Sunday, 31 October 2010

Reel Retrospective: The Haunting (1963): An Evil Old House?

It's Halloween - and that means the TV schedules are crammed with classic horror films. One of cinema's most controversial and derided genres, for me, the greatest terror of a horror film derives from something implicit, something fateful...something alien...So turn off the lights, ignore the trick or treaters and curl up with one of the all-time great ghost stories, The Haunting. And yes, this is a retrospective review of the 1963 original, not Jan De Bont's 1999 remake that saw Owen Wilson's surfer dude bonce go flying across the room. 'Cos that's not scary, just funny.


'An evil old house - the kind some call haunted - is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored...' The Haunting, Robert Wise's 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson's landmark psychological thriller 'The Haunting of Hill House', begins thus. One of the all-time magnificent openings to a horror film, the silhouetted form of the house in question is accompanied by hushed narration from Richard Johnson's psychic researcher Dr Markway and Humphrey Searle's eerie, jangly score, all of which conspires to create a potent sense of dread and ill-defined evil. Bottling the ambiguous, cryptic essence of Jackson's complex novel perfectly, it's a terrific tone-setter for a ghost story in which no ghosts are seen.

But then, what do you define as a ghost? An apparition or something that stalks the dark recesses of the mind? Jackson never answers the question in the novel - and never answers the enigma of Hill House either. Wise's and screenwriter Nelson Giddings' fundamental understanding of the author's brain-teasing universe ensures the film version of The Haunting has remained as evergreen as its source material. As Markway details the grisly history of Hill House in the brilliantly creepy opening prologue, the audience is placed in a unique position, never sure whether they're witnessing supernatural events, or are watching a series of tragic occurrences unfold. But Hill House certainly boasts the kind of rich background essential for any spooky story, a ghoulish range of deaths linking back to, and centering around, the house's original owner Hugh Crain. In a fabulously terrifying, near silent moment (save for the musical score), one of Crain's wives appears to be pushed down to the stairs to her doom, her face a mask of terror. As Markway intones when the camera settles on her body:
'I haven't been able to figure out how she died'.

The ambiguity extends to the remainder of the narrative, which plays out in the modern day. A group of disparate characters assembles at the house for a psychic investigation carried out by Markway. Seeking proof of the existence of the supernatural, Markway's subjects comprise Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), next in line to inherit the house; mysterious Theodora (Claire Bloom)...and Julie Harris' Eleanor Lance, the most brittle, fragile and confounding construction in the film, more so than the bricks and mortar of the house itself. Already racked with guilt over her mother's death, Eleanor is a frustratingly enigmatic presence, the centrifuge to an increasingly baffling series of events that may exist entirely within her mind...or may be the result of some dreadful connection to the house itself.

Far from overloading the story with daft, pointless effects (the fatal mistake Jan De Bont made in his remake), Wise has a firm grasp on the novel's texture (and one senses he actually read it as well). As a result, The Haunting has a cold, aloof quality that is tough to get a handle on, and reportedly this is how Harris was directed to steer her character. But the gorgeous black and white photography (by Davis Boulton) keeps one gripped, and Elliot Scott's production design is sensibly understated, emphasising the sense of terror arising from seemingly banal, ordinary scenarios. Whether it's about ghosts or not is entirely open to debate: the focus lies with Harris and her ensuing breakdown, which the actress conveys in effectively flinty fashion.

It's a picture full of unexplored avenues, especially Eleanor's baffling relationship with the glamorous Theo (again overdone to sometimes hilarious proportions in the remake). What, then, are we watching? The fantasy of a frustrated middle-aged spinster? Harris' furtive traces of voice over only serve to draw us further into the vortex, adding further layers of complexity to what appears to be a straightforward tale. And while Tamblyn's cocky Luke is a hilarious 60s youthful archetype, Markway comes with his own mysteries, especially when his sceptical wife (Lois Maxwell) turns up late in the tale.

Wise also uses the fabric of cinema itself to better visualise Jackson's off-kilter universe, deploying then untrendy black and white stock plus a variety of strange lenses and angles to give the physical production a psychological edge. Scenes and set-pieces are celebrated in their calm horror: incessant pounding at Theo's bedroom door (accentuated by fish-eye lenses); Eleanor asking 'Who was holding my hand?' in possibly the most frightening scene, when she realises Theo was sleeping across the room. Even when the horror appears to be made literal (most famously in the 'breathing door' scene), one can never be sure of what is true and what isn't, so careful has Wise's application of mood been.

Bearing this in mind, it's admirable he chooses to end as Jackson did: in puzzling, ominous fashion, amplifying rather than compromising the menace, never quite underlining what it is that has scared us. It's certainly a more intellectual exercise than similar efforts like 'The Innocents' - but its suggestion that evil lies in individual perception sticks with us like breath on the back of the neck. It all goes back to the brain-nagging image of the house itself: a black monster blotting out the sky, or just an ordinary house? All we know is, as a metaphor, Eleanor and the house are one and the same, both concealing hidden depths that we can never hope to understand. As Eleanor herself says, in an inversion of Markway's opening dialogue: 'We who walk here...walk alone'.


One of Hollywood's latest fads is rolling out the oldies, giving them a shooter, and expecting the audience to have a blast by default. It was exposed as a cynical formula in Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables/Expandables a few months ago, a film that was far too complacent and lazy for its own good (yes, Sly, you know lots of over-the-hill action supremos but where's the wit?) And now, with Red, we get The Ex-Pension-ables, featuring another seasoned cast groaning about age while shooting the scenery to pieces. And, to top it all, it's yet another graphic novel adaptation (Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner are the authors). The key difference is, Red is terrific fun.

But it's not just fun; it's one of the year's most pleasant surprises. Red stands for 'Retired Extremely Dangerous' - and as that pithy description suggests, the film itself has the capacity to surprise. Not content with coasting along on star recognition and then leaving its veterans high and dry with a damp squib of a script, Red understands how to have fun *and* give its cast substantial nourishment. The subsequent result is that we have a memorable time, as well. Don't pre-judge Robert Schwentke's latest on the money shot in the trailer of Helen Mirren laying waste to all and sundry with a Gatling gun; his film has much more up its sleeve than that.

Not least of which is the wonderfully offbeat central chemistry between Bruce Willis (who lunges out of a spinning car wielding a fire arm at one point to prove he still has it), and Mary Louise Parker (TVs Weeds). Willis is retired black ops agent Frank Moses, flirting with Parker's Sarah Ross, who provides his pension cheques. But no sooner has he eliminated a squad of goons who lay waste to his house that Frank is forced to kidnap Sarah for her own safety, and reunite his old team to find out who was responsible for the hit.

The ensemble may invite some eye-rolling: Morgan Freeman does the twinkly-eyed avuncular act as Frank's mentor, Joe; John Malkovich is mad as paranoid Marvin, and leaps out dressed as a bush in his first scene; and Helen Mirren has clearly been drafted to bring some British thespian class to her prim assassin archetype, Victoria. But there are brilliant nuances within all the character sketches that keep the narrative snappy and edgy. Parker is the real surprise, moving from afflicted, gagged kidnap victim to clueless onlooker who relishes the thrill of the chase as she is whisked across the USA in search of the baddies.

Elsewhere, Freeman's deadpan response to a bag of fingers Willis has claimed off the failed hit-squad is hilariously, well, deadpan; Mirren's blend of clipped tones and poise with a rifle makes for a dangerously alluring character; and Malkovich simmers with that manic energy in the way only Malkovich can. And Willis? Well, he can do the bald, smirking thing to death but anchors the film with that effortless charisma. Yet, this isn't even taking into account the rest of the excellent cast who are all just as deserving of their name on the poster. Karl Urban's urbane agent is first seen, in a great piece of character sketching, juxtaposing a domestic phone conversation with an act of murder. Brian Cox and Richard Dreyfuss also have a ball as, respectively, Willis' Russian buddy and the potential villain of the piece.

It's worth emphasising 'potential' because the narrative takes great pleasure in clouding who the real villain is, presumably a by-product of the source material (as are hilarious outre touches like batting a grenade back to a unfortunate henchman). But while it zips, boings and bounces happily around its own universe, Red never threatens to disappear up its own backside. Far from the equivalent of waving a Hollywood star's bus pass in your face, Red invites you to board the bus, and partake in an exciting, engaging, fluid journey.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

That pesky demon's about but the element of surprise has evaporated in this much anticipated sequel to last year's micro budgeted supernatural hit, Paranormal Activity; nevertheless, it keeps the bumps and bangs coming with steady aplomb. Oren Peli's original was hardly that, instead fusing classic genre tropes of darkness, sound and unseen menace (a la Robert Wise's The Haunting) with the trendy sub-genre of 'found footage' (a la Blair Witch). It pulled it off so successfully however, that a sequel was inevitable.

And a sequel we get, or rather a prequel, staging itself before the events of the first Paranormal Activity, and looking at the effects on a different family. Eventually, we come to understand, in a nifty bit of narrative overlapping, how the two films join together, but to begin with the set-up is very familiar. A well-off suburban family consisting of wife, husband, his daughter and their new baby son, appears to have been the victim of a break-in. Noting that little appears to have been stolen, they have security cameras installed at amusingly strategic points around the abode (is an intruder really going to take a dip in the pool?) Not long after that, the wife and daughter become suspicious that not all is at it seems...

It would be remiss to give away any more of Paranormal Activity 2's surprises, because many of them are spectacular - and spectacularly well timed (a certain kitchen scene is guaranteed to take pride of place in many 'Jump Scare' lists). But there's no denying it also exposes the mechanical nature of the very formula that scared us in the first place: long periods of furtive silence, followed by shuddering payoff. For a supernatural flick, it never surprises at any stage and also loses what little originality existed in the premise to begin with.

Working on a larger budget ($3 million apparently - that must have gone on marketing?), new director Tod Williams feels the need to pad out the narrative, not only exposing pacing deficiencies but also opening it up to cliche that feels out of place and jarring. So now we have the token Mexican nanny spreading incense and warning of imminent threat; the use of the cross to ward off evil; and of course the inevitable midnight sojourn into the basement that only those snoozing at the start won't have seen coming.

But however cynical the formula is, it still works thanks to Williams' shrewd eye for a shock moment and engrossing performances that lure us into a cosy domestic set-up invaded by a monstrous presence. And the director adds just enough disturbing wrinkles to an already nerve-shredding experience, primarily involving the family's young son, a development of increasingly nightmarish proportions. And although it's over-explanatory in certain shots, the power of suggestion is for the most part brilliantly preserved, the tension broken only by carefully calculated humour (the pool cleaner scene offers genuine, if fleeting, respite).

And, regardless of its inevitable detractors, there's something to be said for a film that (largely) finds menace in understatement, rather than screaming in one's face. It's part of a proud heritage of horror cinema that realises the breath on the back of your neck, and the icy whisper in your ear, is far more frightening that flinging a bunch of offal at the screen; in other words, more M.R. James than Michael Bay. Don't worry about playing a game; just watch out for that creaking door...

Winter's Bone

Casting a non-patronising eye over people on the fringes of society requires a nuanced hand but director Debra Granik is up to the task in Winter's Bone. Her third effort as helmer, Bone is earmarked by a down home earthiness that captures the palpable chill in the mountain air of the Ozarks in which it's set. Adapted from Daniel Woodrell's novel, it's a great many genres rolled into one, but the rich mixture of social observation and American Gothic is what really stands out.

Another standout is star Jennifer Lawrence, bringing unerring poise and dignity to a role that invites caricature. She stars as 17 year old Ree Dolly, a girl single-handedly raising her younger brother and sister due to the fact that her mother sits in a practically catatonic state. But then the local Sheriff (Garrett Dillahunt) visits and informs Ree that her absentee, drug dealing father has put their house up as collateral for his bail. Should he not turn up for his trial in a week's time, Ree loses it all and her family will be left homeless and destitute.

A classic fable then unfolds, with the young girl venturing out into the threatening mountain community to track her father down. Everywhere she goes, she is met with a code of silence, the citizens (most of them familial relations or acquaintances), inviting inevitable comparisons to Deliverance. But that's where the comparison ends; for one, Deliverance was set in a different state (Georgia as opposed to Missouri) and also Winter's Bone isn't willing to exploit backwoods America for exploitative or grotesque purposes. Granik, Lawrence and scripter Anne Rosellini instead have their feet planted on the frosty ground, painting an unflattering but arguably far more truthful landscape. It's a fascinating depiction of a particular strand of American culture.

But truthfully, Granik is less interested in narrative than in the careful application of mood and tension, taking great pains to portray human decency in the face of eroded lives and landscapes. It's a picture where sadness and cold hostility is etched into every skeletal tree branch; burned out cars littering the community like the washed-up, broken dreams of its inhabitants. As Ree's enquiries lead her further into danger, the performances take on even greater vitality, especially John Hawkes as her volatile uncle Teardrop; a subversive spin on the Big Bad Wolf character who may in fact turn out to be her saviour. Likewise, Dillahunt (assaying the latest in a long line of rural American characters) may be a less heroic Sheriff than it first appears.

And while there are enough suspenseful plot developments to keep the motor running, they seem serviceable in comparison to Granik's sense of compassion and texture, her film living among the characters rather than above them. Lawrence meanwhile is a terrific focal point and gives one of the most beautifully understated performances of the year, never inviting scorn as she teaches her siblings how to shoot and cook squirrel, but always adding layer upon layer of human interest in a moody, disturbing study of the American character, one that would surely prove clinical without her involvement.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

The money may never sleep in the long awaited sequel to Oscar winning 1987 smash, Wall Street - but the audience sure will. Welcome ladies and gentleman to one of the most curiously gutless films of the year, if not *the* most gutless. It's a baffling switcheroo for a director as politically charged and angry as Oliver Stone. Except, of course, he has mellowed in recent years, and this is much to the detriment of his filmmaking efforts.

The problems are many-fold, starting with an oddly mangled and misguided screenplay that should burn with contempt and hatred for those at the centre of the recent economic downturn. If it had been made 20 years ago, it probably would; instead, it's annoyingly fluffy, asking us to take a vested interest in Shia LaBeouf as a stockbroker, when in fact he's as convincing as the toddler chairing the board-meetings in the Double Velvet loo roll adverts.

A quote from Stephen King about contemporary James Herbert suggested the latter wasn't merely content at scaring us, instead preferring to grab us by the lapels and scream bloody murder. If ever a film needed to scream, this was it. For, regardless of their occasional glib simplicity, Stone's earlier work such as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July couldn't have caught their respective zeitgeist's more effectively. Money Never Sleeps is far to complacent and lazy to catch much of anything. For those now bearing the brunt of the recent budget cuts in the UK, it's doubly insulting.

Thank heavens then for Michael Douglas, making a triumphant return to his Oscar-winning role as Gordon Gekko. The film begins with a terrific, pithy gag: Gekko, released from prison in 2003, and being faced with complete emptiness; the only trace of where he has come from is the horrendous 80's monstrosity of a mobile phone handed back to him. Do we especially care when the film jumps ahead to 2008 and places the ball in LaBeouf's court, looking frankly miffed at the suicide of his mentor (Frank Langella), while simultaneously dating Gekko's daughter (Carey Mulligan) and getting drawn into an ironically twisted spin on the original film's father-son-mentor triangle courtesy of a ruthless Josh Brolin?

No, not really. It's all fluff that goes nowhere and clouds the raw issue of the still deepening economic crisis. But whenever Douglas is on-screen, it holds the interest and resounds with a degree of dramatic irony. Both star and director are clearly galvanized by the return of this most fascinating of anti-heroes, Douglas' ambivalent persona this time painting Gekko as a relic of an earlier age who is able to proffer retrospective insight on the current era of capitalism. The move from 'Greed is good' to 'Is greed good?' doesn't fail to pass the corporate monster by.

Sadly though, all interest and issues are strictly bound up with Douglas. Any further sense of tension withers and deflates, talented actors like Mulligan and Brolin being granted mouthpiece characters who fail not through didacticism but because the focus is going entirely in the wrong place. Surely it's inappropriate to reduce the worst crisis of recent times to the level of glib, trite soap opera? Dare one suggest it, this may have been a case for documentary treatment. Regardless, it's incredibly aggravating that while the bankers have kept on burning the midnight oil, Stone seems to have taken an afternoon nap.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Hole 3D

'You've got a gateway to Hell under your house - and that is really cool'. It's a treat to be back in Joe Dante family horror territory with The Hole 3D. More importantly though, this is *good* Joe Dante family horror territory, boasting the confidence of his finest work such as Gremlins while amping up the scares to startling proportions. Family friendly? Make sure the kids are made of tougher stuff before attending; coulrophobics certainly need not apply.

From the earliest stages of his career, ever since the mischievous Mogwai was churned up in the food processor, Dante's films famously skirted a subversive edge between bad taste scares and genuine pathos. From Explorers through to the recent Looney Tunes: Back in Action, he's experienced varying degrees of success but there's no mistaking his dark sense of humour.

He's also got a knack for a confident set-up, economically laying out the suburban rule-book before imploding it later on. He brings these pleasing skills to bear on The Hole's early stages: brothers Dane (Chris Massoglia) and Lucas (Nathan Gamble) move into a new house with their mother (Teri Polo). This being a Dante film, the girl next door, Julie (Haley Bennett) quickly gets roped into their adventures when they discover an apparently bottomless hole in their basement, temporarily alleviating their sense of boredom.

A hole, it must be said, that's initially covered by a heavily padlocked trapdoor. 'That's a lot of locks', Lucas observes. And boy do they realise the significance of so many locks when the hole unleashes a malevolent force that causes each of the three's deepest fears to manifest. Much less devoid of Dante's usual ironic humour, although still funny and with plenty of breathing space, the film then proceeds to ratchet up the terror to exquisite proportions that belies its 12A certificate (in the UK). Although Dante's direction and sense of cine-literacy is as playful as ever, it plays much more as a straightforward tale of dread, with somewhat more contemporary references thrown in (The Grudge here; The Sixth Sense there). 3D is largely negligible: Dante's direction needs no such bells and whistles to remind us of his eye for a darkened corridor, sense of pacing or a fabulously inventive finale (in this case, the inevitable descent into the hole itself).

Chief among the scares is a hideous clown doll that springs to life and comes to terrorise Lucas (we're assuming Stephen King's IT would tip him over the edge). Such old fashioned chills remind us why it's a pleasure to be in the hands of a director capable of gauging how to scare a young audience while ensuring enough verve for the adults, especially in the latter stages when the final manifestation carries disturbing emotional connotations. Often however, one wonders whether the director goes too far, especially since Javier Navaratte's nerve jangling score rarely lets up from the terror (Dante's previous composer Jerry Goldsmith would surely have shaded in more dark and light).

But then, kids films have always scared (remember the Sphinx Gate in The Neverending Story?), the chance of resolution in the end offering a soothing catharsis. In the case of The Hole, the latter seems to arrive in too brisk a fashion, a slight disappointment given the gradual build-up beforehand, but as a lean, mean scaring machine that appeals to pre-adolescents and their cynical minders alike, The Hole may just be the film to give the live action kids film its guts back. Just remember to remove that clown doll out of the room before watching...

Made in Dagenham

The poster for Made In Dagenham is almost insufferably twee: Happy Go Lucky's Sally Hawkins in perky 60s bob and get up, complete with even perkier smile. It's almost a come hither invite to a glib and trite celebration of British cinema at its worst: colourful yet superficial and vacuous. It's therefore a delight to report that Made In Dagenham is made of far tougher, more substantial stuff. Like the women whose real life 1968 strike it dramatises, Dagenham contains hidden depths.

Said women were sewing machinists at the Ford Plant in Dagenham. Labouring under noisy, sweltering conditions, the strike kicked off on June 7th when they discovered their jobs were graded in the Category B of less skilled production. Rebelling against a frankly revolting culture of suited, skeletal male vultures, who bore the in-vogue 60s attitude that women be paid less than men regardless of skill, the women walked out en-mass, causing a ripple effect that halted all car production, eventually dragging then Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Barbara Castle into the mix.

It was a strike that was to have far-reaching ramifications, ultimately resulting in the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970. It's therefore not only a fascinating story but clearly a neglected slice of important social history, brimming with cinematic potential. Thank heavens then that director Nigel Cole has added some spice to his fluffy Calendar Girls souffle, bolstering proceedings with just enough dramatic licence but more importantly a firm sense of working class period grit. First and foremost, the marvellous cast are clearly on-board in their astute perception of the story's significance, eking out vibrant character nuances amid a drab, dreary world of smoky, chauvinistic board rooms and grim council housing. There's also a wonderfully astute eye not only for gender politics but for multiple character arcs that arise organically out of the narrative like the cries for equality did out of the din of the plant itself.

Beginning with sly, subtle observations as the women break out of their overhauls in the workplace en-mass, temporarily gaining the edge over their male counterparts, scriber Billy Ivory's lightly fictionalised account gathers apace when Sally Hawkins as Rita O'Grady (distilling her chipper Happy Go Lucky persona into something more plausible and multi-faceted) unexpectedly finds herself heading up the strike herself. She's a likeable, smart entryway to an earlier, boorish era; when she comes face to face with Kenneth Cranham's revolting union official and Rupert Graves' slimy head honcho, it doesn't take long for audiences to get on side with her.

The filmmakers sensibly also put the strike in a wider context, so while there may be factual airbrushing, the gritty emotional realism couldn't be more honest, focusing especially on the effect the strike had on the women's families. Throughout, a tremendously impressive tapestry takes shape, with standout performances coming from Daniel Mays as Hawkins' husband; Geraldine James as her troubled co-worker; Bob Hoskins as the only man on the women's' side; Rosamund Pike who, despite being the other side of the class divide, rallies to their cause; and Miranda Richardson, whose harrumphing Miranda Richardson performance as Barbara Castle may belong to a Rory Bremner sketch, but is tremendously engaging nonetheless.

But what impresses most is the sense of integrity and loyalty to the story itself. In an era of tabloid tittle tattle and casual sexism, it's a wonderfully enervating, positive experience, that, amazingly, sticks to archetypes without pandering to unpleasant stereotypes. Like the fabled strikers, the success of Made In Dagenham is borne out in a lot of hard work and a big heart.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Town

Where on earth did this Ben Affleck come from? Fresh from Oscar success with Good Will Hunting, buddy and co-writer Matt Damon seemed to sprint ahead; Affleck meanwhile langoured in material ranging from expensive (Daredevil) to abysmal (Gigli) to expensive and abysmal (Pearl Harbour). Then all of a sudden he exploded back on the camera, or rather behind it, with his incisive, gripping thriller cum Boston character study, and directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. Never could we have foreseen such a brilliantly realised and confident feature from a star who had more than his fair share of detractors.

Expectations were therefore high for sophomore effort The Town. Once again it's set on gritty home turf; there's an all star cast of acclaimed character actors; and it purports to blend the incisive social commentary of Gone Baby with crackerjack action sequences along the lines of Heat. On watching the finished product, the above ambitions are certainly evident, but it does feel like cinematic bubble and squeak: a blend of ingredients that produce an overly familiar taste.

It starts with a blast of herky jerky close-up action: Affleck and his veteran crew robbing a bank in masks, very Heat (or is it Point Break?) Loose cannon Jeremy Renner demands they take distraught manager Rebecca Hall hostage. Such a rash decision soon devolves into paranoia, when the criminals find themselves unsure how much their victim knows. Enter Affleck, who begins a romance with his former collateral, all the while attempting to glean the extent of her knowledge. Will she spill the beans to Jon Hamm's committed FBI agent? Does she have any to spill at all? And will the chance to escape the urban projects ever present itself?

Clearly, then, originality isn't one of The Town's strong points. It aspires to Heat's blend of cool character study and blistering action but in reality is proud to steal inspiration from any number of sources, including The Departed (the 'let's go to work' FBI briefing) and Collateral (the importance of preserving that dream of escape from the harsh urban ghetto). The latter also infuses it with a kind of dewy-eyed poetry that wouldn't be seen dead in the tough 70s thrillers like The French Connection to which it also clearly aspires. The romantic moments feel as archetypal as the characters, although that's not to detract from their entertainment value. Indeed, as Renner's gun-toting psycho is enjoyably familiar, the swooning quiet moments between Affleck and Hall reverberate far more in their quiet simplicity than the louder, brasher segments.

And, just to further play devil's advocate, it's exceptionally well-made within its cliched, half-baked parameters. It's just the element of surprise that's been taken away, Affleck's potency having been distilled into a more competent professionalism. The very nature of the beast as well (robbers/heists/FBI) necessitates that its director stick to a series of familiar conventions. And while Affleck may be more convincing telling the story of a bank robber than acting as one in front of the camera, performances elsewhere are excellent, especially the monstrous turns from Pete Posthlewaite and Chris Cooper, whose brief appearances threaten to steal the film. Those wanting more meat on the bones however, will be disappointed, especially given the solemn opening epigraphs that hint at the mouth-watering possibilities of both location and story.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

CINE @ The Exeter Phoenix 6/10/10


Tucked down a sleepy side-street opposite Moko's, The Exeter Phoenix has an unassuming facade but in fact both harbours and nurtures a treasure trove of artistic talent. Recently, I was lucky enough to attend one such hidden gem. The brainchild of Clayton Fussell and Ashley Wing of Cottage Industry Films, CINE is a monthly screening and networking event bringing together the best of the southwest's filmmakers, actors, crew and so on. Thanks to Clayton and Ashley's intense hard work, CINE acts as an outlet for filmmakers in the south-west, a region where the arts have to shout louder and longer to be heard above the tide of seasonal tourism. Their latest event (on October the 6th) brought together a terrifically exciting trio of short films: John Tomkins' 'Like An Angel', Danny Cooke's documentary 'David A. Smith Sign Artist', and the highly acclaimed sci-fi 'Fuse'; each of which is proof positive of what can be accomplished in the industry with a bit of storytelling nous and a non-existent budget. After a round of Q&A sessions, I was fortunate enough to catch up with both Danny and the makers of Fuse - director Ben Barfoot, producer Lee Wade and star Robin Mayes. Firstly, here's what Danny had to say about his project, 'David A. Smith Sign Artist', a beautifully hypnotic, deliberately paced and ethereal work that brilliantly captures the essence of its subject: the exquisite art of glass making, an increasingly rare practice in today's world.


So, Danny, what was your background coming into this project?

Essentially, I began by testing digital SLR cameras and other equipment. I actually met Dave when repairing his computer, but I saw an opportunity of making a short documentary and I found that what he did was truly amazing. He was passionate about what he did and I really wanted to make a film about it.

And it's a very deliberately atmospheric piece, isn't it? Apparently, you were very particular on the spoken mode of address?

Yeah I wanted to make it completely natural. We spent a lot of time working together to try and figure out what he was going to say. It sounded quite natural but in real terms we wanted to give a direct message about what he was actually doing in the documentary.

And are you attracted to the objectivity of documentary film per se or do your harbour a wider interest in cinema?

Well, this is the first documentary I've really done. But I like all types of film and I wouldn't mind going into any aspect of film as long as I enjoy doing it.

For more information on Danny as a filmmaker, and to watch the completed film itself, visit DavidASmith


Following my chat with Danny, I then caught up with Ben Barfoot, Lee Wade and Robin Mayes of Fuse fame. This remarkable film saw its makers develop a brand new, groundbreaking form of technology, blending real life and animation (almost but not quite akin to rotoscoping) in an extraordinarily ambitious and exciting fashion. The dystopian feature proudly displays its science-fiction influences throughout, although, as the guys explained to me, making it wasn't exactly a bed of roses...

So you're joining me Sean Wilson on a freezing evening outside The Exeter Phoenix with the makers of Fuse: Ben, Lee and star Robin. Thanks guys. So, Ben first, how did this all originate?

It was very long-term in its origins but mainly it came from just playing around with graphics, and playing around with film. I really enjoy animation and cinema and wanted to kind of combine the two together. Fortunately for me, I've got a very talented computer programmer friend and I had an idea for a piece of software that could create an animated, rotoscope look. So I turned to Lee and asked him if he could build an automated rotoscope that would render video in an animated fashion. Those are the origins really.

And Lee, you obliged!

Yeah, like a sucker! [laughs] We started the process of trying to come up with some automated software that would do this. I think next month [at CINE] they're going to show the 'making of', which will show you how it started and how appalling it originally was. It was a difficult process but over the years and through experimentation and trying different techniques and styles, we managed to come up with something that's probably 50% of what we imagined. Currently, I think the second generation of software will take it 50% further than where we are now but the whole idea was: we're a tiny team with no budget and no crew with no artist to draw anything; there wasn't anybody to do anything. If the programme wasn't there to do all the work for us, we would have nothing. What we got was close enough and it allowed the two of us to do the whole post-production by ourselves without any extra manpower.

So what do you think making a film like this adds to it, as opposed to doing it in live action, say?

[BEN] Well, for one, as Ari Folman said about 'Waltz With Bashir', you're kind of freed up when you're not doing photo real, because photo real's incredibly expensive. You know, trying to trick the eye into believing something? I mean that takes a horrendous amount of man hours and it's extremely difficult to make the eye believe that what you're seeing is happening. And to do a film like this meant that we were totally freed up to make whatever we wanted. Really, all we needed to do was take photographs of things, run it through this software, turn it into this illustrated look and use what is the equivalent of 10% of the amount of work in photo real terms. It frees you up basically. It allows you to do what you wantfuse

Obviously, there's loads of film influences in it. The one that sprang to mind when I watched it was Dark City, the Alex Proyas film. Are you guys familiar with it?

[BEN] Well, I'm not that big a fan! [laughs] But I know what you mean. That kind of dark look. Everything I seem to do ends up looking dark!

[LEE] There's a lot of darkness, there are computer game crossovers; many different influences. I've always been into making games as well - indie games, Ben and I worked on those for a bit and then we hit on this project. It has the look of those different styles merged together. It kind of grew by itself as well. Not all of it was in a pre-judged style; often it was simply what worked!

[BEN] It was an initial idea but then it became its own beast, as it were.

And you did [in] famously, two shoots?

[Lee] Yeah, two shoots. One was to practice, because we'd never made a film before. The first was totally MacGyver style. We managed to blag some blue-screen paint from a company and we got some bits of wood, we painted them in blue, we painted a blue screen set inside a tractor warehouse that someone lent to us, and we shot the thing there. I mean, the tripods I made out of bits of wood because we couldn't afford tripods; the lighting system consisted of B&Q £5 floodlights, which you put on a metal bar and pulled up! All of our lights were these £5 B&Q floodlights , which my Dad made a controller for so we could just dim them slightly. That's what we started with! That was our initiation into film making! We did pretty well, it allowed us to build the backgrounds, but the quality of our footage wasn't good enough for us to produce anything with the software. So we did a re shoot in two and a half days, right at the end of the project, just to quickly get the characters in better high-definition, just chucking them in. So, yeah, it was a learning process; one shoot was to practice. I know not everyone gets that chance but I'm glad we did!

[BEN] We were free to do what we wanted.

And that brings me onto Robin. What did Ben as director do to you to elicit such a fraught performance?

Well, we did it over four years so it was a long process. And the first shoot we did, it was a learning process. But as it came on, we did the second shoot. [Initially] we had the script and I learned the script in three weeks. I learned all the lines, went to Ben and did some rehearsals

[BEN] Yeah, I think Robin really had a chance to get into the character by doing it once. In a sense, it was like rehearsals wasn't it? The first time round, shoot you once: rehearsals. The second time round: you were really able to see where you were with the character and see what it was that needed to happen.

[ROBIN] Yeah and after four years you sort of get into the character!

[BEN] You'd hope so! [laughs]

[ROBIN] If I'd have got that wrong, it would have been bad!

[LEE] Fair play to Robin though, you realise that the actor's life is not glamorous. We shot the whole thing again in two and a half days and Robin spent most of that under boiling hot lights, sweating. He smelt disgusting! While everyone else could be behind camera looking at the screens, Robin spent the whole time, in the lights, burning a death! There was one person on hand to dry him off with a mop because he kept glistening with sweat. Being an actor is not necessarily all Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie!

[ROBIN] Well, that is my normal smell! [laughs] But the second shoot, this was three days: two days of twenty hours and the last day was twenty six hours!

[BEN] That's even two more than a day!

[ROBIN] I know, we got an extra two! Although we worked for a very long time, getting into that character was great.

One last thing I just want to mention. The sound scape in the film I thought was beautifully done. The opening groaning sound reminded me of Alien3

[BEN] Yeah, that's [credited to] Jason Ward. As we mentioned in the Q&A session, the beautiful thing was there were so many friends. Literally the film consisted of just mates, and family members as well. This was the first time really Jay had ever done anything; I'd gone to him and said I want a vocal choir for the film on certain parts of it. For Jason to make the vocal choir, he harmonised himself eighty times over, just to get the feel of it. He did it all alone, by himself, and then all the sound design on top of it. And there were points where you felt like you were kind of giving something to someone that was so massive, you weren't sure whether it could be pulled off. It was his first film, and I'm just blessed to be able to look at the film and go, these are friends that I asked to do things. Well you don't even ask them, you just team together to do it and everyone's just pulling it out of the bag. I hate the film but I'm proud of my mates! I'm really proud of all of them.

Well I think you pulled it out of the bag brilliantly. I think it's one of the best films I've seen all year, hand on heart, so thanks a lot guys.


For more information on Fuse and its makers, visit For more information on CINE, including upcoming events, plus the work of Clayton and Ashley its organisers, visit

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Reel Retrospective: Back to the Future (1985): Future Present

Great Scott! Robert Zemeckis' classic Back to the Future is 25 years old! It remains of course the essential time travelling family flick, taking great joy in ripping apart the space-time continuum, and re-writing narrative events with glee. Of course, it's laced with poignant, retrospective irony from our current standpoint, as the movement of time from 1985 to 2010 has seen us march inexorably into the very notion of 'future' speculated on in the film itself. Confusing? Well, just as the time travelling technicalities were largely incidental to the film's entertainment value, sit back and enjoy instead this straightforward appreciation of a bonafide popcorn classic.


Faced with a production schedule crammed full of night shoots, fearsome technical challenges and the eventual sacking of its initial star (Eric Stoltz), it's a wonder that director Robert Zemeckis completed Back to the Future at all. But complete it he did thanks to sheer bravado, accomplished nuts and bolts film making and, crucially, some nifty juggling in the casting department that saw him finally nab the leading actor he'd wanted in the first place: Family Ties star Michael J. Fox.

Fox stars as archetypal 80s skateboarding teenager Marty McFly. More devoted to girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells, to be replaced by Elisabeth Shue in the sequels) than to his schoolwork, McFly's home life is marked by a sense of dissatisfaction: his father George (Crispin Glover) is a wimp and his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is a borderline alcoholic. So when bug-eyed, Albert Einstein-styled mad professor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) invents a time travelling Delorean, McFly seizes the moment to travel back in time, in the words of Huey Lewis and the News, to the 1950s, and make a man out of his cowardly Pop. There are problems: he's faced with Brown's eventual murder by a group of Libyans in the present, and comes up against Thomas F. Wilson's boorish Biff Tannen in the past, the person largely responsible for making his dad's life hell.

Under the paternal eye of one Steven Spielberg, who'd believed in the project from the off, Zemeckis was able to forge beautifully manic chemistry between Fox and Lloyd, chemistry that bristles with the same carefully honed poise and control that earmarks the entire film, almost in spite of the difficulties inherent in its creation. Fox' tragic struggle with Parkinson's in the intervening years means his exuberant performance meanwhile is unwittingly undercut with pathos. Perhaps most important when considering Back to the Future's success however is its brilliantly confident, multi-faceted and witty script, one that Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale had despaired over for years - and that was before the studios started turning them down.

Glib catchphrases have entered the lexicon - 'This is heavy'; '1.21 Gigawatts!'; - but to diminish the film to such a level is to ignore its numerous achievements. For one, the narrative is wonderfully edgy for a supposed family comedy - the oedipal crisis that emerges when McFly realises his mother 'has the hots for him' is brilliantly creepy but, to the filmmakers' credit, skirts just the right side of taste. There's also genuine wit on display: everything from the casting of the famously unreliable Delorean as the time machine itself to McFly's hysterical entrance from the Peabody Barn like something out of the 1950s sci-fi that was just emerging at the time of the film's setting. Dean Cundey's astute cinematography helps enormously in both these more outre moments and the more straightforward ones where the devil's in the 50s details.

Then there's Lawrence G. Paull's immaculately rendered vision of 1950s Hill Valley, a world of soda bars and chrome cars, invaded by a thoroughly modern (in 1985 terms) teenager who brings his Star Wars knowledge to bear on his wimpy father by masquerading as Darth Vader in one of the funniest scenes. It's not hard to see the influence of Zemeckis contemporary George Lucas' American Graffiti on the art direction, although the former is a far more accomplished narrative technician, threatening to have Fox rubbed from his existence in the future due to his interference in the past.

Consequently the writing skirts on a knife's edge throughout, building a remarkable degree of tension that culminates in the famous clock-tower climax. Zemeckis shows real integrity to the development of his cinematic world, dropping the Huey Lewis and the News marketing plug 'The Power of Love' early on, instead focusing the remainder of his efforts on Alan Silvestri's brilliantly constructed score, one which builds the main theme carefully over the duration, and adds a degree of manic, off kilter energy to proceedings (performed by, at the time, the largest orchestra ever assembled, trivia fans).

But away from its obviously impressive cinematic tendencies, there's also an intriguing meta-narrative running throughout, proposing a rift not only in the space-time continuum of cinema but in life itself, opening up ruminations on the very nature of time. If you had a chance to forge a stronger bond between your parents, would you? Would you risk your very existence in doing so? And is the future always more important than the past?

The latter is an especially apt question when viewing the film retrospectively from 2010; after all, time is something we're only able to defeat in the more optimistic world of cinema itself. The relentless march of it in real life renders such fictional commentaries all the more fascinating, and our helplessness all the more poignant. Regardless, one thing is guaranteed: were we ever able to travel back courtesy of a time travelling Delorean, never would we risk rubbing the residual impact of Back to the Future from our memories. Our present future is a much better, richer place with the film still in it.


Buried features the kind of high concept that would have had Hitchcock rubbing his hands with glee (as opposed to turning in his grave): a contractor (Ryan Reynolds) is kidnapped in Iraq and placed in a coffin with only a mobile phone as his link to the outside world. The get out clause for many an inferior filmmaker would be to twist the narrative and pepper it with flashbacks and cuts to the action unfolding above ground. Not so with helmer Rodrigo Cortes, who chooses to spend the entirety of his movie within the wooden prison itself. It's not hard to imagine that's the point where the Master of Suspense would have started cackling with dark-hued laughter.

Cortes' extraordinary direction, coupled with Reynolds' appropriately nerve-wracking performance, are what lift Buried from the bargain basement into the realms of truly accomplished low-budget cinema. While it might not be entirely original (Hitch himself made Lifeboat along similar terms, albeit with a larger cast), it's not hard to feel the creeping, gut-wrenching dread build from the first frames; actually a pitch black screen that seems to last for a hideous eternity. Of course, when Reynolds' Paul Conroy flicks his lighter on for the first time, the terror doesn't so much subside as intensify. Now's not the time to mention Edgar Allen Poe to the claustrophobics in the audience.

As Conroy frantically attempts contact with the police, FBI, his employers and his family, Chris Sparling's script makes the first of several nifty twists that distract from its familiarity: the kidnappers contact him. Piecing events together, he realises he is being held to ransom, in all likelihood threatening to become another 'missing person' statistic abandoned in the desert. Political context is present but refreshingly, it's largely held in the background as part of that other film we're not seeing. Instead, this is a fight for survival of the most desperate kind.

Reynolds is remarkably fraught throughout, clearly feeding off the limited confines of the location. For his part, Cortes is merciless - and quite brilliant - at exploiting every nook and cranny not only of the box but of his star, moving from his scuffed, stubbly visage to his rapidly dilating eyeball. At one point, we're by his feet; the next, in a terrifying moment of surrealism, we track upwards above the coffin lid, giving full reign to the phrase 'six feet under'. It's a collage of brilliantly inventive angles and lighting (if it's not the lighter, it's the sickly green hue of glow sticks left by the kidnappers) that hearkens back to genuine, nuts and bolts film making.

And while Sparling's script threatens to become overwrought and cliched in the latter stages, that wonderfully primal fear continues to mount to horrifying proportions. Hear that audible gasping for air as audiences leave the cinema? That's a sound that Hitchcock would have cherished.