Thursday, 27 September 2012

Halloween 31 for 31: The Introduction

It started years ago as a childish fancy I thought about every time October came about and Halloween loomed over – to watch horror films for all of the month. Halloween has a tentative grasp in the United Kingdom, missing most of the cultural background of the holiday, and only really consisting of horror films becoming more noticeable (at cinemas, on TV...) and for consumer products from costumes to specialist ranges of cake and sweets being put on the shelves; we carve pumpkins like the Americans do, we go trick-or-treating, but I don’t think many of us, including myself to be bluntly honest, know of the origins like an American may have of growing up with it as an American holiday. And yet the idea of the holiday is still fascinating and encourages many of us on both sides of the Atlantic to reveal in the ghoulish and the macabre. For the film fans and those who like horror cinema, it’s as if the moon and the stars crosses a certain way at the start of the season, a once-per-year event, and causes them to suddenly want to watch as many horror films within the Autumn month. Blogs long before me have done 31 films for 31 days, and one group known as the ShowShow podcast have even braved 31 podcast reviews for 31 days, and have managed to make it a yearly occasion of their own speciality despite the loss of sanity and potential cinematic hangovers it may have caused. My own mind loses its self-control the moment October is even just a month away, obsessed with it from childhood, but the idea of a whole month’s marathon was always procrastinated upon, barring at least one Halloween day where I attempted to cramp four to five films in a single night. I cannot remember all I put on to watch, but imagine the combination of Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968), a very cerebral art film despite being truly powerful horror cinema, matched with an anime short work (Blood The Last Vampire (2000)) and (possibly) John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) together in a marathon...said grouping also proves that my take on this sort of October frivolities, without blowing my own trumpet, was already eclectic, unconventional and insane even before this project all those years ago.

Now this year, since the start of September, I’ve decided to go through with the idea, and to further show my insanity, attempt to write 31 blog posts about 31 films for the month. It terrifies me a little to attempt this, and I fear I may struggle to keep up with it, but the challenge is enticing for me. The fact that I’m watching 31 films itself is what made me want to do this in the first place. Paradoxically I am in the middle of a period where I am becoming less and less interested in mainstream and even ‘in-the-know’ areas of cinema, not the disinterest I had before but a literal sense that I am wasting time on things I gain nothing from, but may become far more of a fan of cinema as a result of this. Cinephilia as an idea still entices me but, and I will be honest about this even to complete strangers reading this blog, my current state of unemployment from graduating from university a year ago has left me in a peculiar state. Life even for a twenty three year like me seems far more important the more fed up with my current situation I am, and I am shifting into my own furrow of interests even within hobbies shared by many. I am both drifting back to geek culture like Western comic books within the last month or so that I went away from a year or so ago, but I am becoming disenfranchised with a lot of things because they lack the depth or even the sense of creativity to them. And yet I am becoming more enamored and gaining a lot more from certain areas of popular culture – classic works (from cinema to literature) – and my interest in areas like spirituality and mythology, which frankly are ostracized in certain areas of pop culture or made conventional and uninteresting , is making its voice heard in my thoughts a lot more. My taste in cinema is both becoming more personal but also more respectful for works that, critically praised, truly deserve their credit as I see them finally, especially far older films. This mentality should go against this idea of 31 horror films within all the days of October, but the advantage this kind of cinema, or any that has its fingers in the supernatural, the macabre or the uncanny, is that, for all the crap the makes three-quarters of it, there is still plenty of things that are worth seeing. The terrifying, the perverse, the strange, the demented, the disgusting, the erotic, the silly, the fun, the campy, and many more adjectives all exist in this area of film, and despite the lack of mainstream horror films for me that look interesting, I have the ability, as with all of us film fans, to look to other places instead. I can go back to older cinema as far back as the silent era, I can raid the horror films of non-English language countries, I can even dip my toes into areas like Japanese anime which, strangely doesn’t have that much horror animation within it, despite what you could be to do even on a TV series budget and television censorship in Japan, but still has a few potentially tasty morsels available. Even you the reader, if you only seen a few horror films in your life, can sidestep the new Paranormal Activity sequel and find something more peculiar and interesting nearby; if your library has just one non-current horror film on its shelves, and you rent it, you have immediately dived into something different even if is a mainstream Hammer House or Universal horror film.

This mentality continues into the selection for this first attempt which, despite not having a concrete list, was already planned to be eclectic. My decision to let randomness take over a well will help in its favour in that, as I’ve already described, I am more interested in the least conventional. This matched by the fact that I’ve seen most of the main canon of horror cinema - and don’t intend to bring them into this project with an exception or so - and like many people have more access to technology like the internet and multi region DVD players allows me to create a more personal, if scattershot, series of viewings. With this though, I have decided to put down a few tentative, loose rules which both help me to go through the project but also allows me some breathing space within it.

  1. Even though I have talked about horror films I want to step out of the genre and include films which are still appropriate for the list like a 1950s sci-fi film. If it fits the mood of the month or would be the kind of film shown on a Halloween night, I will include it and justify it if necessary.
  2. Real life is more important than this project. If something happens, even if it’s minor, that disrupts my ability to carry this out for a day or so, I will concentrate on my everyday life. But if possible I will try to make up for it in some way.
  3. There is a possibility, depending on how it goes, that the only film I will see on one of the first few days of October will not really fit into this project. If luck is on my side, then hopefully I can still get a more appropriate film in. If not, I may have to include a review for the film instead if I see it. To my advantage said film, while not necessarily fitting, is surreal and abstract enough in its nature to sit alongside the motley crew that makes up the rest of the month.
  4. I will limit the amount of rewatches I have. I want to re-see a few films within my DVD collection for this, both because it has been a long time since viewing some of them them and that a few are perfect choices for reviews. However I am going to try and have as many first viewings as I can. First viewings can be a fickle thing, especially if your view on said film drastically changes on the next viewing, but for me digging through films I haven’t seen before is still a thrill. Considering most of the reviews on this blog were first viewings, it feels out of place to go against this style of review unless any serious concerns about the attitude are discovered.
  5. I must be as varied as possible. As many decades of cinema I can cram in, as many countries as possible and as many different types of films as possible. Limits in terms of availability and how the month goes on may affect this, but I want to avoid being predictable with my viewing and gain a lot from varied viewings in my normal film watching habit. The number of films I’ll be watching, 31, isn’t that large either when you start putting together a potential viewing list in your mind, but my desire for eclecticism will hopefully lead to some interesting choices for reviews.
  6. Even though I will mostly stick to feature films, I would like to at least have one thing that is from a different format. There’s at least one short TV series I want to include for the project, but if I take a fancy to something like a short film, I would like to include it into the reviews.
  7. I will not attempt to do ‘proper’ reviews. Time and the day-to-day, especially if you are planning to watch 31 films and write 31 reviews for them, is going to be difficult for anyone even if you have the spare time as you need to think about the latter as well as write them. If they are shorter than my usually work, I will still intend to write something of interest even if it’s a stream of conscious thoughts.
  8. As with the case with most film fans, if there is free time, and you don’t concentrate on another hobby or task instead, you will end up watching as many films as possible depending on your preferences. Given it is October, and many of us end up watching horror films non-stop because of the time of the season, there may be as much chance of me watching more than 31 films. That may sound like bragging, but unless I manage to consistently see good works, I may likely skim through crap as my film watching habit does usually. If this scenario does happen, any film that would be a waste of time to write a review for will be ignored. If there is something that is worth a word or so about though I will add an additional note about it in the reviews depending on what films get prioritised for coverage.
  9. No films that have already been reviewed for the site or for my profile on ( I can still rewatch Possession (1981) or Things (1989) for myself, but unless a review needs a drastic update on either, I would prefer to write new works.
  10. I will watch Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). If bad luck happens and this is impossible, then it doesn’t matter, but it is a film I want to desperately see just for Halloween let alone for this project.

And with this list, there’s little else to say except that I hope for the best with this idea. Again, I have not got a set list, but if you keep looking on the blog you will hopefully come across some fascinating or good choices for reviews. If I can get something for everyone who reads the reviews I will be happy. I will enjoy the season as it passes and hopefully my writings within it will bring out interesting thoughts for myself as well as any readers. I can say at the end of it, even if it fails, that I will have seen at least one good film and a handful of memorable ones, and that I’ll enjoy every second of this ill-advised idea fully.

Friday, 7 September 2012

The Sky Crawlers (Dir. Mamoru Oshii, 2008)

For October, I intend to follow what many other film fans/bloggers/podcasters have done and watch 31 films for all 31 days of the month to celebrate Halloween, writing short reviews of them as soon as possible after the viewings. Realising the lack of experience I have to partake in attempting this, I decided to ‘train’ for it. This review was more successful in that it was planned and completed the day after viewing the film. It may be a little messier and stream of conscious in nature, but it was great to write it especially when the film reviewed has changed for me on this viewing of it after probably a year or more. If there are any technical mistakes about the film in this let me know and they will be corrected.


Set in an alternative world of conflict, this anime film by Mamoru Oshii (director of Ghost In the Shell (1995), Patlabor I and II (1989 and 1993), and the criminally unavailable Angel’s Egg (1985)) portrays a war involving modernised bi-planes and perpetually teenage pilots known as Kildren, who cannot age and take to the skies to fight the opposite side in dogfights.  Enter Yūichi Kannami (Ryō Kase), a transfer pilot who becomes obsessed by the absence of another pilot who existed at his new base before him, leading him to his higher up Suito Kusanagi (Rinko Kikuchi, who Western film fans may know from her performances in films like Babel (2006) and Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom (2008)), a female Kildren who has seen the aerial battlefield far more than the others and has gained personal baggage more complex than her perpetually tween appearance shows. Dogfights take place, but like his most famous film Ghost in the Shell, Oshii is a cerebral filmmaker who concentrates on long, moderately paced scenes that allow you to ponder the themes and complex ideas. Fittingly, without seeing more than a sliver of his work myself, his personal history is as complex. Originally destined to become a Catholic minister, his crisis of faith channelled into the minimalist post apocalypse film Angel’s Egg, he started as a well regarded director of comedies before Ghost in the Shell solidified and engulf the rest of his career as a serious minded director who scrutinised grand themes, as evidenced by the fact that I have not seen any of his ‘funnies’ from his early period and that they are not available in the UK to see.

The mystery of the plot is blatantly spoken aloud by a character at the end, probably too much information on my part but something that needs to be said first time viewers, is obvious if you actually think about it, and is flimsy as the main draw of the film on a second or multiple viewing when the clues are as vague as water is wet. The concern for Oshii and screenwriter Chihiro Itō, based on a novel by Hiroshi Mori, is the unending dirge of the present the Kildren have to go through and how it is a metaphor about war. Stuck in a never ending conflict which they may die in, facing by an enemy which includes a mysterious pilot called the Teacher who decimates anyone who crosses him, and stuck in bodies that never age, the Kildren are unable to do anything else except fight to the death in the skies and casually past their times between said mission, their youth masking the minds of adults who have nothing else. They are puppets in a war that may have no real purpose to it, and in one scene, they and their whole base is gawked at by tourists as if it’s all a game. That they are teenagers is contrasted by the fact that they drink, smoke, and have open sexual relationships with each other and sex workers, their child bodies somewhat of a sick joke when they have seen more of the world through conflict then the physically adult people around them. In one of the only comedic moments in the film are seen two Kildren on ride-on aeroplanes you would find outside supermarkets to occupy toddlers and small children, the contrast perfectly summing their situation in its ridiculousness. This is personified by Kusanagi, a young teenage girl who, with her guarded demeanour and constant smoking, has lived longer than the others and has both become wise from it and psychologically scarred. With actress Rinko Kikuchi twisting her voice between a young girl’s and an adult’s depending on how scenes play out, she is a battle hardened women, late 30s or early 40s, who would be promoted to giving the pilots their orders rather than fight in the planes, stuck inside the skin of a teenager between twelve and fifteen, not taking into account the sides of her that are revealed in the plot.

It’s a blatant war analogy, but in contrast to Ghost in the Shell’s constant pontifications between its sci-fi action sequences, this has the ideas expressed through the characters’ mindsets and sequences of complete silence bar a few lines of dialogue and plot expedition that, rather push a conventional narrative film forward, lines down further bread crumbs for viewers to consider the ideas more. It will not be for someone in a mindset for action the night they put it into their DVD player, far from the ‘beer and curry’ anime that Manga Entertainment, who released the film in the UK, once pushed that were about guns, explosions, and for the period when they pushed anime as ‘adult’, bloody violence and sex. The combat scenes are elaborate in the short amount of time they take of the film, and can be quite bloody in brief moments, but their mix and exhilaration and chaos are needed to depict the endless war that the Kildren are faced with and are done well in idea. The story itself cannot help me but think of my minuscule knowledge of Japanese history in World War II and the American Occupation afterwards, and how the painful stagnation and endless violence the populous must have felt can be compared to the mood of The Sky Crawlers. With its mix of languages, settings and the bi-planes however I cannot help as well but think of the Battle of Britain, as an Englishman taught it in college history, in which British planes like the Spitfire fought the German Luftwaffe in the same war for air dominance, especially the massive aerial campaign that takes place in the centre of the film and introduces another female character, pilot Midori Mitsuya (Chiaki Kuriyama, who will be known by many for Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003) and Battle Royale (2000)), who becomes the horrified spectator of the Kildren’s existence. I also think of World War I, bloody battles between countries in the centre of Europe where hundreds of soldiers on both sides died in the trenches only for little progression to take place except one’s trench capturing a small piece of land forward or retreating back by a few yards.

It took another viewing of the film, but it does show that Oshii, despite the apparent flack he has taken for the pretentiousness of his later work, which I’ve yet to see,  is still able to take obvious ideas but give immense depth to them, helped here by a good script and quality animation. Only the fact that the dogfight sequences are CGI is a potential issue. It was amazing, after seeing much older hand drawn anime recently, how it has changed now digital software is used. You do not need to know about the technical aspects of animation to see this, and can be shown to you if you take a film like The Sky Crawlers made after the introduction of digital assisted animation in the late 1990s and hand drawn animation from before it. Some shows and films are still hand drawn in Japan but they are rare, and while the dogfights work in their content, their CGI nature against the rest of the film does detract technically from them. Oshii was unable to find animators who could hand animate aerial combat sequences, which has been openly discussed in additional materials for the film, leading him to having to use computers. It’s disconcerting for the anime industry to know this, but thankful despite the technical flaw of this, they still work regardless and are still a small piece of a superior animated film, one which seems criminally forgotten despite not being that old. One fears the dogfights tricked people into thinking this would be another action film, or that it would be another Ghost in the Shell, when in fact it’s an interesting gem who has to be watched in its own considered pace. Like the character Kusanagi, she is a methodically paced film who shows moments of combat when needed but sits back to ruminate the damage done around her. 

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Almighty Thor (Dir. Christopher Ray, 2011)

For October, I intend to follow what many other film fans/bloggers/podcasters have done and watch 31 films for all 31 days of the month to celebrate Halloween, writing short reviews of them as soon as possible after the viewings. Realising the lack of experience I have to partake in attempting this, I decided to ‘train’ for it, starting with a review of a film that I wrote the draft of the morning after viewing it. I hope you the reader enjoy it.


Attempting to review this was a doomed affair during the middle of the film itself, but it feels I need to write this review for a sense of completion.

Faced against Loki (a pale skinned, anaemic Richard Grieco) and his plan to kill the Tree of Life and start Ragnarok, the young deer-caught-in-the-headlights god Thor (Cody Deal), with the assistance and ignored guide of Jarnsaxa (Patricia Velasquez), has to find a mythic hammer of immortality and prevent Loki from acquiring it. Add into this professional wrestler Kevin Nash as Odin, unexpected use of an uzi by a Norse God and CGI dog demons and maybe, just maybe, this film from the Asylum group with no connections to the Marvel film could have been amusing or entertaining.

If there are readers who do love this film, good for you, but for me the experience of watching Almighty Thor proved my gripes with genre cinema, especially the z-movie, as it currently exists in 2012. First of all, just like the videogame adaptation DOA: Dead Or Alive (2006), one is promise with an entire film’s worth of Kevin Nash, only for him to be written out of the rest of the film and causing me to curse the gods. The rest of the film consists of Thor and Jarnsaxa running around woodland or a city either trying to escape from the pale skinned Loki or Thor trying to attack him and, until he learns some combat skill, getting his head kicked in.  

That even Odin’s mighty fortress is crude CGI could have not been a detriment but it helps create a film that is painful rather than amusing to sit through, leading directly to the issues I briefly mentioned in the introduction. For me, as a genre film fan who will watch the good and bad non-judgmentally until their finishes, there was a moment from the 2000s onwards where even the terrible z-movie lost sliver of quality to them, to the point that with a few exceptions like this I refuse to watch most of them made after 2000. Digital cameras in one major reason, paradoxically allowing people to make films impossible to fund through studios but destroying any quality to many low budget movies that are churned out; even on video, with awful looking exceptions, most films from before 2000 had a technical quality that did not remind one of cheap home video. The other issue is that, as the technology became more available, CGI took over from practical effects in most films.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in cases like this it is usually used without any sense of artistry and makes the film even more cheap and soulless.

Almighty Thor could have been incredible, CGI and all, but a lot of these intentional ‘so bad its good’ films merely come off as lackadaisical and tedious rather than entertaining, especially compared to those that are good films or, by accident, incredible in its ridiculousness. As a Batman and Robin (1997) fan, knowing it’s a disaster on every level except the gaudy neon scenery, something like this doesn’t hold a candle, and having started this year to go through the films of Troma, who at times also tried to make ‘intentionally bad’ films, these forced attempts at hilarity almost always fail miserably. Unless it is a Batman and Robin or other such examples, the only other way I feel you can reach this type of enjoyment is if the film is sincerely trying to be a good movie, and through its success, manages to be entertaining, intentionally ridiculous or/and bizarre in what it presents on screen regardless of any flaws it may have. Sadly I cannot enjoy something clearly churned out without any creative passion, and it doesn’t help that it makes the same mistakes –dull scenes of plot expedition instead of it being weaved into the CGI action scenes, half-hearted attempts at drama etc. – that many of us have put up with in countless genre films. I could laugh at moments in this, especially Thor’s complete lack of intelligence which causes him to be punked by Loki countless times , but I ended up falling back into my beanbag and making pained noises, an action that only happens when a film is really bad. I wanted to love the film, warts and all, but its mentality is that of being intentionally incompetent and believing it can coast by with it and it is an unlikable attitude. I cannot laugh at films with snark; even if I do laugh at something like Batman and Robin and such films, there is always a sincere love of its existence, something that is the opposite of the attitude that I feel was behind making this film. All I felt with this was the wish to have alcohol in arms reach and to delete it off the TV recorder immediately after the credits ended.