Wednesday 31 August 2011

VHS Quest #11. Fright Night Part 2 (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1988)

The nightmare continues for Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) in Fright Night Part 2 (1988)

Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) just doesn't have the knack with girls. He's forever lusting after their attentions, but whenever one (inexplicably) falls for his charms he's too busy spying out of windows or tailing suspected vamps to notice. The first Fright Night (Holland, 1985) saw him dating the lovable Amy (Amanda Bearse, absent here), who finally decided to sleep with him the night he started playing Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954). From here he continually harasses her with tales of neighboring bloodsuckers, ultimately leading her into the path of danger. His girlfriend in this movie (Alex, played by Traci Lin) gets much the same treatment; embarrassingly stood up on dates and frequently subjected to paranoid ramblings. By the end of the movie she saves him, and I can think of no good reason for them to stay together. Indeed, Charley might be the most hopeless lead in a horror series I've ever seen.

But then, I have a confession to make: I don't actually like the original Fright Night. In fact, I think this oft forgotten sequel is substantially better than its predecessor, which musters neither the scares nor laughs required of a quality horror/comedy, à la Evil Dead II (Raimi, 1987). The saving grace of the original was Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell, channeling Peter Cushing), but he's actually given much more to do in this installment. In one (fleeting) subplot the Hammer-style thespian-turned-vampire hunter is committed to a mental asylum, where he's helped to escape by a loon who thinks there's a movie shoot underway. Superfluous? Yes. Fun? Heaps. Always on hand with a jumper and a crucifix, Vincent is one of the most purely enjoyable horror creations of the 1980's, and Fright Night suffers for not making him the lead. If only he'd had his own spin-off series. I guess the box office just didn't allow for it.

So, I should probably establish the plot (hah!). After three years in therapy Charley has denounced his belief in vampires, labeling it a "defence mechanism", supposedly triggered by learning that his neighbor was a serial killer. Soon after reconciling with Peter Vincent (still haunting unwatched TV channels) Charley notices some suspicious coffin-based behavior occurring around the neighborhood. Shrugging it off, he later becomes convinced that this is more than just a case of déjà vu, and the vampires, led by performance artist Regine (Julie Carmen), might now be after him. Also on hand is Louie (Jon Gries), a creepily lovelorn vamp who wouldn't look out of place on a sex offenders list. He's entirely incidental to the plot, and probably doesn't bear mentioning, but Gries' performance is so hysterically bad that he really makes the film more fun. Actually, he lands most of the laughs and scares, often simultaneously.

The fact is, Fright Night Part 2 isn't particularly good either, and works best as a guilty pleasure. The screenplay is godawful, but Charley's underdeveloped moodswings (his mini rant about horror literature is hilarious) are a shining example of bad writing, and the film works better for their inclusion. The effects are much better this time around, largely due to a bigger budget, but consequently they're used less inventively. There are some really cool deaths in this film (melting faces ahoy), and some gruesome makeup, but too many scenes seem to rely on the expanded accountancy sheet, and take that as an acceptable substitute for character development. The biggest genuine improvement is the ending. Rather than reaching a budget-constrained anticlimax Wallace's film actually showcases a pretty exciting set-piece finale, eliciting genuine tension from a suspended elevator and an against-the-clock coffin sabotage. But, as karma would have it, for that extended treat we're made to suffer an awful romantic epilogue, with dialogue that would make a daytime soap wince.

But when all's said and done, Fright Night Part 2 has a vampire bowling montage. Who am I to argue with that?

Monday 29 August 2011

The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011) Review

Jack (Sean Penn) remembers his father in the kaleidoscopic family drama The Tree Of Life (2011)

The Tree Of Life charts life from the beginning of time - the collision of burning stars and genesis of colossal planets, the birth of nature and origins of evolution - right up to the present day, where Jack (Sean Penn) reflects on his boyhood in the 1950's, haunted by the memory of his authoritarian father (Brad Pitt). His mother (Jessica Chastain) is portrayed as an earthbound angel, and in one dreamlike vision her divinity allows her to float on air. This is family drama on a cosmic scale. Life leads to life leads to life leads to Jack. Birth and rebirth. What happens when we die? These and so many more are the questions at the center of Malick's latest. This is going to be tough...

Much has been made of the 20-minute "Birth Of The Universe" sequence - a mixture of 2001 (Kubrick, 1968), Fantasia (1940; 'The Rite Of Spring' sequence, directed by Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield) and a Windows 97 screensaver. There are dinosaurs (more BBC than Jurassic Park, Spielberg, 1993), but the film would work better without them. I'd previously described the sequence as superfluous, but this was an erroneous statement. Personally I think Malick overreaches and becomes reductionist, but what the sequence does achieve is a definite sense of the intimate against the prodigious reaches of the universe. Imagine a canvas 1,000,000 meters in height and length. It is black, and upon its surface are painted the stars, planets and galaxies. Now imagine the image of a family sat at a dining table, sketched onto a post-it note, which is then pinned to the canvas. The eye would not instantly be drawn to the post-it note - in the grand scheme of things it signifies nothing. A fleeting moment in undefined space. Malick's film at first explores the canvas, and then, masterfully, draws us closer and closer into the sketch of the family. Suddenly they mean something. Their existence is in and of itself important, because it occurs in such an immense vacuum. It's precious. Suddenly we don't take it for granted.

Sean Penn was recently critical of the film in an interview with Le Figaro, in which he said: "I didn't at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I've ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact." I've always struggled with Malick's narrative approach, particularly in Days Of Heaven (1978), which favors elegiac voiceover and elliptical imagery over something more traditional. I understand how this works for some, but I find the style dramatically unsatisfying. The Tree Of Life is also largely comprised of voiceover, spoken over seemingly disconnected images of the boys living their day-to-day lives (I say disconnected because there is no establishment of time passing, or whether these images are even relayed to the viewer in chronological order). The whispering tones of the voiceover ask questions about the universe. This could be infuriating on its own, but Malick does also allow for substantial development between his characters. I haven't read the script, so can't speak for it, but I doubt it could have informed as much emotion as the camerawork, which floats through the world like an omnipresent observer. Never did I get the sense that the camera was connected to a tripod or dolly, and operated by a crew. It is said that God can hear all the voices of his children, and see them all at once also. It's important to note that the voiceover is not singularly attributed to one character, and each of them has their inner thoughts heard at some point. I question the perspective of the film, and ask if perhaps it belongs to God.

The Tree Of Life opens with a passage from the Book Of Job: "Where were you when I laid the Earth's foundation... while the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy?" Like everything else in the film this is open to interpretation, but for me it acts as a reminder to man of his smallness - a reminder that God is infinite, and his world beyond comprehension. The quote, which is about creation, also looks to the relationship between Jack and his father. It is likely telling that the birth of the boys is narratively juxtaposed with the birth of prehistoric life, which we think of as malevolent, but here is forgiving. I'd invite any comments at the bottom of this review as to what you think it means - I guarantee that there won't be any response which is entirely the same. I also get the feeling that whenever I watch the film next I will come away with a different meaning. The same will be true of a viewing in ten years time, and after that twenty.

But for my first viewing I'd be lying if I said that the film had delivered everything I'd wanted it to. Sometimes Malick gets lost in thought, and his transgressions into nature often come off as no more than an environmental slideshow. When he's reinforcing the images with emotion they compel, but his unabashedly positive worldview sometimes becomes too cute and self-absorbed. Ultimately I disagree with it. This isn't a fault with the film, and Malick's honesty is frankly inspiring, but it's only right that I admit to it having affected my viewing. I'm more inclined to agree with the worldview of a filmmaker like Werner Herzog, who thinks of civilization as "a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness." Malick's cosy wonderment is best represented by the ending, which to me is a vision of the afterlife.

There may be some, like me, who find the film a little simplistic in its deductions. But why should that be intrinsically a bad thing? I remember an old joke: Why did the chicken cross the road? Upon hearing this setup most people expect a witty punchline, as they would expect a profound philosophical revelation from The Tree Of Life. To get to the other side, the joke concludes. Sometimes life is just that simple. And sometimes that's okay.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Super (James Gunn, 2010) DVD Review

Ellen Page stars as the mentally unstable kid sidekick Boltie in James Gunn's Super (2010)

Warning: this review contains spoilers.

"You don't butt in line" yells The Crimson Bolt (Rainn Wilson), Super's mentally unstable dweeb-turned-vigilante. "You don't sell drugs! You don't molest little children! You don't profit on the misery of others!" Highly irreverent it may be, but James Gunn's latest has a point. You don't do those things. "The rules were set a long time ago!" Bolt continues. "They don't change!" But let me ask you this: when butting in line is equivalent to child rape in the mind of society's greatest hope, a monkey wrench wielding sociopath, should we feel any safer? "How can I tell crime to shut up if I have to shut up?" he demands in one scene, after his nympho kid sidekick Boltie (aka Libby, played by Ellen Page) beats a man half to death in his own home. The suspected crime? Car keying. She's been raised on comics books and news reports of daily homicide. Are they any better, these alleged superheroes, than the evil they endeavor to defeat? This is Super's central question, and it proves surprisingly pointed.

In classic B-movie tradition, Super identifies with a present-tense reality and then exaggerates scenario for the purpose of satire. Romero's Dawn Of The Dead (1978) is the classic example; an essay on consumerism disguised as a gooey zombie flick. Hitting UK shores only a year after the success of Kick-Ass (Vaughn, 2010), Super was sadly destined to be judged by that film's standards, but they share little DNA outside of the idea of an ordinary schlub becoming a superhero; a concept also mined by the 2009 indie Defendor (Peter Stebbings). But whereas Kick-Ass was about comic books, Super, definitively, is not. Frank (aka The Crimson Bolt) has never even read a comic before he starts compiling back-issues for research on his own avenger. The film isn't concerned with deconstructing genre, and its own category is impossible to define - the story merrily skips from domestic melodrama to revenge fantasy with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Super looks to the time it's in, and it's worth noting that the plot is entirely driven through media. Frank is inspired by a Christian superhero named The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), who fights Satan's grip over horny teenagers on Network TV. This Christian crusader also has his own comic, and flipping through its pages Frank comes across this line: "All it takes to be a superhero is the choice to fight evil." News reports frequently appear throughout the film, detailing public perception of The Crimson Bolt. Newspapers plaster his composite across their front pages. Crowds scream in horror as he cracks open the skull of a smart-ass yuppie cutting in line at the movie theater, in what appears to be an homage to that classic scene in Annie Hall (Allen, 1977). Alvy Singer ("I'd like to hit this guy on a gut level") could complain for all of New York, but Frank lets chunks of metal do his talking. It's disturbing.

I mean, should we really like this guy? This hopeless sad-sack of a man, who finds an idea of justice through performing his own slew of violent crimes? The same goes tenfold for Libby, who at one point laughs manically at the fact that she's just crippled a guy; she drove Frank's car into his legs, crushing them against a brick wall ("Any time some stupid motherfucker wants to commit some gay-ass crime..."). But what's wonderful about Gunn's screenplay is that we also warm to her. Her energy is infectious, and despite her wrong-footed attempts she genuinely wants to do good. She's a sweet, pretty girl, who could probably kill just as effectively with her smile. She wants to learn. She wants to be loved. She wants to be a hero. Frank also has a side we recognize - he's been neglected all his life, and made to feel like a loser. Cheated on at prom. Pissed on at school (literally). And now his wife (Liv Tyler) has left him for the slimy drug-pusher Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Maybe he's the D-Fens of the 21st Century?

Gunn's film works best as a farce about people on the fringes of reality, and the dangers of their extreme self-delusion, but although I dislike the comparison there is one point at which it probes deeper into the comic book genre than Kick-Ass ever dared attempt. "You don't see them getting bored in comic books" complains the impatient Libby. "That's what happens inbetween the panels" Frank replies, after some consideration. "Wow. Inbetween the panels. Is that where we are now?" she ponders. "We could do anything here." It's a beautiful thought. Tony Stark at alcoholics anonymous. Peter Parker in math class. Bruce Wayne at the water cooler. That's what happens inbetween the panels. The problem is simply that Libby believes she can live what's in them as well. Is she deranged? Yes. But that doesn't make her a bad person. I was deeply moved by Libby's fate. She ends up with half her face missing from a shotgun blast. Just a kid from the comic book store...

The Disc/Extras
Excellent picture and sound; the film is actually beautifully shot and scored, by Steve Gainer and Tyler Bates respectively (check out the track 'Two Perfect Moments'). Extras include the original theatrical trailer and a fun 19-minute making of, which clearly shows how passionate everyone is about the project.

Friday 26 August 2011

Thursday 25 August 2011

Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010) Review

Studio Ghibli lend their vision to a classic tale for Hiromasa Yonebayashi's Arrietty (2010)

Based upon Mary Norton's 1952 novel 'The Borrowers', Arrietty is the latest colourful export from Studio Ghibli, frequently referred to as the Japanese Disney. After the Little Mermaid-inspired Ponyo (2008) Ghibli once again look to the West for their influence, and first-time director Yonebayashi has delivered a more faithful adaptation of Norton's source than Peter Hewitt's conventional 1997 imagining, which lifted only the original characters and a loose concept for its tale. The story here follows 14-year-old borrower Arrietty (Mirai Shida) as she embarks upon her first venture into the human world, where she makes contact with a human named Shô (Ryûnosuke Kamiki). Borrowers live anonymously under the floorboards, believing all human beans (a charming mispronunciation) to be a threat. But Arrietty is compelled by Shô's kindness and acceptance, and soon struggles with her feelings for the outside world. Meanwhile, housekeeper Haru (Kirin Kiki) seeks to destroy the remaining borrowers...

As always for Ghibli, Arrietty is beautifully animated, and packed with the kind of detail that marks their work as individual. Sadly, Yonebayashi's loyalty to the novel results in an unsatisfying narrative, and scenes often feel protracted to support the 94-minute running time. The biggest problem is that relationships feel underdeveloped, especially the one between Arrietty and Shô, whose medical condition is awkwardly lumped into conversation but never really finds a reason to exist - he's soon undergoing an operation on his heart, but I wonder why we're ever told this information if the film isn't going to do anything with it. It feels like the setup to a pivotal emotional moment which never arrives, and that's a shame. Arrietty's parents - Pod (Tomokazu Miura) and Homily (Shinobu Ohtake) - are well defined, but little more than that. There's a strong sense of a loving family unit, but we never really learn anything about who these people are. Even if it be in the form of plain-faced exposition, can we not explore some of the borrowers ancestry, and establish a universe outside of their four walls?

But maybe this is down to the single-minded structure of the film, which is entirely driven toward the set-piece finale. It feels (yet clearly isn't, because of the novel) like one of those screenplays which figured out the ending first and the story second, and therefore focuses every plot strand on that pre-defined conclusion. Why does the plot strand with the dolls house kitchen exist? So that Haru can later recognize it, and set her plan in motion. Her motivations are hinted toward in the opening scenes, yet they never develop throughout the film. She's an antagonist for the sake of being an antagonist; the plot simply requires one.

The denouement feels like the beginning to an all-new chapter in the Borrower's universe, and likely a more interesting one; it supposes an exciting voyage to a new home, and a path fraught with danger. Arrietty is an attractive diversion, but ultimately proves to be an inconsequential entry into the Ghibli canon; too safe for its own good, its lightweight plot feels like the setup for a tale I'd love to see them tackle in the future. Arrietty 2, anyone?

Note: I saw the film in its original Japanese-language version, but there is an English-language dub screening in select cinemas, with a voice cast including Saoirse Ronan, Will Arnett and Mark Strong.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

The Haunted Castle (Schloss Vogelöd) (F.W. Murnau, 1921) DVD Review

F.W. Murnau's chamber mystery The Haunted Castle (1921) is his earliest surviving film...

An ominous shadow paints itself across the exterior of a bedroom window. The origin of the shadow - a scrawny, shaggy claw - sneaks into view. The window blows open. A man cowers under his sheets. The shadow of the claw now protracts across the wall, recalling the classic stairway image in Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), made a year later. The man is snatched, screaming, into the depths of the night. We never see the face of the monster. It remains an enigma; just one of the pitfalls of living in a movie castle (see also: mansion, house, motel). But contrary to its foreboding title, The Haunted Castle is not a horror film. The scene described is only a dream. The story does not involve spooks or ghouls, but rather the act of murder. Lord Vogelöd (Arnold Korff) is hosting a hunting party, but I doubt his guests were the intended prey...

A fine chamber mystery, The Haunted Castle was actually something of a disappointment for me. Murnau is one of my favorite directors, but here he relies more on titles than visuals. This is somewhat necessary, for he is adapting a lengthy and complex novel by Rudolph Stratz, which is entirely plot-driven. The development of character history is essential. So is the setup of motivation. It's not that this needs to be accomplished through dialogue though. Look at Roland West's underrated murder mystery The Bat (1926), for example, which uses lighting and performance to express its characters and their motivations. Equally, Louis Feuillade's epic serial Les Vampires (1915) employs remarkably few titles for a tale which spans 400 minutes. The titles which are used inform key details, which the scenarios then build on. Georges Franju re-adapted Judex in 1963, which Feuillade had originally filmed as a serial in 1916. The dialogue added little. It's all the more disappointing for the fact that Murnau is such a visual director. With Der letzte Mann (1924) he innovated the tracking shot, and used purely visual compositions to tell the story of an aging doorman. Often I felt like I may as well have been reading Stratz's source novel; the final script reportedly had over 80 titles.

We can't be sure what Murnau's intentions were with colour, but from what I can gather he did not officially authorize the tinting in The Haunted Castle. His single request? "Leave the dream scenes black-and-white." That demand has not been adhered to here, but I wonder if that's for the better. The greens create a creeping sense of cold, especially in the exterior shots of the castle; indeed, it becomes like an eerie mist which surrounds the grounds. Green is also employed for the aforementioned dream sequence, and the shadows feel much more defined for being placed against a colourized background. The oranges of the interiors also give off a falsely comforting warmth, and often can't be trusted. They are inviting - especially in this superb remaster - yet we know only danger can lie behind the doors they illuminate. German Expressionism is the art of light and shadow. Many scenes are shot in distanced tableaus, observing the architecture. The interiors are almost symmetrical in their design, and characters are often placed in the middle of a frame. Scenes are well lit. Shadows are used sparingly, signifying danger or nightmare when they appear. This is not your typical Murnau film, and perhaps that is why I found it so interesting.

Because for all of its flaws - tangled plotting, over-reliance on titles, ill-judged pacing - The Haunted Castle is technically fascinating, especially for fans of the Expressionist movement. Murnau completists will find much to enjoy here, but it's not an advised starting point for the director. There are hints of his greatness dotted here and there, but the best was yet to come...

The Disc/Extras
Beautifully restored, the quality of the transfer is quite literally astonishing. This is the earliest Murnau film available, and I'm surprised to see it in such good condition; a shame there wasn't a Blu-Ray made available. The sole feature on the disc is a 31-minute documentary entitled 'The Language Of The Shadows', which details Murnau's early life and films. It's quite interesting, but completists - who are the main audience for this package - may just be revising what they already know. As ever, there's a terrific booklet accompanying this release; this 32-page edition contains essays by Charles Jameux and Lotte Eisner. Informative.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Apa (István Szabó, 1966) DVD Review

A son remembers his father through the prism of imagination in István Szabó's Apa (1966)

It's innocent enough, but there's a common playground question which frequently prompts embarrassment: "What does your father do?" Of course, children have dreams of becoming astronauts, archeologists and detectives when they grow up, for these are the jobs they see glamorized by television and movies. They may look at the respectable work of their fathers - Takó's is a doctor - and register disappointment. They still have the need to find heroes in the world, which they view through rose-tinted glasses. This is why Takó (Dániel Erdély, András Bálint) creates a fabrication for his deceased father, painting him to all who ask as a Nazi-battling partisan, whose life was finally lost on the battlefield of revolution. A beautiful examination of grief and imagined heroism, Apa is ultimately a strange sort of coming-of-age story. In cinema the genre is mostly concerned with themes of sexuality, friendship and the hardships of high school; they're about realizations and reflections, and discovering your true self. Apa, set in post-WWII Hungary, is about death, and a young boy's need to create an idol in the father he never knew. His development into manhood unfurls delicately, as the the innocence of youth fades away and he comes to accept the truth about his father. Takó's emotional circumstance may be unique, but his actions speak to the boy in all of us...

Szabó's second film after 1965's Álmodozások kora, also a coming-of-age tale, Apa was recently voted by Hungarian critics as one of the greatest Hungarian films of all time, and it's easy to see why. The photography, courtesy of DP Sándor Sára, is achingly beautiful, and the monochrome glow of the early scenes give them the feeling of a cherished memory; almost like living photographs. The black and white is not harsh but inviting, and the darkness ripe for espionage and adventure. The later scenes, which find Takó all grown up, have a subtle change in aesthetic. They become less painterly and more proletariat, concerned with realism more than daydream. There are still moments of humour, and the tone remains just as spirited, but Szabó's understanding of colour and lighting informs us that perspective has changed; our protagonist is older and wiser, and defined by life experience. He's a good listener. Interesting, considering that he was always the most talkative of his friends.

Despite harsh conditions, the first half of Szabó's film is marked by the unshakable optimism of youth, especially in a montage of specific memories the boy has of his father. There are three; the father chasing a bird in the front garden, the boy visiting his father in surgery, and the father coming home from work, as the boy runs into his arms (the perspective is 1st-person) for a loving embrace. The camerawork is extraordinary, and Szabó's use of space frequently interesting. Look at the way he used high-angle shots especially, and prefers to shoot characters from behind.

The teenage Takó struggles to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and he still tells white lies to his University chums. It comes naturally, but I think he now accepts in his mind the sort of man his father was. Upon entering an old cellar, Takó says to himself "That's where father hid... No, I only made up that story." He still dreams, but somehow the experience is different. Perhaps now he acknowledges that they are dreams, and the scene where he is recruited as an extra for a WWII film - a scene of rounded-up Jews being led across a bridge - allows him to understand how much strength was required to survive those years, even without being a partisan. For strength is the single quality of a hero.

The Disc/Extras
The image is incredibly crisp and clear; Second Run have done an amazing job of restoring this one, and the photography probably looks better than ever. There are no extras on the disc but a comprehensive booklet, authored by Hungarian cinema expert John Cunningham, is excellent, and more than makes up for it.

Due to the recent fires which destroyed a Sony warehouse in London, 'Apa' will now be released on DVD on September 12th. Thankfully Second Run DVD are still in business, and will be re-stocking all titles within the next month. They're an invaluable source of obscure and independent cinema, especially from foreign markets - their releases from the Czechoslovak New Wave, for example, which otherwise we'd see very little of in this country, are all fantastic. They're an extraordinary outlet, so please, support them.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Triangle (Christopher Smith, 2009) Blu-Ray Mini-Review

Melissa George fights for her life in the twisty ship-bound thriller Triangle (Smith, 2009)

In what should have been an abandoned episode of The Twilight Zone, Melissa George plays Jess, a time-looping single mum stuck in the throes of (supposedly) the Bermuda Triangle (a long debunked myth which works as a built-in MacGuffin), courtesy of some non-specific plot mechanics. The movie is Triangle, and it's the third feature from British writer/director Christopher Smith, who has become relatively successful off the back of mining other people's ideas - Creep (2004) is a knock-off of the 1973 gristle-spinner Death Line (Sherman), for example, and Severance (2007) retools Deliverance (Boorman, 1972) for the English countryside. Here he's taking cues from a number of sources - Death Ship (Rakoff, 1980) and The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) among them - but Triangle is by no means terrible. In fact, while the derivative story may leave some viewers begging for a more original screenplay, the set-pieces prove exciting, and the film ultimately won me over.

Jess has been invited out sailing with friends, who I would describe in more detail, except that they're cannon fodder. Usually this would be a criticism, and when the movie blows limb-from-limb all of the side characters, leaving us with a last-girl-standing scenario 33 minutes in, you'd be forgiven, as I did, for rolling your eyes. I began to pick apart holes in the plot, but soon the film loops back on itself and proves much smarter than previously imagined. Questions are teasingly answered, all the while creating new conundrums which lure the viewer into Smith's labyrinthine mystery. It's not a hard one to crack, but his efficient pacing and heightened atmosphere (as an entry in the eerie ship sub-genre, it's a pretty creepy ride) ensures that we stay with it. Some nifty camerawork and committed performances (especially from ex-Home And Away star George) help matters too, and I soon forgot about the film making sense (it doesn't) and simply allowed it to wash over me.

Utter nonsense it may be, but Triangle is highly-tuned, knife-edged nonsense, and you could do a lot worse for cheap Saturday night entertainment. That being said, you could just watch an episode of The Twilight Zone. Series 1 - 3 are now available on Blu-Ray, so there's really no better time to catch up...

The Disc/Extras
Triangle is a relatively new flick, so the presentation is sharp and clear. The photography, courtesy of DP Robert Humphreys, is pretty good too, meaning that Blu-Ray is definitely the preferred format. The extras are surprisingly expansive, and very interesting. Outside of your standard director commentary (passionate, deconstructive), making of (detailed) and deleted scenes (minimal), there's also the option to scroll through storyboards for key sequences, and a 5-minute feature on the development of the storm sequence impresses. It's definitely a packed package, made with care, and there isn't a feature which feels like filler. Beware the edition with a 3D cover though - at the right (or wrong) angle it gives away a major plot twist.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010) DVD Review

1845, Oregon. Meek's Cutoff (2010) portrays a thirsty and desolate trail, fraught with danger.

I wonder about Stephen Meek. I have done ever since I first saw Meek's Cutoff at 2010's London Film Festival, where it captivated me at the tail-end of a tiresome week. His hair is long and scruffy, his beard unwashed and unkempt, his dress weathered yet classical. In a gruff voice he tells stories of defeating bears and Cayuse tribes, and always presents himself as a man of action. I suspect him a coward, and certainly he's told so many lies that to him - if nobody else - they've become truth. Where did he come from, this man? What life did he once lead? He's the biggest threat posed to a group of three families crossing through the Cascade Mountains. It's 1845, Oregon, and Stephen Meek (played by Bruce Greenwood) is leading these people to a richer land. They've entrusted him with their lives. I wonder what led them to make such a grave decision...

The beautiful irony of Meek's Cutoff is that they could have been on the right path all along. A patchwork title card fades to reveal our protagonists on the dusty trail - they are thirsty, hot and tired. We have no idea where they've come from, how long they've been traveling, or for how long they've been led by Meek, who's clearly as lost as they are. Perhaps he was a desperate man. Perhaps he proposed them a clear path in exchange for wealth, and now suffers for his self-delusion? If the settlers had just carried on for a day in their own direction, would they have stumbled across the right path? Or maybe I'm wrong, and Meek is who he says he is. But then there's no explanation for his increasingly worrying actions. The viewer is always asking questions, and Reichardt - a stunning young talent - is smart enough not to answer any of them. She's a graduate of the mumblecore movement, and her previous two features were Old Joy (2006) and Wendy And Lucy (2008). With this she's made a first for the cinema: a mumblecore Western.

I've never seen another film which comes this close to fairly portraying what frontier life must have been like. Paul Bowles came close in his 1950 short story 'The Delicate Prey', which was about a solitary figure leading three leather merchants into the ever darker depths of a westernmost trail. The environment is hostile, and the denouement bleak. The way Bowles describes the landscape as an unforgiving beast is matched visually by DP Chris Blauvelt, who shoots with natural light in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, recalling the Westerns of John Ford. It's a gorgeous, evocative landscape - almost Malick-like - and despite the vast space which surrounds the characters, the boxed frame creates a sense of claustrophobia and unease. Reichardt mostly employs medium and long shots, which means that her close-ups are all the more devastating. It's very hard to describe the aesthetic of Meek's Cutoff - it's just so absorbing. It tells a story all of its own.

The score by Jeff Grace, which is used sparingly, is also magnificent. At times the sound is distorted, and it reverberates around the landscape. A soft echo (possibly created by steel pans) amplifies the feeling of loneliness. It is a most uncommon sound for the Western, almost anachronistic in its design, and at times called to mind the eeriness of David Lynch. It's not a score which mounts or informs. It is a fleeting moan of despair bouncing from canyon to canyon. It's also worth mentioning the performances, although to single anybody out would be unfair. This is an ensemble piece, and there's not a hair out of place. All of the characters - even those with no more than a couple of lines, or no lines at all - are clearly defined, and have motivations, however mysterious. We believe in their dynamic, and that's essential.

The film ends with the settlers finding a small, isolated tree, still bearing leaves of green. Trees need water to survive, yet there's none to be seen for miles. "We're all just playing our parts now" Meek says. "This was written long before we got here." I wonder about that man...

The Disc/Extras
As much as I wish we could have had a Blu-Ray, this DVD release still looks pretty stunning. Extras are quite flimsy though; a 10-minute 'Making Of' doc and the original trailer, along with a nice booklet detailing the production history, and some history of the old west. Worth picking up for the film alone.

Friday 5 August 2011

Sarah's Key (Gilles Paquet-Brenner, 2010) Review

Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) unravels a decades-old wartime mystery in Sarah's Key (2010)

The Vel' d'Hiv Roundup (recently chronicled in the excellent The Round Up, Bosch, 2010) remains the most underexposed tragedy of the last century; lost amongst the dozens of crimes that make up the ugly mosaic of WWII. Believe it or not, only one photograph exists. "They documented everything, the Nazi's", one character questions. "That's what they were known for." "This was not the Germans", Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) replies. "It was the French." On the 16th and 17th of July 1942 the French police, in conjunction with the Nazi's, arrested over 13,000 Jews, placing them in Paris' (in)famous cycling stadium, which has now been demolished for over 50 years. The events of those days remain largely unknown by many people, and that's perhaps why Sarah's Key is such a significant work - it shines a light on a chapter in history too important to forget.

It's for this reason that I wish Sarah's Key was also a great film, but it simply isn't. I half expected the film to be based on a true story, such is the unbelievability of its premise. A story this bizarre could only have come from reality, I thought, and yet it actually comes from Tatiana De Rosnay's 2007 novel of the same name. But then, of course it does! Sarah's Key is so precise in its time-flitting structure and systematic revelation of plot twists that it could only have come from the pages of a door-wedging novel, and the story itself is contrived to the point of irritation. The plot picks up in 2010 with Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), a journalist, covering the story of the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup, and picking up on the life of Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), who locked her little brother in a cupboard when the French police came calling on July 16th. The film moves back and forth, scene-by-scene, between the past and the present, and the time periods inform each other as Julia reveals long-lost secrets. The Vel' d'Hiv story is sensitively told, and despite being about escape rather than persecution it manages to portray the harshness of those days well.

The problems with the film arise in Julia's story which, although dominating half the running time, is entirely superfluous, and lacking any dramatic conviction whatsoever. Julia is having problems with her husband, as he seems reluctant about having the child they've been working on for six years. They share several scenes together which are entirely incidental to the main plot, bogging down the pace of a drama which already feels baggy. Scott Thomas turns in an excellent performance - although her role is entirely expository, and the screenplay does her talent no justice - but there's just no point at which I understood her significance in the film. Slowly her life beings to intertwine with Sarah's, and a family connection is revealed. But what's the point? The story would, funnily enough, be entirely better served without Julia in it. The real heart lies in Sarah's story, and the 1942 scenes are actually incredibly well executed - those characters are really well developed, and their fates pack an emotional punch. The moment where Sarah escapes from the camp - this isn't a spoiler, it's the point of the first half - is an elating experience, and truly raises the spirits. If only we then didn't immediately cut back to another convoluted interlude with Julia, who may look human, but exists entirely as a writer's device.

Sarah's Key wraps up a topic of great seriousness and sensitivity in a story that, frankly, even Dan Brown could have made more plausible. It's not that it's a bad film per se, as it's technically very well made. It's just, narratively speaking, utter claptrap.

The Shortlist: 5 Greatest Guilty Pleasure Movies

Full article can be found at MultiMediaMouth: 5 Best Guilty Pleasure Movies

Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011) Review

The truth is out there... Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney star in Super 8 (2011)

Super 8 is J.J. Abrams homage to childhood, first love, DIY zombie movies and Steven Spielberg, who mentored the young director and executive produced this much anticipated sci-fi drama. It's 1979 (post Jaws, 1975, Star Wars, 1977, and Dawn Of The Dead, 1978), and Joe Lamb's (Joel Courtney) mother has just died. We never see her, but the toll of her loss is felt. Joe's father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), is the Deputy Sheriff, and not used to being a father - he's a good man, but perhaps too dedicated to his work. Joe is currently in the middle of shooting a zombie movie with his chubby friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), a movie obsessive who is constantly re-writing scenes and adapting to his environment - he's got books and magazines scattered about the house, and these have informed him of production values. One night they sneak out to the train tracks to shoot a scene with Alice (Elle Fanning), who Joe is secretly - but quite obviously - in love with. There's a quietly affecting moment where he applies her makeup, and Abrams allows their faces to speak a thousand awkward words. The performances here are tremendous, and the screenplay has real heart.

The plot kicks into gear when a speeding train is derailed by a car driving on the tracks, which leads to an extravagant (and incredibly loud) set-piece where the kids dodge carriages, pipes and shrapnel, propelled through the air by a mass fuel explosion (I doubt this is in any way realistic, but it looks cool). Charles accidentally captures all of this on film. In fact, he doesn't know it yet, but he's captured quite a bit more - namely the contents of the train, which manages to escape into the dark of night. I won't spoil exactly what that contents is, but if you haven't figured it out from the trailer then I'd suggest you divulge in a lobotomy rather than a trip to the cinema. Abrams slowly teases us glimpses of the *ahem* contents as it wreaks havoc all over town, and this is part of what makes the first hour so much fun. What we do know is that it's very big and very fast, and it manages to decimate an entire gas station in seconds. So why it was being carried on a train in the first place I don't quite know, but hey, it's a popcorn movie, so we'll let it slide. The whizzing pyrotechnics really don't get much of a look-in for the first half anyway, which basically plays like Stand By Me (Reiner, 1986) with... well, you know what.

The biggest problem with Super 8 is its second half, which indulges in perfunctory blockbuster mechanics like the worst of these pictures end up doing. For the first hour Abrams' film actually ranks amongst the best of the year - it's not only a nostalgic experience, recalling the golden age of Spielberg, but it also has important things to say about friendship; it is sensitive and soulful, helped in no large part by some truly exceptional performances. The young cast are all great, and it'd be unfair to single any one of them out, but it's worth mentioning how accomplished Elle Fanning has become, and how she now exists outside of her sister's shadow. She's a far more interesting actress, and seemingly capable of much greater depth - she's so natural here, as she was in Somewhere (Coppola, 2010), and I can't wait to see what she does next. No matter the quality of the film, I'm sure she'll be excellent.

So, the film is chugging along nicely, and all of the action scenes are well handled (there's perhaps too much lens flare, which Abrams has an annoying penchant for, but it doesn't distract too much). In fact, I'd go so far as to say the first hour is perfect - it has mystery, suspense, humour and heart. But then that second half arrives, and it all falls apart. The film inevitably becomes an all-out action picture, and the closest comparison I'd draw would be with Spielberg's War Of The Worlds (2005). Do you remember the first set-piece of that film, where the pods chased Tom Cruise through his little suburban town (oh, and how funny, he's a single father), while the laser beams zipped through houses, exploding them into splintering shards? Yeah, well it's a lot like that, and at the expense of all the character-driven charm which has come before. The army invade and soon suburbia has gone to hell, with explosions going off left, right and center. The film loses focus; character motivations are forgotten, loyalties realigned, personalities changed. At one point Jackson - a strict lawman who respects authority - is taken captive by the army, but stages a breakout where he bluntly attacks a solider and blows up an oil truck. The violence is quite intensified, and his actions wreckless. I suddenly didn't recognize the character.

This last paragraph has to contain full-on spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film, I'd stop reading now. When Joe undertakes his mission to save Alice he finally comes up against the alien - a mixture of the creature from Cloverfield (Reeves, 2008) and a rather large, grubby bug. What occurs here is a moment of gross sentiment, as the boy reasons with the alien, channeling his grief into a rational argument for his towns survival. The creature, in close-up, registers nothing for the viewer. In the midst of plot contrivances and special effects he has lost all sense of menace - we no longer fear him, and given the sharp U-turn in tone we don't sympathize with him either. Ian Nathan, of EMPIRE, said it best. He's "a visitor from planet MacGuffin." Where, I'm left wondering, did the characters go? Those wonderful kids who I had become so attached to over the last hour, who were relatable and honest and strong. Why, now, am I left picking out plot holes and inconsistencies? The final three minutes are blindingly incompetent, and certainly don't feel like the conclusion to everything which has come before. The first half of Super 8 is brilliant. I just don't know what happened. Well, actually I do, but it's a bit cynical. Simply put: Spielberg happened.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

The Tree (Julie Bertuccelli, 2010) Review

Full review can be found at Flickfeast: The Tree

Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011) DVD Review

Johnny Depp stars as the eponymous almost-hero in Gore Verbinski's excellent Rango (2011)

Imagine if Alejandro Jodorowsky made a kid's animation about a cowardly lizard, and you're halfway toward imagining Rango, the new psychedelic Western from director Gore Verbinski. I'd previously thought of Verbinski as a hack, and the Pirates trilogy (2003, 2006, 2007) - insipid money-spinners - did very little to negate that idea, especially the third installment, which was bloated to the point of distress; indeed, every soft drink should have come with a healthy dose of methadone to ease the viewing experience. But to my relief Rango is actually a great little movie - it has humour, heart and three-dimensional characters I care about. In fact, it could well be the best animation of the year...

To those unacquainted, here's the plot: Rango (Johnny Depp) is a lonely household lizard resigned to a glass cage, and he dreams of becoming the hero of his own story - as it is, he just acts out self-written tragedies with the inanimate objects (a tree, a wind-up fish, a dead bug) that also inhabit his cage. One day, while being transported to a new home, Rango's rectangular residence slides off the back of his owners car and crashes in the middle of the desert. He soon finds his way to the simple town of Dirt, which is undergoing a water crisis - namely, they haven't got any. Rango realizes that nobody here knows who he is, so he can build an identity from scratch. After accidentally defeating a troublesome hawk the townsfolk declare him a hero, and he becomes Sheriff. From there a quest to find water begins, and Rango comes into a league of its own.

There are so many things to praise about the film, but I'll start with the screenplay. It's an absolute belter, and best of all is the fact that it plays to all audiences. There's plenty of slapstick for the kids - which relies more on individual character quirks than broad innuendo - yet there's also some really funny dialogue for the adults. A solid example would be this exchange between Rango and Beans (Isla Fisher), whom he meets out in the desert:

Rango: So, what's your name?
Beans: Beans.
Rango: That's a funny kind of name.
Beans: What can I say? My Daddy plumb loved baked beans.
Rango: Well, you're lucky he didn't plumb love asparagus.
Beans: Wh.. what are you saying?
Rango: I mean, I enjoy a hearty puttanesca myself, but I'm not
sure that a child would appreciate the moniker.

It's not exactly Mamet, I grant you, but it's certainly working on a higher level than your average family flick, and the actors clearly relish the opportunity for some worldplay; Rango's opening monologue about characterization is also a brave note to start on, as it risks alienating the youngest members of the audience. That said, it also features some wonderful sight gags, especially when the goofy reptile imagines himself in various starring roles, including a rogue anthropologist and "the greatest lover the world has ever known." It's perfectly balanced, and Depp's dextrous vocal performance ensures that the kids will be entirely engaged.

But really, all of the vocal performances bear mentioning. Fisher is utterly charming as Beans, who's a bit eccentric and shy, but also smart and strong; she's a layered and likable heroine, and doesn't simply serve as a romantic interest, although her emerging relationship with Rango is quite sweet. Bill Nighy also turns in an excellent performance here as the terrifying Rattlesnake Jake, who's a genuinely great villain. He chomps and snarls his way through the dialogue, working up a deathly fuss in a way only the great British thesp can. The character is an imposing presence, and Nighy's vocal work fits perfectly.

It's a beautifully shot film (the opening crash is a work of art, as is the Spirit Of The West sequence), but the final thing I want to mention is a connection I drew in my original review, with the videogame Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath (2005). The stories share a similar vein of critter-based kook, and the feeling that danger may lie around every corner. To quote that review, "One gets the feeling that if Rango had walked twenty miles in the opposite direction he'd have bumped into Stranger and his deadly crossbow." I think it's that unpredictability that gives Rango its heart and true sense of adventure. It's likely going to become a cult film, and I hope that's the case. It's unusually good.

The Disc/Extras
Perfect picture quality, and 10 deleted scenes make up the extras. Not the package I was hoping for, but still, it's worth picking up the film brand new.

Monday 1 August 2011

BFI Screen: The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave star in the controversial drama The Devils (1971)

"What on Earth will they make out of it? I feel a great deal of curiosity - and apprehension."
- Aldous Huxley, 1963, upon pondering The Devils adapted as a film.

Although it has a reputation for provocation and titillation - packed to the hilt with blasphemous bouts of explicit sex and violence - Ken Russell actually sees The Devils as his most serious work, and I'm inclined to agree. There are so many famous stories about the film, such as the one about its banning in Italy, and the jail sentence Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed would have faced should they ever have set foot in the country, but the film is so much more than its surrounding myth. Most people tell these stories because they haven't actually seen the film, and indeed, it's very hard to, as Warner Bros. are still too scared to release it. They really should, because the world deserves to see this frenzied, carnivalesque horror; one of the best and most powerful films of all time. Honestly, it's quite extraordinary...

The Devils is partially based on two sources; Aldous Huxley's 1952 novel The Devils Of Loudun, and John Whiting's 1960 stage play The Devils, which takes Huxley's original text as part of its influence. The story spurs from the life of Urbain Grandier (Reed), a French Priest who was tried for witchcraft for politically-motivated reasons. The story has been historically compromised here, for the sake of dramatic extravagance, but the Church vs. State debate is still given plenty of air, and the characters are more developed for Russell's ability to heighten reality. There are two central plots which run alongside and into each other; Grandier's struggles against Baron de Laubardemon (Dudley Sutton), who wishes to demolish the town of Loudon, and Sister Jeanne's (Redgrave) sexual obsession with Grandier, and the extremes to which her passions take her when Grandier marries Madeline De Brou (Gemma Jones, in her debut role). It's an incredibly complex film, and I haven't done the story justice here, but suffice to say it only gets deeper and darker, especially with the introduction of an insane inquisitor by the name of Father Barre (Michael Gothard).

The sets, designed by Derek Jarman, are anachronistically constructed, and apparently the young hedonist took influence from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) for this envisioning of 17th Century France, which has never looked so dirty, or ripe for apocalypse. The plague-ridden town of Loudon is a festering place, and its people - even those who are respected, such as Grandier - have secrets best kept hidden. He is a licentious, hypocritical man, and guilty of sins, but witchcraft is not one of them. Loudon reflects his psyche perfectly, as does each setting for its character, sometimes ironically so - the pristine white of Sister Jeanne's convent for example, which reminded me of the opening of Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain (1973), even though that film was made two years later. The sets (and wonderful location work) also do a good job of highlighting the absurdity of some of Russell's scenarios. Only in a disease-ridden house, subject to magic posing as medicine, could Grandier declare with outraged glee, "A CROCODILE!", and then proceed to throw the reptile into a fire, before attempting battle with its rubbery corpse. And no. I'm not kidding.

The acting is absolutely phenomenal. Reed has never been better (his other largely underseen performance is in Paranoiac!, Francis, 1963), and although his work here is magnetic, it's really the rest of the cast that bears mention. Redgrave has long been a favorite actress of mine, but it's shocking to see her in material like this - desperately grasping at sanity, struggling against her faith and instinctual desires, repelled by her own image and fraught with nightmares of her hump being exposed to laughing crowds. She's uninhibited, truly, and Redgrave's physical and mental dedication to the role is astounding - her darting eyes speak of torment and primitive sexuality, and her screams reverberate throughout the entire film. Gothard has always been an underrated actor, and to those unfamiliar with his work I recommend Herostratus (Levy, 1967) and La vallée (Schroeder, 1972), but his performance here - oddly channeling John Lennon - is absolutely incredible. Turned up to 11 from the get-go, his well-spoken demon hunter is the films largest force, but also its most controlled - it would be easy to say he was going over the top, but the character demands theatrics, and Gothard takes Barre to logical - if freakishly eccentric - heights. But perhaps best of all is Gemma Jones, who unquestionably has the hardest job in the film; she has to express entirely with her eyes. In a film of fire and brimstone she must act as a sensitive soul, and exude warmth. Her performance is quiet and timid, and it's a testament to her unique talent that she holds her own against the other performances, and demands attention.

One could write thousands of words about The Devils and still not get close to the essence of why it is so great. Maybe it's the dynamic, feverish camerawork, the vivid palette, the complexity of the language, the obsidian black humour, the horrific circus of Loudon, the erotic euphoria, the... well, as you can see, the list goes on, and all I'm doing is describing elements I can't hope to conjure representative images of. 900 words and I still haven't scratched the surface... just attempted, in vain, to promote the film as best I can. To say it was ahead of its time would be an understatement, as I don't think time has caught up to The Devils. If ever proof were needed of that statement there's the fact that Warner Bros. still won't let you see it, out of fear of controversy. The fools. Russell's masterpiece is a film impossible to describe in hyperbole - it is pure exaggeration in itself, taken from the pages of history, which often produces the strangest tales of all. You need to see it, and one day I'm sure you will. Oh, and it'll make a fascinating double bill with The Crucible (Hytner, 1996). Seek them out, and you'll be duly rewarded...