el topo

10 06 2007

Alejandro Jodorowsky (1970)

While it is thoroughgoing bonkers, don’t be put off by the film’s mental reputation. There is a logic to the narrative, albeit an elliptical, right-angled unlogic. In many ways, it follows the conventions of the Western, but filtered through the unconscious of a child, or a madman.

El Topo, a black-clad gunslinger, crosses the desert with his young son and avenges the massacre of a town by some giggling, scuzzy bandits led by a powdered Colonel. He leaves his son with monks and returns to the desert with a woman who will only love him if he is the best gunfighter. So he takes on four master gurus of the gun to prove himself. Shot and left for dead, he is revered as a god by a group of deformed exiles trapped in a cave. Upon waking from his coma, years later, El Topo decides to dig a tunnel so the cave-dwelling freaks can be free. To finance this effort he and his dwarf lover entertain the corrupt citizens of a nearby town. Predictably disaster and death are never far away, in an apocalyptic climax that would have had even Peckinpah scratching his head.

Many Western conventions and tropes are present, but often skewed, exaggerated and rendered abstract. The central figure is a black-clad Man With No Name. Outlaws are filthy, lascivious and bestial. Authority figures are corrupt: The Colonel is vain andmegalomanical, the town Marshals are obese sadists (and homosexual predators). The townsfolk are incestuous, slavedealing degenerates.

What’s worse is the townsfolk commit the ultimate sin of hypocrisy. The women of the town call themselves the “Decency League” but appear in the mise-en-scene of the bordello, enslaving, molesting and then sentencing black servants to death. The menfolk live in fear of the women but conceal an orgiastic speakeasy. The local preacher leads the crowds in games of Russian Roulette, which is to him a show rather than a religious service.

By contrast, El Topo, a stone killer, is an honest man. He avenges the massacre of a village with no personal motive for gain. Later he takes up the cause of the freakish exiles as a shot at personal redemption for his duplicity in killing the gunfighting masters.

Peckinpah would have approved of the portrayal of women: hypocritical grotesques or beautiful, seductive betrayers.

The characterisation of the guru-like gunslingers of the desert gives the film a spiritual angle that sets it apart from the nihilism of the spaghetti Westerns El Topo closely resembles, giving it the feel of an Asian fairy tale. There’s a messianic subtext as well: the Colonel asks El Topo “Who are you to judge me?” and gets the reply “I am God.” He shows the power to bring forth water from the desert, a power he bestows on the woman after ravishing her.

After defeating the masters, El Topo cries out “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? “, only for the women to inflict the stigmata upon him in a gunfight.

But later, when he is revered as a god, he denies it. “I am just a man” he says. A man near impervious to bullets, but yet a man.

It’s no surprise that Jodorowsky went into comics later. The desert setting, oblique dialogue and grotesque characters lend the film an otherworldly, post-apocalyptic aesthetic. El Topo himself is a visual treat, whip thin in black leather and hawk-like eyes.

There’s a delight in visual detail like a bandit wearing three ever-smaller sombreros, or the graphic design simplicity of the eye symbol on the church, or El Topo’s incongruous umbrella. The character of the Double Man is pure visual audacity: a man with no arms carries a man with no legs on his back, thus forming a whole being.

The Mole. A tale of man becoming a god of the gun. No surprise he loses his humanity and must earn it once again. No surprise it ends in fire and flame.





london 2012 logo: a friend request

10 06 2007

I like it.

The newly unveiled official logo of the 2012 London Olympics isn’t perfect: It’s a bit too fragmented. I agree with one comment I read that suggested the logo evokes a map of London’s boroughs, harshly divided. So I would like to see the four sections being a bit less opposed to each other, and that funny little block in the centre merged into the others in a more harmonious fashion. And I’m not sure about the placement or the font of ‘London.’

Otherwise, I like the thinking behind it: to avoid the obvious.

The outcry has been every bit as predictable as the proposed alternatives. Showing admirable journalistic rigour, most of the major papers (The Standard/Metro, the free gossip rags that litter the Tube, the Sun, and more) just recycled the user-generated content from the BBC’s website, which were, almost without exception, rubbish.

This week’s Coventry Telegraph featured a double-page article titled ‘Proof that a child can do better’. While the children came up with an admirable showing, they were all as predictable as the BBC readers’ efforts: lots of Union Jacks and London landmarks. Nothing wrong with that, you cry. I’m not suggesting for a second that the Union Jack should be kept off the logo because of nationalist associations. I just agree with the thinking behind the official logo that the Union Jack, Tower Bridge et al are just too literal.

As Sebastian Coe said, this logo is not a corporate brand. Almost all of the general public’s attempts have been literal, obvious, corporate brands. I thought Coe’s comment about avoiding polo shirts for doing the gardening in was quite self-aware for the Olympic folks in charge. With such politicians and corporate branding wonks, high-handed talking shop beaucratese of ‘engaging’ with the public is rarely coupled with meaningful action.

So by coming up with something that eschews the knee-jerk, lowest common denominator London landmark approach, the creators are challenging the public to think about the Olympics as a contemporary, exciting event.

Just look at previous logos: worthy, tasteful, respectable… and dull dull dull. So if they are a distillation of the Olympics, what does that say about the proceedings? I find athletics in general to be reaaally boring, but I like this logo.

And for anyone still clinging to the dream of a London landmark/Union Jack-related logo, look at the symbol of the last British Olympiad. Big Ben and the Olympic rings. Very worthy. Very tasteful. Very Respectable.

Very 1946.

Of course, I can’t ignore the elephant in the room: the small matter of the £400,000 bill. Which is by anyone’s standards, ludicrous. But the contrarian in me (who has had pretty much free reign over this post) can’t help asking:

What price great design (whether this is an example of it or not)?

A tasteful logo featuring the Olympic rings on a Union Jack might have appeased middle England, but would it have sold any T-shirts? What if the £400,000 gamble pays off?

Christ, I’m not even convincing myself on this one. £400 grand? You’re having a laugh. Selling all the T-shirts in the world wouldn’t redress this slap in the face to everyone involved in cash-strapped grassroots sport in this country. Hell, the world.

But I still like it. Kind of. Bring on the MySpace Olympics.





spider-man 3 (sam raimi 2007)

4 06 2007

Tobey Maguire
Kirsten Dunst
James Franco

It’s very brisk, innit? Plot point/plot point/plot point/fight scene/plot point etc. The acting is delivered in a broad, almost old-fashioned kind of way, that, along with the slapstick/slapdash attempts at comedy remind you that this is, in fact, a kid’s movie. The musical interludes (I know! WTF?!) and effects sequences are so disconnected from the actual human acting bits that they feel imported from a whole other film. Quite a weird film.

There’s too many contrivances and coincidences. The Venom symbiote comes from space: so a meteor just plops down near where Peter (Maguire) and MJ (Dunst) happen to be. The plot calls for MJ to become disillusioned with Peter: so they just happen to bump into Gwen Stacey (Bryce Dallas Howard) at a restaurant. The plot calls for Peter to realise what he has become under the influence of the symbiote: he and Gwen just happen to turn up at the bar where MJ now works.

Worst of all, when the plot calls for Topher Grace’s Eddie Brock (a man with a number of legitimate dramatic reasons to follow Spider-Man around) to bond with the symbiote, we are asked to believe he has suddenly found religion, and has chosen, of all the churches in New York, the same one as Peter Parker.

The characters are subservient to the plot structure, and the plot subservient to the effects. It should be completely the other way around.

The special effects aren’t even that captivating (with the notable exception of the stunning realisation of the Sandman). The big action set-pieces are weightless and cartoony, like video-game interludes. The change between ‘real’ acting and CGI fight is so marked, it’s like the grain change in old sitcoms when the characters step outside the soundstage.

Worse, the effects wranglers mistake dizzyingly fast movement across incomprehensibly large spaces for spectacle, so it’s hard to see what’s going on, and harder to care.

A fight in the subway tunnels – when at one point Spider-Man grinds Sandman’s head to powder against the side of an onrushing subway train – is the only point where the excitement and drama of two people in conflict is enhanced by the effects, rather than the scrap acting as a showcase for the digital trickery of cartoon characters bouncing about a cartoon storyboard city.

Even an effects-light stand-up fistfight between Parker and Franco’s vengeful Osborn feels overedited and overcooked, and would have benefited from a Bourne-style stripping down.

And why, exactly, is James Cromwell even here? As with Jon Favreau and Joe Pantoliano’s thankless appearances in Daredevil, maybe Cromwell has one patrician eye on the future franchise paychecks.

James Franco’s performance is ten times as seductive as Maguire’s, and spending half the film grinning like a head-injured four-year-old is a waste of his slow-burning charisma. Having the whey-faced gimlet-eyed Kirsten Dunst within fifty miles of him is a waste of my time and yours.

Thomas Hayden Church is wicked, though. The Sandman effects are consistently gobsmacking, combining with his new granite physique to create a memorable character through the synergy of acting and effects.

Meanwhile Topher Grace’s camping-it-up works well but Venom’s rubberiness doesn’t, while Maguire’s doughy Peter Parker seems like a completely different entity to the loose-limbed Spider-Man.

But forget the kid’s stuff. The big question is, as ever: does it work as an allegory for Iraq (another one!)? Of course it does (doesn’t everything?). Six years after the Twin Towers fell off-screen and were digitally erased from in the first Spider-Man film, the threequel is all about the danger of revenge as a long-term motivation.

The black suit represents vengeance. Vengeance feels good; but it transforms the wearer into an unrecognisable monster. And anyway, the act being avenged wasn’t as simple as we thought. Vengeance is simple: black and no white. Real life is in colour.

It’s no coincidence that Spider-Man’s triumphant return to the good – in red and blue – sees him swoop past an enormous US flag, while the closing voiceover talks about personal choice. Hurray!

So, not exactly great, but with yawnsome effects comes pleasing weirdness.





doctor who 3.9: human nature

29 05 2007

Finally, series 3 hits it’s stride.

Too much of the third season has disappointingly chosen to rehash elements of past episodes, so it’s strange that the only story to be explicitly based on a previously published story (the New Adventure novel of the same name, published in 1995) is the freshest episode yet, crackling with innovation and energy.

Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson), fresh from being the best thing about Magicians, is on sparkling form here. Tennant is great as the perpetually bemused John Smith, perfectly realising a new facet to the Doctor’s character.

It’s a good episode for Freema Agyeman too, as Martha finally stops being annoying and starts being feisty, smart and spiky. Quite why she has to be a housemaid isn’t entirely clear – couldn’t she just sit things out in theTARDIS? – but it does provide a social commentary subtext.

The standout performance is Harry Lloyd, whose wonky-faced posh possession is exquisitely creepy. An Old Etonian himself (and descendant of Charles Dickens), his stare burns a hole in the screen with every appearance. Coupled with the scary zombie-like scarecrows, I can imagine that this episode will imprint on the younger generation, to be cited with a shiver on I Love 2007 in 20 years time as ‘the one with the scarecrows’.

Human Nature is refreshingly short on badly-designed-spaceship moments – except the big question of why isn’t Martha looking after the watch if it’s so important? And why doesn’t it have a lock on it? But we’ll ignore that as a trade-off for the wealth of old series continuity references. I especially liked the sketches of the previous incarnations, and the mention of ‘Sydney and Verity’ as Smith’s parents (named for Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, the 60s ‘parents’ of the show).

It’s interesting that the series has continued it’s collection of unconventional families with the villains of the piece, the Family of Blood. Like the Raxacoricofallapatorian family Slitheen, these villains are related as well as hunting together. Here’s hoping the next episode resolves the question of how they found Martha and Smith in the first place.

The flashbacks (and forwards) give the whole thing an epic quality that I can’t wait to see resolved. Cannot wait. Cracking stuff.





doctor who 3.8: 42

29 05 2007

Ironic that, just as Danny Boyle’s Sunshine echoes elements of the Doctor Who episode The End of The World, 42 turns up and is basically Sunshine with the brakes off.

If Sunshine wasn’t so fresh in my mind, I might have enjoyed 42 a bit more. Sure, it’s solid and entertaining, and holds its own in visual and effects terms with the much larger-budgeted film, but the breathless real-time gimmick doesn’t really nail you to the floor. The main problem yet again is that it’s just too reminiscent of stuff we’ve seen before: not just Sunshine, but last season’s The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. Both those episodes generated more tension with slow-burning atmospherics than 42 does with all its sweaty histrionics.

As such, the highlight is the slowest, stillest moment, as Martha falls into the sun while the Doctor looks on despairingly. It’s a moment of real anguish that kicks proceedings into top gear.

The following scenes with the Doctor possessed have potential – the Doctor as the villain of the piece! – but instead the momentum dissipates as the Doctor flops about looking ill. A missed opportunity.

I quite liked the pub quiz gags, but it didn’t seem the most logical security measure… Just another example of bad spaceship design, which to me encompasses anything that has no basis in logic and exists solely to create drama. Like a handle… on the outside of the spaceship. On the outside… andjuuust out of arm’s reach. What idiot designed this spaceship?

Churlish to question such things, perhaps. But it’s all tied up in the suspension of disbelief. I’ll buy time travelling aliens, hospitals on the moon, and zombie scarecrows, as long as the door handles are in places that make sense. It’s the trivialities of everyday life that sell the big fictions.

Environmental message aside, it’s all on the surface. None of the subtexts and ambiguity that made The Satan Pit so interesting. Passably entertaining, but hardly the answer to life, the universe and everything.





this is england (shane meadows 2007)

29 05 2007

Thomas Turgoose
Stephen Graham
Jo Hartley

Best film of the year. Yeah, I said it.





magicians (andrew o’connor 2007)

25 05 2007

David Mitchell
Robert Webb
Jessica Stevenson

Playing like Peep Show crossed with the closing credits of Phoenix Nights, Magicians is charming rather than hilarious, with plenty of chuckles but not much substantial going on.

This is the third film in the last year to tell the story of two magicians driven to rivalry by the death of a woman they both loved. The Prestige is David Copperfield – dazzling but empty. The Illusionist is David Blaine – po-faced and sticks around too long.

Magicians is The Great Suprendo.

It doesn’t transcend Peep Show the way Shaun of The Dead was so much more than a feature-length episode of Spaced. Where Shaun took familiar personas and developed them into new and interesting characters, Magicians sticks to the Peep Show double act dynamic too closely. Mitchell’s Harry Kane is good-hearted but awkward and uptight, while Webb’s Carl is cool but feckless. Both are, well, idiots.

Because of this familiarity with the Apple/PC geeky loser personas, we are never led to believe that the guillotining of Harry’s wife is anything more than a tragic accident, the inevitable cringeworthy punchline to any hint of success the pair may have. Things just go wrong because they’re such losers.

More interesting are the tiny moments when we get a hint that maybe it wasn’t an accident, and maybe there’s a darker undercurrent to Harry’s put-upon desperation. But these moments are never explored, which is a shame as they could have sailed Magicians into blacker comedy waters than Peep Show ever navigated.

The same is true of Peter Capaldi. He essays a similarly bristling character to Malcolm Tucker, the scabrous spin doctor he plays in The Thick Of It. So when he does spew invective ticks of foul-mouthed exasperation, they’re funny, but a bit lame compared to what we’ve heard him unleash on the small-screen.

In this regard Jessica Stevenson comes off best. An early dance scene seems to suggest that Linda will be another self-deluded ditzy frump. But dancing aside, Linda is actually the most together person here. The dance – a stockroom-gestated all-too-literal interpretation of Electric Six’s Gay Bar – seems shoehorned in for David Brent-style laughs, except it isn’t that funny. But neither was Brent’s dance either. Instead, Stevenson gets to be the voice of normality, and sexy with it.

There’s space too for small-screen where-do-I-know-them-froms Darren ‘the bloke in Smack The Pony’ Boyd, Alex ‘Holby City’ MacQueen and Steve ‘Phoenix Nights’ Edge to flesh out their grotesque characters, despite the script cheating them of that killer line.

In fact nobody gets any killer lines. Which is a problem for a comedy. The Memorable Quotes section of MagiciansIMDb entry is empty. I can’t think of any laugh-out-loud quotes either.

Ultimately, Magicians just can’t shake the spectre of its POV predecessor. There isn’t a moment in the film that couldn’t have been shoehorned down into a zippy half-hour episode of Peep Show. The film also doesn’t conjure a sense of place in its Jersey setting the way that, say, Funny Bones is so anchored in Blackpool, but that’s a quibble. And there isn’t enough magic!

I don’t want to say bad things about Mitchell and Webb, or Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, but Magicians, while kind of entertaining, just doesn’t pull the rabbit out of the hat.