Sunday, 18 June 2017

Lights Out

David F. Sandberg, 2016, USA

Expanded from David F. Sanberg’s short film whose problems (what, you just go to bed?) is fairly forgivable in a short format. The scares here are fine – there’s a lot of mileage to be achieved from silhouettes with glinting eyes – and it explores the possibilities of multiple light sources well, and it utilises that staple James Wan trick efficiently (now it’s there; now it’s not; now it’s there – but closer (loud music sting)!). Of course, why ghosts sometimes need to squat down (to be scary, presumably), or why Diana is carving her name in the floor and how she can suddenly make doors unopenable or why her footfalls can suddenly be heard (to be scary, presumably) is never quite explained (she’s supernatural mumblemumble) – but we can go with that. But in expanding the short film and a back-story is apparently called for, ‘Lights Out’ establishes how it then means to go on within the first half hour: with weak and ridiculous exposition. Typically, the cast are agreeable enough but they ultimately have scraps to work with. 

The weakness of the script becomes more problematic when it’s obvious that Diana is a manifestation of the mother Sophie’s mental illness. The solution to this then is obvious, and the film goes through with the logical conclusion, but this is also cruel. The solution to mental illness is suicide? Perhaps Eric Heisserer and Sandberg’s script thinks it is being shocking and hard-hitting, but it just comes over as thoughtlessly mean. Enough to be insensitive and therefore offensive.



Annabelle

 John R Leonetti, 2014, USA

Well it’s true that I expected to watch ‘Annabelle’ in a constant state of effrontery, unconvinced and snorting at every jump-scare and laughing at the stupid dialogue. With these cattle-prod  horrors each jump-scare squanders any potential merit the films may have accumulated because since those jump-blare-scares are the ultimate goal, scant attention seems to be paid to the characterisation and dialogue to get there. Those elements grow increasingly thin as the films trade in the most base kind of horror. The idea that these films are “based on true stories” is ridiculous and insulting: the fodder for this franchise is the stories of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, but they are little more than scam artists. These films cash in on the scam even more with the introductory and closing text reeking of condescension and manipulation. ‘Hey, they’ll believe anything,’ you can also hear the makers and marketers say. As Mark Kermode has said, these seem to be horrors films for non-horror fans, the kind that think “was it scary?” is the ultimate test of the genre.

And what is offered to the genre fans that are wise but play along?

Well in truth, ‘Annabelle’ is not as bad as ‘Insidious 2’. That is, it’s the usual fare after the opening that repeats the possessed doll’s introduction in ‘The Conjuring’ ends with a close-up of Annabelle’s grimy and scratched (??) face had me laughing – hey it’s meant to be foreboding and scary but I was just thinking that a doll couldn’t pronounce its Inherent Evil more if it tried. Of course, the “true” Annabelle is nothing like in the film: the original’s recognisable nature (see picture) is more sinister for its banality while the film version is surely trying too hard. But yes, Annabelle’s features are somewhat put into context as a trend when placed alongside similar dolls.

But if I expected to be in a constant state of disgruntlement, this wasn’t so for the first two acts: hey, my expectations for this were low so I'll respond to any any competence. the characters were as thin as expected but the actors had natural charm that, over time, is wasted more and more until it’s forgotten that they projected any. It’s just, you know, ho-hum horror. It was the basement scare where I first started to archly go Oh yeah? even if it is probably the best staged moment of the film.


Narrative and characterisation is typically weak, only there as a coat-hanger to hide vaguely corresponding scares. For example: the kids drawing on the stairs subplot goes nowhere but to deliver a laughable punchline that makes no sense. Are they part of the possession? Are they possessed too? What? How? Why? There’s the pounding on the floorboards upstairs that, equally, goes nowhere as a subplot. And the cellar scene: this has nothing to do with the proximity of the doll as the doll apparently doesn’t have a range, it’s just an excuse for scary scenes. It’s faintly amusing but condescending hackwork, offering meagre genre scraps and, again, the idea that this is based on any truth is daft. 

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Headshot

Kimo Stamboel & Timo Tjahjanto, 2016, Indonesia

A man (Iko Uwais) who has lost his memory is washed up on a beach into the affections of a nurse; could he have anything to do with the vicious gangster that has just escaped prison? 

‘Headshot’ follows the action template that the bad guys are irredeemable and cartoonish, but the Mo Brothers (Kimo Stamboel & Timo Tjahjanto) stage and direct with enough flair that keeps things just the right side of trite. Yunus Pasolang's camera circles the fights and sometimes follows people thrown through windows, knowing it is best to stand back and let these guys do their thing. There is a token romantic subplot with Chelsea Islan as Ailin – and the film ends with her face rather than his, implying that this romance is what counts, but what we have come for are the fights. And it is super-violent. 

Due to The Raid’, I am always going to have a soft spot for Iko Uwais who performs and orchestrates the fights, and like that film ‘Headshot’ utilises the idea that, no matter how lethal he is as a fighter, he is essentially a reborn innocent, on the side of the good, even if his backstory is a little murky. Luckily the amnesia will not effect his memory of how to fight. He is just always unlucky that he has a habit of being forced into situations where he has to say, using pencat silat, “Why do you guys keep making me prove I am such a bad ass?” This naturally expressed vulnerability is not a trait of the machismo of many action heroes, but it proves to be a good trick, his seeming defencelessness being easy to empathise with and his fighting skills being the envy of an audience that wants to triumph over all the enemies. Unusually, it does dwell on the toll this finally takes on him, but only to reunite us with his vulnerability and to wring the very last drop of pathos. The success of ‘The Raid’ was to reduce it all just to the fights but to also keep hold of the tension: ‘Headshot’ is a little too baggy with plot and lacks suspense, but the fights take up most of the time and in that it will surely satisfy.


Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Chevalier

Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2015, Greece

Six men on a fishing trip soon escalate their barely repressed competitiveness into a contest to see “who is best”. Not “the best” at any one thing, but the best in general. The prize is a Chevalier ring. 

Once, during a lull in party I was attending, a lady I had never met before bounded up to me and said “What are you talking about? Man things?” Well, other gentlemen and I had been comparing notes on the bands of our youth and, although we were not competitive, I imagine our nerdy attention to detail was something along the lines of what she was imagining. Indeed, one of the chief gags in ‘Chevalier’ is how the men constantly jot in their notebooks about others, treating everything obsessively and with the utmost seriousness, because everything is an extension of their masculinity or masculine opinion. Which is serious. And this is long before they battle it out over flat packs. 

Athina Rachel Tsangari’s deadpan satire creates an enclosed idyllic world – on a yacht in the Aegean Sea – where the men can indulge in their childish competitiveness under the guise of intellectual pursuit to their hearts content. To its credit, these men are not just laughable braggarts; for example, one can imagine an American rendition where the men are absurd cartoons, man-children to a fault and only kept in check by nagging women.  Although there is undoubtedly some of that to these guys, it’s not the total hinge of their personalities. The screenplay – written by Tsangari with Efthymis Filippou, writer on ‘The Lobster’, ‘Alps’ and ‘Dogtooth’ – colours in the men so that they are not solely ridiculous, mean, petty, etc., but complex characters that can’t help their vulnerabilities and insecurities from showing and can’t find the spaces to express these elements. And this despite the fact that there isn’t much exposition or back-story. They are in general successful people, making their antagonisms and insecurities more to do with gender and age than class. They will brandish erections to show they can still get-it-up and demote others for drooling when they sleep, for example; they will criticise because they can, because that is what you do when in charge – indeed, being critical of others is how you stay on top. But however mean the men are, there is no sense that film is itself mean, but rather just giving these men room to implicate themselves.

There is a clean, unfussy formalism – crisply filmed by Christos
Karamanis – that doesn’t allow excess to blow up into melodrama: deadpan is the mood. Indeed, so superficially earnest is the presentation that some may miss the joke – the curse of deadpan – but it is this earnestness that makes it very funny and cutting, mocking the seriousness of the men’s petty rivalry which is of no consequence, which is indulged in because that’s what men do. The male cast plunge into this with gusto, happily baring all and looking ridiculous whilst still proffering an air of superiority. If you tend to see macho posturing as inherently funny (and it’s dangerous too, but that’s another film) then perhaps this one gag will be enough and certainly Tsangari finds several angles – “Your syntax is shit. And your penis is very, very small.” - even before it tops it all with an outburst of karaoke with Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Loving You’. 

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Holocaust 2000

Alberto De Martino, 1977
A.k.a.: ‘Rain of Fire’ / ‘The Chosen’ / ‘The Hex Massacre'

Kurt Douglas is Robert Caine (see?) whose son Angel (see?), evidently taking his cue from ‘The Omen’, is the Antichrist taking advantage of his father’s plans to provide nuclear energy to a region in the Middle East.

In the tradition of Italian rip-offs of the era, its nonsensical hokum  with uninteresting dialogue whose logic that doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny – an asylum where the inmates are packed in to bare rooms with glass walls? – but there’s fun to be had as it ticks off its general genre cues. Fun in the sense that it’s daft and topped with somewhat surreal production design and some unintentional humour as much as it’s doing the horror thing. The plotting is the sort of thing we might have concocted comparing notes as juvenile horror fans at the time, a patchwork of moments from other genre films we had seen. Post-Damien Thorne, we all knew very quickly how these things went, although El Santo give s a fine run-down of how Italian Catholicism hinders the filmmakers in a coherent understanding of ‘The Omen’s Protestant basis.

There is, of course, the helicopter decapitation which predates ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and surely counts as the highlight. There’s some dated killer-computer stuff with the computer housed in a set that looks like it’s come from Tron’ … or some ‘The Crystal Maze’ game-show. There’s a naked Kirk Douglas running around a dream sequence, startled by back-projection. There is even a weird inclusion of a fawn which seems to instigate sex; the animal even turns up in a montage of foreplay later. Its ugliest moment is when Douglas tries to force his love-interest to have an abortion against her will when he thinks the baby she’s carrying is the Antichrist: it’s not that the film is overtly misogynistic, just that it doesn’t seem to realise how wrong-headed this is and that it greatly compromises his status as the hero. But then again, it won’t win any awards in its portrayal of mental illness either. It’s just all horrible stuff caused by the coming of the Antichrist, or something.


It’s fairly untypical in that Douglas, in an era defined by atomic anxiety and as head of a highly successful firm, has altruistic intentions in his nuclear colonialism. It is notable that the whole thing is just an account of one man’s uncovering of the demonic plot that he is helpless to prevent – at least that’s the short ending; there is a longer ending which does the opposite which is presented in an equally downbeat fashion, but it bears less conviction. This is, however, indicative of the on-a-whim nature of the whole enterprise. What ‘Holocaust 2000’ doesn’t seem to realise is that ‘The Omen’ possessed a sly and satirical dark humour which takes a little focus and maybe your tongue in your cheek.

Of course, we’ve survived the year 2000, so that’s a little bit of a giveaway that we’re okay in the end, hence the film comes with several aliases, ‘Rain of Fire’ being the most meaningless, ‘The Chosen’ being a yawn and ‘The Hex Massacres’ being the most strained.


Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016, Denmark-France-USA


It starts with a posed vision of Elle Fanning with her throat cut as she lounges on a sofa – but it’s a fashion shoot. Right from the start, we are presented with murder as just another fashion choice – and anyone glancing over fashion spreads for a while will see that in action. Giallo thrives on such aesthetic – surely Dario Argento’s reputation rests on this. Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘The Neon Demon’ looks like it may be in the vein of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ – more a psychological thriller with horror pretensions – and so it is as a study of fashion world femininity, but then it veers closer to Rob Zombie’s ‘The Lords of Salem’ with its accent on set design and covens. Indeed, ‘The Neon Demon’ turns out to be a far more full-blooded horror film that anticipated.


“Are you food or are you sex?” Jesse (Elle Fanning) is asked early
on, and that should be a clue. She’s a teenager coming to make it in the Californian fashion scene. Refn’s oeuvre has previously been defined by studies of masculinity – most recently with ‘Drive’ car fetish and then ‘Only God Forgives’ castration anxieties – but ‘The Neon Demon’ makes short shift of masculinity: in fact, the male characters are almost comically two-dimensional*: they’re all dodgy – although there is some amusement to seeing Keanu Reeves quite playing against type as a sleazy rapist motel owner (or is there room for doubt?). Jesse dismisses her potentially decent boyfriend (who nevertheless has designs on a minor) after he has gotten her where she wants to be and likewise the film wants to be for the girls, but it probably doesn’t totally avoid misogyny: it’s a valiant attempt but Refn is too in love with exploitation to fully achieve that (as indicated by his book of exploitation posters, ‘The Act of Seeing’). But the film most threatens to become unintentional comedy with the cartoonish males, where it’s at its most narrow and crude; it’s with the women that it achieves nuances and textures that has eluded Refn with his recent portrayals of machismo. Men maybe a problem but this is chiefly a woman’s tale of the world of predatory femininity. But this isn’t primarily about the women cowed and abused by patriarchy, but more about their relationships and uses of each
other, taking advantage to advance their status as women in this world where every shot looks like a fashion spread, gorgeously shot by Natasha Braier. When they talk and question Jesse in a women’s toilet, what initially looks like them just being both friendly and bitchy is actually their testing her credentials as a victim.

Of course, this being Refn, the symbolism is far from subtle and themes of identity will be conveyed through mirrors, the female form being drenched in born-again blood, and watch out for red being an indicator of danger, but there is some evocation in the broad strokes: for example, the moment where we think the fashion photographer is going to be abusive to Fanning’s waif gives way to a moment far more genuinely sensual if not understated when he covers her in gold paint. But actually the true core is with Jena Malone’s make-up guru Ruby: maybe simply because Malone coaxes genuine character where everyone else seems happy to just engage with the surface and symbolism of it all. When she has a sexual encounter with a cadaver, it is not only shocking and exploitation in tone but it also tells us of her vulnerability, her sadness that she will never have a relationship with Jesse and that she is trying to find intimacy with a dead thing. 

It’s in these moments where Refn uses the broad strokes and coarseness to find alternative textures and depths when not expected – similar to Paul Verhoeven – long before an eyeball is coughed up. The film has nothing new to say about the fashion world but it has a genuine strangeness. With both its coarseness and glitter, ‘The Neon Demon’ achieves some potency as a genuine arthouse and horror hybrid.


* I would see this as a sly dig, reversing the trend that in male-dominated films the females are ordinarily underwritten, except many masculine roles have been written this way in recent Refn films.

The Spy Lodgers - Codename: Redacted [file #001]

The new EP from the band I am in, The Spy Lodgers. This is important information: you should listen.


Saturday, 13 May 2017

Mars Attacks!

Tim Burton, 1996, USA

The ‘Short Cuts’ of B-movie sci-fi homage? Maybe not, but one of Burton’s chief gags is to have a pretty A-list ensemble cast and then to happily have them zapped by practical-joker Martians. In fact, its biggest gag is that it is has an A-movie budget with B-movie sensibility. Of course, Burton has little of the interest and discipline with character and plot that, say, Joe Dante might have brought to the hokum; ‘Mars Attacks!’ shuffles through its effects, jokes and slaughter like the collector’s cards that it’s based upon. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it-affair; if you get a kick from those old and bad sci-fi B-movies then Burton’s gleeful messing around with genre types and tropes is a pretty hilarious romp. Otherwise, it’s just a stupid hotch-potch.

The truth is, it’s all that. It has a great opening; a semi-perverse encounter between a libidinous Martin Short and a very tall alien vixen; a fantastic retro soundtrack from Danny Elfman; then a couple of black streetwise kids take over the saving of the President; effects and set design are comic-book colourful; the aliens are great, both ludicrous and a little sick. There’s much to the cast clearly having fun - Jack Nicholson playing both the President and a petty crook; Tom Jones as a saviour of Earth, and unable to stop himself from singing ‘It’s not Unusual’ at the new dawn. No, the characters don’t develop but that is not what this is.  Kenneth Turan compares with ‘Independence Day’ (inevitably, as they both came out ’96):



While that unintentionally silly film replicated an earnest 1950s sensibility, "Mars" is all '90s cynicism and disbelief, mocking the conventions that "Independence Day" takes seriously.”



As if Will Smith punching an alien and then lighting a cigar and the gungo-ho sensibility are less cynical and silly; ‘Independence Day’ is surely more manipulative and insulting.


Typically of a Burton movie, the whole ‘Mars Attacks!’ enterprise is part homage part juvenile fun, part genuinely disturbing and nasty (flaming wheelchair corpses). It's shallow, but if you like the joke, the film is a wealth of funny incidental detail, cameos and one-liners.



Sunday, 30 April 2017

Dracula

John Badham, 1979, USA-UK


A fine, sumptuous remix of Stoker’s novel. We start with the thrilling and chilling shipwreck ~ one of the novel’s greatest sequences ~ and soon discover that many of the motifs from the excised first Transylvanian third of the novel are to be transposed to England. Our geography is the beach, Carfax Abbey, the asylum Billerbeck Hall and the woodland and graveyard between them. Carfax Abbey takes on the atmospheric burden of Castle Dracula with an excess of Gothic décor trimmings ~ just look at that banister with the dragon heads! Carfax, both interior and exterior, soaks up the essence of every single haunted old building ever conceived and layers it with thick webs; production designer Peter Murton really goes to town and the exterior alone is gorgeous in its dreariness and decay. But Billerbeck Hall gives the Abbey a run for its money with a startling interior with bridges like the spokes and inner-workings of some broken giant gadget. Both buildings are defined by madness and aristocratic affectations. The overblown design is a delight to indulge in, every shot beautifully rendered and photographed by Gilbert Taylor.


The interesting change in this adaptation is that it is more about the female characters’ unapologetic sexual longing rather than their seduction, the former being particularly to the fore and summed up in the smile that closes the drama. None of Dracula’s brides, the film says, ever regretted it. There is little hint of Lucy’s purity ever being returned. She goes to Dracula deliberately, seemingly committing adultery against Jonathan Harker without a second thought. Noticeably absent is the key moment from Stoker’s text where those infected by vampirism are returned to their former angelic wholesomeness.

Whilst Trevor Eve and Kate Nilligan give stoic, grounded performances, everyone else, led by Donald Pleasance and Lawrence Olivier, chew the scenery relentlessly. Olivier utilises an accent to hack away at his delightfully preposterous lines and Pleasance applies a litany of twitchy mannerisms and mumblings. Of course, such an adaptation is only as good as its Dracula and Frank Langella gives a wonderfully regal and charming characterisation, eloquent when he needs to be charming, but cold and pragmatic when facing his enemies. He is more Robert Quarry’s ‘Count Yorga’ than Legosi or Christopher Lee.

The length and weaknesses of Stoker’s novel repeatedly beg to be re-imagined. Like Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”, it is no mistake that almost every adaptation’s ending gets a shake-up, for the last stretch of the novel is the weakest. Hoisted to the sun, the final effects of Dracula’s deterioration in the sun are perhaps disappointing, but this perhaps is the film’s resistance against the turn-to-ash or go-up-in-flames finales of the usual vampire outings. The cape drifting off in the wind is just as evocative of persistent monstrousness as Harker running off at the end of Herzog’s “Nosferatu”.