Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Scenes to Make Spines Tingle (WARNING - SPOILERS)

So it's Halloween soon (three days in fact). The kids will be off their faces on sugar wearing rubbish costumes, drunk people my age will be wearing similar costumes (but in a strictly ironic way of course) and the crowd left at home will presumably be stranded with a raft of classic movies (to be honest, that option sounds alright).

We've all seen those endless 'Best Of' scary moments lists so I thought I'd add a new slant on it by compiling a list of my favourite chilling moments away from, and including, horror. What we have here then isn't a strictly a best of but instead film clips that put the goosebumps on my arms...Happy Halloween!

10) Eyes Wide Shut - The Masked Ball

I'm something of a newcomer to Stanley Kubrick's final masterpiece and a masterpiece it certainly is, rendering night-time NY a desolate and eerie fairy tale land for Tom Cruise's doctor after his wife (Nicole Kidman) expresses her sexual frustrations. The centre-piece is a typically bold and frightening sequence, a masked orgy in a country house which Cruise invades, only to be exposed in front of its members...Kubrickian through and through in its lavish colour palette, stately camera work and menacing music (composer Jocelyn Pook adapting a Hindi text), it builds unbearable tension.

9) Young Sherlock Holmes - The Knight

Barry Levinson's 1985 speculation about how the famed sleuth and Dr Watson met is an enjoyable guilty pleasure, showing strong loyalty to Arthur Conan Doyle's characters and milieu while successfully branching out into Spielbergian adventure-horror. It's most iconic sequence involves none of the central characters but does feature another who has entered into the history books: the stained glass knight who has the honour of being the first fully functioning CGI character in a movie. What's remarkable is how good the effects are after all these years, the knight manifesting itself to a hallucinating priest in the classic Gothic environs of his church.

8) Jurassic Park - Raptors in the Kitchen

Sealing their reputation as some of the finest non-human villains of the 90s, this classic scene quickly became infamous for scaring kids and adults alike out of their wits. Of course it's a Stephen Spielberg movie so we know the children being pursued through the kitchen will get away but the sense of danger and menace is incredibly palpable, the effects magnificent and John Williams' score (away from its more famous main themes) brilliantly creepy.

7) Below - Deep Fried Sailor

This hugely underrated chiller from Pitch Black director David Twohy is a ghost story set on a submarine during WWII. Deriving all its power from implicit, rather than explicit, terror (although there are some unpleasant moments), the nastiest bit comes when a segment of the crew barricaded in their quarters learn the mistake of lighting a match when hydrogen levels are dangerously high...The almost slow-mo unveiling of the incineration by the rest of the sub's members is haunting horror cinema at its best.

6) Unforgiven - William Munny, Killer of Women and Children

Clint Eastwood's hailed revisionist western redefined the ethos of the genre, taking as its template brooding, austere tragedy rather than the vibrant Ennio Morricone-scored-stylistics of the 60s. Clint uses the film to brilliantly subvert his own myth, making the final unveiling of the killer lurking within his William Munny chilling and terrifying, rather than exciting. When he takes down a tavern full of guys at the climax, including Gene Hackman's sadistic Sheriff Little Bill, it isn't a mere case of good versus evil but what is implied in humane terms that strikes the deepest chord.

5) Enduring Love - The Balloon

It's a metafictional nightmare for Daniel Craig in Roger Michell's superior adaptation of Enduring Love. Cutting the extraneous crap that bogged down Ian McEwan's source novel, Michell's film casts a wonderfully intense Craig as Joe, a man suspended in limbo as a result of the film's opening salvo: a balloon accident that results in the death of an innocent man. Oh and he shares a kiss with Rhys Ifans' deranged stalker. Rumour has it Ifans sent Craig love letters in preparation for the big scene...

4) Who Framed Roger Rabbit - Judge Doom is a Toon!

Lively and jaunty for much of its running time, Robert Zemeckis' classic children's film (a groundbreaking mix of cartoons and real people, lest we forget) suddenly shifts into high gear in the final act, when Christopher Lloyd's already creepy villain Judge Doom reveals that his evil plans don't exactly stem from a human persona...It adds personal, noir-esque overtones to the comedy capers as Bob Hoskins' Eddie Valiant realises this is the monster who killed his brother many years before. Listen to that voice and say it isn't scary...

3) Battleship Potemkin - The Odessa Steps

A film buff-ery inclusion perhaps but Sergei Eisenstein's landmark propaganda piece/thriller retains all of its visceral power, 84 years after its release. That's what makes it a remarkable piece of filmmaking: away from the stacks of books written on montage, editing and the like, the core still remains: a deeply impassioned director in close communication with his audience. Naturally, we feel this most in the classic Odessa Steps sequence as protesting civilians are gunned down in cold blood by the army, a pram bounding its way down amid the chaos. Madness, it seems, will always resonate...

2) The Haunting - Breathing Door

I suppose I had to have one classic horror in here (it is the season to be scary after all) and you can't go wrong with Robert Wise's superb chiller from 1963 (not the shite Jan De Bont remake). Forgoing any explicit terror whatsoever and staying faithful to Shirley Jackson's story, this is the moment where lead character Eleanor's (Julie Harris) fear is made apparent to the others staying in Hill House for a psychological experiment, and the living room door starts to achieve a life of its own...Don't expect any outright explanation though - the film's too clever for that. And don't forget: 'Whatever walked there...walked alone'.

1) The Shining - Here's Johnny!

Ok ok, so I've caved and gone for the predictable approach by including Stanley Kubrick's horror opus as the finale to this little article. I see it though as more of a measure of The Shining's influence on generations of moviegoers since its release in 1980. Never has an adlib seemed more frightening as when a deranged Jack Nicholson takes a fireaxe to a toilet door and utters the immortal words...Well I'm not going to repeat them again.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Paranormal Activity Trumps Saw VI

Perfect news for classic movie lovers as Halloween approaches! In what must be one of the most satisfying pieces of film-related news this year, the long delayed indie-horror-that-could Paranormal Activity has taken the gorno Saw franchise to the cleaners. Now in its sixth installment, have audiences finally got bored of people being eviscerated by power tools while being force-fed ham-psychology 101? Lets hope.

Here's the article:

Sunday, 18 October 2009


Surrogates would appear to be one of those unfortunate releases undermined by its own trailer. The juicy premise of Bruce Willis back in an action setting, a leavening of conspiracy, some thundering set-pieces… It's even from the director of Terminator 3, so wouldn’t Die Hard 2010 be a title more befitting the adverts?

Surprisingly (even shockingly), Surrogates has more up its blockbuster sleeve than that. Unsurprisingly, hardcore action fans will be let down by the lack of Nakatomi Plaza levels of destruction.

In a futuristic USA (the cloistered view of America as the world’s primary civilization still persists, sadly), people choose to plug into ‘surrogate’ versions of themselves, rather than face the outside world. Crime levels and communicable disease have dropped sharply, so all would appear well…Until that is the son of the creator of surrogacy is found murdered, his real-life operator being discovered dead as well.

A mop-topped Willis as FBI Agent Greer investigates, accompanied by sexy partner Peters (Radha Mitchell, doing little but sexy). What he uncovers will have far reaching consequences not only for the future of the country and surrogacy but for himself, as the real life (slap head) Greer comes to rebel against his make-believe state…

Yes, the premise is derivative and the inspirations shameless, both literary (Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty Four) and cinematic (Minority Report, I Robot). Certain elements don’t gel (Ving Rhames as a dreadlocked human rebel leader set against surrogacy comes across as a hairier, militant Benjamin Zephaniah); while others have all too quickly become eye rolling clich├ęs of the genre (the electronic product placement was refreshing in Minority Report but cynical here).

However, director Jonathan Mostow can finally indulge himself a thoughtful scenario: a slick blend of moderate noir intrigue in a futuristic setting, having been freed from the franchise shackles of T3, the surplus requirements of attempting to top Jim Cameron's CGI and each successive Arnie in-joke now no longer a pre-requisite.

He has a strong moral centre in Willis who pleasingly doesn’t rely on the mere contrast of haircuts to define Greer’s character. Surrogate Greer is slick and glowering of brow, while the real one is a shambling, anxious wreck, Willis’ sensitive performance investing the film with quiet pathos, a man again forced to face the real world existing beyond his apartment door. His interactions with a typically glacial Rosamund Pike as his surrogate dependent wife wrestles with darker emotional undercurrents that could do with being explored further, although the film’s brevity, at 85 mins, is refreshing.

If the rest of the film is more of a sap to predictability, with yet another waste of the brilliant James Cromwell as the arch scientist at the heart of the mystery, at least it’s brave enough to end on a note of ostensible hope brimmed with dubious undercurrents. Funnily enough there are overtones of Terminator 3’s climactic high spot, where a commercial product finally has the gumption to leave its audience thinking rather than buzzing.

500 Days of Summer

Boy meets girl…Boy loves girl…Girl doesn’t love boy? That’s the deft premise of new indie 500 Days of Summer, one that flirts with the soppy romcom theatrics before lacing the romance with the bitterness of a broken heart.

Joseph Gordon Levitt (whose star has been on a gradual ascent since Third Rock from the Sun ended) is wannabe LA architect Tom whose career aspirations haven’t amounted to much apart from a job as a greetings card designer. He has oddball friends; loves Britpop; and gets drunk at karaoke, therefore filling the marks as a loveable clutz.

Levitt’s immensely likeable performance finds hidden depths when a new employee, Summer (Zooey Deschanel) wafts into the office like a fragrant breeze. Pretty soon Tom is in love, has made contact and encountered the first date…

Except director Marc Webb’s clever handling of the story isn’t as staid as all that, beginning instead en-media-res at Day 400 and something, where the despairing Tom can’t understand how his apparently solid relationship with Summer has foundered. It then proceeds to zip back and forward through their romance with effortless ease, picking out everything from the tentative beginnings, the initial uncertainties and the confidence of young love at its peak.

What we therefore get is a witty, funny and endearing tapestry of love in all its frustrating forms. Webb refuses to let his film fall into bitty self-contained pieces (as it could easily have done) but charts an emotional rollercoaster, where the pithy humour and warmth of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay (‘Nobody loves Ringo Starr!’) sits comfortably alongside genuine pathos and heartbreak a few scenes later.

Timelines are disjointed; animation blends with real life; and LA is painted (improbably) as a glowing city of opportunity, all of which may scream smugness to some. Smug it can be: one major concession to other comedies of this ilk is the inclusion of the impossibly wise little sister dishing out relationship advice.

However the core performances are always ready to guide it back to Earth, be it Levitt as the nice guy doomed to failure for not thinking outside of love’s box or Deschanel as the eponymous Summer, luminous and refusing to demonise (or let be demonised) her character’s inscrutable free spirit. A biting pre-credit caption may indicate though that either the director or screenwriters have taken this sort of thing personally…Still, if music be the food of love and all that?

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Seminal Scores: Apollo 13 (James Horner, 1995)

With hugely exciting news (well, for film score devotees like myself) on James Horner's proposed 'epic' score for James Cameron's 3D marvel Avatar having hit the interweb, perhaps it's time to reflect on what a good composer Horner can be when he doesn't slip into complacency and self-plagiarism.


James Horner had a blindingly good year in 1995, composing six (yes, six) movie scores. Presumably he had time to finish his breakfast every once in a while. Two of these scores are certified masterpieces (Apollo 13, the subject of this review, and Braveheart) while the others veer from excellent (Balto) to good (Casper) to mixed (Jumanji, Jade).

Braveheart has understandably stolen the limelight in the intervening years with its bombastic pipe and orchestra arrangements becoming an instant staple for film music compilations and intents of heroism. However for a score that flies its flag somewhat more subtly (although no less nobly) we have to look to that which accompanied Ron Howard's recreation of Apollo 13.

Howard received probably the greatest acclaim of his career to date with Apollo 13, drawing considerable praise for underscoring the immaculate technical credits with quiet patriotism and genuine heart. Well with wholesome Tom Hanks in the starring role, what did we expect? Also along for the ride (as he had been for several of Howard's efforts beforehand, including Cocoon and Willow) was Horner, whose calmly dignified score is one of the movie's key attributes.

Horner is a composer frequently (and justly) scorned for self-plagiarism but there's none of that in Apollo 13. Like Braveheart and his masterpiece Legends of the Fall from 1994, Howard's film clearly inspired the composer to pull something great out of the bag. Tonally, the music is consistent with previous efforts but the music itself is all original.

One qualm existing with Apollo 13's commercial album release is in its presentation, mixing several cues of Horner with dialogue exercepts and source music from artists like Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix. Luckily the score is strong enough to stand on its own. The Main Title is one of the composer's most understated, a graceful trumpet melody (performed by the great Tim Morrison) speaking of the American Spirit, of the Space Age and of discovery. It's referenced very little in the underscore proper but forms suitable bookends, and its lack of mawkishness is a big relief (Horner's intention was instead to score the documentary idealism of the film).

The lengthy warm tones of All Systems Go/The Launch is one of those classic 'building' cues Horner does so well, holding the listener's interest over a lengthy track as the astronauts depart on their doomed venture. The trumpet again is aglow with patriotism, prepping us for the sudden shift in dramatic tension in the midway section of the soundtrack (and film).

The thrilling action that explodes in Master Alarm casts an immediate dark shadow over the space expedition, with rapid snare drum clusters and Horner's fearsome 'crashing' piano (heard in The Pelican Brief) creating a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere and shattering the earlier idyll. Into the Lem, the next Horner track, thus proceeds in a much gloomier fashion, the strings, percussion and trumpet coming off more pensive as the protagonists are forced to confront their dangerous situation.

Darkside of the Moon changes the tone of the score yet again, to that of ethereal, haunting beauty as Annie Lennox' eerie vocals precede the arrival of the full orchestra. Here is where the Main Title arrangement makes a most prominent and moving appearance, sounding a lament for the failure of the mission yet celebrating the heroism of the characters.

Then we arrive at the score's quite simply magnificent conclusion, Horner pulling out all the emotional stops (as he frequently does at the climax of his albums) as the ill-fated ship makes its journey back to Earth. Re-Entry/Splashdown brings out the electronic choir/orchestra combo in spine-tingling fashion, underpinned by nervy snare drums as those on the ground await the craft's arrival (there's even a motif in there to be stolen by Horner himself in Enemy at the Gates in 2001). Things quieten for a bit before the triumphant, anthemic second half really brings tears to the eyes.

The End Credits then bring in a pulsating, electronic beat beneath Lennox' vocals (much more effective a tactic here than in Titanic) before the beautiful choir and eventually main theme rounds off the score, allowing the listener (and those involved in the film's real-life dramas) to look in hope to the future. There's little else to be said for the magnificence of this soundtrack: Horner really did peak in the 90s with efforts like this and the world waits with baited breath for Avatar, to see if he can rekindle the elusive magic that guided Apollo 13 and others. Fingers crossed!


Here's the Avatar article to stoke the fires of interest in the meantime!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Away We Go

Sam Mendes, after a heavy duty quadrilogy including American Beauty and Jarhead, clearly enjoys the change of pace in Away We Go, the breezy story of two prospective parents journeying around the US of A in search of the family they most want to emulate (as well as those they want to avoid becoming, at all costs), and a new home.

John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph (sharing natural, earthy chemistry) star as unmarried devotees in love Burt and Verona. First captured in situ in a sexually frank yet affectionate moment (the warm tone of which comes to sum up the movie), Burt claims Verona 'tastes different' (and by implication, is pregnant).

Thus begins a journey laced with equal parts difficulty and epiphany, as the inexperienced couple uproot from their rudimentary home in the woods to discover what it takes to bring up a child successfully. After their horror at discovering Burt's parents plan to emigrate to Belgium, the committment to their unborn child only intensifies through reunions both grotesque (Allison Janney's hideous Florida-based former acquaintance, Maggie Gyllenhaal's deluded new age wackjob) and life-affirming (Chris Messina's relationship surviving through personal difficulties).

Unfortunately, as the film progresses, what also goes away (besides Burt and Verona's sense of stability) is that sense of effervescence crucial to any wannabe indie comedy these days. Mendes' film wants to be Little Miss Sunshine but instead the sunshine is filtered and diluted, as if the director can't quite let go of the incisive social realism he has previously demonstrated so eloquently.

The grainy quasi-real photography certainly doesn't help, aping a genuine story of real people in dire straits yet sitting uneasily alongside clunkier comic moments (Maggie Gyllenhaal's forced 'free love' caricature). The convoluted shoehorning in of Verona's family history towards the climax also smacks of deus ex machina.

It's a movie in two minds about what it wants to be, although this isn't to negate all of its strengths. Krasinski in particular demonstrates effortless leading man chops as the endlessly likeable and decent Burt, who will surely become a cinematic father rolemodel in years to come. His tearjerking trampoline-based confession of feelings and kindness will warm the hearts of any impending parents and offer them palpable hope as they welcome life into the world.

Reel Retrospective: Hunger (2008): A Picture that Speaks a Thousand Words (Approx)

Images, not words. That would seem to be the central conceit of Steve McQueen's (no, not that one) 2008 drama Hunger, based on the 1981 IRA hunger strike. That isn't surprising, given McQueen's background (he's an artist and Turner Prize winner); what is remarkable though is just how much information he transmits in the absence of dialogue.

From the first scene, where we see an outwardly calm, domesticated man bath his sore knuckles in water then check the underside of his car, all the while watched over by his nervous wife, two things become immediately clear. One he is some sort of enforcer given over to acts of brutality; the other is his life in danger due to his employ. True enough, a few scenes on, this seemingly transitory character, a guard named Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham), is our access into the squalid horror of Maze Prison, where the strike was to take place

McQueen has consequently put the themes of his drama into play: in conflict, everyone is a victim, from the guards to the prisoners on down. It's a message that strikes a deeper human chord than Ms Thatcher's cold, finite claims heard blaring from a radio: 'There is no such thing as political terrorism'. The focus isn't on terrorism itself but the lasting fallout from it. The message may be trite but McQueen's execution is anything but, refusing to dictate when it can instead puzzle or provoke with an ambiguous image.

Stage two of the drama, focusing on Bobby Sands' role in spearheading the strike, actually takes a while to emerge from out of the film's foggy morality, the viewer having been immersed beforehand in the painterly horrors of life at Maze. Two prisoners (to whom we are introduced before Sands even enters the picture) smear excrement on the walls in protest, only for the festering layers to be blasted off gradually by a water cannon; urine seeps out beneath cell doors in criss-crossing patterns across the corridors; the crunching of riot gear reaches a cacophonous pitch as armed guards lay into the prisoners with horrific force.

Then we arrive at the film's tour-de-force centrepiece: a 17 minute unbroken take of a prolonged verbal joust between Sands (hauntingly assayed by a ravaged Michael Fassbender) and a jaded, cynical priest, Father Moran (Liam Cunningham), rife with theological underpinnings as each man vies to stake his claim to God and the world. Deriving all its power precisely from the break with the rigourously maintained quiet of before, Sands chooses to seal his own fate while Father Moran can only offer altruistic platitudes in return.

Akin to an insect preserved in layers of amber, this sole scene of extended dialogue is contained between the horrifically beautiful opening and closing scenes, Sands' emaciated body in the final stages eventually slipping into nothingness as he returns to the childhood memory that shaped his political mindset. It's a poetic portrait of a terrible tragedy.