Thursday, 31 March 2011

Piranha (1978)

Full of fish but smelling of roses.

Image: New World Pictures

A film such as Jaws – a massive success in every way and oft-regarded as the first true blockbuster – is always going to have imitators. Of course, most of these clones and illegitimate offspring are not worth the celluloid they are printed on. Stand up Tentacles, Barracuda, L’ultimo squalo, and all your similarly stinky cohorts. However, sometimes films attempting to mirror a classic do manage to reflect some of the magic of the original. In the case of Jaws, this list of rip offs that succeed includes creature features such as Alligator, Deep Blue Sea (oh lighten up, it’s fun!) and the recently remade Piranha.
The silly but engaging plot sees a shoal of genetically modified piranha escape from the tank in which they have been held into a nearby river. Our heroes (those responsible for releasing the fish, albeit unintentionally) desperately try to stop their rampage, running from one gory set piece to another to halt the fish before they reach the lake of the summer camp where the hero’s daughter has been sent. Meanwhile, government operatives seem desperate to stop them revealing the truth to the wider public…
Unlike so many other sub-aquatic horrors (the double entendre is so very apt) Piranha has a lot going for it, as both behind and in front of the camera we find some serious class. The director is Joe Dante, who would later direct the classic Gremlins and the underappreciated but brilliant The ‘Burbs. The writer was John Sayles, who would go on to write the equally good Alligator and jokey werewolf flick The Howling, as well as both writing and directing the rather classier Matewan, Lone Star andSilver City.
The acting talent is similarly high calibre. Recognisable but not A-list, Heather Menzies and Bradford Dillman as the leads both come across as likeable and, crucially in a film like this, realistic. Barbara Steele, star of so many fifties horror films as well as the 90s Dark Shadows remake, manages to bring extra dimensions to her slim role as a shady government scientist, while Kevin McCarthy appears as the man responsible for the toothy critters, again giving the film a nice sci-fi pedigree. McCarthy is probably best known as the star of the original Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (he also has a cracking cameo in the remake). In smaller parts we get Paul Bartel and (of course, this being Dante) Dick Miller.
Dillman’s desperation to save his daughter adds emotion and drive to the film, rather than being used to provide some last minute thrills (as it was in the recent remake). As we might expect from Dante, the film also has a neat line in humour. Aside from the insane plot of the film, the debts to Jaws are acknowledge from the off when we see Menzies playing a slot machine Jaws game. The witty repartee between the leads is well played, and eases audience acceptance of the more leftfield plot twists.
The film earns extra points in its description of the reason for the piranhas’ existence – they were bred for use in the canal systems of Vietnam, and remain as a reminder of America’s unethical actions in the conflict. The fact that they are allowed to escape and massacre the youth of America is a deliciously ironic twist that highlights Dante’s anti-establishment irreverence. He would later return to this stance with his well received episode of Masters of Horror, ‘Homecoming’, wherein soldiers killed in Iraq return as zombies. In Piranha the indictment of the government and military adds a nice depth but does not get in the way of the fun.
The overall impression one takes from the film is one of healthy respect. While no homage is off limits (the film begins with night-time skinny-dipping going seriously wrong, nobody believes that the threat is real until it’s too late), it is all done with a tongue firmly lodged in a cheek, and I can’t help but think that Spielberg was secretly immensely proud of the effort put in to this riff on his greatest work (note that he worked with Dante on Gremlins six years later).
Verdict: Cheap and cheerful it may be, but Piranha also has a heart and a brain, and is well worth a watch. Double bill with Alligator for maximum creature-feature fun.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Piranha 3D (2010)

One, two, three, four, five…who’s going to get out alive?
Image: Entertainment Film
The return of 3D to cinemas has divided opinion. Where some people have described a brave new world of cinema, where the world of the film literally envelopes the audience, others have pointed out nothing but murky picture quality and headaches from eye strain. While Piranha is unlikely to settle the argument, it might well encourage some haters to look on the fun side of the technology.
There are two ways in which 3D seems to be used: the  wide, all-encompassing vistas such as can be seen in Avatar, and the rather less artistic shock value, “make the audience jump” style, which is really this whole revival started back with My Bloody Valentine 3DPiranha falls, gleefully and shamelessly, into this latter camp. A remake of Joe Dante’s witty 1978 Jaws rip-off, Piranha is never in danger of originality and wears its influences on its bloody, tattered sleeve. This is clear from the very first scene, wherein Richard Dreyfuss, playing a character with the same name as the one he played in Jaws, and even singing the same song, is dragged to his bloody death in a whirlpool created by prehistoric piranhas. You may well groan, but by the time Christopher Lloyd appears to roll out his Doc Brown/Cletus from Tremors: The Series schtick for the umpteenth time, you will be grinning too much to care.
Of course, this enjoyment comes with a proviso. If the idea of acres of naked flesh and oceans of gore offend you, run the other way. This is not a film for the sensitive or faint of heart – bodies are ripped apart, legs are chewed off, and body parts both severed and attached are flung at the screen with alarming regularity. It would be churlish to criticise the film for this, however, as the lack of pretence renders it all quite charming, with a balletic naked swim coming as the hilarious highpoint of the naked shenanigans. Roger Corman (producer of the original film) should be very proud indeed.
Amidst the floods of sexy horror, none of the cast really stands a chance, although Jerry O’Connell (of Stand By Me and Sliders fame) makes an impression as a sleazy pornography producer, with Kelly Brook proving that an English accent really does add class to anything as one of his stars. Headliners Elisabeth Shue and Adam Scott do what they have to with aplomb, although it seems like they are only on screen for about ten minutes, and the cameos are everything you would expect (Dreyfuss and Lloyd as mentioned, Eli Roth as a lewd emcee).
But what of the fish themselves, you ask? Well…let’s just say that filmmakers still have a way to go before cinematic monster fish start to look realistic on screen. These CGI snappers are no more believable than their cartoony predecessors in the original, and obviously come nowhere near Bruce the shark from Jaws (who cares that we can see his cogs, that Great White is still an evil looking brute). This is not to say that the lack of believability means there are no scares – director Alexandre Aja is a dab hand at this sort of thing, and there are some deliciously orchestrated jump moments. It may not be genuinely terrifying in the way that his breakout French hit Haute Tension (released in the UK as Switchblade Romance) was, but you will still need to keep a firm grasp on your popcorn.
Take it for what it is and sit back to enjoy exploitation cinema at its silly best.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Source Code (2011)

Déjà vu

Image: Optimum Releasing

When a director hits the ground running with his or her debut feature and sets the bar so high, all eyes turn to said director and we’re left waiting in anticipation for his or her next move, wondering whether the follow up will be as inspired. With Source Code, the second offering from Duncan Jones, the helmer who, a couple of years ago, brought us the stunning and incomparable Moon, we’ve got a film that is sadly less than stellar - although Jones was clearly inspired.

Sticking with the sci-fi genre, Source Code pulls us into the world of soldier Captain Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), who wakes up in the body of an unknown man and discovers he must go back in time – the last 8 minutes of the man’s life to be exact - and re-live an incident in order to prevent a future attack.

The premise is simple enough and Jones gets right down to events without mulling over the finer details, which works. We’re all familiar with the Quantum Leaps of this world and so, rightfully, Jones credits his audience with some intelligence and instantly propels us into the thick of it. Throughout the movie, we’re continuously plunged into the same 8-minute sequence – well, albeit with a few minor changes each time – and taken on a ride inside and outside of the train as Stevens attempts to complete his assignment. This sits well for a short time, but the “been there, seen that” reality soon kicks in and renders the movie somewhat monotonous, ultimately stopping it from being a smash hit.

It is fair to say, however, that Source Code will probably divide audiences. As mentioned, some will find it slightly repetitive and overly sentimental, but others will no doubt find the order of events exhilarating and challenging and welcome Jones’s take on an aging idea.

It should also be pointed out that there are many light-hearted, funny moments amidst all the train trouble: a comedian provides some good gags and one-liners and Gyllenhaal’s antics are occasionally humorous. The cast also puts in a solid performance. While Jeffrey Wright’s know-all Morpheus/magical African-American friend appearance is worn out, Gyllenhaal is continuously reliable, Vera Farmiga’s turn as mission controller Carol Goodwin is subtle but suited, and Michelle Monaghan’s Christina aptly supports Gyllenhaal’s Stevens.

Source Code isn’t a bad movie, but considering, inevitably, the magnitude of Moon, it doesn’t quite reach the same heights.

A half Moon.


Friday, 25 March 2011

The Resident (2011)

The wolf in the walls.

Image: Hammer Film Productions

First, we would like to address the fact that much of The Resident’s promotional material has given away the identity of the film’s villain. This review is written assuming that you haven’t had this, admittedly not very surprising, surprise spoiled for you. It had been ruined for us, although it didn’t affect our enjoyment of the film.

Juliet Devereau (Swank) is a New York ER doctor on the look-out for a new apartment. She finds the perfect place, but there’s got to be a catch. She starts to think that someone is spying on her. Could it be the handsome, nice landlord Max (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)? Or Jack (Lee Pace), her cheating ex-boyfriend who won’t stop calling? Or even Max’s grandfather August (Christopher Lee), who has the unnerving habit of appearing in doorways?

Interestingly, the audience is given the answer to this question about twenty minutes into the film. That’s not to say that anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the genre won’t have spotted the lecherous voyeur about a minute after they appear on screen. The distributors have also thought it wise to give the identity of the aforementioned lech in much of the promotional material. However, it means that director Antti Jokinen gives him almost as much screen time as Juliet.

Swank’s performance is very solid indeed, making Juliet a likeable central figure to root for. She also steers clear of a good deal of the usual stupid mistakes that a horror movie heroine can make, at least up until the final sequence. She also serves as Executive Producer here, which probably accounts for why she’s in it. Now, that’s not a dig at the film especially. The Resident has a good deal of pedigree in front and behind the camera, with Director of Photography Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth) having a great time playing with the shadows and a decent score from John Ottman. It’s also part of Hammer’s recent re-launch, which, alongside the participation of Swank, probably helped it finally find its way to movie screens rather than directly to DVD.

It’s difficult to talk about the rest of the cast without giving away which is the man in the walls. Morgan (Watchmen) shows he can work very well with more screen-time than he usually gets, Pace (TV’s Pushing Daisies) gives Jack a nice ambiguity. And what can we say about Sir Christopher Lee that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? His role here is small, but he can speak volumes with a single quick glance.

There’s nothing on display that you haven’t seen before. However, the perversions of the film’s villain allows for some hilariously OTT, flesh-tingling moments that work as often as they fail. The architecture of the apartment allows for some genuinely creepy sequences. As things progress towards the finale, everything gets a little too predictable, but it’s too efficiently crafted to be dull. The Resident is entertaining, and silly, enough to be a guilty pleasure, and is occasionally nastily effective, but it’s not especially memorable.

A capably made and well performed thriller that’s better than expected, but nothing special.



Thursday, 24 March 2011

Limitless (2011) drugs do work?

Image: Paramount Pictures

There was something appealing about Limitless’ promotional campaign. Bright and breezy, without any sense of pretension, and promising the long-awaited minting of Bradley Cooper (The Hangover, The A-Team) as leading man material. Only the ghostly spectre of Robert De Niro behind Cooper was a warning sign, with the actor apparently only signing on to what can best be described as “disappointing failures”. So what did we get?

Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a scruffy struggling writer who’s way behind on his word count. His beautiful and successful ex Lindy (Abbie Cornish) offers pity, but little else. Out of nowhere, an old acquaintace slips him a clear pill, NZT, which unlocks all his potential. Eddie finishes his book, then turns to the stock market. He even wins Lindy back. Side-effects? Vomiting, headaches, black-outs, and worse...

Limitless is a solid choice for Cooper’s first move to marquee status. He’s involved as executive producer here, and reportedly convinced De Niro to join the cast. Eddie Morra is a role that gives Cooper the chance to go from dishevelled to stylish, twitchy to confident, smooth to strung-out. To the actor’s credit, the film’s general success owes a lot to his anchoring performance. Wish-fulfilment films don’t work if the filmmakers don’t sell you on the main character at the start and Cooper convinces through each stage, keeping the audience on board even as Eddie makes some questionable choices.

The main problem with Limitless, based on the novel “The Gray Fields” by Alan Glynn, is its lack of coherency. Plot lines and characters are picked up and dropped without warning. Cornish (Bright Star) deserves far more than she’s given, although she does have a nail-biting chase sequence that bodes well for her turn in the upcoming Sucker Punch. But her total screen time dwarves that of Anna Friel (Land of the Lost), who pops up in a promising supporting role only to promptly disappear. And the many subplots, involving Eddie’s black-outs, shadowy figures in overcoats, and a mobster loan shark? They’re thrown together, forgotten, and then revived. Meanwhile, De Niro (though he gives a solid performance) has little to do but add a bit of menace and carry another subplot. There’s a sense that director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) and writer Leslie Dixon wanted to get as much of the book in as possible, but the result is a bit of a muddle.

Visually, Burger is on top form here. His camera flits around NYC with some really striking results. When Eddie is driven into a blackout state the photography moves through a technique oddly reminiscent of Google Street View until you feel like your own head might just explode. There’s a welcome sense of humour throughout proceedings, from Eddie’s honest narration to the Oldboy-esque subway fight sequence. And despite the fact that most of the film is fairly predictable, the script has a few enjoyably unpleasant tricks up its sleeve.

When all is said and done, Limitless is still very enjoyable. It benefits from a strong performance from Cooper and, crucially, not taking itself too seriously. It’s clever enough to keep your interest and to keep a sense of humour, but not clever enough to keep you guessing.

A well-directed, well-acted, entertaining thriller that’s got too many ideas to fit into the running time.



Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Real-Life Transformers

Image: Caters

Is it a man? Is it a robot? Well, actually, it's both!

It's not often real-life imitates special effects - if ever - but on this occasion we've been treated.

Taking his cue from the popular Transformers franchise, a Californian dude by the name of Drew Beaumier has done what no man has ever dared (or bothered) to do and turned himself into a robot disguised as a car.

Speaking about his transformation, Beaumier said: "I was struggling for money, working a few rubbish bar jobs and then it hit me - make a Transformer costume and go and entertain all the tourists."

We can't say it's a thought that would hit us after a hard day at the office, or an idea that even ignites our engine, but apparently "chicks find it sexy".

Check out his transformation below and please do let us know if he's got the sex factor.


Monday, 21 March 2011

Submarine (2011)

Make sure it’s on your radar.

Image: Optimum Releasing

Most people will be familiar with Richard Ayoade from his comic performances on numerous British TV series. He’s worked on The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh, and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace to name a few. Submarine, his first film, shows that he’s as, if not more talented, behind the camera.

Swansea at some point in the not-too-distant past. 15-year old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is preoccupied by two very important issues. Firstly, he needs to seduce, and then hold on to, the flawless-but-for-her-eczema Jordana (Yasmin Paige), which may require joining her in a bit of bullying and some light arson. Secondly, he needs to try and stop his parents drifting apart. His mother Jill (Sally Hawkins) seems less interested in her depressed husband Lloyd (Noah Taylor) than her old flame Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine), who has moved back to the area and now works as a guru.

Based on the book by Joe Dunthorpe, Submarine is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve. Admittedly, this is the heart of the protagonist, which means that it’s a moderately warped, slightly pretentious, but unabashedly romantic one. Ayoade’s influences as a director are displayed without any attempt at toning them down or concealing them. The styles of Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson (especially Rushmore), and the French New Wave directors (Truffaut in particular) are homaged here with a wonderful spirit of affection and a dark sense of humour. One of the reasons why this works so well is that the film is completely told from the point of view of Oliver.

Roberts (TV’s Being Human) is spot on as Oliver Tate. Oliver is precocious, both cocky and awkward, and utterly sure that what he’s doing is the right thing. In his narration, he tells us that he is “the perfect boyfriend”, that he believes his intervention is required to save his parents’ marriage. He likes to imagine that he is followed by a documentary film crew, and pictures the reaction to his premature death (A banner reads “We envy the angels”). But he also admits to being lost, scared and confused. He has visions of his father quietly helping his mother pack her things to leave him. He’s also more than a little creepy, keeping track of his parents’ sex-life by the dimmer switch in their bedroom. “Half-way is good, all the way up is bad.” As the film goes on, he finds himself increasingly unable to handle problems that can’t be solved with a well-worded letter. Roberts hits all the right notes, he’s funny but believable, odd but somehow very likeable.

The rest of the cast is also fantastic. Paige is excellent as the seemingly cruel but fragile Jordana. Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky, Never Let Me Go) plays Jill’s loneliness and tentative relationship with Graham beautifully, while also being unnerved by her son’s behaviour. Taylor (Shine, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), who spends a good deal of the film in a dressing-gown, is heartbreakingly downbeat as the depressed marine biologist, who is not quite oblivious to the fact that his son’s on his side. The two also each have equally brilliantly awkward separate congratulations to their son on hearing that he has a girlfriend. Considine (Dead Man’s Shoes, Hot Fuzz) is hysterical as the leather-clad, mulleted, spiritual guru who might sweep Jill off her feet (“Ninja...” mutters Oliver, as Lloyd nods in agreement).

Submarine probably won’t connect with everyone; indeed, the success of the film relies on your connection with Oliver. For us, this was made easy by the excellent script, the superb performance of Craig Roberts, and the eye-catching camera-work. There’s also a nice soundtrack with songs from Alex Turner. It’s a little precious, with some flights of fancy going on a little too long, but it’s also incredibly funny.

A wonderfully performed and assured debut. Roberts and Paige are stars to look out for, and it’s good enough that any future film by Ayoade will be held up against it.



Friday, 18 March 2011

Suspiria (1977)

The best looking, best sounding horror film you’ve never seen.

Image: Nouveaux Pictures

Mysterious goings on at a German dance academy, gruesome murders, plenty of suspicious types lurking around and an innocent abroad straight out of a fairytale: these are the simple foundations of Dario Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria. While in themselves they may not sound impressive, the transition of story to screen is treated in such a manner as to create a classic, even from the simplest of plots.
Suspiria represents something of a turning point in horror cinema, and indeed in cinema more generally, both a final hurrah and a glorious renaissance. Suspiria was the final film made in Technicolor, and thus can be seen in part as a farewell to the Golden Age of Hollywood. It would be hard to think of a more appropriate send-off to Technicolor: Suspiria’s Snow White-inspired colour scheme is one of the most beautiful cinematic palettes ever committed to celluloid, with dazzling visual displays of intense red and unsettling green and blue. The architecture of the film is visually stunning, with art deco interiors and artfully lit outdoor spaces concealing terror in every shadow. Indeed, part of Argento’s great triumph with the film is in making the ordinary uncanny, with automatic doors slashing open to reveal a rainstorm carrying portents of the horror to follow, and light reflected from a knife becoming dangerous and magical.
The tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood extends to the casting. An unusually female-centric film, two of the leads are played by women who have made an indelible mark on cinematic history. The disturbingly abrasive Miss Tanner is played with bulldog ferocity and cold German pragmatism by Alida Valli, who is best known for portraying Anna Schmidt in The Third Man, although she also had a dazzling career which included work with Hitchcock and Antonioni. The more maternal, albeit somewhat glacial, character of Madame Blanc, headmistress of the school, is played by Joan Bennett. Bennett’s film roles are perhaps less well known than her interesting private life, but she made her mark in several noir films by Fritz Lang, as the wife of Spencer Tracy’s Father of the Bride(returning with him for the sequel) and finally on television as the matriarch of the Collins family in the daytime supernatural soap Dark Shadows. However, the cast also includes actors whose careers were only just beginning. The trans-continental players include Udo Kier, who appears to explain the plot. Kier is now best known for playing the creepy German guy in many, many horror films (Blade,Modern Vampires, Suspiria sequel Mother of Tears). The central protagonist, wide-eyed ingénue Suzy Banyon, is played by Jessica Harper, who had an eclectic acting career which included work with Brian De Palma, Jim Sharman (replacing Susan Sarandon as Janet in the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Steven Spielberg, before becoming a very successful children’s author.
It would be wrong to discuss Suspiria without mention of its soundtrack, as it is just as important as the colour scheme and acting in establishing the singularly peculiar and brilliant register of the film. Italian prog-rockers Goblin had previously collaborated with Argento on his giallo classic Profondo Rosso, and their work here is a step up even from the excellent score they provided there. It really has to be heard to be understood, but from the first clashing cymbals and pounding drums of the title track the score is flawlessly married to the images, elevating the film to a sublime mood in which the viewer is constantly at the mercy of the narrative.
It is rare for horror films to be described as beautiful, but in every way Suspiria is a thing of beauty. The direction, the sets, the music, the lighting…even the title font is a visual delight. While the characters are drawn in fairly broad strokes, this never detracts from the film, and indeed fits it better than deeper psychoanalysis might have – after all, we do not ask for depth from characters in a fairytale. Evil is evil, good is good, and we have our investment in either camp.
Quite simply one of the greatest horror films ever made, and a dazzlingly unique cinematic achievement, Suspiria deserves to be cherished as a masterpiece.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky (2010)

A peek into the love life of the acclaimed designer.

Image: Wild Bunch Distribution

Prior to the release of the Chanel biopics, we could only wonder about the life of the creator of one of the world’s most iconic brands. Then, in sashays Anne Fontaine with a feature-length introduction to the legend that was Coco, before Chanel.
In spite of the ability and appeal of French beauty Audrey Tautou, the result of the introduction was mediocre. While we got a snapshot of a moment in time, the moment focused heavily on the designer’s personal struggle, which, although touching, was not quite what we had in mind; Coco was, after all, a pioneering fashionista. Where were the clothes?
Well, fast-forward a year and we have a second offering of Coco pie on the table, only this time it’s during Chanel, and focuses on her love affair with Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. The result… a harsher, unsentimental, exceedingly formal portrayal, that still, can’t possibly, do the late lady justice. In addition, the film is unjustifiably long, which has helped form this sluggish, marathon movie.
Coco and Igor often make ‘sweet music’ during the course of the film, but having witnessed this, they really ought to have stuck to playing their own instruments; Igor thrashing away at his piano is far more rousing, and is one of the film’s highlights. But, with no clothes in sight, still, and only a few minutes dedicated to perfume, Coco and Igor is, ultimately, a bit of a bore. You’ll probably have more fun watching tortoises move at 0.3 miles an hour.
Not bad, but it won’t stand alongside Coco as one of the greats.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Please (Do) Stop The Music

Image: Sony

Usually, I don’t pay much attention to the words of; I’m a fan of the Black Eyed Peas but often find the frontman’s egocentric temperament too much to bear. However, watching Lorraine this morning, I was informed about his outrage over the posthumous release of the 10-track Michael album - of previously unreleased MJ material. I, for one of many, I’m certain, share his view. Unlike the Black Eyed Pea, I wasn’t a friend of the late, great moonwalker; however, I do believe that it’s not what the King of Pop would have wanted. Having grown up listening to Jackson’s music, and seen reels of footage of the star on tour, in the studio, being interviewed, and chilling with bubbles, it’s evident that the man was a nutty perfectionist, and a meticulous performer, wanting to get the best out of each and every endeavour; endeavours that, pretty much from the get-go, produced hits such as Billie Jean, I Want You Back, Remember the Time, Thriller and Butterflies. Although I merely highlighted a few tracks from an exceptional back catalogue, naming his songs is easy; it’s like counting up to 3… Oh. Sorry. I almost went off on a different track there! Back to
Wasn't Jackson’s previous body of work enough? he argues. It is enough. Contemporary artists can only dream of having such a repertoire of songs in 40 years time, in which almost every hit has stood the test of time (sorry Michael, but Susie is no closer to getting my number than she was in ’97!).
Irrespective of Jackson’s private shenanigans, he was a musical genius, who left a inimitable impression on the world. Every record released with his seal of approval is an album for the grandkids. And I haven’t yet had a kid! So Sony, please, put a folk in it, the poor man’s dead. We don’t need anymore music. Leave him alone, damn it. Just stop doggin’ him around – as he’ll no doubt be rolling in his grave.

Avant L’Aube (The Night Clerk) (2011)

A death, and the family

Image: UGC Distribution

A recurrent problem with new directors is the difficulty of crystallising a personal style while at the same time dealing with elements which can be seen as referential to other directors who have influenced them. That Raphël Jacoulot manages both of these with considerable panache, in what is only his sophomore effort as director, is one of the main reasons that Avant L’Aube feels like such an accomplishment.

The plot is a simple one, wherein a young man with something of a chequered past, Frédéric, becomes embroiled in the mysterious events at the mountain hotel in which he is working. A client has disappeared, and the police arrive looking for clues. Frédéric knows something, but keeps quiet out of a sense of duty to his boss, pere de famille Jacques. The relationship between Jacques and Frédéric puts strain on Jacques’s family unit, and the presence of a kooky but capable female police officer digging around for clues pushes this strain to the point of fracture.

The film can be read on one level as a patchwork of cinematic reference; the hotel in the snow from The Shining; the powerful music and creeping camera of Alfred Hitchcock; the precarious position of man within nature from Henri-Georges Clouzot; the clammy paranoia from the works of Boileau and Narcejac, as filtered into cinema by both of the aforementioned. However, at no point does the film feel unoriginal. From the opening shots of a car winding through snowy mountain passes, echoing the beginning of the aforementioned Shining, Jacoulot is in complete control of his work. The stark, haunting environs of the Pyrenees give the film an almost unique geographical identity. Later scenes in Andorra are equally idiosyncratic, the bright colours of the town appearing as an incongruous dismal Las Vegas in contrast with the bleak but beautiful whiteness elsewhere. Scenes which might have looked like pale imitations of past masterpieces in the hands of lesser filmmakers come across as new and fresh. A good example of this would be a scene late on in the film where the camera hovers above the benighted hotel: the darkness of the scene, its surprising length and some fabulous music work render the familiar shot pleasingly unrecognisable.

The director’s impeccable craft aside, the film really hangs on its three leads, and more specifically the two men. Fortunately, both turn in performances which more than match the originality of Jacoulot’s vision. Jean-Pierre Bacri, a highly regarded French actor, brings a dangerous charisma to his role as the manipulative hotelier desperate to protect his family, veering between loveable and menacing in an instant. The young intern who becomes part of his machinations is played by relative newcomer Vincent Rottiers, who portrays his complex character with exactly the right blend of cocksure and nervous energies. Rottiers’s is definitely a name to watch. The final principal character is that of the policewoman, whose slightly hackneyed brand of physical aloofness masking shrewd competence (see Columbo) is vibrantly taken on and revitalised by Sylvie Testud. A rising star, Miss Testud last impressed with her performance as a woman possibly cured by a miracle in Lourdes, and here offers something entirely different but equally captivating with her relatively minor role.

A mention too must go to the film’s music, which takes the bombast of scores like that from Shutter Island and fashions it into something genuinely affecting. The music itself is supported by some magnificent sound design. Indeed, so much of the film is flawless that it is hard to find fault. A burst of violence towards the finale and certain characters’ actions do not ring entirely true, but nothing punctures the delicious atmosphere. Jacoulot has made something which feels incredibly special, and although it is still early in the year, I predict that people will remember this one when it comes to reviewing the year’s successes.

At once familiar and refreshingly new, Raphaël Jacoulot’s second film highlights several new talents to watch, and some older ones to cherish.



Thursday, 10 March 2011

Beautiful Pixar Posters and Promo

Cars 2 is going global. We're not sure whether the anticipation for the latest instalment of Cars is as high as it has been for previous Pixar releases, but nevertheless, the studio never fails to deliver a plethora of pretty pictures, and the newly released artwork for Cars 2 is no exception. Retro, Art Deco and actually not dissimilar to poster designs you would find at the London Transport Museum, Pixar has succeeded in finally piquing our curiosity. The cars look like they're having a good time, except Michael Caine (is that a smile?), so we'll probably go along for the ride. It's got to be better than the first, surely?

You can also check out the latest promo trailer to hit the web, below.