Saturday, June 25, 2011

Boo! Guess Who

TS Eliot's line that any revolution in poetry must be a return to the ordinary applies to many other things. Take the horror genre. At the end of the 90s mainstream had become so self-ironic, its characters so self aware that an extended shot of a tapeworm of celluloid being sucked into a camera's arsehole seemed like the only new direction it could take. Then came the Blair Witch Project.

The BWP stripped the elements back until all that was left was darkness and unknowing. A trio of film students venture into a huge wood in pursuit of a local supernatural legend. They get lost. After the frustration of this, panic and infighting, the mysterious abduction of one of them, and the unyielding threat of the forest and all it might hide, they meet their doom. Are they being herded to it by forces unseen? Are they just driven to self-destruction by their own exhausted psyches? No answer from the film's abrupt ending. It haunts me to this day.

Fast forward to 2009 and Paranormal Activity appears with the promise of salvation for the genre from point-missing remakes, anodyne Dark Castle showbiz, and the safe sleaze of torture porn. One location, constant point of view camera by the actors. Darkness and offscreen sound. Simple elements handled well. It works a a point.

Young couple in a new house buy a video camera to pick up what they can of undisclosed weirdness that has been happening to them lately. The woman has already been haunted by an entity which is supposed by a visiting psychic to be a demon rather than a ghost and is associated with her rather than the house (ie moving out won't fix it). Well, the entity is back in town and the more attention they give it the more powerful it gets, from the padding down the stairs and swishing the keys from the table (which my cat could do) to the heavy metal thuds of a determined force of evil at the end. All the while the relationship between the couple is increasingly strained as they fight this thing they seem to know less and less about the more it reveals itself. This is good spooky stuff.

And the execution is expert. The diurnal scenes and any night scenes when the pair are talking more rationally are given rich DV home movie colour and feel safe and familiar. The real deal, though, is the blue and white of the night vision camera as it records the couple sleeping as the entity makes its presence known. The lower right hand corner of the screen during these sequences plays an increasingly important role in the evidence given the viewer as the vision speeds through the uneventful parts and slows to normal when something is about to happen. This and a title on the footage numbering the night of recording instil a sense of real dread.

The diabolical acts are also well conceived. What makes a demon scary? A flame festooned costumed and a pair of joke shop horns? How about a series of tiny acts that might be the normal sounds of people in the house if we didn't know we were looking at the entire household and they're fast asleep? How about the sense that each of these unthreatening deeds are the work of an entity testing its strength in the dimension of the living, getting more and more skilled in the world of its intended victims? All that from a few off screen sounds and a view through the bedroom door to the undetailed murk beyond it. There are some more sophisticated effects and they, too, are kept under tight aesthetic control. The sense is strong that you might never see the demon doing this but one slight glance of it would draw a scream or a gasp. I got a lot of real shivers down the spine during this film. I began watching it on a night when the winds outside raged and the hundred tiny sounds of an old house took voice. I stopped at a safe point and watched the rest during the day.

So that's all good, isn't it? Well, it would be but then the film ended. Without spoilers, this film's ending, a sudden jab of action, negates the effectiveness of the rest of it. It went from a genuinely eerie haunter with the added bonus of substance from the downward development of the couple's relationship (including an intriguing convergence of the two). All solid stuff and then it throws all of that away with the same kind of bullshit with which creatively impoverished writing teams have been stuffing the assembly line horror movies of the past twenty years. This film that, for almost its entire length, stuck to its very confidently loaded guns and successfully straddled the mainstream and guerilla filmmaking threw that admirable achievement into the s-bend in its final ten seconds. It turns every shiver and chill of the previous eighty or so minutes into waterlogged cheese.

Well, the dvd featured an alternative ending which was better but not much. Yet another described in the director's commentary which was better still but overdrawn. The commentary revealed something else that was spookier than anything in the entire film and it had to do with the film's fortunes as an independent feature doing the market festival rounds in its first release cut. Some very big names saw it and immediately mentally recast it with big name stars and higher production values which would have made it little more than a brushed off retread of Poltergeist. Wisely, this was defeated by another very big name who recognised the obvious value of a pair of unknowns in a verite horror (ie he had seen the Blair Witch Project). So it went ahead....except for that ending. No, that had to change. No numbing slow fuse like the anti-conclusion of Blair Witch which haunts across the decades. No, for this genuinely creative entry into a weary genre we get a big loud BOO! Roll credits.

Who was this force, this big name that engineered this creative gelding? Stephen Bloody Spielberg, that's who; the man who had already pillowed the breath out of every one of his proteges in the 80s (does Poltergeist look like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to you?) so that their every film looked and behaved like one of his; the man who made JG Ballard into a Disney matinee, drained each drop of Alice Walker's power and rendered the Holocaust cartoony, goofy, cute and then washed himself with a vat of tears bought from Walmart. The director of Paranormal Activity thanks Speilberg in the commentary for his suggested ending and it is the sound of someone taking Satan's voucher, good for one career in movies, no unsightly low spots, no bothersome originality to clean up. The great moloch man at the end of the Hollywood foodchain who can turn inspiration into bubblewrap has struck again. I hate Stephen Spielberg.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What's wrong with Broadcast News?

Dramedy from the mid 80s now enjoying the reputation of rising above slurs aimed at it on first release that it was Network lite. So Amazon had a sale on some of its Criterion titles and I chucked that one in the cart along with the rest. First rainy day, I noted mentally.

So I did. Loose end, finished a short list for SHADOWS, I slip the ol' blu-ray disc into the OPPO.

So, Network lite or something with its own weight? Neither.

James Brooks is a competent if constrained filmmaker but the premise of a triangle of careerism and heart strings with Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter and William Hurt can't be that bad, surely. Well, it is and the problems with it are there in the first sentence of this par. This film plays satire then rom com then serious drama by turns but never twines the threads. If you were to take a handful of marbles and put them in a box and shook the box it would have more coherence than Broadcast News because for all the variations of pattern and size of the marbles they would all be making the same racket.

See that cast list up there? It's virtually madatory casting for the period. Brooks was branching out from his stand up and tv careers into cinema outings, eventually graduating to writing, directing and starring in them (Lost in America, for example, or Defending Your Life). Holly Hunter was taking her Texan drawell from heights in Coen movies to a real mainstream paypacket. William Hurt, post oscar was at that time in everything but a bath, spreading his earnest sensitive new age guy with a fine line in me generation psychobabble as far as it would stretch. Love 'em or hate 'em they were the team to beat.

And wasn't it time for a new Network, anyway? Masterpiece or not (it is) Network was all post-Nixon guilt and boardroom autocracy. Wasn't it time for some Reagenomics to hit the fan? Sure, maybe. Hurt's character of the charmer without stuffing sleazing his way to the top makes him perfectly cast as the very cipher the era nurtured. Brooks' smartarsed hard journalist was poised with wisecracks and effortless integrity to resist the Ron 'n' Nancy show. And Holly Hunter, workably quirky could demonstrate the woman's role in this, hammering at the glass ceiling, folding her neuroses into career-manageable bites. All good, so why doesn't any of this work?

Because none of the drama seems to come out of the interaction of these players but rather seems filled in like a cartoon background when required. Because the comedy is all wisecracks between people who find each other funnier than I could. Because there isn't a second of genuine connection between them. Because smugness and arrogance in their characters is standing in for charm or style or  conviction. Because they don't have much of a chance at going for any of that as the film they are part of doesn't have any to begin with.

Holly Hunter bursts into uncontrollable tears after stress. Her colleagues are used to it. No history given nor any destination forthcoming. Just a quirk that a writer remembered. It's stuck on with gaffer tape. She delivers insufferably detailed directions to the drivers of every cab she gets in. Why the cabbies who could radio each other didn't see she ended up in the Potomac is beyond me.

William Hurt had recently won the Oscar for Kiss of the Spiderwoman and carries his character like a demon from Smug Hell, naturally and with palpable purpose. No problem there.

Albert Brooks once again proves that his small role in Taxi Driver was a fluke. He was funny the way office workers are funny with each other. He was also reined in by Martin Scorsese. Brooks is a comedy talent, really, but as a big screen romantic lead he is charmless, dowdy and queasily superior. His lines are witty and should be welcome but they are delivered so self-pleasingly that they are doomed at breath. His is an ugly presence which could never attract one of the opposite gender, even accounting for the hook of personal power doesn't work with him. Imagine being told grievous news by a messenger who smiles as he speaks and then sneers a remark about how much grief you should be showing. Well, that's what Albert Brooks is like in this film. And another thing: Brooks went on to write and direct several black comedies which should have worked a treat except that he cast himself as the lead in each one and had other characters laugh at his wisecracks.

But not even Brooks is chiefly responsible for Broadcast News' offence. Well, not that Brooks, anyway. It's James Brooks, writer and director, perpetrator of two hours of smugness so cloying that the packaging ought to include a toxicity warning. It is the smugness of a time when the attraction between three thoroughly repellent people could be covered by a lazy-minded pisstake on the media. It is the smugness that attempted to convince its audiences that the supposed ethical atrocity committed by one of the characters would turn another against them when the act in question was the very kind of thing the satire was aiming at. (Oh, but that's the rom com part, not the satire part. Bugger off!) It is the smugness that assumes automatic hilarity will ensue from mixing tv news title music with a Broadway musical style tune (and in an excruciatingly protracted scene which travels seven nautical miles beyond its own joke).

We're not smug like that anymore. We can't be. These days even our cynicism has a nervous edge to it when climate-change deniers are referred to as skeptics (and not equated with creationists as they deserve to be) and the apparent homogeneity of political partisanship is allowed a crushing inevitability. When broadcast media is both reviled for barrel-bottom-scraping and declared irrelevant. When a creepy, misty-eyed utopianism enters into what passes for worldiness then the scattergun smugness of Broadcast News looks obsolete, embarrassingly obsolete. It's a styrofoam cup. It's a plastic shopping bag.

So is it just poor time travel? Why is Robert Altman's M.A.S.H. cringeworthy but Catch 22 from the same year with a similar satirical brief still fresh? M.A.S.H. has a larky laddish misogyny that feels violent-minded now. In Catch 22 this attitude comes from within characters rather than from the film as a whole and it is not assumed that the audience will confuse it with anti-authority. Back home, Broadcast News fails where the full-decade-earlier Network continues to compel, draw big laughter and excite.

Network, for all its treasure trove of topical 70s references, is a timeless film whose hints at reality tv and the big, frightening, faceless business behind the ownership of the media. Network functions, despite its overliterate dialogue, because its cast performs at the top of its game and looks like it doesn't know the camera is in the room. Network, despite having some truly vile characters among its dramatis personae, absorbs its audience into its population, allowing time to see something of how each of the major players came by their shape.The newer film cannot compete with any of this. It fails on every point. It is made for its time rather than beyond it. Broadcast News is not Network lite, it's like Network never happened.

Monday, June 6, 2011

DVD review: LARS AND THE REAL GIRL : quirk that wirks

Lars isn't just shy he's deep frozen. He looks young and hot (Ryan Gosling) but has to put gloves on to shake hands. His town seems to be in perpetual winter which suits him fine as he goes from work or church back home to the garage of the family home now occupied by his brother and wife.

A workmate shows Lars a website that sells a range of highly realistic sex dolls, out of curiosity, sniggering prurience and a deep, genuine interest. Lars is embarrassed and puts his head down. A few nights later he is in his garage smiling at the big wooden packing crate that has landed at his doorstep. Cut to him waking his brother in the main house with a shyly delighted confession that a girl he met on the net has arrived, is in a wheelchair and really could do with the spare room. Brother Gus and sister in law Karin are so overjoyed at this that they rush off to prepare the room. Cut to the pair of them in stunned silence staring at what we know the next shot will be: a life sized masturbation device in the shape of a girl.

Syllable by syllable the pair cope by playing along as Lars reels off a string of inventions rehearsed ever since he clicked on the BUY button. It's insane but they've never seen him so happy and given before. This leads where you think as person by person in the small town buys into the delusion until there needs to be a knock on the door of the medicine cabinet. The ever magnetic Patricia Clarkson treats the doll but really Lars and thus we get to know his troubled history. Does he find his way out? See it.

There is a lot of opportunity here for this film to forget its serious premise and surrender to the cuteness of least resistance the way that US indy films generically do: all too sudden revelations, character details from the blue, set pieces contrived to the point where they look like tableaux vivant and a range of gratingly obvious tropes designed to divert the viewer from the lack of creativity that they are witnessing. I loathe the Little Miss Sunshines, Savages, and Rushmores etc that serve as the inheritors of the Trusts, Smokes and Sex Lies and Videotapes o' the late 80s on. Not all of those earlier ones worked all the time, I'll admit (eg Hal Hartley's teetering output) but you could bet more confidently on them, sight unseen. Lars and the Real Girl is made in that spirit, its touch gentle rather than precious, its emotion digetic rather than gaffer taped on.

There's a scene in the vile Rushmore where Max is expelled and there's a shot of him in tears. It's shoved in there and passed over. Max, if he had the intellect he's depicted with, should have expected nothing less. His quixotic nature has led him there and Wes Anderson made a decision to try and render him pitiable rather than show yet another act of defiance. But there has been nothing genuinely pathetic in the character prior to this and there is nothing after. Anderson recognised an emotion that would cover a gap and shoved it in like a book into an overstuffed shelf. When Lars begins the slow process of what might be his recovery, using the latex Bianca, there is real pain and hazard on the screen. Nothing we see has come from anywhere we haven't already seen. This is a film that, for all its charm and quirks, is about pain and that, in the end lifts it from its indy ranks and to the level of cinema that doesn't need any claims at all to tell its tales.

In case you're wondering, there is a real girl in this story and she's worth discovering for yourself. Ironically, she is the least credible aspect of the story but even her fascination with Lars is given context and weight; it doesn't just happen.

I was sorry to have missed this at the cinemas a few years back. I'd been impressed with Gosling from his role in Half Nelson. When I did miss it I sour grapesed it by writing it off as a quirky indyfest. I was wrong ... very, very wrong. See.

SHADOWS WINTER PART 1 PROGRAM  HERENext screening details below.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review : How I Ended This Summer : the unloaded gun rule

Two men, one young and one middle aged. Experience vs ennui. Duty vs drudge. Sense of purpose and appreciation of place in universe vs ... restlessness and boredom. They're alone on an Arctic island, running  a weather station. Sergei thinks of his family while applying his hard won expertise. Pavel plays with the junk from the old missions and tests the radioactive sensor for the fun of it. He comes in from this one afternoon and reports the results excitedly to the old man. Sergei embarrasses him by finding out he'd left the shotgun unloaded. There are polar bears on the island. They can and have killed humans. Pavel has risked both their lives and the mission.

Later, because he's experienced and he can Sergei goes on an unauthorised fishing expedition on the other side of the island. Not a fishing trip, mind. He takes the speedboat and is considerably armed. Pavel is worried but here's his chance to do everything right. He covers for Sergei while making his routine report but the remote operator insists he bring Sergei to the radio. Fudging it, he takes a message. Sergei's family have been in an accident and are facing death in the emergency ward. Ummmmm ...

Sergei comes  back in high spirits and ropes Pavel into preparing the fish for salting and curing. Pavel can't get a word in. Several missed opportunities to do so later he shrugs and figures the news will come out soon enough anyway and he has time to think up an excuse. This situation only expands until, when the news must burst out it is accompanied by gun fire.

It was appropriately Anton Chekov who formulated the loaded gun rule which goes like this: if you show a loaded gun early in a story it will need to be discharged before it's over. This one goes one further and extends the unloaded gun at the beginning to Pavel's disassembly as a member of the team. The one moment where he had relevant knowledge that Sergei didn't, he allowed to rot and ferment until it exploded. When Pavel flees to the relative safety of the bear-plagued wilderness he is forced to seek his own power to stay alive but even here his invention is dependent. He needs Sergei or mother earth to furnish him with the means to survive. Without a parent like either of those, he is lost; accepting their worked for bounty or perishing with an impotent curse at his circumstances. It's not just Chekov that this Russian tale evokes but the great demi god of ennui himself the mightless Oblomov who takes the first hundred pages of the novel that bears his name to get out of bed. What might as well be Oblomov's unloaded gun rule is brought to its survivalist end here.

This is a spoilable film and I'll go no further in describing the plot but what remains of it pits these characters against each other. Yes, they develop. It's subtle but it happens and when absorbed it is profound.

This film of misunderstood bonding, low on dialogue but big on thorough and muscular performance, is given such an extraordinary setting that the third character (the landscape now desolate now strikingly beautiful) seems to get all the good lines just by standing there. A powerful trio.

I missed this at last year's Russian Film Festival and am grateful to have been able to see it in a cinema, its natural environment, a place where the image is immersive and the spare plot absorbing. You know when the description of a film alone can make you like it before you see it?  I'm a sucker for sea stories and remote settings like islands, jungle outposts or lighthouses. How I Ended This Summer couldn't have lost with me if it had starred J Lo. As it is it turned out to be a powerful thing. Bonus.

SHADOWS Winter Part 1 program HERE.