Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Image Loft's Halloween Recommendations

Happy Halloween! I may have left it to the last minute, but here are ten of the Image Loft's favourite alternative horror films. There are certainly a lot more obscure lists out there, but if you want something a little different from the usual humdrum in the cinema, and have seen the classics, here are a few well worth checking out to get you in the spirit. 

1. Vampyr
Carl Theodor Dreyer 

Dreyer's hazy, dreamlike tale of the Occult and a tormented village utilizes some astonishing camera work and effects to create a truly unique atmosphere. Shadows come to life, skeleton doctors and perhaps the best out of body experience ever shot. I had the fortune of seeing this over the summer with a live ambient soundtrack, the result was one of the best cinematic experiences I've had this year.  

2. Cat People
Jacques Tourneur 

Often credited with the worlds first jump scare, Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton's movie is much more than an early low budget shocker. It is a frank study of female sexuality and jealousy. Cat People tells the story of a young Serbian woman, Irena, who believes herself to be a descendant of a race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused. With some genuinely terrifying moments (see the photo to the left) and tortured protagonists, this is an unnerving and sophisticated symbolic chiller has an emotional core to it as well.

3. Fiend Without a Face
Arthur Crabtree

Invisible atomic monsters attack a U.S. Armed Forces base and the local residents. The quest for knowledge is a theme often touched upon in the horror genre, dating back to Frankenstein and before, but here it has never been dealt with more direct. The fiend without a face is our own strive to grow becoming an animated monster that feeds on our memories and itellect. Some terrific, brain stomping effects and a particulary memorable sound effect, Fiend Without a Face remains a sci-fi tinged classic. 

 4. The Innocents
Jack Layton

Based on Henry Jame's novel The Turn of the Screw and adapted for the screen by Truman Capote, this masterpiece of tension, setting and Freud. Deborah Kerr is fantastic as the sex starved Governess who believes two ghosts are manipulating the children in her care. The powerful high key lighting creates a prolonged intensity and the sound design is unparalleled, but the star of the show is in it's child performances by Martin Stephens (The Village of the Damned) and Pamela Franklin who create some of the most haunting scenes you'll see. It remains one of Britain's best horror films.  

5. Kuroneko
Kaneto Shindo

Often overlooked compared to Shindo's previous film; Onibaba, but that is a disservice to this minor classic. A Poetic horror fable from Japan. An evil spirit is praying on the hearts of Samurai and a war hero is dispatched to destroy it, but upon arrival he realises that it will not be as simple. Beautifully photographed with unsettling other-worldly sets dripping with atmosphere. The first half scares give way to a more complex film about love, revenge and family but it remains one of the highlights I've seen this year.

6. Hour of the Wolf
Ingmar Bergman

Although much of Bergman's canon can be associated with the horror genre; the dreams of Borg in Wild Strawberries, the images of death in The Seventh Seal or the 'Spider God' of Through a Glass Darkly, it is with this film that he pushed closer to out right terror. A tortured artist recounts his fears and dreams to his wife on an isolated island while he is regularly approached by the rich landowners to come visit, eventually leading to the most horrific dinner party ever. Bergman truly gives himself to his fears both sexually and artistically here, making the film feel almost like an homage to the master. Fascinating and intense, this is one of my favourites.

7. House
 Nobuhiko Obayashi

Although the recent Criterion release has allowed Obayashi's surreal exploration of teenage lift to gain new life, it still remains largely unknown by most. Outrageous, twisted, whacky... how to describe Houuuuuuse is virtually impossible, it simply must be seen to be believed. It may not be the Halloween film to keep you up at night with the lights on, but with a group of friends and some drinks you'll be sure to have a terrific night.

8. The Vanishing 
 George Sluizer

To call George Sluizer's 1988 European thriller a horror film may seem like a bit of a reach, but I'm indulging for a reason. It follows a mans obsessive three year search to discover the fate of his girlfriend who disappeared from a parking lot in the middle of the day. Her abductor is no ordinary psycho, a mild mannered family man and professor, The Vanishing is a slow, but engaging psychological thriller that does away with genre conventions to pose questions about the human condition; Does truth mean closure? And at what cost? Do we all harbor darker thoughts? However it is the films finale that lands it firmly on this list. To give away anything would be an injustice. For me, it is easily one of the most upsetting and unforgettable of images committed to celluloid. 

9. The Prophecy
Gregory Widen

Big in scale, but short on budget Widen's tale of Angels, tortured 'priest detectives' and all out heavenly war is the stuff of total nonsense, but also the perfect Halloween treat. Christopher Walken delivers in spades as the angel Gabriel, perched on roof tops and sounding his trumpet (literally) to produce some giggles and Viggo Mortensen's appearance as Lucifer is all to brief but stays in the mind long after, for all the right reasons. It's not short on atmosphere either, with a tremendous sense of background scale, Prophecy earns it's cult following.

David Lynch

For many, Lynch's most recent feature is one of the most impenetrable movies ever made. A three hour long odyssey of surreal insanity; queue talking rabbits, creepy neighbours, Polish sex workers and of course the Locomotion. Starring Laura Dern, in one of this decades great performances, she is an actress who has just been cast as the star of a new remake of a cursed Polish film, or has she? Maybe she is just the product of an imagination of a girl who is hypnotized into believing she is someone else making a movie about herself...(?) You can understand the frustration of many. But for all it's twists, Lynch underscores his film with moments of absolute horror. Virtually indescribable, Lynch has an understanding of the individual's subconscious and peeling back the layers, he discovers the most disturbing of images. 


So there you have it, a briefly compiled list of some alternate titles to get you into the Halloween spirit. Have a good night folk, and I'll leave you with this to get your movie themed costumes rolling:

Sunday, 28 October 2012

[Review] Skyfall - British, not stirred

Bond's loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.

As a British citizen, I'm not what you would call patriotic. Yes, I watched this year's Olympic ceremony swelling with pride like the other 62 million of us, but it's a long reach before I'd jump to defend the honour of Ma'am. On top of that I have virtually no interest in flash cars and super gadgets; I prefer my espionage to have some genuine spying involved personally. So the James Bond franchise is a series that has not so much eluded me, but one I have purposely avoided in the hope that I wouldn't become the guy that couldn't get what everyone else did. Still I've caught a few; Daniel Craig's first outing in Casino Royale was the first ever Blu Ray I watched so I guess I owe him for that. When growing up I caught a few of his outings; Dr No, Goldeneye, From Russia with Love, that one in space, among others, so I have just enough understanding to get by, but on the whole I gave the series the shaft in favour of another 20+ film franchise; Godzilla... On reflection I wonder what my parents thought about that...

Still I found myself intrigued by Skyfall, partly because a well-directed action movie is a complete godsend these days (I still haven't managed to catch The Raid yet) and summer was particularly unsatisfying. With director Sam Mendes at the helm I anticipated we would have a more flamboyant and expressive film than the last time I dipped into Bond. I was right; Mendes theatrics are frequently inspired, beginning no less with a terrific, stylish opening credits sequence accompanied by Adele's theme tune extending through a stunning neon fist fight a top a Shanghai skyscraper all the way to the film's fire lit showdown.

This is strictly a British affair here, the exotic locals are all but traded in for the gloomy skies of London and Scotland, save for the opening pre-credits chase and a quick expedition to Shanghai. But Mendes knows how to work his locations, London is naturalistically grey, Scotland has a deathly gloom. The central theme here is motherhood and mortality, so it's only suitable that Bond return to his spiritual and eventually literal home. When Bond is accidentally shot by his partner on a mission recovering a vital stolen hard drive, an order given by M, he is taken for dead. Betrayed, he disappears into obscurity drinking away his nights and days until MI6 is blown up by a super hacker with only the cryptic message of 'Think on your sins' to go on. Bond returns, but he is not the man he used to. Suitably for the character's 50th anniversary Mendes' questions 007s physical and mental age in the face of a modern terror; long gone are the days of evil scientists. This is a different threat. A man who can operate entirely through pushing buttons on a computer, a man who would bring the world to its knees for a single vendetta. Q played, rather slyly, by Ben Whishaw remarks 'I can do more damage on my laptop in my pyjamas than you can do in a year in the field.' It's a line that hits home, putting some perspective on how much stock we should really put into the digital world. 

This modern evil is Raoul Silva, played by a bleach blonde Javier Bardem, a former MI6 agent that M had previously left for dead who returns to exact his destructive revenge. His kingdom? An abandoned Communist island. The large stature erected (supposedly to Mao) has been torn down and shattered, illustrating Silva's broken faith in a system that abandoned him. He plays on the fears of a post-July 2005 nation, especially during an extended chase sequence in the London underground. But this is more a personal Greek tragedy than a faceless terrorist plot. The Two sons of M; protector and destroyer. I expected Bond's loyalty to be tested, but I suppose that would not be Bond. 

Speaking of which, Bond is not a stony faced protagonist of recent action films and Mendes' doesn't forget. Sauvé and quick, the script manages to play its soap-opera-esque plot of super-villainy straight faced enough to sell it with conviction, but with enough dry wit and cheeky homages to the character's heritage. This all culminates in the films electrifying final half hour as Bond returns to his country home to prepare for an Assault on Precinct 13 style vintage battle to the death. It is an explosive mix of staging, light and colour as a brilliant orange glow lights the action and creating a distinct apocalyptic tinge.

For someone with such a limited knowledge of Bond, I can tell you now that Skyfall is very good. A few die hard friends of mine are still on a high from their initial viewing. Not just a celebration of the series heritage, but a film that poses questions of its future. Bond will return. The film closes with direct certainty, but in what shape or form remains to be seen. In the mean time we have a glorious vintage response to the recent action movies. Bond is back, and with him gloomy London has never looked better. So a toast to England, to Mendes and of course to 007. Welcome home, James. 


Saturday, 27 October 2012

[Review] Beasts of the Southern Wild - Magic or Trickery?

Faced with both her hot-tempered father's fading health and melting ice-caps that flood her ramshackle bayou community and unleash ancient aurochs, six-year-old Hushpuppy must learn the ways of courage and love.

As someone who is fairly up to speed with the cinematic world, it can prove an almost impossible task to approach a film completely subjectively. Especially when it is lauded with the amount of critical appraisal and pre-award season hype that Beasts of the Southern Wild has befallen on. Being the cynic I am, I was suspicious of the buzz. A landmark debut, coming-of-age, modern fairy-tale celebrating a naturalist existence in the bayou. That description alone is enough to get most critics gushing. And indeed the bayou does hold a distinct magic that has given birth to some of America's most beloved classics. However it was only when I caught a glimpse of the trailer that the warning lights set off like Blackpool pleasure beach. It looks like a Nikon advert, I remarked to those who had too been intrigued by the hype, and that is essentially what Beasts is. A manufactured snap shot of freedom. Bathtub is director Benh Zeitlin's smug attempt at creating his utopia, but it is merely the idea that he is in love with.

In the opening sequence our protagonist Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis, creeps around her garden listening to the heartbeat of the animals, 'Everything's heart is beatin' and squirtin and talkin' to things in ways I can't understand.' I groaned. It's the kind of narration one would here from a Terrence Malick parody. But Zeitlin plays it with a straight face; including a number of sequences were Hushpuppy talks to her long-gone mother. You see, where Malick's hushed verse acts with restraint, coming from a deep seated existentialism, Zeitlin indulges in it frequently to underscore the film with a 'feel the world' tone. I call it bullshit.

Wallis is a pin-up for the film's message and every scene is bookended by shots of her staring stonily into the distance, less an expression the ferocity she meets each of her problems with, and more an excuse for the poorly structured narrative. Her performance is one of texture, she is surrounded by mud, rust and earth and she inhabits the role well, acting and reacting to the ever changing environment around her. However the tendency to spit her dialogue at the audience tends to undo that. Regardless, she's positively masterful compared to her father played by Dwight Henry who chews up the scenery and almost descends into racial stereotyping as opposed to acute naturalism I imagine Zeitlin thought he was writing. This is only enhanced by film's claustrophobic and 'natural' cinematography, which is, frankly terrible. Director of photography Ben Richardson has a lot to answer for here as even the simplest of conversations and actions become a nauseating, infuriating mess.

It is a shame, because the thing I liked most was its setting, which despite Zeitlin's best efforts, remains endlessly fascinating. That says more about the landscape's natural wonder as opposed to the set design, which is so heavily cluttered, literally including the kitchen sink on more than one occasion. Still I will admit to marvelling at the flooded Bathtub or twilight river brothel that channels late Kieslowski. But these are merely aesthetics, the clunky social commentary and celebration of earthly life that are tied to them do nothing for me. Remember the astonishing river sequence from Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter; a sequence hung in the balance between unnatural stillness and a hopeful calm. It was a scene, that through its twilight induced imagery embodied the film's prayer for the safety of children through a tough and unforgiving world. Yeah, the equivalent moment here is Hushpuppy's remark 'It wasn't no time to sit around crying like a bunch of pussies.'

At a mere 93 minutes long, Beasts is not given enough room to develop its characters or world, the drama and set pieces feeling rather inconsequential. Much of the interaction between Hushpuppy and her father are heavy-handed attempts to illustrate their growth and development, rather than letting them develop through their actions. The town of Bathtub is essentially a testament to Zeitlin's limitation. It is the eco-friendly life of self-expressive naturalism that can only come from someone raised on the outside looking in. Zeitlin himself was born and raised in Queens, New York city but relocated to New Orleans in 2008 to shoot his short film Glory at Sea. Bathtub is his heaven, but his observations of such a life are so unintuitive that we cannot sympathize with the actions of its inhabitants. Celebrate self-reliance, sure, but when that self-reliance turns to stubborn arrogance and eventually to straight up suicide, it leaves you wondering, why spend the whole time celebrating such an existence if you're not going to survive to experience it? The film's final metaphor comes in the form of the Aurochs, an ancient beast woken from slumber by the melting ice caps. More than a simple carbon-foot-commentary, they are an embodiment of all that threatens to offset Hushpuppy's survival, and she will have to meet it with force. A convincing metaphor it would be, if the monster looked somewhat convincing. As it is, it looks like someone stuck cardboard horns on a boar.  

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the type of film that is prone to a critical backlash, but I'm sure that won't weather Hushpuppy's spirits much, I imagine she'd care little for any analysis or deconstruction of her world in any way. But Zeitlin is not as immune as his six year old heroine, and it is only a matter of time till he and his earthy creation are found wanting. Critics and audiences have bought into the world of Bathtub, but soon they will realise that it is just a festival of light and moonshine, shying away from the truth and hardship of life on America's most idyllic highway.


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Guernica - Of War and Art

For University we were tasked with writing a short essay on a number of subjects relating to Picasso and Modern Art, here are my thoughts on the film Guernica by Resnais based on the artists painting of the bombing.

In 1937, the ancient Basque town Guernica was bombed extensively by German Luftwaffe as an experiment to determine the effects of combining explosive and incendiary bombs, as well as an attempt by the nationalists, under Franco, to demoralize the republicans in the Basque area. Composed of fragments and compartmentalized images from Picasso’s early art work, eventually building to his ‘Guernica’ piece, and accompanied by Paul Éluard impassioned ode to the human spirit against the atrocities of war read by María Casarès, Resnais’s utilizes a variety of cinematic techniques such as rapid editing and overlays to integrate the visual qualities of cubism, but also reflect the film’s historical context and message.      

The film opens with a photograph of post-bombing Guernica with Picasso’s portrait of a family superimposed on top, immediately informing us that this is a study of art against the backdrop of historical tragedy. Resnais accompanies Éluard’s verse on the persecuted people of Guernica with the early portraits of Picasso, not only reinforcing the film’s message, but creating a link between art and history. Here Resnais’ emphasizes their exhaustion through years of hardship by draining the colour from the paintings and presenting them with slow, laborious pans. In perhaps the films most direct sequence, a series of portraits are riddled with bullet holes (superimposed) literally bringing the destruction to the art itself. Resnais’ direction evolves to express the chaos well as the change in Picasso’s style. The camera moves more violently with intense zooms, the editing is more rapid and the background images become more cluttered and unstructured. 

As both war and art progress, so does Resnais. Singling out individual subjects in each painting he frames them in darkness, his lighting more direct, a response to Picasso’s heavier more defined visuals and illustrating the growing strain on Guernica. To depict the terror and destruction of the bombing, Picasso painted it in the cubist style fracturing the image through lines enhancing the ultimate dehumanization of the victims. Therefore Resnais replicates the style in cinematic form through rapid editing and harsh pans. He also attempts to fracture the image by using extreme close-ups such as the jagged tongues of those slain in the raid, distorting the image thus brutalizing the action and furthering the link between art and history. 

Guernica is a film that, perhaps unavoidably, intertwines history and art. Resnais utilizes the films structure with shifting editing styles and framing to emphasize not only Picasso’s shift from traditional art to cubism, but also to show the absolute destruction of the last of the ancient worlds through a dehumanizing and cruel war. The film’s final image is that of Picasso’s ‘Man with a Lamb’ statue, a biblical recalling of the good Shepard, here it is a testament to the artist himself, who’s painting brought the plight of the Spanish people to the world’s attention. Firmly concluding the film’s double meaning, but more so it is a solemn plea for the survival of the human spirit against a long and painful suffering.

Screen Log - The Three Women of Altman Edition

Screen Log is a new weekly feature here at The Image Loft, based on some of my weeks watchings I will include short reviews and a center piece. This week, it's Robert Altman's ethereal dream 3 Women as well as Haneke, Chaplin and my first venture into the 'Brothers Dardenne.'

Screen Log: The Three Woman of Altman

  • Lorna's Silence (2008, Dardenne) -
  • The Seventh Continent (1989, Haneke) - 
  • 3 Women (1977, Altman) - Blu Ray

Lorna's Silence 
 (Le Silence de Lorna)

The Dardenne brothers have been at the forefront of European cinema for over the last decade since their break-out La Promesse in 1996 (which, along with Rosetta, has just been released by Criterion on Blu Ray for the first time.) Yet I found myself a little apprehensive when approaching Lorna's Silence, after all there certain attributes with modern European dramas that one does not often associate with entertainment. However much to my delight, I was very impressed with my first Dardenne feature. Lorna is a rather harrowing deconstruction of a marriage built without love and a determinedly realistic look at the people trafficking industry before becoming a mediation on the effects of guilt on women. Arta Dobroshi barely escapes the frame, constantly shot in close ups and marked with the colour red. She is terrific as Lorna, a woman so alienated by her situation she strips herself from sexuality. The supporting cast are equally great, especially Jérémie Renier who plays faux husband and junkie Claudy. The film is shot deliberately flat, as if to drain expression from such a bleak situation. Inescapable and engaging, it's not the easiest of watches but it is a powerful one.

The Seventh Continent
(Der Siebente Kontinent)
Michael Haneke's debut feature (and my seventh) centered around the true story of an Austrian family who destroy their entire possessions before taking their own lives. Haneke's debut is examination of mundane, meaningless modern existence is a little too heavy handed to really illustrate what drove this family to commit such an unspeakable act. Lingering shots of cornflakes, long silences and a discomforting car wash end up burdening the viewer with a sense that this how Haneke imagines middle class life. With that said, the films final 25 minutes are a devastating subversion of freedom as the family systematically destroy their possessions, it brings them no joy and they find themselves unable to escape the prison of routine. A flawed exercise in observation, but a fascinating watch.

3 Women

When asked about 3 Women, Robert Altman said he wanted to make a movie to which people could say nothing if not what they felt, well Mr Altman it made me feel good. Real good.
This study of identity and women is frequently compared to Bergman's Persona, but the film is much an observation on American idiosyncrasy and alienation. Perhaps in that sense it is comparable to Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout, which also featured overlapping sound design and unhinged camera work to define itself as a piece an alienation from ones cultural background.
The title refers to the three main characters; Millie played by Shelly Duvall is a self-deluded, incessantly chatty woman who is blind to the complete contempt for which she is held by her co-workers and neighbours. The second is the younger Pinkie played by Sissy Spacek, she observes and acts with child like compulsion, snooping through others belongings and blowing bubbles in her drink. The film is centered around the relationship between these two women who meet through a job working in a spa for old people before becoming roommates. The third woman is Janice Rule's Willie owner of an run-down Western themed bar that the girls drink at. She is heavily pregnant, speaks very little and spends her time painting Greek murals of reptilian women locked in combat with one solitary male figure, it is the figure of her husband Edgar. A former TV stuntman who clings to his vague non-status to boost his ego. These are people absorbed in self delusion

Altman has frequent overlays of water flowing over the protagonists, it becomes a wall stopping them from integrating into their society, but it also suggests the displacement of their individual identities. It is also a film of doubles; twins, mirrors and reflections all reinforce the link between women. Initially, Millie treats Pinkie as merely a means to boast her ego. She doles out backhanded remarks, passes blame on to her and eventually drives her to attempt suicide, thus landing her in a coma. However when  Pinkie recovers, she takes on Millie's personality, but a much popular version. She is not ignored by her neighbours, but swarmed by them. Altman is highlighting the shared persona of the American woman; the desire for attention. Spacek is a chameleon with her snake-like features, Duvall has a displaced grace; strutting with confidence only to catch her dress in a car door. Rule's Willie is perhaps the films most important character, she says little but seems to be aware of what is happening with a haunted gaze and prophetic portraits. 

3 Women is an endlessly fascinating surrealist dream of the alienation and identity of the American woman and the ultimate absence of man. Coated in thick symbolism matched by it's distinct modernist score it reaches a certain sensual cinematic purity that few can achieve. Altman claimed the film was born of a dream, that much is obvious as it is layered in personal anxieties and longing. It must have been an inspiration for Lynch's bonafide masterpiece Mulholland Drive in which is has a lot in common (including a cowboy!) But this modernist American classic is nothing without the women it was made for, it ends with the a ghostly contortion of the traditional family life, absent of any male presence, the women find themselves lost in time, but at last together.  




Sunday, 21 October 2012

Absolute Cinema - Harakiri

Absolute Cinema is a continuing series of moments that I illustrate a moment of cinematic transcendence. These can be a single element or a variety of cinematic techniques that come together in such a way that elevates cinema. It might be an entire sequence or just a particular shot, edit, score it doesn't even have to be on purpose. It is a moment exclusive to cinema as an art form.

[Entry 4] Absolute Cinema: Harakiri

The Emptiness of Honour

By 1962 Japan was coming off the golden age of samurai films, aside from Kurosawa's epics there was the likes of Teinosuke's Gate of Hell and Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy and like other popular Japanese characters they became icons of pop culture and their influence spread world-wide as their code and style began to be integrated into Western filmmaking (even directly in The Magnificent Seven, a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.) Enter Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri, a fierce evocation of the individual in the face of a corrupt and hypocritical system, a breakdown of Japanese culture and destruction of a cinematic ideal. 

The film opens with the image of an idol, of a god, of an empty suit of armour. It is an image of impressive power, but it is a false power. It is a metaphor for the facade of honour, something that has been at the centre of Japan's cultural development, and was brought under scrutiny after WW2. Soon after ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo (played by Tatsuya Nakadi in one of the great performances) arrives at the manor of Lord Iyi looking to commit seppuku and therefore regain his honour after the collapse of his clan. But when the he is informed of a younger ronin who also took his own life, things become more complicated, and Hanshiro has his own story to tell...

Harakiri is the anti-samurai film. There is an apocalyptic sense to it, filtered through the stark black and white photography, staging and canted camera angles. As an extension of his protagonist, Kobayashi directs with composed restraint, but scathing with anger beneath the surface that erupts into violence the film's final minutes. But this is not the thrilling climax found in the golden age, those times have gone. There is nothing to revel in here. There is only a despairing, hopeless act of death. It is here that Kobayashi delivers one of the most profound moments of cinematic destruction.

By tearing down the statue the corruption of the system, the hypocrisy of Japanese culture and the facade of honour have been exposed. With it, Kobayashi exposes one cinema's most favoured ideal; the warriors' code and the noble death. It is all bullshit. Nothing is gained - not honour, not nobility. In death, there is only death. 

Harakiri ends with the armour rebuilt, the disruption off record and system intact. But its effect lingers long after. Brutally fierce, cruel and emotionally draining. It is a masterpiece of blood, sword and snow.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

[Review] Paranormal Activity 4 - Sleeping tight

It has been five years since the disappearance of Katie and Hunter, and a suburban family witness strange events in their neighborhood when a woman and a mysterious child move in.

If there is one thing the Paranormal Activity series has taught me, it's if I ever find myself in a house prone to misogynistic demon squatters, I shan't be doing any investigating, no, I will be bolting the door shut and slipping on a pair of head phones. This is a technique that has so far been rejected by hyper-curious protagonists in the series, now in it's fourth outing.

I said in my Sinister review that a horror movie can be made the a good theatre atmosphere, or at least spared. Watching people watch the movie can prove an entertaining counterpart, or replacement if what's on screen is found wanting. The Paranormal Activity series has been an effective example in illustrating my theory. Witnessing an audience jump, scream, gasp, laugh and shout calls to mind a modern day Cinema Paradiso and to this day proves to be one of my most guilty cinematic pleasures. 

After a short series of flashbacks reminding us of what went down at the end of Paranormal Activity 2 (the third film was a prequel) set back in 2006. Five years on, and the film picks up with a new family, which honestly left me dumbfounded, at four films in why give us somebody new? At this stage we know the major players, although what they want is still up for grabs, so these late additions feel a lot like space occupiers until the real party shows up. Despite this, and a rather half-hearted subtext about suburban dissatisfaction and the knock-on effects on children, lead Alex (played by Kathryn Newton) and boyfriend Matt (Matt Shively) produce fairly natural performances and believable hormonal endorsed interactions (including a webcam scene I'm surprised wasn't cut in light of recent events.) 

Logic has never been this series strong point, protagonists have been defying common sense since the beginning and this time it shades all sense of plausibility. Time and time again you'll find yourself questioning not just the characters actions but the story as well. Plot points and information are tossed out without any explanation or development, characters fade in and out of the action whenever it suits and by the time Alex is running around the amidst the shenanigans with a laptop, you can't help but feel that these guys aren't brave or curious, they're just stupid

These issues spill over to the film making as well. Just a word of advice to directors Joost and Schulman, when you have a film based entirely off repeated camera angles, continuity errors are a big no. There's also an abundance of jump cuts this time, characters teleport around the frame for no reason other than to speed up the action. I said in my Sinister review that there was a digital sense to movies evil. Such is not the case here, an opportunity to do something new is missed and the film's overall design seems well... just lazy.

By now the formula has lost all steam, where the original film was restrained and paced, here it's just frustrating and pointless. We know the routine, we know the scares and we do not need the first 40 minutes of this film. The tagline for this forth entry reads; All the activity has led to this. I wish we got a sense of that.

The only new addition to the scares this time around is the rather effective Microsoft Kinect. The thousands of projected tracking dots lead to some of the films best moments but it's a poor substitute for last years low tech 'Fan-Cam.' Otherwise the usual abundance of creaking doors, possessed furniture and the ole' leg drag make their usual, and by now predictable appearance. If the first film was playing on middle class fears of home invasion, here the terror lies in their material possessions with homicidal cars (a nod to Hithcock's Shadow of a Doubt), flying chandlers and of course the aforementioned Kinnect. It would be a lie if I said it lacked any real heart pounding moments, but they're spread so thinly that you can't help feel that they are running out steam, something that I believe the audience agreed with. The usual hundrum and buzzing was reduced to a quiet murmur that evaporated when the scene ended.

When your horror film's best sequence is a rather tongue-in-cheek Shining reference, you're in trouble.

Paranormal Activity 4 has all the hallmarks of a series that is running out of steam. It's cluttered mythology, senseless characters and repetitive tactics have really hit a wall here. It's still can provide cheap weekend thrills with brief glimpses of ingenuity, but I feel it's time to put this series to bed, with the door shut and the camera off.  


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

[Review] Ruby Sparks - Page turner

A novelist struggling with writer's block finds romance in a most unusual way: by creating a female character he thinks will love him, then willing her into existence. 

The 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' is defined as a bubbly but complicated creature who exists for the sole purpose of expanding the eyes/mind/life of a brooding, equally complicated young writer/hipster. When asked if she would consider Ruby Sparks one of the illusive 'MPDG clique' writer and star (and real life girlfriend to co-star Paul Dano) Zoe Kazan replied with;
I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.
In some regard she is not wrong, Ruby Sparks is a movie about the dangers of reducing a person to an idea, among other things. However like it's titular character it doesn't embellish any individuality of it's own, it manufactures it, and subsequently slips into the pit falls laid by the Pixies it so carefully tried to avoid.

Paul Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a human checklist of neuroticism and writer struggling to follow up the success of his first novel that led to his status, he imagines himself as a modern day Fitzgerald, although lacking the finesse. His apartment overlooking LA, is what Jonny from Mike Leigh's Naked would have referred to as 'a post-modernist gas chamber,' blank white walls and impersonal furniture, as if the film makers couldn't think of a more natural way to integrate Calvin's indifference. Sometime ago he got a dog which turned out to be as weirdly neurotic as himself, perhaps the whiny self-entitlement is a contagious virus dragging all that associates with him down. 'Girls only want to sleep with me because they read my book in highschool,' he says with the same conviction as if he had just be diagnosed with a terminal disease. Troubled and deep for some, pretentious and shallow for me. One night he has a dream of a beautiful, quirky girl named Ruby, gripped by inspiration he begins to write. That is, until Ruby shows up in his apartment one morning. 

Ruby Sparks is a very impatient film, never comfortable to settle for too long. Racing forward from the moment Calvin realizes his dream girl is indeed real through to the gradual disintegration of the relationship and the eventual explosive melt down. Ultimately meaning that the passage of time has no weight to it, unlike Blue Valentine which shows us the incentive moment before jumping ahead in time leaving the audience to project every argument and quarrel they've experienced themselves in the between. With Ruby, we cannot pass a judgement on this relationship because we are not given the necessary knowledge to do so.

Technically speaking, Ruby is rather accomplished. Dayton makes use of slick compositions, expressive handheld photography and daring close-ups. Even the soundtrack manages to be cut from a different tree than the usual compilation of Regina Spektor, Morrissey and 60s French Pop, bearing in mind it's about two trees over, but it's worth noting.  

Stepping away from the potential slapstick after a few gags, Ruby had promise as a metaphor for the similarities and contrasts between writing and relationships, but that subject is barely touch upon. Instead, we are left with a rather unenlightening drama about two non-people warning against the dangers of smothering your other half without an alternative outlet. Calvin is an insufferable, whiny, self-obsessed creeper with virtually no redeeming features to his character. Ruby could have been a subversive riff on the 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' character, she is after all invented for the male protagonist like other MPDGs but eventually discovers her own interests and space. However those interests aren't part of her own growth, they are merely a plot device, ultimately rendering her rather hollow.

All of this would have been completely unwatchable, had it not been for the film's two leads - Dano and Kazan do their best to sell the rather lifeless script. As a real life couple, their interactions feel genuine and the film climaxes in a disturbing sequence as Calvin demonstrates his control over Ruby by forcing her to woo him in a contorted, twisted serenade. But this is far to serious for it's own good, making the film feel overburdened by it's own message. A message which is refuted by the films tacked on ending, which feels horribly contrived even compared to (500) Days of Summer. Has anybody learnt anything? No, is the answer. Are they doomed to repeat the same mistakes again? Most certainly, a yes.

Like it's protagonist Calvin, Ruby Sparks is an obnoxious, self-important movie that believes it's celebrating individuality. Instead it offers up a bland deconstruction of a relationship between two horrible and rather pointless characters. Sparks may fly, but there is no burn.


Friday, 12 October 2012

[Review] Looper - It's all a matter of time.

In 2072, when the mob wants to get rid of someone, the target is sent 30 years into the past, where a hired gun awaits. Someone like Joe, who one day learns the mob wants to 'close the loop' by transporting back Joe's future self. 

In the opening act of Looper 'future-mob boss' Abe played by Jeff Daniels turns to our protagonist Joe (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) and says 'Those movies you're copying, are just copying other movies.'  This is pretty much the best way to describe Ryan Johnson's Looper; a time and reality shifting slice of Science Fiction that seems to be channeling Twelve Monkeys channeling La Jetee. Fortunately, like Joe's vintage swag, Looper has enough confidence in itself to sell it as one of the more tightly constructed genre movies of the year. 

Interestingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly given Johnson's previous films Brick and The Brothers Bloom) Looper belongs very much in the film-noir tradition, from the visual ques of Blade Runner (and Children of Men and iRobot) to the grey scale morality that the genre is typically known for, which is an even bigger surprise for a mid-budget, post-Summer blockbuster. 

Son, that ain't right.
Joesph-Gordon Levitt is quickly emerging as one of the more interesting actors of his generation, more an everyman compared to the Ryan Goslings and Bradley Coopers. His Joe is a product of the film's rather poorly implemented social/economic commentary. JGL is convincingly disillusioned, but at the end his character's quasi-religious sacrifice is not. And some ropey prosthetic make up produced a few raised eye brows from myself. 

To play 'Future Joe' Bruce Willis has calls on his history of violence and determination to deliver a man carried by mental regret. Still an utterly convincing physical presence, Willis has the tendency to spit out his lines about a what a waste his life was. Motivated by the murder of his wife by the future enigmatic warlord of the future 'The Rain Maker.' So when they come for him, he fights off his captors and returns to the past in order to murder the child version of the Rainmaker in order to save his wife. (She, herself is an obvious nod to Marker's La Jetee, framed in close up, completely silent and frequently shown as a photo in a watch, emulating Marker's most famous scene.) To do so, he has to commit a crime that most audience's will find unforgivable. This is where the film slides into an area most wouldn't venture. Problematically, The Rainmaker presence in the future isn't felt. We are told he's a monster, and shown brief clips of news footage, but it's not really enough to convince us completely. This makes Old Joe's actions a little harder to defend.

As for the time travel, well anyone familiar with it will known that it comes with it's own give and takes and Looper does will not to get bogged down it, even Willis himself turns to younger self and says 'Try not to think about it too hard.' This gives Johnson the ability to drop explanation whenever it suits him and settle with 'Ahhhhhh time travel!' An admission of defeat for some, perhaps. But for me, Looper has enough going around it for it to mostly get away with such a cheap tactic. 

Else where Paul Dano pops up as JGL's fiend and fellow Looper who can't find it in himself to kill his future self, in one of the film's best sequences, Future Dano (trying to escape) is begins loosing fingers and all sorts, as his present self is tortured. Emily Blunt's single mum, determined to care and defend her son (who may be the child that grows up to become the Rainmaker) even if that means shooting a couple of 'vagrants.' She's a call for women to stay at home and look after their kids or else they'll grow up evil, while Joe is damaged but responsible man willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Yeah... at this point things get a little skewered. 

The film has more than enough eye popping moments, including some terrific wide shots and an occasional flourish of technical wizardry of Zach Snyder or Richard Kelly that make the film very much feel like a cyber punk western as much as a neo-noir. The repeated image of an eye, circle (or loop ahhhhh) is underplayed, feeling like something the movie snatched at for meaning as opposed to understanding and utilizing as a key motif. 

Where is John Connor... err I mean the other one.

Looper is a movie, copying a movie. It's seen the philosophical La Jetee, it's seen Twelve Monkeys, among pretty much anything else. It picks and chooses what it wants from it's sources before confidently strutting off into a refreshing grey area that most Hollywood pieces would be afraid to touch with a stick. We wont be discussing Looper in ten years time, we may not necessarily even be discussing it by the end of the year. However it's a tightly constructed, and enjoyable high concept blend of Western and Noir tinged Sci-fi that is sure thing when it comes to timeless entertainment.