Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Hervé - "Bang the Drum"

My friend Lewis Rose is the director of this video for Hervé's "Bang the Drum". Moody, sleazy, funny.


Various links:

The art of Fortunio Liceti:

Serious chat about trivial things: Graphic Policy Radio talk "Captain America: Civil War"

Interview with "Embrace of the Serpent" director Ciro Guerra.

A brief history of horror...

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Straight on till Morning

Peter Collinson, 1972, UK

Peter Collinson’s* ‘Straight on till Morning’ is a totally different creature to ‘Fear in the Night, the film it was doubled up with under the “Women in Peril” strapline. It’s like Hammer as filtered through Nicolas Roeg and Harold Pinter and owes far more to ‘Peeping Tom’ than Hitchcock or Robert Bloch. This is no bad thing. It is a flawed but fascinating chamber piece whose cross-cutting to other tangential and related scenes broadens this serial killer story into a story of how girls get lost in post-Sixties London culture. 1970’s ‘Permissive’ provides another example of this Little Girl Lost scenario.

Public humiliation and the retreat into fantasy underlies the odyssey of ugly duckling Rite Tushingham as she tries her luck in the big bad world to look for someone to make her a mother. This leads her to pretty boy Peter’s neverland, at the end of a road straight out of ‘Coronation Street’ and British neo-realism. In Peter’s world, beauty is rewarded with murder. Shane Briant plays Peter with a mixture of aloofness, poses, articulate gentleness and eloquent bullying. It’s best when Briant reveals through expression how immature, confused and bewildered Peter is. We don’t know why he does what he does, and it is obvious that neither does he.

The undeniably bleak, cruel and nihilistic qualities of the film have brought it some vitriol and dismissal, which reminds me of reaction to Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Bad Timing’, and both are open to accusations of misogyny and outright cruelty. Even if the Peter Pan allusions don’t quite take flight, ‘Straight on till Morning’ has much say on the random mercilessness of the world and the hopes and dreams of normalcy that take people there. It is genuinely disturbing and troubling long after it has finished, and there really aren’t Hammer films one can say that about.

*        Probably best known as the director of ‘The Italian Job’.

Fear in the Night

Jimmy Sangster, 1972, UK

Fear in the Night’ is a pretty rudimentary thriller with a “twist”, conceived to go along with a Hammer Studio's “Women in Peril” double-bill with ‘Straight on till Morning’. A woman recovering from a breakdown is going to live with her husband in a boy’s school far out in the country, but just before she leaves she is attacked by someone with an artificial arm. What the film does offer is some excellent direction by Jimmy Sangster and solid acting. Sangster delivers a gripping opening sequence, a school setting which is both eerie and slightly surreal,  some framing that rivals Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’, some excellent segues, and a taut attack-chase sequence that verges on the dream-like. Ellipses manage to muddy the otherwise obvious ‘Diabolique’ plot and characterisation with some fine performances from Peter Cushing, Judy Gleeson, Ralph Bates and Joan Collins that gives the procedure weight. Hammer was frequently about plot standards invigorated with excellent details. ‘Fear in the Night’ also gives a great iconic image of the wonderful Cushing wearing a pair of shattered glasses, and it is his back-story alone that provides the genuine chills right up to the end and after.

Hard to be a God

Trudno byt bogom
Aleksei German, 2013, Russia

Hard to be a God’ falls somewhere between Tarkovsky and ‘Zardoz’. By which I mean it contains leanings towards brilliance, campness, pretentiousness, indulgence, uniqueness, something genuinely bonkers. The comparison with Tarkovesky isn’t a stretch at all since since ‘Stalker’ was based on the book ‘Roadside Picnic’ by the same authors, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: ‘Hard to be a God’ is based upon their 1964 novel. And ‘Stalker’ provides a good example of the science fiction of  ‘Hard to be a God’ which is free of any visual clues that might obvious symbolise an otherworldly setting. There are no futuristic vistas, for example, no alien designs; just people saying and acting bizarre things(although you may note that the costume Don Rumata wears looks like the remains of a spacesuit). It was directed by Alexei German and completed by his son Alexei German Jnr upon his father’s death in 2013.

It’s a medieval science-fiction scenario, which you can’t say about too many films, in which a group of astronauts have landed on a planet that seems trapped in its Dark Ages, bent on killing anyone they deem intellectual. This is why people act like “The Fool” from a play, with added killing. These astronauts aren’t meant to interfere with the development of this society but, of course, they do and have. One, calling himself Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), is already bearing a “Godlike” status simply because he is more focused and alert in a land of violent idiots. This therefore makes him more successful in his violent outbursts even as he loses himself to the cacophony of squalor and craziness all around him as he tries to blend in. The fact that he has apparently gone so successfully native is another reason it may be hard to distinguish the sci-fi basis as he behaves much like those around him.

Disgust is one of its main attributes: every scene wallows in mud and liquids, people smearing themselves with gunk; a face can’t get a close-up without someone else touching it, or someone else picking its nose; it’s a wonder any skin appears clean in some way at all. And this is before the gore kicks in. Long takes nod towards not only to Tarkovsky but also Bela Tarr and Alexandr Sokoruv, but there is none of the stillness of Tsai Ming Liang. Each scene is bursting with people, filth and the surreal, through which the camera glides following a plot that almost comes to the surface. There is a war nbetween The Blacks and The Greys and Don Ramata is looking for someone…  Much dialogue bears non sequiturs and it quite likely that even as you are being dazzled by the madness onscreen you will moments where you will be thinking “What?”, “Why?”, “Who?”, “Really?” and “W.T.F.?”. It makes little concession to easy plotting, even if the story is simple when spelt out. But dazzling it is. The cast propel themselves into the muck with vigour in the manner of over-eager amateurs who think such wallowing is vibrant acting (and similarly, you can also say this of Di Caprio in ‘The Revenant’): but I don’t want to claim the acting is amateurish because that isn’t so. Merely that the gusto creates some of the aforementioned campness and indulgence, but it knows what it’s doing. Think then of the dense production design and affectations of Peter Greenaway mixed with the black-and-white austerity of Embrace of the Serpent’.

But that is the meat of this, for the story takes secondary importance to the catalogue of grime and cruelty. It is a treatise on man’s penchant for stupidity and barbarism, even as it indulges in a feudal social structure. IMDB quotes a synopsis by Svetlana Karmalita for the Rome Film Festival that says,

This is not a film about cruelty, but about love. A love that was there, tangible, alive, and that resisted through the hardest of conditions.

But it is  about cruelty, surely, as to deny this is to ignore a central ingredient; and it is not so much about ‘love conquering in the worst of times’ as showing a context where affection doesn’t stand a chance. It is about bringing to life a crazed crowded scenario that you might find in old, renowned paintings. It is about failure; it is about how religion and blind faith can facilitate malice and obstruct progress. It is about the failure of colonisation and where the native culture is too overbearing to be changed by one man, no matter a self-proclaimed God.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Embrace of the Serpent

El abrazo de la serpiente

Ciro Guerra, 2015, Columbia-Venezela-Argentina

Ciro Guella’s film is a mesmerising journey into a long dead world of an Amazon in the midst of colonialism, based upon diaries by scientists Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evan Schultes. Naturally ‘Heart of Darkness’ and the films of Werner Herzog will come to mind , but there is a formal elegance,  uncanniness and style here that has little to do with Herzog’s more neo-realist aesthetic. Gorgeous and haunting vistas of black and white cinematography by David Gallego segue into one another, occasionally crossing timeframes to tell the tale. 

An ailing explorer (Jan Bijvoet) goes into the Amazon jungle and enlists the help of a native, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres and Antonio Boliar) to find a legendary flower, supposedly capable of curing disease. Years later, another explorer with the same objective also enlists the older Karamakate’s assistance, sparking memories even though Karamakate has forgotten some of the rituals he used to know. 

It’s a stark but soulful excursion into a world where white men bring madness and death with little to counter that this is what they symbolise. The second visit to the Spanish Mission where a mad self-appointed messiah has taken over is the material of a horror film, for example, but ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is only interested in this as part of the texture. In this world, the native fables where celestial animal spirits come to Earth (and where the title comes from) are a poetic tonic to the unforgiving nature of the white man’s religion. Karamakate is aware he is of a dying consciousness, one of the last of his kind and in the end it is all he can do to accept this with a few acts of defiance that will deprive the colonists of the jewels of his people.

Karamakate proves a fascinating character that easily quashes apparent “noble savage” archetypes, a character resistant to typical Western interpretations, always critical of other Amazonians that have befriended the white man. The importance of this film giving a rare voice to the Amazonian tribes-people has been officially recognised as it 

bears tragic witness to colonial atrocities that have ravaged natural resources, devastated indigenous populations, and broken a link between ancient wisdom and Western man's exploitive madness. Accordingly, the Governor of the Guainía Department, one of the locations used for the film, decorated Ciro Guerra with the Order of the Inrida Flower for “exalting the respect and value of the indigenous populations, likewise giving the Department recognition for tourism and culture.”

A haunting and haunted world is evoked and alienation is a near tangible thing, not only in Karamakate’s isolation from the world as the last survivor of his tribe, but also in the Spanish mission’s decent into madness. Karamakate does not appear to have let loneliness and isolation bring on such madness: he is clear of thinking and opinion and radiates a natural pride. He goes on the white men’s excursions for his own reasons and makes little concession to them. 

Time is fluid as the narrative slides from past to present, via as much by the river as by memory. By putting the past foremost the film puts it on an equal level with its present rather than relegating it to “flashback”. Although the editing does not fracture time and find associations and symbolisms by juxtapositions in the style of Nicolas Roeg – ‘Walkabout’, say – Guerra exhibits a similar awareness of the bond between editing and time. By the time it seems to go a little ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (it’s only colour sequence), it has long been evident that ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is also about film as a transcendent, hallucinogenic experience. It’s a film that evokes memories, dreams, the fluidity of time and a lost culture and refreshingly seems scornful of traditional white narrative norms. 

Beautiful, strange, tapping into the potential for film to give voice to everyone, even those long gone. An exceptional achievement.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The War

Jon Avnet, 1994, US

Elijah Wood gets top billing, even over Kevin Costner, as a boy who builds a tree-house. The tree-house and his long-running feud with the kids of another family are a metaphor for war, and Vietnam in particular. ‘The War’ starts promisingly, although loaded with rites-of-passage clichés, such as The Summer That Changed Everything... The all-wise nostalgic voice-over... children dancing to songs a’la 'Stand By Me'... It also bears the flashbacks, dead friends and guilt of Vietnam movies. Costner is the Vietnam veteran, back from hospital and a breakdown, full of war stories that have driven him into pacifist principles. Costner ends up too earnest; ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ still offers the best “good dad of (Southern) peace” archetype, but unlike Atticus, this dad can still be relied upon to use violence when his son is threatened. And so many conservative mythologies are tediously re-enforced, such as the dead that become guardian angels and wishes that come true, etc.

Mostly, despite some appealing moments, the film suffers from a lack of subtlety. A racist teacher is a caricature out of a Joe Dante satire and is treated to a long, unbelievably uninterrupted rebuke from the sassy black girl she picks upon. In fact, the underused black characters have the best personalities, where the adults are a bit too earnest and the kids don’t get to breath from under the contrived scenerios. The building of and the fight for the tree-house also promises more than is delivered, accompanied by an appealing seventies soundtrack left over from an ‘80s ‘Nam film. Slowly the film descends into predictability and, for the last half an hour, is almost unforgivably patronising and obvious: for example, there is no need for the sound of helicopters over the battle for the tree-house to make the point.

Although there is nothing truly disagreeable with Avnet’s film, its earnestness and self-importance work finally to undermine its strengths and to waste Costner at his most appealing and a cast of highly talented child actors (the wonderful Lucas Black – Caleb Temple from the TV series ‘American Gothic’ – has an all too brief showstopper when he beats up the bigger Wood with a devil’s shit-eating grin). almost unforgivably pat, and conservative in its resolution, the War unfortunately shoots itself in the foot, ending up neither a knowing children’s film with adult themes or an adult film with something new to say about childhood. 

Friday, 3 June 2016

Warcraft: the beginning

 Duncan Jones, 2016, USA-China

Of course, there was a lot of goodwill towards Duncan Jones after ‘Moon’ and ‘Source Code’, but I don’t think goodwill has a chance of elevating ‘Warcraft’ into some fantasy classic. There is a sense that supporters are desperately trying to make excuses.  My first doubts came instantaneously with the first shot of the orcs. You know how games have become almost like films? Here’s a film that looks like a game. There is something about the orcs, their design and execution, that means they generally remain unconvincing throughout. If this had been wholly animated, that would not have been a problem, would have been as aesthetic, but being placed in real locations against real actors does not enhance their credibility. But then again, the human actors fair no better and being placed aside orcs shows up how miscast and weak they are. Dominic Cooper as King Llane seems particularly unconvincing. It’s like the joint fantasy of a group of kids playing dress-up who just happen to look like competent actors in their imaginations. Yes, just like role-playing.

Much dialogue rumbles so fierce on the bass frequencies it’s like the orcs each come with their own Dolby speech broadcasters. Bad dialogue with motifs that are so old stock you are constantly thinking of other fantasy trailblazers that managed to inject these clichés with life (‘Lord of the Rings’, of course, ‘Game of Thrones’, I’m thinking ‘Dragonslayer’… even ‘The Hobbit’ films possessed more flair). Of course, this is all based on a game that trades in those story benchmarks – a threatened king; ‘good’ magic and ‘bad’ magic (helpfully colour-coded) and a wizard-figure that succumbs to the nefarious – and all this must be fun if you are directly interacting and navigating these narrative tropes yourself, but a film needs its own way of bringing these to life as an entity in itself. And this script isn’t it. Oh, it tries the usual tricks – humour supposedly elicited by a young wizard clearly out of his depth; the father/son theme – but nothing really comes to life. You may be thinking By the way, what is happening here? But it’s all standard stuff despite all the names and references trying to enliven it and which will fly over the heads of non-fans (I, for example, have never played ‘Warcraft’).

Where it wins is in a sturdy vision of its female characters – they may be fewer but they are every bit as useful and formidable as the males – and, even better, in giving the orcs characters nuance instead of just letting them be faceless villainous hoards. It starts with an orc couple worrying about their offspring after all, which is surely refreshing. This is why they are more interesting than the wet side dishes of human characters. It goes some way to humanising the inhuman “other”. Even so, the orcs come dangerously close to turning into ‘Shrek’. And there isn’t much to the special effects when they all appear to be CGI without much ingenuity in individual moments. It’s all *smash & angst* without really being engaging.

The vibe from the packed audience I saw it with was one of mild amusement and scoffing in equal measure. They openly laughed when the baby snarls at the end… and I wasn’t sure if we were meant to.

Saturday, 28 May 2016


Lewis Allen, 1954, USA

In a little, sleepy, Republican town of Suddenly, a officer pauses to share a joke with someone passing through that “things happen so slow now, the town councilor’s figuring to change the town’s name to Gradually.” But it’s name comes from a time when it was a wilder place of gamblers, road agents, gunfighters, probably prostitutes, that kind of thing; the kind of people that make things happen ‘suddenly’. It shouldn’t be forgotten what kind of wildness built the town.

 It’s a regular ol’ day in Suddenly. The most conflict seems to be when Sheriff Tod Shaw has a little tiff with the female that he is after, Ellen Benson, because he buys her son “Pidge” a cap gun when she has expressly forbid it. She is still grieving for the loss of her husband in the war, you see, and abhors symbols of violence. Oh, he explains that it’s not the weapon and it’s the man, et cetera, et cetera, but she isn’t having any of it. The Sheriff’s affinity with violence seems also to be one of the reasons she is playing hard to get. Her father-in-law is also tired of Ellen’s anti-violence moaning. She is, after all, just a woman and doesn’t understand that there is horror and Evil in the world that can only be resolved and fended off with counter-violence. But not to worry: her silly, womanly anxieties and philosophies will soon be shown up for the bunk they are when three hoodlums take over the family house for a plot to assassinate the President of the United States who is apparently - or suddenly as it may be - passing through. What follows is a little chamber piece in which decent people and hoodlums argue it all out whilst they wait for the assassination attempt.

Conversely, Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) would be better off without Sheriff Shaw because he’s an asshole, and as performed by Sterling Hayden, a wooden chunk of an asshole. Maybe that’s masculinity. He is belligerent and bolshy with the life-long ease of a born bully; juvenile in his responses to Ellen, swaggering with the unintentional humour that posturing machismo always brings. On the other hand, if she wasn’t such weak tea, she ought to notice that assassin John Baron is played by Frank Sinatra and is a far more interesting man. Sure, he’s a murderer, but so is her beau and her father-in-law because they were all soldiers: Baron brings with him an interesting questioning of what it means when a Nation trains its men to kill. This grey area is quickly resolved by the Sheriff distinguishing between good and bad soldiers, those that come home to take on authoritian roles such as cops and secret agents and those that liked it too much: Baron was born a killer, even if, as he says, “They” taught him how to kill. His mental health is probably more a result of this innate psychotic nature, the fact that he was left in an orphanage, that kind of thing, rather than a result of war trauma, of course. He’s a bad seed, see?

We are a long way from the home invasion scenarios of “Funny Games” and the like, but nevertheless there is a fair hard edge to the proceedings. The film implies Baron’s sadism and instability as much as possible, whilst never losing his hoodlum hat, and it’s fairly zesty with the expendable cast. Thanks to Sinatra’s performance, both mean and vulnerable with eyes full of uncertainty and a gutted sense of his own emotions, we have no doubt that he is capable of carrying out his threats against “Pidge” and the President. Sinatra brings the whole set-up alive in a community of otherwise stock types and rote performances. The film may try to side-step the issue of what turning men into killers might do to a generation, but he is far from a whiner about his lot and he does help to puncture the posturing of the ex-servicemen around him just by being there. He is also living the American dream of Capitalism and firearms: he doesn’t have any feelings about his job, he is just doing it for the money and marking his place in the world by killing when told and paid to. It’s just business. Baron may be wrong, but that doesn’t make the little conservative enclave he invades right just because of their pretences at patriotism and overall recourse to violence which is just as quick as his, although arguably justified as self-defence. Writer Richard Sale also can’t help but give Baron the best dialogue either. The irony is simple: the bad guy brings with him the dark edges of noir and is the only point of fascination in the film, the near only thing in context with blood running through its veins. Sinatra is good casting: he is tiny compared to the hulking Hayden, but Sinatra holds his own by doing and not swaggering. Only with the TV repairman - who may as well wear a target on his chest when he turns up late in the proceedings - played by James Lilburn do we get another actor actually awake and complex, simultaneously confused, outraged, bemused and shocked.

As a drama centred around sofas and windows it has the feel of an expanded play, although there is nothing wrong with that, with competent if uninventive direction by Lewis Allen, a director of the era’s stalwart TV series. The play with the cap gun and the television set is quite neatly handled, right under the assassins’ noses, and the ending - and we’re never in doubt as to the how things will turn out - gives both “Pidge” and Ellen a chance to resolve issues with a firearm. That’ll learn’em. And later, it will be the Sheriff playing hard to get and Ellen doing the chasing. That’ll teach her. 


Friday, 27 May 2016

The Haunting in Connecticut

Peter Cornwell, 2009, USA-Canada

The opening credits of Peter Cornwells haunted/possessed house film are an example of the problem of Twenty-First Century supernatural horrors. It starts with a gallery of old black-and-white photographs, pictures of families posing with their dead loved ones in the style of old mementoes. However, this is broken up by flashes of running blood, all red and here-and-now. It is as if the film is anxious about holding the attention without the promise of contemporary gore. Tales of hauntings subsist on atmosphere and build-up, on the slow seeping in, of an unsettling ambience and the character of a troubled building and, usually, correspondingly troubled characters. It seems to be that the tempo of contemporary film-making and modern editing trends is all wrong for a successful supernatural horror. This tempo is so hungry for and anxious about holding audience attention, the audience attention-span being taken as uniformly and shockingly short, that it is oblivious to build-up and ambience. We are barely ten minutes in before we have our first fake-shock courtesy of a dream. This is unnecessary: the film does not know that simply having big, locked, imposing doors in the basement are enough to generate the creeps once our unfortunate protagonist decides to use the basement for a bedroom (!). Perhaps I am being unfair: a film like Fulcis The House by the Cemetery has little rhythm, but it does somehow generate atmosphere and is redeemed by a couple of key set pieces, mainly the cellar denouement. Perhaps then The Haunting in Connecticut will pull a similar stunt.

The family has moved into this old big house to be closer to the hospital so that their son can be nearer his cancer treatment. Again, we dont need scares so early when the pathos of a cancer victim engages our sympathy straight away: decent character involvement around this would hold our attention. Merging the sons cancer with the haunting pays off dividends, but not as much as it ought: there is no ambiguity as to whether his hallucinations and visions are the product of his illness, for example. The ghosts pop up all over the place, all the time. And then theres a nasty eye-lid clipping. Its all too much too soon and counteracts the development of the uncanny that the best ghost stories ask for. The flashbacks should be far spookier than they are, but spooky flashbacks in the modern mainstream are frequently sabotaged by the snappy editing and film effects that refuse to let them breathe. Every supernatural occurrence is edited with jump-cuts, flares, black-outs and juddering effects so that they verge on the incomprehensible and certainly resemble music videos rather than visions of terror. The most hilarious sequence of sped-up editing and exposition is the cliché visit to the library where, seemingly in an hour or two, our characters unearth The Truth. Libraries are often the undoing of supernatural terrors.

There is family interaction winningly modelled on examples such as Poltergeist and the performances are all fine, considering the material given. Such schlock often benefits from seasoned actors, but what Virginia Madsen, Martin Donovan and Elias Koteas are doing here other than picking up a pay check is the films real mystery. Well, that and why after experiencing terrifying supernatural phenomenon, the family doesnt just leave. Koteas character - a minister also suffering from cancer - is especially silly, reeking more of deux ex machina than genuine character.

The film exhibits ickiness concerning death: a funeral home is obviously an undesirable building and host to all manner of angry spirits; the good family tries to keep bad things away with prayers. Surely this is a product of the side of American culture that has such difficulty dealing with death. It is ironic that so often with horrors that are so softly religious in a Judeo-Christian manner that prayers are inevitably all part of the creepiness, even as they are calling on the supernatural to provide solace and justice in life. Ghost stories often distrust the past, presenting it as a dangerous place, but ghost stories are also about grief and loss. But The Haunting in Connecticut is having no truck with death. Indeed, our cancer-ridden hero survives, returns from the dead even, fully recovered from terminal illness. All you need are Gods mysterious ways, which apparently involve a violent haunting, grave robbing and necromancy and a heavy dose of sentimentality. Yes, a haunting cures cancer. It’s an insultingly juvenile vision of mortality and one heavily mired in a denial that I am not even sure the film-makers care about.

To call this muddled, ridiculous and most of all grotesquely offensive is an understatement. If the Horror genre is chiefly concerned with death in all its guises and our fantasies for it, rarely has a religious horror film gone about so nakedly denying its omnipotence.  And not for one minute would I entertain this as a true story.