Saturday, October 19, 2013

Review: GRAVITY: Hype or Ventilation?

As I wandered a little lost out of the Imax complex in the Carlton gardens as the credits continued to roll back in the cinema for this film I overheard a grey eminence behind me say to his companion in that flat tone adopted by all men who think their voices should turn grey when their hair does,"the movies don't really know about inertia". Well, people who judge movies on their science don't really know much about fiction. Gravity is not a documentary. Despite it's setting it's not even science fiction. It is a survival tale with such unrelenting white knuckle action that to stop and worry about the accuracy of its depiction of inertia is one of the most bumfacedly stupid responses to it I can imagine.

Ryan is a specialist sent into space to add a gadget to the Hubble telescope. A disaster strikes which results in a tide of high speed deadly debris hurtling in the orbit her team are in. It slices through the hardware like razorblades through shaving gel. The team are cast adrift in wild spins into space or get the debris treatment. From this point the question is how are they going to get back home the easy way (without getting torched by the atmosphere on eventual re-entry). That's the plot. It's not 2001: A Space Odyssey but it isn't trying to be. Ryan is spinning in space and her oxygen is running out from all that panicky hyperventilation she can't help doing. Can she get back? That's it.

Survival tales don't need plot but they must have a string of high-stakes tight squeezes to confirm the arc. The theme rings louder. Can someone fresh to this hostility (compare it to something like The Abyss set in the deep ocean) find her courage and fight for herself and win her spot on the earth? Gravity provides the thrills pausing only for its audience to take a breath here and there but then plunging into the next life or breathless, colddeath situation with an increasing pace. And they are gripping. My body was rigid with tension repeatedly and I had to force myself to breathe more than once. Everytime a character had to find a handhold as a point of sanctuary sped past them I was shuddering.

See with this kind of delivery who needs character development or profound dialogue? Are you going to suffocate or live? Given the situation that shits all over Keats. But this is the kind of film that covers its exposition in dialogue and budgets a little more for character background and motivation. A lot of it does sound like screenplay seminar writing. Then again, I was there for the space and the thrills and cared not a gold standard jot for the behaviour of things in orbit, inertia in space or anything that got in the way of Sandra Bullock getting breath, let alone breathing space.

Sandra Bullock has no real problem going from her wisecracking comedy to stone faced fare like this. The film is on her shoulders. The urbanity of George C. Looney is there for that writing class exposition and some lashings of larky charm that he gets paid for. Mostly it's down to Bullock to haul us with her to the edge of annihilation and we are happy to be hauled.

This was the popping of my cherry for 3D. A lot more was made of it in the various branding showcases and trailers than in the feature but it was pleasant restraining myself from reaching for the bolt that went floating off beside me and I enjoyed wincing and almost ducking when some of that razor debris was speeding my way. One odd thing was towards the end of the film when everything amps up to maximum action I had the sensation that the Imax screen I was looking at was no bigger than my home tv, contained, encapsulated in the scope of the fx spex. Odd. If you miss out on a 3D viewing you haven't really missed much. Try, though, to see it big.

My best tribute to this film that hits its marks, delivers its payload and gets out of there in a tidy ninety minutes is that its stakes are so solidly declared that it would work if the sound failed at the screening. Not something you'd wish when seeing Twelve Angry Men, of course (what the FUCK are they jabbering about?) but should apply to all great action movies.

There is a moment in which we are invited to ponder the progress of our species from the murky primordial soup and into the heavens. The good part about that is that you don't have to think as it's so tightly woven into the central hazard that a retrospective thought will cover it: something small but poignant on offer for anyone looking. Nice. See it. It's bona fide white knuckle joy.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Shadows Halloween Marathon Menagerie

I had a great chat with a few friends on the weekend about how we hate the experience of people ridiculing horror movies at the cinema. Really, they pay almost  twenty bucks just so they can show how superior they are to a movie? It was reported that the screening of the classic giallo Deep Red at MIFF was met with this kind of response, people breaking out in laughter at almost every line. There are unintentionally humorous parts in pretty much every movie but really folks, it's not that funny. What I always notice about the phenomenon is how joyless the laughter is. So, it's the time of year to counter that gormless bullshit with a little celebration.

When I was a kid I'd see American cartoons where kids dressed up for Halloween and wished we'd do it where I was. But October 31 in Townsville is already muggy and getting lollies out of any of even my nice middle class neighbours would have been frightening. Well, we had cracker night.

What didn't go away was an affinity with horror. Dark skies and howling storms were my favourite weather as a child (they were, apart from anything else, a break from the heat) and never better than with a stark black and white ghost story on tv or one that played in my head, all atmosphere and no plot to interrupt the atmosphere.

Even through ages when it feels best to reject anything that suggests I might not be above everything (my twenties) I still came back to this most vulnerable of genres, the one that most freely opens itself to ridicule and the one that (even more than science fiction) explores ideas through allegory. The cost of this is that the more I understand this the clearer the genre's rejection by the more conventionally minded of audiences becomes. I steadily removed the horror element from the film night I ran a few years back so that by the last year out of thirty-seven titles only three could qualify as horror and it was still considered to be dominated by the genre. That's not bad maths on their part, they're really saying that one title for them is too many. But on Halloween they can have no excuse (except that we still don't celebrate it here, of course, but still...)

So, here is a small host of titles to choose from for the time poor and negligent of the genre should the notion of a marathon appeal. Take one from each category being mindful of mixing up old and new, colour and black and white, slow and action packed etc, keeping the strangest ones for very early on and last, keep the food light and the alcohol paced, the thoughts pure and the sense of integrity and ethics solid for a fair day's pay for a fair day's  - sorry, not sleeping well, lately. Anyway...

One caveat in my choices here is that, after all this, I don't think horror movies should be fun; I watch them because I like the scare and the disturbance. But I am in a minority so I have to play nice and broaden the horizon here.

All these selections are locally available on dvd and/or blu-ray. These are not  the only ones I like in each category just the ones I can think of as I type this. Also, if one example has had a lot of imitators I tend to leave it as one of a kind and try and think of another that isn't like it. So, Halloween but not Friday the 13th, Blair Witch but not Paranormal Activity etc.

Horror Comedy: Died? I nearly laughed!
Generally something I hate as rather than be a mix it's usually a series of cliches gaffer-taped together and trotted out so rapidly that you don't get a chance to realise that mere recognition of a trope isn't the same as making a funny comment on it. Put one of these in as the third from the start to break the mood a tad.

Shaun of the Dead: The reason this might work at the end of the day is that the comedy side of it isn't American like the reference-gag-heavy Scary Movie series but dowdy from-the-marrow-out British. The scene in which the hero discovers the Romero zombies have taken over is a masterpiece of delayed revelation due to his blinkered laddishness. It just gets better from there and does so by amping up the horror when needed. Both work. "Just look at the face: it's vacant, with a hint of sadness. Like a drunk who's lost a bet."

Arsenic and Old Lace: Barely oblique references to the horror only newly established in Hollywood, this screwball comedy keeps the dark side close. "He said I looked like Boris Karloff!"

Scream: The only self-referential entry into the post-mod 90s ironyfest that works and mostly because veteran Wes Craven knows his horror. Good casting and great dialogue do the rest. After this, the deluge. "What's you're favourite scary movie?"

Young Frankenstein: You won't need to be well schooled in the Universal horror classics that this film insists on referencing; it's funny in its own right and continuously. Gene Wilder plays it just under screaming hysteria and Marty Feldman counters with his goopy absurdism. The Gene Hackman scene is a cross between WC Fields and James Whale and one of the funniest things in any horror comedy. And then there's the secret passage scene. "PUT - THE CANDLE - BECK!"

Ghosts: do you see what I see?
One of my favourite of all the sub genres, the ghost tale can carry us on its atmosphere alone. The more restrained the scares the better, IMHO, as dread outlasts surprise. All good ghost stories have more at stake than the spookiness.

The Haunting: Is the house evil or is it just bad plumbing? Great effects even for now from this steadily creepy 1962 outing. The sadness of the central core as it is slowly revealed is profoundly affecting. Because it's so well conceived and paced I could watch this weekly. "Whatever walked there walked alone."

The Eye: The Sixth Sense spawned an impoverished mass of cover versions worldwide but this entry from the always intriguing Pang brothers went well beyond the original and left its own copyable mark. (If the people in this film aren't speaking Cantonese you are watching the wrong version.) "Who ARE you?"

Dark Water: The inventor of J-horror, Hideo Nakata, almost closed the game with what is the sub-genre's apex. The mother and daughter relationship at its centre are enough to allow the restrained scares to be physically chilling. There is a coda that seems very warm 'n' fuzzy but will wrap your neck in icicles later when it creeps up on you. Genius. No cheese, please, we're Japanese. (You are forbidden to watch the American remake until you have seen this original.) "Mamaaaa!"

Lake Mungo: Very happy to include an Australian entry. This tale of grief and its varying resonance is presented as the kind of cinema documentary that characterised the late noughties when it was made. This allows for a great deal of the plot to emerge with its use of home video and news reportage. The climactic moment is one of the most shivery things I've seen. It's not from nowhere but you just do not expect it. At all. Masterpiece. Please support it by hiring or buying. "Alice kept secrets. She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret."

Weird: No Tribe Shall Take Them!
There's a lot of sloppy thinking masquerading as avantegardism but the pinnacles of it (including my favourite film ever) usually have a basis in reality and can serve as fables. They are usually low on jump-scares but big on the disturbing idea and unsettling atmosphere. Don't start with one of these unless everyone is ready for it. Leave it until the pikers pike and the harder core remain.

Eraserhead: Fable of expectant parents' fears turned nightmarishly real is set in a place that only vaguely resembles our own world. Doesn't behave like any horror movie before it and very few of its imitators got it enough to make even the generic rubbish cover versions that followed on from The Exorcist or Romero's zombie fests. It's not genre. It barely qualifies as horror but there's really no other useful thing to call it. "Ooooh, you are sick."

Pulse: A lonely boy commits suicide after visiting a website that promises a meeting with a ghost. Without anyone noticing, this has become an epidemic. One of the strangest and creepiest horror outings doesn't quite belong in the J-horror stable as it lacks too many of the traits. Like its characters it doesn't seems to belong anywhere. Slow but sure. "Would you like to meet a ghost?"

Videodrome: Cronenberg's most Cronenbergian Cronenberg is the tale of a self-styled media maverick who comes across what seems to be the last word in outlaw shows, apparently real torture that compels like nothing else. He is about to go somewhere like nowhere else. A monumentally original idea taken to its last gasp with style so good it's almost better known by its imitators. "Long live the new flesh."

A Tale of Two Sisters: South Korean cinema came up two strands in response to J-horror. One was blind copying and the other was altogether of its own kind. This one begins with a kind of wicked stepmother theme but goes so far beyond it that we are forced to call it horror for fear of what else might give it name. "There was a girl under the kitchen sink."

Once a black magic themed sub genre, zombies have staggered their way into our hearts lately with the cable show Walking Dead. A popular ridicule of this show has it a soap opera with occasional undead incursions. Well, they all are, there's really not a lot of depth you're going to get out of a zombie although Romero tried with the later entries into the Dead series.

Night of the Living Dead: The original and the best. Romero's stroke of genius was to remove the voodoo and any other backstory and just show the threat and how the living cope with it. One of the most influential films in history and not just for horror movies. "Coming to get you Barb ar rah."

Dawn of the Dead: If it isn't the 1978 one don't watch it until you've seen this original. Consumerism and the modern world will not cope well when the things it takes for granted start failing. And there are zombies. "They're us, that's all, when there's no more room in hell."

City of the Living Dead: Lucio Fulci's collision of HP lovecraft and Romeroish zombies is thick with atmosphere and apocalyptic weirdness. Typical zombie fare it ain't. High style it is."It's her... Mrs. Holden. This morning she was inside a coffin at the funeral home, and now she's here in my kitchen!"

REC: Non-stop found footage infected zombies quarrantined in a Barcelona apartment block goes where you will not expect it. At less than ninety minutes it cannot outstay its welcome but you won't even be thinking that. "We have to tape everything, Pablo."

Devils and Inferno: phew, hot in here.

As with any supernatural genre devil movies should never assume their audiences actually believe in the phenomena they present.

The Exorcist: Changed the horror movie game by taking the gothic out of the horror and pushing the everyday so far forward that the nasty stuff is far scarier than it would have been with a lot of uplighting and orchestral hits. The 70s was when mainstream cinema got stark and tough. Here's the horror entry. Only its cover versions (made by the truckload after its massive success) brought any cheese to it and they stuffed the crust. "Your mother's in here, Karras. Would you like to leave a message? I'll see that she gets it."
Hellraiser: Less an original than a consolidation of cine-horror style from its decade, the 80s. Hellraiser plays on a harsh idea of pentitence and throws it into a very rich stew of gender roles and decadence. Adapted and reimagined by the source material's author, Clive Barker, Hellraiser brings the stamp of authenticity and deserves its milestone status. "Please, no tears, it's a waste of good suffering."

Rosemary's Baby: A constantly welling paranoia tale of fear which might well be borne out. Polanski on all cylinders made this histrionics-free contemporary horror which never grows old."Anyone for tannis?"

Suspiria: Ultraviolent and often silly when not ultraviolent, Suspiria yet remains a favourite for its adherence to the idea that nightmares are scary because the dreamer can't control them works in the cinema as well. If you can accept that this film will pose no conceptual problem for you. In fact, the sole draggy scene is one in which a lot of the phenomena are explained. You could take that out and never notice. Huge widescreen saturated colour pushes red and blue and the raspy whispering never stops. One of the best horror music scores ever.  "Susie... Sarah... I once read that names which begin with the letter 'S' are the names of SNAKES! Sssss! Ssssss!"

Slashers: out they go!
A genre that came to be associated with a teenaged audience as they were increasingly treated to the gratifying sight of all the other kids at school getting gutted or sliced up.

Peeping Tom: Killing with cinema itself, Peeping Tom digs deep into the making of an ice cold monster. Is there still a human in there? Watch and see. Shocked its original audiences and killed its director's career in his homeland. Way to go out. "All this filming. It can't be healthy."

Psycho: The grandaddy of them all, Hitchcock's stark 1960 horror still shocks with its violence and steadily creepy atmosphere. "Mother!"

Halloween: The first of the teen slashers which would dominate the decade that followed it. Not the first final girl but probably the one that got the phrase going. The first of the self-reprising monsters. Though derivative, its music score spawned several decades of copyists. Until the Blair Witch Project it was the most successful indy movie ever. But the real reason you should put it into your October 31st lineup is that it's still great. Light cheese for its time but whole dairies of it from decades of imitation. One big difference between it and those is that it doesn't need gore or blood to deliver its threats or thrills. It's made of cinema rather than dollar signs. "That was the Boogieman."

Candyman: Clive Barker story uses urban mythology directly to house its monster whose presence is perfectly constructed from popular whispers to physicality. But where does he really live? Brilliant undersung piece from the 90s. "Candyman Candyman Candyman Candyman Candyman!"

Vampires: Fangs for the Memory.
Not big on this subby as even its reinventions quickly get lost in cliche. Nevertheless here are some sparks of originality.

Dracula: Universal 1931. Carnival showman Todd Browning knew his freakishness but left the tent for something more German and unsettling. Bela Lugosi was perfectly cast as the suave other. Updating the Stoker setting to contemporary Europe proved a hit by showing this horror threatened its audiences. There is no music score for this version which can grate with people unused to early cinema. Some dvd releases provide a good one by Phillip Glass but it you put it on early in the proceedings you should get through."Leesssen to dem ... what mewzic they mike."

Martin: If he's just a mixed up teenager he's on the path to hell for his crimes. If he really is a vampire he is tragic as he will forever be confused and guilty. Romero showed us a vampire as a subject for contemporary teen social realism. Documentary in feel and with generations in mind, Martin might well be Romero's real masterpiece. The sole gothic elements play like memories or fantasies in black and white and of faster stock. They invade the 70s brown jacket colour with jarring clarity. Of it's descendants, Twilight feels too slick and Buffy played too much to the crowd. Martin still stands alone. "Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There's no real magic ever."

Let the Right One In: Vampirism and dependency but not where you might expect them. This Nordic take uses the icy weather and icier outer-urban architecture to present a vampire smaller than Martin but no less worrying. The attack scenes have an effective near-cctv frankness to them. The Stephen King style bullied boy thread is given more depth that would suggest and so is easily tolerated. The arc of sadness in the events and where they leave the participants is of the delayed reaction type and so more devastating for it. "Oskar, I do it because I have to."

Thirst: Park Chan Wook who made the solid and haunting Vengeance trilogy held on to the haunting for this own-tribe tale of parasitic need, the protocols of faith, family life and unending lust. As with his best work, he plays the high emotion passages low and ramps up the everyday. Force of life, indeed. "He'd offer me his blood if he wasn't in a coma."

Paranoia: I know I'm crazy but they're still out there!
A favourite of mine as it's close to genuine human states like schizophrenia. The original Twilight Zone played a lot along these lines which is why it's so durable. The realisation of such fears can accomodate great allegory. And still be scary.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers: Remade several times. People are replaced with emotionless hive-minded automatons. Is one's humanity with all its pain and arrogance really preferrable? One of the few cases where remakes have matched the originals. Either the 56 or 78 versions will do. "There's no emotion. None. Just the pretense of it. The words, the gesture, the tone of voice, everything else is the same, but not the feeling."

The Thing: What? Where? Who goes there? Brilliant use of isolated setting limiting the suspect group as the infiltration spreads. Go for either the 50s or 80s remake as both are superb. The 2011 cover version did not need to be made nor should have been. It's not bad but it's not great."Watch the sky! Watch the sky!"

Jacob's Ladder: A normal guy keeps seeing terrifying mutated forms one minute and normal people the next. It gets deeper and worse as he seems to lose control of everything he knows as reality. Is this the reality? Some feel that the ending is a problem but even if it is the journey is sooooo good. DON'T REMAKE THIS FILM! "The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life."

The Tenant: Bloke moves into a Paris flat and turns into its previous tenant or is he manipulated into it by all the others? Key things are never stated but the paranoia once it takes over wouldn't be letting anything like that through, anyway. A tour de force. "Drinks for everyone! Everyone except for him."

Not a too hard box as much as representatives of sub genres which I don't like enough to list four each. Contains some all time favourites, though.

The Blair Witch Project: Although elements of it are derivative it provided a blend and execution that made it its own film, one that created a sub-genre (found footage) which is still with us, albeit in exhausted form. Nevertheless, a great campfire tale that haunts to this day. "I'm afraid to close my eyes. I'm afraid to open them."

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: With only the slightest amount of the red stuff and a lot of suggestion Tobe Hooper's debut feature creates a solid atmosphere of threatening weirdness 'mong the folks out bah the ol' slaughterhouse. Spawned a sub industry of scary hick movies but none that quite got the real point. I grew up in North Queensland. This feels like home. "We got some barbeque in back if you want."

Ginger Snaps: Werewolves reinvented with Buffy smarts and a sense of real mounting tragedy. Ace! "The fuck, Bee. This is your idea. If you don't like your ideas, stop having them."

God Told Me To: At first this looks like a twist on devil movies but boy does it go places. Written and directed by rapid fire concept auteur Larry Cohen who even managed a little of his own blaxploitation in there toward the end. Fascinating, breathless and beautiful. "Say it! Say the words!"

So, there ya go. I know, it's mostly mainstream but I had to keep it Austenian: Access and Accessibility. Have fun and shiver, now.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


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Hideo Nakata made the film that started J-horror (no, not the first Japanese horror movie, the first J-horror which is a subset). He also made one of the last. From Ringu to Dark Water, his influence over what a contemporary horror film should look like not only changed the game in the rest of Asian cinema but effectively pulverised the tiresome self-reflexivity that had been looping in the US since Scream. If there were teenagers in the frame they weren't aware of the frame.

Whether it was heart rending tales of incised family bonds (any of Nakata's horrors), apocalypses of loneliness (Kairo), nightmare satires of teen hive mindedness (Uzumaki, Suicide Circle), or troublingly weird extra depth blown into a ghost house (Juon) the icy fingers spread and stretched over the genre worldwide and scratched its name with the nails. Mostly this was terrible (every single US remake) but sometimes when the effect was of influence rather than copying there was something lasting. When I began that sentence I intended ending it with an example of the latter but by the end of this one cannot find one in my memory. If one occurs I'll shout it out before the end of this review.

Nakata, having moved this mountain, climbed down from it and pretty much disgraced himself with two Americanisations, the Pang brothers' The Eye and his own Ring 2. I suspect he liked the idea of working with the huge budgets and effects workshops and getting paid a lot more than he was used to for that. Perhaps he thought he might make his way in the US job market. If either or both are the case then it pains me to report that he did not become a new Guillermo del Toro.

Wha? Who? Well, what are you reading this blog for if you don't know who Guillermo Del - Ok. Mexican filmmaker whose debut Cronos showed more than just a heightened talent with cinema but an imagination that could take a tired genre and make it fresh and at the same time feel like a time honoured fable. Del Toro has since happily thrown himself into popcorn movies like Species 2 or Hellboy which have success enough to allow him to make more personally compelled fare like The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth. He now is very active in assisting the first steps of promising cinefactors through the Mirada Studios. Short version: if it's in English it'll be enjoyable but you'll forget it the next day; if it is in Spanish you will emerge from the experience moved and a little stronger than before.

Nakata hasn't stopped making movies, we just don't know that much about them without looking. This is a pity because he very likely has more to give. This is a blessing because when he makes something out of water like Chatroom you don't know it's him until you look and if you know the name you will see this as a film by someone who has travelled beyond the need for proof on the international stage.

Well, there's an intro to a blu-ray review. Must be a doozy of a movie, huh? Alright, don't take this the wrong way but rather than a good film, this is an intriguing one. I would often choose the latter over the former as there are many directors who make good films that I don't care about but very few whose work can fascinate me. This does that.

A young man swaggers through a busy urban enivronment and into what looks like an old boarding house decorated by Julien Temple, gaudy pinks and greens and rectangles of incandescent bulbs blazing. Our lad finds a door and stencils CHELSEA TEENS on it, freehanding an exclamation mark for the personal touch. He strides in and waits. In a very short time others find their way in. Inserted into this odd situation are visual bites of the people in the room at their laptops in other settings. With extreme efficiency we now know we are in a chatroom made physical.

Before I liked this I liked the casting of Aaron Johnson (who now hyphenates his surname with a Taylor). A magnetic presence, he carried the undersung Nowhere Boy into fineness as the teenage John Lennon. Then, as Kickass, fought valiantly against the extraordinary Chloe Moretz (who now adds her middle name Grace) whose tweeny guttermouth Hitgirl might have sqaushed all screen competition. Here, his dynamic energy and devil's smile whips the crew of disaffected teens from their intimidated reticence into action. William (Johnson) limits the group to five and they soon fall in with the trust that youth makes necessary. There is a very funny moment heightened by its creepiness when a middle aged man attempts to enter in the guise of a teenage girl. After that the security is tight. Everyone is safe.

The world outside the room is, if anything, more oppresive and threatening than confessed by the five. (It is also several tints greyer than the hi-tone splendour in the room.) Mo seems as sprightly as William but harbours something he finds cripplingly shameful but compulsive. Eva's upper middle class moulding is smothering. Emily, who got the ball rolling by demanding everyone talk about something they hate, is young, privileged and beautiful but crushed by the high competition of her peer group of supermodels in waiting. Jim has been on anti-depressants for years and has trouble grasping even at the life that comes to him. And William whose uplifting force is so infectious has issues of his own which translate to plans of his own. A'ter that be spoilers.

The first thing to note about this film, given that setup, is that its setting is British, not American. This shatters preconceptions immediately. It's not just the accents. The dialogue is different, tougher and not reliant on off-the-rack sarcasm or unrealistic worldliness. The social situations have more subtle class structure context to them; the sense of privilege to all these higher-stratum Londoners doesn't need to be reinforced with palatial decor in their homes. Also, there is a dour resistance to play the plot as the thriller it threatens to become and a colder slowburn is preferred which will be familiar to any fan of Ringu or Dark Water (the grey sky Tokyo in the latter resembles the overcast London in this one). The British setting is simply more familiar to Nakata than his American efforts and this is to the advantage of the film.

The other chatrooms shown also have a creepiness to them even when the humour of the girls-only lolly coloured disco that William effortlessly penetrates. The ghostly auto-councillor room is gently terrifying. And there is the bully room where William lurks in front of a pair of dark William Blake angel wings as a fragile boy is pushed towards suicide by a crowd of harrying testosteronic teens. Lurking is a term from the older internet, the one I began with which included the now old school chatrooms and newsgroups. To lurk simply meant to hang around without contributing. William takes the more sinister tones of the term into the new web when he watches a girl's suicide in a distanced scene that brings Sion Sonno's nail-hard satire Suicide Circle and Kyoshi Kurosawa's brainstem-deep chiller Kairo. William's fascination at the video is icy with learning.

These aspects are transported from the source play and carry the warning to parents it intended. Nakata, however, is clearly far more fascinated with character and its dynamics. This gets him into trouble with potential audiences as they might be expecting more narrative pyrotechnics appropriate to a thriller but instead get a steady gaze on the birth of psychopathy or something like it.

There are subplot threads that seem to fall  away and this is a common complaint I've read in responses online to the film. However, the only fault I'd assign is that they get so much screen time in the first place. A series of smaller-scaled Fight Club style vignettes would have sufficed but then they might have felt too trivial. When the field clears between William and his real quarry the continued grind will upset some for its slowness but it is depth rather than speed that is of the essence here and Nakata revels in it.The rapid sewing-up that happens at the end does feel too neat but the zinger at the very end allows it.

The packaging of this film is misleading and already has resulted in disappointment both at it not being the promised high paced thriller or transported J-horror that the marketeers pounded. It is a risky mix of solid interplay of characters, emotional fragility and a slowly welling sadness that is definitely not for everyone. Can you dispense with the hype on the cover? Then it might be for you.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Hollywood. Not glitz Hollywood but the place on the map where they used to make the movies. Images of once splendid cinemas collapsed and crumbling with just enough of the splendour visible. These saddening images resurface throughout as a kind of floating memento mori of Glamourville, a kind of long suffering servant to the ravenous trust-fund human insect life we are about to follow.

Christian, young, buff and benefitting, invites casually contacted strangers in to edge-up his sex life with his girlfriend. When we see this happening it plays like a canasta night. He is funding a film production but hasn't so much as read the screenplay. I'd say he's like something out of Brett Easton Ellis except that he is.

The Canyons is a crowd sourced collaboration of veteran film director and writer Paul Schrader and novelist Ellis and they crowdsourced this film after a more amibitous project fell through. I know nothing of that one but the fact of its failure shouldn't colour your approach to this. Why? Because it's fine.

It's not fine because troubled star Lindsay Lohan plays close to the touble she's been in and the rest play callous and worldly or in training for same. The plot is a tangle of infidelity and manipulation and of itself registers only softly. The performances vary between confidence (eg. Lohan) and audition tape (Nolan Gerard Funk). The film punches above its weight in recording medium, mix, editing etc. Schrader's at the wheel and he's working.

But this film isn't about film it's about flow. That's kind of why this review might feel like damning with faint praise. However well the pieces of this one fit and how efficiently the cinema of it works, this film works best when you just let it happen. If you've ever read a novel by Ellis you'll be aware of this and know that rather than describing slackness on the part of the audience or readers it points more to the gradual build of something uneasy, something spooky. Soon enough you are as haunted as the narrator and it ends.

The opening in the restaurant sets this up well as we look at the faces of people listening to what others are saying rather than the ones speaking. Chit chat has never felt more like air, more disembodied.

I can watch movies about people waiting as long as the atmosphere is well laid out. Some of my favourite horror films are like this, slow fuses fizzing to a bomb. The bomb can be silent but it must feel like one. Sometimes that means you only feel the numbness after the shock and don't remember the shock. I enjoyed this film because of this effect.

This is the best thing I've seen based on Ellis' writing the same way that Cronenberg's Naked Lunch is the best thing I've seen to do with anything by Burroughs (including documentaries). It has the seabreeze sigh of something you wish hadn't happened but had to. It leaves a hint of horror between the torn and dusty glamour of the old movie palaces and the tearing sins of their descendants. I should stop now, I guess, and disappear here.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


So why did the only person who could never get away with his thematic choice being automatically questioned by virtue of the circumstances of his birth choose this film to make as a debut?

Sid works as a lifestyle consultant at a firm that supplies people with the diseases of their idols. His spiel to the customer is creepy for both its insidiousness and the rote-learned delivery Sid tries to conceal with a sensuous purr. As he leaves work each day he is frisked and asked to declare that he isn't carrying (dig the double entendre) any property of the company. At home he inserts a smuggled sample into a machine that looks like a clanking prototype and proceeds to remove the copyright from the virus he's just injected. He's going to sell it on the black market whose outlet is a butcher's shop that sells steaks derived from the cells of celebrities.

Got all that? There's more. The first half hour of this film hits you with a new wow concept every few minutes. How does one celebrity get an unscheduled disease? She went to China and caught a knock off. And on. This is the work of someone who has paused after a brainwave notion and thought about the world it describes. When this approach goes flat it grates like overthought comedy but here everything we encounter about this society seems to fit as though it was in the room when we got there.

Just as natural is the choice of casting. Caleb Landry Jones wears his suits like a coat hanger. When you first see him you wonder if there's anything under the fabric except a wire frame. He skulks and shifts as though the light of the interiors, though artificial, will only increase the population of ginger freckles on his small, intense face. He's like a very young Brad Dourif without the brutality. As such he moves through his character's phases with the adaptiveness of a camouflaging insect, convincing us variously of his health, ill health, intellect and survivalism without showing any of his working.

That's good because this is a film that threatens to collapse under the weight of its ideas in a second act weakened by inertia and repetition. This is the aspect that doesn't look well schooled or confident. So much time is spent drawing out the consequences of his fateful action at the end of the first act and at the same time blending his (intentionally) awkward relationship with a particular celebrity that by the time we get to the inevitable twists and turns they feel like they're being read out of the screenplay seminar handbook.

But then the third act finds its feet and delivers the promises of the first up to the final breathtaking image of consummation.

I should point out that even though I saw this film much earlier this year I was unable to review it as the preview screening I went to at the Nova stalled when the projection or the DCP caught a virus (yes, everyone in the audience was cracking that one) and I and my friend decided to leave after a seemingly interminable ten or so minutes. Until I caught up with it recently and got to the ending it had left an unbreathing sense of disappointment in me which no amount of guessing could placate.

But the finale is as strong and awe-inspiring as anything out of the director's Dad's mind. This film that would have been called Cronenbergian if the director's name was Smith offers no slight to the family tradition. Even the dumpy middle act is no mark against when you consider how the effects and ideas took precedence over the performances in Cronenberg senior's early pieces.

So why did Brandon Cronenberg, the only person who could never get away with his thematic choice being automatically questioned by virtue of the circumstances of his birth choose to make a body horror first off? I Googled interviews with him and he emerges well. The idea of celebrity culture plus a digitised biology got his mind soaring. He didn't do a musical or a buddy movie because this one got in the way of everything else.

Also, he doesn't have to be David Cronenberg's son to want to make a Cronenberg film. Cronenberg Snr put such a bug into film culture with his early work that no sci-fi that isn't just high (i.e. single) concept popcorn what-if can quite escape the duty to add that, yes, viral strain of satire to be fulfilling. There are so many but straight up Todd Haynes's deep and troubling Safe comes to mind. More recently the films of Zal Batmanglij and Britt Marling (Sound of My Voice or The East) have had no trouble taking aim at the hive-mindedness, venality or political sleaze their authors see around them and coating it all in the alien sheen of a Videodrome or a Crash. The time is never the future. The time is always now.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review: MUD

Two boys take a motor boat along a river to a wild island where they find a bigger boat lodged in a tree, left there by a flood. They climb up and into in, intending to claim it, fix it an float it but find, among some old Playboys and junk, fresh food and provisions. Beaten to it they get back to their boat and see who's beaten them to it. Well, if it ain't ol' Matthew McConaughey, go to hunkmeister of the 90s. Well, actually, it ain't ... really.

M Mc seems to have burst through the o'er grown teen he played even back in Dazed and Confused to seek weightier roles to ease the process of maturing in public. When he smiles and waves to the boys on the beach of the island he looks like someone who has been spending some time living without packaging, all sweat and stubble and it seems real.

The boys approach him and take his carefully tailored information that skirts what the adults in the audience are already understanding. The tougher boy, Neckbone, doesn't swaller a word o' it and is subject to subtler negotiation from the fugitive whose name is Mud, really, whose name is Mud. The other boy, Ellis, whose story this really is, is not so much credulous as admiring of the mythmaking he is witnessing, a kind of rough and ready but decent manliness that he can't find anywhere else. And so we come to the point of the story:  growin' erp and bein' a man.

Mud is waiting for his ladylove to turn up. The reason he's on the run has to do with his male blindness to her penchant for bad boys and the deflating unerotic affection she has for him and has had since his childhood crush on her. He has a plan to take her away on the boat once it's good 'n' fixed and doesn't have to say that he has no idea where they would go. Ellis likes the dream and sets about helping it to earth as much as he can.

Meanwhile back in town he shows in a moment that unimaginative people will say is unrealistic he shows that he is unprepared for his own masculinity when he rescues a pretty girl from a senior by sucker punching the latter into silence. It really doesn't matter how unlikely this is. In the scheme of this tale which has the feel of a well formed short story, Ellis' pluck is going to get him into all sorts o' trurble if he don' watch out. In the shorter term he has won the immediate affection of the damsel whose attention and its effect are played out like an intimately understood neural violin. Ellis' brain is pumping endorphins thicker 'n a fah hose (I should point out here that this film is set in Arkansas and I have family there so I can). That's when he sees Mud's ladylove as described in a previous scene and we know he's only going to go deeper.

At this stage I was really getting into this Whistle Down the Wind of the South with its seductive atmosphere and strong playing and wanted it to be a momument to facing up to self delusion and was gunning for a scaled epic ending where the boat might float or sink. But no, we have information that the screenwriting seminars (to be fair it might have been in the source material) would insist have resonance. The responsibility that Mud is trying to flee comes to town, armed and vengeful. It's a well played series of scenes which include one of my favourite unsung character actors, Joe Don Baker. But it means we are going to have to put up with a big showdown at the end rather than something more mythic. Sigh .... ok.

No spoilers here except to say that once the real ending between Mud and Ellis happens we have to live through the big action finish that seems compressed rather than packed. There is, however, a lovely wordless final moment which speaks the volumes it should.

I'll end here with a word about the women of this film as they seem to have gone unnoticed in a lot of the reviews I've read which complain about their ineffectuality or even their absence.

Bonnie Sturdivant is May Pearl who having been rescued by Ellis' punch affords him the life giving attention. Her performance makes the improbability of this acceptable. It is balanced by one of the many parallels between Mud and Ellis (that show the latter heading for the same mistakes as the former) in her pursuit of the stinky, oafish, hairy and constanly venereal alphas in souped cars that rev and growl like hogs. Her dismissal of him after this is carefully neither cruel nor merciful but it is believably adolescent. Her performance is not as passive as it might seem if we keep our focus too steadily on Ellis. She is real.

Sarah Paulson plays Ellis' mother, angry at her own life, living on a boat with her nowhere husband. The question of whether her plans are the right ones is clear in her face. A thanklessly rounded performance from the gal who impressed me as the ghostly Merlyn in the 90s Twin Peaks wannabe American Gothic.

Finally, the object of Mud's deluded affection, the beauty with hair of gold and birds tattooed on her hands. This strange figure, plain in one shot and dazzling in the next, seemed to know only what she was going through at any one moment, an insubstantial waht trairsh whom none could love beyond a few minutes consummating effort, who drapes herself over the arms of petrol smelling bikies at the roadhouse rather than meet her knight in the worn silk shirt who had come to take her to paradise, whose fear of the world beyond these brutes or fawning servants is revealed in slow release rather than an overliterate speech, this strange figure intrigued me. I was sure I knew who it was but couldn't guess until - really? - it snapped. Holy shit, it's Reese Witherspoon, sassy babydoll of 90s indy, post-ironic bimbo of Legally Blonde etc. She doesn't like her life but can't imagine anything outside of it. She virtually collapses outside of her trouble and witnesses it. A complex and quietly powerful performance that while dressed down doesn't have the Oscar-bait glamour of Theron uglying down to play Aileen Wournos. It's good stuff.