Monday, 30 November 2009

Paranormal Activity

The tagline of Martin Scorsese's 1991 Cape Fear remake read, 'There's nothing in the dark that isn't there in the light...Except fear'. Oren Peli's terrific new chiller Paranormal Activity is the very antithesis of that logic: there is something in the dark, it is monstrous and it will get you. The film's expert playing on these primal fears generates a terrifying power.

Completed in 2007 but since flailing in distribution limbo, the movie generated strong buzz from test audiences and royalty like Steven Spielberg (who 'suggested' the horrific climax). A subsequent breakout in every sense of the word ($100 million? Been there, done that), it draws on the savvy net-based marketing and grainy cam aesthetic of sleeper hits like The Blair Witch Project while moving the terror into that most secure of environs: one's own home...

Like Blair Witch, it purports to be a true story, a mockudrama, even down to the names of the lead actors matching that of their characters. But this is largely unneccesary - the film is frightening enough on its own and the 'reality' framing device is soon forgotten. Micah (Micah Sloat) is a cocksure young guy who's purchased a new video camera for the express purpose of recording odd bumps and bangs in his new San Diego home.

More weirdly, the activity of the title seems to centre around his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston) who, ominously, claims 'something' has stalked her since the age of eight, possibly burning down her old family home in the process. What they record comes to fray their relationship and eventually their sanity, especially when, on repeated nights, even the bedroom is invaded by their unwelcome guest. News from a local psychic isn't promising when even he claims to be out of his depth.

Truly this is a film where to know less is better. Reminiscent of classics like the original The Haunting, all darkened corridors and movement at the edge of the frame, Activity operates on a gut level of terror unmatched in modern horror cinema. Playing on the nerves of the audience like an expert guitarist, the horror Peli exposes in an everyday home cum hotbed of supernatural energy is palpable.

The unknown...The dark...The mind...Activity exploits all three to brilliant effect, as well as tropes of the genre like trips to the attic and smashed picture frames. The immediacy of the DV perspective is, unsurprisingly, what tickles the small of one's back. By forcing our faces into a plausible-looking illusion, the hysteria is built to agonizing proportions. Sloat and Featherston sell their characters' neuroses effectively but the acting is somewhat functional, a mere outlet for the audience as Peli expertly builds another set-piece having dissipated tension just moments earlier.

And when the viewer is forced into the bedroom scenes, there is nowhere to hide, other than behind one's hands. What's felt is something quite exquisite: raw, unadulterated fear.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats

Say what you will about George Clooney but there's no doubting his bravery as an actor. His delightfully sly performance is the heart of Grant Heslov's satire The Men Who Stare At Goats, an arch curio that only comes to life in fits and starts.

Adapted from Jon Ronson's book, it's the bizarre story ('more of which is true than you know' asserts the film) of a covert army unit. So far, so Uncle Sam? Not quite, as these guys are part of a supposedly psychic outfit, the First Earth Battalion, meaning they can psychically track down souls from across the world and pass through walls.

'We're Jedi warriors' claims Clooney's Lyn Cassady, an ex-member of the unit who has been reactivated and sent into Iraq for dubious reasons. Teaming up with Ewan McGregor's sad-sack reporter Bob Wilton, the history of the Jeff Bridges-headed new age psych-army is gradually unspooled.

Sadly despite the promising set-up, Goats ends up pulling in several different directions. Is it a subtle satire on Iraq? A screwball comedy? A story of redemption? Talk about having its cake (or grass) and eating it too, the film tries to be all of them and feels disappointingly aimless as a result. Other elements such as Bridges' Dude-esque stunt casting serve to undermine it further. As for Kevin Spacey? His middle name should read 'Vindictive'.

Thank goodness then for Clooney who seems most in tune with the film's off kilter humour. Cassady is a brilliantly odd creation, dominated by melodramatic intensity and some classic comedy grandstanding (note the film's title). Perhaps what sets Clooney most apart from his fellow leading men is the ability to laugh at himself: nostalgic flashbacks to 'Lynn's golden years' as Wilton puts it, on the base, replete with floppy hair and pornstar moustache, show a real willingness to turn his debonair persona on its head. Lyn's assertion of Jedi status to Star Wars vet McGregor also provides (presumably unintentional) amusement.

It's a shame that the film itself isn't so assured, only touching the realm of the sublime in the LSD-fuelled final 10 minutes. In the end though, Goats is hardly worth bleating over.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Harry Brown

As the beleaguered British warhorse trundles on, two cinematic splinter movements (speaking broadly) have emerged as its mirror. One is the floppy-haired, fairytale world of Richard Curtis and co. The other draws more from the British layman on the streets: a grey, grimy, melancholy land of confused identity and pervasive violence (think Ken Loach or, more recently, Shane Meadows).

There’s no doubt which our ineffectual government would rather retreat inside. There’s also no doubt which strikes the deepest chord.

Fitting then that in what is reputed to be his last headlining role, Michael Caine has gone back to his roots, back to a film about…well, Britain. The 76 year old admits drawing on memories of his impoverished upbringing for the role, and there’s not a hint of taking the money and running (it’s also, as he’s reiterated, a film ‘about violence’, not titillation). In other words, the perfect leading-man epitaph to one of our finest actors.

In it, the veteran (aptly, as much of an institution as fish and chips or trips to the seaside) does his best work in years as the titular, recently widowed ex-Marine marooned on a squalid council estate in London. Murder, drugs and assaults are rife, decent folk surrounded by a dead-end cycle of violence.

When Harry’s best friend Len (David Bradley) meets a terrible end at the hands of thug Noel (Ben Drew), the pensioner is galvanised into action, venturing into a crack den to claim a fire arm in one of 2009’s most outstandingly creepy scenes (and featuring one of its scariest performances, in Sean Harris’ whispering junkie psycho, Stretch). Brown realises it’s up to him, not the authorities, to take a stand.

However it’s not all plain sailing. The shoe-horned in rozzer angle (here assayed by Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed Miles in roles stretched to implausible archetypes) is a thankless task that never takes off, although later developments involving a seemingly insignificant background player add further layers of emotional complexity.

Quite simply, in spite of its flaws, Harry Brown is a film that demands to be seen, both for home-grown audiences and those elsewhere labouring under the ill-conceived image of Blighty peddled by Hollywood. The Britain of the film feels tangibly and depressingly real, even when exaggerated somewhat for cinematic effect.

For the most part though, the film remains remarkably balanced, never falling into one-sided agit-prop tactics. Just enough background info is sprinkled around about the film’s ‘villains’, something which ultimately forces our hand: hatred is generated but sympathy too? That’s an accomplished move for a film that could have been content with simply pointing fingers. Director Daniel Barber’s pacing is commendably leisurely; a noirish deployment of light and colour always on hand to prevent things sliding from ambiguity into wish fulfilment fantasy.

All the more disappointing then that the movie bottles it at the climax, wrapping social mores up with a nice bow. If only reality was so straightforward...Hey, perhaps politicians will endorse the film after all?

On a side note, I saw this film at a preview screening and much to my surprise, it was a full-house, presumably because Michael Caine's name can still bring in the punters. I think that's a touching send-off for you, Charlie Crocker!

Friday, 20 November 2009

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens could never have imagined this: his classic literary creation Scrooge, getting yet another once-over…in 3D? Created in motion capture? Director Robert Zemeckis clearly sees something in the venture, even if the near misses of Beowulf and The Polar Express seemed to indicate an ill fit between technology and text. The delightful thing about A Christmas Carol is how well the technology brings Dickens’ cautionary tale to life.

Magnificently well, in fact. From the dizzying opening moments where Victorian London is unveiled, birds-eye style, as a bustling metropolis poised on the brink of change to the more intimately observed details (the Gothic menace of a shop sign or door knocker), A Christmas Carol feels palpably, thrillingly alive.

But a classic tale must, as always, start at the beginning. Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey, doing wizened apathy superbly) has bid premature farewell to his business partner Jacob Marley. Reviled by the carol-singing public and feared by his downtrodden clerk Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman), Scrooge undergoes a classic tale of redemption when he is visited by Marley’s ghost in the wee small hours.

Marley (Oldman again) promises Scrooge (in a frightening sequence belying the kiddie-friendly exterior) that he will be visited by three ‘spirits’ (Carrey doing more multi-tasking) in an attempt to make him change his ways. The first of these is to take him into the past, offering reflection on happier times; the second, present, is designed to make him see the consequences of his penny-pinching; and the third, future, ghost is the most terrifying, indicating the course Scrooge’s life will take should he not repent.

In truth, Dickens’ tale was likely not meant for children, the sugary image of Victorian London having been filtered through the various cinematic incarnations over the years. Zemeckis’ more faithful take gets right to the gloomy heart of the tale. From the first toothy appearance of Marley to the heart-breaking misery incumbent on Cratchit’s family by Scrooge, Zemeckis builds on his love of suspenseful B-horror, building to a pitch so that the light at the end of the tunnel can ultimately shine more brightly.

And what glorious titbits there are in this dark, frequently moving tapestry, from Scrooge dismissing tears at the sight of his old school as ‘something in my eye’ to something that resembles love in his more recent past. Always a bold director, Zemeckis is also unafraid to expand on Dicken’s themes in outrageous ways, in this case a monstrous horse and carriage chase representing the encroaching horror of Scrooge’s future.

Carrey meanwhile does his best work in ages as the archetypal old miser, while it’s always a pleasure to see Oldman, Colin Firth and Bob Hoskins in substantial roles, building on the classy production. Buoyed by Alan Silvestri’s joyous score that cleverly interweaves traditional carols with the composer’s spirited melodies, there should be no worries about viewers unleashing their inner-Scrooge.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Scary Gazza's Finest

Denzel who? That most likely won’t be the phrase on the lips of moviegoers when finally seeing upcoming The Book of Eli. After all who isn’t excited to see Den return to his bad-ass best, as the titular trekker in post apocalypse USA seeking to protect a book that may save mankind?

However there’s a much vaunted return of another kind in Allen and Albert Hughes’ new blockbuster…That of one Gary Leonard Oldman to the role of frothing, furious movie villain, in this case the merciless despot Carnegie who wants to claim the book for his own ends…

It’s been too long a wait to see ‘Scary Gary’ again storm across our screens (the name was coined during production of Air Force One by a crew awed by his intensity). A British De Niro in every sense of the word, no two roles, aside from Potter and Batman, are the same. OK so Oscar’s never rewarded him but frankly he’s too good for that.

So here’s a timely reminder of Oldman’s finest moments on the big (and small) screen:

Sid and Nancy (1986)

The one that put Oldman on the map is an uncomfortably intense two-hander (with Chloe Webb) about the destructive affair between Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. The actor is uncanny as Vicious (showing a penchant for mimicry as well as straight performing) while his blistering version of My Way may have viewers believing punk rock’s poster boy never really passed on.

The Firm (1988)

It may be somewhat crass to pigeonhole Oldman’s creepily plausible footie hooligan Bex Bissell as a mere ‘villain’. Such clear cut morality is what director Alan Clarke avoids in his seminal TV drama, presenting both an affable, middle-class family man, and his id-dominant psychotic other half, beating the hell out of a pillow with a truncheon. But it did secure the actor’s electrifying presence, prior to his move to Hollywood.

True Romance (1993)

The most insanely quotable of all Oldman’s characters sees him fill the screen for barely 10 mins. Yet he stands out in Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino’s violent A-list tapestry (including Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper and Brad Pitt) as racially confused, dreadlocked pimp Drexl, rumbling na├»ve Christian Slater’s attempts at blackmail in a matter of seconds. Altogether now: ‘I know I’m pretty…but I ain’t as pretty as a coupla titties’.

Leon (1994)

Perhaps the actor’s most iconic role, this is the apotheosis of everything Oldman can achieve when he goes evil. Stealing the film effortlessly from its nominal double act Jean Reno and Natalie Portman, his Beethoven-Baroque, pill-popping, corrupt cop is the catalyst for the film’s violent events, Oldman’s twitchy demeanour conducting an imaginary symphony of destruction. It’s a frighteningly fascinating portrait of the sort only he can achieve.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Not just one for the kids this. Oldman’s trademark darkness elevates the third Potter entry to previously unforeseen, adult heights and establishes him a raft of fresh young fans in the process. What’s remarkable is how easily we the audience are misled by our own expectations: far be if from the raving lunatic he appears to be, Sirius Black eventually becomes a father figure of the best kind to young Harry, Oldman digging out a layer of unforeseen warmth to be carried over in a further Potter and two Batman entries.

Sunday, 8 November 2009


On viewing Pixar’s latest masterpiece, Up, a wondrous thought occurs: this is animation more for adults than it is for kids.

In the wider scheme of things, this may seem nothing new. After all, the Japanese have had the adult animation market cornered for years. But Pixar, in their 14 year maturation since the first Toy Story have, almost under our noses, managed to sneak in real human delicacy and pathos while maintaining that obvious kiddie friendly exterior.

That tone is set with perhaps the most exquisite and beautiful piece the studio has ever done. Aspiring boy adventurer Carl is transfixed by newsreel footage of his childhood hero, Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer), one who, denounced as a fraud, vanishes to a far-away destination called Paradise Falls. On the way home Carl’s affection is caught by a young girl, Ellie, who shares his taste for derring-do.

What follows is a heart-wrenchingly poignant 5 minute montage as we Carl and Ellie marry, move into their dream house and plan their future. However, life is cruel and it cannot last…When those 5 minutes are up, there will be nary a dry eye in the house as elderly widowed Carl is left to face the future on his own. Played out in silence, except for Michael Giacchino’s moving score, this is arguably the moment where CGI animation crosses into the adult mainstream.

Truth be told, the rest of the film doesn’t pack nearly as much of an emotional punch. But then it doesn’t need to. This is a mere scene setter and an astonishingly brilliant one too, establishing such investment in a cartoon character so as to be rivalled only by other Pixar efforts. Modern day Carl (Ed Asner) is faced with a dilemma: his house is now surrounded by skyscrapers and the investors are closing in, keen for him to shove off to a retirement home. What to do when the house contains so many poignant memories?

Simply, he takes it with him. By tethering thousands of balloons to his abode, the pensioner sets off to Paradise Falls in pursuit of Muntz his idol, with an unwitting stowaway, wilderness explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai) along for the ride. Pixar have always been masters at investing daft scenarios with a palpable human core and Up may be their finest attempt yet: no longer is it the tale of a floating house. It’s the wonderful story of an old man desperate not to let go, of someone guided always by the memories of his wife and kindred spirit.

Not that this message is ever laboured; Pixar have never stooped to that. Unlike Wall-E (Pixar's last movie), Up never feels like a message film bolted onto a comedy. And, unlike Wall-E, the subtlety of the prologue always informs the sillier, funnier aspects of the adventure to follow.

As such, there are fleeting references to young Russell’s broken home life; Muntz’ pack of canine cohorts don’t speak aloud but through voice collars, neatly sidestepping the issue of talking animals in what is ostensibly a more human story; and Muntz himself is less a pantomime villain than a greedy opportunist (albeit a very nasty one).

However the film is never a self-conscious poser. Warmth is always at heart, and there are screamingly funny interludes from gabbling bird Kevin and ‘talking’ dog Dug (voiced by co-writer/director Bob Peterson). Yet it’s the recognisable emotion allied with the entertainment that secures its resonance. Is a house merely a house? Do you risk letting go of your memories? Pixar’s astute underplaying of these competing elements make Up a classic for the ages.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Reel Retrospective: The Long Goodbye (1973): A Dick Who Doesn't Give a Damn

Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (adapted from Raymond Chandler's novel) must be the only detective story where the cat is more important than the crime. But then, did anyone expect predictability from that most maverick of directors, the one who created MASH?

If that opening sentence is somewhat bewildering, let's set the scene. Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is woken in the middle of the night by his cat's incessant appeal for food. What follows is a shuffling, mumbling 10 minute attempt by our hero to rustle up some moggy food. When he pops to the store and finds that his normal brand isn't in stock, he attempts to supplant it with an inferior kind (Whiskers it presumably ain't). Naturally, the cat has none of this.

This leads absolutely nowhere but maybe the most eloquent ever construction of the shabby, lonely private dick archetype. Yet, typical of Altman, it's hardly a familiar one. His Marlowe is a perpetual midnight soul whose time spent investigating others has resulted in his own life stagnating. Following the opening kitty scenes are what would normally be the catalyst for the criminal plot: Marlowe is asked by his old friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) for a lift to the Mexican border. On the return home, Marlowe is rumbled by two cops who accuse Lennox of murdering his wife. From here the mystery can only deepen...

Not that any urgency is obvious from the demeanour of our protagonist. Gould's Marlowe is a washed up shambles adrift in the modern world - Altman seems conscious to make the formerly 40s based character a fish out of water in a contemporary 70s setting. Typically the director has great fun deviating from the story at hand as he fiddles with other noir conventions, in the process honing his famous, semi-improvised style (at one point Gould, improvising the character, smears black ink on his face making a mockery of the policeman interviewing him).

The Long Goodbye then falls somewhere uneasily between a social film and a detective film. It is both of them and none of them, but then this genre tampering has the director's stamp all over it. Foreshadowing his later work, he gets great mileage out of the Hollywood setting, casting it as an alien world where the inhabitants can't draw the lines between reality and movie reality: scene-stealing Ken Sansom, glibly credited as 'Colony Guard', queries visitors at his tollbooth as a variety of different characters, testing their movie knowledge before letting them through.

When the movie finally gets on track to solving the mystery, it seems perfunctory, an add-on, although Marlowe's closing act of violence (giving full reign to the movie's tagline 'Nothing says goodbye like a bullet') is a real jolt. Of course violence has simmered all the way through, from John Williams and Johnny Mercer's ballad crooning its inevitability to thuggish Mark Rydell smashing a glass in his moll's face (upping the violence of The Big Heat tenfold). Still, at least none is committed on the cat, right?