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Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)

Having gorged on broadsheet reviews and the opinions of respected friends before settling down to watch Christopher Nolan’s latest offering, it is fair to say that I was overly optimistic – a sense of anticipation that could only be mildly sated. True, some of the reviews were mixed, however I’m a sucker for a supposed mind-boggler and an ardent celebrator of Nolan’s previous works. As the credits rolled, two hours and twenty minutes of my life having left this planet, I can say that I enjoyed the majority of the film until the sub-conscious worlds took us to a cheesy skiing pursuit which invoked the worse parts of the James Bond franchise. In justification, Nolan could say that an alpine setting is just as likely a projection of the subconscious as anything else – all very fair. However, after some excellent anti-gravity wrestling scenes in the hotel, not to mention bending roads, it seemed odd for the director to drop the film into cliché, especially a perfectionist like Nolan.

[Spoiler alert] The final part of the film sees DiCaprio’s character appearing to return to life as-you-and-I-know-it along with Saito, the orchestrator of the main literal plot who, according to the film’s dialogue, should have been unable to make such a return as he had died in the sub-conscious world (to leave him in a state of perpetual limbo). We then see DiCaprio pass through airport security to meet his dad, played by Michael Caine (see ‘The Swarm’, below), who seems troublingly unmoved by his son’s return to American soil after years in exile. No explanation is given as to how Caine knew his son would be arriving from that specific flight, and whether the people gazing at DiCaprio are tangible homo sapiens or merely projections of DiCaprio’s subconscious (which would thus confirm he was still occupying a dream). If the coating of ambiguity wasn’t enough, the film closes with the image of DiCaprio’s two children visually unchanged since he last saw them. The shot then pans to the image of his totem (a spinning top) fizzing across the table, before the screen fades to black just as it seems that the top will yield to gravity and fall to its side (which would confirm that DiCaprio exists in real-time).

Cue mass hysteria over the internet, with some commentators berated for failing to understand Nolan’s vision and others decrying the film as a pretentious vanity project. My own interpretation is that Nolan wished to conclude with two themes: the first, that DiCaprio cannot know whether he is conscious or dreaming, just as neither you or I reading this can be certain that this world is ‘real’ (whatever that may mean) or a cunning rouse/global Big Brother (atheists and Christians are both equally naive: neither can prove their believes); the second, the film was an allegory for tackling loss and emotions i.e. only by truly investigating and understanding your predicament (going deeper and deeper into yourself – represented by the various sub-conscious ‘levels’ in the film) can you come out the other side (DiCaprio being reunited with his children). Either (or both) propositions could form the basis of a solid film, however Inception does not properly develop these strands of thinking: no positive qualities of the female character are shown to sell the audience the idea that DiCaprio should pursue redemption (we also know nothing of his children), and the film develops literal plotlines not abstract concepts through imagery and action. Contradict this with someone who works purely in the abstract – David Lynch. Lynch is the master of manipulating the viewer’s emotions through combinations of sensual/disturbing imagery and dialogue, visual tricks and general plays on perception, forming a world where reality is of little consequence and overreaching themes (identity, primarily) are central. Nolan tries to tap into Lynch via Kubrick (note the nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey in the bedside scene and wrinkly old Saito), but it’s a leap of faith with no foundations to support it.

Jaws 2 (1978, Jeannot Szwarc)

While Spielberg’s original remains a benchmark for populist suspense movies, the three films that followed (Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D and Jaws: The Revenge) are universally recognised as shameless attempts to establish a cash rich franchise, with each possessing less artistic merit than a Turner prize retrospective.

In a series of diminishing returns, it would be disingenuous to lambast Jaws 2 as a worthless turkey, as certain aspects – setting-up Scheider as a paranoid loon rallying against the conservative Amity community – create a platform for a decent film. However the action falls flat for various reasons, particularly a lack of a Quint figure, lending mystique and intrigue to proceedings. All we are left with is a bunch of screaming, annoying children who we would happily push overboard to trigger a feeding frenzy. The finale itself is merely the continuation of a predictable and bloated plot-line where a bunch of kids go out boating, all smiles and song, oblivious to their cannon-fodder existence. When Scheider does turn-up, he grabs hold of an electric cable, banging it repeatedly until the shark swims towards him, bites the cable and electrocutes itself. Yawn. A far better ending would have been for Scheider to valiantly turn his bare arse cheeks to the beast and defeat it with an almighty guff. Amongst the high-voltage action, Scheider also offers the tried-and-tested knowing wink to the original film, goading the shark with a cry of “come here you son of a bitch”, similar to his closing ambit “smile you son of a bitch” from the original.

Jaws: The Revenge deserves an honourable mention for its atrocious ending – an exploding shark no less – and also for putting food on the table of shit-film stalwart Michael Caine who pioneers yet more dodgy attire (see ‘The Swarm’, below) as a cockney sea pilot. Less coy about The Revenge than The Swarm, Caine memorably claimed never to have seen it: ” I have never seen it, but by all accounts it’s terrible. However I have seen the house it built, and it’s terrific!”

Earlier plot workings for Jaws: The Revenge suggested that the shark was working under the influence of voodoo, boasting a ravenous thirst for revenge and possessed by a third-party. While sounding far-fetched, it’s difficult to see how Caine uttering satanic prayers wouldn’t have improved the final product.

Oldboy (2003, Park Chan-wook)

Before I’m accused of disparaging this critically acclaimed work, I should be clear that my love for this delicious slice of Asian madness is undiminished by time, or its flimsy denouement. The film has several standout moments that can instantly be recalled from memory: the beautifully choreographed 2-D corridor fighting scene reminiscent of a scrolling arcade game (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for example), which took three days to perfect, and lead character – Oh Dae-su – eating a live octopus without so much as a flinch – a display of method acting that makes Christian Bale’s four-month hunger strike in preparation for The Machinist seem like child’s play.

As befits a film underpinned by stylised violence and beautiful visuals, the plot for Oldboy is ludicrous. Dae-su’s journey begins with his kidnap and imprisonment in a tiny flat, during which time he learns that his wife has been murdered and his daughter sent to foster parents. Fifteen years pass before Dae-su is released, with his movements informed by calls and messages from a stranger. He meets a young girl with whom he forms a bond, and eventually they sleep together. Having tracked down his kidnapper (Woo-jiin) in a swanky penthouse, he realises that they attended school together where he had inadvertently spied on Woo-jiin engaging in an incestual relationship with his sister. This rumour thus spread, no doubt causing grave embarrassment and difficulty for Woo-jiin and his family.

At the penthouse, Woo-jiin hands Dae-su a photo album from which it becomes apparent that the female stranger he has befriended and banged, is none other than his own daughter. Thus we learn that as revenge for a playground rumour, Woo-jiin killed Dae-su’s wife, imprisoned him for 15 years and miraculously arranged for Dae-su to engage in coitus with his own daughter. Quite restrained, in the circumstances. Rocked by the horror of the revelations, Dae-su chops off his own tongue, a gesture of his will to spare his daughter from knowing the truth. In the legal world, we call this ‘acting on the grounds of diminished responsibility’.

Part of me realises that as a work of cartoonish pulp-fiction, it is illogical to expect a realistic plot where the punishment fits the crime – indeed, the film revels in the overblown and outrageous. While on first viewing, the ending ruined the film for me (I perfectly recall ranting my displeasure to my girlfriend at the time) subsequent viewings, when one of course knows the ending, allows it to be treated as a visual feast rather than a substantive movie in the traditional western sense. Having not seen the director’s other two movies in the self-proclaimed ‘revenge’ series, it’s time to take advantage of the Christmas Amazon vouchers and make the purchase. This time I know what to expect.

The Swarm (1978, Irwin Allen)

The Swarm is both the greatest and the most horrific piece of cinema I have ever witnessed (probably circa 50 times). In protest, you might cite my reviews of Big Momma’s House and wonder what could rival such pleasurable aberrations, inflicted not one, twice but thrice on the unsuspecting public. The Swarm romps home in front as it was never meant to be awful, with the cast reel reading like a Real Madrid squad list, packed with acting galacticos supposedly at the peak of their powers. For Michael Caine, an appearance in a shocker is nothing out of the ordinary, however even for someone with such a chequered cinematic past, The Swarm is not so much a skeleton in the closet, but the statutory rape conviction knowingly omitted from the CV.

Caine plays ‘Bradford Craine’, an entomologist, who mysteriously appears at an American missile silo that has just been invaded by killer bees, claiming the lives of a number of military personnel. Just as confusing as to how the bees managed to glide through a securely locked military compound, is how Caine and his man-in-africa-during-the-empire jacket slimed his/their way in. In case the viewer was unclear on this point, Caine is on hand to provide a full summary of his espionage: “that’s a complicated story. It begins a year ago. But let’s skip that.’ And so we continue…

When not discussing the dramatic plight of the African killer bee, Caine offers a masterclass in seduction, with a few lines that Neil Strauss (he of the puppet show routine – see my post on The Game) might be proud of: “I have some cardio-pep in my van. Anderson: Cardio-pep?! I’ve just read an article in the medical journal about cardio-pep!” Dirty fucker.

Despite having watched the film no less than a zillion times, I continue to be mesmerised by the lunacy of the ending. With the swarm of bees inhabiting the town and taking out an entire train simply by force of its numbers, Caine craftily decides that it would be a good idea to lure the swarm out to sea with the sound of African killer bees mating. In an act of incredible self-sacrifice, General Slater perishes trying to fight-off the swarm single-handedly so Caine can put their plans into action. Being the 20th century, the sound is broadcast from speakers placed on life rafts with an oil slick craftily placed over the sea, and duly ignited with a flame thrower when the bees make their way to the ocean under the misapprehension of a bit of rumpy-pumpy. As the incinerated bees fall through the sea’s depths, Caine gets philosophical: “Anderson: Is this just a temporary victory? Craine: The world might just survive.” As someone who judges his life ‘pre and post’ The Swarm, it is difficult to recommend the film highly enough and I guarantee you will weep with joy after several viewings. At a bargain price of £24.75 from Play.com, can you afford not to watch The Swarm?

There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Anderson)

I recall leaving the cinema at the end of There Will Be Blood seething at the ending which still, despite several subsequent viewings, I believe ruins the film. The main body of the film is otherwise decent (not even close to the masterpiece that frothing critics will have you believe) with the so-so delivery of the plot lifted with beautiful cinematography (beautiful in its darkness) and a fabulously creepy soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

The film is a tale of greed, power and its relentless force propelling the world forward without regard to core values (not so much good versus evil, as evil stamping all over good). Mr Method aka Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a disconcerting oil man, who strikes a deal to drill for oil located beneath the land of a religious family, the mouthpiece of which is the otherworldly Eli. Cue clashes between religion and profit-making greed as the project progresses, with Eli’s mission to rid Plainview of his greed and anger (a ridiculously over-the-top attempted exorcism at a church service) contrasting Plainview’s mission to exploit Eli’s land and apparent naivety for maximum profit. Plainview’s cold-hearted persona is enforced by his awful treatment towards his child, H.W., who he expects from an early age to act like an adult (dressing him formally and making a big play of the business being a family business).

There are hints at redemption, when a man purporting to be Plainview’s half-brother appears seeking work, and Plainview takes him under his wing. However once it is known that the man is an impostor of no relation, Plainview duly kills him. Prior to the final scene, we see a drunk, aggressive and defiant Plainview existing in self-imposed exile who shows nothing but contempt for his visiting now-adult son, H.W., claiming that he is not in fact his flesh and blood.

The ‘climax’ sees Eli meet the washed-up and booze-addled Plainview at the oil man’s mansion. The reason for Eli’s visit, we are told, is that Eli requires assistance in brokering a deal to sell family oil rights. Plainview then goads him by saying that he has no oil as Plainview drained it all away (famously delivered in a rant about milkshakes, no doubt the first and only time that Kelis’ seminal pop-offering will ever influence the dialogue of an Oscar winning movie) and demands that Eli deny the existence of God, before beating the bible-basher to death with a bowling pin.

The film’s title confirms the Plainview character – unchangeable, self-obsessed, tyrannical and violent. It is also a commentary on a particular age of America and how the motto – ‘the land of the free’ – can never apply to all, such is the inherent conflict between the needs of different social factions. Such heady topics tick all the boxes for the masterpiece tag, but Anderson’s film was to me, well, too obvious and didn’t say anything new. To use modern-day parlance, all one concludes upon leaving the cinema is that Daniel Plainview is a wanker. Running at 3 and half hours and the recipient of numerous awards, I expected something slightly more insightful and/or moving.

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Top ranking lists sustain a mild level of interest until you reach the top ten and the wobbly voiced narrator promises a host of stellar names after the break – cue The Beatles, The GodfatherTo Kill a Mockingbird or any other artistic usual suspect you care to mention. While it is often hard to discredit such music, film or literature, it becomes a little tiring when people assert greatness without thought, haplessly allocating quality on the basis of established standing, rather than studied appraisal.

For example, Film Four’s current top 100 list contains, respectively at places one, two and three: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes BackThe Godfather and The Shawshank Redemption. All are decent films (The Godfather a clear standout in my eyes), but it is also worth noting that all were made more than 15 years ago and, of the top 10, only Gladiator was filmed this side of the millennium. Clearly, therefore, the only way to be truly venerated artistically is to wait around for a couple of decades and hope for the best, which seems at odds with the concept of ‘the greatest’ – surely if a film’s excellent, it is now just as much as it will be in twenty years time. Only if popular and/or influential legacy is a consideration would a time delay be necessary.

Get outta it you faaaarking slaaag!!!

My favourite film, however, is a mere pup, having been made as recently as 2001. Like all classically revered cinematic productions, it has at its helm an A-list director in the form of Ridley Scott, creator of the beautiful pant-shitter, Alien, the aforementioned Gladiator and the superlative Blade Runner. Not content with star quality behind the camera, the film also serves up a solid cast, featuring knight of the realm, Sir Anthony Hopkins; Hollywood’s go-to ginger, Julianne Moore; faux-Italian wiseguy, Ray Liotta; and the ever dependable Gary Oldman, a leftfield character actor and real-life brother to Mo Slater from Eastenders (who said that blogs can’t be valid educational tools). However while, say, Raging Bull and The Godfather are often regarded as the career zenith for the actors involved, my film of choice is to acting what naked exposure is to teaching, with much of the cast still reeling from their involvement in this widely perceived cinematic aberration. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the incomparable Hannibal.

Mason, would you like a popper?

Black pepper, sir?

For those unacquainted with Thomas Harris’ literary creation, Dr Hannibal Lecter VIII is a brilliant psychiatrist, hampered by his double-life as a cannibalistic serial killer. The beauty of the Lecter character is that despite his penchant for unorthodox dinner parties, the reader (and the audience) ends up rooting for him, on account of his ability to threaten unspeakable acts while behaving with the upmost courtesy. I doubt, for example, that you would ever see Leatherface extolling the culinary merits of pairing a human liver with some fava beans and a splash of Chianti.

Tom Hanks Forrest Gump. Charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain't retarded

The movie-watching public got their first glimpse of Lecter (played by Brian Cox) on screen in Michael Mann’s Red Dragon. However, despite positive critical reception and a resurgence following later Lecter films, the character failed to make a lasting impression. Where Brian Cox presented a subtle and studied Lecter, Anthony Hopkins went full retard in Jonathan Damme’s classy adaptation of Silence of the Lambs, revelling in the good doctor’s eccentricities and psychotic nature, and producing one of cinema’s most revered and oft-referenced villains.

Following the success (including several Oscars) of Silence, expectations ran high when Hannibal was released in 2001, however it didn’t take long for the critics to voice their disapproval; the Guardian decreeing it “an inflated bore of a movie”, while a brutal American reviewer dismissed the film as “a carnival freak show…we must give it credit for the courage of its depravity; if it proves nothing else, it proves that a man cutting off his own face and feeding it to the dogs doesn’t get the NC-17 rating for violence, nothing ever will.” Only Empire came closest to capturing the film’s true essence: “ranging from laughable to just plain boring, Hannibal is toothless to the end.”

As someone who has seen the film at least 100 times, I know better than to judge it as a serious motion picture. It must be treated as a comedy, and not only that, a comedy of the highest order. Just as ditsy females of my generation memorised Alicia Silverstone’s lines in Clueless, I can shamelessly reel off scene after scene of Hannibal dialogue, barely pausing for breath between each take. Not only that, I have managed to corrupt others in my quest for global Mason Verger (see further below) worshipping to the extent that we can now fully converse in Mason-speak, a kind of Klingon for people who prefer velvet-tongued cannibals to sexually frustrated space-travellers. For aspiring Mason enthusiasts, I have added a glossary to the end of this post.

I can list its most conspicuous aspects if that would help, jog the memory?

I know you won't believe me, boy, but I get a lot of pussy

The plot for Hannibal is so ridiculous, one can only assume that Harris adopted the early Bret Easton Ellis technique of getting loaded on class-As before putting pen to paper. Certainly, no sober mind could have conceived a successful novel around a horrifically disfigured and mentally disturbed cripple (Mason R Verger, Lecter’s last surviving victim), who spends his days lying in bed watching Sky News, all the while fantasising about feeding his one-time psychology lecturer (Lecter) to a pack of genetically engineered Sardinian hogs. While his retribution methods may be unorthodox, Lecter’s original offence was no less bizarre. After receiving a dinner invitation to Mason’s student digs, Lecter plied the young dandy with poppers and red wine before suggesting that he try peeling off his face and feeding it to the dogs. Never one to shy from a challenge, Mason duly obliged, later recounting, “it seemed like a good at the time”.

With his face now resembling a poorly made meat terrine, it is clear that Mason could have exercised greater judgment. From his opening line of “is that a Mustang I heard out there?” it becomes clear that Mason is comedy gold (skip to 30 seconds in):

While Mason rests-up in his four poster bed dreaming up obscure one liners (“nobody beats the Riz”), Hopkins’ Lecter minces about Florence, threatening to eat people’s wives and generally doing little to improve relations with our European comrades. No reason is given for Lecter’s decision to set-up in Italy, just a general acceptance that as an artistic lunatic, it’s the kind of place he’d go to get his kicks. This basic premise paves the way for some amusingly pointless art-house scenes, notably where Lecter attends an open-air opera yawn-a-thon armed with what appears to be an original extract from Dante Alighieri’s sonnets. At the end of the opera, it becomes clear that Neil Strauss and other PUAs could learn from the good Doctor, as he successfully sarges some Italian tail by handing her the sonnet text, and generally acting like a lecherous ponce.

As it transpires, there was method in Lecter’s behaviour, his flirting a deliberate attempt to unsettle Inspector Pazzi, the husband of the target of his affections. Having got wind of Mason’s $3 million dollar reward for capturing Lecter, Pazzi decides to have a go himself, apparently under the illusion that delivering one of the top-ten most wanted people in the world, and a cannibal to boot, would be a simple task. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go according to plan, with Pazzi last seen dangling from a noose in a Florence piazza with his bowls spewed out onto the sidewalk, like the last spoils of an offal convention. That’s how we say arriverderci in Hollywood, bitch.

You see it all comes to bear

Oink, oink

Back in the relatively real world, Mason’s plans for vengeance appear to be on track, as a highly charged exchange with Carlo, his Sardinian hog farmer, proves:

“Carlo: [answering the phone] Docto vino pronto.

Mason: CARLO??!!

Carlo: Mason…

Mason: Ciao bello, como estai??

Carlo: Errr…vell…vell…Am I…coming to see you?

Mason: Yes soon I hope. But first I need you to pack off the boys. Yes I know, the day you never thought would arrive has.

Carlo: Vell vell

Mason: Cordell will fax the Veterinary Service forms directly to Animal and Plant Health, but you need to get the veterinary affidavits from Sardinia. [Pause] So how are they??

Carlo: They are BIG, Mason, real BIG. Nearly two hundred and seventy kilos.

Mason: Oh, woooowwww.”

Alas YouTube appears to have pulled down some unauthorised Hannibal footage, which means I’m unable to share Mason’s child-like cry of “wooowwww”, and Carlo’s stereotypically-rugged Sardinian stubble. Suffice to say, the hogs themselves are capable beasts of which Mason should be rightly proud, and one begins to fear that Lecter’s chops might be unable to cope with the toughness of the hide, regardless of his cannibalistic pedigree.

MUUUM!! MEATLOAF!!

Amongst the bizarre shenanigans occurring in Florence and Sardinia, Julianne Moore’s wooden portrayal of Starling is allocated a sub-plot, a joist for superiority in the FBI between herself and her nemesis, Ray Liotta’s corrupt agent, Paul Krandler. Jealous of Starling’s fame following her pursuit of Lecter in Silence, the chauvinistic Krandler (a Will Ferrell patented buffoon who would probably list wanking and beer as his hobbies) belittles her wherever possible, before joining the Mason payroll. The skulduggery between Krandler and Mason results in the film’s finest hour, with Oldman’s Verger trussed up in a cardi, baseball hat and designer shades.

Enjoying the effects of the consumed appetiser

Upon its release, much was made of Hannibal’s violence, with the scene where Lecter dissects part of Krandler’s brain before braising it and feeding it back to his startled host, deemed gratuitous by all save for Heston Blumenthal, who avidly took notes before later proclaiming it ‘pioneering’. Having read Harris’ original novel, it is clear that Scott did in fact spare the viewer from some of the original’s darker moments. Mason himself, for example, is subject to a horrific ending in the book, with his younger sister, whom he molested as a child, shoving an electric eel down his throat. While this kind of retribution may appease hardened Daily Mail readers, Scott elected for a more sensible approach by having Mason feed to his own boars by long-suffering assistant, Cordell, following child-like goading from Lecter.

Thankfully YouTube have seen sense and preserved the clip showing Mason’s demise in all its bloody, dark-humoured glory (see below), and this seems a fitting place to draw matters to a close. In terms of iconic Mason phrases, this clip keeps them coming, starting with his unexpected deployment of the John Torode shopping list technique (see my early Masterchef post https://shanghaicowboy.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/masterchef-funny/) when describing his prized killer hogs (personal highlight being the pronunciation of ‘elongated canines’) to his attempted ultimatum to Cordell: ‘rather not? Or will not?’.

Remember, nobody beats the Riz.

Mason-speak for beginners

Useful – a substitute for ‘lunch’, as in ‘do you fancy being useful?’ which doubles up as a lunch invitation. Taken from Mason’s line to Cordell ‘you could be useful seeing about my lunch’. When delivering the dining invitation (‘do you fancy being useful?’), it is imperative that the first syllable of ‘useful’ is delivered in a high pitch.

Docto vino, pronto – a euro flavoured telephone greeting used by Carlo, Mason’s Sardinian pig farmer. The speaker needs to inhabit the character of a native Italian, elongating the ‘pronto’ to achieve the desired effect.

They are big, Mason, real big – another missive from Carlo, used to give Mason a basic understanding of the size of his bores. In everyday life, the phrase can be used to describe heffers in the street, or appealing waves. Example: ‘Hey dude, check out those sets. Yeh, man, they are big, Mason, real big.’

Cordell, Cordell! – a plea for help, as deployed by Mason when Cordell pushes him into the pig enclosure.

That’s not what I asked – a basic riff on ‘sorry, I didn’t quite catch that’.

Do you have faith? – a question asked of a beleaguered football fan, who’s team is receiving a royal humping. First deployed by Mason in his interrogation of Starling’s religious persuasion.

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