Monsters on the Mexican border, comics vigilantes in York, lonesome cowboys in the West and George Lucas
After reporting on Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist earlier this week, here’s a round-up of some of the other genre-related, geek-friendly footage I managed to cram into my annual bash at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (it wasn’t all poncing around in a beret watching black and white films about human tragedy from Hungary, you know), with Indy flicks from North America, the UK (taking in alien monsters on the rampage, comics style vigilantes in York and an exploration of Star Wars fandom) and the live action version of the classic Lucky Luke comics from France
Crimefighters is a cracking wee comics-inspired black and white movie set in York, from Miles Watt (who is also involved in Zomblogalypse online), made on a shoestring budget and shot in a really nice, crisp, luminous black and white which makes the most of the small resources available to the film-makers. A trio of friends are attempting one of the most difficult endeavours of modern life – trying to avoid drinking for a month. Sipping soft drinks in the pub they start to notice that things in the fair city of York are getting worse – is anti-social behaviour (that great bugbear of modern Brit society that politicians so love to rant on about) really on the rise in the city or is it just because they’ve stopped drinking they’re getting a little paranoid?
An increase in fights and muggings does seem to be occurring and when the town’s CCTV cameras are deliberately targeted too it seems that it isn’t just random violent outbursts after closing time but part of someone’s diabolical plan. But why would someone want to cause more trouble in town? And with the authorities seemingly helpless isn’t it time to don the (home-made) masks and take the law into their own hands? Some of the dialogue and acting is a tad clunky; I’m not sure if that’s deliberate or not, but to be honest I got the impression that it was mostly by design, a nod to the often clichéd superhero comics which were part of the inspiration for the film and the foundation of the masked Crimefighters vigilantes. It may not be about to challenge Iron Man at the box office, but Crimefighters makes up for its minuscule budget with a good sense of fun, a knowing nod to its comics and movies inspirations and, more important than big budgets or sparkling dialogue re-writes, it’s got a lot of heart and I think that makes it a great Friday night movie for comics geeks. Crimefighters is getting a limited release this month and will be going around the UK via the Picturehouse chain of cinemas (starting in York today), so check their site for venue and screening date details and give them a bit of support if you can.
The People Versus George Lucas is Alexandre Philippe’s labour of love documentary, over two years in the making and involving a humongous amount of footage and then editing it down (apparently there are acres of scenes which didn’t make the final cut, including some famous contributors). Despite the adversarial title, this isn’t a Lucas-bashing movie; actually if anything it is a celebration of Star Wars and the huge part it’s played in the lives of legions of fans over the years. The film draws on archive footage, animations, photos, fan videos (and oh boy, has our Star Wars inspired a multitude of fan films!) and a slew of talking heads, from ordinary fans to some very famous ones, including David Brin, Francis Ford Coppola, Dave Prowse and Neil Gaiman among others (apparently Ray Harryhausen was also interviewed but didn’t make the final cut, which gives you an idea of the sheer amount of footage the film-makers had to try and edit in to the final cut).
The film dives into just why Star Wars, right from the start in ’77 (nostalgic sigh) became such a subject of passion for so many of us and how some aspects of the saga have had the opposite effect, infuriating fans – re-jigging the first trilogy years later and then not allowing the original cuts to be re-released for the many who want them (this was contrasted against a much younger Lucas who argues against the hideous 80s vogue for tinkering with classic movies), the still ongoing rumble over the ‘Han shot first’ in the reworked Episode IV and the contrast between the original trilogy and the later prequels. And oh yes, the Jar Jar thing (with due homage to Simon Pegg’s Spaced scene). Even when fans are venting their spleens about aspects of the series which annoy the hell out of them, though, it’s never mean – it’s the sort of emotion that can only be generated by people who really love the series. You can’t get that worked up if you don’t care, so even the criticism is a form of fan love. And before anyone outside of geekdom thinks typical geek behaviour to obsess over niggling points in something, it’s no different from the obsessive behaviour shown in any area where people have a passionate interest (take football for instance, where fans have memorised results from decades ago and still endlessly debate the minutiae of a play from 10 years back. It no different. Except we have cool lightsabres. And Slave Leias at conventions). Taking a balanced approach the film also discusses the creator’s right to make changes to their own works, whether it is what some fans want or not – Gaiman’s particularly good on this point, understanding both from the fan point of view but also from the successful creator perspective, where some fans really want you to continue doing what you did before.
The film also talks about how the enormous, unexpected success of Star Wars also, in a way, boxed in Lucas as a film-maker – as his friend and mentor Coppola put it, while he’s had huge success it also means he’s spent the rest of his life making Star Wars for the most part and we never got to see the other films that the man who made THX-1138 and American Graffiti might have made. I must confess I hadn’t considered that point before and I suppose it is the flipside of the cosmic level of success Star Wars enjoyed – it’s given Lucas fame, wealth and the love of millions, but did it also mean he never got to work on some of the other film projects the Lucas of the early 70s seemed eager to make? Overall though it’s a positive film about a series of amazing films that may drive us nuts sometimes but at the end of the day we still love deeply, laced with much affection (even when criticising) and often very, very funny. A great flick for Star Wars fans and indeed for any sort of fans – there’s a lot of ourselves to be recognised in the people in this film, because they’re us.
Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is another Indy movie and one where I didn’t know much more about it other than the blurb in the Film Fest programme – reporter is told by his boss to get his daughter back over the Mexican-US border. Problem being several years before a space probe sent to retrieve proof of organic life samples beyond Earth crash landed in northern Mexico and the lifeforms got free, mutated rapidly and spread, leaving the Zone, a quarantined area of alien monsters between most of Mexico and its border with America. Starting with some shaky night vision footage of an enormous monster attacking a city and being repelled by troops (in a scene that looks like CNN footage of combat from Baghdad, but with giant, tentacled aliens) Monsters straight away establishes an atmosphere of unease – talking to their taxi driver our protagonists ask how he can stay here when an attack like that can happen so randomly out of the Zone. Where else would I go, he asks. His life, his job, his family are all there. It’s another obvious echo of the problems faced by ordinary folks who happen to live in a city that’s become a trouble hotspot, be it insurgents in Iraq or Kabul or aliens in Mexico.
Photojournalist Kaulder is not happy at effectively being ordered to escort rich kid Samantha Wyden back over the border after her dad decides the attacks are getting too close. He’s there to cover them and looking for the one great shot that will make his name, seemingly less concerned with the human cost of what is happening than with how it will look in a news photo. But since Sam’s father owns his newspaper he doesn’t have much choice and as the infection leads to increasing disruption of transport links they have to take an increasingly off the beaten track route back home to the US, imbuing the monster flick with some of the road movie genre along the way. There are elements of other movies, from District 9 to Apocalypse Now in this belting, lo-fi movie (much of which was semi improvised along the way as they shot, for instance some of the armed troops you see aren’t all actors, some were the bodyguards provided for the crew by Mexican authorities, so they used them in their shots to work that small budget even further). Of course as they travel together Sam and Kaulder start to get to know one another more and the audience gets to know them right alongside. The effects are used sparingly – the budget would doubtless not stretch to too much of the monsters anyway but, like the much larger budgeted Cloverfield, Edwards knows that it is more about atmosphere and he deploys his monster shots sparsely but very effectively throughout (the director picked up the Moët New Directors Award at the Festival, in fact). Like District 9 this is a bit of a left field science fiction flick with a nice, Indy feel to it; one to watch for when it snags a general release.
(left to right: actors Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able with director Gareth Edwards and one of the Film Fest organisers on stage in the Filmhouse at the Edinburgh International Film Festival Q&A after Monsters, pic from my Flickr)
One of the last films I saw during my Festival break was the French live action movie of the classic European comic Lucky Luke, by Goscinny and Morris, which Wim talked about a few months back when it was released on the Continent. I remember a wee bit of the comics cowboy from my childhood reading, although he was never as big here as he was in France (although I am glad to say Cinebook are doing their best to make his books available again here in English), so I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially since live action movies based on other European all-ages comics like Asterix have been less than stellar. Boy, was I in for a very pleasant surprise – it wasn’t just okay, it wasn’t just good, it was bloody brilliant. Seriously. The style is somewhere between the comics (the sets are fabulous – the town is all weirdly shaped buildings, as if they were made from plans drawn without a ruler), Sergio Leone’s Westerns and a less adult version of Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (still one of the funniest movies ever in my book). And it’s funny. Oh god, but it’s funny. Three of us went to see it and we laughed pretty much throughout the entire film (and indeed on into the credits, which had some jokes – in French – peppered throughout the credits and an extra little scene that makes a nod to the fact that in this day and age the child-friendly cowboy hero can’t be seen to smoke, but does so with some panache).
There are some great touches – the live action leans towards the real world but retains enough of a cartoons sensibility to make it recognisably Lucky Luke (the cowboy takes a bath but of course he keeps his cowboy boots on; the terrified locals of the town hide from the bad guys who run it by always hiding in barrels). A lot of the humour is visual and slapstick in nature, with plenty to make the younger audience members laugh, but there are plenty of lines there just for the adults too (after all, many who will watch this are adults who grew up reading the comics many years ago and they want – and get – a film that pleases the kid in them and the adult). For example Luke no longer smokes, as we know, so now he has a blade of grass in his mouth, which leads to Jesse James trying to smoke it and exclaiming that this grass is too strong to be smoking, a joke going past they kids in the audience but hitting the adults (and along the way paying homage to the scene in Blazing Saddles where our heroes get high); a scene in the president’s carriage if so full of powerful men smoking cigars that there is a cloud inside the train. I’m not going to go on too much about it – trying to explain how funny some scenes are to someone who hasn’t seen them yet rarely works and besides I don’t want to spoil it. I will say it is creative, incredibly funny and it is stuffed full of wonderful little details – when it gets its DVD release it’s a film that you can easily re-watch and spot even more that you missed first time around. No details on a UK release yet, but I’d imagine now it has subtitles added prints will make their way onto the arthouse circuit in due course, and if you want a great laugh you should saddle up when Lucky Luke comes to town.