Monday, 27 February 2017

The Love Witch (USA 2016: Dir - and just about bloody everything else - Anna Biller)

Elaine is the titular 'Love Witch' in Anna Biller's visually captivating but rather vacuous follow up to her 2007 send up of the 1970s sexual revolution, Viva.

Feeling the need to make a new start, our Wiccan heroine has just left San Francisco following the death of her latest significant other, and arrived in California, where her friend and fellow coven member Barbara has a house. No sooner is Elaine settled into her new lodgings than she's up to her old tricks, enchanting and seducing the town's menfolk from under their girlfriends' noses in a quest to find 'the one.' For despite being a witch, Elaine is just the same as any other girl - she needs a man to make her life complete. But unlike other girls she uses magic to get her guys, often with disastrous results.

Samantha Robinson as Elaine in another understated outfit.
Like her last film, The Love Witch is a labour of, er, love for Anna Biller. She produced, wrote and directed it, provided some of the music, and even designed the soft furnishings and costumes. The resulting film creates a strange, unreal and timeless small town America - it could be set anywhere between the 1960s and the present day - and the confusion is deliberate on the director's part. The movie is a visual overload of stunning sets, over the top clothes and porn film acting, with the cast shot in luminous close up on 35mm stock. This is a film that looks far better than it has the right to, largely thanks to cinematographer M. David Mullen, a talented guy with a lot of credits behind him, but nothing that suggested he had the ability to create this melding of Hitchcock's 1964 movie Marnie, Douglas Sirk movies and episodes of 1970s TV show McMillan and Wife. The opening scene, for example, is a note perfect pastiche with Elaine driving an open top car, the coast road rear projected behind her, and blood red 'movie of the week' titles appearing on screen - it's a joy to behold.

Samantha Robinson slips into something more comfortable.
Unlike Viva Biller has chosen not to star in this film, which is a blessing, as the cast here do a great job of acting badly, which takes some talent. Relative newcomer Samantha Robinson plays man stealing witch Elaine, her first starring role, and one she carries off well. She's stunningly attractive and while the intention may be to channel classic screen femme fatales (Robinson reminded Biller of Liz Taylor when casting, apparently) her smoky allure, immobile face and sideways looks strongly reminded me of Anjelica Huston's take on Morticia Addams in the Barry Sonnenfield directed Addams Family movies of the early 1990s.

The problem with The Love Witch is that beyond the look of the thing there isn't much else going on. It's a camp one joke film, although Biller insists it isn't a comedy but instead a dissection of the objectification of women and the subjugation of their needs to those of men. Well that's fine, but the subtext fails to fight its way through the layers of chiffon and lace, and the whole thing at two hours is just too long. Biller as editor, perhaps understandably, is loath to sacrifice any of her labour of love, and so some scenes, like the magickal rituals and an extended medieval whimsy, just go on and on. This lack of a sense of pace and constant parade of artifice, although beautifully done, ultimately makes The Love Witch a film to admire more than like, which is a shame because Biller is a promising director, and she certainly has a great cinematic eye. But really sometimes less is definitely more.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

New Films Round Up #7 - Reviews of The Snare (UK 2017), Shock (USA 2016), Incarnate (USA 2016), Arbor Demon aka Enclosure (USA 2016), Sadako V Kayako (Japan 2016) and The Eyes of My Mother (USA 2016)

The Snare (UK 2017: Dir C.A.Cooper) First time feature director C. A. Cooper's extraordinary three hander tells a strange and ultimately horrific story, focusing on Alice, Lizzy and Lizzy's boyfriend Carl, who decide to get away from it all and hole up in Lizzy's father's Brighton penthouse flat. Problem is that Lizzy's dad doesn't know that the keys have been taken and when the trio move in, they eventually find themselves stuck on their floor, with neither lift nor emergency exit staircase accessible. With the caretaking staff on holiday and no residents in any of the other flats, they are abandoned and isolated. Worse still, the flat appears to be haunted, or is it just Alice's precarious mental state conjuring up visions of strangers? With food supplies dwindling and primitive sexual urges awakening, how will the three stay alive?

A UK movie with a setup more likely to come from a film made on the other side of the Channel, Chris Cooper's The Snare is a completely bizarre piece of film making. All three of the lead characters are pretty unlikeable human beings, and combined with the outright incredulity with which the viewer initially greets the prospect of them actually being trapped in the flat, the movie shouldn't work at all. But The Snare gradually exudes a quiet but persuasive power as the apartment's occupants start to shrug off the things that make them civilised human beings (not that Carl was much of a gent to start with). The claustrophobia and potential for sexual violence reminded me of Polanski's 1965 movie Repulsion (a touch point for a number of modern urban horrors it would seem) and the breakdown of civilised society through the prism of the three flat dwellers has its roots in 'Lord of the Flies' but also recalls Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 movie Possession.

Accounts of making the film have suggested that the cast rather went through the wringer during production. Carl in particular, whose ingestion of maggots in some scenes is pretty stomach churning, is bravely acted by Dan Paton, but all three give it some acting welly. Strong stuff indeed but don't expect a happy ending.

Shock (USA 2016: Dir Moziko Wind, Markiss McFadden) Written by and starring the comprehensively untalented Mohammed Bardi as a washed up ex-cop privately investigating a series of deaths linked to a psychiatric facility, Shock is without doubt the crummiest film I've seen so far this year - and I don't want to see any film that could be worse than this.

Wind and McFadden both have very bitty directing careers and this one is not going to help their CVs. Aside from Bardi's atrocious turn as the most unconvincing ex-druggy/boozehound (how is it possible for an actor to verbally mangle his own script?) central character David Evans, all of the supporting cast, despite being universally attractive, are just so much dead meat. Everyone chews through their scenes, which go on forever, and there's no attempt to advance the plot or explain just why there exists a blue faced killer and someone else wearing tryout make up for a camp Evil Dead remake.

Shock comes in at just under 70 minutes - it's the visual equivalent of turning in written homework where you make the text spread to three sides of paper just so you have two sheets to staple together and make it look like a credible effort. Apparently this has been released on Amazon Prime and itunes in the US - pray it doesn't come to the UK. Really really fucking horrible.

Incarnate (USA 2016: Dir Brad Peyton) Brad Peyton's background in the director's chair has ranged from kids' movies featuring The Rock (2012's Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) to disaster movies featuring The Rock (2015's San Andreas). Incarnate is his first 'adult' film, and you'll forgive me if I spent the whole movie trying to work out which graphic novel it was adapted from. Well apparently it wasn't, which kind of gives you an impression of how the movie comes across.

Chiselled Aaron Eckart is Dr. Ember, a scientist who has discovered the ability to inhabit the minds of possessed people and the power to carry out mental exorcisms. With his trusty team he's wired up Inception style, jumps into the unfortunate victim's brain space and flushes the bad stuff out. Dr Ember of course has a backstory; we meet him confined to a wheelchair, the result of a car crash in which his wife and son died, killed by a demon, Maggie, driving the oncoming vehicle. To be clear Maggie isn't the demon's real name - that would be rubbish - but rather the woman driving the car whose body the demon takes over. So while his gifts are seemingly altruistic in nature, in reality Ember is searching the minds of others for the elusive 'Maggie'.

The graphic novel adaptation suspicions refuse to abate with subplots involving the Catholic church and the development of a serum which gives Ember a 10 second 'lucidity break' with which to help him end his life if the going gets too demonic. As you'd expect from an accomplished director like Peyton this is slickly done stuff, reasonably enjoyable but daft as a brush. Incarnate's end credits - a 2013 production but only released in 2016 - suggest a troubled production by a company not sure how to market their finished product. I would have had the same problem.

Arbor Demon aka Enclosure (USA 2016: Dir Patrick Rea) Young couple Dana and Howard go off into the woods to celebrate their second wedding anniversary. He's about to go on tour with his rock band, fulfilling what looks suspiciously like a mid life crisis, while Dana hides from him the fact that she's pregnant, even though Howard reminds her that they're not a couple who want kids. However the woods have secrets of their own, namely a group of folk horror type creatures that make a meal of a group of gun toting locals - the sole survivor of that gang, Sean, finding refuge in Dana and Howard's tent as the beasts of the woods stalk them.

Patrick Rea's extensive experience in making short films informs the stripped down structure of this rather odd creature feature, which like a lot of monster movies these days can't decide whether it's a proper adult drama or full on horror flick. This does neither particularly well (Rea should learn some lessons about not over exposing your monsters - they just look silly) and the three hander drama between Sean, Dana and Howard is well acted if inconsequential. Things liven up towards the end - no spoilers but it involves Dana's baby bump. This is a nicely photographed, well put together film which summoned not an iota of fear in this viewer until maybe the last fifteen minutes, a case of too little too late.

Sadako V Kayako (Japan 2016: Dir Kôji Shiraishi) While watching this baffling and totally unnecessary team up between two 'titans' of J-Horror (it says here), I was musing on the idea of creature playoffs in cinema history. In the 1940s Universal pitched their classic monsters together in a number of films, my favourite being the rather beautiful (in content if not title) Frankenstein vs the Wolfman (1943). Toho Studios cashed in on the immense popularity of Godzilla with a seemingly endless number of 'Godzilla Vs' films following his 1954 debut. And of course there have been franchise oddballs like Freddy Vs Jason (2003) and the gamer spinoff Alien Vs Predator movies. But Sadako V Kayako really takes the prawn cracker, featuring the supernatural creatures from respectively Ringu and The Grudge movies and pitting them together in what must be the slowest fight to the death ever filmed.

And worry not if you haven't seen either of the source movies: Shiraishi explains the genealogy of both over the course of the film's rather too long hour and forty minutes, although he spends far longer over Sadako than he does the rather less interesting Kayako. How the two come together is a rather convoluted setup. Two girls buy a VCR to transfer an old wedding tape to DVD, only to discover THAT tape left in the machine; a family with a young daughter move into the 'Grudge' house, instantly triggering the hauntings familiar to anyone who has seen the previous franchise outings. The three haunted girls are drawn together by a lively medium, complete with kung fu poses, who feels that by playing the summoning tape from Ringu in the house featured in The Grudge he will bring the two protagonists together to slug it out over the girls' souls. Don't get too excited if this sounds like fun - most of the good stuff only happens in the last ten minutes, in true B movie style - and the spirits are so slow that it's touch and go as to whether any slugging's going to take place at all. 

Sadako v Kayako could have been dafter, shorter, more bloody, less stupid, all manner of things. It's a chore to watch and serves neither of the original films well at all. So it fits right in with the pantheon of movie monster mash ups then.

The Eyes of My Mother (USA 2016: Dir Nicolas Pesce)  First time director Nicolas Pesce's sombre mood piece is nowhere near as portentous as he clearly hoped when making it. It IS pretentious though, and very hard to like.
Shot in black and white but failing to make best use of its mid-west USA locations, The Eyes of My Mother is the story of Francisca, a girl with a poor start in life - her surgeon mother is murdered by a stranger who enters their house - who grows up with strange murderous desires (and more than a whiff of mum's chosen profession) beginning to awaken in her. Her mother's killer is imprisoned in the barn, his eyes and tongue removed, while Francisca continues to care for him; she also solicits the the comfort of others, with predictably disastrous results.

Quite what this is all about is anyone's guess. As Francisca Kika Magalhaes is monosyllabic and waif like but almost entirely without charisma, which is quite a problem when you have to carry the film. Despite its tawdry subject matter - necrophilia, murder and dismemberment among its charms - The Eyes of My Mother is a very polite, not to mention soporific movie. The subtitling (Francisca is of Portuguese extraction) and monochromatic vision suggests it has its eyes on the arthouse circuit, but it's a poorly executed film offering neither pleasure nor edification.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Prevenge (UK 2016: Dir Alice Lowe)

Prevenge, Alice Lowe's directorial debut, is, and please forgive the pun, a real labour of love. Filmed while Lowe was actually pregnant, it develops from the actress's feelings - ones apparently shared by many expectant mums - that the baby growing inside her was somehow in charge of its host, leaving the nascent parent a mere puppet to its needs. In Prevenge Lowe, who also wrote and produced the film, takes this idea to extremes as lead character Ruth.

Ruth is heavily pregnant and seemingly homeless, living in a hotel room which is her base for the entire film. She is lost, both within herself and, possibly, geographically. Ruth is also a killer, as we see in the first scene where she savagely murders a sleazy pet shop owner - although Ruth seems oblivious to the salesman's creepy come on lines and his death appears random and unmotivated.

Ruth is directed to kill by her unborn child, who maintains a near constant monologue of chiding, cajoling and instruction from within the womb; what Lowe has described as 'the ventriloquist's puppet who whispers in her mother's ear.' Although as Prevenge unfolds, a different and more tragic story is revealed, and much of the film's complexity stems from trying to understand the true motivation for Ruth's anger and bloodlust.

Oh sorry. I forgot to mention that this is a comedy. As bone dry and caustic a one as you're likely to see all year, but a comedy nonetheless, although with few belly laughs (oh, there I go again) - Lowe admits that having written comedy for so long she kind of forgot she was writing a humorous script, and it certainly shows. Prevenge's characters emanate from the kind of 'comedy of embarrassment' archetypes popular with TV writers of tragi-humour these days. DJ Dan, for instance, an unjustifiably overconfident 1970s/80s mobile disco owner, who Ruth meets when she strolls into a sparsely populated basement disco, could have been created for a Edgar Wright movie or something from a Ricky Gervais TV series. And Jo Hartley's note perfect, professionally courteous but hideously condescending midwife could have strolled in from an episode of Green Wing.

Lowe, who made this film quickly, and almost spontaneously it seems, is as comfortable writing these characters as we are seeing them. There's an immediate shared understanding of what we're being shown - the downplayed performances, the flat, drab interiors (nearly all of the film is shot inside, in often very cramped locations) - that derive from 'modern' UK TV comedy, and maybe it's this that makes the intermittent but very credible violence easier to stomach. Happily (although that's perhaps not quite the right word) Lowe uses this is a basis for something far darker than anything you'd see on TV. She is able to indulge her cinematic obsessions freely; camera shots have a Kubrickian emptiness, the murder scenes are as callous and stylised as anything found in a Dario Argento flick, and Lowe's reality divorced performance reminded me of a home counties version of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965) or maybe Scarlett Johannsen's alien lost in Scotland in Jonathan Glazer's 2013 Under the Skin.There's also a literary subtext to Ruth's character; we see her identify with - and later facially re-enact - the dancing 'Furies' in the 1934 film Crime Without Passion which she watches on TV; the Furies of course being mythological goddesses of revenge who sprang from the blood of the castrated Uranus.

Despite the range of competent supports, this is Lowe's film, and not just behind the camera either. She gives herself all the best lines - her fellow players are little more than stooges setting up her payoff comments, delivered in her understated Coventry burr. And why shouldn't she? Lowe has the track record - 15 plus years as part of comedy writing teams, and previously impressive performances in anything from Dark Marenghi's Dark Place (2004) to Ben Wheatley's brilliant Sightseers (2012) which Lowe co-wrote.

Prevenge isn't perfect by any means - there are some pacing issues inherent in a piece devised and executed within a relatively short time span, and once the overall surprise of seeing a (real) heavily pregnant woman killing people has worn off, the movie becomes slightly repetitive. But the film is all about the performances and the unsettling mood; Ruth (short for ruthless?) is that rare thing, a killer with whom we can sympathise. Lowe perfectly captures the anxieties and fears of pregnancy, and of course turns them up to ten, while never resorting to a cross word. Ruth is a woman done to by the system - homeless, refused employment because of the bump in front of her, and treated icily by the authorities. Who wouldn't go a bit chicken oriental? Ruth's (and Lowe's) fear of the gore and horror of childbirth are inexorably wrapped up in the violence meted out to others. This is a film about creation and destruction - perhaps the first true account of pregnancy stripped of the bows and ribbons that cinema usually places on the 'condition.' Oh, and did I mention that it was a comedy?