Monday, 17 April 2017

Bella in the Wych Elm (UK 2017: Dir Tom Lee Rutter)

Here's an enigmatic treat, a half hour mix of myth and history written, edited, photographed, produced and directed by idiosyncratic film maker Tom Lee Rutter, who has an interesting CV of unusual titles, although often difficult to see.

Rutter's latest project draws on regional English history. In 1943 four young boys, poaching in the woods near the village of Hagley in the West Midlands, stumble across a skeleton stuffed into the hollow trunk of a tree. The boys initially remain silent about their discovery but when one of the four dies, irreversibly traumatised by the find, the police become involved.

The discovery is highlighted by mysterious wording which appears on the side of the nearby Wychbury Obelisk, a monument close to the site where the remains were found, which reads "Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?" (apparently this wording remained for many years, as a reminder to local residents of the need to establish the truth behind the identity of 'Bella').

And it is this image which opens the film: as we view the obelisk's graffito (recreated for the film), the image masked by overlaid clouds and other shots of the surrounding countryside, a young girl narrates a poem, written by Craigus Barry, which speaks enigmatically of secrets, concluding with the words "Who am I?"

It's an incredibly impressive and strange opening to an odd but beguiling film. By his own admission Rutter's cinematic style has been heavily influenced by the occluded film making of Guy Maddin, although I was also reminded of Andrew Kotting's 2015 meditation on landscape and the poet John Clare By Our Selves. But while Maddin's work rarely strays from fiction (and often remains baffllingly opaque), Rutter never lets the visuals get in the way of the story. The combination of historical fact and the search both for the identity of the body and the reason for Bella's death, which range from the supernatural  (witchcraft) to a more prosaic but equally odd explanation of wartime spying and a Hollywood legend, keep the film strange if grounded.
Rutter's 'hauntological' approach to the work - Bella in the Wych Elm contains snippets of old music, historical artefacts, field recordings and snapshots of the West Midlands landscape - presents a film where the elements gently collide, or more precisely merge. This is a perfect backdop over which to tell the story, and the effective use of local characters for narration ('Tatty' Dave Jones's Birmingham brogue is mesmerising) work well with the rich script. Also worth mentioning is the fine soundtrack music, by the enigmatically named The Worrisome Ankletrout (the nom de plume of local musician John-Joe Murray), a gorgeous and unsettling mix of folk and arcane sounds, perfectly underscoring the story.

Rutter has made a well-researched film that is distinctly folkloric, allusive and troubling. It's also one which successfully captures a sense of English place and history which is arcane rather than nostalgic. The short length of the piece is deceptive - there's more content in Bella in the Wych Elm's 36 minutes than most feature length films I've seen this year. A triumph.

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Belko Experiment (USA 2016: Dir Greg McLean)

The Belko Corporation (strapline: 'business without boundaries') specialises in sourcing US staff for South American employers. Its remote office block building in Bogota, Colombia, houses all the employees needed to make the company run. But one morning the workers are surprised by a strange voice over the PA announcing that the staff need to kill two of their members within a certain time or face the consequences. The building automatically locks itself down, and the workers, now shut in without possible means of escape, must comply with the increasingly aggressive demands of the faceless voice, requiring the employees to turn on themselves and kill each other in a bid to stay alive themselves.

The Belko Experiment, Greg McLean's sprightly follow up to last year's less than successful supernatural movie The Darkness, sees him borrowing heavily from Kinju Fukasaku's 2009 movie Battle Royale (and a little from the Saw franchise) and delivering a mix of horror and humour which elevates a thin premise into something very watchable.

Written by James Gunn (probably most famous for penning the wisecracking 2014 movie Guardians of the Galaxy), the script has great fun playing with the stereotypes of office life - the office pedant and the 'token' disabled person, for example - and how the various strata of the company respond to the threats of danger and possibilities of survival. I also liked the idea of reversing the concept, portraying the Americans as expendable migrant labourers in a foreign country.

There's some quality acting on display here too: John Gallagher Jr (10 Cloverfield Lane) as Mike Milch is as close as the movie gets to a hero, albeit a rather flawed one, and there's terrific support from a sleazy John C McGinley and Michael Rooker. Sean Gunn's turn as office stoner Marty also produces a few smiles and Puerto Rican born Adria Arjona wields the office stationery very effectively.

Of course the setup requires that it's only so long before any of the characters winds up dead, whether by the hands of their co-workers or the mysterious forces behind the whole set up (who are able to carry out murders at a distance by detonating a 'chip' implanted into the necks of every member of staff, ostensibly there to help track the employee in the dangerous Colombian locale). And while the 'who's going to die next and by whose hand?' premise could become tiresome, the dark sense of humour that permeates the film keeps things interesting, and McLean is effective at directing action on a budget (see also his overlooked 2007 killer croc movie Rogue).

However as the film progresses the mood darkens. The powerplay among the CEO and senior managers in attempting to assume control (even though the control is really out of their hands) - and the inevitable workers revolt - leads to some scenes which are genuinely unsettling; I swear you'll never look at a Sellotape dispenser in the same way. The Belko Experiment offers no redemptive ending but instead presents us with a micro view of society in breakdown which, and with not too much imagination, has resonances with contemporary global abuses of power.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Cape Fear (USA 1991 - Dir Martin Scorsese) - Notes from an introduction to the screening at East Dulwich Picturehouse on 26 March 2017

Cape Fear, the film you're about to watch, had an interesting gestation. Around the time that Martin Scorsese was finishing Goodfellas, Robert de Niro had been approached by none other than Steven Spielberg, who was originally lined up to remake he 1962 J Lee Thompson directed movie of the same name, with a view to de Niro playing the psychotic lead, Max Cady.

Scorsese meanwhile had been asked to look at a possible treatment of Thomas Keneally’s book ‘Schindler’s Ark’ for possible feature adaptation (which was subsequently filmed as Schindler's List). The rights had been bought for Steven Spielberg, but the director didn’t think he was up to it. However, after Scorsese got a script together he felt that it was Speilberg’s picture, and gave the thing back to him.

Universal Studios still had a script for the Cape Fear remake and, you guessed it, Spielberg was now less than enthusiastic. Universal had been incredibly helpful to Scorsese on the release of his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, sticking by him through all of the controversy the release of that movie caused. So Martin felt a kind of moral duty to Universal to help out with a project – and sure enough, Cape Fear was presented to him.

Scorsese had two issues with the project. He wasn’t a remake kind of guy, and he wasn’t an action movie director. As a huge cinephile, he was more than casually acquainted with the original Cape Fear, which he has described as ‘a perfect B movie.’ But he thought the project would be interesting. He hadn’t been a director for hire since 1986’s The Color of Money.

So what did he do? Well he went a bit ‘meta’ as some would describe it, drawing on elements of the original film and adapting them for his needs. 

First, the casting – in the original movie Cady was played by Robert Mitchum, a more laconic individual than de Niro’s take on the character, but nevertheless having the same unstoppable power. Scorsese cast Mitchum in his version in a different part, along with other stars from the '62 film, namely Gregory Peck and Martin Balsam.

Scorsese’s version ups the ante on the original story a little, courtesy of Wesley Strick’s muscly script, which fleshes out considerably the rather stripped down prose of John D MacDonald’s source novel ‘The Executioners’. Nick Nolte, who plays the lawyer Sam Bowden, the object of Max Cady’s hatred, is given a more complex backstory and flawed character than Gregory Peck’s role in the original film.

And Robert de Niro, cast as Cady, gives an electrifying performance, completely over the top and astonishingly physical. With his long hair, his tattoo covered body, de Niro is more than the ruthless Max Cady of the original film (and there is a view that those tattoos are there to remind viewers of Mitchum’s most famous role, the killer preacher Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s 1955 picture Night of the Hunter – I did tell you this was going to get a bit meta). Here Cady is unstoppable and unkillable, but bordering on farcical with his almost comedic southern twang and his superhuman strength – listen for a scene towards the end where de Niro whips his head around with an added on audio whistle – it’s like a cartoon. What was Scorsese up to?

Scorsese continued his cineaste approach to the remake in his choice of score. Elmer Bernstein was asked to adapt Bernard Hermann’s music from the original film, although as the Scorsese remake is longer than the original, they ran out of score, so Bernstein cheats at the end and uses parts of Hermann’s unused music for Alfred Hitchock’s 1966 movie Torn Curtain (this was the movie where Hermann and Hitchcock parted company).

Martin also employed veteran credit designer Saul Bass who, with his wife Elaine, created a kind of mini movie before the actual film, which utilises footage filmed by Bass, a film maker in his own right, and also unused shots from John Frankenheimer’s 1966 movie Seconds.

Director of Photography on the film was the great Freddie Francis. As a young cinema goer, Scorsese had eaten up Francis’ extensive back catalogue of British horror films for the Hammer and Amicus studios, but it was his superlative black and white photography in Jack Cardiff’s 1960 film Sons and Lovers, and Jack Clayton’s chilling The Innocents filmed a year later, that attracted Scorsese. Martin wanted to film the final scenes of Cape Fear in total darkness, or as near to it as possible. Francis was the man for the job, and the closing stages of Cape Fear are a masterpiece workshop of editing, photography, and a mix of studio shots and model work – the models incidentally created by UK modeller Derek Meddings, perhaps most famously known for his work on Gerry Anderson TV shows like Thunderbirds in the 1960s.

So it doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the original Cape Fear, although people with a memory of it will perhaps enjoy seeing what’s been added in the remake. Sit back and watch Scorsese, a director who may not have been in love with the idea of the movie, create a tense, literate and at times darkly funny re-interpretation of a B movie classic. Not bad for a guy who dislikes remakes.

Enjoy the film.