Friday, 22 November 2013

A Netflix(able) Approach to Viewing

With the video shop era well and truly behind us, on-demand internet streaming services now provides many with their regular cinematic hit. Netflix is beginning to gain traction over here, helped immeasurably by the many great TV series it offers at the click of a button. While it’s still lacking the volume of features needed to make it the one-stop service for film fans, there’s some pretty interesting stuff on there, if you can get over the rather misleading and arbitrary genre cataloguing system (Crime drama: Glengarry Glen Ross).

Over the past few months I’ve caught up with some gems which are either unavailable or incredible hard to track down on region 2 DVD. I was fond of the cheap Roger Corman sci-fi exploitation flick Galaxy of Terror. Playing like a grubby version of a classic Star Trek episode, (complete with the cod-philosophical musings) one scene has a crew member being stripped naked and violated by a giant space slug (apparently the handiwork of a young James Cameron), while Happy Day’s Joanie meets a shockingly gory demise elsewhere.

I recently observed the long dormant cinematic charms of small screen fixtures Mark Harman and Kirstie Alley in 80s comedy Summer School, and I loved Goodbye, Columbus - the 60s adaptation of the famous Philip Roth novella of the same name. The film makes a fine companion piece to The Graduate and is one of those near-classics which has somehow failed to find longevity.

But sometimes life it too short to trawl through every film and I’ve found that Netflix has afforded the ability to embark on a series of skim-viewing. To some ardent cinema lover this could be considered heresy, but consider the films in question:

Slackers, an utterly forgettable post-American Pie teen romp held zero interest for me, except for a scene which had seriously unnerved me upon reading about it years back. Sure enough, 33 minutes in I was treated to the unnerving sight of a (then 21 year-old) Jason Schwartzman tenderly smooching the nipples and sponging down the breasts of leathery-looking, buxom 50s/60s sex siren Mamie Van Doren. Rushmore, it ain’t.

I was intrigued to see the Gordon Ramsay cameo from the 2011 Dougray Scott-starring disaster Love's Kitchen (original title: No Ordinary Trifle) and find out if it was really as bad as those who’d braved the film for review purposes were saying it was. This is a man who puts on a ball-busting, no-nonsense persona for the cameras during the many reality shows he fronts, yet can’t even muster the requisite acting muscles for a mere minutes worth of screen time.

Speed-skimming through the insipid big-screen exploits of ITV comic personality Keith Lemon was like nonchalantly flicking through the pages of Heat magazine at the hairdressers. My mild curiosity of which celebrities had offered their services via cameo was sated by giving up less than five minutes of my life to the film.

I finally succumbed to the horrors on display in The Human Centipede, albeit in an abridged form, shuffling to the nasty human ATM scenes and ditching the padding. The result – a stirring (if hugely horrific and agonisingly protracted) account of three individuals who face insurmountable odds as they battle to escape an evil scientist. Béla Tarr meets torture porn.

In an age where time is increasingly at a premium, why waste it on those films which aren’t worthy of investment, save for the odd quirk or two? I just hope in years to come, attention-deficit viewers aren’t abusing this privilege and shuffling along to the moment where Sonny Corleone is riddled with bullets at the toll booth, or turning The Exorcist into a two minute ‘best of’ with scenes compromised exclusively of Regan’s horrific behaviour whilst possessed.

Maybe some films should remain solely as a physical copy outside of the cinema screen, avoiding potentially disrespectable treatment from unappreciative viewers. Now, if I could only remember who I lent my Criterion edition of Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever to…

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Fear of Loss of Identity in French Horror Cinema

(First published in New Empress magazine)

Euro horror has always offered an interesting counterpart to a genre which arguably gained most prominence over in the US in its early years. The Italian Giallo series of films (which now straddles six decades) is loved and defended with an unwavering ferocity by its many fans, despite the ever-diminishing return of godfather of the movement, Dario Argento. The Spanish have their taut, classy Hitchcockian hits (The Orphanage, Julia’s Eyes) but another underappreciated mimi-movement in France represents something of a hybrid of all those, whilst managing to forge its own unique voice. These films sit outside of the New French Extremism label of work by the likes of Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs and Coralie Trinh Thi's Baise-moi, and offer something which is perhaps a clearer take on the genre, yet pulling in topical and socially-relevant themes which the filmmakers have acquired from the world around them.

Horror masquerading as social commentary is hardly a new phenomenon. Genre legend George A. Romero made his name by incorporating themes of racial tension, siege mentality and consumer inertia into his classic ‘Dead’ trilogy, proving that such issues can be woven into works of genre, whilst still keeping the gorehound contingent satisfied.

In recent years France has seen a prolonged period of social unrest as extremists have proved to be a very real threat in treading that political path to power. Jean-Marie Le Pen, France’s far right-wing, nationalist politician (and founder of the country’s version of the National Front party) was in the running for the French presidency an unprecedented five times, coming second in the polls during the 2002 election. The hijab controversy (where social rules would appear to underpin the argument for some) continues to draw interest from the rest of the world, with accusations of Islamophobia being frequently bandied around for those who oppose. When a nation’s identity is forced into question, what could be a better way of channelling those fears (and ultimately allying them) than through the medium of cinema.

A thinly-veiled riff on those political events which transpired a decade back can be found in 2007’s Frontier(s) from director Xavier Gens. In the film, a gang of young, mixed-race crooks flee Paris during the violent aftermath of a political election, eventually seeking rest and respite in a backwater inn, which happens to be run by a sadistic neo-Nazis clan (a truly real-world manifestation of horror). The proprietors in question would give the Texas Chainsaw family a run for their money in the grotesque, palpably evil stakes, and ironically, the youths would have been far safer riding things out amongst the turmoil in the city they initial escaped from to avoid any vicious repercussions.

It’s a fatal error for the majority of these characters, and to make matter worse, the film’s pregnant heroine Yasmine (Karina Testa) is violently coerced by the family’s brutal matriarch (a former SS officer and Nazi war criminal in hiding) into becoming some kind of conduit to breed a new Aryan master race. The darkest fears of a progressive, multi-national country couldn’t be more obviously underscored than that.

The similar mix of ethnicities makes up the characters in Kim Chapiron’s 2006 gothic oddball horror, Sheitan. They’re a burly and combustible mix of youngsters, first seen causing trouble in an inner-city nightclub. A barmaid from said establishment and her friend latch on to the boys and invite them to a house in the country which is supposedly owned by one of the girl’s parents. The wired, testosterone-heavy group are under the misapprehension that a weekend of ‘Porky’s’-type escapades awaits them, when in reality, all manner of weird and bizarre incidents are to follow, in yet another backwards environment. All this is overseen by the disturbing farmhand/housekeeper and his profoundly queasy (and seemingly permanent) rictus-like grin (played by a near-unrecognisable Vincent Cassel).

Chapiron’s debut may lack the political undercurrent of Frontier(s), yet by thoughtfully casting a similar mix of actors, these protagonists inhibit that same mould of that of the outsider. This helps to create an authenticity and believability which makes them eminently more watchable lambs to the slaughter than your average, feckless all-America teen victims. The leads here look like they could have easily started their drug/alcohol-fuelled evening by sharing a spliff and bumping fists on some defaced concrete Parisian rooftop with Vinz, Hubert and Saïd, the three leads characters from Mathieu Kassovitz’s provocative social drama from 1995, La Haine (a film which also featured Cassel in the headlining role).

In the case of David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s 2006 home invasion tale Them, the themes of isolation and disaffection are flipped, and the ‘heroes’ from the previous films now occupy the role of antagonist when a gang of faceless, feral hoodies terrorise a young middle-class couple in their palatial country home. Inspired by a true story, the film is a clever and effective exercise in sustained tension and terror, and the ultimate reveal of those behind the suffering is even more shocking. Thematically, the film occupies that same space as UK horrors like The Chidren and Eden Lake, where parental apathy and abandonment is the root cause of alienation and social conflict.

Perhaps one of the purest (and pulpiest) forms of fractured identity in recent French cinema is 2003’s High Tension. The film (perplexingly renamed Switchblade Romance for the UK market) pays homage to the 70’s cycle of slasher cinema from the US, but at its core, it reveals itself to be story of a split personality which arrives in a violent and shocking fashion.

With these films making a significant splash on their home turf, there is always that inevitability of Hollywood showing interest at some point. Alexandre Aja, director of High Tension, has perhaps made the biggest leap so far, (with remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D doing decent business) and is associated with the new wave of international genre filmmakers who have affectionately been labelled 'The Splatpack'. Gens switched genres for his English language debut, tackling the adaptation of popular video game actioner, Hitman. The film wasn’t the intended success it should have been and he was recently back working within the realms of horror with The Divide, which once again channels those themes of isolation and discord, this time amongst a group of post-apocalyptic survivor in a claustrophobic bunker setting. Chapiron changed gears slightly a couple of years back with his powerful and restrained remake of Scum in the Canadian co-produced Dog Pound – a perfect, evolutionary step for the young filmmaker, it would appear.

Chapiron’s collaborator in the creative collective Kourtrajmé and latest enfant terrible on the scene, 30 year-old Romain Gavras (son of celebrated Greek-born polemicist Costa-Gavras) has gained prominence and notoriety by channelling many of the same themes used by his peers, but outside of the horror genre. Its arguable however, that the simmering nightmarish sense of isolation and fear found in Stress (2008), his controversial promo for electro duo Justice, represents an even greater sense of horror, with its vérité-style glimpse at a group of staggeringly violent and nihilistic youths rampaging through their decaying, urban surroundings. It’s no surprise that his debut feature takes that outcast theme (this time using two bullied, red-headed males), but ultimately takes a stranger and unconventional u-turns than anticipated.

It’s somewhat inevitable that the filmmakers in question find their ideas become diluted and compromised as they struggle to retain what made their early work resonate, all whilst working within the studio system. Still, it should be acknowledged that, in many ways, they are every bit as relevant in contemporary cinema as their New Wave filmic forefathers were when they rose to prominence during the counterculture clashes of the late 60’s. Although a different kind of political upheaval gripped France back then, this short-lived wave of socially-conscious horror titles offer a timely and welcomed treatise of a modern nation in flux, and should be celebrated for interweaving these issues into a genre which is still underappreciated by some.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

HeyUGuys Monthy Round-up

As everyone is probably aware, my long absence from here is due to working on the great HeyUGuys movie blog.

What I intend to do on a monthly basis from now on, is to link all my posts from that blog to here. January's is below.

Cinema Reviews

Young Adult
Following the potentially game-changing Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman (admirably) returns to a smaller, indie-flavoured milieu, re-teaming with his Juno scribe Diablo Cody to bring another highly memorable female character to life...(Full Review)

The Descendants
Director Alexander Payne returns to the big screen (after an almost eight-year absence) with a somewhat unexpectedly gentle comedy-drama which is free from the biting satire and humorous cynicism which characterised his earlier work...(Full Review)

J. Edgar
The ever-prolific Clint Eastwood (this is his eleventh directorial feature since 2000) returns with the absorbing, if flawed, (mildly) revisionist take on the personal life of an equally revered and feared historical US figure.Tracing J. Edgar Hoover’s meteoric rise...(Full Review)

Another Shakespearian text receives the contemporary treatment (albeit via one of his lesser-known plays) with Bard veteran Ralph Fiennes making his directorial debut alongside ably filling the central role of proud and defiant general, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus...(Full Review)

Surprisingly violent and often very funny, Goon is an underdog sporting tale with a difference, and featuring a career best performance from Seann William Scott, it’s well worth getting your skates on and heading out to see it on the big screen. The man who is still chiefly known as Stifler...(Full Review)

DVD/Blu-ray Reviews

Stay Cool
A high school movie with a difference, Stay Cool offers both a contemporary and nostalgic glimpse into those formative years when a best-selling author Henry (Mark Polish) is invited back to his old school to deliver a speech at the upcoming senior graduation. Now in his mid-thirties...(Full Review)

Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Next Level
Some of you will be able to cast your minds back to the time when BBC2 first played host to the interplanetary adventures of an all-new cast of Starfleet officers, still obsessed with that quest to boldly go to the places man has yet to tread. Star Trek: The Next Generation was a genuine TV...(Full Review)


Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of The Descendants
Author Kaui Hart Hemming has seen her highly-praised debut novel The Descendants turned into an equally celebrated (and now potential multiple Oscar-winning) Hollywood picture. The story of a workaholic father in Hawaii who is forced to take the emotional reins following a tragic inciden...(Full Review)

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Solid Support - John Hawkes

Watching the excellent drama Winter’s Bone for other day, I was instantly bowled over by the assured and confident central performance from twenty year-old Jennifer Lawrence. She’s bound to be a shoo-in for a Best Actress nomination at next year’s Academy Awards (and rightly so), but there’s another cast member who is as equally impressive and believable, the character actor John Hawkes. 

In the role of Lawrence’s drug-addled uncle, Teardrop, he’s almost unrecognisable here with his greying beard and gaunt (more so than usual), lived-in tattooed face. Every time he appears on screen (particularly with Lawrence) there’s a palpable feeling of tension, as you’re unsure as to how he will react to his niece’s stoic persistence in tracking down her father (his brother) who’s disappeared following his release from bail. There’s an uneasy mix of menace and tenderness in Hawkes eyes throughout the film, and even though he is of small statute, he commands the screen whenever he appears on it, and looks every bit the scruffy, edgy backwater criminal he’s portraying.

Comparing Hawkes’ appearance here to that of his role in Miranda July’s indie/arthouse quirk-fest, Me and You and Everyone We Know, (where he plays a sweet, downtrodden shoe salesman who’s been left to pick up the pieces of a marriage in tatters and look after his two young sons) and his chameleon-like abilities are even more than apparent. Occupying that traditional character-actor attribute of having one of those faces you've seen before without knowing the name, he deserves to be in the Philip Seymour Hoffman league of being recognised in person, alongside the work.                  

My first exposure to this Minnesota-born actor and musician was his small role at the beginning of 1996’s Dusk till Dawn (although his IMDB page lists a body of work that stretches back to over a decade prior to Rodriguez’s Tex Mex vampire flick). For a film loaded with memorable bit-players and a wealth of quotable scenes, Hawkes really stands out in what is a brief screen appearance as Pete, the hapless liquor store employee whose composure is severely tested as he deals with both the local law enforcement and the ruthless Gecko brothers.

His career choices after Dusk till Dawn have seen him appear in (and in doing so enhancing the quality of) bigger-budgeted ensemble dramas like The Perfect Storm, Identity and American Gangster, and smaller, more intimate pictures (like July’s debut). He was even part of the cast in the HBO series Deadwood and the channel’s recent, highly praised comedy Eastbound and Down (where he was happy to play second fiddle to star Danny McBride’s hilariously bloated and grotesque persona of disgraced ex-baseball star Kenny Powers).

Looking at the current crop of films he has in production, he’ll again be in the company of a large Hollywood cast (the upcoming Steven Soderbergh virus on the run action-thriller Contagion), which features the immaculately groomed visages of Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow, amongst many others. I’m sure he doesn’t mind doing work like this (an actors gotta eat!) and as long as he can keep balancing these parts with more edge fare like Winter’s Bone, I think he could be in the position to take the mantle of this generation’s Harry Dean Stanton.

Like Stanton, he seems to be finding the meatier parts as he gets older (at 51, Hawkes is only two years younger than Stanton was when he showed up in Alien), and he also shares another similarity to the now octogenarian screen veteran, in that his name in the credits of a film and TV programme will always cause me to sit up and take notice, regardless of the quality.  

Monday, 19 July 2010

A tale of two Predators

Once upon a time, there was a young and upcoming filmmaker by the name of Robert Rodriguez who, flush from the success of his no-budget Spanish-language debut and its subsequent sequel/re-make, was asked by the Twentieth Century Fox studio to write a follow-up to the original Predator film, keeping with the jungle premise from the first one. The young director’s films had a real vim and vigour about them and what they lacked in a cohesive plot, they more than made up for with their real sense of fun and excitement.

The great and powerful Austrian giant Arnold Schwarzenegger (star of the original film) decided against being in the next one, and so the script was resigned to a shelf where it sat for many, many years, only to be dusted off by the young filmmaker, who was now a fully-fledged big-name director. He agreed to have it re-written and produced the film himself through his own company, for the all powerful Fox studio.

And they all lived happily ever after……… except they didn’t.

Although handing the directing chores over to one of his loyal servants, the film had none of the quirkiness or imagination which characterised the director’s own work. What had been assembled instead was a ‘Mcfilm’ which the faraway land of Hollywood was becoming increasingly good at churning out. There was no actual real human interaction or dialogue spoken between the actors - all they did was spout exposition back and forth for the film’s duration (one of them even resorting to the age-old cliché of showing a picture of his cute kids to his comrades, before succumbing to the alien).

Some fans of the original decided to come out and support the new film anyway, regardless to how bad it was. Most, having seen District 9 the previous summer, knew that you could still make an exciting genre picture with a relatively low budget and not have to resort to making an uninspired retread of the original (with the added bonus of having three extra Predators!)

Some couldn’t give a shit if the film did or didn’t stand up to the original, a film which they had enjoyed as children – they just want to be entertained for 90 minutes.

The end.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Death Row Cinema Show

Reading the story of a inmate on death row who asked to watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy as his final request immediately made me think of what I would pick in that situation. Would I go for a film or film series with a long running time to prolong the inevitable, or would I opt for quality over quantity instead, or try for both?

The Lord of the Rings films actually seem like a reasonable choice and I would put in a cheeky request to have the director’s cut versions, which would bump the total viewing time up to another hour or two. I would probably be in the mood for some big Hollywood fantasy storytelling and these films would be perfect escapism, ideal I would have thought for someone in this awful situation. There are two problems here however. Due to Return of the King having a multitude of false ending, I can imagine the annoyance at constantly preparing myself to be collected from my cell, only to then be presented with another ten minute corny sequence of Samwise Gamgee or some other Hobbit, getting it on with, and marrying his female conquest back at the Shire. Also, due to the catharsis brought on by watching all three films together and the emotional send-off Frodo receives at the final, proper ending, I would be a right mess when the priest rocked up.

The Decalogue (Dekalog), consisting of ten one-hour films, each of which represents one of the Ten Commandments, would give me the time and intellectual nourishment I may require.  Created by the late Polish film-maker Krzysztof Kieślowski (for the uninitiated, Pulp Fiction beat his film, Three Colours Red, to the Palme d'Or in Cannes), it would be a long haul, but I would be watching a true master at work. The potentially big obstacle here would be in the form of the fifth part (re-titled A Short Film About Killing for theatrical release). It centres on a young man who murders a taxi driver and is eventually executed. This alone would be too much, but with another five to get though before permanent lights out, those hours could prove excruciating.

The Shawshank Redemption, a firm favourite amongst men of all social standing, is probably a little too obvious, plus the last thing you would want to see on death row (and indeed prison) would be an escape to freedom, complete with a nice boat in a sunny climate and Morgan Freeman for permanent company.

Ultimately, I think I would have to go the safe route and pick the original Star Wars trilogy (or if they wanted to save time and money on my execution, I could watched Jar-Jar and co. too which would probably spur me on to take my own life). One of my earliest memories was a trip to the cinema to see A New Hope and as my life would end after seeing the rebels defeat the evil empire and party down at Endor in Return of the Jedi, there would be a nice symmetry here.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The Goonies Strikes Back to the Future

Three perennial childhood favourites, The Empire Strikes Back, Back to the Future and The Goonies, are celebrating anniversaries this summer (Empire is 30 while the others are both 25).

When did I get so old?

It’s hard to imagine any big summer popcorn films of recent years (with the exception of Star Trek and The Dark Knight perhaps) still being celebrated in a couple of decade’s time. It’s interesting that a film like The Goonies still has legs even though it’s essentially a dippy little kid’s film. Its popularity lies in the fact that it has heart and a real sense of wonderment - something the Spielberg-produced stuff of that era strived for and mostly delivered, and something which is very much missing from films nowadays. I still have much fondness for The Goonies (having actually gone to see it for my 9th birthday), but there’s one scene at the end that I always had real trouble with. I’m sure Chunk’s father would have taken serious issue with the prospect of having mental man-mountain Sloth become a permanent member of the family. I know you’re supposed to suspend your disbelief at the movies, but even he would have put his foot down at the merest hint of becoming a surrogate daddy to that.

“No...I am your father!” Empire has perhaps the most perfect three-act structure in any sci-fi film ever and, alongside Dill whipping out a wiener in The Crying Game, it concludes with the greatest twist/reveal of all time. In fact, it’s stuffed with so many amazing scenes you almost wish in hindsight that Lucas would had squirreled some away to distribute around the later instalments. For a film brimming with wondrous moments, my favourite still remains the introduction of Yoda. The scenes on his home planet really are the stuff of movie magic. Not only do you completely buy this little muppet as a living, breathing character, but you also believe that this now shrivelled, rather sad-looking creature in front of you was once an all powerful Jedi Master (until, devastatingly, Attack Of the Clones needlessly and unimaginatively filled in the blanks).

Having won a VHS copy of Back to the Future in the national press when it was first released on rental, I was the envy of everyone at school and was even able to use this prized possession as leverage in gaining more ‘friends’ at the time. It’s easy to see why it was (and still is) loved by so many. Another entry from Stevie’s talent-nurturing, hit-making Amblin (where is the modern day equivalent?!), this is near perfect Hollywood film-making – from the tight, extremely well-constructed script to the faultless pacing and fun performances. Even after all those years, director Robert Zemeckis has yet to surpass this in terms of purely joyous entertainment.

I have to say, these films seem like genuine anomalies now. I suppose all we can hope for is that after the abysmal line-up of summer films so far this year - and with the web coverage and love these classics have been receiving - Hollywood will take note of its past achievements during this season and try to deliver something to their quality again.

Oh dear. Did I just write that last paragraph? You’ll have to forgive me - early senility can also be a by-product of growing older.