31 October 2011

Five Scary Movie Masks in Non-Scary Movies

I had to mark this year’s Halloween by of course looking at something scary within cinema, but without just selecting titles for a list of Favourite Horror Films Ever or something similar, I wanted to try something different. Last year I wrote about three randomly selected horror movies in a brief set of posts called What I Liked Most About... (I chose Saw, The Baby and Carnival of Souls). I also compiled a Top Ten Most Underloved and Under-Nourished Zombie Characters for The Film Experience.

Hello, I'm an 8-inch plastic replica of Michael Myers from the Halloween movies. 
I'm this post's official sponsor. Enjoy, or expect a visit from me later...

But this year I thought about the one image that suggests Halloween to me the most (and most obvious, ultimately) when I think about today: John carpenter’s Halloween, or, more specifically, the face of Michael Myers. One of the reasons he’s so scary is that for the most part, we don’t see his face. The spray-paint-altered William Shatner mask, with its dark eyeholes and deathly facade, is tantamount to fear itself in my eyes. Masks merely on their own can be enough to instil in someone sheer terror. It’s the human-looking-but-not-actually-human aspect. The fact that we don't know who or what lurks beneath it can be terrifying. Horror: fear of the unknown. But even when we do know who's under the plastic or the latex facade, is it scary then? Well, yes, sometimes it darn well is.

So I’ve come up with is a list of Five Scary Movie Masks in Non-Scary Movies. Of course there are some scary elements in one or two of the films below that could place them in, or close to, the horror genre. But on the whole none of them would be ostensibly be described as horror movies. Ok, Drive and The Dark Knight come close, but it can all get a bit blurry with certain films...

Gosling grapples with faceache in Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn/2011)

In the film Gosling’s actual face is only a slightly more animated version of, say, one of Easter Island’s head statues anyway, so an expressionless stuntman mask makes scant difference to the emotive transference of Driver’s persona. But Gosling was terrific in the role. He was rock solid. Unreadable. Static. All the qualities of a particularly effective mask. But for reasons of head-smashing unpredictability and unfettered revenge, Gos had to go covert and ‘mask up’. He looked like a close-shaved Channing Tatum in the wrong aspect ratio. If Michael Myers used William Shatner’s spray-painted Captain Kirk face to aid his killing spree, Gos as Driver looked as if he had fashioned a mask made from fat DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. Check that long shot of an imposing, unknowably fearsome Driver slowly moving toward a victim on the beach, with the lighthouse searchlight illuminating his best scary pose. Pure John Carpenter, that. Drive was driven by such horrific details.

Palin goes for the immature look in Brazil (Terry Gilliam/1985)

Something about such an innocent-seeming design like this baby-faced mask was actually quite unsettling when utilised by Terry Gilliam the way it was within his nightmarish dystopian vision, Brazil. Workmanlike hero Sam (Jonathan Pryce) is detained in a large silo-like structure (ifKafka designed the sets for The Empire Strikes Back...) and strapped to a dentist’s chair. That he’s interrogated by a man in clinical get-up, topped off with the above-mentioned mask, adds to the horriblly oppressive and downright freaky atmosphere. (As if Brazil wasn’t freaky enough; many of Gilliam’s films always seem to teeter on the edge of the horror genre.) I’m not sure if it’s a relief or another layer of hellishness when the face beneath the mask turns out to belong to Michael Palin, one of the screen’s best-loved comedy mugs. With its black eye holes and anguished expression, it resembles a defective, deformed and discarded doll part. And, whichever films they crop up in – horror or not – dolls are simply scary things.

Ledger steals the scene with a straight face in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan/2008)

Clearly Heath Ledger as The Joker is a frightful figure, a scary film persona, anyway you look at it. He obviously didn’t really require a mask to be terrifying. His scarred, smeared and crassly-made-up face was terrible mask enough to compliment the jokey alter-ego enough, twisted as it was by accident as much as it was by total fury for Batman’s demise. In The Dark Knight we are introduced to him as one of a handful of well-orchestrated bank robbers. We don’t know which one of them is actually him at first – they all wear the same scuffed and knackered faux clown face – but he eventually emerges out of the not-so-funny crowd. Not knowing which clown was the real Joker was paramount to the fear aroused in his introductory scene. He is one in a throng of many. The smiling eyes and unsmiling mouth of his disconcerting clown face make for an eerie entrance into the film. Why so shy, Joker?

Jolie mans up from the neck up in Salt (Phillip Noyce/2009)

Originally the Salt (which I reviewed last year) of the title was meant to be an Edward, Edwin, or even Ethan instead of an Evelyn; apparently, it was meant to be a movie vehicle for Tom Cruise. When he turned it down, they reconfigured the role for a female star. Step up, Angelina Jolie. She was more than willing to get salty with the role and man-up in one scene where she has to get past White House security undetected. It’s a daft moment in a daft film, but I’m not sure she realised quite how unsettling her transformation into a man would be – mainly because she looked like a Madame Tussauds waxwork model of David Guest in military uniform. But was her rubber-faced disguise meant to be a nod toward Cruise’s involvement in the movie? It certainly looks a bit like him, albeit an oddly lacquered, embalmed version. I don’t know quite what happened, but from this making of clip, it looks like it was actually Ryan Seacrest was the model for ManJolie. A scarier prospect than any horror makeup. She convinced the guards and made it through the presidential detectors though. If I were a security guard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I’d expect my P45 in the post the next day.

Dorff ages before our very eyes in Somewhere (Sofia Coppola/2010)

One of Sofia Coppola’s best ever moments of direction came in her film Somewhere. Stephen Dorff, as hip, ex-Hollywood star-turned-slacker Johnny Marco sits for a makeup session. The plaster is applied and we wait and watch as it dries. It feels as if it will take forever and that Coppola will film it in real time. Her camera gradually zooms in on his mud-rock-caked face. (Was there an ominous hum on the soundtrack, or did I imagine it? Was it merely Dorff’s laboured, creepy breathing I heard?) His encased head resembles a mutant bust. It becomes an object of horror by association. Its misshapen features, along with the eerie stillness of the moment, suggest an aura of terror; the feeling that something untoward is about to occur. What will happen next? Will Dorff suddenly break out and emerge a movie monster? Or maybe he will play out the remainder of the film just like this. In the next scene, however, Dorff can be seen in full old-man latex makeup – it was, of course, plaster cast preparation for a role. Coppola appeared to be making reference to the elongation of time on a film set and the frightening inevitability of old age at the same time. The implied horror was truly unsettling, but this realisation is scary enough and in a very real way.

Most of the selections were of recent films, but I was choosing titles based on the scary-face factor coming from non-horror movies and these five stood out. Others considered were: Eyes Wide Shut (Cruise's orgy-ball mask), V for Vendetta (V's famous show face), Donnie Darko (Frank's rodent scarer), Predator (the predator's grimacing headgear) and Darth Vader.

30 October 2011

Links to LFF: Final Round-up of the Festival

Here, in the link below, is a final LFF round-up conversation (with fellow The Film Experience writer David Upton) on a lot of the films we saw at the the 55th BFI London Film Festival.

To reiterate: it was decided that on the few occasions that David and myself happened to be at the same screenings, we would post up a 'review-chat' instead of a more standard review for the purpose of mixing it up with our LFF reports, and for the readers of the site to find out about films playing at the festival in a different way. (Here are links for The Awakening and Like Crazy.) So, for this last round-up we discussed what we liked, didn't like and pondered general thoughts about this year's festival. We have both included a small write-up on what out favourite films and performances were at the end. But here, as it stands now, is my top 7 of the festival:
  1. Snowtown
  2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
  3. Weekend
  4. Hors Satan
  5. Terri
  6. A Dangerous Method
  7. Pariah
Read the rest here

28 October 2011

Links to LFF: Early One Morning, Snowtown and Last Screening

Here are another three reviews of new films I saw at the 55th BFI London Film Festival. Again they are capsule, or mini, reviews, like with the ones I wrote on Pariah and Weekend last week). This trio - two from France, one Australia - are films that depict violent acts and unhinged minds and the circumstances that create them. The full reviews can be read in the link below at The Film Experience.

Snowtown: It’s a study of evil’s many rhizomic strands, throbbing with a pulse that beats in an unnervingly measured, dark manner. It charts the late-1990s murder of eleven people by serial killer John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) in the small title town. Bunting forms a disastrous fatherly relationship with Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), the teenage son of his lover Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris). The bravely headlong approach to the infamous story of Australia’s worst murder case is handled with breathtaking confidence and fluency of image...

Read the rest here

25 October 2011

Two Documentaries at LFF: Shock Head Soul and Lawrence of Belgravia

I saw a quartet of documentaries at the London Film Festival this year. Two probed the minds and personalities of their respective subjects in odd, amusing, though perhaps not always entirely successful ways (Shock Head Soul, Lawrence of Belgravia), and two more split their investigations into their subjects' lives into chapter-like, bite-size sections to perhaps display a clearer grasp on them (Dragonslayer, Whores' Glory). Here are the first two (the second two later in the week):

Shock Head Soul, an experimental documentary of sorts, strains perhaps too hard for an intensive effect. Director Simon Pummell takes a very formally strict, intelligent approach to his subject (as he similarly did with Bodysong), but the results, to my eyes and ears at least, felt overbearingly rigorous, far too dry and granite-like to allow easy passage into the environment he conjures up. Pummell has made an attempt to pepper his narrative – that of Daniel Paul Schreber, a former judge who received ‘messages’ from God and was committed to an institution – with slightly off-the-cuff imagery, but he neglected to vary the general tone of his visual sensibility or intellectual argument. It became quite hazy, dull even, and I have to say I became frustrated with its monotonously severe approach. Talking-head appearances from cultural, historical and science experts (particularly Ian Christie, who is engages with several insights), all surrounded by weirdly unreal yet austere backdrops (think the sets of Dune refashioned into a courtroom!), open up Pummell’s inquiries and inject some straightforward context to the film.

It’s ultimately dry as a buzzard’s tongue and as shapeless as a disjointed limb. Even the occasional refreshing and unexpected image (in particular, a shot of Daniel’s head showered by gushing water from above, which renders him as a kind of soaked, ever-mutating beast) can’t sustain enough energy to combat the dull, heavy thud of the film’s overarching message. Another sporadic set of images did make me sit up and take notice, however: every so often Schreber can be seen typing alongside an eerie and otherworldly Cronenbergian shape - a cross between half a tennis ball and a Matrix-like pulsating metal squid/typewriter (yes, that's right), whilst red strands of vaporous light wind their way around austere rooms. This imagery promised a visual jaunt into surreal territory, or at least a daft diversion into sci-fi. But it comes and goes, making little overall impact. Colour me indifferent.

Lawrence of Belgravia is another portrait of a singular, troubled soul. This one, the Lawrence of the title, was the frontman in 1980s band Felt and now a self-proclaimed, and very much self–promoting, musical “maestro”. It’s a much more grounded documentary than Shock Head Soul, one with a level, matter-of-fact approach that matches its general visual flatness. Lawrence's amiable enough but hazily articulated commentary on the state of the music industry’s ups and downs does, sadly, come via the whiff of bitterness and disappointment of a perennial near has-been. He’s an affable presence part of the time and partly sour at the world the rest of it. His is a curious approach to life, but he too often appears clueless toward his own failure and heavy with disdain for the world of the "average" person – incidentally enough the kind of people who might have bought (or not, it seems) his music back in the day. His affability slips and a blundering kind of commentary becomes de rigueur. Occasional moments of good-humoured introspection and do shine through though.

Lawrence is perhaps either a dim sage or some kind of accidental icon. Through this film he’ll either duly delight fans of typically obscure or cultish British music, or just plainly baffle folks who may want insights and coherent reasoning on his particular take on how the music industry treats its former try-hard performers. Director Paul Kelly has a keen eye for crisp compositions and occasionally a handsomely shot image – a high-angle tower block shot, a snappy collage of slogan-plastered walls etc – does jazz up the mood. But much of the film’s aural aspects left me wanting: I personally couldn’t, for love or money, get any decent listenable purchase on the soundtrack (mostly composed of Felt and/or Lawrence-penned ditties) and instead of connecting with me, its constant intrusion distanced me further from the man at the centre of the film. Still, it’s not a dull film, all told, and a few wry smiles are to be had throughout. I’d recommend catching it when it inevitably crops up on television, however. It's got More4 written all over it.

Both films play at the LFF this October

Shock Head Soul: *
Lawrence of Belgravia: **

18 October 2011

Links to LFF: Like Crazy

Here's a second review-conversation (with fellow The Film Experience writer David Upton) on new indie romantic-drama and Sundance hit Like Crazy which is showing at the 55th BFI London Film Festival.

To reiterate: it was decided that on the few occasions that David and myself happened to be at the same screenings, we would post up a 'review-chat' instead of a more standard review for the purpose of mixing it up with our LFF reports (and for the readers of the site to find out about films playing at the festival in a different way).

Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones are happy-sad in Like Crazy

Craig: I think the cuteness of the pairing was the thing director Drake Doremus seemed to want to eagerly translate the most, what with all the chair inscriptions and diary notes. (Clearly that chair wanted to be Like Crazy’s “Rosebud”.) Haven’t we seen this kind of meet-cute cinematic dalliance before, in things like Garden State, Elizabethtown etc? I was over quirk-filled romanticised moping the moment it began...

Read the rest here

Links to LFF: The Awakening

Here's a conversation (with fellow The Film Experience writer David Upton) on new spooky British horror film The Awakening which is showing at the 55th BFI London Film Festival. It was decided that on the few occasions that we happened to be at the same screenings, we would post up a 'review-chat' instead of a more standard review for the purpose of mixing it up with our LFF reports (and for the readers of the site to find out about films playing at the festival in a different way). These chats have been entertaining and interesting so far.

 Imelda Staunton, Dominic West and Rebecca Hall play with ghosts in The Awakening

Craig: A 1920s lady ghostbuster? Spooky mansions? Antique trip-wire traps and knitted-character dollhouse terror? And a twitchy Imelda Staunton as a housekeeper in period garb, topped with some fusty-dusty wig work?? I was fine and dandy with this one despite its flaws. It follows a somewhat shopworn, well-haunted pattern of housebound horrors quite fashionable in recent years (The Orphanage, The Others etc). Director Nick Murphy makes a few attempts at reminding us that The Haunting and The Innocents were key influences, too...

Read the rest here

The Awakening is showing at the LFF on Tuesday 25th and Wednesday 26th October

16 October 2011

Retro Lists! Best Films of the Year: 1996

Again, continuing my intermittent retrospective top ten lists of backdated year-by-year Best Ofs (sporadically ongoing whilst I attempt to juggle this year's London Film Festival, a few current print articles and bits and pieces elsewhere - and as a fill-in before I resume with regularly scheduled Dark Eye Socket reviews, comments and general film write-up shenanigans), here are My Ten Selections for Best Films and Acting of 1996:

01. Safe (Todd Haynes)

02. La cérémonie (Claude Chabrol)

03. Where is the Friend's Home? (Abbas Kiarostami)

04. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch)

05. The Passion of Darkly Noon (Philip Ridley)

06. Madagascar Skin (Chris Newby)
07. Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow)
08. 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam)
09. Smoke (Wayne Wang/Paul Auster)
10. Cyclo (Anh Hung Tran)

Five more in no order:

Beautiful Thing
Le confessional
Secrets & Lies

Male & Female Acting of the Year:

* Julianne Moore Safe
Isabelle Huppert La cérémonie
Angela Bassett Strange Days
Grace Zabriskie The Passion of Darkly Noon
Katrin Cartlidge Breaking the Waves

* Bernard Hill Madagascar Skin
Babek Ahmed Poor Where Is My Friend’s House?
Harvey Keitel Smoke
George Clooney From Dusk Till Dawn
William H. Macy Fargo

* (Although Where Is the Friend's Home? was made in 1987 it wasn't released theatrically in the UK until 1996)

Links to LFF: Pariah and Weekend

Here are my first reviews (capsules, for two somewhat similarly-themed films about contemporary gay life) for The Film Experience that I recently saw at the 55th BFI London Film Festival. Both Dee Rees' Brooklyn-based Pariah and Andrew Haigh's UK-set Weekend have been huge highlights so far. I've seen a fair few others (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Dragonslayer, The Awakening, Like Crazy... and with many more still to see of the festival's duration) and I'll have some words on them for both TFE and Dark Eye Socket in due course.

Weekend: Two independent, easy-going guys hook up and fuck. They make cups of tea (in mismatched mugs) and chat about love, life and the little things that make gays tick; all the while not letting on about bigger, bolder, heart-shaped room-sized elephants that might just get in their way...

Tom Cullen (left) and Chris New (right) as Russell and Glen in Weekend.

Read the rest here

7 October 2011

Retro Lists! Best Films of the Year: 1997

Continuing my intermittent retrospective top ten lists of backdated year-by-year Best Ofs (sporadically ongoing whilst I attempt to juggle this year's London Film Festival, a few current print articles and bits and pieces elsewhere - and as a fill-in before I resume with regularly scheduled Dark Eye Socket reviews, comments and general film write-up shenanigans), here are My Ten Selections for Best Films and Acting of 1997:

01. Crash (David Cronenberg)

02. Lost Highway (David Lynch)

03. Under the Skin (Carine Adler)

04. The Addiction (Abel Ferrara)

05. The Trigger Effect (David Koepp)

06. The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan)
07. The People vs. Larry Flint (Milos Forman)
08. Grosse Point Blank (George Armitage)
09. Get on the Bus (Spike Lee)
10. The English Patient (Anthony Minghella)

Five more, in no order:

Flirting with Disaster
Nil by Mouth
Welcome to the Dollhouse
Trees Lounge

Male & Female Acting of the Year:

* Elias Koteas Crash
Woody Harrelson The People vs. Larry Flint
Wesley Snipes One Night Stand
John Cusack Grosse Point Blank
David Arquette Johns

* Samantha Morton Under the Skin
Lily Taylor The Addiction
Patricia Arquette Lost Highway
Maggie Cheung Irma Vep
Gabrielle Rose The Sweet Hereafter

* Denotes what I considered to be the best male and female performance of the year. 

The remainder of the nineties (1995 and earlier)  and beyond that decade will appear as soon as possible...