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.