Monday, 28 March 2016

Stir of Echoes

David Koepp, USA, 1999

Typical ghost story  enhanced by superior performances and realisation of the domestic. A little outshone at the time by the trend-setting the Sixth Sense, Koepp’s film delivers what all good ghost stories should: latent family anxieties brought to the surface by a supernatural presence with demands of its own. There are a host of films it reminds you of, most of which Koepp himself admits: 'The Dead Zone' for one and of course 'The Shining' for the other – the last hinted at not only by the psychic boy, but also his psychic black policeman pal, which is the plot’s almost literal dead end alley and least satisfying diversion. 

The supernatural elements are a little fuzzy in their rules – for example, why would the ghost become suddenly silent as Kevin Bacon sets off digging in the wrong places? Wouldn’t she become more agitated? And then, as soon as he starts digging, the film stops being scary and suspense convention takes over. The supernatural manifests itself as a feminine threat to this little family unit: only the males are receptive to it; only a female voice calls spookily-seductively to Jake out of the pool of ghostly whispering at the end.*  

All the pluses lay with the acting, with a number of shocks, chills and the odd trance sequence providing the required genre thrills. Nothing new but agreeable nonetheless.

[*]        Originally, Koepp was going to end with the birth of the baby, and it would be clear that it too was psychic – if that baby had been male too, it would have increased the interpretation that the males are receptive to destructive forces – the sister studies and knows about it, but she is not psychic; she is also gay…

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Mongol: The Rise to Power Of Genghis Khan

Sergey Bodrov, 2009, Russia-Germany-Kazakastan

Mongol’ is more John Milus’ ‘Conan’ than Akira Kurosawa. It has gorgeous scenery and photography (by Rogiers Stoffers and Sergey Trofimov), where it is only revealed how pallid the colour-scheme actually is when the carnage starts and blood like ketchup throws bright reds across the screen. Genghis is an expressionless child, rigid with growing, premature masculinity, horribly hunted down by his enemies; then he is a rugged loner hero who we know shall overcome and teach his enemies a bloody lesson. Which he does, but not before we understand that, somehow, it is all to do with his love for his wife which is matched only by his fraternal bonds. Historical accuracy does not seem to be on the agenda for this is too much a ‘movie’, albeit with subtitles. The cues for its drama, heroics, slickness, absurdities and weaknesses all seem such recognisable beats from American cinema rather than Russian. Sergey Bodrov’s film feels like it’s simply taking the biography of the notorious warlord as a pretext for epic film-making rather than insight or education.  

Friday, 25 March 2016

Kings and Queen

'Rois et Reine' - Arnaud Desplechin, 2004, France

Arnaud Desplechin’s ‘Kings and Queen’ looks the part: it is well performed, occasionally funny, looks slick, looks good and feels breezy. It also demonstrates what happens when a film's character's become increasingly annoying.  It runs on two parallel stories of a woman Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) about to remarry, suffering the terminal illness of her father and trying to get her ex-husband to adopt her son. The ex-husband is Ismael (Matthieu Amalric), a viola player who spends his time battling authority figures, being contrary and insufferable and getting committed to a mental health hospital. 

The film is too long and so gradually exposing that there is less to these characters than their emotional outcries and tics. The script runs on Ismael’s arrogance and intolerable behaviour and Nora’s grief and reflections. At first, we might believe there is something righteous or motivated at the former, and something touching and revealing about the latter: then it becomes apparent that the emotional motivation of the relationships depicted in the film are driven by faux-angst and that there will be nothing to truly interrogate the behaviour and narcissism of our protagonists. Empathy wanes as more and more whimsy and scenes are thrown on top of one another.

When we find that there is nothing but boorishness and pretension to Ismael, that he has not really been misunderstood much at all, then his forced incarceration seems sensible enough. He would probably think it justifies his denunciation of the world and people around him and therefore his immaturity. He is not proving a thing. The film is also tiresomely flippant about the relationship between mental illness and the artiste, that the artistic sensibility must be irresponsible and irrepressible, that any conflict with reality and accountability can only result in frictions of ‘insane’ behaviour. His scenes add up to less and less. Finally, there is a funny but deeply irrelevant robbery attempt on his father’s store: it’s a highlight, but it amounts to nothing.  

When we find that Nora is actually a egotistical bore, whispering to her first husband (well, they marry after he dies, but…) that she is his “nightmare” into his ear as he sleeps, driving him to a spontaneous and successful suicide attempt… it is then that we find that the touching hospital scene where Nora dreams a conversation with him (in a gentle style that reminds me of the films of the Taviani brothers) was in fact built upon bad self-indulgent theatre dramatics. Oh, how young tortured love drives le artiste to express himself with impromptu Russian Roulette! And when the saddening and affecting tale of Nora sitting with her father through his terminal cancer culminates in her father’s deathbed condemnation of her egoism, one wonders where it sprang from. She’s problematic but she is hardly Betty Blue. Is it just that the script wants to have him talk about how they seduced one another (no, not incestuously but poetically) and how he wishes she would die rather than him, that he will die with hatred in his heart for her or to know what it amounts to. It is hard to locate the foundations of this hatred: is it in his complicity in covering for Nora over her first husband’s death? Is there an abundance of condemnably selfish conduct that she exhibits that we do not see?  

What seems to be at stake is the welfare of Elias, Nora’s son, who drifts tokenly in and out occasionally. Nora says he is the centre of her world, and it is hard to doubt she thinks so, but she spends most of her time finding someone else to take care of him. What is it that she does? Her little gallery? Is this a problem of the privileged that can afford such things? He seems to have been taken care of mostly by his grandfather, who when in a sickly state she decided not to bring Elias to see: this being more to do with her suffering and repulsion at the old man’s condition. Then the boy is sent to friends. Then a nanny gets mentioned. Elias does not like his new stepfather, so Nora’s solution is to have Ismael adopt him in a plan that does seem remarkably selfish and irresponsible. We are to take it that Ismael was good with Elias when he was married to Nora and yet truly one would not trust Ismael with a pencil sharpener. Elias himself is precocious and seemingly palmed around and yet impervious to the inane self-absorption of the adults. When this overarching theme comes to its conclusion, Ismael takes Elias out around some museum to tell him that he will not be adopting him and to waffle on a bunch of meaningless pretentions and pointless posturings which, again, have less to do with anyone else other than Ismael himself. 

Overlong, over-indulged, well performed and presented; nevertheless any emotional poignancy disappoints in the egotism of the characters and the failure of the script to cross-examine and explain their behaviour so that their self-absorption and this production means something. 

Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Witch: a New England folktale

Robert Eggers, 2015, USA-UK-Canada-Brazil

It is perhaps going to mislead the casual viewer when people say ‘The Witch’ is scary and frightening and terrifying if they believe those descriptions come from Insidious style jump-scares. Although it may indeed make you jump ~ I did ~ the frightening qualities of Robert Eggers’ debut film ‘The Witch’ come from a deeper source: the ambience, the hints, the human behaviour, people ranting religiously, strangeness, distrust, ambiguity. It comes from making children’s rhymes and prancing goats sinister, from leaving the uncanny unexplained and much left to interpretations; it comes from several images haunting the memory long afterwards. 

In the 17th Century New World, an English family is banished from their community and try to survive on the edge of the woods. But it seems that something from the woods has a thing for stealing babies and when the youngest member disappears, the family starts to fall apart. 

Scenes of the father William (Ralph Ineson) chopping wood might conjure a paternal figure’s pending homicidal madness as in ‘The Amityville Horror’ ~ and I have seen trailers for the film that promote this suggestion ~ but this too is misleading. He doesn’t really prove a threat and his children aren’t really scared of him, even when he boards them into the stable. Such red herrings dominate to make us distrust everyone. If the supernatural elements are to be taken at face value ~ and proceed with caution here too ~ there is then perhaps the question of maybe who summoned this malevolence? The adolescent son’s budding lustfulness? The twins’ incantations and their blindly harmful play? Or is it the eldest girl Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) after all, through whose standpoint we mostly see things? After all, she is just entering womanhood. Or are the parents bringing this all upon their own family through pious belief and unhappiness? Everyone is perhaps blameable: everyone is a sinner. Or is this just mass hallucination caused by ill crops and a worldview being hammered into the children (Eggers is careful to show a rotten cob of corn)? And of course this is The New World, so  then have the family perhaps brought witch with them from England or was she already there, just waiting for victim?

Apparently the influences upon director Eggers include ‘The Shining’ and Ingmar Bergman. Indeed, the ambiguity and the sinister atmosphere can readily be divined from ‘The Shining’, but in my experience people also forget how chilling and unsettling Bergman could be without warning, with the unreal and dreams apparently seamlessly informing and interacting with the characters as much as the tortured dialogues (‘Fanny and Alexander’, ‘Wild Strawberries’ and ‘Hour of the Wolf’ all feature uncanny sequences within their dramas that would not be out of place in a horror). And that also goes some way to indicating how Eggers’ favours the open interpretation and its realistic qualities. It has an apparent legitimacy that exceeds the fabrications of based-on-a-story films: this is down to the frequently impenetrable era dialogue and Craig Lathrop’s production design: it’s not that the film will not footnote its sources, but it leaves this to the end and doesn’t sell it as legitimacy (it has a far more sinister and convincing mood than ‘The Conjuring’, for example). Eggers says:

“So much has been made of the authenticity of this, and of course that’s important to me, but authenticity for the sake of authenticity doesn’t really matter,” says Eggers. “To understand why the witch archetype was important and interesting and powerful—and how was I going to make that scary and alive again—we had to go back in time to the early modern period when the witch was a reality. And the only way I was going to do that, I decided, was by having it be insanely accurate.”

What ‘The Witch’ shares with other contemporary films such as ‘The Babadook’, ‘It Follows’ and ‘Martyrs’ is a sense of where horror comes from (grief, growing up, religion, etc.). This is not the same knowingness of ‘Scream’ or ‘Cabin in the Woods’ which satirise genre tropes, but a self-awareness of how external horrors feed on internal paranoia and anxiety, on human weakness. But of course, any film evoking witchcraft in such a way is going to make people look back at Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, and if perhaps Eggers evokes the kind of eeriness of, say, Jan Svankmajer’s animated shorts, he doesn’t forget that claiming others are witches is also the product of petty blame-gaming and hysteria. The family proves they are as much their own enemies as any outside force. See the family turn on each other, for they have nowhere else to turn.

Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography gives this New World washed-out, depressed tones to fit the family’s doom laden outlook. The performances are exceptional across the board with all the characters given time to express complexities before they all implode (except perhaps for the twins). These are tales and horrors that we have heard from folklore and by sticking close to the history of it and leaving much unspoken, Eggers taps into something genuinely unsettling in a way derived from nightmares rather than shocks. Many have seen the ending as literal, which it may be, but I would still be wary of doing so. The film haunts like a fever dream and that’s why it frightens.

Saturday, 5 March 2016


TimMiller, 2016, USA-Canada

The reason why films like ‘Deadpool’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ have proven so successful is surely not only their humour but in the sense that they feel like huge money-making studios are looking over their shoulder less, that they have at least some room to breathe. You can’t help but watch ‘The Avengers’ with one eye aware of the huge calculations and scheming around each character; and studio wariness is maybe why ‘The Fantastic Four’ was so dull, even if basing it more on the Ultimate universe was a bold move. Not that there isn’t a corporate presence behind ‘Deadpool’ and ‘Guardians’ but you get the sense these films are written by people rather than committee, that they have their own voices. It certainly adds to evidence that the more interesting stuff is happening on the edges of the super-hero genre.

Deadpool’ himself proves a formidable character, one that overwhelms the film that the whole aesthetic is filtered through his sarcasm, from the opening titles to the closing credits. The promotion itself takes a pot-shot at ‘Spider-Man': “With great power comes great irresponsibility” it says, with Deadpool striking a faux-sexy pose. Indeed, so all-consuming is this attitude – especially as numerous other characters also talk this way – that one might miss the moments of earnestness. But Deadpool can’t shut up and although that ought to be annoying, he is very funny and this makes all the difference. This isn’t quite the wisecracking that Spider-Man does as camouflage, but something more acerbic and relentless, something more fraught. So okay, perhaps it’s also camouflage but of a different kind, a coping mechanism.  It helps that Ryan Reynolds plays him with such conviction, giving a caricature texture that implies there is more viewpoints and emotions outside of this particular world than we’re seeing. It’s in the way his gag about dreaming of Liam Neeson in a ‘Wanted’  scenario is funny, but the tone and the delivery segues into something hushed; it’s as if he is delivering the gag to both distract from his real thoughts and as if it’s a reflex-action that really isn’t needed right then but he can’t help but finish it. Okay, so he’s finishing the gag for our benefit as the external audience, but the shift to a more quiet and anticlimactic note moves into something more revealing and poignant. It’s in the way he thinks he’s been so disfigured that his girlfriend won’t want him anymore only to discover he is wrong. It’s in how the final kiss is played straight, if briefly, with no sarcasm attached for distraction. All this hints that there is more going on beneath the knowing surface, of both the film’s character and it’s reality.

It’s easy to see why Deadpool would be a genre favourite: he is an invulnerable killing machine with a fanboy’s snarkiness about the very genre he is a product of. He gets to beat bad guys un-ironically and pull jokes at the context all around him simultaneously. It knows exactly what it is doing as a wish-fulfilment fantasy in a way that ‘American Ultra’ didn’t, deconstructing by self-referencing the genre without resorting to saying “what if this was real?” like ‘Kick Ass’. This is, after all, the same reality as the The X-Men, but even so Deadpool will make a joke that maybe the film couldn’t afford more than two of X-them. (And there's a joke at the expense of the X-Men time-travelling storylines...) It’s not as anarchic as it thinks and maybe those straight moments make it more conventional than it thinks, but those moments also ground the drama, balancing out the meta-gags. 

One would think Deadpool’s arrogance is born of invulnerability, but the film shows that he was like this before becoming Deadpool. In fact, many of the characters he associates with are similarly wide-cracking, perhaps turned down a notch or two: it’s a mode of expression that seems as defensive as it is passive-aggressive, a means of talking about difficult subjects whilst burying them with outré humour. For example, he connects with his true love Vanessa (Moreena Baccarin) by trying to top each other’s traumatic back-story: indeed, one-upmanship plays a big part here. Perhaps what is most surprising is that Deadpool – the film and the character - has his cake and eats it in our faces. It’s easy to see how the very qualities that make this so funny – its in-your-face knowingness, its snarkiness, the frequent breaking of the fourth wall – are the very things that would put a viewer off if they aren’t on the same page. Breaking the fourth wall is one of those tics that usually throws me out of the film’s internal logic (as it’s often mistaken for cleverness) but director Tim Miller and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick find a quick and seamless balance, often by making these breakages all so quick and in the service of comedy rather than being ponderous: it’s in the way other characters say that Deadpool should visit a place because it’s bound to further the plot; or when  Deadpool is trying to figure out the mathematics of breaking the fourth wall within breaking the fourth wall. 

Perhaps in its appeal to more adult fanboys ‘Deadpool’ has fulfilled the promise that might have once have been expected of a solo Wolverine venture. The story otherwise turns out be a standard origin tale with the inclusion of other franchises – just like, say, ‘Ant-Man’ (and of course there’s the Stan Lee cameo) – and perhaps this ordinariness is a surprise/disappointment when so much else seems agreeably wayward. Narratively, despite the surface bells-and-whistles, it’s conventional. The action scenes are brutal, taking this to a higher rating than usual, and possess enough physicality to compensate for the CGI. And it all ends in a grand punch-up, of course. And it’s true that by letting Deadpool hog the limelight as both hero and anti-hero, the film’s nominal nemesis Ajax (Ed Skrein) isn’t left much room to make a mark. So as formulaic as it actually turns out to be, ‘Deadpool’ is greatly entertaining, funny, and possessed of a surprisingly genuine emotional angle that eludes so many other entries in the genre.