Friday, 27 July 2018

Lunar Engine: "From the Fake Beach Hut"

Here is a new EP from Lunar Engine which was recorded by Ben Brockett at Route 49 Studios, Brighton. It was a very nice afternoon and the sessions included half old and half new material. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

First Reformed

Paul Schrader, 2017, USA

Words such as “austere” and “serious” are the kind of expressions made to pepper reactions to Paul Schrader’s character study of a priest descending into an irrevocable despair. After all, we can begin with the protagonist – Ethan Hawke – being named Ernst Toller, the same name as the left-wing playwright that committed suicide. If Ingmar Bergman was American streetwise, it might feel like this. The colours are so drained that – as Simon Mayo says – it feels as if the film is black and white.  Indeed, it’s so dour that it’s moments of oddness and surely black humour can get lost under the weight of it all: a choir singing jubilantly about being purified in the blood of lambs (this is as darkly amusing and disturbing as a typical moment in a horror film); or when they sing a Neil Young protest song when ashes are being scattered in polluted waters. 

But overall, it’s a masterclass in letting dialogue and actors carry the drama with conversation and performance. The conversation between Toller and Michael (Philip Ettinger) for example: Michael’s wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is concerned about Michael’s deteriorating behaviour after he’s just been arrested for environmentalist activism and asks Toller to counsel him. It’s a compelling and convincing conversation and exposition is organic, the performances thoroughly disarming, intimate and moving. It’s also when I first started thinking, When did Ethan Hawke have that face? It’s a compelling face that is as once stolid, lined, vulnerable, frequently seemingly on the verge of tears or a breakdown. It’s sure to be one of the performances of the year. Toller used to be a military man who encouraged his son to join up; when his son died soon after, Toller’s marriage fell apart and he fell into a pit of darkness and conflicted faith. Although Toller appears to be available to his meagre congregation and his duties – he ministers a “souvenir shop” Church in a somewhat tokenistic position – he is an alcoholic and will not face-up to his mortality. He writes a journal in lieu of prayer – and here is a narration as colour rather than a tour guide, showing that Schrader is again a master of the voiceover – and finds that his crisis of faith leaves room for a political awakening. When he cannot forgive himself, it’s surely a small step to the conclusion that God will not forgive us either. 

Elsewhere, characterisation is wittily measured just right so that, for example, the out-of-touch opinions of Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Antonio Kyles, or a.k.a. Cedric the entertainer) is both recognisable and amusing without being condescending; or the conversations between Toller and Mary that feel both revealing and chaste. 

It’s filmed with the tenor of slow horror with something tense, pending and uncanny as a watermargin (it’s not so dissimilar to the first act of ‘Hereditary’, for example), set by Brian Williams’ foreboding score. Then it moves into magic realism and an ending that is sure to provoke debate (confusion as a first stop, but perhaps dissent too). It’s bold and although there may be accusations that the ending is unfounded the ambiguity is surely a bold move from the tidier and perhaps less striking and troubling endings that might have been. It’s a riveting work that can’t help but echo Schrader's ‘Taxi Driver’ (and it knows it and references that too), but it’s another crucial portrayal of a man both imploding and exploding in slow motion. When faith and activism and violence blur so much in the news, ‘First Reformed’ finds that moment where they crash and is intelligent, empathic and vital viewing.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Xtro - and excess

Harry Bromley Davenport, 1982, UK

This was one of those VHS covers that promised so much when you held it in your hands as a youth in the video store. And it didn’t disappoint, having many moments that you could relish telling your pals about in simple gleefully shocked sentences. Not least of all a woman being raped by an alien and giving birth to a fully grown man. But there’s also the eating of the snake eggs, the panther, the… Well, ‘Xtro’ seems to pack so much random stuff in its primary location of an upmarket flat – even a naked Maryam d’Abo – that this is what makes it special: the idea that even on a limited budget and location, all is possible.

The inspiration seems to have been not only to cash in on the extremism agenda of the contemporary horror movement and the fad for Scott’s ‘Alien’, not only to present a counter-‘E.T.’ (“Not all aliens are friendly”), but (according to Davenport) also to mimic some of the spirit of ‘Phantasm’. Davenport long disliked ‘Xtro’ and certainly, when reflecting upon its genesis, seems very much to have conceded with whatever leftfield idea was asked of him (“A panther? Sure…”). Now, having seen that fans are happy to follow its waywardness if not see it as welcomingly unpredictable, he seems to have made his peace with it (with Second Sights’ wonderful new release).

‘Xtro’ justifies its nightmare logic by having random psychic powers as the reason for anything and everything unsystematic that happens. Some find it confusing and messy, but when you accept that psychic powers mean that anything goes, there arguably isn’t a thorough need for logic, just inventiveness. In that, it follows the psychic terrors of films like ‘The Fury’ or ‘Carrie’ or especially ‘Harlequin’; but its Eerie Child angle also hints at ‘The Omen’. As a kid, I was particularly taken with psychic horrors like ‘Harlequin’, ‘The Shout’ and ‘The Medusa Touch’ where the imagination seemed to bend reality to its will. I found that scary (and perhaps The Twilight Zone’s ‘It’s a Good Life’ provides a great epitome of this). And if this sounds as if it’s strayed from an ‘Alien’ rip-off, the joy of ‘Xtro’ is watching it mash everything together in the kitchen sink and to go wherever the hell it wants. Apparently the producer wanted a panther in the flat, so there it is, and it doesn’t seem ridiculous but simply a highly evocative part of the madness (Davenport notes the panther in the white corridor as the film’s best shot, but there are many). Certainly the seemingly arbitrary built on the peaks of odd moments were the kind of narratives my undisciplined teenaged brain was making and that’s how I read ‘Xtro’, but rarely does such random plotting work as successfully as it does here: it’s a fun-ride of surreal horror and contemporary excess underpinned by a kitchen sink drama. It works as a portrayal of reality breaking down along with the family unit.

And beneficial, as usual in these B-cases, is that the lead actors Philip Sayer and Bernice Stegers take it all seriously and deliver above-average performances to ground the absurdities and accentuate them. Perhaps Simon Nash as the boy just waiting for his alien abducted dad to come home isn’t particularly good, his ‘Grange Hill’ volume and working class accent puts him at odds with everyone else’s naturalness. Nevertheless, he fits the special grubbiness and low-rent British Eighties-ness that can’t be affected and only gives a solid foundation for the outré incidents. It’s an example where that particular low-rent feel becomes an asset. The soundtrack by Davenport is at once unforgettable, a little hokey, quintessentially Eighties synth and somewhat resembles the Dr Who scores of the time (and included in Second Sight’s release; a real bonus). The effects are both tacky and vivid: yes, the man-sized birth is appropriately icky, horrid and in bad taste, but no less memorable are performers Tik and Tok as the Action Man come to life and as the alien – the alien that wastes no time in being seen, a simple, slightly stiff but unforgettable.

There are two endings to ‘Xtro’ and although Davenport thinks that the ending with the clones of Danny doesn’t work, I disagree: surely it fits the nightmarish and haphazard tone and provides more motivation for the alien visit; the other ending is more just an ‘Alien’-style shock that leads nowhere. So no, I can’t really say ‘Xtro’ is “good”, but it reaches places other more prestige films don’t and exists totally in its own realm, however much of a B-movie rip-off it was intended to be. I have always been very fond of it.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

What have you done to Solange?

Massimo Dallamano, 1972, Italy-West Germany

Italian gym teacher Enrico “Henry” Rosseni (Fabio Testi) is drifting down the Thames (apparently) and carrying on an affair with his student Elizabeth (Cristina Galbo) when she sees a murder on the embankment. But he’s too busy trying to have his way to believe her, insisting her protestations that she witnessed something is just a tactic to avoid intimacy (but he does take “No” for an answer, albeit much perturbed). Someone is killing the girls at a school run by somewhat skeevy white middle-aged men, who Elizabeth turns to after some time rather than the police. (Wait: why does she wait…?) The first thing that Inspector Barth (Joachim Fuchsberger) does is to show the school staff explicit pictures of the girl’s body with a knife in her vagina: “It’s a necessary formality,” he says (?) – and he doesn’t even seem to have spoken to the parents as yet; and when he does, he shows the x-ray of the killing to the father (!). Anyway, when Elizabeth is murdered too, Rosseni investigates the murders (as immigrant teachers are prone to do) – which includes roughing up potential leads in the style of tough-guy cops from the movies – even as he is in conflict with his frigid wife (Karina Baal). Well, actually she becomes totally sympathetic and lets her hair down when Elizabeth is killed and is told she was a virgin. And where would the police be without Rosseni turning up where dead bodies are? But he’s never under suspicion, really. And then in the third act, Solange (Camille Keaton) herself turns up in earnest and proves the key to it all - her hair long and unkempt and her finger permanently hovering at her bottom lip to signify she isn't quite all there but yet conveying some kind of broken innocence.

“Only sixteen and surrounded by secret boyfriends, petty jealousies, orgies and lesbian games,” Rosseni laments, apparently shocked and unaware that his own affair contributes to this tapestry of scandal. "I wouldn't be surprised if they were doing the drug scene too." Of course, this also reads like a checklist for a certain male fantasy. Adele of Foxspirit gives ‘Solange’ a more feminist spin: 

"Set in London, but using Italian dialogue, What Have You Done to Solange? chafes against the restraints of the typical Giallo by contrasting the conservatism of a Catholic girls’ high school with the sexually charged atmosphere of Italian cinema."

But I always found such analysis is left a little unreinforced by the text; that it doesn’t align with the mixture of silliness and salaciousness that typifies giallo. All the females here are a response to masculine priorities with their autonomy often dismissed by the generally creepy men: a little more substance to the women would have made this more a persuasive criticism of misogyny, but the all-round shallow characterisation has no gender preference. 

Mark Edward Heuck gives context for Dallamo’s “scared schoolgirls” trilogy – but not to worry if you don’t work out the mystery because Inspector Barth will helpfully explain it all in closing, even if it’s doubtful he would have worked it all out at that point as he’s been pretty clueless all along. What we get is a parade of pretty girls and a ridiculous police procedural that isn’t convincing at all as a killer goes around murdering girls in the most lurid manner. As Kyle Anderson says, these giallo films “exist in worlds where logic in narrative doesn’t mean nearly as much as shocks and salaciousness.” Giallo doesn’t exist in realism, but in an alternative realm seemingly made of adolescent horror and fantasy, grazing against nightmare logic but never usually competent enough to truly achieve this, despite the often excellent aesthetic. Of course, you have ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Footprints on the Moon’ as examples where this does work, but ‘Solange’ is more of that which is fun for the daft character outbursts and dialogue, for the sensationalism and exploitation. But it's most confrontational framing is reserved for the abortion scene and indeed it's whole tone is more like one big tut at the goings-on of the young with a bit of a lurid cautionary tale for girls to keep their legs closed. 

What this does have less of is bad dubbing which is often part of the fun: they are dubbed but the actors are speaking English so the incongruity between the soundtrack and the visuals are less likely to induce amusement. And of course the whole sordid enterprise is given oodles of credibility and atmosphere from Ennio Morricone’s dreamy score.