Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Rock on Film #18: Love and Mercy

In a darkened studio a young Brian Wilson, almost a silhouette, tells us in a whisper of the music to come. He can't keep up with the thoughts forming inside his mind and begins to sound incoherent. With a red flash in a corner of the screen the scene is extinguished.

Darkness. Sounds well up from the silence and drift across the audio field like sea creatures. Cooing harmonies, garbled speech, machines. And we shift in our seats as it's still dark and it looks like the projection has broken down. But then as the cacophony swells a patch of lightness grows in the lower screen, brightening with the rise in sound. And then it bursts into colour and movement as the Beach Boys rise to fame in a montage of press conferences, concerts and goofing around in the studio. Everything looks like moving cover art. And BAM! We're in.

Brian in the 80s buys a Cadillac but it's the strangest sale the beautiful saleswoman has ever made. His odd fragmentary speech broken by absent silence at first puts her on edge but she relaxes and lets things happen as she thinks of the location of the ejector seat button. But he exudes a kind of charm despite himself and when the mini circus of his minders, led by the ogreish Dr Landy enter to bundle him off, she is intrigued. Suddenly we're twenty years before and Brian, young and mop topped twists himself into a panic on a plane, shouting and flailing as his bandmates (who are mostly his brothers) pin him to the floor. Welcome to the world of Brian Wilson.

Then we are swung back and forth between these two episodes of Wilson's life: his slide down into mental illness when young and his rescue from its nadir in middle age. Through this we are shown the fragility of a man crippled by a blend of genius and naivete. This Kurt Vonnegut time pendulum has some scenes seemingly respond to others decades apart and it can get tight. Between the constant personal oppression by father or by psychiatric slave driver there's a real danger of claustrophobic despair. It is to this film's credit that that does not happen.

First, there's the perspective shift. When 60s Brian lies on a car bonnet and hears the music of the universe we are in his head. We see the older Brian through the eyes of Melinda from the Cadillac dealership whose pity and curiosity grow into love enough to attempt the demolition of his psychiatric wall. We are neither condemned to a tv-movie pageant of great scenes from history nor
led into a autohagiography. The central problem in each of the two periods has the same root but presents different symptoms and this by itself offers a kind of navigable texture.

Second, there's casting and performance. Brian Past and Brian Future (as they are named in the credits) are played by two different actors, neither of whom especially resemble Wilson but who both use acting to provide the prosthetics.

Paul Dano, already in danger of being the speed dial nutbag de jour, gives us what might be the peak of all his crazies. His Brian walks through the blinding California sunshine, hearing the music of the spheres and fails to convince anyone else of its beauty. He's so in love with what's in his head that the constant rejection of his attempts to communicate it work their way into him like a malignant growth. The smiling brightness he begins with, the sweeping gestures and leaping physicality in the early scenes shrink around him, pressing him into silence and stillness until he is rendered a formless mass on an elaborate bed. Dano works the room taking us there, meting out the craziness in irregular doses so he's hard to predict and judge. By the time he's drifting under the surface of his pool, eyes as wide as a drowning victim's, we feel the hopelessness he does that he'll ever say anything again that anyone else will listen.

John Cusack is the later, broken Brian. He is absent and lost but also incessantly curious. His enthusiasm is a feat of self restraint as he keeps his hands still in awkward positions and seems to drift in and out of awareness. His intellect is clearly visible through its incautious restlessness. It can be hard to watch him through the sheer anxiety his presence engenders. At the same time, we want to care for him, keep him safe and warm. This is the most striking performance by Cusack since the great Being John Malkovich also took him out of his overgrown teenager schtick. He has clearly observed the real Wilson but his physicality is not a cover version nor a splendid acting class exercise: it is an embodiment of character, just like Dano's.

This is what separates this film from lesser rock biopics like The Doors which played Oliver Stone director solos about Navajo mythology and the presence of the great Death between tv movie moments. Val Kilmer was fine in that one but he was the leader of a tribute band rather than a character in a movie. By contrast, Ian Hart in Backbeat plays a character called John Lennon who we're allowed to forget became JOHN LENNON because we want to see what this angry teenager would do next. Cusack and Dano do not waste the good writing handed to them to fill these roles and we are grateful to follow the strange tale despite its historicity.

There are tv-movie moments, though, and they do threaten to let the whole thing down. Mike Love is a dick at band meetings, endlessly ranting about keeping to the formula instead of all this progressive malarky. Characters supply timeline details as they comment that Pet Sounds didn't sell or toasting Good Vibrations, Brian's pocket symphony to God and the biggest selling single the Beach Boys ever had (that's a real line from the movie), session bassist extraordinaire Carol Kaye is puzzled that Brian scored her part in D but the double bassist in A (and then shares a knowing smile when it all works out). Also, do we at the morning tea of the age of Google really need end titles to tell us what happened to the key players? How many true life movies have come to a three point landing only to have the tourist brochure read out before we can leave? Unnecessary. If you really need that stuff put it in the movie. Except you don't need it.

The marks I'll take off aren't all for the midday movie moments in time, though. Paul Giamatti's Landy is written like a panto villain with added psychobabble. Giamatti rises just high enough above it with a performance that understands the kind of round the clock manipulation Landy exercised and the security that allowed view of its ugliness through. He makes his cartoon character repulsive to the touch and worryingly tactile. Still, I kept expecting him to come upon an act of defiance and bellow out a roaring: "Ah HAAAAA!"

If you can look past all that you 'll see some solid cinema. The studio recreations have the closeness of a Maysles documentary (or Godard's One Plus One done with the Stones) and some of the moments of musical cohesion are brought to heart pumping life. There's also some of the best judged handheld camera I've seen in a long time. One walking track through a couple of rooms in an apartment fills us with dread. The camera as adrift as its subject in the scene where Brian is testing the studio for the right vibrations as a small orchestra waits mute makes us feel seasick and crushed at his state. There is a montage that suggests a kind of reconciliation of past and present that clearly evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey but without archness or the ghost of a wink. Melinda has a few scenes where a conversation is from immediately before or after a shot of her thinking hard on a balcony or looking tired in a cafe. Elizabeth Banks' performance as Melinda is worth a mark for showing us why such a drop of Californian sun as she could believably fall for Brian in high fuckup mode. She carries a sadness that recognises his. We need this. Hers is the human warmth that gives us a lifeline through the ugliness of the later episode. Well cast. Well played.

Did I mention sound? That beginning audio collage wasn't just a fancy way of starting. Not only do we get an electronic score but riches. Constructed from raw studio takes, speech, singing and playing the music of this film is a series of mounting waves of sound, sometimes heavenly as when Brian is listening to his own imaginings with his eyes closed on the bonnet of a car, ugly and threatening, as when his lunch guests cutlery sounds like a quarries of hell. There are even timeline quotes from the original source like Murry Wilson, the father whose methods of music instruction cost Brian his hearing in one ear, saying, "I'm a genius too, ya know." See, that's how you'd put a historical soundbite into a film without the cheese.

Ok, I've said too much already. Just see the damn thing. If you miss it at the cinema then at least see it at home with good sound. Wilson had a hell of a life. The hell part seems to be over now (he did finally finish, record and tour the failed Smile project)  and his children were raised you know they suddenly rise they started slow long ago head to toe healthy wealthy and wise....

Monday, June 1, 2015

Review: EX MACHINA: Design by design

Geeky Caleb wins the chance to spend time with dot com genius and overlord stopped-counting-ionaire Nathan. The helicopter that delivers Caleb to Nathan's personal glacier almost presses Caleb to the ground with the force of its rotors as it takes off. We'll see that reprised in a few different ways in the next ninety minutes.

Nathan lives in a high security bunker. His bushy beard with suedehead crop is not hipster: he lives like no one's looking. Hungover at their first meeting he is asked about the greatness of the party that put him in the state of pain. "What party?" he says without a smile.

After being teased into signing a fearsome non-disclosure, Caleb is told that he will for the next seven days be testing Nathan's robot for self awareness. Caleb will be part of the greatest moment in the history of man. Caleb, awestruck, corrects this to the history of gods. It won't be long before we hear Nathan's streamlining of that thought.

In the next seven sections (partitioned with title cards) we see the progress Caleb makes with Ava the android, understanding or failing to understand the mind of his host and wondering about the origin of his own intelligence. It's a multi-layered game of cat and mouse between the Kurtz-like Nathan, the pixie-like Caleb who has wandered in from the forest and the born-adult Ava whose test-nailing attribute might well be guile. And that is what keeps the well-worn theme of the meaning of humanity when faced with a superior machine version of itself: humanity is over; how smooth and warm shall we make our death beds?

That isn't a spoiler. This is a film of fulfilled foreshadowing and surprising plot developments but neither of those devices is delivered as a twist. Rather we witness stations of progress in characters' awareness of the situation and their varying capacity to propel beyond them. This takes some fleet footed writing which then must be borne in exacting performances. These things we get.

Irish actor Domnhall Gleason's Caleb holds a weight of intellect and melancholy but keeps these beneath a light and airy glow. He is someone who has come to know his place in life, is saddened and kept lonely by it but has developed a kind of comfortable ache to cope with it. He lights up at the challenges in Nathan's bunker, animated at the gift of purpose.

Oscar Isaac dominates without visible effort. As Llewyn Davis, he was uptight and middle American. In A Most Violent Year he was all svelte self-made elegance. Here he plays a kind of real life Zeus, pummeling a punching bag like a Neanderthal but soaring through concepts like a beam of light. My first comparison was that of many who have reviewed this film: Kurtz. But Kurtz, highly civilised European brought the darkness that old Europe never shook free upon the unspoiled primeval world he found at the end point of empire. Nathan might well feel the self-loathing that plagues Kurtz (and drinks like a fish to prove it) but the sole power left to him that does not engender this points toward a more rarefied than Kurtz would have comprehended: he is not saddened by the discovery of his own nadir but by his apex; his own personal Turing test result is his awareness that he has created his own annihilation and that, in his view, it is just.

The performance that rivets us, though, is that of Alicia Vikander as Ava. Most of her body is mesh over transparent plastic which, like all difficult thinking, shows her workings. She is left with human-like hands and a Scandinavianly perfect face. Her near-human movements (accompanied by the slightest of mechanical whirs) and gaze must keep us watching and guessing as we sit with Caleb on the other side of the glass wall that divides them and look for signs. Given the technology that we witness in the build to her first appearance we will not be satisfied with a monophonic wind up toy but will demand awe at the sight of a machine whose thoughts, like our own, have travelled beyond initial programming to pursue that all driving remnant, desire. Vikander brings a classically trained dancer's control to keep shy of full human fluidity yet stop us with the possibilities of her development. This also goes for her vocal performance. We wonder if we are in uncanny valley and about to feel alienated or viewing it from a distance, fooled by own our best wishes.

The immersion of the world of this film must be celebrated here too for it strikes me as designed rather than art directed. What I mean by that is not just the expensive noiseless hush of the beige walls and the glass surfaces that give us a constant reminder of the notion of the copy; I mean the hot and cold electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead's own Geoff Barrow which pours like cream and razor blades into the soft light; I mean the opportunity to savour the technology the way we did with 2001, The Andromeda Strain, and the opening sequence of Colossus; I mean the contrasting chaos and bed temper of the expensive Jackson Pollock on the wall which creates its own expansive dialogue; I mean the silver society lady in the Klimt portrait who seems at once armless and crucified; and I mean the restless unsettling questioning set before us, our own as well as the characters' that keeps us guessing throughout the digestibly brief running time. Alex Garland who penned the screenplays of the draggy 28 Days Later and the soggy Never Let Me Go has saved up his best for his directorial debut. He gives us a test. Take it. See how you do.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: UNFRIENDED: Self and Selfability

The line that weighed most heavily with me from Blair Witch Project was: "I'm scared to close my eyes. I'm scared to open them." Can't look. Can't look away. Multiply that by the immersion of youth into communications technology that has happened since and you get this film.

Beautiful Blair, one of her school's alpha chicks, is languidly teasing her boyfriend Mitch through a Skype screen. He's horny and orders her to unbutton her top, flashing a knife and talking tough. She grins playfully and tells him she likes his violence. This does and doesn't sound creepy. It does because it is but it doesn't because we've already caught her looking at a teenage suicide on youtube. Mitch's Skype call interrupted her from looking at the video that led to the suicide. But, hey, she's only sixteen.

The pair are themselves interrupted by a gaggle of friends also on Skype. This is all taunts and giggles but they all notice the silent extra person in the space, the generic head and shoulders placeholder avatar who doesn't speak and can't be identified. A few group runs at shaking the anomaly off fail and they just go ahead with the ol' collective fat-chew. Then the plain-Jane avatar starts speaking in text.

By now you will recognise that this is going to be a story of revenge for the suicide and a lot of high school bitchiness will be punished. That really really really is not a spoiler. This film makes no secret of its journey any more than Halloween did back in 1978. The point is not in the plot (which I'm not going to spoil, regardless).

The entirety of the screen is occupied by the computer screen of one of the characters. We do not physically leave this rectangle. (Here's a sidepoint: in the Blair Witch era, the film's authenicity as a found footage piece was compounded in the cinema by being screened as a 4X3 near square in accordance with the original ratio of the raw footage, Unfriended is in the shape of the 16X9 screens whose shape was influenced by cinema. There ya go!)

But we don't need to leave it. The screen is turgid with diversions and utility. The Chrome browser, the side by side thumbnails of the Skypers' webcams, Facebook sessions, Messenger exchanges, Youtube videos, Spotify playlists: none of the characters appears anywhere but on a subset of this screen. The confounding of artifice with raw experience that Brian O'Blivion warned us of in Videodrome has come to us but not as he planned, at the ready will of its users rather than an anonymous corporation.

As the entity (is it ghost or revenging hacker?) insinuates itself into the friends' space and compels them to play against each other and the results are brittle and violent. For all the fuck-you worldliness anyone of this age must assume they are raw, scared and alone. Any screaming at the screen would be audible to parents in other rooms as just more of their teenager's histrionics and probably about something wincingly trivial: these young people, wired to the world as they are, are alone and more vulnerable than if they were loosening down at a party.

The coup of Unfriended, the thing that lifts it above all the teen horror remakes and retreads I saw in the trailers before it, is that it not only understands teenagers and their rough but sophisticated pecking jungle but how this has only been intensified with technology. It's not the fact of the technology but their naturalised engagement with it that is being understood on screen. And we are at once in the future-now and the tradition of horror that creates unease by the steady removal of control. The signal of the webcams through the Skype connections render these pretty faces distorted and monstrous almost constantly; sometimes they seem even to have lost their physical youth. Even before the time-limit games that the cyber-intruder compels them to they are no better able to pull the plug at the mains than a human pokies disaster is able to walk away after running out of coins.

The other strongly aspect of the online world so brilliantly understood here is that is creates its own digesis, its own world of logic, emotion and functionality. Sudden asides between two characters in Messenger are like confidential scenes. Clicks on reference videos or websites serve as thought balloons or voiceovers. The stream of consciousness in clicks is really no more alien than Joyce's was in words as it is familiar to its audiences as daily reality. When Billie infiltrates even this and it becomes momentarily difficult to tell her from the others in pranking or self-incriminating mode. For each door the online world opens a dungeon door closes somewhere else.

This film has been compared in preference to Hideo Nakata's earlier Chatroom but the comparison is as uncomprehending as it is unfair. Nakata's film presents the visualisations of a text-only world that was obsolete while his film was in production (based on a play from the early 2000s). I haven't used anything like irc for many a moon but can readily recall the constant buzz between what I imagined I was communicating with and what it might actually be. When the characters in Chatroom took to the outside world they didn't know what the antagonist looked like. In Unfriended, everyone knows what everyone looks and sounds like. They know the decor in each others' bedrooms. Even the faceless interloper takes on an identity that will forever be playing on Youtube, eternally ridiculed, eternally ridiculous, the delete button greyed out and unreachable.

I've rambled and there's probably a ton more to say but this will do for now. Oh, one thing: due to the extreme intimacy of this film's world in a screen in a screen, the hard and expert work done on the sound and editing that brings it as close as the screen you are reading this on and the natural pacing and overall acceleration (all kept within an easy 83 minutes!), demands that you see it in the front rows of a cinema. Don't wait for a more controlled loungeroom tv or (worse still, despite the apparent irony overload) a computer screen. See it where it can hit you. Now!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Films I Dislike that Could be Improved Through Further Committment

Dead Poet's Society:
From the get go this story of manipulation of a group of impressionable people by a demagogue reminded me of fascism. Robin Williams' Mr Keating doesn't lead his flock away from conformity to freedom but to just another conformtity: his. After everything that happens we're supposed to cheer the kids for making their stand rather than weep for their gullibility. Put Nicholas Winding Refn in the chair and watch as the real story of localised brainwashing cordons a group of the elite blazer-wearing privileged away from middle class mediocrity to the blazing cult of heroism. It'd make a nice obverse role for Ryan Gosling after his own fall and redemption in Half Nelson. Keep the music the same. If you don't get the irony of its cloying sentimentality as the boys give the parting leader the secret sign then you should find a way out of compulsory voting.

Eddie and the Cruisers:
Imagine Jim Morrison appearing on the scene just before the Beatles break in America but dying in an accident before his big groundbreaker of an album is released. This premise is still intriguing but this early 80s film doesn't seem to realise that sounding like Springsteen on an off night wouldn't sound like the future in 1964, it would sound like musical potato starch. So, do it for real. Have the band go from the Four Seasons to a kind of proto Doors as the central figure takes the same journey from good time music to poetic disgust. Have it sound like pop music straining out of the chrysalis like the first Doors album. Keep it from breaking through with the same kind of intra band politics that smothered Brian Wilson and you get a much more plausible reason for Eddie's death itself to be a controversy.

Compliance:
True life horror unfolds in a diner as a prankster claiming to be a cop manipulates the staff until his chief victim is traumatised for life. The big message was about how we submit to authority too easily but the tone soon became too ugly. The victims' compliance, however factually based, grew so incredible that they were soon cast as deserving of their treatment and the resulting gap was filled with the perpetrator's viewpoint. The sleaze of this is not that we identify with a sicko but we're then supposed to snap out of it and condemn him at the end so everything's ok and we were really on the side of right all along. Phew! Well, commit to it, really commit to the sleaze and sick self pleasure of it. Start, continue and finish inside the bad guy's mind. Cast Will Ferrell so you never know whether to laugh or not until it's too late and you're with him on a nightmare voyage through a dark and terrifying narcissism. Keep the footage of the victims intact. Just don't start with it. Anyone who watches that and has to be reminded at the end that it's bad should be given a list of local psychiatric facilities before something terrible happens.

Dune:
I had looked forward to this as I was already a Lynch fan after Eraserhead and Elephant Man and really wanted to see what he could make of sci fi and colour. It was just too big for him. Lynch is so much better when he's deep inside the nervous system than out on the open field and this film only proves it. Seeing the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune didn't change my mind in that direction, either. It's like a two hour long "previously on Dune" sequence that highlights all the subplots. Throw those away for starters unless they are directly relevant to Paul's progress from viceregal heir to living god. Have Paul pursue the mystery of himself as though he's on the tail of a killer and you've got something. Anyone who needs to read the book to get the rest is free to, meanwhile here's the companion film. Could be a good Cronenberger.

Animal Kingdom:
This mess was bursting with treasures but you had to  pick through a lot of used marshmallows to get to them. The single most compelling performance was Jackie Weaver's but everything that had to do with the youngest brother seemed to drive the most important scenes. Stick to that. Put mother at one end and son at the other and slowly bring them together through their own stories. Ditch all the sub plots and overlong fates of the other brothers and get rid of the dragging speech that explains the title as there is no need for it. Ben Mendelsohn can still play his super creepy murder scene and Jackie still gets her mother wolf grin at the cop that goes through everyone who sees it. Cast a more believably seventeen looking seventeen year old as Josh and you've got it, a great family crime/coming of age film without the director getting in his own way to let you know how wonderful he is.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Films I Dislike that Ought to be Remade and How

Frances Ha:
As a quirky character piece about a fiercely eccentric individualist, Frances and the film she lived in repelled me with their constant pleading for me to indulge them. My solution would be to correctly diagnose Frances as bipolar or something more accurate and let Brandon Cronenberg have a stab at it. This would be a good way to get to the genuinely intriguing possibilities of Frances as a case study in galloping narcissism and also allow Cronenberg Junior to step with a realistically measured pace away from charges of following his dad too closely (as unfairly happened with Antiviral).

Rushmore:
As a quirky character piece about a fiercely eccentric individualist, Rushmore was the first and almost the last Wes Anderson Film I ever saw, so vehemently did I it revile. Let Sion Sono loose on it to render the cloying cuteness into a range of disturbing illusory episodes and examine the protagonist's galloping narcissism. It could still be about the life lesson of learning self-acceptance and giving up unrealistic dreams but the ride would be intriguing and a hell of a lot more fun.

Bad Lieutenant:
Abel Ferrara's quirky character piece about sin with an eleventh hour cherry of redemption ground at my patience for the writer/director's failure to develop the constant list of atrocities committed by the titular Loot. It plays like a toddler throwing a tantrum for the guests, having an effect but unaware that that has quickly turned to exhausting annoyance. Rename it Bad Decisions, cast Vince Vaughn in the lead and play it as a man-boy black comedy of a once bad cop who just can't get straight because a series of hilarious co-incidences and mishaps keep putting him in the frame. The gang members can't be allowed to get away with the original adolescently imagined horror crime, of course, but Michael Sera with a dye job could outline it to his increasingly bored gang, constantly topping himself just to get a reaction out of them: "ok, so we rob a mom and pop store." Silence. "No, a church, we rob a church." Silence. "We rob a ... church with NUNS in it ... and we rape the nuns...!" This approach will render the conceits of the original at least plausible. And just imagine the redemption scene now!

Insidious:
This is one of the founding bricks in the ghost-ride and cattleprod wall that has filled cinemas and emptied mainstream horror of its substance. Quiet .... BOO ....... quiet ...... BOO. And that's about it. Ok, so, remove every jolt that isn't directly derived from the characters and their relation to each other. Play the resulting jolt-free film as a Bergmanesque depresso piece about people trying unsuccessfully to convince each other that they've seen the sudden horrors but to no avail. Keep the pallet desaturated and keep all the big jolty orchestra hits for when the breathlessly delivered accounts reach their climaxes. Eventually, we wander a house of coagulating disbelief with only the victims of the scares convinced of the forces beyond the light, huddled into themselves is silent distrust. The only way to give credence to the horrors they've known is to recreate them, one by one....

Ferris Bueller's Day Off:
The only way I could endure the screening of John Hughes's freshly minted mid-80s paean to the sieze the day joy of youth was to recognise that it was essentialy a tale of bullying. Ferris constantly berates and belittles his dowdy friend until the latter really gets it and siezes that melonfarming day by its a-hole horns. Ferris' irrational whimsicality, if not seen as lovable but grating, lends itself to a case study of adolescent schizophrenia. Keep all the football games, wild drives, school collection campaigns (but shorten the excruciating Twist and Shout scene) but smash them together as a kind of delusional flash forward as Ferris imagines the day to come. Then play them as they would be, a series of increasingly crushing disappointments that steadily shift Ferris' sights from the fun he thought he'd have to the manipulative influence he has over Cameron. Cameron's life lesson would be the same but so much graver and unforgettable, like a Machinist or Fight Club for teens.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Review: IT FOLLOWS

Jay is seventeen, intelligent and sexy. Her new boyfriend is a little older but he's super cool, even if he gets spooked by nothing and makes them walk out on a movie. The big date comes and the sex is great. The trouble starts (after the consensual conjunction, that will become important) when he knocks her out with chloroform and ties her to a chair, saying it's for her own good. Ok, so Mr Nice is really Ted Bundy. Well, no.

She wakes in an abandoned building shell, winds whistling around, as he circles with a torch, gibbering about being sorry for what's about to happen. He's given her a curse, the result can be seen approaching step by step in the overgrown grounds below and into the space with them; a naked woman expressionlessly walking toward Jay in the chair. The guy gets close to the figure who doesn't acknowledge him. He frees Jay and they escape in a panic. He deposits her, still only in her underwear, on the street outside her house and drives off forever. A few nights later, after rallying friends around her the kitchen window is smashed. She goes to investigate only to find another woman, far scarier than the first advancing on her while urinating.

All that without a word about the prologue. There is a good one but my purpose here is not to go over the plot but to air the premise. If you read the synopsis you might be dreading the return of the sex/death equation of the horrors of the seventies and eighties that this film so stylishly recalls. But even in those cases the mistake of taking allegory literally is one of missing the point.

If Jay wanted to evade the curse she'd just have sex again and flee safely. But there's something else going on here. The bearers of the curse, even when safe, can still see the identity-shifting entity that follows the accursed. If the entity catches up and kills the latter it goes after the last one all over again. Time to think of the title here. It, the thing follows the victim but the phrase also refers to a logical consequence.

The grassy autumnal footpaths of the suburbia of the setting will remind anyone who's seen it of John Carpenter's Halloween. A blackboard in an English class also reminds us that people in this setting refer to autumn as fall. You don't need to know your Book of Genesis that well to be aware that the fall of man in that mythology is the consequence of knowledge. It's not an orgasm that makes life so difficult (all the sex in this film is consensual and most of it looks natural and enjoyable) but the awareness of the place where any worldly act can put us. Contrast this with the peppering of voyeurism done by the younger boys of the neighbourhood. Their curiosity has a sinister taste, a kind of unformed sleaze, enacted before knowledge.

Sex is a well chosen trope here not just because it plugs us in to the tradition of teen horror but it means the Scooby team of teen siblings and local friends to be variously experienced. Only those who have come into contact with the curse can see the thing. This only partially changes but essentially remains the case.

There is also the repeated gestation, birth and growing imagery of floating (the backyard pool later is shown after its water has broken), urination, menstruation. Jay runs from the entity to take refuge on the swings of the nearby park but this proves as terrifying a place as anywhere else on earth, a planet she now knows much better than she did before. There are decisions to be made about how to exit the curse and they increasingly lean toward responsibility and ever deeper consideration.

Sounds kinda PC doesn't it? Well, happily it's not the only thing on show. The mechanism of terror in this film uses the deliberate certainty of the entity itself and keeps clear of sudden jolts. Some manifestations (the kitchen, the later scene of fulfilment which is truly ghastly) will leave you wide eyed and others (the figure in the school grounds; a scene involving a masterful mix of single take and focus shifting) are just as effective by their understatement. This horror movie is scary. If you've seen as many as I have and still celebrate the genre, you'll know that that statement is not tautologous. It's scary because it delivers its fresh ideas on teen horror in the costume of an era when something as bloodless as Halloween was scary (still is, by the way). And there's another reason and it's a good one.

Could it be that, after the bloated karaoke versions of Ringu, Dark Water or Pulse were remade for people who can't read subtitles, the lessons of J-horror have finally been absorbed by filmmakers in the West, not studied, copied and overwrought but absorbed? It Follows plays less like Nightmare on Elm Street or Final Destination than Ringu or Kairo. It doesn't play at all like the flattened approach of more recent fare like Insidious or Sinister because when it does use sudden scares it earns each one with genuine suspense and is prepared to go slowly so we can absorb its notions and questions enough to bring our own dread to the space between ourselves and the screen.

Also, if you've seen the Harry Potter version of The Woman in Black or Sinister or a host of other recent shallow efforts you'll remember the big scary endings with the nasty thing jolting out of the scenery as though Asian horror had never happened. It Follows recalls a tradition that allowed its audiences to do some thinking for themselves and adds a pinch of something of its own.

No review of this film can escape without a few plaudits chucked its way for the superb electronic score that goes from clear Carpenterian tributes to the noisier and darker parts of the oscillators and filters of the synthesiser. It augments the dread and never needs to inform us of what we should be feeling.

Also, this is the second horror-related film I've seen that has made use of its Detroit setting. Only Lovers Left Alive turned this into a kind of digetic editorial which was saved by Jarmsuch's goofy poetics and Tom Hiddleston's delivery of them. In It Follows America's industrial ghost town has whole ex neighbourhoods of surburban dream life rendered into crumbling gothic shells whose surrounding gardens grow into twisting strangulation around the foundations. The sense that dusty perdition is only streets away is palpable (and reinforced in the dialogue). The lake is Lake Michigan, once loud with commerce and affluent leisure now just huge, silent and unknowable.

Also, any film that features a partial reading of TS Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (in a very Halloweenish classroom scene) and a recited quote from Dostoyevsky that encapsulates the film's theme in accelerating prose can only get my vote.

Also, any film that has its origins in a real nightmare that the writer/director had, has already started in the right place.

There is buzz on the tail of this film sufficient that, even if it only attains a modest success, there will almost certainly be a sequel. If that happens could the filmmakers of that reach even further back into horror history? Val Lewton helped to save RKO Studio after the box office disaster of Citizen Kane with the first of his back seat driven features Cat People. It stormed the box office. It was only meant to be a copy of the kind of horror Universal had been churning out since Dracula but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur cast the cat monster suit aside and remembered that people above all feared what they didn't know and couldn't see. When its sequel, Curse of the Cat People, appeared it swerved sideways into an eerie tale which might have been a haunting or a troubled child's imagining. It wasn't a sequel in name only as there were solid links to the original but it wasn't just a replay either. So guys, if you do it again, surprise us all over again. Would juz?

Friday, March 20, 2015

FIVE WEIRDOS for the Anniversary of Eraserhead's Premier

An annual celebration of weirdness with substance. None of these films will topple my favourite of all time (in the post title) but do qualify for this most difficult brief.


El Topo: While Holy Mountain might be more flamboyant with the surrealism of its imagery I have always found its remedial philosophising tiresome. El Topo takes the machismo and nihilism of the later Western an opens doors. Also, the scenes of clowning toward the end demonstrate that at base, Jodorowsky remained a performer of real skill.




Songs from the Second Floor: Jodorowsky with a side of Gravlax? Why not? From the choral train commuters to the self-flagellating stockbrokers to the great grandfather whose dementia gleefully reveals his former Nazism to his gathered family to the astounding finale of redemption this might take some settling into but this is one you can carry around for long afterwards.




Diary: Starts like a thriller with a grief theme then goes to a kind of bizarre obsession horror and then to - Well, when a new credits sequence starts running halfway through and you get a completely different telling of the same story and it's both more rational and worse you're going somewhere. The Pang brothers' other great work.




Tetsuo: A character's fascination with machinery plagues him until he is compelled to become a machine himself. The transition is neither smooth nor painless but, boy, does this film mean what it says.



INLAND EMPIRE: Lynch's final of his unofficial trilogy of fugue states (people making extreme psychological escapes from their burdens) is his toughest and least compromising. Returning to his roots as an impulsive but obsessive artist he finds even darker and more refulgent territory to explore. Take the subtitle "A Woman in Trouble" as your talisman and you'll make it. A rough ride but a rich journey.