Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Call Up (UK 2016: Dir Charles Barker)

Maybe it's me, but by the time I saw The Call Up on the final day of the Fantastiq Film Festival in Derby, I was in the mood for a film that wasn't particularly tricksy or overambitious, and had enough visual flair to hold my interest. And Charles Barker's debut feature delivered. Almost.

The films of Paul W.S. Anderson are guilty pleasures of mine, and it was that director's ability to make a film look far richer than its budget that came to mind while watching this story of a group of advanced gamers trapped in a VR nightmare within the confines of a commercial tower block. A bunch of young people (and one slightly older guy - uh oh!) are summoned to an anonymous downtown office having all previously proved themselves versatile gamers. They're invited to try out a state-of-the-art immersive experience, putting them at the heart of some shoot 'em up action, with the aim of working their way down the building without being 'shot'. The twist here is that when wounded in the VR world, they suffer in the real one too - shot twice and they're a goner in real life, which the group discover as they realise that their VR suits, once donned, can't be removed.

Much of the movie is concerned with building up tension as the disparate group discover the (virtual) reality of the situation and try to survive. There's little plot but it doesn't really matter as the movie never sets itself up to be sophisticated or involving in a narrative way - in fact the twist at the end jars in its detail and casts a bit of a pall over what we've seen before. Content wise the obvious comparison here is a scaled down version of The Raid movies of Gareth Evans but without the chop socky.

The Anderson reference is particularly pertinent in the cash restricted claustrophobia of the action (you know each floor of the office block is actually the same set slightly redressed but it doesn't put you off), the shiny hardware on display and the utterly two dimensional cast. Yet The Call Up is never less than watchable: the switching between created VR world and reality, glimpsed as the gamers occasionally take off their helmets, is both effective and disorientating, and there's little let up on the gun play once those helmets are in place.

This is also pleasingly retro stuff. VR is a subject pretty much untouched by filmmakers since CGI turned the fantasy into reality, but the director proves there's still some dramatic mileage in it. The shiny suits and masks recall the stormtroopers of the Star Wars films, and the very 1980s synth score by Tom Raybould complements the look of the thing really well.

The Call Up is by no means a masterpiece - at the screening I attended the audience was decidedly mixed in its response - but it's an assured debut from Charles Barker and one which, until the rather unconvincing final scenes, is happy to deliver its thrills without complexity but with some finesse.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Aaaaaaaah! (UK 2015: Dir Steve Oram)

A few weeks ago I witnessed Ben Wheatley's take on the breakdown of civilised society in this year's High Rise. In Aaaaaaaah! director Steve Oram (who's also a cast member) offers us a different view of societal change, where humans, who have mysteriously become simian in language and gesture (but not hirsuteness) wage territorial war with each other in the suburbs of south London (East Dulwich and Denmark Hill, location spotters).

I have to credit an imdb reviewer who accurately described this film as Quest for Fire meets Shameless. It also has elements of Claude Farado's anarchistic movie Themroc (1973) and Lars von Trier's The Idiots (1998). If this were a sketch (and it is undoubtedly a one gag movie), it would be passed off as a slight idea with some comic merit. Stretched to a 75 minute film, the repetition of the basic setup - people as apes squabbling with each other in domestic situations while indulging in the gamut of ape like behavior (eating, fighting and fornicating basically with a side order of preening and vacant stares) - should be tiresome, but the energy of the cast and the sheer oddness of what's on screen prevents that. The feature length also invites the viewer to suspect that there might be some darker directorial purpose to these shenanigans, which I personally doubt. While clearly in some way a satire of modern life and families, I think Oram just wanted to have some rather surreal fun with a lot of his comedy mates and make an 'out there' movie.

And surreal it most definitely is. Thank goodness that television comedy, from Chris Morris's output to The Mighty Boosh, has educated our collective visual palates for this kind of thing. From the bare breasted Nigella-alike celebrity cook the family watch on TV,  to the scrotum dangling rituals of the males, this takes the great British obsession with body parts to a whole new level.

Cast wise the director makes some fairly obvious decisions. Oram as Steve is reunited with Alice Lowe (who were so good together as Chris and Tina the killer holidaymakers in Ben Wheatley's 2012 movie Sightseers), and the Booshers Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt both show up. Less successful is the casting of newcomer Lucy Honigman as a more refined member of the simian community whose role is a bit underdeveloped, and Toyah Willcox, as the mother of the family, may have been up for the challenge but always looks like she's a second away from laughing.

This clearly isn't a film for everyone. It's not a horror film as such but there are horrific elements and as a comedy whether you find it funny depends on how much you 'get' the central gag. It's not a film I'd rush to see again, but it's bold, crude, occasionally very funny, and despite the subject matter well filmed, utilising the old 4:3 ratio very effectively - Oram's nod to the video generation or Tarkovsky? Probably both, the wag.