently the film grossed an average $758 from 2,333 cinemas in its opening weekend. This was the fourth worst debut for a film with a 2,000+ cinema average. Go figure. 

Hey, there are worse movies out there. We Are Your Friends is filled with eye candy, the performances are fine, although I never for one minute believed any of the actors in their respective roles, and the vibe it tries to exude is a heartfelt one, genuine in its hollowness. There aren’t many dramas set in this specialised world at all, so maybe that’s why I actually kinda enjoyed watching it. It held a morbid fascination. If that sounds hypocritical, then so be it. 

1995 - 2005, the Golden Age of House Music. 

The Cool Few

I have a cool/meh relationship with QT. It’s not a love/hate thing, those emotions are too passionate, which is kind of amusing, since Tarantino is very much a passionate kind of filmmaker. I used to think he was pretty bloody awesome. But that was six features ago, after he made the dripping-with-cool Pulp Fiction, and it became the first ever movie I saw twice in one day.

Many Tarantino fans rate Jackie Brown as one of his best, but that was ultimately a meh movie for me. That was the third feature. The fourth was Kill Bill (a visually arresting, but uneven and very self-conscious four hour opus split into two halves), then the very meh Death Proof, followed by the reasonably cool Inglourious Basterds, the meh Django Unchained, which brings us to the slightly less meh eighth feature, The Hateful Eight. 

For me, Tarantino started at the top and has been working his way down. Much the same way Orson Welles described his career. Reservoir Dogs, although ripped off from Ringo Lam’s City on Fire, is a lean, mean fighting machine full of anger and attitude, but without the histrionics that soon plague the director’s work. Sure, it’s talky and cocky, but that’s Tarantino’s schtick, and back in 1992 that schtick worked a treat.

But QT’s been hammering the same schtick for the past twenty-plus years. It’s become really boring. The Hateful Eight is in many ways the culmination of years of referencing favourite directors and cult classic movies, all of which have been burned into the retina of Tarantino from his obsessive years behind the counter at Video Archives rental store.

There’s no denying the man knows his movies. He’s a goddam walking encyclopedia on gangster, Western, Martial Arts, horror, exploitation, and other cult genres. Speaking of which, it’s about bloody time he made a horror movie. Ever since I read about his love of Fulci and Argento movies, I’ve been waiting for him to wield his schtick and whip some bloody ass. Apparently he feels he has a couple more features left in his oeuvre. He reckons to be recognized as a Western director he has to make three Westerns, and QT would very much like to be remembered as a director of Westerns. So, that means one of the next two movies will be another Western.

Which brings me back to The Hateful Eight, the main point of contention in this spit. A movie Tarantino went out of his way to film and release in the same majestic fashion as the Westerns of yesteryear. He dusted off a fuck-off huge Panavision Panaflex System 65 (projected in 70mm) and delivered a three-hour post-Civil War talkfest, complete with Overture and Intermission.

The usual suspects have been rounded up: Samuel Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen. Through in Bruce Dern, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Walter Goggins, James Parks, and Channing Tatum, and you’ve got a real thick brew of coffee stewing away on the stovetop of Minnie’s Haberdashery in Red Rock, Wyoming. It’s gonna be a cold couple of days and nights, best rug up.

The curious thing about QT’s movies is that I feel beguiled by them as I’m watching, curious to where they’re going, what explosion of violence might ensue, what verbose piece of vocab will spill from a character’s mug, what piece of music or song will be used to contrast against the scene. It’s afterwards when I find myself reacting to the movie in an intense way, feeling the hollow pang of a movie that has been so very meh.

Very little actually happens in the three hours of The Hateful Eight (of which there are more than eight, which makes the title meaningless). It’s essentially an Agatha Christie style mystery playhouse masquerading as a Western. And, I found the use of the 70mm format almost entirely wasted (and it didn’t help that the cinema I was in had a focus soft spot in the middle of the right hand side of the screen!) Why didn’t Tarantino use more Leone-style ECUs; get into the pores of the characters, use more split–screen focus, have more of the movie set out in the stunning snow-laden landscape?

Ennio Morricone’s score (including two outtakes from Carpenter’s The Thing) is very good. The posters are great. The performances are a mixed bag. I enjoyed Walter Goggins the most, but Zoe Bell - who couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag if she tried - is quite possibly the WORST casting decision ever – and the costuming and production design are satisfyingly authentic, but Jennifer Jason Leigh’s black eye was a travesty of special effects makeup, and the two major gore gags were so quick, if you blinked you missed them!

What should’ve been a “Wham! Bam! Thank you, Ma’am!” piece of widescreen Wild Bunch mayhem turned out to be a laborious boxed-in soapbox rant on racism. I’m so over Tarantino’s I’m-a-nigger-trapped-in-a-honky’s-body lament. Leave the socio-politics alone QT, especially in this neo-conservative age, and just make a balls-to-the-wall scary-as-fuck horror movie, like I know you have buried inside your cluttered, homage-ridden mind. 

No love lost here

Supposedly Gaspar Noe has wanted to make a movie like Love for many years. He approached Vincent Cassell and Monica Bellucci, a couple in real life, and asked them if they’d be willing to perform actual sex on camera for a drama about love in all its capacities. They declined. Frustrated Noe then concocted a rape-revenge flick with (mostly) simulated sex (including a graphic rape) and re-approached the couple. This time the couple agreed (the actual sex was of fellatio in the background of a party scene), and the movie was Irreversible (2002).

Twelve years later Noe manages to get the movie he had originally envisioned made, but no big stars on board. The result is Love, starring three unknowns: Karl Glusman as Murphy, Aomi Muock as Electra, and Klara Kristin as Omi. It’s a melodrama about a love triangle. Murphy, an American living in Paris, meets Electra, a Parisian. They fall in love. They meet their neighbor, Omi, another Parisian, and seduce her into a threesome. Murphy begins seeing Omi on the sly, and gets her pregnant almost immediately. She decides to keep the baby, so Murphy is forced to confess his infidelity to Electra, who, understandably, is furious and inconsolable. Murphy becomes hitched with Omi, father to her child.

The movie focuses on Murphy’s regret; cheating on Electra and becoming tied down with Omi. Electra has gone missing and Murphy feels guilt and remorse. His relationship with Electra is seen in flashback.

Noe is a talented filmmaker and is one of the few contemporary directors prepared to push the mainstream envelope in terms of narrative stylistics and content. His numerous short films and his three other features, I Stand Alone (1998), Irreversible, Enter the Void (2009) all deal with a sense of carnal nihilism. Love is the least violent, but in many respects it is his most depressing. The narrative wallows in lamentation and self-loathing, but unlike I Stand Alone, which is viewed through the tunnel vision of a psychopath, and makes no excuses for it, Love features a protagonist who seems designed to infuriate the audience with his self-pity, selfish behaviour, and overall lack of personality.

The two women, a brunette and a blonde, both gorgeous, are rendered to the role of relatively thankless notches on Murphy's belt. During the two-hour running time the audience never gets to really know either of them. The pivotal "soul-mate" chemistry between Murphy and Electra is only hinted at, but it demands to be the spine of the movie. There is more time spent in the tableaux-esque sex scenes, which are about as languid as a stoned sloth. 

To set the record straight, Love isn’t porn, certainly not in the conventional sense. Noe doesn’t direct the sex scenes like regular porn, with close-ups. Yes, there is actual fellatio and cunnilingus and penetration, but it’s all shot in the same matter-of-fact, master shot way Michael Winterbottom shot 9 Songs, a movie that is curiously similar; both dealing with the collapse of a relationship, told in flashback, where the most interesting scenes are not of the explicit sex, but of the characters breaking apart from each other.

Noe certainly has a distinct, even idiosyncratic mise-en-scene, and his audio-visual style through all his features and shorts is impressive, there’s no denying that, but he’s also an incredibly narcissistic director, and Love looks and feels like his most egotistical vanity project yet. Murphy plays a wannabe film director who wants to make the ultimate film about sentimental sexuality. He names his son Gaspar. Noe plays an art gallery curator called ... Noe, who was Electra’s previous lover, and whom gets caught in the crossfire of a drunken, assholish Murphy at an exhibition opening.

The use of source music is refreshing; Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, Pink Floyd’s Is There Anybody Out There? and Goblin’s Profondo Rosso are used to sultry effect, but again it feels very much part of Noe’s indulgent wallow in sexual semantics. By the time the movie begins to wrap up (and it takes ages) and Murphy is clutching onto straws, sobbing in the bath whilst his son watches on, unsure what to make of his miserable father, the audience is left emotionally bereft, and without any sympathy toward Murphy. Not that there was much for him in the first place.

By the end of the movie I was left feeling hollow and vaguely dejected. Love isn’t a joyful experience, it’s a rather depressing movie. The (anticipated) cum shot, with added CGI jizz, looked contrived in 2D. I'm sure in 3D it would've appeared downright gimmicky. Perhaps the immersive 3D experience in the cinema might have been a more enjoyable romp, but I doubt it. Is Love a fantasy-infused biopic of the young, reckless Noe? Probably. Does it make for good cinema? I’m not sold. Hopefully one day Noe might consider directing someone else’s screenplay. “If you fall in love, you’re the loser,” says one of the characters. Hmmm. 

The Stench Of Youth

Nearly twenty years ago photographer-cum-filmmaker Larry Clark unleashed Kids, a raw, unflinching look at NYC teenagers and their casual and reckless existence. It was as confronting as it was infuriating, a grimy and lurid piece of urban street art masquerading as a docu-drama. Now, Clark returns to the same desolate wasteland of youth he has been obsessed with for the past forty odd years, only this time it’s the summertime of Paris. 

With little plot to speak of The Smell Of Us follows a rag-tag bunch of, mostly, wastrels who spend most of their time hanging out skateboarding near the Eiffel Tower. Many of the boys are male escorts who have taken to prostitution via online ads they see on the porn channels they watch on their phones. They make fast cash by selling sexual favours to rich middle-aged, and older, men and women. The money is squandered on drugs, booze, sweatshirts and sneakers.

Their lives are one big vacuous, vicious circle jerk.

The central figures are Mat (Lukas Ionesco), the Michelangelo-looking garçon de la ville, who seemingly wears the same red boxers for days on end, and drifts in a half-stupor, JP (Hugo Behar-Thinières), openly gay, and fatally in love with Mat, and Marie (Diane Rouxel), the hip damsel in the middle (and the only young female speaking part). There’s also Guillame (Ryan Ben Yaiche), Pacman (Théo Cholbi), and Toff (Terin Maxime), the silent videographer - and a reflection of a young Larry Clark circa Tulsa, perhaps? Larry Clark makes a curious cameo as Rockstar, a wretched derelict (but is that him also as the unctuous client sucking Mat’s toes, I couldn’t be sure??)

Clark’s fascination with wasted youth and ruined dreams has been the centre of much of his work since he published his influential book of photographs, Tulsa, in the early 70s. The skateboarding, druggie world has also been prevalent in several of his features, especially Kids, Ken Park (his most controversial movie) and Wassup Rockers. Perhaps partially because of the restricted distribution of Ken Park Clark decided to seek French funding and distribution for The Smell Of Us so he could indulge in his fetishistic sensibility for graphic teenage sex and not have to worry so much about the moral fervor backlash of his homeland.

The rough and dirty sensuality that exudes from the mise-en-scene of Kids, and the incisive drama that punctuates his two best films, Another Day in Paradise and Bully, is entirely missing from The Smell Of Us. Clark’s unashamedly voyeuristic perspective feels all the more uncomfortable, especially as the seventy-two-year-old appears in the movie, in and amongst his so-called muses. Yup, it smacks of Very Dirty Old Man material indeed, as Clark has his camera linger again and again across the crotches of his male actors for no apparent reason than to satisfy his crotchety carnal desires. There is no eroticism to be found in The Smell Of Us, only the odour of passionless selfishness.

And yet, there is something, a certain je ne sais quoi, that draws you in, holds your gaze (most notably in the urban makeshift dance party sequence), even though you are squirming and cringing in your seat. You want to try and understand a little more, why these teenagers are so dissolute and damaged? Then Clark throws Mat’s mother (Dominique Fort) in the mix, in probably the movie’s most awkward, train-wreck scene. Following that comes the movie’s attempt at tragic and dramatic consequence (reminding one of the similar narrative ploy in Kids), but the crunch is hollow and devoid of any meaningful impact.

I wonder if the screenplay, penned by Scribe (Mathias Landias under a pseudonym) and Clark, is semi-autobiographical, with Mat’s character based on Landias’ real-life exploits? The last scene has a sidelined Marie trying fruitlessly to ingratiate herself further with her male entourage by means of sexual abandon. This resonates only so far as the focus shifts beyond her vacant stare to the boys careering on their boards down the street in the background, hooting and hollering. The circle jerk perpetuates, the hangover sets in, and the stench of novella vague stagnates.  

Poor Chappie!

Neill Blomkamp is incredibly talented, there’s no denying that. But at the rate he’s going, he could be yet another Orson Welles who started at the top and worked his way down.*

In 2006 Blomkamp made three shorts, Adicolor Yellow, co-written with his wife, Terri Tatchell, Alive in Joburg, and Tempbot. All of these dealt with androids and robots living alongside humans. Apparently Alive in Joburg impressed the hell out of Peter Jackson and he invited Blomkamp to direct the feature adaptation of the video game Halo. When that project stalled and collapsed, Jackson told Blomkamp to turn the short into a feature. The result was District 9, co-written with Tatchell.

Tatchell is a graduate of the Vancouver Film School’s Writing for Television and Film program. It’s probably safe to say her influence on District 9 is what makes it Blomkamp’s strongest movie in terms of screenwriting. Tatchell was not involved with the screenwriting on Elysium, which was Blomkamp’s baby. Tatchell came back onboard for Chappie, but methinks Neill’s ego pushed her influence back, and the result is obvious.

Elysium’s adequate, but by no means impressive, screenplay rode shotgun to the the bucking bronco Disctrict 9-esque visual narrative. Blomkamp returns to the same grungy, grimy universe with Chappie. Essentially all three features could take place in the same time period and rough terra firma location.

District 9 was, and still is, unlike any other science fiction movie before or after. It harnesses a stunning visceral intensity and narrative immediacy, partly due to the faux documentary style, and Sharlto Copley delivers a remarkably endearing performance considering the brutal shift of character he’s forced to go through.

Elysium harnessed the Hollywood juggernauts that were Matt Damon Jodie Foster, and, rather wittily, contrasted Copley as a nasty-as-hell villain. The visceral intensity was toned down a fraction, and while the high concept was raised, so the implausibility factor was ramped up. Flaws aside, it’s a great action flick, but it doesn’t possess any of the cult appeal of its predecessor.

Cue: Chappie. A police android known technically as Scout 22, but later given the nickname "Chappie", is badly damaged in a police raid and it’s shell assigned for dumping. But after Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), a genius software developer, is knocked back by his boss, Tetravaal CEO Michelle Bradley (Signourney Weaver), he steals the robot with the intention of testing his new breakthrough AI design.

Unfortunately Deon and Scout 22 are kidnapped by punk gangsters (Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yolindi), and as a result Scout 22, with new software inserted, becomes Chappie, the world’s first artificial intelligent android, capable of independent thought and human emotions, but also the thug thieves’ new accomplice. Before you can say “I’ll buy that for a dollar!” Chappie and co. are on the rampage. Subsequently this gives Deon’s nemesis, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), the opportunity to road test his own creation, the MOOSE (read: ED-209), a massive aggressive police droid that is controlled remotely by a human. Chaos ensues.

The basic concept of Chappie: an artificially intelligent android thrust into the dangerous realm of the human world, forced to learn quickly and respond, thus forming its own survival instincts, is a great concept. But Chappie falls prey the worst kind of clichés and stereotypical characterisations. A score that sounds like it should be in another movie entirely also hampers the proceedings, often beating down in a heavy dramatic fashion, when only moments before the scene was one of comedy.

Aha! Which brings me to one of the most disappointing and frustrating parts of Chappie; it’s uneven tone. Blomkamp can’t seem to make up his mind on what kind of movie he’s delivering.  One minute a morality tale, the next an action flick, then a black comedy, then a broad comedy, and in one garish few seconds it’s a horror movie as one of the villains is ripped in half by MOOSE’s huge pincers, the torn torso flung against the side of a graffiti-strewn wall. In District 9 this would’ve been fine, as District 9 makes no qualms about its ultraviolence, it’s part and parcel.

The biggest gripe most critics have with Chappie is the comparisons with other movies. I don’t have such a problem with that, in fact I’m sure half the critics are quietly enjoying making and flouting the references. There’s RoboCop and Short Circuit and Hardware and District 9 and A.I. and so on. I’ll go as far as saying, if Blomkamp had opted for the Verhoeven school of filmmaking, keeping the satirical tongue in cheek and the ultraviolence to the fore then Chappie would’ve had a lot more cult appeal. Hang on, that’s District 9. He’s already been there.

Spike Jonze’s Her came to mind, as it dealt with the other side of this coin, the software perspective. An artificial intelligent program that realises the cyber-world is her oyster. Chappie is the hardware version. But whereas Her's Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) is naive, she's got a maturity about her. Chappie (voiced [and motion-captured?] by Sharlto Copley), on the other hand, is naive, and just plain juvenile. In fact, the whole bloody smacks of childishness.

Poor Chappie.

I wanted to like Chappie more. I really did! Admittedly I chuckled when he made those naïve, childlike responses, I couldn’t help it. But then the human characters would say or do something really stupid. In fact, even Chappie does silly things. And those silly dog ears, and the monobrow and chin, I mean, why?! Well, I know why, but it’s cartoonish and absurd.

Initially I was very excited when I read that Neill Blomkamp had been announced as the director to helm the next Alien movie, a sequel to be set directly after the events of Aliens, but before Alien3 and Alien Resurrection. Apparently it will tie in with Prometheus too. But now I am nervous that Blomkamp will be on board as one of the screenwriters. We’ll just have to wait and see …


* To be honest, Welles has made several great movies later in his career (Touch of Evil and Othello to name a couple), but he felt he'd never bettered his debut feature, and was quoted as such.  

Where's the hard horror on the big screen?!

I've got a bone to pick. And it's got juicy bits of flesh hanging from it. I'm talking about the state of the hard horror movie on the big screen. Where have they gone?!


Let me be a more specific. I'm not talking about film festivals; they're a different kettle of fish, or to be more precise, they're the oasis of blood, but out of reach like mirages. I'm talking about the general release movies, those earmarked for a theatrical season, a run on the big screen for a couple of weeks, or more (like in the scarlet age). 

But in these increasingly neo-conservative times of commercialism and ginger fingers, distributors and film companies, ie those that usually have sweet little savvy about what the fans actually want, have become more and more firm about putting more bums on seats in the cinemas, and they way they see that happening is by having the movies appeal to a wider demographic. 


This is justified by demanding filmmakers cut their movies so that they fit the criteria that will get them a PG-13 rating from the MPAA, or an M rating from the Australian Classification Board. It is becoming increasingly rare to see R18 horror movies on the big screen or the hard-R rated American version. You can forget about seeing an unrated American horror movie on the big screen altogether. Dawn of the Dead and Re-Animator are movies from a bygone era. 

It's frustrating as hell to have to settle for the uncut version, the director's intended vision, on the small home screen (okay, smallish). Horrorphiles have a right to experience the horror movie as it was intended, not truncated for mass consumption.

Horror as marketed commodity leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.