Sunday, August 17, 2008

Impending nuptials

According to the dust-jacket blurb on the recently re-issued hardback, Ian Fleming wrote 'Casino Royale', the first Bond novel, "in the run-up to his marriage ... [he] maintained he wrote it to take his mind off getting married". Wonder what his wife thought of that?

Well, Ian Fleming I am not. I'm getting married on Thursday and it's all I've been able to think about for the past couple of weeks. And even though Paula's sister Jodie and my best friend Lesley pretty much appointed themselves as wedding planners and have seen to all the major arrangements, there have still been any number of things demanding my attention. Accordingly, my cinema-going and DVD-watching have nose-dived, as evidenced in the lack of recent material on Agitation of the Mind and Guilty Pleasures. For which, my apologies.

Apologies, too, for the arid desert of unblogged space that it will continue to be for the next fortnight (we're honeymooning in Scotland for a week after the wedding).

But, like the indestructible 007, The Agitation of the Mind will return.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Bubba Ho-Tep

Bruce Campbell (he of 'Evil Dead' fame) plays the elderly Elvis Presley, atrophying in a South Texas rest home under the identity of an Elvis impersonator with whom he swapped identities. His best friend in this gloomy David Lynch-like establishment is a black man (Ossie Davis) who is convinced he's John F Kennedy. Having survived the Grassy Knoll, his identity was changed and he was put into hiding. When Campbell points out that JFK "was a white man", Davis argues with deadpan logic, "they dyed me all over - what better way to hide the truth".

Life in the rest home, bizarre as it already is, soon becomes a matter of grim survival when a revived Egyptian mummy begins stalking the corridors, sucking the souls from the residents in a most unhealthy manner. Elvis and Jack join forces to defeat their supernatural foe ("ask not what your retirement home can do for you, but what you can do for your retirement home").

On the surface, this frankly bonkers tale has everything working against it. Campbell is nobody's idea of a great actor yet, from nowhere, he conjures a complex performance of regret, self-doubt and, finally, dignity. Director Don Coscarelli, the man behind the 'Phantasm' series, has long been mired in direct-to-video hell. Writer Joe R Lansdale, on whose short story the film is based, practically defines the word 'cult'.

Perhaps it's Coscarelli's decision to play it straight that transforms what could have been prime material for Kim Newman's 'Video Dungeon' (a monthly feature in Empire magazine devoted to a trawling of lower-shelf direct-to-DVD pabulum) and molds it instead into a sombre, almost Bergmanesque character study ... that is, of course, if Bergman had been given over to no-budget special effects and tortured protagonists whose sartorial tastes begin and end with rhinestone nudie suits. Nonetheless, Coscarelli achieves a study of age, mortality, regret and the fragility of fame, all parcelled up in a B-movie plot and gift-wrapped with delicious performances from its stars.

Plus it's got a title that you just want to drop into casual conversation at the office or down the pub - 'Bubba Ho-Tep' - purely to watch your colleagues' and friends' faces twist into descended-jaw/raised-eyebrow mask of incomprehension.

'Bubba Ho-Tep'.

It's even better if you adopt a cheesy Elvis accent.

'Bubba Ho-Tep'. Thank you very much, good night.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Man on Wire

Asking for my ticket at Cineworld, I mistakenly called the film 'Man on a Wire'. Twenty minutes of adverts and trailers later, the BBFC certificate appeared on screen, rendering the title as 'Man on Wire'. Hmmm, a bit ungrammatical, I thought; wonder if it's a mistake. The opening credits, however, confirmed it.

Towards the end of the film, the provenance was made clear: "man on wire" is the phrase handwritten in sharply angled, authoritative capital letters on Philippe Petit's arrest sheet under the heading "nature of complaint".

Philippe Petit, for those not in the know, is a French wirewalker and all-round daredevil, a man who was arrested in August 1974 following a not-exactly-legal wirewalk between the two towers of the World Trade Centre. His earlier, similarly unapproved antics on the Sydney Harbour bridge also ended with Petit getting his collar felt. On that occasion, he lifted the arresting officer's watch even as he was being handcuffed. For this, if nothing else, Petit now has a place in my pantheon of personal heroes.

Now in his late 50s, Petit's contributions to James Marsh's documentary reveal a man no less infused with bravado and love of life ... just as long as that life is lived on the edge. Spurning the question of why he does what he does ("I had just done this marvellous thing," he recalls of his twin towers caper, "and all they could ask me was why"), Petit throws himself enthusiastically into recounting the events surrounding his iconic wirewalk. While other interviewees give static (but still emotionally vibrant) testimony, Petit prowls before the camera, acts out bits of the drama, produces models to demonstrate the intricacies of rigging up the wires ... The man is irrepressible. Marsh's film could have consisted of nothing but Petit talking to camera and it would have been 90 minutes of hypnotic cinema.

But Marsh does much more. He intersperses interview footage with re-enactments of Petit & co.'s conspiracy to smuggle into the WTC all the necessary equipment, get said equipment to the roof and rig up the wire, all the while avoiding detection by security guards. 'Crime' is a harsh word for what Petit and his collaborators did, but it was illegal, therefore Marsh's decision to shoot the grainy, urgent black-and-white re-enactments in the style of a '70s crime movie is both inspired and aesthetically valid. The latter stages of the plan - particularly when Petit makes it to the rooftop - would challenge any filmmaker given (a) budgetary restrictions, and (b) the unavailability of the towers themselves, but Marsh finds a way around this by employing a decidedly expressionist style for these scenes. The wirewalk itself is chronicled simply by using still photographs taken on the day. The result is no less vertiginous for the images being static.

It's not just the giddy heights Petit braved that induce a woozy light-headedness in the viewer. This is as much a film about the twin towers as it is about Petit's determination to walk a high wire between them. In 1968, the towers not yet built, Petit saw an artist's impression of them in a newspaper article. The sheer scale captivated him. He took a pencil and drew a line between them. This one moment decided the course of his life. The towers were the challenge that everything else he did led up to. And he broke the law - he and his co-conspirators (including an inside man who occupied business premises in the WTC) - in order to do so.

It will never be possible to watch 'Man on Wire' without the shadow of 9/11 falling over it. And maybe that's the point. Maybe Marsh, in bringing this astounding story to the screen in such electrifying style, is reclaiming two equally astounding buildings - epic feats of engineering - from the act of terrorism that has come to define them. Reclaiming them in the name of the acrobatic work of art that Petit achieved.

Saturday, August 02, 2008


A week ago, as we exited 'WALL-E', Paula asked me, "Would you say that's Pixar's best yet?"

Floating rather than walking out of the cinema, suffused with a warm happy feeling, unhesitatingly my reply was, "Yes."

Then I spent a few days wondering if it really was. Did it quite match the colourful vibrancy of 'Cars'? Or the unalloyed visual (and damn near olfactory) perfection of 'Ratatouille'. Wasn't it, in fact, a film of two halves, the first - set on a garbage-ridden future vision of Earth - a joyous, imaginative, dialogue-free study of one robot's day-to-day life, his yearning for companionship and the sudden arrival of EVE, a sleek, balletic female robot; the second - set aboard a huge starliner whose entire human inhabitants have devolved into grotesque obesity - a frenetic chase story substituting manic set-pieces for the erstwhile poignancy? Were a couple of nifty musical cues homaging '2001: A Space Odyssey' any match for the welter of in-jokes in 'The Incredibles'?

There was only one thing for it.

We went to see it again.

And, yes, now I'm sure: 'WALL-E' is, by a short head, Pixar's best yet.

Here, at random, are six reasons why:

1) Boiled down to its simplest narrative arc, 'WALL-E' is about a robot, left alone on a wasted planet for 700 years with just a VHS tape of 'Hello, Dolly' for company, who finally breaks away from his routine, braves the stars and involves himself in a quest hitherto beyond anything in his understanding or experience, simply because he wants to do no more than hold EVE's hand. It's perhaps the most chaste and wonderfully innocent love story in all of cinema.

2) It tells so much - and implies so much more - through visuals alone. It's pure cinema.

3) It introduces themes of corporationism, environmental irresponsibility, dependency on technology (like all the best sci-fi, it holds up a mirror to contemporary concerns) without seeming preachy, political or heavy-handed. It's a slap in the face to contemporary America that still manages to be supremely entertaining and utterly heartwarming.

4) WALL-E himself has to be the cutest animated hero of all time. God, that li'l robot is adorable! I also love the fact that he's not a hero. Things happen to him. Most of the time, he's confused or scared when events snowball. In other words, he acts like most people would act when caught up in something beyond their control.

5) EVE is a fun and fiesty heroine. Even though she looks like a cross between an egg and an iPod, she's still pretty swish. (I'm starting to doubt my own sanity having just typed that sentence.)

6) For every moment that makes you laugh - WALL-E pursued by a convoy of runaway shopping trolleys, the manic cleaning robot on the starship - there's one that brings a lump to the throat - WALL-E rocking himself to sleep, WALL-E trying to recreate a romantic idyll with EVE after she shuts down - and director Andrew Stanton holds the humorous and the heartfelt in perfect equilibrium.

There are essays to be written about 'WALL-E' by future film scholars, perhaps book-length studies. I've bashed out about 700 words and barely scratched the surface. But maybe all that needs to be written about 'WALL-E' can be said in ten words:

It's Pixar at the top of their game. See it.