Friday, 17 December 2010

Sion Sono: out there

Two of the most interesting films I saw this year were by Suicide Club and EXTE director Sion Sono.

I can't say either of those films blew me away, although they did have points of interest.

But nothing in either could prepare me for this...

Mind-boggling stuff, utterly demented. And it's four hours long?

It's actually a couple of years old now, but I caught up with its giddy charms just a few months ago.

Here is the trailer for a brief flavour...

and this, which I saw at the London Film Festival, is pretty damn good as well.

Very strong stuff though, with the customary horrendous sexual violence that the Japanese do so, er, efficiently.

Depressingly, the LFF crowd, who I would expect more of, contained a few soap-avoiding, basement-dwellers who chuckled throughout some utterly wincing sequences.

Anyway, it ends on a very adolescent, downbeat note, but up til then it's like a Miike film with discipline.

most utterly horrible thing of 2010

in film terms anyway.

Not just Depp, the whole thing.

I normally can't be bothered to write at any length about films or music I hate but I have to make an exception for this.

This film utterly depressed me.

Burton, a brilliant talent whose early career contains at least two near masterpieces, is seemingly intent on wiping out trace memory of those early, unique films. This is cinematic fraud, a cash-courting atrocity.

He's managed to take one of the weirdest and wildest of all children's tales and make the least interesting version of it ever. The maligned 1972 Alice, while stilted and often cinematically static, at least has some imagination and a lovely John Barry score. It also strives for a sense of wonder, something completely lacking here.

It’s a relentlessly ugly, shrill, atrocious piece of whimsy that annoyed me from start to finish and contains an end scene (with Depp, mugging gracelessly throughout) that made me want to set my own face alight with rage and despair. Even the kids in the cinema were clearly bored and restless by the end.

The fact that Burton bases his snow queen (Anne Hathaway with white hair - continuing Burton's odd obsession of taken beautiful raven-haired actresses and putting them in horrendous blonde wigs) on Nigella Lawson(?) tells you everything you need to know about where this ‘dark visionary’ currently is. He’s now a bogus outsider, a perpetual grumpy Goth kid who thinks he’s ‘weird’ but is in fact utterly, utterly conservative.

There are so many interesting, freaky and unique versions of this tale.

That said, if you judge good cinema by the dollar, this is up there with the best of them. It's already made about 800 million dollars worldwide - so what the fuck do I know?

Perhaps Burton might use some of the cash to go back and make a good - or at the very least interesting - film again?

other horrible films from 2010

The Lovely Bones
Whatever Works
Nowhere Boy
Tamara Drewe
The Tourist
The Kid
Green Zone


Scott Pilgrim
Never Let Me Go

Thursday, 16 December 2010

two zero one zero: films

turned out to be a pretty good year in the end.

absolute fave

next absolute fave

revelation (for me, as a non-Leigh fanatic)

these two would make a great future double-bill...

three I saw in 2009 but they came out in the UK this year, and I didn't have a blog a year ago, so...

whereas this came out in 2009 but I didn't see it til THIS year. It's my blog, my rules. Also, yes I really liked this...

Sublime stuff

dreadful year for horror. This was great - and timely - though

this will most likely go straight to More4 or storyville. Please watch...

not just another 'safe' choice oscar foreign film winner...

2010's hidden gem

two zero one zero: musics

No 'best of' lists here, just links to what worked for me in the last twelve months - in no particular order or sequence.

this band are precious and intricate, unhurried. Hope they get the time and space to grow...

rekindling the love after the stodgy, indigestion-inducing Neon Bible. I still think this is another slightly bloated album, and the front man must be one of the most annoying since Bono, but this is a fantastic song...

smoothing out some of the rough edges of Ariel Pink's sound hasn't resulted in a loss of uniqueness. If anything it's clarified it, brought it to the fore...

tangerine dream(s). The score to a lost 80s fantasy film...

the masters of the weyrd English sound had a very strong year...

hauntological heaven: vintage vhs musical mashups...

I'm a bit late to the party with this band. Apparently they've already ditched the dead-end 80s reference points and the new stuff is more proggy, Gong influenced, which sounds exciting...

wonderfully lush, textured sonics and imagery from a perrenial favourite...

manages to be both playful and sinister, with beats so fat they could be classified as obese...

this is all over the place but there is a synth(etic) magnificence that kicks in about a minute in...

This girl seems to annoy the shit out of everyone but I REALLY like this track and 'Obsessions'. Nice video too...

absolutely sublime Moroder/Cerrone-esque tune that builds into an epic disco lament...

castles remixed and disco-fied...

this manages to filter the 80s influence into a modern, fresh groove...

Salem smothers some sinister synth over bone dry beats...

and the man himself...

there's something sinister, almost medieval-sounding in this slice of dark dubstep...

Ronson takes the 80s obsession to olympian heights. Q-tip and MNDR legitimize the tune and save it from pure pastiche. And the video...oh yes!

saw this band play a beatiful set at the ICA. This is an incredibly affecting breakup ballad that sounds like Gram Parsons covering The Band's 'The Weight' for a low key sundance indie film...

sleazy beats, sinister vocoder, surreal 'company flow' style delivery, boards of canada-ish sonics. HUGE...

precise, almost mathmatic dubstep from a precocious talent...

I don't know anything about this collective but everything I have heard is compelling. This creeps up, with waves of percussive dubby goodness...

A kitschy delight. LOVE the instant segue from happy hardcore to depth charge dubstep about 40 seconds in...

handclaps and garage rock riffs. They're a bit one note over the course of a whole album mind..

I dont care what anyone thinks, my love affair with this band will not die. Standout track from 'contra'...

After pocahaunted this was a surprise. Nails the post-Spector pop bubblegum aesthetic perfectly and has a swooning quality...

Hmm. Not quite sure how, but this band just manage to sidestep the 'widescreen vagueness' of the sub-U2 serious, unsmiling white men with guitars crowd. Possibly by virtue of sounding more like Tindersticks than (shudder) Editors. Incredibly boring live sadly...

I simply will not stop posting links to this Bristolian genius. If only he had actually scored TRON...

you can't deny the delivery. DEADLY...

this appears to be three different songs in one. Luckily they are all awesome...

making no claims that this is a great song, but it makes me smile, as do the band. Give me these dudes over black eyed peas anyday. AND just listen to that bassline. It's like LFO or some other warp style bleep techno, no?

I make no bones about it, I LOVE this record, and the album too. Such a warm sound, so resonant of English folk and even hints of acoustic Zeppelin? Or is it just me..?

The Fall have essentially recorded the same song for well over three (or is it four?) decades. Luckily it’s a great song...

This is absolute dreck of course - vacuous, moronic and shrill.

The diabetes-inducing video is basically a visual tribute to American stupidity, sweets, tits and wanking. It’s enough to make you sympathise with the Taliban.

In spite of – or perhaps even because of – these reasons, I basically love it...

I'm old enough to remember actual goths so this manages to be amusing, mortifying and nostalgic all at once. I like the relentless seriousness of it, especially the video, an essential part of the aesthetic...

the former NiN front man does Fincher's wonderful facebook drama proud with a bleeptastic electronic score that stands alone perfectly well. Parts of it remind me, mood-wise, of Stewart Copeland's magnificent, percussive Rumblefish score for some reason...

one of my absolute favourite covers of the year..

honestly, I have found nothing on Kanye's new album that resonates emotionally with me in the way that most of his flawed, simplistic, heavily-sythesised 808s and heartbreak did, but he's almost always interesting...

easy to write off as a manc La Roux but there's a fierce, arty intelligence here..

This is SO 80s it could just as well be on the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop 2 or something. This is a good thing. La Roux sounds like she's having more fun than usual too...

this simple and unaffected northern soul-tinged stomper shouldn’t even exist. The fact that it does is due to Collins (one of our loveliest and most affecting white soul voices) learning to speak and play guitar all over again following a near fatal haemorrhage. The healing power of music in tangible form...

Cave, for some reason, has started to get on my nerves a bit of late. Don't quite know why. But this throwaway Beefheartian stomp works just fine...

Grinderman - Heathen Child on MUZU.

Quantum leap over their first record...

YEASAYER "O.N.E." from Paranoid US on Vimeo.

I first saw this projected on an absolutely massive screen at the amazing tate pop art exhibition. The crashing sound that accompanied my entrance was that of my jaw hitting the floor. I can’t decide whether this is absolutely awful or total genius, but either way it’s certainly the best thing McG has ever done...

Nothing on Halcyon Digest has quite hit me in the way that their last few records have but this is still, as Alan Partridge would say, ‘lovely stuff’...

Basically Jane Wiedlin's ‘rush hour’ updated as a powerpop anthem about the global economic crisis...

in a world light on real pop icons (Lady GG aside) it’s good that there are still big figures capable of surprise and bringing what Americans love to call ‘the drama’. So many ironies in both song and video, a whole soap operas worth of dramatic subtext and probably the most effective use of Rhianna’s er ‘acquired-taste’ vocal to date...

Friday, 12 November 2010

London film festival review: Somewhere

If you've seen the trailer, you have pretty much seen Somewhere, Sofia Coppola’s new film. What remains in Coppola’s fifth feature, no matter how beautifully shot and performed, feels like lightweight riffs on her earlier Lost in Translation.

I’m aware that Coppola’s breakout hit now seems to have as many people firmly against it as for, but I remain a big fan. I’ve been impressed by Coppola’s work generally – I even like her much-maligned nu-wave inflected period romp Marie Antoinette. But this is definitely the least interesting film this promising young director has made – not a step backward so much as an example of an artist merely exercising her talent, rather than stretching or refining it in any way.

The opening scenes encapsulate what I think Somewhere gets slightly wrong in the way Lost in Translation got so right. We are introduced to the ‘Bob Harris’ figure – fading movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) – as he listlessly races a sports car around a track over and again. We are in classic Coppola territory already – the blank affectless world of celebrity and isolation, an existence of pool parties, endless gatherings at the château marmot (where Johnny lives) press junkets and photocalls.

The problem is that where Bill Murray’s character felt like a man truly exhausted and jaded with the circus all around him, Dorff, who I must say is actually very good here, just seems like a bit of a bore . Not hateful in any way, just empty and uninteresting.

Plus his life really doesn’t seem that bad to me. Johnny has the freedom to do whatever he wants; drive in a nice sports car, attend a few important meetings and junkets (all of which are handled by his PA), hang out with likeable, dufus brother (Jackass’ Chris Pontius in a very relaxed likeable performance) and enjoy the constant attention of hot women.

It’s like a hipster feature length version of a Robbie Williams song – the ones about how trapped he felt having to perform the music he loves and deal with endless supplies of blow on tap and willing teenage girls wanting to shag him.

Coppola does shoot a couple of very funny scenes that explore the theme of excess and boredom – pole dancing twins grind for Johnny in his hotel room in the most bored style imaginable while he looks on, either exhausted or asleep. But again, I couldn’t help thinking ‘wow this jaded, empty lifestyle sure looks like fun!’. And that will be a stumbling block for many audiences. It’s hard to really care in any way.

Compounding this is the subplot involving Johnny’s daughter from his estranged relationship. While it’s commendable that Coppola shies away form the corny’ kid teaching life lessons’ shtick that you might expect, the downside is that Chloe (Elle Fanning; amazing and totally natural) ends up bringing almost no drama or conflict into his life at all. In fact they enjoy a nice easy relationship. Despite the distance, she’s fantastically well adjusted and self reliant in ways that Johnny isn’t; cooking up perfect eggs Benedict for him for breakfast while he hops in and out of various women’s beds. In contrast, Johnny struggles with a mountain of spaghetti when fending for himself.

And because this is a Sofia Coppola movie, all this ennui is set to her standard shoegazey soundtrack and shot through with that agreeably hazey Sundance ‘glaze’ look. Indeed, watching Somewhere at times is like nodding off in an opulent gallery while an entire issue of DAZED&CONFUSED is projected onto a massive, blank wall.

It sounds like I am being really hard on Somewhere, but it does have some good things going on. Coppola has lovely relaxed way of directing her performers, and the scenes with Fanning, Doff and Pontius hanging out and goofing off are nicely played. This isn’t a major misfire and I’m confident that Coppola will dazzle again.

But it might be time for her to step away from the comfort zone. This film probably means an awful lot to Sofia Coppola – and that’s maybe its biggest problem. I suspect for most viewers the only time this pleasant and forgettable confection will flicker into life is in the moments it reminds them of its earlier, more resonant and original companion piece.

Film review: 127 Hours

This will come as no surprise to those that know me, but, just for the record, I want to make it clear that I have absolutely zero interest in extreme sports. Like Evan Dando, I am no ‘outdoor type’, and I wouldn’t even lie about it. So when I first caught the ‘whoahh dude’/lucozade-ad style trailer for Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, I feared the worst.

I’ve always found these kind of characters – with their regulation fleeces, hats and Oakley wraparounds – to be, almost without fail, wearisome, ingratiating bell-ends with exceptionally poor music taste. You’ll find them prone to proselytising about ‘the rush’ and eager to impress – and potentially sleep with – your girlfriend.

In addition to this unqualified hatred, I have a palpable fear of almost anything that might put my life in danger. This meant that, even during the initial ten minutes of 127 Hours – where our central character Aaron Ralston is enjoying himself, perfectly at home dangling off cliff edges and encouraging girls he’s just met to jump off ravines – I could feel the rumblings of a panic attack coming on.

In short, I really couldn’t see how I was going to enjoy this film at all.

But not only did I thoroughly enjoy the film, I felt like I ‘experienced’ it, and I think this is key to understanding what makes it such a resounding success.

Like Buried; 2010’s other ‘man- trapped’ flick, this is a film that, in synopsis, you just can’t see working or being sustained over feature-length. Unlike that movie, Boyle’s film uses the limitations of enforced confinement to create a feeling of optimism and hope as opposed to something nightmarish and despairing. And it works brilliantly.

It’s a distinctly Boyle trait to see hope in the most despairing of situations; after all that formed the basis for his phenomenally successful Slumdog Millionaire. So he’s the perfect choice of director to essay Ralston’s real life plight. That plight is something I won’t go into here for various reasons. What’s is surprising is that I think that whether you do or don’t know what Ralston’s ultimate fate was, it works either way, leaving you queasy and uncertain regardless.

Lightening the doom, Boyle gets inside Ralston’s head as the delirium of his circumstance kicks in and it’s in these freewheeling and frequently funny interludes that the inner life of 127 Hours really kicks in

Key to making the film work, and Ralston a much more likable character than I feared, is an adrenalised, physical and surprisingly moving performance from James Franco. In lesser actors hands Ralston could’ve come across as a Point Break style tool, with fleece for brains, but the actors’ winning charm and easy nature means that you are entirely with him during the whole freaky, hideous enterprise.

I’ve always admired Danny Boyle hugely without totally loving his films (although I thought Slumdog was tremendous entrainment). I often had issues with what I see as his frequency to over-embellish with whizzy visuals and endless sound tracking.

It’s almost as if he doesn’t trust his own powerful stories enough, and he’s never met a set piece that he didn’t want to put alongside an incredibly obvious song choice. He does that a fair bit here actually, but it really heightens and benefits the mood, working in tandem with the material rather than taking you out of the picture. Boyle’s aggressive style puts you inside the mind of his protagonist perfectly, as Ralston ruminates over his thus far short – potentially very short – existence.

127 Hours doesn’t make me want to do the kind of things that Ralston did (and still does, the insane bastard) but through Boyle’s film I feel a bit closer to understanding the mindset of people who want to test themselves, in extreme circumstances, and what draws them to it. And if the film is based on truth then Aaron Ralston is both fantastically resourceful and brave as well as being, quite clearly, a nutcase. And I’m still scared to even go camping.

Monday, 25 October 2010

London Film Festival: Black Swan

With all these screenings it’s my intention to blog about the films as quickly as possible, and give an emotional response without over-thinking the piece.

This feels particularly right with Black Swan which is, at its core, a film about control and release. Aranofksy’s fifth feature is built around the purest notions of cinema and tells a deceptively simple story through image, sound and atmospherics. The cinematography really takes on the level of a central character in this film, which is a sonic and visual feast: a true cineaste’s movie.

Natalie Portman (on riveting form here) plays Nina, an intense, committed prima ballerina and rising star within a highly prestigious New York dance company.

Nina is obsessed with landing the role of the swan queen in their new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassell, saturnine as ever) is not quite convinced. He knows Nina can handle the physical demands of the role and would make a perfect white queen, but has serious misgivings about this girl-woman’s ability to channel the darker, more sexualised elements of the black queen in his radical new vision.

And so, an intense psychodrama of duality and alternate persona begins – eating away at Nina’s already fragile psyche.

In scenes reminiscent of Polanski at his most tortured and paranoiac, Nina begins to see visions of herself reflected in the city. She feels stalked by demons, phantoms and predators. Her journey mirrors that of the queen herself, with various dual suitors torturing her as she continues to put herself through the psychological torment and physical demands of landing her dream role.

Thomas is both mentor and tormentor, his older muse Beth (Winona Ryder, terrible) a Swanson-like nemesis. Draining Nina further is her own mother (Barbara Hershey channelling Sirkian melodrama), a passive/aggressive matriarch and ex-dancer who treats her daughter like a child.

Pushing Nina further into the abyss is Lily, her alternate, played by Mila Kunis in a coolly confident role that recalls a younger, less self-conscious Angelina Jolie. A rival dancer and more febrile, relaxed and sensual performer, Lily represents, in Thomas’ eyes, the ideal black queen.

Let’s be clear, this is not a subtle piece of work, although there are nuances throughout which I’m sure will reveal themselves in further viewings. Although Aranofsky employs the same grainy aesthetic as his hugely enjoyable The Wrestler, and has returned again to terrain that explores extreme physicality, this is a very different work in tone.

Black Swan, like that earlier film, is about the pleasure and pain of life as performance. However, where The Wrestler explored the external world around Rourke's fading fighter, this film is very much an internalised psychodrama seen entirely through the fractured mindset of a young woman on the precipice of madness.

More seasoned reviewers than I have identified a whole range of fairly obvious influences so I won’t repeat those here. What I will say is that when I first heard about this film I anticipated some sort of demented Suspiria/Showgirls mash up – and I still would’ve been first in line had it been so.

But this is neither camp, gleeful trash nor cinefantastique. Outside the ballet setting and a frisson of the giallo atmosphere, I couldn’t detect any Dario Argento influence at all.

If you wanted to be really perverse (and tenuous) the only Argento work this has common ground with would be The Stendhal Syndrome. Both films share elements of power-play sexual dynamics and the hallucinatory effect of losing oneself in art. However, given that Argento’s film uses these themes as a way of distracting from what is otherwise a diabolical shitfest, I doubt Aranofsky has even heard of it, let alone been influenced by it.

I do wish Aranofsky had taken a leaf out of the Verhoeven book though. His film is a bit too restrained at times. I would love to have seen a little more craziness; for the director to heed Thomas’ advice to Nina: ‘let yourself go, transcend the material’.

That said there are some enjoyably arch moments and bits of dialogue, most of which are Casell's. ‘I want you to go home and touch yourself, live a little’, he says to Nina, while coming on to her in his opulent apartment (well, I laughed).

Portman’s masturbatory moments (in a bath and in the bedroom surrounded by pink soft toys and girlish ephemera) and a hot and heavy lesbian scene with Kunis are indications of what the film could’ve been in less careful hands, but they bolster the films inherent b-movie dynamics and prevent it from taking itself too seriously.

The closing third of the film is where Aranofsky really lets rip, and where Matthew Libatique‘s over-the-shoulder cinematography and Clint Mansell's relentless dread-fuelled score combine to outstanding effect – sustaining a mood of endless murk and uncertainty. These moments help to build the tension superbly, complementing the impending ballet while Nina’s internal and external demons continue to battle for her soul.

The staging of the opera itself is magnificent, with perhaps the most intense and dynamic scenes of ballet ever committed to celluloid. And special mention must be made of rodarte and Yumiko's outlandish costumes, which, in the films climactic dance, take on an extra dimension of Cronenberg-like body horror.

This rather fevered appraisal of the film might come back to bite me when I view the film again. But I can deal with that later. For cinema, as much as it is about anything, should be about making bold declarations, not being afraid to look foolish.

Aranofsky has again proved himself to be a risk-taker. His latest might not be *about* very much, but everything about it screams purest cinema.

So here’s my bold declaration: Black Swan is the most exciting and exhilarating movie of the festival so far. My favourite of 2010.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

London Film Festival: Another Year

If I'm being totally honest, I haven't always got along with Mike Leigh’s films. I adored the primal howl of Naked as a young, angry man for its, well, young, angry man-ness and David Thewlis’ towering performance as the part-sociopath/part-seer Johnny – but a lot of Leigh's other films left me cold.

His intimate, ensemble pieces always seemed to rub me up the wrong way somehow. I would watch the screeching, caricatured misfits of Life is Sweet and High Hopes and where others saw incisive wit and insight I saw arch stereotypes and studied condescension. But I really think I think I need to go back to Leigh’s work, because Another Year is as close to a masterpiece as any film I’ve seen in 2010.

This is very much one of Leigh’s ensemble works. Its character driven, has almost no dramatic arc, doesn’t revolve around any big events or a grand reveal. There are no lessons learned, nobody changes much or goes on an emotional journey.

It simply documents four seasons in the lives of Gerri and Tom, a happy-in-themselves (albeit very slightly self-satisfied) older couple. Their simple life involves tending to their allotment, worrying about whether their son will ever get a girlfriend and entertaining the various friends and family members that pass in and out of their lives over the course of a year.

Another Year feels absolutely authentic, the apex of Leigh’s favoured working practice to have his performers’ engage in workshop sessions and improvise from a bare-bones script. There are almost no false notes in this film, though there are many recognisable elements of social embarrassment and unease.

I found one character, Ken, an old friend of Tom's, so tragic and difficult to watch I had to cover my eyes for most of his screen time. Its easy to forget in the era of ‘social embarrassment’ verite (The Office) that Leigh was doing all this stuff years ago – in mordantly observed character pieces like Abigail’s Party and Nuts in May.

But there is an absolute mastery of tone and here. There are still telltale moments of Leigh’s broader, more condescending approach but the strength of the acting wins the day.

Lesley Manville’s character Mary is not the most complex – on paper it could look like a cheap, vaguely misogynist pot-shot of a part – the boozy old past-it flirt, forever necking pinot grigio. But the richness and subtlety of her performance means she is fully-rounded, funny and tragic, absolutely recognisable. These are fantastically realised, frequently moving, immaculate character studies.

I don’t remember Leigh holding the image as much as he does here. It wouldn’t be facile to suggest that there is an Ozu-like quality to much of this film, if Ozu had been a bearded Jewish Mancunian with an eye and ear for English foibles. There is a single scene towards the end of the film where Tom (Jim Broadbent), comforting a taciturn family member in the aftermath of a death, takes him upstairs to pack a suitcase. Everything about the scenes is sublime, unforced. Broadbent does this ridiculous- looking methodical smoothing and folding of shirts. It’s quietly devastating in a way that’s hard to describe.

I’ve heard some grumbles that Another Year is a kind of marriage/coupling propaganda piece, Leigh somehow channelling David Cameron and making all the single characters miserable and desperate while holding up the central couple as the gold standard of what we should all strive for. But I think Leigh has as canny eye on his seemingly perfect older duo; their bliss seems more like a happy accident as much as anything and both actors do a good job of quietly nailing their occasional cruel indifference, their slight smugness. But no one is demonised here. These are rich, recognisable characters that’ve made choices - some good some bad, some disastrous.

Leigh has stepped up a gear here, and this is the work of a mature artist, which marries slow-burning European dramatic sensibilities to a very English sense of social comedy. I wonder how many of the really talented young UK filmmakers of today will be making films this resonant and important in their sixties.

Looking wider, it’s interesting to compare Leigh’s current position with his sometime US counterpart Woody Allen. As Allen diminishes in stature so Leigh’s stock rises. This year I could barely make it past thirty minutes with the protagonists of Allen’s awful Whatever Works. I could’ve happily spent Another Year with Leigh’s.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Bernie n' Hitch

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of watching the fantastic 50th anniversary re-master of Hitchcock’s Psycho at the Empire cinema in Leicester Square.

There's no point recounting in detail the greatness of this film, which has been written about and dissected to near-exhaustion, except to say that:

• it looked and sounded astonishing, re-enforcing my opinion of Hitchcock as a relentlessly forward-thinking director with its envelope-pushing (though tame by today’s standards) overtones of sexual violence

• Martin Balsam’s death is still more shocking for me (as it was when I first saw the film on television as a boy) than the shower scene

• the extremely wordy, explanatory coda is still utter, utter rubbish (though perhaps it's all part of the master’s sardonic ‘humour’).

Also, the nuances of Perkins' vulnerable, delicate performance never fail to amaze me – particularly weighed against the gruesomely unsubtle, telegraphed nuttiness essayed by gurning sweatbox Vince Vaughn in the otherwise interesting Gus Van Sant remake.

Of course the film’s score is as vital to its success as Jaws’ screeching strings and Suspiria's wailing prog rock – and hearing it through the Empire’s booming 5.1 sound system was indeed a special treat.

Norma Herrmann, who was married to the film's legendary composer Bernard Herrmann from 1967 until his death, introduced the screening - talking wittily and insightfully about the making of the film and sharing some delightful insights and stories. It was particularly sweet to hear her talk of ‘Bernie n’ Hitch’ and how much they would’ve enjoyed the special screening, noting that sartorial elegance was not their forte. ‘The pair of them could make a Saville Row suit look like it came from Primark’, she said.

That’s as may be, but as the Psycho screening – and the preceding selection of masterful tracks from their other works together – proved, there was nothing shabby about their cinematic collaborations; tailored to perfection, pin-sharp, and timelessly iconic.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Review: The Social Network

David Fincher’s ultimate ‘facebook update’ arrives on the back of near-unanimous praise in the States and seems set to garner similar plaudits here. It will be interesting to see how the cultural milieu and Harvard minutiae play out with a UK audience. Better than some have predicted I imagine, given the appetite British audiences seem to have for dramas about privileged Americans.

Just as Michael Mann did with The Insider, Fincher succeeds in crafting a remarkably gripping film from bone dry materials. Given that The Social Network is essentially a series of dramatic and comedic vignettes involving self-absorbed computer geeks arguing over money and hunched over laptops for two hours that’s no mean feat. You could argue that Fincher has even less to work with dramatically than Mann had with Jeffrey Wigand’s tobacco crusade. There might be nothing at stake in this film, but it’s still fascinating and absorbing.

Fincher charts the period 2003-04, beginning with a drunken, post-dumped Mark Zuckerberg retreating to his Harvard dorm to post an online embittered rant about his ex – alongside an invitation to the campus to ‘rate’ the attractiveness of female undergrads. The near-sociopath Zuckerberg finds his services courted by the Brooks Brothers-esque duo of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (one man, much digital trickery).

When they engage him to create a Harvard exclusive friend site, his status – in the words of Facebook parlance – becomes ‘complicated’. Zuckerberg essentially plagiarises the basic concept and runs with it, inviting wealthy law graduate Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) along as a partner.

The ensuing fallout results in two separate lawsuits, which drive the films quicksilver narrative. Oscillating between the financial and emotional support of Savarin and the slippery, faustian-lite charms of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake in an irresistible performance full of white-hot energy and charm) Zuckerburg sees his site mutate into a global phenomenon at the expense of the one friendship he actually had.

Jesse Eisenberg is very, very effective in the lead role. He’s played nerdy assholes before but not with this level of awareness and nuance. The stellar cast are all ably served by a script from Aaron Sorkin that lends the film an emotional gravitas its actual events barely warrant. Personally I find Sorkin's over-elaborate, buff-shined dialogue in The West Wing fairly exhausting, but it fits these uber-geeks perfectly.

This is a fascinating film, an intriguing dramatisation of niche US-specific cultural events and a subsequent worldwide narrative that is still playing out, even as Facebook’s cultural cache is increasingly threatened by Twitter. It’s also very funny in places, with a couple of dynamic comic set pieces and some richly quotable dialogue.

At the heart of The Social Network is a fairly obvious paradox – socially inert individual creates world’s largest social interactive site. And as others have pointed out, you do wonder if Zuckerberg somehow imagined a future online world moulded in his own image; where users have lots of people as online buddies while leading an actual life of near-autistic isolation.

Lensed with cool proficiency and the director’s trademark visual chutzpah, this is nevertheless a more sober, confident Fincher, who may have created his richest, most resonant film here. It’s surely too early to proclaim the movie as masterpiece as some boldly have, but this is a vital work, alive with unlikely energy. Facebook haters might balk at the way Fincher lets the creators off the hook – no critical analysis here – but this is the first major film to engage with the seismic cultural shift that social networking has impacted on all our lives. David Hall ‘likes’ this. A lot.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

London Film Festival: Never Let Me Go

This much-anticipated adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel opened the London Film Festival yesterday. Although I’ve seen quite a lot of this year’s programme already, it feels right to kick off the first of my festival updates with the big opening film.

During the post-screening press conference, Mark Romanek talked in almost gushing terms about Ishiguro's source novel (coming across more like a softly spoken rabbi than a director). He paid tribute to screenwriter Alex Garland and spoke glowingly of how collaborative the experience had been. All fine and good, but this reverential tone might be one of the reasons that the end product was, for me, a well-intentioned, artistically timid and – to be honest – slightly ponderous experience.

Never Let Me Go simply doesn’t take enough risks with the original material to succeed as a fully-realised film. There’s something very sealed-off and parched about this movie. For a film that is ultimately about what it means to be human, it’s far too polite and conventional to truly resonate, connect or feel tragic in any way.

Despite the impressive cast, it’s the first part of the film – dealing with the central trio as children – that is easily the most effective, and affecting. Romanek displays a deft touch in these early stages, creating an alternative Britain of the 70s where we learn that “by 1967, life expectancy passes 100 years”.

The hermetically-sealed – part-Blyton, part-Kafka – Hailsham boarding school is home to a generation of cloned children who will be organ-harvested when they reach adulthood. They will be robbed of any creative or romantic future, living only to ‘complete’ – and become donors for human transplants.

There’s an eerie sense of impending doom to this part of the film, which is full of foreboding and sinister adolescent dread. I was reminded of Joseph Losey’s strange, unsettling The Damned, which also deals with children brought up in isolation.

Once the action shifts to their teenage years, this sureness begins to ebb away. The notes are all there but the playing is off, somehow. It’s a very tough call for the central trio, essaying characters who are essentially barren imitators of human behaviour locked in a world they can’t understand or relate to. But the devastating consequences of their fate don’t resonate through the performances, which are variable in tone. Carey Mulligan is the standout, displaying quiet wisdom beyond her years. Keira Knightly is stretched – but manages to be brittle and affecting. Andrew Garfield, well, it’s fair to say he has been better than he is here.

There’s an awful lot of emoting during a draggy midsection that feels more like a prestige TV adaptation. It’s at this point that we should feel closer to these characters – their frustrations, their passions, and the quiet desperation of their short existence. Instead the principle players drift around, quietly accepting their fate. The climax we are building to, never in any real doubt, should be inexorable, devastating and haunting. Instead it feels unearned and forced.

For a film laden with talent, this was a disappointingly low-key start to the festival. Romanek is a gifted director who can build a sinsiter mood very effectively – particularly in the overlooked One Hour Photo – but his approach here is too reverent and lacking in nerve.

Letting go of this one feels too easy.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Let Me In - review

(if you haven't seen 'Let The Right One In', this contains mild spoilers)

Last night I saw Let Me In - the feared/anticipated remake of Thomas Alfredson’s majestic Let the Right One In. Alfredson’s original, gentle, understated vampire fable received one of the most rapturous receptions I have seen at any festival, ever – with the exception of Del Toro's Pans Labyrinth – and effectively earned the status of an instant classic. So the ire amongst fans was palpable - and understandable - at the announcement that the new Hammer stable were to immediately remake the film for the US. Predictable grumblings ensued, and I have to admit to feeling a certain level of concern myself – that is until two things happened.

Firstly, I read John Ajvide Lindqvist book which if you haven’t, and you’ve seen the Swedish film, you must remedy immediately. In fact remedy it anyway. It’s a terrific companion piece, a book which works wonderfully well particularly after you’ve seen the film - shedding light on some of the darker material hinted at onscreen. There is a LOT going on in it.

Secondly, Matt Reeves was then confirmed as the director. Now for my money Reeves’ Cloverfield is a near-perfect film, a 70s Spielberg quality, thrill-delivering shaky cam shocker; one of the most audacious, confident and dazzling genre films of the last decade.

The natural thought for me at this juncture, and for many others too I'm sure, was that perhaps Reeves might go back to the book and take a very different approach. There’s no way he would just remake the understated original in a US setting, surely?

Well the strange thing is that Reeves has pretty much done exactly that, but the result is so impressive that I left the cinema both surprised and affected in equal measure. My companions were not so convinced. I’m not quite sure why I feel this way, and why I didn’t share their disappointment but the answer lies, I think, in the ‘small stuff‘. Reeves’ film makes tiny tweaks and modifications, some work, some don’t. It’s like a fantastically realised cover version that sounds almost the same but is a testament to how tiny alterations can affect remarkable changes in a film’s emotional register.

Reeves' film sticks very, very closely to the original, surprisingly filtering the narrative even further and distilling it down to it’s core essence – the heartbreaking relationship between a bullied, lonely young boy; Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a damaged, mysterious monstrous 'girl'; Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz).

Effectively this decision marginalises the presence of Abby’s 'father' ('Hakan' in the book); a man for whom the term 'special relationship' barely scratches the surface - and effectively jettisons the darker subtext of their bond (explored in hideous depth in the novel).

Where Reeves has modified, the changes are ingenious and the re-routing from Sweden to Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1983 is a complete masterstroke. The roots of trickle-down economic disharmony are being sown and this political context is handled lightly, neither heavy handed or forced. The poverty and social collapse of Stockholm from Alfredson's film is replaced with an America teetering into a darker age of its own; Reagan is in full ‘evil empire’ mode, warning on the television of communist threat and there are various nods to the ‘satanic panic‘ that engulfed early 80s America (which also forms the basis of Ti West’s brilliant recent House of the Devil). The atmosphere of doom and moral panic is extremely persuasive.

I’m not sure the additional police procedural elements really add much to the film, but it's always a pleasure to see Elias Koteas who plays the investigator here. It's easy to forget what a fine actor he is, and he’s on good form - barely recognisable under a large moustache and what appear to be Stanley Tucci's paedo-for-hire clothes from The Lovely Bones.

Richard Jenkins (from Six Feet Under) essays the 'father' very effectively but the characters presence is reduced. His brief moments linger in the memory though and when he is onscreen with Moretz he makes an impact so strong you miss him when he’s not around.

There’s no doubt that Let Me In loses its nerve a little mid-way, and it's hard to shake off the deja vu if you've seen the first (particularly as there's only a couple of years between them!). Reeves does frame the scenes very differently though, favouring overwhelming close ups to the original's medium to long shots. There’s a little bit of dubious CGI here and there too and Abby's cat-like movements are rendered oddly and artificially, bringing you out of the film.
It's also an unfortunate fact that the original had one of the greatest set pieces in any horror film of living memory and Reeves, good as he is, simply cannot top or even match it. That said he throws in one stunning sequence of his own, worthy of Carpenter at his prime – a taut, agonising moment - where Jenkins lies waiting to strike in the back of a car - which goes horribly wrong and ends in a wrenching, point of view car smash. It's quite outstanding. Both children incidentally are wonderful, and Michael Giacchino's score is simply sublime, resonant, poignant and spooky in turns.

Look, not every one is going to go for this. For some the film just won’t be different enough, for others even the fact that the original was so quickly remade will stick in the craw. For me, personally, I'm often a big fan of remakes. I even like Van Sant’s derided shot-for-shot Psycho facsimile and contributed to this spirited top ten horror remakes list, in which I would be happy to include Let Me in.

The fact is that the original exists, the book exists and now so does this - a delicate film of quiet grace and longing, an impressively rendered cover. If it doesn’t quite have the freshness and piquancy of the original it’s still a film of great integrity, a very impressive start for the re-energised Hammer stable and further confirmation that Matt Reeves is a director of genuine skill.

And if it compliments an original work that not nearly enough people have seen and serves as a way of letting them in on a modern classic - that can only be a good thing.

RIP Arthur Penn

Friday, 17 September 2010

More shameless self promotion

I am now writing for the lovely Chris and Phil presents site

Looking forward to doing more for these good fellows...

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Gone but not forgotten: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains!

So The Runaways is out.

I'm really looking forward to seeing it, and Stewart and Fanning definitely look the part, but can it in all seriousness be as good as THIS?

Starring a 15 year old Diane Lane (before her 80s Outsiders/Rumblefish/Cotton Club Coppola triple-whammy) this is a terrifically grotty, obscurist little number just ripe for Runaway-influenced rediscovery.

Made in 1981, it’s a pretty canny distillation of the transient nature of the punk-pop game, which is understandable given its director Lou Adler was a noted music producer and entrepreneur. Despite years of success in the industry he couldn’t save his own flick from sinking into almost complete obscurity immediately, but its memory has been fondly kept alive by cult aficionados over the years and it often bubbles up to the surface on various occasions when the zeitgeist chimes with its ramshackle tale of girl rockers in a rock n' roll rut. It was a bit of a riot grrl touchstone if I remember correctly.

WEIRD cast too, with a very young Ray Winstone, even younger Laura Dern, some of the Pistols and other assorted hangers on. Legit copies are nigh-impossible to find, but mark my words this will be out on a cheapo DVD spec edition by the time Joan and the gang hit DVD.

Good thing too.

Friday, 3 September 2010

FrightFest: Cherry Tree Lane

The interesting career journey of director Paul Andrew Williams and producer Ken Marshall continues with this uncomfortable to watch, occasionally brilliant home invasion film. A deliberately divisive work, it elicited accusations of Daily Mail-pandering from some audience members - the kind I last heard levelled at the near-perfect, more ruthlessly exploitative Eden Lake. Cherry Tree Lane is far less feverish than Lake, and even allows for some deadpan humour to seep through the grimness. And while its closest antecedent is Michael Haneke’s excellent Funny Games it doesn’t have any of the snooty audience game-playing elements of that film.

My fear when I initially heard about this film was that it would lean very heavily on the Haneke model, but Williams does some interesting things with form and tone, and it doesn’t feel like he’s holding up any mirrors to the audience - instead he’s inviting them right in, up close, to feel the discomfort, peril and outright terror of the situation. The set-up is ruthless, lean and economical - a young gang force their way into a middle class couple’s home, hold the pair hostage and assault them, while awaiting the return of the couple’s wayward son, for whom they have a major grievance, and terrible revenge to exact upon. Although it’s a very different work, this has an intensity and control that harks back to the pair’s first collaboration, London to Brighton.

And again he coaxes some real standout performances from a mostly unknown young cast - I was particularly blown away by the quiet authority of Ashley Chin as Asad, who delivers a nuanced, layered portrayal of disaffected, disconnected young man.

Williams’ confidence as a filmmaker is clearly growing and although some of the hypnotic atmosphere that is built in the opening thirty minutes (aided by an excellent UNKLE score) starts to ebb away slightly when the gang invite some additional, younger members over to the house, a frenzied and intense finale gets things back on track.

We might not like or feel at all comfortable with another film that uses white class-panic about feral youth as its basis, but while this contemporary fear continues to be ruthlessly exploited by tabloids and news organisations, it remains a subject worthy of exploration. Williams' film might not change any existing attitudes, but it stands up to the best examples of the genre, while forging an identity of its own.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Fright nights (and days)

It’s Fright Fest time again.

Like many of the regulars who make the yearly pilgrimage to Leicester Square every August Bank Holiday I have my own deeply personal connections to this amazing horror festival, which I’ve attended in some form every year since 2001.

When I moved to London one of my first journalistic duties was to interview festival founder and horror legend Alan Jones for the Camden New Journal. It was extremely exciting for me as I grew up reading Jones’ inspirational writing on horror and science fiction cinema for Starburst, the favourite film magazine of my youth and the man was a charming, hilarious delight.

I’ve met many good friends through the fest, and two short films I worked on - Grindhouse trailer tribute Slash Hive which I co wrote and starred in, and The Initiation which I directed - played at the Glasgow and Leicester Square fests respectively. Those were amazing moments, never to be forgotten and I'll always be grateful to the organisers - especially Paul McEvoy and Ian Rattray for selecting us.

Make no mistake, this is a remarkable place to be for any genre fan, with an incredible track record of breaking horror classics, and the most committed fans and passionate, witty, erudite organisers you are likely to encounter at any festival in the world.

I'm not always able to make the whole trip, but even the years when I haven’t been there for the duration, I’ve always popped along to take in a couple of flicks and soak up the atmosphere. One thing that has become clearer over the years is just what a seismic event the fest is for those whose films are selected. Adam Green's Hatchet received a rapturous response in 2006, and he's back this year with the sequel. When I interviewed Green on his second visit to Fright Fest in 2007 it was clear how much the love and support of the festival meant to him, describing it as an 'amazing, amazing experience'. Green is now a firm friend of the fest - as are Guillermo Del Toro, Chris Smith, Neil Marshall, John Landis and many others.

I’ll be there for the whole of Saturday this year, where I can't wait to take in Monsters, the film that already has everyone taking, and briefly on Sunday to see what all the A Serbian Film fuss is all about. I’m already buzzed about it.

I’ve already seen four of the films playing at the festival this year - Aussie sensation The Loved Ones, lovingly forensic giallo tribute Amer, nutso tiger-on-the-loose pic Burning Bright and the big closing film, The Last Exorcism. Each of these films is interesting and unique and a couple are quite superb. The quality of those four is an indication this could be a vintage year for the festival, especially given how strong the rest of the line up looks.

So - to everyone who will be there over the next five days, have a truly great festival and I'll hope to see some of you there over the weekend. And in the words of George A Romero - another horror legend who I had the great privilege of meeting through the fest - stay scared!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Gone but not forgotten: missing 'The Appointment (1981)

There are some films that even now, at a time when some of the most obscure titles ever are readily available in plush re-mastered versions, have just slipped quietly into the cinematic ether. Usually there is good reason - they are works which failed to make any kind of impact, even at the time of release. They’re rarely classics, but have a couple of extraordinary moments, a mood or vibe, a stand out performance that means they are worthy of rediscovery, of seeking out in some form.

Lindsey C. Vicker’s The Appointment is one such film.

Even among the kind of feverish, committed film lunatics that I know, this is a film that has very little if any recognition. Vickers is a director I know nothing about, and from what I can gather it seems that he/she never made another film after this, which is a damn shame.

The less than watertight narrative deals with a supernatural entity, an unknown being that possesses an unremarkable English family and takes over their thoughts and actions with horrendous consequences. The late, beloved Edward Woodward plays the father.

The film itself is no lost masterpiece - it's slow and creaky at times - but is punctuated by sequences that are truly surreal, heightened and genuinely creepy, more so because most of the film has a flat TV movie-like quality, and the films overall mundane vibe only serves to heighten the freakiness when it occurs.

Dovetailing this film are two amazing sequences - the film's audacious opening (below) and a finale involving Woodward out of control in his car. Just for these moments alone The Appointment has more merit than your average crappy big studio possession pic.

Should I ever be in a position to call the shots and make my own features, this is a film I would love to have a go at remaking. I shouldn’t imagine the rights would be that expensive.

I would advise the - ahem - resourceful film fanatic to seek this film out. Fans of English wyrdness - MR James, Poe, Kneale - and hauntology buffs will riff on it I’m sure. I was surprised and delighted to see fragments of it intercut alongside other creepy arcane bits of British supernatural TV and film weirdness at a recent night in Dalston - as part of a performance by experimental DJs/musicians the Moon Wiring Club. Obviously those gentlemen know their arcane British cinema all too well.