22 December 2010

At the Cinema: Monsters

Monsters (Gareth Edwards/2010) UK/94mins. *****

Some key plot points are revealed below

Several years ago a film like Monsters – a contemplative alien invasion movie from first-time director Gareth Edwards – would’ve likely received a low-key release and gradually blossomed into that currently increasingly rare thing: the sleeper hit. Now, it’s a cause for widespread fascination even before the digital pixels have had time to settle into their live-footage backdrops. Such is the way of the current Faster More Now movie cycle. But then the film’s dexterously advanced technology, harnessed through Edwards’ seamlessly savvy way with a minuscule budget and a laptop, has made the film resound with loud appeal. And, hey, why ever not. Kudos to Edwards for getting it made. I’d never bemoan him the high praise he’s been getting for achieving such a nifty feat of movie-making proficiency. (Indeed some sequences in Monsters are wonderfully vivid and point to seasoned expertise, not first-time experimentation, behind the camera.) But I can’t quite see why it’s been touted as the revelatory world-beater that it has. Isn't Edwards just reconfiguring known components into something that merely looks slightly different?

The narrative isn’t up to much. In a relatively recently brokedown world, newly overrun by gigantic amphibious alien life forms, perplexed photographer Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is asked by his boss to shepherd his daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able), through an “infected zone” between Mexico and North America to safety. The focus is on the two bound-for-each-other protagonists; the aliens are merely the remarkably-realised backdrop, a once otherworldly and unfamiliar element unleashed upon the world, now an irksome given. There are a few flickers of, if not quite terror, then curiously palpable unease within the thrifty narrative, but a few more pit-stop pauses evidently wedged in to further acquaint us with the couple and the gulf of burgeoning feeling between them.

An element of frustration for destruction-hungry viewers is inevitable. But the production gumpf tells us not to expect too many actual monsters in Monsters: thrill-seekers will have to look elsewhere; this is the calm after the storm. Any and all notable landmarks and famous monuments have long ago been smashed to pieces, their remnants already carted off to the scrapyard, leaving in their places well-photographed emptiness. We see the sunken aeroplanes, stranded boats and fractured roads left in the wake of an unforeseeable interstellar attack. But just because the characters within the world of Monsters are now passé about the environment being taken over by massive squid-like beings, it doesn’t mean that an audience will be. (Edwards' camerawork backs up the less-is-more approach in its almost staunch refusal to look for any extraneous adventure; he positions himself as baffled by-stander – I'm guessing the budgetary constraints may have something to do with this.) But it wouldn’t matter so much if spectacle and nonnatural flourish were sidelined for arousing dialogue and intrepid characters, but the dull-as-ditchwater duo present rankle. (Dare I suggest that – however refreshing it can be to see relative unknowns get a shot – my not-actually-joking preferred casting option of Paul Rudd and Anna Faris, playing it as straight as it required, might have imbued the film with much-needed personality.)

McNairy's and Able’s characters’ scant lack of personable charm doesn’t invite much sympathy for their plight. A rich-girl dreamer and a photographer-poseur are probably two types I’d like to see die off first in an alien invasion movie – however pared back the invasion is. Would a pair of wayward, forced explorers, desperate beyond words to reach their destinations, be as limp and ineffectual as they are? Whichever way you glaze it, there’s something a bit pat about a bland, good-looking couple falling in love with one another whilst an indifferent world continues on its path to hell around them. Is there anything truly captivating within the film's closing moments that suggest the pair won’t just carry on regardless after their exit? Will Andrew now not sell his photos to earn his living because he didn’t snap a dead child? Will Samantha not eschew all luxury now she’s seen a truck get crushed by tentacles? It's open to interpretation, surely. But nothing in their body language suggests sea change; nothing in their exchanges suggests revelation. Also, what if the two glowing squidy invaders in the penultimate shot aren’t sharing an intimate moment (as many people have proposed) but are actually having a chat to hatch an evil plan for world domination? It could go either way. Because we're ushered in the direction of dreamy realisation it doesn't mean to say that's what's happening.

Some stand-alone shots are quite moving. I very much liked the travelogue imagery of those abandoned wares and vehicles left forever distressed on the riverbanks and roads – the bits which get all too hastily glossed over in more familiar disaster movies such as 2012 or Independence Day. This depreciated everyday detritus, ignored and left to rot, often carries emotional significance, especially when no available human presence manages to shoulder it. There’s some intriguingly ominous business with a trolley-pushing bag lady, a massive walled enclosure - that either secures America from alien infection, or vice versa, depending on your personal interpretation of the film's title - and a mysterious, late-night river cruise. These moments arouse pathos splendidly and linger in the memory long after the images of the nearly-lovers’ bored faces evaporate. But Monsters’ journeying, though technically alluring, is rarely as immersive or as interesting as, say, Clive Owen’s befuddled, subjective path in Children of Men, or even as diverting as Cloverfield’s in-crowd’s directionless blundering. Edwards' film is a middling diversion, not the spectacular discovery you may have been lead to expect. As someone who wanted very much to include it on my year-end tally, it pains me to say that.

16 December 2010

Three Takes Only (Pt 4)

The first series of my Take Three columns over at The Film Experience has ended for a Christmas and Oscars/awards season break. So here are links to all the actors and actresses featured in the series from where I left off last time in the previous Three Takes Only round-up post. (Click on names for links to articles)

David Warner
From Beyond the Grave, The Omen, The Man with Two Brains

Kim Basinger
Batman, L.A. Confidential, The Burning Plain

Harry Dean Stanton
collective work for David Lynch, Alien/Wise Blood, Paris, Texas

Melissa George
Mulholland Dr., George horror/thriller round-up, Triangle

Terence Stamp
Teorema, Superman II, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Emily Watson
Gosford Park, Red Dragon, The Proposition

Paddy Considine
Last Resort/My Summer of Love, Cinderella Man/In America, Dead Man's Shoes

Take Three will return in February 2011. It will abseil down a mountain to reach you, just like James Bond.

7 December 2010

At the Cinema: Somewhere

Somewhere (Sofia Coppola/2010) USA/97mins. *****

Sofia Coppola’s new film Somewhere starts in first gear but ends on autopilot. She’s bold enough to allow an experimentally languorous preamble at the outset, even letting some intriguing dead air permeate her cinematic confectionery early on (a pre-title scene of a car circling a racetrack from a fixed camera position takes its own sweet time), but due to an increasing familiarity of tone it becomes Sof-Copp-by-numbers by the halfway mark. I’m always keen on what she’ll come out with next, but – as with Christopher Nolan's work – I find myself wondering if I’ll ever truly love one of her films. Can I only snatch brief glimpses of the overall greatness many others see in her work? Or are her movies simply time-passing fancies for me, and little more? Either way, we’ve been here before: a transitionary protagonist wallowing in hotel life has life-changing meeting; things likely get immeasurably altered whilst we bathe in the hazy luxury of hip delight. Sofia Coppola is very much dealing with home-away-from-home comforts.

Her film is entirely lovely to look at (as photographed by the great Harris Savides), and it has some well selected and aptly placed pop songs on the soundtrack (keep ears pricked for Phoenix's opening titles score, inventively made up of car engine revs), but it feels too much like happy stasis. Its first twenty-or-so-minutes largely constitute a series of instances woven together in the life of fading, strung-out Hollywood movie star Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff) – he fritters time away in between routine appointments, lounging with pole dancers, navigating tiresome parties with film world flakes, and indulging in some vacant, soul-searching stares from the Chateau Marmont hotel balcony, and so on – but, despite being some of the film's best moments, they do feel slightly inconsequential overall. (Is this Coppola's key point?) This is all well and good, however, until he has to take charge of his estranged daughter (Elle Fanning) and attempt to emotionally re-engage with his real self in the process.

Cool and listlessly somnambulant drifters are common currency for Coppola. She doesn’t entirely take her characters anywhere fresh in her L.A. jaunt, and after a while it’s fairly easy to predict where Somewhere will end up. The film meanders nicely enough – Sofia does love those lazy days away – but it loses some of its early finesse on later scenes which don’t really go anywhere, or say anything, particularly interesting. Coppola is obviously criticising the Hollywood machine here, but she’s also clearly enamoured with it too: she’s well-placed to take aim, but maybe too close to really have something coruscating to say. She’s a direct product of it, too, which makes several of her soft attacks come off as slightly too precious, a bit like artistic therapy for its own sake. She wants to eat the hand that feeds her, but merely ends up nibbling its fingernails. Although it does effectively pinpoint some of the less glamorous actorly tasks with some wit and effective clarity. (A make-up test sitting, where Dorff is caked in old man prosthetics, is both deliberately ponderous and strangely creepy – it incrementally speaks volumes about the cyclical nature of stardom in one acute slow zoom.)

Somewhere has the most relaxed, laid back atmosphere of any film I’ve seen this year, save for perhaps Greenberg, which it feels somewhat akin to at times. And it's an effective, refreshing and pastel-soft escapist diversion for a globe still in economic crisis. But, then again, is an indulgent tale about a privileged, self-examining A-lister quite what the world needs right now? Dorff and Fanning are good enough at playing relaxed and carefree, and Savides’ superb photography (more L.A. kinship with Greenberg) is, without question, some of the year’s best. But despite some choice scenes of upended introspection, and amusing examinations of the tedious side of fame, there is leftover merely a lot of dependably shot elegant slumming. I got the feeling Coppola is coasting here, however blissfully  fuzzy the ride. I went in disarmed and curious, but left with a shrug. Somewhere could equally have been called Here, There or Anywhere.

This review has been altered and expanded from a piece from the LFF I wrote for The Film Experience

3 December 2010

50 Words for Julianne Moore

Today is Julianne Moore's 50th birthday. Moore is an actress I've enjoyed seeing on screen for many years, so I wanted to mark this occasion and post up fifty - rather daft, all too hastily assembled - words that concisely sum up my appreciation of the actress and her work.

17 years. Been thrilled since Benny & Joon in a Dublin fleapit. Short Cuts stunned; Safe was the clincher. Magnolia cemented the deal. Versatility since has been glorious. Blindness, Savage Grace; tears on cheekbones. I always look forward to seeing that face. Happy Birthday Ms. Moore, you’re fifty years young.


Julianne Moore photographed by Serge Leblon and styled by Christopher Campbell for Blackbook march 2010
(These were my favourite photographs taken of Julianne during her 49th year.)

30 November 2010

At the Cinema: Skyline

Skyline (Colin Strause, Greg Strause/2010) USA/94mins. *****

Skyline is a big, messy monstrosity. It's second-tier sci-fi but with nary a hint of shyness. It's a fully self-aware B-Movie: a monster flick, proud to be one, and little more. For what it’s worth, it’s a fun ride. The plot in short: aliens descend on L.A. to collect people for some ungodly reason; a disposable bunch of innocuous hip types hide out in an apartment complex, to ponder which option – fight or flight – is the best open to them. Good luck with either, folks. There’s something undeniably and inexcusably derivative embedded deep down in its DNA. There are whopping great big pointers to Independence Day and its ilk (Skyline has a distinctly mid-‘90s sheen), and an unavoidable wink to the recent District 9. There is, though, barely perceptible from the sidelines, the faintest, haziest vapour of Cronenberg, too: a sliver of Shivers. And hurrah to that.

In one scene, in an underground car park, an alien being’s tentacled limb grasps a man’s head – his face displaying blackened, possessed eyes – and wields it aloft as if it were using him to channel some terrible psychic message outward. The image is memorable – well, at least as memorable a single, riveting image in a harmlessly mediocre film (which this is) as the red-eyed jungle beast in Uncle Boonmee. The action in the film’s hectic, get-out-of-the-city! mid-section forms the film’s most entertaining sequence – more so than the obviously eye-grabbing effects shots of the spaceships (which look like someone had tried to sellotape a load of twisted metal shavings back into their original objects and failed miserably) breaking through the smoggy L.A. sky and hoovering up humans like specks of dirt.

It’s been reviewed rather badly – and unfairly, if you ask me. The overwhelmingly negative and, to be honest, downright sniffy comments it's mostly garnered so far seem to miss the point. It's ridiculous cheese – workmanlike low-budget tat that found a few extra quid down the back of the sofa, and made it stretch far so it could have its day in broad daylight (albeit in a darkened auditorium). I think perhaps the fact that it’s actually on the big screen might be baffling folks. If it were to pop up on a Sci-Fi channel, late at night and unannounced, folk would likely ask why it didn't get a proper theatrical release. However, on the big screen it gets derided for its cheap and wonky tone and z-grade edges. It can't win. The equally shamelessly imitative, woeful and, yes, tin-bucket fun Piranha 3D got off lightly, then.

I’m glad Skyline made the marquees. On occasion “lesser” sci-fi yarns such as this often contain one or two inspired moments that the makers of prestigious and sprawling sci-fi yawns - the Solaris remake, say - struggle to come up with over their films' entire run times. It's well worth its weight in aluminium. (It ultimately falls squarely in line with other recent, ridiculous DVD-only titles Infestation and The Blackout.) It’s not entirely camp enough for retweetably naff classic status, and it has barely an ounce of genuine charm to call its own, but it does have a ridiculous desire to entertain – and entertain hard. And it's easier on the eye than either Transformers. Remember, a B-Movie given a free theatrical pass and let loose on the box office is nothing to be wary of. Take a closer look before you shoot it down. Somehow I feel that Roger Corman might approve. William Castle certainly would have.

28 November 2010

Bullet Points of the Dead: The Walking Dead Episode 3

The new zombie series The Walking Dead is on in the UK every Friday night. I'm (hoping I'll be) posting up three bullet-pointed observations about each episode. Here's the first post and here's the second. These posts are deliberately "chatty" and written with the intention of being read as quick observations, notes essentially. Info/synopsis here.

Episode #3: Tell It to the Frogs

  • This was the weakest episode yet. I say this as if the series has been showing for weeks; it's only the third episode. But the early plunge into tedium is off putting (I'm pretty sure this will be temporary). I found myself easily distracted during much of its hour-long run-time. Whether this could be chalked up to a general lull in the narrative, a dip in ideas or a calm before the storm scenario is open to question, but there was plenty of dead air surrounding the walking dead this episode.

  • Michael Rooker's racist redneck character is already too much of a stock type to be either truly convincing or anywhere near interesting... as yet. (Admittedly he hasn't had much time to flesh the role out, but it's essentially like a harder, more concentrated version of the nutjob he played in The Trigger Effect.) He's trapped on a rooftop with zombies about to breach the door between them and him. We know he survives - it's all but spelled out in the left-dangling images at th end of his scenes. Also, his rant - the wailing pity cry for help he performs whilst struggling to free himself from handcuffs - felt like he was trying too hard. Well, either that or the writers were. His expounding of his lot in life came across as pointless and illogical - a bad, mightily fudged set-up for future events. (I'm holding out for something far more surprising from Rooker - the writing is keeping largely him hidden for now, maybe they have a bigger purpose in store for him.) Norman Reedus showing up late, as Rooker's probably equally racist brother, is good news - I haven't seen him in anything since John Carpenter's Masters of Horror episode Cigarette Burns - but he'll clearly need to ease into the role on early evidence.

  • This episode was also the least visually interesting. The settlement scenes (attempts at an end-of-the-world community banding together) are on the whole uninspired, but something - I'm not sure quite what - is telling me that there's more occurring here. More in the offing, that we're not being given yet. It's interesting, but frustrating. There has to be a reason for so much dead time. At least I do hope so. On a side note: The females are rather, er, lightly drawn thus far (and that's putting it nicely). And the dialogue trails off often, occasionally going nowhere. I was left with one overriding feeling at the close of this episode: something's gotta give.

21 November 2010

London Links: Five Film Festival Reviews 2010

As I mentioned a while back, I'd post up some reviews for the LFF. Here are links to five out of all the films I saw at the 54th BFI London Film Festival (between the 13th and the 28th October) and for which I wrote reviews on for The Film Experience.

I managed to see a great many films over the two-and-a-half weeks -with one outstanding work, several very good films, a few surprises and no real howlers. I didn't write about all of the films I saw (although there are a few more reviews I'll link to soon), but below are five on which I wanted scribble up a few words. (Star ratings, as an added indication for quick perusal, are out of five.)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives **½ (ApichatpongWeerasethakul/2010/Thailand) This film was released in the UK on November 19th. 

Winter Vacation / Han jia ***½
 (Li Hongqi/2010/China) UK release date TBC

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale *** 
(Almari Helander/2010/Finland) This film is released in the UK on Dec. 3rd.

A Screaming Man / Un homme qui crie **** 
(Mahamat-Saleh Haroun/2010/Chad) This film will be released in the UK on May 13th 2011

What I Love the Most / Lo que más quiero ** 
(Delfina Castagnino/2010/Argentina) UK release date TBC

14 November 2010

Bullet Points of the Dead: The Walking Dead Episode 2

The new zombie series The Walking Dead is on in the UK every Friday night. I'm (hoping I'll be) posting up three bullet-pointed observations about each episode. Here's the first post from earlier in the week. These posts are deliberately "chatty" and written with the intention of being read as quick observations, notes essentially. Info/synopsis here.

Episode #2: Guts

  • Because it's a series certain scenes or sequences last longer than they perhaps normally would in a stand-alone film. This is obvious. But with zombie-based filmmaking the emphasis is often on making those we're-trapped-so-let's-escape moments feel as quick and frenetic as possible, so that we're put right there alongside the characters. This episode itself is the perfect example of that kind of moment being stretched out to fill (nearly) an hour: the whole of this second 47 min. episode was almost solely taken up by watching a gang of survivors attempt to get out of a building. Essentially this is what Romero achieved in Dawn of the Dead. Now, episode 2 of TWD reaches nowhere near the heights of his film, but it is cosying up to the memory of it in a somewhat enterprising fashion. Obviously much of current Mainstream cinema (think of the type of filmmaking TWD might fit into) would demand brevity in such a situation - get in quick, get out quick - but The Walking Dead creates both tension and space to breathe, in one, here. But that's because it can. It has plenty of time up its sleeve. (Well, six hours' worth.) And the makers clearly have an over-arching narrative to fulfill. One thing that may disappoint, however, is that if it's going to take so long for certain events to transpire, will it reach a satisfactory conclusion within the remaining four episodes? But, then again, asking this is jumping the gun. There's always that little thing called a cliffhanger...

  • The hacking up of the recently-dispatched body with an axe, and then two characters, Rick and Glenn (Lincoln, Steven Yuen), smearing its intestines, guts and general bodily grue (of the episode's title) over themselves to avoid detection (the zombies can't smell living flesh if it's covered in the innards of the dead, apparently) whilst they attempted an escape from the surrounded building was an inspired, sickly and unsettling moment. It had the feel of a set-piece. It may very well have been a moment from the original graphic novels (which I've not read any of), but it is of course rather derivative of the 'mimicking the zombies to avoid capture' sequence in Shaun of the Dead (2004). It's a moment that uses dark comedy well, and feels like the first genuinely subversive moment of the show. It begs the question, Just how compassionate are these people really? How desperate are they to survive? What other lengths will they go to? (Live bait next time?) This could hint at something more interesting lurking beneath some charcaters' personas.

  • The overhead shots of the street-level zombies. I'm thinking of characters looking down at Rick in the surrounded tank at the start of the episode, and them then again looking down to the ground below during the entrails-covered escape attempt. It all looks very well shot and the images are excellently composed, but aren't the zombies a bit too nicely arranged? Aren't they too perfectly and evenly spaced out? The stumbling undead would surely not be so well choreographed - this isn't Michael Jackson's Thriller. This is a minor quibble - and I've never been one to bemoan aesthetic invention, however stylised - but it strikes me that in some instances the makers are aiming for an effective slickness instead of an urgent and confusingly bewildering atmosphere. Zombies themselves are messy, so their formation should be too, yes?

Plus: I'm also aware that it's perhaps best not to either over- or under-praise the show too much as yet. It's got a fair way to go before it reveals its actual MO, and it's early days. But it stays insanely enjoyable for now.

10 November 2010

Bullet Points of the Dead: The Walking Dead Episode 1

The new zombie series The Walking Dead started last Friday night in the UK (FX channel at 10:00pm). I'd been waiting a while for it and am excited that it's now being shown, as horror-based serials such as this aren't too commonplace on today's TV schedules. Who would have thought there would one day be a regular zombie show on the telly. It wasn't so long ago that a variety zombie movies were struggling to resurface and get financing (I'm thinking no longer than 12 years). Nowadays, they're ten-a-penny. Just goes to show that, sooner or later, when something catches on it will likely expand into other platforms.

But, then again, two years ago we had the excellent Big Brother-meets-Dawn of the Dead three-parter Dead Set. Three episodes wasn't enough, though, however good they were. The Walking Dead has so far gone down well in the US, where it's showing a week ahead of the UK. (Isn't that always the way?) I'm pretty certain that if its success continues, and the fans and fair-weather watchers alike rally around it, it will go ahead with a second series (there are murmurs already, apparently).

So to acknowledge this zombie telly invasion, to give a hearty tip of the hat in its grim and gory direction, and to generally have a place to keep some ongoing, quickly-formed thoughts on it (as observational notes, or some such thing), I wanted to (try to) write an entry each week for its six-week duration, starting today. Three bullet-pointed paragraphs on each episode.

Info/synopsis here.

Episode #1: Days Gone By

  • So far, the production values / overall filmmaking (or telly-making, if you will) are refreshing, seamless and of a high quality. The direction, editing, photography and special effects are particularly standout. I'm guessing the high level of the effects work will remain consistent, so I'll comment on them further when there's been much more prolonged undead gurning occurring each episode. But so far the zombies - particularly that half-person crawling along the grassy verge - are convincing and appropriately horrible. They need to be for it to work well.
  • It conjured the crux, the vital matters, of Richard Matheson's  I Am Legend with far more emotion and brevity than did I Am Legend, the 2007 movie. I didn't dislike the latest film version of Matheson's novel, but as far as depicting the sick, gut-wrenching and near-ungodly feeling of seeing your loved ones somehow both dead and alive at the same time - and banging on the door of their home, desperate to be let back in - whilst you look at them through cross hairs thinking about allowing them a second death, it's done a stellar job so far. And without much in the way of fussy heel-dragging to it. I like that the emotion in certain scenes is clearly apparent and deeply saddening yet concise: it occurs, we take it in, then we move on. Key events - and the emotions aroused by them - may very well be later reiterated for further effect in particular characters' narrative arcs. This bodes well.
  • Time. It's using it well. And it's certainly biding its time with aplomb. It's making us wait for the good stuff, the stuff most people want, which is repeated zombie-human face-offs, and plenty of them. To offset this, to add an ounce of leverage, it's trading the lack of zombie carnage with some evocative atmospherics (which is actually often where the very best apocalypse fiction content is to be seen). It seems to be taking its sweet time to tell us certain things. And its pace is wonderful, deliberate, considered. Details such as it taking Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) an inordinate amount of time to exit the hospital, in a relatively early scene, are well conveyed and allow for the build of imminent tension. One gripe so far (not sure if it's minor/major yet): where are the women?
I'm not entirely sure if it will turn out to be a Lost-style meander, a Heroes-style elaborate concoction, or a Harper's Island-style saga. It's serial TV, but as bite-sized tellyfilms (not a million miles away from, say, the Master of Horror series). Its heart lies in the movies though. I'm sure 28 Days Later... has been, or will certainly be mentioned as a reference point, among many other similar movies. (Romero is a given.) This first episode built intrigue and showed the seeds of continuing drama and what appears to be a sturdy longevity. I'm looking forward to episode two.

7 November 2010

The Pleasure Principle: Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kümel/1971)

“What are you thinking about?” – “The same thing you are.”

The lower half of Delphine Seyrig's face can be a deadly place. She's introduced in Harry Kümel’s uncommon and otherworldly 1971 vampire flick Daughters of Darkness (AKA Les lèvres rouges) getting out of a car in the dead of night as a veiled and lipsticked shadow. She’s almost a disembodied mouth: hunger itself floating through the night. Kümel knows how to entice us into asking just who this woman of the night is. She’s the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, passing through Bruges, staying at a bleak, near-empty Ostend hotel with only eternal cohort Andrea Rau for company. But bright-eyed newlyweds Stefan and Valerie (John Karlen, Danielle Ouimet), travelling from Switzerland to England to see Stefan's "mother", stop off at the hotel, too; introductions commence, the foursome hit it off in a very strange way; Bathory looks longingly at Valerie...

It’s Seyrig’s Show. And I like it fine that way. It’s the way it plays. That’s not to say the three others don’t sear their own marks, but Seyrig commands any and every space she enters – both psychological and physical. The others have piecemeal moments to savour, but all characters orbit Bathory – so, too, does Kümel’s camera, which is so under her spell that it dissolves certain scenes to a blood red sheen when it’s done with them. Kümel is clearly enamoured with Seyrig. But he outwardly channels his adoration so we feel it too. It’s her smoky-purr voice. With sing-song insincerity she promises illicit, eternal bad deeds through those half-parted red lips of hers. She makes little sense – "Deep in my bones, I feel the night is dying!" – but she makes every word resound with feverish passion anyway. She could even make the instructions in an IKEA flat-pack shelving unit sound like sex talk.

I thought Seyrig in Resnais’ Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour and Last Year in Marienbad was the very picture of elegant sensuality, but in Daughters she’s something else. I did wonder, among other things, if she boosted sales for black candles and silver-sequined figure-hugging gowns in the early ‘70s, too. She’s cold though. And it's in that where the crux of Seyrig’s splendid performance fully takes hold. Watching her do her thing, acting how she does – the way she goes about her witchy business, whatever it truly is (we're in partial darkness ourselves here) – is chief of all joys in watching Daughters. You wouldn't want to gett too close to her, but you want to watch her for as long as possible.

The manner in which Seyrig books a mere room reservation at the hotel is enough to instill cold fear into an ageing bellhop. She makes laying knackered, in a purple-feather-trimmed gown, on a chaise longue look seductive. And she conducts the comings and goings of a hotel lobby with little but a pair of knitting needles and a wry smirk. (What does vampiric nobility knit exactly? A long black scarf to cover her victim’s neck bites?) There’s a weird moment when she inspects her face in an ornate hand mirror. True to vampire lore, her face casts no reflection, yet her hand is visible. Is this a continuity mistake, a gaffe? Or some beguiling detail left for us to ponder?

There aren't too many films like Daughters. It occupies an odd, disquieting place between a Hammer horror and a Jean Rollin film: it extends the former to reach outwards, but reigns in the excessive longueurs of the latter. It will likely continue to be seen as some kind of missing link in vampire movie chronology. But isn’t it better viewed as the spiky, sexed-up one-off it truly is? It’s 1970s Vampire filmmaking’s cheap one-night stand in luxurious surroundings.

The photography, editing, locations (the inky European night scenes are reminiscent of the same year’s Il conformista) and set design are all splendid. But, instead of flagging the usual filmmaking components for special merit, it’s the embellishments to Seyrig which deserve to be singled out for high praise. All the other aspects work together to enhance her personal styling as much as they conjure up Kümel's dark world. The hair, gowns, furs, shoes and make-up – by Alexandre, Bernard Perris, Benoit, Lautrec and Ulli Ullrich, respectively – are the very things that hold Seyrig’s enigmatic presence together. Whoever said that all style (and no substance) is a bad thing needs to watch just what she does with acres of it here. And she gives it sublime substance.

Both the music and Kümel’s direction are terrific, too. François de Roubaix’s score is one of the best 1970’s soundtracks to a film I’ve heard in quite a while. And it’s influential, too. Pulp’s This Is Hardcore and Lady Gaga’s Telephone discernibly echo two different and distinct pieces de Roubaix creates here. And a more explicit reference (with the dialogue as well as the music) can be heard on Rob Zombie’s Hellbilly Deluxe album – (“Don’t lie to yourself... it gave you pleasure,” being the opening sample of his song Demonoid Phenomenon; another exchange (mentioned above) is spliced into his song The Living Dead Girl). But de Roubaix makes eternal damnation sound playful, mysterious and seriously sexy.

Kümel pitches his direction to make everything seem a notch grander than it is. But that’s part of the beauty of what he does. The bruised and Belgian half-light covers up what may very well have been rather commonplace exterior locations, but the way Kümel frames every locale – hotel rooms, roads, sandy dunes – adds a layer of mystery that seeps down to the heart of the film. And he may very well have instinctively soaked up some of the influence of the then-recently-released sci-fi hit, 2001: A Space Odyssey. (There’s a definite Kubrickian hint to the framing of the hotel lobby.)

It’s all about basking in forbidden joy though. Undenied pleasure is what Daughters is selling. The Countess and Ilona (Rau) exist to scour Europe for new lovers to introduce the delights of the undead to. Bathory instigates lovemaking between Valerie and Stefan, as she does the narrative-altering sex scenes between Ilona and Stefan, albeit at a distance; and she steals small kisses and mini lip bites with any one of the above for her own demented desires whenever she can. It’s a film that celebrates pleasure – female pleasure especially. Bathory was, after all, intoxicated by Valerie; and it’s she who takes the Countess’ erotic shenanigans to another level in the film’s strange coda. I wish more films nowadays would dwell upon baffling, intoxicating images that convey the tactile nature of flesh. I wish at least some contemporary films could take the same kind of pleasure in evocatively exhibiting sensuousness as this film did. This is bewitching cinema – in every possible way.

1 November 2010

Three Takes Only (Pt 3)

As I mentioned recently, there are times when the Dark Eye Socket updates can be sadly few and far between, but just recently, alongside the usual weekly Take Three columns for Nathaniel R's The Film Experience (see below), I've been at the 54th BFI London Film Festival (more on this later) watching as many films as possible for the duration of the festival, and writing up some words on a selection of them, again for TFE. Also, there have been other pieces I've been working on for both online and print: my upcoming piece on film sound ("Scoring Points for Film") in the launch issue of The Hub Magazine; and various other posts at TFE.

But for now, below are links to all of the Take Three pieces I've written over the last few months, for your general or specific perusal:

1-4 of the Take Three columns are linked to in a post here. This link takes you to a grouped link post for the 5-11. Below are straight-up links (click on the names) to the latest batch of supporting/character actors, 12-22:

An Education, Doom, The Libertine
Sterling Hayden
Dr. Strangelove,  The Killing, Johnny Guitar
James Franco
Spider-Man trilogy, Milk, Pineapple Express
Dianne Wiest
Edward Scissorhands, Synecdoche, New York, Hannah and Her Sisters
Grace Jones
Boomerang, Vamp, A View to a Kill
Steve Buscemi
Reservoir Dogs, The Island, x5 Coen Brothers films
Amanda Plummer
My Life without Me, The Fisher King, Pulp Fiction
Paul Schneider
Bright Star, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, All the Real Girls
Laurence Fishburne
Predators/Armored, The Matrix films, Tina: What's Love Got To Do with It
Deborah Kara Unger
Fear X/The Game, Crash, Silent Hill
Anna Faris
Brokeback Mountain, Lost in Translation, Waiting...

David Warner is next up, tonight, then very likely coming soon may well be: Christopher Lloyd, Alfre Woodard, Diane Ladd, Emily Mortimer, Grace Zabriskie, Margaret Dumont, Jane Lynch, Isaach De Bankolé, Alice Braga, Michael Lerner, Jeff Goldblum, Ruth Gordon, Harry Dean Stanton, Peter Sarsgaard, Julie Walters, Anthony Mackie, plus many more lined up in future. 

Updates on the LFF and The Hub Magazine, as well as more regular Dark Eye Socket posts, coming soon.

28 October 2010

What I Liked the Most About... Carnival of Souls (1962)

What I liked the most about 1962 horror masterpiece in miniature Carnival of Souls, a film about which I essentially like everything, was the moment when a dirty, lost and, for want of a better term, haunted mattress comes inexplicably hurtling down a seaside slide of its own accord. It's in the scene where Candace Hilligoss is vapidly wandering around the end-of-pier (un)amusements in her oblivious state of spectral, somnambulant bliss.

There's silence, tainted only with the merest hint of ghostly white background noise. Then the darn grotty thing appears as a shock to the system: both Hilligoss' and ours. It's a minor moment, sure, but a beautiful moment. One that significantly adds to the rich and uneasy tone of the film. Herk Harvey's direction was inspired in such instances as this – just as it was with the rest of the film. It's a true one-off scare in a true one-off film; quite literally, Harvey never made another feature. A singularly solid, creepy delight and perfect viewing for Halloween night... or day.

I enjoy every one of Carnival's wonderfully unsettling images. Here are a few stills from some of my favourite moments:

27 October 2010

What I Liked the Most About...The Baby (1973)

There's a lot to like about Ted Post's unusual family horror-drama The Baby from 1973. There's a lot to look downright perplexed about too. But then that's part of why it's a true one-off gem of wrongness. (Click the linked title for plot etc.) But what I liked the most about it was the brilliance of Ruth Roman. She gives one of the most wicked, snarling, all-consuming performances of the '70s as Mrs. Wadsworth, a matriarch so maniacally warped as to make the idea of Divine playing Mrs. Bates seem like cosy casting. Roman's simply superb here. She gives the role her all. She works wonders with crazy hair, blue roll-neck jumpers and a permanent scowl. In fact the movie has eye-popping performances from all the women: the two demented sisters, Germaine and Alba (Marianna Hill, Susanne Zenor), and Anjanette Comer as social worker Ann. They're all ably backed up by a great score by Gerald Fried, which is all sinister, abrupt cellos with a few '70s pop hits peppered throughout.

Ruth Roman as Mrs Wadsworth in The Baby (1973)

But another surprising and well-considered aspect to Post's cult curio is its ending: it has one of the best twist endings I've seen. It puts the likes of M.Night Shyamalan and The Usual Suspects to shame. I didn't see it coming at all, despite it actually being – in hindsight – blindingly obvious throughout as to what will happen. It's not even careful misdirection on Post's behalf, as we're essentially told everything we need to know, yet somehow I just didn't notice it. Good work from everyone involved.

Watch this genuinely oddball flick if you're interested in seriously bonkers '70s cinema of the most scurrilous kind. It also has some barking mad, corking dialogue, too: "Whada' you mean nothing happened?! I come home and you got your damn tit in his mouth!!" says Roman at her batshit-crazy best. Clever, funky, tawdry and so so good at being bad. It deserves a lot of overdue praise and an indecent amount of fresh adoration.

 More Ruth Roman wrongness in The Baby

25 October 2010

What I Liked the Most About... Saw (2004)

In the run-up to Halloween I thought I'd post up a series of entries briefly looking at What I Like the Most about certain horror films. I'm nearly done on my London Film Festival duties, and other film-based malarkey, and will be back to normal posting here at Dark Eye Socket. But in the meantime, a few brief words about some aspects of some (randomly chosen) horror films for the interim, regardless of whether I had a good time or a bad time watching them. This first post, on Saw, firmly fits the latter.

To be honest, there isn't much that I like about these Saw films. (Having accidentally caught five minutes of Saw III on TV the other evening this was more than reconfirmed for me – and this is despite having seen all previous six Saw films at the cinema.) But what I do enjoy about seeing them are the unexpected comical highlights. During the first Saw (2004) I was quite content sitting there for ninety-or-so minutes knowing I was having a horrible time, but that the horrible time would end in a little under ten more minutes and I could go and watch a proper horror film. But then along came Cary Elwes' weird old lady impersonation.

Elwes' performance was a joy to behold – and certainly painful to watch. By the end he was in a battered condition; his leg looked sore, but it was the acting that really smarted. Suddenly he goes from wholly unconvincing Everyday Doctor Guy (albeit trapped in a basement with half a leg off) to wholly convincing Feeble Old Lady (during the bit where he's crawling around on the floor: "Huuh, huuh, I've dohne it!" he says in an odd wobbly voice, after hacking the limb off). His not-at-all-meant-to-be-funny and ill-placed moans and screams were so out-of-sync with everything he conveyed beforehand as to be hysterically funny and plain baffling at the same time. Well, at least that was what I thought back in 2004. Either way, I was hooting like a demented owl. And having just rewatched him again in a clip now, it's still as funny as ever. (As funny as the couple competing to 'shed the pounds' in Saw 6, anyway.)

Having briefly checked out the credentials for this upcoming, and reputedly final, Saw installment ('The Traps Come Alive' – because, er, it's in 3D), a smile of wicked glee spread across my face: Cary Elwes is back! I always hoped Elwes would crop up again. And now he does. I sincerely hope he gets to crawl across a dirty bathroom floor, dragging his (lopped off) heels behind him. Roll on Saw 7. Or, um, Saw 3D. And then let them please put an end to the series for good. It was unintentional fun while it lasted. Kind of.

5 October 2010

Driven to distraction...

This is kind of my expression right now, and has been for a fair while:

Baffled, perplexed, surprised, anxious to get to wherever it is I'm going – the please-don't-dress-as-your-dead-mum-then-kill-me-in-the-shower look. (And I haven't even stolen $40,000!)

Well, it's either that or it's this:

Self explanatory, surely.

I recently watched Johan Grimonprez's excellent collage documentary Double Take and it got me thinking about one of my all-time favourite film characters, poor old Marion Crane, again – as well as just how insanely pleasurable everything Hitchcock is. It also reminded me that it's about this time of year that I break out the Psycho DVD and pay the Bates Motel another visit. Although, a rewatch of one of my very favourite Hitchcocks will have to wait...

Right now I'm trying to hurtle back and forth to London as much as possible in the attempt to cram in as many London Film Festival press screenings as possible. I'm also chiseling away on the two other Fulci pieces – The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery – for here; plus there's the regular weekly Take Three column over at Nathaniel's The Film Experience blog, which is on ongoing pleasure. There are many other posts and pieces in the pipeline too – and a print article for the Hub magazine's launch issue due soon – so normal Dark Eye Service will resume as soon as possible.

Anyway, we're now in October, which means Halloween. And, indeed, John Carpenter's Halloween – another film I always like to watch around this time of year. (Although I'm likely to say this any time of any year.) This month means there's usually wall-to-wall horror, so there will be more regular updates, big and small, incoming on here. That is if time permits. And I'll try darn hard to make sure it does.

13 September 2010

Fulci #1: Mood means the most in City of the Living Dead

 1 of 3 posts looking at Lucio Fulci's early '80s death trilogy

"The air in Dunwich is getting awful thick," moans a doomed barfly in Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi, aka The Gates of Hell), the first part in his loose death trilogy (followed by The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery, both in 1981). He's not wrong: swathes of ungodly fog deliver more than just poor visibility for the town's locals. After a priest hangs himself the Gates of Hell open up, ushering in the arrival of the living dead who start ripping seven shades out of the small New England town. At the same time, psychic Mary Woodhouse (the always wonderful Catriona MacColl, who appears in all three films in Fulci's trilogy) seemingly dies during a seance; reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) digs her up to help him investigate just what in gory hell is going on in the town. Along with doctor Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) and painter Sandra (Janet Agren), they have to put a stop to the mass zombie slaughter before All Saint's Day ushers in an almighty undead shitstorm of unfathomable proportions.

Father William Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) hangs around

One of the many evocative exterior establishing shots in City of the Living Dead

Fulci plots are never to be scrutinised thoroughly, or indeed at all: City is no exception. Narrative complexity was never top of his directorial in-tray and neither would I have wanted it to be. In City mood is paramount. How Fulci sustains atmosphere is the chief reason I keep coming back to him. It's the main draw, and - in my view - an integral part of his appeal to horror fans. He was a master of invoking unnerving, off-kilter moods. In particular the weird levels of urgency he instilled into his films through intercutting instances of interior and exterior tension. (Although, of course, some of the oddness may well have come about through a general budgetary raggedness: City was filmed in four weeks). The control he asserted throughout was as assured as many a director working with thrice his budget. The guy had style: many mood-driven moments in City stand as best testament to that.

The eyes have it: Catriona MacColl (as Mary) is afraid to blink in City of the Living Dead

Early on Fulci cuts between Mary alive in her coffin and Peter walking around the tombstones; he barely hears her screams. The sunny exterior is strikingly juxtaposed with the cold blue inside the coffin; the two spaces are edited together in such a way to create a weird unbalance. (The muffled screams audible outside the coffin create the feeling of dislocated suffocation.) It's a minor yet crucial sequence, impressive for its evocation of both immediate tension and eerie calm. In fact, the eldritch mood (pure unfettered unheimlich!) aroused within just about every one of Fulci's many external shots of houses or familiar buildings - of which there are plenty in City - is purveyed wondrously, and with great care. Those familiar buildings are made oh-so unfamiliar on account of Fulci's deft directorial decision making. (More on this in the next Fulci post, regarding The Beyond.)

The way Fulci's camera often foreground a light source entering into, or stationary within, the frame
  conjures a specific feeling of dread; he often evokes vast disquiet through simple technical means...

...and his exterior shots are always strangely memorably vivid

Fulci was also a whizz in conjuring up truly disquieting aural atmospheres to accompany his assured visuals, often to pre-empt his celebrated moments of gore. (Not just in City, or in the trilogy, but over his entire career.)  He often uses the elements to further mystify the feeling of mounting fear extremely well. He purposefully arouses exterior audio effects for establishing shots of buildings, then foregrounds them in subsequent interior scenes through expressive use of sound: wind, distant moans, or simply the weird white noise of night seeping into the relative safety of a domestic dwellings; the volume unnaturally heightened.

Luca Venantini (as John-John) wishes he was starring in Driller Killer

It's subtle, consistent filmmaking and maintains a curiously off-balance tempo from exterior to interior shots: the undead threat lurks everywhere, it suggests. Indeed, Fulci's City ghouls often appear without warning, literally embodying the dread built up through audio means (they teleport wherever and whenever they choose, it seems - as when one turns up in Sandra's house as she's painting a disembodied rhino's head hovering above an ocean!).

An impromptu storm of maggots in the drawing room 
- something that most films sadly neglect to provide.

Of course the prime ingredient in a Fulci film is the gore. Often slow motion, always prolonged - it's rigged to gush all over the screen at a moment's notice. Fulci's plots are almost superfluous conduits through which he channels his signature instances of bloodshed. The moments of gore are junctures of the most gruesome kind - standout set-pieces which pertain to the baggy narrative build-up, but jut out, and  launch off, seemingly embodying their own absurd reason for existing (i.e. Fulci knew his audience wanted it; he provided it). But maybe it's actually the loose narrative that's one long, frequently interrupted intervention - a frame on which to hang his ideas, to be wrapped around the gore more than to be logical storylines.

 Father Thomas eyes up his victims

The scene where a courting couple park up by the cemetery (the location of the entrance to one of the Seven Doors to Hell) sees some of Fulci's best moments of gore trauma. A girl and a guy make out, but that dead priest who insists on hanging around pops up so abruptly that just the sight of him alone makes the woman's eyes bleed and mouth foam; she promptly vomits up her innards (actually sheep entrails which Fulci apparently asked actress Antonella Interlenghi to swallow and regurgitate for realistic effect in the scene).

Tears run red: Daniela Doria (as Rosie) cries blood in City of the Living Dead

The guy, played by director Michele Soavi, watches on aghast before getting the back of his head ripped off. Par for the course with Fulci, yes, but what makes it memorable is the scene's duration (as always) and the way attention is paid to sense-specific horror - eyes slowly bleeding, intestines gradually oozing from the mouth - as well as the frequent imposing cuts back to the face of the priest. The focus on the drawn-out trauma, and its viscerally-detailed particulars, marks Fulci's gore out as a truly singularly sick vision, but always uniquely his own.

The undead are a pain in the neck for Christopher George (as Peter Bell)

There's something rigorously, indefinably reverberant about the way in which Fulci conjures up certain moods in his work, particularly in this death trilogy. His camera often returns again and again to empty sites of deceptively calm and mundane environments, pregnant with potential menace (more often than not wind-blown streets in City), as if he's forthrightly reiterating their importance within the overall effectiveness of the film, and, by extension, the crazed, slapdash - but no less intriguing for it - mythology surrounding the Seven Doors of Hell. Whether through maintaining a consistency of style and atmosphere, or through budgetary necessity, these are the moments which make a Fulci film really fly. Logic be damned.

Next: Fulci #2 The Beyond

RIP Claude Chabrol

RIP Claude Chabrol. The Cahiers du Cinéma critic, French New Wave innovator and influential French director died yesterday aged 80.

I've seen a fair few Chabrol films and still look forward to many more from his career. But out of the ones I've seen so far the very best was La cérémonie (1995), with Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire. As soon as I saw how he'd twisted a Ruth Rendell potboiler into a scorching comment on class and violence I knew it would be a film with a lasting impact, and one for the all-time best list. I've seen it a few times now, and it remains shocking, riveting and surprising with each watch; and contains excellent performances and, of course, smooth, wonderful direction. Its position among my very favourite French films from first viewing was, and still is, secured. Yesterday was a sad day for world cinema, but Chabrol leaves behind a body of impeccable work. Not least this engrossing masterpiece.

Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire in La cérémonie