Wednesday, 30 August 2017

FrightFest 2017 - Day One

Yeah, I do love my annual FrightFest holiday. After film eight or nine, you start to lose track of time and the days and all you are required to do is to turn up for the next film. It’s such a delightful neglect of reality and responsibility, such a wonderful indulgence for anyone who enjoys being fully lost to the film experience. And the FrightFest mob are generally so friendly. I venture there is a streak of anarchy to this audience that you don’t really find in other audiences which is all about the genre. And when you tell people you are going to a horror film festival, I bet they are either imagining Hammer Horror or an endless parade of “torture porn”. Something like that. But the range of the selection is so varied that it gets to the point that it could be argued that some films merely contain horror elements (‘Alone’; ‘The Bar’) or some gratuitous violence (‘The Villainess’; ‘Lowlife’) and that’s where they qualify.* But whether the choosing or submissions have improved doesn’t really matter as it’s true that the past few years have served up consistently enjoyable menus.

I know I am missing out by not going to the smaller screens or to the Prince Charles, where FrightFest spreads to, but executive decisions need to be made and I elected to stay in the main screen to see what’s what. It’s a shame that the short film showcase is now in the smaller screens as I know I am missing out on some good stuff there. But there’s just so much to choose from and try…

This year I will mostly remember as one dominated by horror comedy. ‘68 Kill’, ‘Dead Shack’, ‘Hatchet’, ‘The Bar’, ‘Lowlife’, ‘Double Date’, ‘Tragedy Girls’, ‘Mayhem’ and ‘Better Watch Out’ all had the audience laughing, and not just at outrageousness but at deliberate jokes. That seems to have been the trend this year: horror comedy. And it was all on the IMAX screen of the Empire Leicester, which was pleasingly ginormous. 

It hasn’t always been so: there was the infamous year dubbed “RapeFest” where every film seemed to be about the debasement of women, and then there was the year where two out of every three films seemed be found-footage which got boring very fast.

Cult of Chucky
Don Mancini. 2017. USA

I probably should have included Don Mancini’s latest Chucky film in my list of horror comedies, but the humour here is more of the kind where the film in elbowing its audience in the ribs going “Eh? Eh? See?” It’s the kind where the killer doll illicits a laugh by flipping a finger or saying “And they call me sick?!” And the audience claps at cameos and so on – this one is a continuation of all that have gone before with returning cast, etc –and crowd-pleasing seems the name of the game. It’s a trait that runs through a lot of horror franchises. Even so, Don Mancini also focuses on delivering a more focused film than others that have gone before. There even moments that verge on beauty, such as a skylight shattering and falling down. Nica Pierce has been in an asylum and convinced that she killed her family last film rather than Chucky, but as soon as a Chucky doll turns up for therapy, this doesn’t last long. There’s some mystery until it becomes apparent that the spirit of Charles Lee Ray can just about possessing any doll and anyone he wants… but if he can possess anyone, what does that mean for a killer doll franchise?

Death Note
Adam Wingard. 2017. USA

Wingard is a celebrated exponent of the crowd-leasing aesthetic mentioned beforehand, but he does have a winning slickness too. However, ‘Death note’ is one hot mess of an adaptation of a popular franchise. I haven’t read the original - a Japanese manga series written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata - or seen the original adaptation, but comment threads complain that where the original was about a sociopathic popular boy Light finding the supernatural book that can kill, here it is your routine bullied American guy (an unremarkable Nat Wolff). The moral qualms would seem to be much less troubling in this version, with the slip into greater amorality manifest in his girlfriend, Mia (Margaret Qualley). It’s soon evident that Wingard is making up for lack of focus or understanding of possibilities by throwing any directing technique at the screen to see what sticks. There’s the standard use of pop songs in lieu of proper emotional engagement – the standard “killer soundtrack” – and it all comes to an end with somewhat of a befuddling whimper. Oh, and there’s Willem Defoe as the voice of Ryuk the Death Demon or whatever, which is amusing and sinister. Ryuk is brilliant underlit and comes as hints and a human-porcupine silhouette but he rather plays
second-fiddle to the more trivial elements. Oh, and there’s the off-kilter L (Lakeith Stafield: is his hamming it up good or bad? It’s appropriate but I can’t quite decide) who seems unable to sit on a chair properly: in this condensed version, his cat-and-mouse with Light has little room to breathe and ultimately doesn’t amount to so much. This is an Netflix film and it was screened at FrightFest just before streaming release and I am glad I saw it on such a big screen where it at least looked at its best. 

Mickey Keatin. 2017. USA

The soul of Henry Earl (not Charlie) Starkweather (Larry Fassenden) seemingly inspires several other serial killers to do their thing and cross paths over one night. Keatin’s film is a mood piece with a nocturnal dreamy ambience, musical segues, a touch of David Lynch and a somewhat retro-feel. The psychopaths range from a masked hit man, femme fatales, asylum escapees, sadistic cops and your average brutal woman killer. There are misogynistic killings, women that turn the tables, home invasions, shoot-ups in brothels and burials in the middle of nowhere, blurring recognisable genre set pieces rather than delivering a straightforward narrative. It’s all presented as a kaleidoscope of noir, neon, low budget horror motifs, fever dream tones. Ashley’s Bell’s schizophrenic dramatic monologue to camera is a highlight. Always intriguing and fascinating, if you go with its mood it is thoroughly beguiling.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

A Ghost Story

David Lowery, 2017, USA

Well I can imagine this one is going to be divisive, perhaps more so than ‘I am the Pretty thing that Lives in the House’. David Lowery’s fantasy starts off as one might anticipate from an artsy-fartsy version of a traditional supernatural tale: the central couple C and M (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara – and yes, dig those initials) are educated, privileged, talented and, of course, slightly angsty; scenes last a little too long, edging into pretension, and become their most testing at the pie-of-grief scene, which veers into Tsai Ming Liang levels of endurance. He dies and comes back as a ghost, watching life in the house go on and the editing speeds up a notch as the narrative starts to play with time. She’s moved on but he can’t. 

He’s one of those sheet-draped spectres – which I think has been credited to MR James’ story ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad’ – which is both creepy and cookie. That’s the gag, that Casey
Affleck is rendered mute and anonymous under a sheet (is that him?). He is mostly passive, just standing around and observing, but becoming a poltergeist when he decides a couple of kids are perhaps too playful; after all, we aren’t shown that he is similarly troubled and troubling when adults next move in and throw a party. In this scene, he watches as Bill Oldham (Billie “Prince” Billie) engrossingly profounds on the ongoing meaninglessness of it all (he’s billed as “Prognosticator”). But it’s the cookie element that really sticks out when two ghosts “chat” through subtitles: it reminds me of some single-panelled cartoon with an obliquely humorous caption. As Phil de Semlyen says, “if you’ve ever wondered what Terrence Malick’s Rentaghost might look like, there are worse places to start looking” Or maybe, given its boxy framing and filters, it’s like a spooky Instagram picture come to life. It’s almost a cute view of ghosts, being deliberately designed on the most innocuous symbolism of afterlife entities (but of course, tell that to Michael Myers). So it is not scary – although his haunting the kids and turning into a poltergeist almost pushes that (and what did they do exactly? Wouldn’t his girlfriend’s new lover provoke such a response beforehand?) – but it’s often creepy. 

And about that pie scene?

"I wanted a representation of grief that we haven't seen before ... that felt unique and uncomfortable and profound," says Lowery, who previously directed Mara and Affleck in 2013 romance Ain't Them Bodies Saints. "I thought about how sometimes when I'm upset, I just eat a lot. I thought that would be a really powerful image."

Uh-huh, but we get the point pretty early on and that device of prolonging a scene to ridiculous lengths to make it poignant is nothing new to anyone familiar with Tsai Ming Liang or Bela Tarr or Sergio Leone, etc. Many find ‘A Ghost Story’ a meditation on time and loss and grief and so on, but its vision of grief and the after-life is conventional, offering nothing new and playing on established depictions of sad but benign hauntings. It’s as deep as a commercial for making wills for the people you leave behind, its sadness surely derived from a somewhat self-absorbed interest in being an audience to a loved one’s  grief once we die. The spirits of loved ones can’t move on until they reach some kind of closure; but the temporal playfulness pushes this theme to a conclusion where a future context seemingly cannot contain ghosts* so they have to go back to the past and start again. It’s this playfulness that mitigates it’s pretentions to produce a goofy resonance. 

‘A Ghost Story’ is often very pretty, using ellipses to issue surprises – the house is now being demolished; now they’re all dead with only the hint of Native American war-cries in the distance – and Daniel Hart’s evocative score keeps things ebbing and flowing. Its oddness is in its favour. It is a singular mood-piece – Tarkovsky’s ‘Casper, the Maudlin Ghost'? – with much to offer if you go with its conceit. And Affleck draped in a bedsheet will prove unforgettable. 

Affleck haunts a boardroom meeting momentarily before seemingly committing a ghost-suicide, implying the business world will blot out the past and ghosts.

The display for 'A Ghost Story' at Picturehouse Central, Leicester Square, London. 

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Permanent Vacation

Jim Jarmusch, 1980, USA

The opening narration of Jim Jarmush’s debut ‘Permanent Vacation’ is worth quoting at length as it sets the agenda for his entire career: having name-checked Charlie Parker, the voice-over says of this story, 

“I don’t expect it to explain that much, but what’s a story anyway except one of those connect-the-dot drawings that, in the end, forms a picture of something? That’s really all this is. That’s how things work for me. I go from this place, this person, to that place or person. And, you know, it really doesn’t make that much of a difference.” 

2016’s 'Paterson' may be slicker but despite Jarmusch’s dalliances with genre – thriller, westerns horror – this philosophy hasn’t really changed. In fact, it’s Jarmusch’s application of this philosophy to the formal rigidity of genre that has produced such distinctive results (with perhaps 'The Only Lovers Left Alive' showing a failing of application).

The opening credits of ‘Permanent Vacation’ play over alternations of views of the crowded city and deserted litter-strewn back streets, which is where our story takes place. Allie (Chris Parker) walks around a dilapidated Manhattan thinking he’s cooler than his surroundings. He gives his introduction over a montage of various places, from prison cells to upper-class lounges via unremarkable bedsits, possibly places he’s been. The first thing we see him do is tagging his name on a wall, as if staking a claim. Refusing to be tied to anything, he goes from barely furnished apartments with women to unpopulated lobbies of cinemas via slightly hysterical encounters with women on fire escapes. These vignettes do not articulate a narrative but rather a mood of deliberate and delicious aimlessness. No need for dramatic denouements here. 

Michael Wotjas calls this a “freeform, rough draft of a film” with its no-budget and student-film formal deficiencies clearly and somewhat proudly on its sleeve, but it’s this that gives it a no-money authenticity. It’s a view of the city more in line with Buddy Giovinazzo’s ‘Combat Shock’, Frank Henenlotter’s ‘Basket Case’ or William Lustig’s ‘Maniac’ rather than, say, Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’. Yes, it’s a class thing. He wanders into parts of the city that like look like bombsites. There’s the sense that there’s not much art design at all, that the camera was just pointed in the right direction. This teenage aimlessness is the point: Allie can be conceived as Jarmusch’s avatar, roaming through long takes, looking for cool and the end point. Occasionally, like youth do, Allie says inadvertently funny things that he thinks are profound. Jarmusch would soon hit comedy gold with his use of non sequiturs with Roberto Begnini in ‘Down by Law’. Jarmusch hasn’t quite perfected his mastery of random encounters here, but all the elements of his approach are present. The comedy is droll: an apathetic cinema girl, when Allie asks if she thinks he’ll like the film he’s just bought a ticket for, proceeds to synopsise the plot to him; or how he meets someone who seems to be his French doppelganger on the waterfront and they proceed to swap cool instead of hanging around to be friends.

He visits his mother in hospital, displays his yo-yo skills, steals a car. It’s quite a romantic view of homelessness conceived as an expression of ultimate wanderlust and freedom. Here, Allie is a long way from Paterson in ‘Paterson’ – which is like ‘Permanent Vacation’ come middle-age – who has made peace with the intimacy and subjectivity of art. Allie still seems to think the whole world is watching. And when he dances for his own amusement while a woman he is being cool for looks disinterestedly out of a window, Jarmusch shows that from the start he could capture people at their most entertaining in the most humdrum of contexts. It's a humane, generous, disarming and amusing wordview.