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 how...so 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.