Monday, 15 September 2014

HOW I LIVE NOW

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

First off, I'm probably not the principal target audience for this. The novel appears to be classified as Young Adult, and I'm neither, and the central character is yet again a teenage girl. But on the other hand I'm a fan of apocalypse movies and "empty world" stories (The Day Of The Triffids, The Omega Man), so anything in which The Bomb goes off or 99% of the population are otherwise disposed of pretty swiftly is usually okay with me. However, in this case there's a struggle to find the right tone between the teenie romance and the horrors of post-nuke Britain, and I don't think they've entirely found it.

Essentially How I Live Now is a cross between The Famous Five and Threads: Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) has been reluctantly shipped off to cousins somewhere in Norfolk and is having a generally rotten time until she sees her strapping neighbour: sensitive, kind, good with animals. But then the endless games in the hazy summer countryside are brought rudely to a halt by unidentified extremists exploding a nuclear weapon in London. Rather than face evacuation, they decide to stay where they are, until the Army turn up and take them away to farms and military training camps. Daisy and her youngest cousin plan their escape back to the farmhouse, through the woods and the horrors of war....

It's difficult to reconcile the idyllic rural larking about (there is very little adult presence in the film) and hesitant relationship of the first half hour with scenes such as Daisy working through a courtyard full of corpses to see if her cousins are there. There's enough horrific imagery in the film to guarantee the 15 certificate that cuts out that YA/"tweenie" demographic (there's also a smattering of F-words, and a curious, very brief and entirely unnecessary nude dream sequence). It's also a very quick series of about-changes for her character: from her sullen, unsocial arrival when she's actually more interesting, through love-struck teen (a change apparently brought about by nothing more than being pushed into the river) to gritty survivalist prepared to kill.

Still, in spite of it never quite getting the tone right, I rather enjoyed How I Live Now: it conveys enough of the possible chaos and massive disruption to everyday English life to make it plausibly chilling, and frankly to keep a 50-year-old bloke like me interested when the drippy teen stuff kicks in. I can't remember why I didn't catch it on its cinema release, though, as it's generally the sort of thing I go for. I'd be surprised if I come back to it any time soon, but I liked it well enough.

***

Kaboom:

Sunday, 7 September 2014

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS, YOU MORONS

They say the essence of drama is conflict. Maybe it's a conflict of interests, a clash of loyalties, a battle of wills between opposing personalities or philosophies, or just a straight up fight between the good guys and the bad guys. Whichever, a movie in which everybody gets along quite happily and nobody gets into an argument or starts a fight is liable to be pretty boring and uninteresting. So there has to be something: a difference of opinion, rivalry, simmering secrets, long suppressed emotions.... Fine. But there are worlds between human emotional conflict and simply bellowing insults and abuse at one another.

August: Osage County is quite definitely the latter: a film in which a family get together and shout bile and vitriol across the dinner table because hatred and cruelty is the only way these people know how to communicate. Here we have Meryl Streep is an alcoholic, pill popping old bat, fast approaching senility, whose three feisty/tiresome (delete as appropriate) daughters and assorted partners and children all descend on the house when granddad Sam Shepard disappears. It then turns out he's dead, so they all have to hang around a few more days for the funeral, and it's during this period that Meryl and eldest daughter Julia Roberts go for each other and in the process rip the whole family to pieces...

None of the targets of the rancid viciousness ever do the sensible thing and simply walk away, nor did anyone think to bring a firearm which would have stopped the infantile squabbling immediately. Frankly, if this was my house the people responsible would be shown the door in zero seconds flat, quashing the atrocious behaviour the moment it starts, but not here. These are horrible, horrible people: cruel, nasty, mean-spirited, profoundly unlovable even if they're family, and no reason is given as to why an audience should be expected to pay good money to spend any time with them at all.

It is impossible to deny that the film is well written and well played, with meaty roles for the cast to work with. In addition to Roberts and Streep, you get Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris Cooper: performers it's always good to see evening movies which aren't necessarily very good. Maybe it would have worked in the theatre where it originated: theatre has often been described as "shouting of an evening" and there is a lot of shouting at the back of the stalls going on here. There's also incest, drug addiction, broken marriages, infidelity, racism, even a soupcon of paedophilia: in short an amalgam of the kind of subjects that win Oscars. Because this is one of those films that comes along every year when the studios think they should seen as Serious Artists examining and exploring the human condition, rather than just a bunch of money grubbing charlatans putting some shiny hunks in silly superhero costumes and having them beat each other around the head in 3D for a quarter of a billion dollars a time. Frankly, give me Captain America or The Mighty Thor, because those guys are at least fun to be around and that beats a shiny statuette on the mantelpiece any day of the week.

**

Shut up! No, you shut up! No, YOU shut up!!!

Friday, 5 September 2014

BLOOD SUCKING FREAKS

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND CAN WE ALL GROW UP, PLEASE?

Well, it's a horrible film. Will that do? No? Right then, deep breath: it's a crass, charmless, vile, tedious and depressing parade of cheery misogynist sleaze aimed squarely at the kind of pathetic maladjusted wanker who gets off on watching naked women being (in no particular order) tortured, slapped, starved, chained up, humiliated, dismembered, brutalised, and decapitated (or otherwise killed), pass the popcorn. It's one of the most famous grindhouse splatter titles of the 1970s: a straight tits and gore offering with absolutely no artistic or aesthetic merit whatsoever, that's somehow survived on the strength of its titles (it's also known as The Incredible Torture Show, a hilarious joke for acronym buffs) and its balls-out refusal to balk at anything on the grounds of questionable taste.

Moralistic? Censorious? Try bored to tears. In as much as Blood Sucking Freaks (yes, it is three words) has a plot, it concerns a grotty New York Grand Guignol show in which naked women are tortured and killed: third-rate MC and white slavery tycoon "The Great Sardu" takes issue with a theatre critic unimpressed with the show, so abducts him to appear in his forthcoming self-composed ballet that will climax with his onstage murder. He also kidnaps a ballerina to take the lead role, whether she wants to or not. In between all this, he and his dwarf sidekick abuse and maim some of the naked women he keeps locked up in the basement.

Look, I enjoy the occasional torture movie. I love the Saw movies and the first two Hostels. And I know that you couldn't make a grindhouse exploitation movie in the 1970s without boobs and pubes because that's what they were for. It was a different time; we don't do that sort of thing now but we did then. But that's only a historical justification: we stopped it and that's a change for the better, the way we stopped burning witches and sending children up chimneys. To see something as tiresome as Blood Sucking Freaks dug up after nearly forty years and presented to us now as an entertainment frankly feels as wrong as a DVD boxset of The Black And White Minstrel Show. It's a product of its time and that time has gone. Quentin Tarantino and Frank Henenlotter can wax nostalgic over 42nd Street fleapits and inner-city triple bills of cheap garbage as much as they like, but the sad fact is that watching these films a generation later is just not a rewarding experience: later grindhouse movies like Henenlotter's Basket Case and Abel Ferrara's Fear City are far better glimpses of that world.

Given the amount of violence dished merrily out to - let us not forget - naked women, it's surprising the film has been waved through the BBFC without so much as a trim. They're obviously going through a lenient patch right now, as the deeply upsetting Nekromantik sailed through as well. (Yet at the same time, a film as generally restrained, and substantially better, as Axelle Carolyn's Soulmate gets pulled up!) It's almost beside the point that the performances in Blood Sucking Freaks are uniformly terrible, the plot is stupid and the music score is an abomination; indeed, it wouldn't be an authentic grindhouse film without them. That's no defence: it's a thoroughly horrible, mean-spirited and technically shoddy piece of sadistic softcore with no redeeming features. Despicable.

*

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

NYMPHOMANIAC VOL 1 / NYMPHOMANIAC VOL 2

C()NTAINS SP()ILERS AND TYP()GRAPHY

Let's get the technicalities out of the way first, shall we? Firstly, and ungrammatically, this is two films. It/they has/have two separate entries on the IMDb, two separate BBFC certificates, and separate credit rolls on each of the two discs. That they come packaged together on BluRay makes no difference. Like Kill Bill, this may be two parts of a larger whole, but the only real difference is that they were made and released at the same time rather than two or three years apart.

Secondly: the onscreen title does indeed replace the letter O in Nymphomaniac with open and close brackets, because, you know, it then looks a bit like a vagina and that's pretty much what the film is all about. Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in a back alley after a savage beating: he takes her home and looks after her, in return for which she tells him her entire life story which we see in merciless gynaecological detail. From her early years seducing random men into railway lavatories through her literally countless physical relationships, her post-natal inability to be sexually satisfied and her experiments with bondage, punishment and interracial threesomes, we are spared nothing over the four hour running time.

In addition to the unflinching nudity and explicit sex sequences, we also get a surprisingly big name cast indulging in what would ordinarily be described as absolute filth were the film not from one of the major names in arthouse cinema. Though some of the actual hardcore footage is achieved by a combination of digital trickery and porn performers, we still get Shia LaBoeuf and Jamie Bell appearing in particularly graphic scenes of sexual activity, while Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Connie Nielsen and Christian Slater show up in non-bonking sequences.

All very well, but is it actually any good? Well, I actually quite enjoyed it, which certainly makes a change from the last two Lars Von Trier films I sat through: Melancholia was occasionally beautiful but mostly highly annoying, while Antichrist was just bunk. This is the third and final part of Von Trier's so-called Trilogy Of Depression and it's the lightest and least offputting. One particular scene has Uma Thurman's freshly spurned wife turning up at Joe's apartment to show her children around her errant husband's new love nest, which frankly feels as though it's from a different film entirely. Maybe he'll do a nice uplifting comedy or superhero epic now? Elsewhere, Seligman's intellectual responses to Joe's stories seem to be attempting to link sex to everything from Bach fugues to fly fishing, which all lead to a nice character reveal towards the end before a final payoff which I frankly didn't buy at all.

To be honest I don't think Nymphomaniac needs to be four hours long - at least 30 minutes could have been cut out of the final stretch without any great loss to the film - and whilst Stacy Martin as the young Joe certainly looks exceedingly nice naked, I can't help feeling that the line into pornography is not just been stepped over but merrily somersaulted over in zero gravity. Really, the characters should be more interesting with their clothes on than off, and if they're not then you're just watching Debbie Does Dallas or Girls Gone Wild or similar. For all that's wrong with Nymphomaniac - grotesque overlength, a needless and occasionally wearing interest in genitals, Shia LaBoeuf's dubious English accent, and one horrible moment where it looks like it's going to reprise the opening to Antichrist - I found it to be surprisingly enjoyable, and enjoyably surprising. Worth seeing, but wait till your mum's gone out for the evening.

***
***

Phwoooar:

THE CANAL / THE SLEEPING ROOM

........BOO! CONTAINS SPOILERS

For many years it appeared as though the secret of the genuinely scary film had been lost. Instead of subtle, understated creepiness we got sudden loud bangs; instead of a steadily building atmosphere of terror we got grossout gore. Which I don't mind at all: I'm more than happy with any combination of well timed jump scares and explicit splatter. But I'm also just as happy that in recent years there has been a trend in horror cinema for the creepy and scary rather than simply shouting Boo! and waving offal at the camera. Sinister, Insidious and The Conjuring are probably the most high profile examples in recent years, but there have been a few direct to video examples such as The Last Will And Testament Of Rosalind Leigh and Lake Mungo.

Two brand new films, not yet available in the UK (in fact, not even on the release schedules) exemplify this modern trend. The Canal (Irish, although the police are never referred to as the Garda) and the British The Sleeping Room are both low-budget films with very small casts, but there is unsettling creepiness to spare. In both films, hideous murders from the past reverberate down through the years: The Sleeping Room centres on the relationship between a young prostitute and her client who is renovating a former Brighton brothel in which unspeakable crimes were committed, while in The Canal a young family move into a house where - surprise surprise - unspeakable crimes were committed. In both cases, those crimes are set to be re-enacted....

By chance, both films also feature the use of now obsolete media: 35mm film stock in The Canal, and a What The Butler Saw mutoscope in The Sleeping Room. I'm always creeped out in a horror film when something shows up on film that wasn't there before, and it's nicely done in The Canal. Of the two, I think The Sleeping Room is the slightly better film: I enjoyed it more and found the characters deeper and more interesting. This is not to suggest The Canal isn't any good; I still found it pleasurably creepy in a way which, as mentioned, we don't tend to see very often. Both movies are worth tracking down if and when they ever turn up (I understand The Canal is scheduled for an American release), but for me The Sleeping Room has the edge.

***
***

Monday, 1 September 2014

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

It's been nine years since the original Sin city: the unashamedly violent and visually stunning pulp noir anthology which put comic strip imagery onto the screen in an innovative and stylish way. Directors Frank Miller (who wrote the original graphic novel) and Robert Rodriguez have now returned, though without the original's guest director Quentin Tarantino, for this more-of-the-same follow-up mixing new and returning characters in that same terrific visual palette of harsh black and white with stabs of occasional colour.

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For flips between two principal stories: firstly the treacherous and frequently naked femme fatale Eva Green's plot to bump off her husband and let her hapless ex Josh Brolin take the fall, and secondly evil senator Powers Boothe's merciless retaliation after being thoroughly routed in a high stakes poker game by God Of Gamblers Joseph Gordon Levitt. Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba and Bruce Willis all return (the last as a ghost since he died at the end of the first film, although so did Rourke, thereby completely messing up the timeline of both movies).

Whilst I certainly wouldn't want the films' signature look to become a mainstream technique every other week, I still like it enough to be more than perfectly happy to see it come around once a decade. Sin City: A Dame To Kill For isn't anything new and it isn't anything radically different from the first film; it is very much more of the same. Which is fine by me, but that's probably enough now.

***

I SURVIVED A ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST

CONTAINS SPOILERS, ISH

Nothing to do with Marino Girolami's silly but passably entertaining Zombie Holocaust, this gory New Zealand splatter comedy plays strictly for laughs throughout, echoing early Peter Jackson and the less morally offensive output from Troma rather than serious horror films. It has a few digs at the genre movie industry, a sweetly clumsy romance, the occasional bit of genuinely gruesome bad taste horror (specifically a penis visual), and it is obviously trying. Sadly it doesn't entirely work.

Fresh out of film school, hapless but enthusiastic nerd Wesley is hired as a runner and general whipping boy on the set of a clearly terrible low-budget zombie movie. He is, of course, bullied and humiliated, falling in love with the catering girl in the process, while trying to get his own zombie movie script read by the tyrannical director. But all the low-budget movie fakery suddenly turns very real as genuine zombies turn up for unspecified reasons, surrounding the film crew with the actual walking dead....

The characters are all very broadly drawn, from the ridiculously muscular idiot lead and the ridiculously shouty director through to the ridiculously horrible prima donna actress. Except for Wesley himself, that is: his nerd-lite hero is closer to the bumbling innocent of Peter Jackson's Braindead than a frankly offensive depiction such as, say, The Toxic Avenger's Melvin (a characterisation of nerdiness that comes dangerously close to mocking the mentally handicapped).

It is intermittently amusing, and some of the gory highlights are suitably horrible. But just being intermittently amusing really isn't enough these days and making gags about horror movies is something you can only get away with in the context of a really good horror movie. Wes Craven's Scream can pull it off, while a piece of injoke laden hackwork like Hack! really cannot. Sadly, I Survived A Zombie Holocaust is a long way behind Scream: not completely at the other end of the scale, but too far away to really be able to get away with it. Not entirely terrible, but not really good enough.

**

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

OPEN WINDOWS

CLICK X TO CLOSE SPOILERS

Easily my favourite film of FrightFest 2014, Nacho Vigalondo's audacious hi-tech real-time thriller is also one of the best films of the year so far and it's a pity there doesn't seem to be a UK release on the horizon. One hopes, because for the most part it's gripping as hell, visually stylish despite being shot entirely through webcams, cellphones and security cameras, and horrifying in its suggestions of what a determined individual can do with computers. Granted, it does take its foot off the gas in the last twenty minutes or so, losing tension rather than cranking it up even more, but even so it's a treat. Oh, and it's all done in one single shot.

Not really, of course. Technically, Open Windows is one unblinking stare at the laptop display of webmaster Elijah Wood, in town to interview top movie star Sasha Grey for his fansite. He's suddenly contacted online by Neil Maskell and informed the interview is cancelled - but he can still obtain lots of juicy information by installing a few tools to hack into her cellphone and access all her conversations, such as the imminent meeting with her agent in a hotel room. But things get complicated when the agent spots him, and Wood ends up forced to take physical action...

Much of the first hour or more, with Vigalondo's camera roaming over the various displays on Wood's desktop, makes for a dazzling extended split-screen sequence that overshadows even vintage Brian De Palma, not least because the multiple viewpoints technique doesn't just last for a couple of minutes like the setpieces in Blow Out or Sisters, but just keeps going throughout the whole film. He even manages to include a car chase! It's a pity that the film feels the need to put in extra plot twists that diffuse the excitement towards the end, bringing into question who Wood and Maskell really are, and raising the stakes far above the apparently pointless harassment of a hot movie star, because for my money it was already exciting enough at that level.

Sure, the technology on display is far-fetched. Seeing through concrete walls? Where are the popups telling Wood that he can't open this link until he installs a software upgrade? Or the "Buffering: 17%" messages? How come his internet connection never goes down or his laptop battery doesn't run out at an inopportune moment? But that doesn't matter: it's all a dramatic device to tell the story, no more representative of reality than the absurd forensic technogubbins you see every week on CSI. And for at least 80% of Open Windows it works brilliantly. I want to see it again.

****