Movie Review #40 / 250 : ‘VIDEODROME’

I’ve been lost for words in my reviews previously. Whether that be down to the movie I’ve seen having awestruck me into abject silence, or whether I’ve been dumbfounded by the likes of M Night Shyamalan or Paul Blart, this phenomenon has reared its ugly head before. Only, this time, I think ‘confused’ was what the director was aiming for.

Yep, we’re back to David Cronenberg, who I last looked at in my review of The Fly, which as it turns out, I hugely enjoyed. Videodrome precedes Fly by a few years, but this didn’t deter me – I’m sure all Dave’s films are as enjoyable and as gripping as the last. Right?

Videodrome… God. Erm. Even Writing the synopsis is tricky. Videodrome focuses on the main protagonist, the sleazy Max Renn (James Woods), an executive for a pornography-and-violence TV channel way off into the (obviously dystopian) future. Via an equally sleazy video pirate, Renn comes across a transmission of simulated torture like he’s never seen. He immediately wants hold of this project for his own station – despite being warned from most angles. It transpires that Renn should have heeded warnings while he could, as the transmission not only starts to play with his own perception of reality, but also leads into a much more sinister project beneath the surface.

That’s really as basic as I can dilute it. The first half an hour builds up to a revelation you were expecting from the first few scenes onwards, and from then on… just get incredibly surreal. Like the world in which Renn inhabits, the movie’s narrative, and its reliability, start self-destructing before our eyes. The horrific twists slide in almost effortlessly and without warning or indeed much foreshadowing – and by the final act, the viewer (well, definitely me, in any case) is left at a bit of a loss as to what in the name of all that is holy is going on.

Let’s focus on the positives. The acting, for the most part, is actually pretty natural. There’s very little ham in the characters. That, as you’ll soon discover, is left up to the amazing visceral body horror that genuinely puts other rubbery guts-and-gore scenes out of films like The Thing to shame. The effects here are just as shocking, and as effective, as those that Cronenberg would pick up again for Fly a few years later. The pacing is also marvellously speedy, with little time spent on exposition, or on allowing any one scene in particular to get stale too quickly.

This is all fine. This would all be put to brilliant use if the story, the twists and turns, and revelations, weren’t so confusing, nor haphazard. Videodrome prides itself on being a philosophical work; and it’s unfortunately clear that this self-awareness clouds the enjoyment factor. For anyone paying even close attention, this is a verychard film to follow – but, as a ‘surrealist’ movie, I guess that’s already a given.

While Videodrome is definitely memorable, it’s probable it actually suffers from its advanced pacing – very little about the scary future the movie is based in is given any airing, nor are we given much chance to digest the various lumps of surrealism that fling themselves full on into our faces. It seems to be a movie focused on honing and delivering its message in the way it sees fit, neglecting the needs of the audience somewhat. This is why, despite it being pretty damn impressive in visuals and concepts, I was left pretty underwhelmed.

PRO: Great cast, great visuals and effects.

CON: Actually suffers from lack of exposition and extended sequences. Confusing and twisting narrative. Excludes the audience.

5/10. Not terrible. Not in the slightest. But, despite it having been critically lauded, it’s perhaps a little too thick on the surreal to be transferable to a general audience. But then, it’s not for a general audience. It feels like a blockbuster movie that decides it’s an arthouse film halfway through. How am I going to cope with Naked Lunch?!

Movie Review #35 / 250 : ‘THE PRESTIGE’

Erm.  Abra… cadabra?  I know, I know.  I’ll get me coat.

Christopher Nolan.  If you recognise the name, he’s very quickly become quite the cult director in the past ten years, having helmed the Batman reboot Batman Begins and its sequels The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (out July as far as I remember), and everybody’s favourite kaleidoscopic-dream-hopping-adventure Inception (it’s on the list).  He also directed The Prestige, which is full of his trademark confuddling plot twists and closed-book characters (and Michael Caine).

Nolan films aren’t everybody’s cup of tea.  They require a lot of attention, and, surprisingly, quite a bit of coherence.  If you miss one or two slight touches or turns in the entire movie, you’ve blown your chance of appreciating it to its fullest.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The Batman reboots have been lavish and multi-layered as a result, and Inception was in IMDB’s top 5 movies ever for an extended period.  But, digressing.

The Prestige is essentially the continued one-upmanship between two rival magicians (or illusionists, though ‘real magic’ as opposed to ‘illusion’ is discussed several times here – whether you like it or not), played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.  It all takes place in Victorian England, where the hats are lofty, and the accents are either plummy or missing their ‘H’s.  The dominoes start to fall when Jackman’s wife is killed in a trick where it’s unclear if Bale was responsible – but consumed by grief, Jackman chooses to make it his life’s work to outdo Bale, while Bale similarly gives as much as he receives.

That’s pretty much your plot.  There’s not much to it other than that, and that’s probably a good thing.  There is an intense amount of detail added into the tricks, the scheming and both the politics and ‘religion’ of what it means to be a practicing magician that fill up the plot, and Nolan’s trademark twisting and turning about all over the place work really well here.  Sometimes, such depth and such convolution comes off as smug or conceited – and in some places, Prestige is very conceited – but as we’re dealing with tricksters, we as the audience surely don’t mind being tricked ourselves.  Do we?  I didn’t.

This is a very angry, brooding film with very little in the way of joy for its characters, but I guess that’s not really the point here.  It’s all about the spectacle, watching the two magicians play off against each other, and wondering who will win right through to the climax.  As a movie, it’s a brilliant mental spectacle, and there’s an absolute bumload of clever surprises.  None so grand as the finale, where, if you didn’t see it coming from the clues (and they’re there, believe me – right from the beginning), you’ll either find it maddening or marvellous.

What bothers me most about Prestige is not the length, nor the persistent gloom – they’re both fine and necessary – it’s who we’re meant to be rooting for.  Even after at the film’s end, I was still behind Jackman’s increasingly obsessed character, despite the film flip-flopping between him and Bale for role of heroic protagonist all the way through.  Maybe, given both their stories (which I’m not spoiling, though this is making this particular entry a wee bit sparse), we have to take them on equal merit.  They’re both as cunning and as sleazy as each other.  Plus, I plain don’t like Christian Bale.  I don’t know why.  I think it’s the whole saga he had with that cameraman on the set of Terminator Salvation years back.  Or, it could be that I find him immensely over-rated.  I unwisely chose to publicly claim George Clooney and his nipples to be a better Batman (something I’ve since detracted for the sake of my own teeth).

For a film so amazingly over-the-top, and so desperately, gloomily serious all of the way through, I’m finding it hard to say much else.  I think it’s a good one to see once.  If you like twists and turns, it’s one to watch.  If you like Nolan’s other stuff, it’s one to watch.  If you like going away from a film content with what you’ve seen, feeling warm and fuzzy and without any further questions, avoid it.  I don’t think I’ll watch it again, purely because I know its secrets (how ironic!).

PROS : Good acting, even for Bale.  Great twists and moments of surprise.  Great visuals.  David Bowie suits a moustache.

CONS : If you lose concentration for ten seconds, you’ve lost the whole movie.  Desperately intense and poetic.  Not much joy.

OVERALL : 7/10.  Erm, see above.  I needed to cool my brain down afterwards.  How will I cope with Inception?  Find out in July.  I’m taking a seven-month break from Nolan.  I need it.