Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Dirties (Canada 2013: Dir Matt Johnson)

We truly live in meta times. Canadian movie The Dirties is the product of director/producer/co-writer Matt Johnson (who also plays the 'lead' in the film), whose inspiration seems not only to be the real life high school shooting incidents of recent times, but equally importantly cinema itself (or more precisely the process of making film, where scenes can be cued and reviewed at will for endless and isolated exploration, and key lines of dialogue can be played again and again until they assume some kind of truth). The Dirties is constructed, not seamlessly, but with the various parts knocking together, tethered by movie references, memories of Columbine style reportage, slacker comedy set scenes, and an almost random indie band soundtrack. It's a film that, like its lead character, is created and defined while we watch it being pieced together, and where the underlying truth of what we're seeing is only fully realised in the film's final few minutes.

The Dirties centres around two film obsessed high school students, Matt and Owen, who because of their 'otherness' are subjected to relentless bullying by a gang called The Dirties. Matt and Owen's physical response to the actions of the gang is for the most part completely passive, but they vent their frustration with their predicament by creating a film called 'The Dirties', which shows them seeking violent revenge on the gang, mediated almost entirely via scenes from Hollywood films like The Usual Suspects (1995) and Pulp Fiction (1994). In this there is also a direct comparison to Joshua Oppenheimer's devastating The Act of Killing (2012). That their film is pieced together within the film we're watching, showing an imagined response to bulllying contrasting with their real handling of the issue, is the heart of The Dirties, as Matt grows to realise via the film he's making, that the real way to escape his miserable situation is for life to imitate art.

The film pulls off the cinematic trick of showing the audience the human side of Matt and Owen, eliciting our sympathy with their plight and our anger at their treatment, feelings which remain with us even in the film's closing scenes. Matt in particular is a true oddball and the real bullying target. His obsession with revenge alienates him from Owen while at the same time making him an increasingly fascinating character for viewers. The film they produce and show to their disinterested class is an odd unfocused mess, if amusingly made (there's a nod to the Steve Martin vehicle Bowfinger (1999) in a moment where they surreptitiously film one of their female classmates voicing a line of dialogue that they need for a scene). The ambitions of their film show how far apart they are from the rest of the school in terms of artistic vision, but the inability of both class and teacher to understand what's on screen only seems to exacerbate the bullying.

The increasing darkness and seeming inevitability of the film's final section is brilliantly nuanced in a scene where Matt, viewed rendering the closing credit sequence of his movie (which of course become the end titles of the film we're watching), turns to the camera and explains that, because of what he's about to do, someone else will need to finish the edit - they do by the way, and the closing credits are brilliant. That Matt only finally seems strong with a gun in his hand, walking the corridors of his school with a motivation which only he and the viewing audience understand, is arguably The Dirties most meta and devastating moment.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Sacrament (US 2013: Dir Ti West)

Oh dear. After the slowburn delights of Ti West's earlier films, The Sacrament, with its bigger budget and more ambitious sweep, is, I must confess, a huge disappointment.

West deploys the done to death 'found footage' approach (although more accurately as a friend of mine calls it the 'first person' filmmaking style) to tell a story of a group of edgy TV documentary makers heading out to a remote jungle location to track down the missing sister of one of their party and (of course) document the whole thing. When they eventually find her she's living as part of a blissed out community called 'Eden Parish', presided over by 'The Father', an enigmatic figurehead who has gathered his flock to him to create a seemingly idlyllic life free of the constraints of capitalism and politics. Sound familiar?

People of a certain age may recognise this setup as sounding rather like the People's Temple which Jim Jones founded in Guyana back in the 1970s, before encouraging all 910 of the community's occupants to kill themselves by drinking cyanide laced Kool-Aid. And they'd be right. Without giving the plot away, The Sacrament pretty much re-tells this story - ok, I probably have. Sorry. 'The Father' even looks a lot like Jones and although the names have been changed, once the community's overweight leader hoves into view (complete with Jones-esque glasses) it's fairly obvious how this is going to turn out.

The presence of Eli Roth in the production of course ensures that any scenes of death are as protracted and exploitative as possible (you want to see a mother slit the throat of her own daughter before being shot at point blank range? Step this way). The performances, as in all of West's films, are very good, particularly Gene Jones as 'The Father' and Amy Seimetz as Caroline, the missing sister (and who was one of the few good things about Upstream Colour). But as the film is set in the present day, why is it retelling a story of events that took place in 1978? Did West think that the majority of his audience wouldn't know about Jim Jones, leaving him free to rip the story off? And why did the (presumably culturally clued up) filmmakers, when they stumble across the community and its leader in the first place, not immediately make a comparison to Jonestown, or indeed other cults they would have been familiar with like the Branch Davidians lead by David Koresh?

One of the film's key limitations, and annoyances, is the first person camera work. West gets around the traditional shaky cam issues by having the footage filmed by a proper documentary crew, hence the cinematic quality of what we're looking at. But in the second half of the movie the audience is left to wonder why the crew haven't abandoned their cameras when they're forced to make a run for it - a standard problem for a film shot in this way, and one that I thought West might solve.

So The Sacrament, while well made, convincingly acted, and never boring, is just a bit pointless, and a massive let down from a film maker who has previously been consistently exciting in his output. Let's hope this is just a blip on his CV.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Borderlands (UK 2013: Dir Elliot Goldner)

I love the idea of 'found footage' films. I have an almost unreasonably high expectation with each successive movie that this will be the one that really does it for me. When it starts, it's then usually just a matter of how long it will take me to get bored, start flicking through phone messages, menu planning etc. while keeping one eye on the inane 'action' unfolding in front of me. Well finally I can report some success in my hitherto largely fruitless viewing quest.

First time director Elliot Goldner places the audience for The Borderlands in very similar territory to the distinctly underwhelming Paranormal Diaries: Clophill (2013) - a haunted church in rural England - but whereas PD:C was a massive slog, The Borderlands rarely puts a foot wrong and also shows the full potential of the FF format placed in the right hands.

Two investigators have been summoned from the Vatican by the priest of a parish church - there is a suggestion that the church has been the site of a miracle, based on some rather baffling footage previously caught on camera. The investigators, both men of the cloth, are joined by a secular tecchie to handle the photographic equipment required to capture the potential activity. The team rig up the church and then camp out in a local farmhouse waiting for the action to happen. And it does.

So far so found footage then. But there's a lot that's different about The Borderlands. The acting and script are both spot on for a start. One of the real strengths of the film is the developing 'odd couple' relationship between lead investigator Deacon (played by Gordon Kennedy from TV's Absolutely and pretty much everything else) and Robin Hill as the non believing camera expert Gray. Hill is a regular in the films of Ben Wheatley, and there's a distinct Kill List flavour to the deadpan bickering conversation between the two men, which is occasionally very funny, and which like that film uses the banter to up the tension anticipating what is to come. This subtlety of performance is abandoned in the second part of the movie, but the establishment of characters at this stage makes you care a bit more about what happens to them when the horror takes hold.

The change of pace in The Borderlands is well handled. There's an early dramatic moment which cuts through the blokey chat in a very unsettling way, and signals the move to darker territory. The usual question - about whether the characters would drop their cameras when the going gets tough - is dealt with by the recording equipment being headset mounted, which actually cuts down on the traditional jerky trademark FF look.

The film doesn't try to be overly cinematic either. Goldner keeps his shots tight and controlled, and achieves an almost made for TV documentary feel. He has a real sense of mood - there's a nod to Ghostwatch in a couple of scenes, and the authentic church and catacomb settings, together with the odd and ambiguous ending, recall the mood of the classic 1970s BBC Christmas ghost stories. Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Battery (US: 2012: Dir Jeremy Gardner)

The ubiquitousness of the zombie movie and its well worn (but seemingly not worn out) formula have bred such familiarity as to make it a tabula rasa onto which a number of other genres can now be applied. So, using pretty much the same premise each time, we have zombie film as travelogue (MONSTERS, THE DEAD), comedy (SHAUN, WARM BODIES) etc etc.

To which can now be added zombie movie as slacker comedy. THE BATTERY is a road movie of sorts, with two men, Ben and Mickey, whose only bond is that they were once professional baseball players, roaming the countryside in the aftermath of an unspecified apocalypse. That they have little in common apart from their sporting talent and their being virtually alone in the world fuels the comedy of their bickering travels in New England: they are the 'odd couple', always a cinematic winner if handled well. Jeremy Gardner, who wrote, directed and also plays Ben, does a great job of building their characters over the course of the film, and making them a lot more than cast offs from a Kevin Smith script. In grand tradition Ben is rough, a bit dangerous, and does all the zombie killing, while Mickey is more reflective, pining for a lost girl, and squeamish about despatching the living dead. There's a great scene where Ben traps a zombie in a room with Mickey to force his friend to kill it, in a clever subversion of the 'cherry losing' comedy staple. Interestingly the zombies are almost incidental to THE BATTERY, casually killed and almost a nuisance, which is both chilling and amusing.

Even from reading this it won't take a genius to work out the ending, but it's a well handled and poignant finish even while it doesn't depart from the traditional nihilism that usually marks the final reel of the zombie movie. A little too long perhaps, but satisfying, clever, and in places very funny.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Last Exorcism Part II (US 2013: Dir Ed Gass-Donnelly)

We’ve all got used to movie franchises working in planned trilogies or quadrilogies, where viewers are aware that they will have to watch three or four films in order to experience the whole story. In the first film the audience is typically introduced to all the main characters, then the second is usually a bridging story which acts more as a vehicle to get the audience to the exciting denouement rather than a film in its own right. This is a relatively modern phenomenon, driven in part by the cynicism of big movie companies and also by the appetite and ability of modern viewing audiences to cope with long, relatively complex story arcs. Some of these middle films are more successful than others, but what they all benefit from is a great degree of calculated planning so that the story is eked out with just enough content to keep viewers from being bored, and likely to come back for the next, more thrilling episode.

The Last Exorcism Part II however is an example of a linking movie that develops a story never intended to continue beyond the first instalment. The original The Last Exorcism (2010) was a passable if uneven film which I actually liked better on second viewing at home rather than my first experience at the cinema. It contained a now fashionable ambiguous ending which didn’t seem to hint at a sequel. However a sequel is what we have, and one which includes an ending that clearly decides it now wants to be a franchise.

TLE II has all the hallmarks of the typical link movie. It continues at the point where the first movie left off; not much happens – Nell Sweetzer, the possessed girl from The Last Exorcism, is gradually reintroduced to teenage society only to face, er, re-possession; and is altogether a bit of a slow burner with a reasonably rousing last reel. In fact it feels just like a link movie - treading water before we get to the good stuff, but you have to pay more money to see that. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense, but for me its biggest problem is the central character of Nell, played by Ashley Bell. In the first film Bell’s portrayal of the troubled Nell was one of its strongest elements. You could see why she had been chosen for the role, with her piercing dark eyes, her ability to look like an old soul in a young body, and her impressive bodily contortions, reminding viewers of a similar role played by Jennifer Carpenter in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005). Bell’s vulnerability was a good contrast to the brash exuberance of the first movie’s fake exorcist Cotton Marcus, and her gradual possession was effective and carefully handled - amazing in a film produced by Eli Roth. In TLE II Bell takes centre stage, but her character is too wishy washy to make any impact – she also fails to convince as a seventeen year old (Bell was actually 27 at the time of making the movie). The first two thirds of the film are so lacking in pace that the viewer is left drumming their fingers waiting for Nell to transform from the vapid girl-next-door to kick ass demon, but unfortunately when she does the scenes are clumsily staged and lacking in horror.

TLE II abandons the ‘shaky cam’ approach of the first film (and who exactly was operating the camera in much of The Last Exorcism?) for a more languid style, but with too many forced ‘jump’ moments. In fairness the film looks good and the relatively new on the scene Ed Gass-Donnelly directs confidently (Variety Magazine tipped him as one of 2011’s ’10 Directors to watch’ but TLE II is his only full length movie since 2010). But looking back on this film, one has to question why it was made? It isn't a three picture franchise, it feels like a director chancing his arm and hoping to be asked back to the party for another go, except the movie is such a slog viewers are unlikely to come back for TLE III. Modern filmmaking, huh? 

Friday, 3 January 2014

Paranormal Diaries: Clophill (UK 2013: Dir Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates)

A surprise sellout at 2013 Frightfest, Paranormal Diaries: Clophill - which has to be the worst title of any film released last year and which if it's all right with you I'll precis to PD:C from here on in - is a significant departure from Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates's previous two films. The sellout was probably attributed to the quality of their last film, Zombie Diaries 2 (2011), which was such an improvement on their first outing The Zombie Diaries (2006) that it felt like the product of different filmmakers: possibly punters expected more of the same.

But Bartlett and Gates have chosen to take a bit of a left turn with PD:C. They have retained the 'found footage' approach but have structured their latest as a mockumentary, combining elements of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the Most Haunted TV show (minus annoying camp psychic). Bartlett and Gates play themselves, and Clophill, an actual village in Bedfordshire, is used as the real life location for the filming. The setup has a team of ghost hunters and filmmakers exploring a ruined church in Clophill, which has a history of strange occurrences, ghostly visitations and black magic rituals, and hoping to capture some of the supernatural activity on camera.

The film builds interestingly at the start with different 'experts' telling the story of the ruined church and reported goings on. However, once on site, PD:C becomes extremely ploddy with endless footage of walking round and round the church, and using night vision shots that build up no suspense, and give no real feel of anything being properly investigated. At 88 or so minutes this film is just way too long for the subject matter. The lack of tension is also partly to do with the location - while the church itself retains an element of dilapidated spookiness, it's in a not particularly deserted part of Bedfordshire and it's not beyond the realms of possibility that the imperilled ghost hunters could hot foot it 500 yards or so to the A6 if they felt a bit lost. There's a silly sub story involving a family with a small child, which is presumably an attempt to give some variety to the documentary scenes, but just feels tacked on.

Where PD:C does differ from the TV programmes from which it takes its inspiration is in actually delivering a ghostly 'money shot' as well as some more corporeal sightings. But by then I didn't care one iota. Bartlett and Gates do know how to put a film together, but PD: C is a complete misfire - they'll have to try much harder next time.