Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Witch (US 2015: Dir Robert Eggers)

It's over a week since I saw The Witch. I'm usually much quicker at applying finger to keyboard when reviewing films, but lots of things have conspired to prevent this piece appearing before now. So I'm writing this with some week old memories of the movie and a few notes I jotted down at the time, but it doesn't really matter because The Witch is still firmly imprinted in my mind and probably will be for weeks to come. It's an extraordinary film.

Subtitled A New-England Folktale, the movie is that rare thing, a genuinely gripping slow burner. William and Katherine, two devout Puritans living in America in the early 17th century, are exiled from a community who cannot tolerate their levels of religious fanaticism. Forced into the wilderness to be closer to God, they set up a homestead in the middle of the country at the edge of a large forest and eke out their existence with their five children, often living at near starvation levels. When the youngest child Sam mysteriously goes missing (the initial belief is that the child has been abducted by a wolf but the audience know different) the family, steeped in grief and with their crops failing, gradually turn their suspicions on each other and then to Thomasin, the oldest child, suspecting her of being a witch. Their concerns are misdirected, but the truth is much closer to reality than they think.

If you haven't seen the film yet, it's best not to read on. One of the clever things about The Witch is how it subverts our accepted understanding of history, which tells us that the witch trials which followed in the US later in the century were about the subjugation of uneducated women by male dominated authority figures rather than anything supernatural. This film defies that understanding by showing us that the things these women were accused of were real. That first time feature director Robert Eggars achieves this without any of it seeming silly is in part due to the script being written using authentic dialogue of the 17th century - the awkward verbosity requires the audience to listen closely but never to be comfortable with what they're hearing. There is some fine acting here too. Ralph Ineson's performance - and his sonorous, portentous voice - makes us easily forget his roles in TV comedies and voice overs for adverts. Kate Dickie as his wife Katherine has less to do but is convincingly distressed (she has one scene, towards the end of the film, that will haunt you for days), and the children, particularly Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, are all very effective.

But it's the visuals that elevate The Witch above the usual genre fare. The forest that is the backdrop to their homestead - actually filmed in Ontario, Canada - is one of the most frightening uses of exteriors I've seen in a movie, and the sense of isolation and the threat of what might lie in those woods is palpable. The small details of farm life leap from woodcuts of the time and the horror, when it arrives, is very well handled by being glimpsed rather than overtly shown. The final scene, which in most other directors' hands would appear perhaps clumsy and obvious, provides a strange almost optimistic coda to a film which spends most of its time mired in pessimism.

Yes I loved The Witch. It's slow, sometimes dangerously so, and although critics have generally loved it it's perhaps too niche for commercial success. But in its way this is a Haxan for our times, and I can't give it a bigger compliment than that.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane (US 2016: Dir Dan Trachtenberg)

All the way through 10 Cloverfield Lane I was attempting to establish links with the 2008 movie Cloverfield, albeit rather fruitlessly - doubtless detail hounds may disagree. In interview producer J.J. Abrams has mentioned that the only connection between the two is in the feel of both films and the subject matter - and the fact that both were launched on an unsuspecting public with very little commercial fanfare. The story doing the rounds of course is that there was no connection - 10CL was originally intended as a stand alone movie, but men in suits intervened to force a title change and a few other subtle amendments to link it with the original film, with a view to increased box office takings.

However now that the original surprise of the film's announcement and teaser trailer has been replaced with the opportunity to see what the (brief) fuss was about, 10CL emerges as an ok movie which is interesting for most of its running time but misfires once the sci-fi shows itself.

Michelle is a young woman driving away from a failed relationship when her car is involved in an accident. She wakes up, injured but having received medical attention, in an underground facility, which we discover is beneath a Louisiana farm. She has apparently been rescued by Howard, a larger than life sinister figure who is keeping her isolated from the outside world following a supposed chemical outbreak. Also in the bunker is Emmett, who broke in when the event kicked off and has been allowed to stay. The three maintain an uneasy alliance, with Michelle making periodic attempts to escape, being unsure whether the outbreak has actually happened or whether she and Emmett have simply been drugged and imprisoned by the clearly less than balanced Howard.

For about two thirds of the film the drama centres on the three characters and their bunker existence. There's good acting from all involved, with a great script to work from, but the claustrophobia and tension of the situation has limited dramatic possibilities so it's left to the overbearing score and fidgety camera to convince us that this is something more than three people in a room having a bad time. As Howard, John Goodman is a past master of the grumpy blue collar worker, an actor who can do a lot with a single raised eyebrow (I always felt that his role as Dan Connor in Roseanne contained layers of suppressed violence) . Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr, as Michelle and Emmett, portray their frustrations convincingly, although Michelle's resourcefulness in a crisis suggests she was probably top of her Girl Guide class with a Lara Croft merit badge.

It's when the film leaves the bunker that it all falls apart, abandoning the is-the-threat-real-or-not scenario, which had fuelled a lot of the film's tension, in favour of some big CGI set pieces which gratingly change the pace of the film and aren't on screen long enough to make the adjustment from chamber piece to action movie.

Although we should congratulate Dan Trachtenberg in pulling off a watchable first movie, to what extent this assured if not fault free debut is largely attributable to him is questionable: with J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves as producer and executive producer respectively, and the assistance of co-scriptwriter Damien Chazelle (who also wrote the smart Whiplash a couple of years ago), it's more likely that this was a solid team effort, if not a particularly substantial one.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Other Side of the Door (UK/India 2015: Dir Johannes Roberts)

Johannes Roberts' last film, Storage 24, although low budget and only mildly diverting, was a distinct improvement on his previous films which have ranged from the occasionally interesting to borderline unwatchable. The Other Side of the Door is such a progression from Storage 24 in terms of casting, production values and money spent it's hard to believe we're watching the work of the same director.

The Other Side of the Door borrows heavily from Pet Sematary and its literary antecedent 'The Monkey's Paw' to tell the story of an American family in India, trying to piece their lives back together after the tragic death of their young son following a car accident. Mum Maria blames herself as she was driving the car when it left the road and plunged into a river, and had to choose between saving the life of her daughter or her son. Her Indian nanny tells Maria about an ancient temple where the scattered ashes of a loved one can summon up the spirit of the departed, giving grieving people the chance to have one final conversation with them. But the conversation must happen through the locked doors of the temple, and on no account should the person summoning the spirit open the door to try and see their lost loved one...

That Maria does open the door to get a final look at her dead son you can probably predict. From here on in we're plunged head on into evil spirit territory which, with its plentiful supply of actually quite effective 'boo' moments could easily just be business as usual for this type of movie. But two things elevate The Other Side of the Door above the rest of the pack. One is the solid acting from leads Sarah Wayne Callies - best known for her roles in The Walking Dead and Prison Break - and Jeremy (Law & Order) Sisto. Both actors play their roles absolutely straight, resist over-egging the terror, and help disguise any inadequacies in the script. The other factor is the Mumbai setting, which adds a richness to the tone of the movie. To be fair the actual location scenes are a classic bit of second unit filming - the actors only ever appear on an Indian dressed set, which is itself an impressive colonial house mock up. But the Indian setting gives a much needed break from the urban surroundings normally utilised in films like this, and horror regular Maxime Alexandre's photography makes the most of some beautifully lit scenes.

I also liked the climax's refusal to go over the top, which meant that Maria's plight in tussling with evil entities for the safe passing of her son retains its emotional core rather than being simply a noisy final reel.

So Johannes has pulled it off, after quite a few years of trying but failing. Well done, although I suspect he had quite a bit of help. But keep the team together Jo, they're a winning bunch.

High-Rise (UK/Belgium 2015: Dir Ben Wheatley)

While Ben Wheatley remains one of this country's more interesting film directors, his decision to take on the 'unfilmable' JG Ballard novel 'High Rise' where others have failed (adaptations by Bruce (Withnail &I ) Robinson and Canadian director Vincenzo Natali are just two of the past attempts to bring it to screen life) seems like a step too far, or a mis-step at least, on his CV.

The first problem with High-Rise is the source material itself. Ballard was a great writer of ideas, but not necessarily a great novelist. The central theme of the book - that of a building which because of its very size, structure and capacity for anonymity facilitates a swift and comprehensive breakdown of the moral codes of those living within it - is also its main theme, applied again and again in the text. It's an allegorical one at that. Literary allegory does not generally transfer well to film, so the repetition of the theme of societal breakdown in the events on screen soon tires. It's a bit like ordering a three course meal at a restaurant where all the courses are the same. What Ballard did achieve was the sense of scale involved, from the design of the building with its vast mid floor shopping and leisure facilities, to the sheer numbers involved in the high-rise riots. Wheatley simply doesn't have the budget for this - his sets look cheap and some of the CGI is just plain poor.

There is also the issue of the film's setting. Wheatley has side-stepped the problem that, in today's world, the war in the high-rise would not have remained self contained because of social media, by locating the film in an imprecise mobile phone-free 1970s and in an unspecified place (not necessarily London, where the book was based). While this move solves a lot of issues, it raises others. The film's rather mocking recreation of the decade that fashion forgot - all hipster trousers and floral tops - has already been done to death in shows like Life on Mars and a myriad of movies from Boogie Nights to The Look of Love. There's nothing new in the look of High-Rise, and Wheatley has failed to achieve the uneasy mix of brutalist settings and garish costumes in Kurbick's 1971 movie A Clockwork Orange, a film which hangs around this one like a ghost.

Wheatley's films have to date been relatively small affairs formed from the director's own ideas, about odd, often unlikeable people living fraught lives while events unravel around them. Although that could also be said to be true about High-Rise, this is a different type of film for him. First it's a relatively faithful adaptation of a novel. It has a much bigger cast with some star names, and a wider if cost-restricted canvas (perhaps the combined wages of Tom Hiddleston, Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons and Sienna Guillory didn't leave a lot over for the production budget, which is a shame because their roles could equally have been taken by unknown actors, so - deliberately- bland are their performances). Amy Jump's script, so good in A Field in England, feels trapped in Ballard's leaden prose, and that dark and subtle humour which has been a common and successful element of Wheatley's past movies has been sacrificed for some fairly deadly one liners and visual 'gags' lifted straight from the pages of the book.

High-Rise is also a mess. The book's depiction of the gradual rise of the madness in the building has been traded in for a montage scene about half way through the film which transforms the residents from mild bickerers to sex crazed savages - we then get a further hour of 'action' which is neither exciting nor particularly shocking (David Cronenberg's 1975 movie Shivers, also inspired by Ballard's book, managed this so much better). In the Q&A I saw accompanying the film Reece Sheersmith was complaining that much of his role as Steele, the crazed dentist, was dropped from the final cut. While I know that this happens when editing films, nevertheless I do not consider this a good sign.

Finally I suppose 'High Rise' remains an unfilmable book largely because many years have passed since its publication, and the original prescience of its subject matter is now normalised. We have high rises all around us these days. Government housing policy mixes the rich with the less rich, with developers building separate entrances for the 'haves' and 'have mores' without any obvious signs of resident wars breaking out. In our capitalist times such accommodation polices aren't seen as segregation but rather opportunity. So Wheatley's film is too little too late, a toothless romp with little to say, overlong and uneven, and, yes, rather low-rent.

Monday, 7 March 2016

By Our Selves (UK 2015: Dir Andrew Kotting)

The profile of the 19th century visionary poet John Clare has risen considerably in the last few decades, championed by writers and thinkers who recognised in his writing an echo of their own concerns about the environment and landscape change. They also saw in his most famous act - a 90 mile walk from the asylum in Essex (where he was incarcerated) back to his home near Peterborough, in search of his lost love Mary Joyce - a representation of the type of psychogeographical circumnavigation that occupied writers like Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore.

Both Sinclair and Moore feature in By Our Selves, a film by Andrew Kotting which recreates Clare's famous walk, using actor Toby Jones as the poet, with Jones's own father Freddie reading excerpts from Clare's on the road writings.

It's a strange old beast of a film, as eccentric as its cast. Shot in luminous black and white, authentically dressed Jones, as Clare, pounds the streets from Essex to Northamptonshire surrounded by all the horror of 20th and 21st century roadside architecture. At one point Clare stands waiting to cross a busy road, with the poet looking on, horrified, at the thundering traffic, like a romantic Catweazle. The making of the film is deconstructed as we watch - the bearded boom operator is constantly in sight, and the advisory team are shown interviewing each other about Clare, the significance of his madness, and the psychogeographic nature of the surrounding area.

This sort of thing arguably works much better on the printed page - in fact Iain Sinclair used the Clare walk as the subject of his 2006 book 'Edge of the Orison', interspersed with the usual arcane and political elements with which he fills his writings - but less so on screen, where the vocal and physical meanderings are ever only mildly interesting. Nick Gordon Smith's beautiful black and white photography, adding grace both to countryside and shopping centre, almost saves the day, and Jones pere et fils are suitably ripe in their roles, but ultimately there's a lack of central narration here, a device which made Patrick Keiller's rather similar 'Robinson' films (London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997), Robinson in Ruins (2010)) so much more interesting. Clare's walk may well be of intense fascination to the crew who put By Our Selves together, but they forgot to make it interesting for the viewing audience.