Sunday, 1 December 2013

Good Vibrations (2012: UK/Ireland Dir Lisa Barros D'Sa, Glen Leyburn)

Good Vibrations is the supposedly warts 'n' all story of the indomitable Terri Hooley, a record shop owner in Northern Ireland who started up the 'Good Vibrations' label to bring the music of broke but talented Irish new wave bands to a wider audience. His greatest commercial achievement was the discovery of Derry boys The Undertones, releasing their 'Teenage Kicks' anthem to international acclaim, but losing out on the big bucks by letting the band sign to US label Sire. Along the way Hooley's wayward lifestyle sees both his health and his marriage suffer, but all is reconciled at the end via the now infamous Ulster Hall gig which, history records, rather than recouping the funds to get Hooley's finances back on track, ran at a loss because half the capacity audience had been let in free by Terri himself.

Hooley's story is an inspiring if frustrating one, and in the right hands could have offered an interesting study of one person's commitment to cut through the political divides of his country  using music and sheer bloody mindedness (bands on the Good Vibrations label often comprised both Catholics and Protestants). The directors of Good Vibrations unfortunately blow the opportunity with a film which, despite a terrific turn from Richard Dormer as Hooley, is pretty shallow and uninvolving. In fact Dormer's performance feels like it's strayed in from an altogether more serious film, and the decision to centre stage Hooley by rendering the other adult characters sketchy at best is a real problem. The use of real music and news footage blended with recreated band performances takes its cue from Michael Winterbottom's Tony Wilson biopic 24 Hour Party People (2002) although that movie had a lightness of touch which blended history and fiction rather more effectively. Clumsy as Good Vibrations is, I did like the scene where Hooley gets his epiphanic moment hearing 'Teenage Kicks' on the headphones in the studio, while The Undertones look on.

While there are certain similarities between Tony Wilson's and Terri Hooley's just-do-it-and-bugger-the-consequences approach to music promotion and business, Wilson's grasp of semiotics (and arguably more interesting band roster) provides better visual subject matter. A hundred odd minutes in the company of a muttering boozehound who manages to ostracize nearly all his colleagues, set in the gloomy beiges and sepias of 1970s Belfast and without the benefit of a decent script to elevate the proceedings past a few good one liners, makes Good Vibrations, if not a boring watch, an unsatisfying one. And as for the uncredited actor who appears as John Peel towards the end of the should be ashamed, sir.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

In Memorium (US 2005: Dir Amanda Gusack)

Now that the 'Found Footage' genre has pretty much disappeared up its own aperture, one almost looks back fondly to the days before FF became shorthand for tiresome people running around an empty building screaming their heads off, and when some of the early exemplars - The Blair Witch Project (1999), the rich-kid-trying-not-to-be a-moneybags Cloverfield (2008) and the first couple of Paranormal Activity outings - showed true innovation. One addition to the canon that deserves to be included in the 'pioneers' list is In Memorium, a film hampered by such a limited distribution that very few people have seen it. Which is a great shame as it's a terrific movie.

In Memorium focuses on Dennis and Lily, a likeable couple who have rented a house in Los Angeles. Dennis has been diagnosed with an inoperable cancer and has, in a slightly far fetched plot device, decided to rig up the house with security cameras and microphones to record his imminent decline for possible future use as a documentary. Once set up, the rather mundane existence of the couple begins to be underscored by glimpses of shapes caught on camera, and unidentifable sounds on the audio. Dennis and Lily become increasingly convinced that they are not alone in their new home, and that the presence which has joined them may be destructive and malevolent.

There are very few other characters in the film apart from Dennis's slacker brother Frank and a woman who rents the house to the couple, which focuses things tightly over In Memorium's brief 70 minutes. The claustrophobic surroundings (actually filmed in the Director's own house) are emphasised by the static underlit look of the film, most of the shots being generated from the closed circuit cameras.  Although I felt Lily's rather passive acceptance of her boyfriend's condition a little bewildering, the partnership between the two leads is otherwise convincing and their increasing fear very persuasive.

What makes In Memorium stand out is that, firstly, both the explanation for the visitation and the haunting itself are genuinely scary, something which is very rare in the FF movement. The tension towards the end puts the film up there with some of the great haunted house films, and makes you realise just how powerful this type of movie can be. Seondly, the film never loses sight of the essential plight of Dennis's illness which, when it becomes more pronounced, only deepens the mood.

Amanda Gusack's first full length film as a Director really is an overlooked gem. Made a couple of years before (and clearly influencing) the much more successful Paranormal Activity (2007) and perhaps taking its inspiration from the CCTV nightmare of My Little Eye (2002) In Memorium still packs a punch despite the FF saturation which has now all but extinguished the dramatic potential of this type of film making.

There's a Facebook page for the film here which is worth liking - maybe people power can trigger a DVD release of the movie.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Outpost 11 (UK 2012: Dir Anthony Woodley)

There are so many elements involved in making a film that, when pulled together as a finished product, can mean the difference between success and tragedy, sometimes just by a small margin. Films can have a great story with uninteresting visuals, or be badly acted but great to look at, or filmed in locations which almost but don’t quite compensate for the lack of depth or emotion in the script. But when a film’s basis is three people trapped in a small drab room quietly (and not so quietly) going bonkers for 91 minutes, all the elements have to work very hard to compensate for such a thin premise.

Outpost 11 locates itself in alternative 1955 in the midst of a new Hundred Years War, where a small team of soldiers occupies a remote listening post intercepting military messages, and looking after a large wheezing contraption called The Omega Machine. If I have made this sound in any way interesting, then forgive me. The soldiers bicker and fuss in a strictly Waiting for Godot manner, and gradually begin to lose their grip on reality after possible exposure to a psychotropic drug released by the enemy, hallucinating some joke shop rubber beasts and an astonishingly primitive stop frame animated spider.

Rarely have I seen a film that gets everything so wrong. The script is clichéd and leaden, the almost one room set depressing and totally uninteresting, and the acting flat and completely uninvolving. Any desire of the director to make something cinematically different is defeated by realising that you’ve seen the various elements deployed more successfully in any number of other films – the most obvious and consistent visual reference seemed to be David Cronenberg’s film The Naked Lunch, a movie which is itself problematic in terms of bizarre visuals coupled with impenetrable narrative. Outpost 11 drags itself agonisingly to the end of its hour and a half with no satisfying resolution, or chin stroking final shot that would at least cause the viewer to rethink what they’ve seen (a popular ploy when making movies whose meaning is hard to fathom).

Outpost 11 is a truly hideous film. I detected no spark of talent in Anthony Woodley’s direction that would make me seek out any of his subsequent output. Please avoid this movie unless you are a steampunk completist or thought that the animation of Morph in Tony Hart’s TV shows was brain warping.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Devoured (US 2012: Dir Greg Olliver)

There's something of the night about documentary maker Greg Olliver's second 'fiction' film. Actually make that Night, as in M. Night Shyamalan. For this is a film WITH A TWIST, and by the saints does it spend the whole film letting you know that.

Lourdes is a Spanish woman working behind the scenes at a New York bar and restaurant, clearly with few employment prospects judging by her endurance of the abuse meted out to her by her female employer. As we watch her daily routines, often working into the night after all the guests have departed, we learn that she is in the US to earn enough money for her son's much needed operation back in Spain. We also learn that there are other shadowy presences in the resatuarant, just out of sight of Lourdes as she makes her rounds, which lead her (and us) to think that the place is haunted. Clearly struggling to build up some cash, she accepts the opportunity to increase her savings by going down on one of the diners who is looking for a quick thrill. Disgusted with her predicament, she nevertheless seems to repeat this service for other lone males as it appears lucrative. The shadowy figures become gradually more corporeal however, as Lourdes's predicament becomes ever more desperate.

That's about all I can tell you given the no spoiler policy of this blog. What I can mention is that Lourdes is found dead in the restaurant at the beginning of the movie, making Devoured a 'whydunit' instead of a 'whodunit'. Now the thing about a plot device like this is that the rest of the film has to be strong enough to make you forget the point where you started from, so that when the movie returns to the opening shot there's a renewed surprise and a sense of a satisfying ending. The problem with Devoured is that because the whole film is predicated upon THE TWIST it's presented in both a confusing and mundane way which is uninvolving - something which dogs many of Mr Shyamalan's films - so you never forget that Lourdes ends up dead.

I also found the central character of Lourdes similarly unengaging. Again, this is in service to THE TWIST (OK, I'll stop that now) but as she's in every scene in a film which is already flat and lifeless it made for a pretty tiresome watch. I may be in a minority here - many other reviewers have gone for this in a big way, mainly because of its 'indie' approach, similar to other recent films like The Pact and Lovely Molly. But despite its funky New York setting and some vaguely interesting camerawork, I found Devoured rather shallow and manipulative and not half as good as it obviously thinks it is.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Excision (US 2012: Dir Richard Bates Jr)

When trashmeister John Waters appears in a cameo role in Excision, it's not exactly a surprise. For Richard Bates's first feature, with its quirky characters, suburban settings and dubious taste, is clearly so heavily influenced by the later works of Baltimore's finest, like Polyester or Serial Mom, that it feels like a Waters film by default. But Excision is far better than just a Waters homage.

Pauline is a high school student whose world view is decidedly warped. She's a social outcast with an incisive mind and an aspiration to be something in medicine, plus a penchant for fantasies combining sex, blood and evisceration. Her sister Grace is seriously ill with Cystic Fibrosis, and in need of a lung transplant, which places a massive strain on her parents. Pauline's father is a classically 'put upon' husband who remains largely bemused at his daughter's wayward behaviour. His wife attempts to hold the whole family together with a 1950s style approach to motherhood and housewifery (including wine at lunch). As the family becomes more and more dysfunctional, Pauline's studies of medical texts in the local library lead her to think that she may be able to aid her sister's health condition while finding favour with her mother, and gaining some all important practical medical experience.

The character of Pauline is beguiling and central to the succcess of Excision. She's smart, funny, deadpan and quite round the bend, but also very sexy. The casting against type here of AnnaLynne McCord is a stroke of genius. McCord, a glamorous star of TV shows like 90210, is presented with ratty hair and complex skin, but is a force of nature and it's difficult to take your eyes off her. Traci Lords, playing her mother Phyllis, is also outstanding, barely holding it together as she loses battle after battle with her rebellious daughter whom she neither understands nor seemingly loves.

Quite how Richard Bates has surrounded himself with such a cast on his first feature is beyond me, but Excision also features great walk on performances from Malcolm McDowell, Marlee Matlin and Ray Wise, all clearly enjoying themselves. The full feature has been developed from a short film of the same name made back in 2008 (so it's obviously taken a while to get this movie together), and Bates has taken the opportunity to add a lot more gallows humour in this version - there are some great laugh out loud one liners - and slicker production values which add class to what could otherwise be a quirky gore movie. 

Only when Excision takes its almost inevitable dark turn into pure horror towards the end does it unravel a bit, but for the most part this is a great, smart and funny film which is worth ninety minutes of anyone's time. Well, maybe not anyone's.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Upstream Color (US 2013: Dir Shane Carruth)

James Joyce once wrote, of the complexities of his most famous novel Ulysses, that "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant." I've always liked this quote, and it's one which popped into my head after watching Shane Carruth's latest headscratcher Upstream Color.

So what is Upstream Color about? Essentially it's a film featuring a young couple who have separately had their identities wiped (and their money stolen, at least in one case) as the result of a powerful organic drug administered unwillingly by a character called The Thief. The couple, while getting to know each other and recovering their lost memories, discover that they've both been through the same experience and attempt to ascertain what happened to them. The audience knows more than they do as we've seen how the drug is harvested and processed and also the shadowy figures behind the whole operation. That's all I'm prepared to disclose because that's about all of the plot that is discernible without guesswork and conjecture.

In interviews Carruth is reticent about the specifics of his films, and happier to talk about ideas. As a director who is also a mathematician and former software engineer, you'd perhaps expect a high degree of planning and structure in them that close analysis would reward, but he has hinted that Upstream Color should be seen as a metaphor, which suggests that things aren't quite as organised or focused as we'd like. Carruth also remains rather po faced about his work, so while the subtext of the Joyce quote implies that the author was rather amused at the idea of scholars reaching lots of different conclusions about the meaning of Ulysses, we have no way of knowing as to whether our digging into the real meaning of Upstream Color will ever pay off or whether the director feels that the digging is worth doing.

This inscrutability and obliqueness comes across in the film, which is both its USP and also its downfall. The great thing about film is that it can do lots of things. It can straight out entertain, it can baffle, it can inform you, and because it's primarily a visual medium, if it's put together well it can take a lot of chances and still engage an audience. Upstream Color doesn't do this. It didn't have enough narrative or visual hooks to keep this viewer interested. To me the film looked flat and lifeless, and I felt that I was constantly being wrong footed in trying to understand what was happening. There is nothing wrong in a bit of directorial wrong footing, but when the whole film is predicated on it, it just becomes tedious.

Compared to Carruth's previous film, 2004's talky but frankly rather autistic Primer (a film I also didn't like) Upstream Color has a lot more warmth, and the two leads, Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself, are engaging in a rather blissed out way. But to me the film failed, if only because, as many reviewers have mentioned, that this is a film that needs to be seen many times to reveal its true meaning, I'll not be bothering.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Mama (Spain/Canada 2013: Dir Andres Muschietti)

Two children, Lily and Victoria, are abandoned in a woodlands hut after their father goes off the rails, and 'raised' by a strange and ethereal figure - the Mama of the title, who in an early scene shows herself to have, shall we say, a fiercely overprotective attitude to her new charges. Some years later the two children are found - in a semi feral state - by their father's brother. He rehabilitates them back into the real world, moving them into his home which he shares with his girlfriend, the bass playing (and reluctant surrogate mother) Annabel.

Annabel fairly quickly realises that something's afoot and that the childrens' references to Mama having followed them from the forest may be more than simple wish fulfilment on their part. Her own eventual development of a maternal instinct towards Lily and Victoria stirs Mama's vengeful side, leading to the inevitable showdown between good and evil, the real and the unreal.

As Executive Producer, Guillermo del Toro is himself an ethereal presence guiding the directorial hand of Argentinian newboy Andres Muschietti to create a fairytale feel to the film, which disguises its rather by the numbers story of a wraith hell bent on revenge: Mama has been extended to full length from a short 2008 film of the same name, also by Muschietti, which is a whole lot creepier for its brevity.

The early scenes are the best, with the eerie presence of the spirit fleetingly shown and punctuated by some genuinely creepy sound effects, and there's a lovely scene where the giggling children are briefly glimpsed playing with Mama through a door left ajar but then furtively closed to maintain privacy. The now obligatory revealed history of the spirit robs the film of much of its potency, and actually doesn't make too much sense - why would she angry enough to survive the grave? Towards the end Mama is revealed in all her CGIness, which is where the film ultimately fails in a swirl of mist and soaring Danny Elfman-esque strings. The final veil of credibility for me was stripped by noting the wraith's more than passing resemblance to Geordie funny man Ross Noble.

Acting wise the kids are the best thing in it, particularly Megan Charpentier as older sister Victoria, who does a lot to sustain audience belief in what they're seeing against the increasing ludicrousness of the plot. I just didn't believe Jessica Chastain as a rock chick (she's far more credible when she mellows later in the movie) and someone needs to tell film makers that in these days of the ubiquitousness of tattoos, having ink on your arm is no longer visual shorthand for being 'hard'.

Mama isn't a total misfire but it does blow its last reel with a pomposity that's pure del Toro. It could have remained creepier longer if the director had shown more restraint, but the story probably wasn't strong enough to allow for that. Shame.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Interview with David Campion, director of Patrol Men and Woodfalls

In my first batch of reviews on DEoL I've covered both of David Campion's recent films, Patrol Men and the as yet unreleased Woodfalls. I asked him a few questions about the making of his most recent film.

So, what gave you the idea for Woodfalls?

Finding the right subject matter for a film is tough. After Patrol Men, Ben (Simpson, co-director of PM) and I wrote a lot. We wrote a feature called ‘Video Nasty’, but realised it would cost too much to make. We worked on an anthology film, a serial killer film, a ‘Funny Games’ inspired invasion film and a ‘street film’. I was really into the street film. It was called ‘Sweetblade’ and it featured lots of stuff from my teenage years, but I couldn't finish it. It wasn't working out. Woodfalls came about during the Dale Farm evictions. Gypsies seemed to be all over the media and I actually have travellers in my family, so I had this different perspective of the culture. I felt we could portray them as simply and honestly as I knew Woodfalls was born.

How much did it cost to make? And how did you go about raising the cash?

I’m not sure if I can give the exact figure, my producer might lose his shit with me. It was a little more expensive than Patrol Men (which cost £2,000), but not much. We started a Kickstarter campaign and felt confident that, after the release of Patrol Men, we could raise suitable funds. This was a mistake. We realised we had shit - no rich family, no real following...just a few supportive friends. After a few weeks, it became clear that Kickstarter wasn't going to work out.

In the end, I raised the money alone, in the form of a bank loan. If I'm not willing to invest in myself, how can I expect others to invest in me..?!

What did you learn from the making of Patrol Men that you applied when making Woodfalls? 

We made Patrol Men right out of uni, so the biggest learning curve was actually shooting for 4 weeks, rather than 5 days. A film shoot really is an endurance test. Patrol Men also made me more comfortable with actors and to a certain extent blocking, but I'm still developing my techniques in that area. 

Unlike other independent directors, you haven't re-used any of the cast from your previous film. Was that by accident or design? 

None of them wanted to work with me. Ha ha! Woodfalls felt like a new chapter, so yeah, I wanted to keep it fresh. However, Okie (Anthony Abuah) from Patrol Men actually produced Woodfalls. And he’s in it, briefly - we named him ‘Blaze’.  Anthony is also a director now; he made his directorial debut, Woolwich Boys, about nine months before he produced Woodfalls. He had a busy year. 

We're now used to you and Ben Simpson working together. Ben's given a co-credit for the story but this is your first sole directoral credit. What was it like going it alone? 

When Ben left the project, I felt a bit lost. We’ve been making films together since we were 15 and I honestly thought we’d be making them for the rest of our lives. That’s life I suppose. But, once I realised I was on my own, it was good. I actually enjoy directing by myself. I also had a lot of support from my crew. DoP Louis Corallo has been there since uni. He was DoP on Patrol Men and he was DoP on Woodfalls from the very start. In filmmaking terms, he has become as close as Ben - we collaborate very well. I don’t like the guy though - what an asshole (I think he's joking - Ed.).

The soundtrack is really good - the dubstep sound really suits the mood of the film. How did you find the bands to contribute? 

They are all local. Most of the music you hear in the club sequences are tracks from Planky, who has been on the scene for years. He puts out tons of drum’n’bass, hip hop, dubstep and house - the dude is constantly making music. I was looking for some rap tracks and I came across Lyrical Monsoon. They gave me permission to use their music, but one of them, Gav Roberts, took a real interest in the film and ended up scoring it. His score is so heavy, I love it. I think he would be great at scoring a horror film, something 80s inspired, lots of heavy synth and meaty bass. Gav came onto the project pretty late. I think he did a fantastic job. 

So now it's almost 'in the can', how do you feel about the film? Does it feel like the film you wanted to make? Were there many compromises? 

It’s weird. I'm too close to it to have any sort of real opinion. It’s not perfect and I definitely haven’t reached my full potential... yet. However, some of the stuff really works for me, the third act especially. I'm extremely proud of my cast and crew. People like Helen Nash (make up), Rita Colson (costumes) and our runner, ‘Super’ Ed Muir, went way beyond their call of duty.   

And finally, what's next for you? 

I'm writing. A lot. I have a script that I'm pitching as 'Byker Grove meets 8 Mile/John Hughes' with battle raps. I'm also working on a script about Backyard Wrestling, which I'm developing from a short I made in uni, entitled ‘Heel’. However, I went to You’re Next a few nights ago and that got me thinking. You could see the love and passion that went into the film and I realised how much I love making horror films. I'm taking notes at the minute, but another horror might be right what I need...

Truth or Dare (UK 2012: Dir Robert Heath)

Watching two of the four (!) executive producers in an extra on the DVD release of Truth or Dare talking about wanting to put money into a 'teen horror' as the best way to get a return on their investment, one gets a stark reminder that movie making is a 'for profit' enterprise whatever the artistic aims espoused by a film's director. It also doesn't bode well for the film itself. That the resultant product turns out to be much much better than maybe it has a right to be is an added bonus and a pleasant surprise, for Truth or Dare rises above its clichéd premise to become something very watchable.

The plot is simple and a variation on a now familiar theme. A group of rather unpleasant twentysomethings are invited to a party by Felix, a friend of theirs who we see being summarily bullied by the group in a prologue set some months earlier. The friends turn up, there's no party and no Felix. But there is Felix's older brother Justin, and before they can say 'set up' they're all tied to chairs in a remote shack with Justin meting out revenge for the misery heaped on his younger sibling, which apparently drove him to suicide - hence no Felix at the party.

Now I grant you that this doesn't sound very interesting, but hang on, there's something different here.

First, everyone can act, not just the leads. The film manages a rather clever trick of getting you to care for a group of people that we've seen capable of nasty bullying, and for that to work you need good performances. David Oakes (an actor whose previous work has included some high calibre TV appearances) as Justin is particularly strong, getting the balance between psychosis and shrewd, calculating meanness just right. Also Jennie Jacques as feisty complex Eleanor, leader of the twentysomethings in peril, turns in a really clever performance that confounds expectations.

Secondly, it's really well made. Impressively shot and tightly edited, Truth or Dare becomes increasingly claustrophobic and tense, although there's not that much going on and most of the action takes place in one small room. Third, the script isn't a string of tired clichés. OK it's not Pinter but it doesn't draw attention to itself thus ruining the atmosphere, and doesn't fall apart in the final third which is an increasing rarity these days.

Truth or Dare is definitely recommended. Robert Heath isn't a prolific film maker, but his previous full length output - the race and police drama Sus from 2010, and 2005's heist comedy Out on a Limb - are equally strong movies and are well worth catching.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Assignment (UK 2013: Dir Paul Easter)

AssignmentPaul Easter is one of this country's more unusual low/no budget directors. He has a manifesto - simply to beat the studio bigwigs at their own game, and to get product out there which costs very little to make and achieves a return on investment sufficient to allow him to create more films. Probably the biggest cost he incurs in the whole process is the payment required to submit his work to the BBFC, as Easter wants all his films legally classified, so they can be put on the shelf in supermarkets awaiting that breed of weekend shopper who wants to take a chance on a film they've never heard of as potential Saturday night entertainment. By the time they've paid their money and loaded the film in the DVD player, well... Paul's onto his next film.

Easter's films seem to fall into two categories: randomly shot pieces showing the director and his mates messing around setting up car stunts (in films like the cynically titled U Mugs and Collateral Consequences); and more story based films like Thumb n It and the earlier Black Shuck, where Easter himself takes centre stage, often as a softly spoken stalker/killer, and always accompanied by his beloved dog Shuck.

I've always had a soft spot for this East Anglian chancer, dating back to my first exposure to his work via Black Shuck. Packaged as a creature feature of sorts, in reality it's an hour or so of Paul wandering the lowlands of Suffolk, accompanied by his dog, lazily stalking women and talking to camera in a voice which, depending on your age, could equally be described as sounding like Bernie Winters or Roland Rat. It really is a test of endurance, but at the same time I detected a spark of mad genius in the film that drove me to write a positive review for Lovefilm. This review sat rather awkwardly amidst a volley of vitriolic half/one star responses from punters who'd felt duped, ripped off, and generally seen coming. I thought they'd missed the point a bit.

hqdefault.jpgI wouldn't normally put finger to keyboard about all this, except that Easter's latest, Assignment, dropped onto the mat the other day. I watched it fearing diminishing returns for this type of film making. But for the next 45 minutes I forgot all that had gone before - for with Assignment, Easter has hit paydirt.

In Assignment Easter plays Richard, an entrepreneurial sort who intercepts drug drops, picks up the stashes and cash and makes off with the booty feeling quite pleased with himself, while the dealer community turns on itself as they realise they have been consistently ripped off.

That's it for story. But Assignment is presented in a strange cut up way that is truly odd. Snippets of scenes flicker by, whole scenes are repeated from different angles, the soundtrack cuts in and out, and the story is gradually told through a succession of sequences that leave you quite disorientated, reminiscent of a bargain bin Nicolas Roeg, or perhaps more appropriately 60s indie/nudie director Doris Wishman. At one point Richard seems to turn into a Terminator figure, complete with POV computer screens for eyes shots. I don't know why. The same girl fight is shown about ten times. I don't know why either. What is Easter trying to tell us? Is this by accident or design? Who knows. I don't, but I did think in its quirky, bonkers way that Assignment was rather good. It's certainly Paul Easter's best film to date. He makes no pretensions that his films are anything but one guy showing how easy and cheap it is to make movies - a hark back to the DIY indie music scene of the late 1970s - but I think Assignment transcends those ambitions - even if Easter didn't mean to.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Woodfalls (UK 2013: Dir David Campion)

Elsewhere on this site I reviewed Ben Simpson and David Campion's micro budget film Patrol Men. Campion has just finished a new film, Woodfalls, on which he has sole directing credit having parted ways with Simpson (although the ex-director still retains an original story credit). The film isn't officially released yet. but I got a look at it.

Woodfalls is the story of the Marrs, a travelling family comprising mother, son and daughter, who pitch their caravan on the outskirts of a generic English town, but have difficulty being accepted by its occupants. Billy Marr is nominally the head of the fatherless family, and is torn between his traveller roots - staunchly defended by his mother - and responsibilities, and a need to form friendships with young people of his own age, despite this often leading to confrontations. His sister Beccy is younger but just as innocent as her brother. Billy is gradually introduced to the townsfolk via Bradley, who as a black man shares some of the discrimination Billy faces, but this integration predictably causes tensions with Billy's mother, and arouses the attentions of Becca - who is as keen as her brother to meet other people - with disastrous consequences.

Woodfalls is a definite progression from the ambitious but cash strapped Patrol Men. In focussing its action on a tighter story it succeeds in rising above its slender budget rather than being exposed because of it. The acting is stronger than Campion's previous film too, which allows the viewer to be drawn in to the lives of the Marrs and the town occupants. At little over an hour in running time there's inevitably a compromise in just how much the characters can be developed, but I felt involved enough to care what happened to them.

The film is not without its problems. The character of Wozza, a drug dealer who is all Manc swagger and speed twitchiness, seems to have strayed in from a Shane Meadows film and jars against the more restrained acting of the other cast. I also had some difficulty with the plausibility of the film's nihilistic final scenes.

Matthew Ferdenzi, as Billy, gives a great understated performance as the child/man struggling to integrate into a way of life that he barely understands - Michelle Crane as Becca is even better, exuding a nascent sexuality while at the same time remaining believably teenage, particularly in the scenes where she sneaks out of the caravan to experience club life in the town. The supporting cast are for the most part equally credible, but the real star of the film is Louis Corallo's blissed out photography, which endows both the ubiquitous kebab shacks and chain pubs of the town centre, and the bucolic countryside surrounding it, with a hazy beauty. I was strongly reminded of the films of Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay.

I hope more people get to see Woodfalls. It's a good drama, very slightly let down by an incongruous ending, but which for most of its running time is tense, involving and beautifully shot. It also has a great twitchy dubstep soundtrack which works really well against the visuals.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

A Field in England (UK 2013: Dir Ben Wheatley)

Rather like the ragged troupe in A Field in England who walk away from the smoke and skirmishes of the Civil War in search of safer and quieter climes, I've been hiding away waiting for the critical dust to settle following the film's multi platform release before venturing to commit my opinion of it into cyberspace.

And that critical dust has settled broadly into two heaps. One sees the film as visionary, lysergic, woozy and brave. The other heap cries "Emperor's New Clothes!" and derides it as wilfully obscure, pointless and meandering.

It's certainly the case that compared to Wheatley's previous films A Field in England is decidedly non linear in structure, and a more demanding watch. The director has a reputation for playing with genre and creating new from old - crime and witchcraft in Kill List; the characters of a Mike Leigh play remaking The Honeymoon Killers in Sightseers - but this film resists any easy categorisation. It's a giddy mix of Onibaba, Winstanley, Withnail & IWitchfinder General, and also recalls the increasingly deconstructed narrative of Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio, a film which also offers something complex from an ostensibly simple story.

If you're reading this, chances are you know the story anyway - and if you don't you can read it here. Having watched it three times now, the confusion that greets first viewing about who's who and what they're up to is largely dispelled with familiarity (a friend of mine commented that one of the initial problems is that you're never quite sure how many characters are actually in it, so blurred do their characterisations appear to be). What becomes stronger on subsequent viewings is Amy Jump's script, having a rhythm and cadence which in itself is quite hypnotic, and the strength of the acting. Many have commented on the standout performance of Reece Sheersmith as the whining alchemist's assistant Whitehead, but all the characters are beautifully portrayed, particularly Richard Glover's understated and vulnerable turn as Friend, and the chillingly calculating O'Neill, played by Michael Smiley.

To be honest, I wasn't sure about A Field in England on first viewing. But it really does repay a second visit, although it doesn't become less strange, just more, well, coherent and beautiful - as if you're watching something familiar yet terribly unfamiliar at the same time. If anything, I now find the closest comparison isn't another film, but the artists who record for the Ghost Box record label. Their collective ambition seems to be to musically recast the customs and institutions of this country into something new and strange and to find some magic in the everyday, which is a fairly good summary of why I now love A Field in England.

Hitchcock (US 2012: Dir Sacha Gervasi)

I confess that apart from Anvil: The Story of Anvil I haven't seen any of the films on Sacha Gervasi's admittedly rather slim CV, nor have I seen the BBC production The Girl, about Alfred Hitchock's relationship with 'Tippi' Hedren, which came out about the same time and with which Hitchcock has been compared. I may well rectify the second viewing gap at some point but on the basis of the inert, flaccid Hitchcock I'm unlikely to do anything about the first one.

Based on Stephen Rebello's book 'Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho', Hitchcock comprises three interwoven stories: the director's attempts to get the film Psycho made against the wishes of his studio executives; the strain on Hitch's relationship with his wife and collaborator Alma Revell during the making of the film (and fuelled by his obsession with his latest blonde, Janet Leigh); and the spectre of Ed Gein, the infamous Wisconsin killer who provided the source inspiration for Robert Bloch's novel on which Psycho was based, and who acts as a kind of shadowy (tor)mentor to Hitchock while making his movie.

As the movie poster suggests, Hitchcock isn't a heavyweight film. Its touch is relatively light (but not deft) and I think this is the fundamental problem. The legacy of Psycho as one of the game changing films of the last century and the director's most successful film, the dark subject matter of the source material and Hitchock's own idiosyncracies sit uneasily with Gervasi's rather brisk, upbeat approach, which makes the film rather uninvolving. It's not helped by the beginning and end being bookended by some Hitch direct to camera utterances meant to evoke his TV shows, which further invites the audience to be in on the joke. If the contrast between the film and the sunny Hollywood setting is meant to be ironic, it's a pretty obvious one, but no more obvious than, say, the shots of Hitch animatedly conducting the audience's screams from the lobby at Psycho's premiere (a rather too literal interpretation of the much quoted desire of the director to play the emotions of the audience as if they were notes on an organ).

The collective talents of Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, Helen Mirren as Alma and Toni Collette as assistant Peggy Robinson are pretty much wasted (Collette has little to do but pout and look over the top of her horn - rimmed specs), although Mirren injects some weight to her role, rising above John McLaughlin's uninspiring script. And on the subject of weight, although Gervasi didn't want the Hitch character to be merely an actor doing an impression of the great man, Hopkins in his fat suit and jowly prosthetics ends up doing just that. James D'Arcy playing Anthony Perkins seems to have confused the actor with the character of Norman Bates, delivering all his lines with the twitchiness of Bates's first meeting with Marion Crane.

I had less of a problem with the Ed Gein segments than other reviewers (although I was reminded of the spirit of Humphrey Bogart stalking Woody Allen in Play it Again, Sam) but I seriously doubt whether Hitchock was that interested in/obsessed with Gein, rather than in Bloch's book, which he discovered through reading Anthony Boucher's crime column in The New York Times.

Perhaps the real crime is that Gervasi managed to make the process of making Psycho look so incredibly dull. Watching the scenes of that film being made, you wonder why anyone bothers making a film. I certainly wonder why anyone made this one. If you're at all interested in this bit of cinema history, read Rebello's fascinating book instead.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Patrol Men (UK 2010: Dir David Campion and Ben Simpson)

Product DetailsThe democratisation of film making, triggered in recent years by the availability of cheap accessible cameras and editing tools, has arguably been the most important change to the making and distribution of movies since the initial proliferation of film producers in the silent era. That so few of today's new wave of auteurs choose to deploy the tools of their trade to create anything particularly new or innovative is disappointing. Luckily David Campion and Ben Simpson are in the minority.

Patrol Men is set on a fictional British island of Peyton, which is governed by ruthless martial law, presided over by the fruitcake Mayor Yorke, and where a sundown curfew is rigidly enforced by a gang of gas mask wearing heavies - the Patrol Men of the title. The curfew is for the islanders' sake, because there is a killer stalking at night. Plucky Alex, one of the islanders who is more questioning than most, decides to investigate the set up a little more closely after her boyfriend Jess becomes the killer's latest victim. Together with potty mouth Orlando they infiltrate the nerve centre of the island to uncover the truth.

Patrol Men isn't by any means a great film. The acting quality is variable, although Alex and Orlando (for some reason listed as Okie in the credits) as the two leads give engaging and honest performances. Alex in particular, played by Chloe van Harding, who is in almost every scene, is an unlikely but likeable heroine, being only about sixteen, very short and a bit tubby. Jonathan (Axed, The Devil's Business) Hansler puts his all into it as the very unhinged Mayor - but the rest of the cast fare less well talent wise. It's the enthusiasm of the young directors that fires this project with something that lifts it from the vast mass of barely average shot on DV releases out there. Apart from the few violent scenes, this could almost pass as one of those teatime adventure serials made on TV in the 1970s. It's quite bleak but not relentlessly so, and the story moves at a good pace. Let's hope we see more from Campion and Simpson.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Frightfest 2013 - well a day of it anyway...

So to Frightfest. Twenty five years ago if you'd have suggested to me that London could potentially host a weekend of horror, sci-fi and fantasy movies in a major West End cinema and repeat the event annually rather than as a one off financial car crash, I'd have laughed in your face and asked what was showing at the Scala. The success of Frightfest is testament both to the gradual mainstreaming of this genre of film (everyone's got some goth in them these days it seems) and some consistently bloody hard work by a fairly small group of people in making the festival work year on year.

2013 was the first time I'd actually bought a day pass - I normally tend to go to several films over the weekend and pay individually, but the increasing disappointment of early sell outs of many of the screenings I'd planned to catch at previous events drove me to upgrade this year. I had an idea that my lack of staying power couldn't justify buying a full festival pass and based on my stamina yesterday I was right. Now I'm no stranger to numbing my arse in the name of cinema, but there's something about 21st century horror at the moment that gives diminishing returns en masse. One day and five films was fine - the prospect of 25 (including the dreaded 11pm slots) was too much for me.

So, time to shut up and tell you what I saw:

THE DYATLOV PASS INCIDENT (USA 2013: Dir Renny Harlin). BLAIR WITCH PROJECT on ice is a fair summary of the first two thirds of this faux 'found footage' movie - faux not least because at various points there's clearly no character member who either could or would be able to maintain shooting the footage we see. A group of twenty somethings (mainly UK actors sporting dodgy US accents) find themselves deep in the heart of the Ural Mountains investigating - and, yes, video documenting - the truth behind reports of a group of Russian hikers who went missing fifty odd years previously. Based on a real life and unresolved incident, which arguably makes subsequent events in rather poor taste, TDPI's awkward merging of horror and sci fi with some straight out action sequences felt decidedly clumsy, and the increasingly implausible X File-y elements in the last third reminded me of a group of kids making up a game as they go along. "and then we were stuck in the snow, and then we found a door" etc etc. I'm a sucker for any film with real snow in it, but TDPI's charms failed to thaw me.

DAYLIGHT (USA 2012: Dir David McCracken). An actual FF film this time, and a very impressive one too, although for most of its running time it's pretty difficult to work out what exactly is happening. The story involves a team of Child Protection Service workers investigating (satanic?) abuse incidents in the town of Daylight, Indiana. The early scenes detail a series of interviews which set it up as a more po faced The Last Exorcism, but as the film unfolds the hold on reality starts to loosen, and the audience isn't really sure what they're seeing, when it's supposed to be happening or who it's supposed to be happening to. The trend towards non linear narrative in genre films is very welcome but the messing with time (and space?) in Daylight combined with the glitchy wonky sound/video footage (if you close your eyes at time you'd swear it sounds like Aphex Twin in his drill 'n' bass years) left the Frightfest audience open mouthed and scratchy of head by the end. I'd love to see this again, but I'm not sure I'd understand it any better.

SADIK 2 (France 2013: Dir Robin Eintringer). "There's no Sadik 1" announced Alan Jones at the start of this "although why becomes apparent in the film". Yes, and no danger of the audience not missing why, as Sadik 2 sets its stall out as clearly as Daylight didn't. A sort of Scream parody about a group of friends who rent a house in the country, one of whom is a horror film fan who has lined up a VCR fest (yes, the films he's brought are all on tape, ha ha, knowing mockery etc). Lots of Scream like post modern film analysis ensues, but in the basement, unbeknown to our bickering friends upstairs, is a real film crew about to make a film of their own...Clumsy and puerile with a script that raised only a few titters, I was more interested in the Director and one of the actors in the film, who were present at the première screening of their minimum opus. They kept looking around to gauge audience reaction to the 'cleverness' of Sadik 2 and the eventual rather rubbish gore, thereby missing seeing a number of the audience taking the opportunity to quietly leave mid film.

HAUNTER (USA 2013: Dir Vincenzo Natali) I really liked this old fashioned fantasy chiller. It's pretty gore/scare free (if it gets a 15 cert I'll be shocked) and as such some of the FF audience didn't like it. While it is a bit overlong, its Groundhog Day/Pan's Labyrinth/The Others/A Nightmare on Elm St. mashup  - about a young girl seemingly living the same day over and over again who gradually discovers the reason why - was beautifully handled, well acted and had real emotional impact in its closing scenes. Possibly the full force of the film was slightly dulled by a rather over complicated layering of timelines, but it's difficult to give too much of the plot away without spoiling it (something the FF guidebook seemed to have no problems with). A solid fantasy that unfolds its story very effectively. Recommended.

V/H/S 2 (USA 2013: Dir various). When the sequel to a film is described as 'ramped up' on the original, I tend to think it can only mean trouble. V/H/S 2 was a movie made for Frightfest. Gore, nudity, deafening soundtrack, suicide, micro edits, it all went down a storm, each segment getting a round of applause. And I didn't like it I'm afraid. I thought V/H/S was patchy but good, and in places very good, a clever updating of the portmanteau films of yesteryear. V/H/S 2 uses exactly the same framing device as the first movie, and the 'films' watched are arguably more focussed (no pun intended) than the first film. They're also much more extreme, particularly the Gareth Evans story "Safe Haven" which is a really hard watch. Arguably the best was the creative take on zombies, "A Ride in the Park" which had some great laugh out loud moments, but as in all portmanteau films, the total did not equal the sum of its parts, and for all the editing wizardry and general nowness of the thing, both V/H/S films are unlikely to age well or function as anything more than an advert for a decent VCR head cleaner. Press the eject and give me the tape now is my advice.

So there we are - that was my day out. A big thanks to my Festival partner Tara for making it more fun than it may have been entirely on my own. Now I'm off for a lie down.