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.