Friday, 28 October 2011

Sleeping Beauty (2011)

Image: Revolver Entertainment

Writer/director Julia Leigh’s debut feature comes with an “Approved” stamp from Jane Campion, the Oscar-winner filmmaker behind The Piano. We were interested to see whether this controversial, highly sexualised feminist fairytale went beyond shock-value.

Lucy (Emily Browning) is a student who moonlights as a prostitute. One day she answers a classified and takes a job working for Clara who tells her that she should treat the money she earns working for her as a sudden windfall and that there will be no penetration. 

The easiest accusation to level at Sleeping Beauty is that it’s all veneer and no heart. But then heart doesn’t exactly seem to be the point, and what a veneer it is. Leigh’s often-static camera frames the meetings between Lucy and Clara, then Lucy and her clients, like an oil painting. It’s hard to think of a film this beautifully shot since I Am Love. This artistic veneer, the coldness, the heartlessness of the transaction, is part of the point. Lucy is highly aware of her sexuality, she needs money and she uses her body to fix that problem. 

But this outer beauty isn’t quite enough. As the film reaches the halfway mark, Leigh starts to repeat herself until Lucy has a revelation that doesn’t quite convince. Because the film is so icily clinical and determined to present the provocative subject matter from a distance, turning the viewer into a voyeur, there’s never really an emotional connection with Lucy. Leigh tries to add another dimension to Lucy with her relationship with depressed friend Birdman (Ewen Leslie), but we’re given few details about their history. The second half tries to widen the film’s focus but it only works fleetingly. 

Browning (Sucker Punch) gives a very brave performance. It’s to the film’s credit that the camera never leers, but instead presents Lucy’s transactions with honesty, rarely cutting or changing angle. As we’re shown what happens to Lucy after she goes to sleep, it’s hard to understate Browning’s commitment to the role. 

The problem is that there’s nothing really driving the story. Because the film goes to such lengths to keep Lucy unknowable, it’s impossible to connect with her. And while that makes it icily beautiful and often beguiling, the film’s detachment finally renders the final scenes uninvolving. At the same time, Leigh’s determination to stick to her guns makes it a hard film to forget. 

Verdict: Stunningly photographed and with a bold turn from Browning, Sleeping Beauty isn’t quite hollow but there’s not enough going on under the surface.



Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Tyrannosaur (2011)

Image: StudioCanal UK

Paddy Considine is widely regarded as one of the UK’s finest actors, having delivered stellar turns in films as diverse as Dead Man’s Shoes, Submarine, and Hot Fuzz. He’s stepped behind the camera for Tyrannosaur, his first film as a writer/director.

Joseph (Peter Mullan) is an angry, violent man with a short fuse. When he meets charity shop worker Hannah (Olivia Colman), he cruelly scorns her attempts at kindness. However, when he returns to apologise he discovers that Hannah’s life is far from comfortable. She suffers terrible abuse at the hands of her husband James (Eddie Marsan). 

Considine’s debut (springing from his short Dog Altogether) certainly shows no sign of beginner’s nerves as he handles the difficult subject matter with a remarkably steady hand. Tyrannosaur is, for the most part, as bleak as you might have feared. It starts as it means to go on, with a run of scenes showing Joseph’s ferocious temper. The appearance of Hannah, with her Christian kindness, looks like it might offer a bit of respite. However, after Joseph taunts Hannah for channelling her middle-class guilt and sorrow at having no children into running a charity shop and praying for the less fortunate, we see just how bad her situation is. 

As you might expect from an actor-turned-director, Tyrannosaur is something of an actor’s showcase. Mullan (Children of Men, Session 9) is often called on to play characters that have a lot of darkness lurking under the surface and there’s a very good reason for that: he’s very good at it. Interestingly his performance starts with Joseph’s rage and bitterness, and he slowly softens as the film goes on. He recognises that he is a bad man, but he starts to realise that Hannah is someone he can do something good for, and Mullan brings the character to life, with all his contradictions. 

But it’s Colman, who’s probably best known for playing Sophie in sitcom Peep Show, whose performance drives the film. Hannah’s such a tragic figure: a good-natured, good-intentioned woman trapped in a horrific marriage. But there is strength to Hannah, a fierce resilience that her meetings with Joseph start to bring to the surface. There are also layers to her relationship with James. As played by the ever-excellent Marsan (Sherlock Holmes, Heartless), James is both pathetic and terrifying, violent one moment and pleading for forgiveness the next.

Considine thankfully decides to add a little warmth, with a few nicely observed moments of humour and the alcohol and grief fuelled companionship of a wake letting a little light into the film. However, for the most part, Tyrannosaur goes for the gut. The ending is a little disappointing, but it’s a heartfelt, brutal debut that gives Mullan and Colman the chance to shine.

Verdict: Brutally tough and undeniably grim, but the carefully characterised and stunningly performed Tyrannosaur is worth the effort. 



Monday, 24 October 2011

A Lonely Place to Die (2011)

Don’t look down.

Image: Kaleidoscope Entertainment

Melissa George seems to have become, rather improbably for an Australian actress with a decent Hollywood career, the queen of impressive, low-budget British horror-thrillers. She starred in the inventively nasty WΔZ, the twisty Triangle, and now she stars in this Scottish-set film (interestingly, the first actually set in the UK). Would her good taste in British chillers extend to this latest movie?

George stars as Alison, one of a group of friends out mountain climbing in a remote part of the Scottish highlands. When they discover a small Eastern European girl buried alive, they dig her out and decide to get her to safety. But can they outrun whoever put her there?

Things get off to an excellent start with a vertiginous near-death experience for one of the climbers. Director Julian Gibley makes sure he’s got the audience where he wants them, showing us the isolation of the location and how a tiny mistake can mean life or death. From there we quickly move into more familiar territory. During the first twenty minutes there’s a clear Neil Marshall (The Descent) influence, which is no bad thing. We’re introduced to the group with some good dialogue and likeable performances. When they make their discovery, and characters start dying, the film moves at a breakneck pace. 

The first half of A Lonely Place to Die is gripping. It’s shot with a tremendous amount of skill and anyone with a fear of heights will be in for a tough time. But once the reasons behind the little girl’s situation are revealed with a sudden influx of characters, this tough, nifty survival thriller loses sight of what was working so well. While we don’t stop caring about Alison and the little girl, we do spend too much time away from them. As things build toward an admittedly well-handled but generic bullet-riddled finale, you’ll be missing that treacherous cliff-face.

However, the action is well-shot and the cast, including familiar faces Sean Harris (Red Riding), Eamonn Walker (Lord of War), and Karel Roden (Orphan), are all solid enough. George impresses once again as the resourceful, tough, but human heroine. For all the faults of the final third, there’s more than enough here to warrant a look. Film fans with vertigo, however, should probably skip it.

Verdict: A fantastic first half is let down by an implausible and over-the-top finale. 



Friday, 21 October 2011

Melancholia (2011)

Image: Artificial Eye

Ever the nonconformist, Lars Von Trier caused uproar and was declared persona non grata at this year’s Cannes Festival when he declared himself a Nazi sympathiser in the press conference for his latest film. While some people found his words unforgivable, we personally felt that the enfant terrible had just pushed slightly too far in his efforts to be controversial (perhaps realising that his submission to the festival wasn’t in itself going to be as talked about as his last film, Antichrist). The sad fact is that the director’s words rather stole the limelight from the film itself. What, then, about Melancholia?

The title itself has a dual meaning, representing the unexplained depression of Kirsten Dunst’s newlywed main character, Justine, and also the name of a new planet which is hurtling towards Earth. We join the wedding party halfway through, and then watch in the aftermath as melancholia and Melancholia meet with a big bang. Von Trier wrangles the human drama and apocalyptic events with élan: in a wonderfully subversive move he begins the film with the destruction of the world, the crowning special effect on a bravura opening salvo which manages to reference silent cinema, Resnais’s L’Année Dernière à Marienbad, Millais’s Ophelia and (unintentionally, one imagines) David Tennant’s Doctor Who swansong. It’s breathtaking stuff, married perfectly to the well chosen score, Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde.

In fact, the most jarring element of the film is not the juxtaposition of family drama and planet smashing, but rather the oddly disjointed sections between the explosive bookends. The first half (‘Part One - Justine’) is by far the more successful, kicking off with brilliant incongruity after we have watched the world fizzle away. Dunst has married Alexander Skarsgaard, and they arrive at the castle home of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and filthy rich brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) for the reception. The family drama is well played, with all the actors doing a great job, but all too soon it is over, and the rest of the film (‘Part Two – Claire’) takes some time to recover the tantalising sense of inexplicable oppression which is imbued in the party scenes. Luckily it returns in spades for the touching finale, which manages to satisfy without sacrificing the complexity of the characters. It’s a very European-cinema-disaster-movie finale, and all the better for it.
Kirsten Dunst was awarded the prize for Best Actress at the Cannes Festival, which is certainly merited. Justine has a coldness and raw physicality which I haven’t seen in Dunst since her career making performance as a young vampire in Interview with a Vampire. Whether she is beating a horse or straddling an intern, caressing herself or playing with her young nephew, she is a wonderfully unreadable presence. However, my choice for Best Actress would be Charlotte Gainsbourg. She is the earth rod to Dunst’s ethereal force, a mother and sister and wife who struggles to be all three in correct proportions. Her moving performance in the finale is what stuck most in my mind once the credits had rolled.
As for the supporting cast, there is not one actor I would choose differently. They don’t all get a chance to shine as much as each other, with poor Charlotte Rampling sadly underused, but they do wonders with what they have. Alexander Skaarsgard’s performance as the new husband out of his depth is all the more enjoyable for being the polar opposite of the cocky, assured character he plays in True Blood, while John Hurt positively twinkles in his role as the sisters’ flirty, spoon-stealing dad. It’s a great pity that they couldn’t all stay around longer – it would have been a treat to see Rampling and Hurt as the divorced parents facing the end of the world together, preferably locked in a room with Von Trier regular Udo Kier’s marvellously overdramatic wedding planner.
Some people will hate Melancholia, this is certain. It can be fairly overwrought, especially in the second act, while characters occasionally spout clumsily (but I assume deliberately) pretentious dialogue. Von Trier himself has apologised for the film’s glossy sheen, probably feeling that he has betrayed his roots in the Dogme 95 movement. He really shouldn’t worry – the film is very much in keeping with his previous work: idiosyncratic in the extreme, sexy and daring with more than a soupcon of downright barmy.
Ignore what the man says in press conferences, and let yourself be beguiled by a one of a kind film from a one of a kind director.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Red State (2011)

Kevin Smith wants to put the fear of God into you.

Image: Entertainment One

There’s a story behind Kevin Smith’s latest. Smarting from the critical drubbing of Cop Out, the man behind Jay and Silent Bob decided to independently finance and distribute Red State, a horror influenced by Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. He’s questioned the need for film critics and announced that after his next film he’ll retire from making movies. But all that aside, how is Red State?

Horny high school kids Travis (Michael Angarano), Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), and Jarod (Kyle Gallner) drive out to a trailer in the woods to have sex with a woman they found on the internet. However, said woman is Sara (Melissa Leo), the daughter of infamous local fundamentalist Christian preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), who drugs them and brings them to the church where Cooper plans to make a gory example of them. 

Red State certainly shows that Kevin Smith is capable of working outside of his comfort zone. The first half is highly effective, as the three boys find themselves held captive by the same man that they were discussing in school that morning. It also puts Parks, who’s probably best known for his recurring role as Ranger Earl McGraw in Tarantino and Rodriguez films, front and centre. We’re given a barnstorming performance from an actor who is making the most of a rare lead role. The fifteen minute sermon that makes up the bulk of this scene may drag for some but it’s a well-written piece of hate-filled rhetoric that’s chillingly delivered to the faithful men, women, and children. The rest of the congregations are less fleshed out, with only Leo’s crazy-eyed acolyte and her daughter Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé) given much to do. 

But when John Goodman’s ATF agent Joe Keenan is introduced at the halfway point, Smith’s focus shifts from the kids and things get a bit shaky. The inevitable Waco-esque situation becomes one long and well-choreographed shoot-out, but the lack of character development means that we don’t really have any stake in what’s happening (though some effort is made with Bishé’s attempt to rescue the church’s children). Smith doesn’t really want us to sympathise with any of the characters, he wants to show us the kind of terrible violence and hatred that blind belief can incur. However, this detachment means that his grip on the audience is slackened. 

But the points that Smith makes, not just in the first half but all the way through, are valid. Cooper’s an admittedly exaggerated version of a very real man with an alarmingly large congregation. The bureaucratic decisions given to Keenan are horrifying because they’re all too plausible.  The first half of Red State is a gripping, clever horror. While it’s by no means a failure, the widening focus and lack of characters to care about means that we gradually become less involved. However, the good outweighs the bad and there’s more than enough that impresses here to recommend it.

Verdict: A generally successful departure for Smith. Despite the slightly messy second half it’s an atmospheric, opinionated horror that’s well worth a look.



Monday, 10 October 2011

Drive (2011)

Take the ride.

Image: Icon

Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn’s first collaboration debuted at Cannes to rave reviews. After a great advertising campaign and uniformly positive advance word of mouth, Drive has finally hit UK screens.

Gosling plays the nameless movie stunt-driver who works as a getaway driver on the side. When his lovely neighbour Irene’s (Carey Mulligan) husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is coerced into committing a robbery by some local crooks, he agrees to drive on the condition that Standard’s debt is paid. But when things go wrong, Irene and her young son are put in harm’s way and Driver will stop at nothing to protect them.

Drive is a film that’s steeped in cinematic nostalgia. It’s a heady mix of different genre staples and periods that Refn has brought together to create this bewitching but full-blooded thriller. From the lipstick-pink credits font and the breathy, synth-heavy soundtrack, it’s clear that the 80s are a big influence. But in its plot, spare use of dialogue, and especially its characters it’s also very much a classic noir. There’s Driver’s mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston), with his limp, chain-smoking, and old connections to mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman). There’s both the demure damsel in distress (Irene) and the curvy femme fatale (Blanche, played by Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks). There’s the story of a man who finds himself thrown into the murky LA criminal underworld.

Then there’s the Driver himself. At first glance he seems like a typical genre movie hero, a man of few words who gets the job done. He even has his props (toothpick, driving gloves, scorpion jacket) and his set of rules for clients. But Gosling’s wounded puppy-dog eyes suggest an emotional immaturity that makes him even more dangerous. Refn plays with our expectations of a hero: just what kind of a person is willing to commit both these selfless acts of heroism and violence? And he certainly does commit some acts of violence.

Refn’s got a history of putting bloody violence on screen with Bronson, Pusher, and Valhalla Rising, and Drive is no exception. While the camera doesn’t dwell on the gore, the characters certainly do, and the brief moments are vivid and gruesome enough to shock you and stay with you. But Drive is as much about the quiet moments as it is about the fights and the car chases. The action is shot and edited with clinical precision, and Refn’s vision of Los Angeles at night is beautifully reminiscent of Michael Mann. There are moments of great beauty and cinematic romance in amongst the fountains of blood. There’s also a very dark sense of humour at work here, as the director isn’t afraid to acknowledge the silliness of the genre even as he makes brutal use of its stereotypes.

The actors are superb. Mulligan (Never Let Me Go) and Cranston (Breaking Bad) add vital warmth, Perlman (Hellboy) gives a wonderfully odious turn, and Brooks (Broadcast News) plays against type to chilling effect as the softly spoken gangster. But it’s Gosling’s show and he gives a bravely understated but truly memorable performance. He says little but those unblinking stares speak volumes.

Drive achieves what so many films strive for: a fresh spin on an old genre. There’s a razor sharp wit and intelligence at work, but it’s also fully committed to being a gripping thriller. 

Verdict: A strong contender for film of 2011. Drive is a darkly beautiful, slyly funny film that’s soaked in cinematic history. And blood. Also, what a soundtrack.



Friday, 7 October 2011

Red White & Blue (2011)

Image: Trinity Filmed Entertainment

Writer/director Simon Rumley’s follow up to his acclaimed debut The Living and the Dead caused a bit of a stir when it hit US festivals last summer but we’ve had to wait until now to see a UK release.  

Promiscuous Erica has two rules: she doesn’t sleep with the same person twice and she doesn’t do friends. But when she meets enigmatic veteran Nate (Noah Taylor), she slowly lets her guard down and the two damaged souls form a fragile bond. However, Franki (Marc Senter), one of her one-night-stands, is looking for her. Franki’s got a score to settle with Erica but Nate’s on his tail.

At first glance, Red White & Blue would appear to be a generic revenge movie. Erica is kidnapped by Franki, and Nate will stop at nothing to get her back. But Rumley does two things to separate his film from the pack. The first is to create three distinct, memorable, complex characters. Nothing is black and white here. 

Erica’s compulsive sexual acts seem to be joyless and she tells one partner “condoms are for homos”, but we’re also shown her acts of kindness towards a young boy and his family. Nate’s polite and generous to Erica, but it’s not hard to see there’s something not quite right about him. Meanwhile, Franki’s life is in a tailspin with his girlfriend gone and his mother undergoing cancer treatment. Just when things start looking up, he gets the news that sets the brutal events of the second half in motion, and we discover the reason behind Erica’s behaviour. Almost everything we learn about these characters alters our perception of them, and our sympathies are constantly shifting. The three leads also do a superb job of bringing these three difficult characters to life. Fuller is fearless, Senter (Cabin Fever 2) does well to keep Franki’s journey plausible, and Taylor makes it impossible to take your eyes off him.

The second distinguishing feature of the film is its structure. RW&B is split into two parts, the first of which is slow-paced, with naturalistic dialogue as we get to know the characters better. Rumley cited Larry Clark (Kids, Bully) as an influence for this first half, and it’s a fitting comparison. The southern small town isn’t shot flatteringly but believably, and the same goes for the sex scenes. Then the second part starts, Noah Taylor takes centre stage, and suddenly it’s a horror film. Most recently seen by UK audiences as the depressed but well-meaning dad in Submarine, the Australian character actor is almost unrecognisable here. From the moment he starts his search for Erica, with a hunting knife and rolls of tape hanging from his belt, he’s a terrifying force of nature. He’s reminiscent of Paddy Considine’s avenger in Dead Man’s Shoes except, as he tells a hapless victim, he enjoys it. 

The violence of the third act will almost certainly be too much for some viewers, and, although it’s well done, the film does lose a little of its unpredictability by the end.  There’s an inevitability to the blood-drenched final act that is almost certainly intentional, but a bit disappointing. However, it’s still superbly done and watching Taylor wreak bloody revenge is horrifyingly effective and unflinchingly nasty. 

Verdict: Tough, clever, and brutal with three outstanding performances.



Thursday, 6 October 2011

Who Is Lucky McKee and Why Is Everyone Saying These Horrible Things About Him?

Image: Revolver Entertainment

If you’re interested in the state of modern horror, you’re probably aware of the controversy surrounding The Woman. Some audiences love it, while some are utterly repulsed. Director and co-writer Lucky McKee has come in for some very harsh professional and personal criticism and some very high praise. Looking back at his career so far, how did he end up here? 

Back in 2002, McKee seemed to be on his way to great things. His first feature, May, had been very well received by critics and by horror fans, and quickly gained a cult following. It starred Angela Bettis as the titular loner who longs for companionship and understanding. She finds a man who she thinks is a good match (Jeremy Sisto), but he dumps her after she takes his liking for "weird" to extremes. May takes this rejection badly and begins to crack. Remembering her mother’s words (“If you can’t find a friend, make one”), she sets out to make a beautiful whole from beautiful parts. May is arguably more of a quirky dark comedy than a straight horror film, and is careful to make you care about the lead character (helped by Bettis’ wonderful performance) before she breaks out the scissors. It was definitely a film that made you excited to see what the makers would do next.

Riding the wave of acclaim for his debut, McKee moved onto bigger things. He signed on to direct The Woods, a much larger (but still not big) budget horror film about a young girl who is sent to a boarding school, only to discover that there’s something sinister going on. With a Dario Argento-esque setting and a cast that included indie queen Patricia Clarkson (Shutter Island) and horror icon Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead), The Woods was an enticing proposition. There was even a role for Bettis as “The Voice of the Woods”. But the film sat on the shelf for three years, with little to no explanation offered. There were rumours of the studio being unhappy with the finished product, on top of which the studio changed hands, and The Woods was finally released straight to DVD in the UK. The film does have a lot to admire. There's his twisted sense of humour, a great soundtrack, and some memorable sequences. However, for all its charm, it is certainly flawed.

While The Woods languished without distribution, McKee was chosen to direct one of the hour-long mini-films for Mick Garris’ series Masters of Horror. The concept of the series was to give horror legends, including John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and Dario Argento, an hour to do whatever they wanted. McKee was certainly the greenest of the bunch, but delivered one of the most entertaining episodes with Sick Girl. With the emphasis on dark comedy and gooey effects, it starred Bettis as an awkward entomologist who realises that one of her new bugs is not only dangerous, but has bitten and infected her new girlfriend (softcore star Misty Mundae). It’s knowingly silly and lightweight but it’s a lot of fun.

After The Woods was finally given an undeservedly muted release, McKee began work on Red, an adaptation of a Jack Ketchum novel. The film starred Brian Cox as a man who takes brutal revenge on the young teenagers who murder his dog. At some point during shooting, McKee and Angela Bettis were fired. McKee was replaced with Trygve Allister Diesen, and Bettis with Kim Dickens (Deadwood). There’s never been any real explanation offered by the producers, although it’s rumoured that Bettis’ firing was one of the reasons behind McKee’s departure. McKee does retain a co-director credit but it’s impossible to view the film without wondering what’s his and what’s Diesen’s. It’s efficient enough, with a superb performance from Cox. 

Having been treated badly on The Woods and worse on Red, McKee was determined to set up a film where he had complete creative control. He co-wrote a sequel to Jack Ketchum’s book Offspring with the horror legend himself, which the two turned into a screenplay.  It was called The Woman, and McKee took care to secure independent financing, a producer he trusted, Final Cut, and, of course, his old friend Angela Bettis. The result is a fierce, brutal, angry piece of work that sets out to challenge audiences and shows that he is a talent to be reckoned with. You can read about The Woman further in our review. On the basis of his latest offering, and seeing what happens when he’s left to his own devises, we hope he keeps creative control.


Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

Image: Warner Bros.

Ryan Gosling’s everywhere at the moment. With this, Drive, and George Clooney’s upcoming political drama The Ides of March, the actor is inescapable. Of the three, you’d be forgiven for assuming that this rom-com would be the weak link.

Cal (Steve Carell) is reeling after his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) asks for a divorce. While drowning his sorrows in a local bar, local stud Jacob (Ryan Gosling) takes pity on him. With a new look and newfound confidence, Cal becomes something of a ladies’ man. But he’s still in love with Emily, and Jacob finds himself in a similar situation when he meets the beautiful Hannah (Emma Stone).

Maybe the acting talent involved in this film should have been a tip-off. While Carell’s made some bad choices (Get Smart, Dinner for Schmucks), the quality of the cast extends from those we’ve mentioned to superb actors like Kevin Bacon and Marisa Tomei who pop up in small roles. While Crazy, Stupid, Love doesn’t exactly buck the rom-com/drama formula, the script is good as are the performances. Cal and Emily’s post-break-up relationship is believably painful and difficult as they both struggle to decide what it is that they actually want. Carell’s an old-hand at playing awkward men discovering their confidence (though some scenes are a little too reminiscent of The 40-Year Old Virgin) and he’s also excellent in the more dramatic scenes, of which there are surprisingly plenty. Moore is given fewer chances to be funny but she’s just as good as you’d expect her to be.

While the bulk of the film is given to Carell and Moore, Gosling also gets a chance to show off his comedy chops. He’s not really stretching himself here but he’s very watchable both in his scenes with Carell and especially in his sweetly stilted seduction scene with Stone, who is also great despite having the least to do of the four leads. There’s also a sub-plot involving Cal’s 13-year old son Robbie’s crush on his babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who in turn has a crush on Cal, that works best when the filmmakers acknowledge its creepiness.

While it’s not a game-changer, Crazy, Stupid, Love stands head and shoulders above most Hollywood films in the same genre. It would have been better had it strayed a little further from the formula guidelines, but it’s got some big laughs, it’s genuinely touching in places, and overall it’s good enough that by the overly-romanticised ending you’ve still got a smile on your face.

Verdict: Good performances from a wonderful cast and a solid script help to make this a surprisingly funny, warm comedy.



Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

Image: StudioCanal UK

Guillermo del Toro’s used his name to lend a bit of credibility and appeal to a number of films lately. While he only produced recent Spanish horror/thriller Julia’s Eyes, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a remake of the 1973 TV movie has his fingerprints all over it. 

Young Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) in the grand old mansion he’s restoring with his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). Unhappy at being sent away by her mother, she’s intrigued when she starts hearing whispering voices coming from the walls saying they want to be her friend. However, that’s not really what they want at all...

The first half of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a very effective, creepy chiller that takes the basic ideas of the TV movie and throws in a splendid gothic mansion and an involving troubled family dynamic. There’s a wonderfully nasty pre-credits sequence that establishes this remake as a separate entity, and the look and feel of the film couldn’t be further from the low-budget original. Del Toro’s influence is clearly felt in the production design, with elaborate carvings, sculptures, and murals adorning the house as well as the sketches and illustrations of the creatures. However, it’s surprisingly faithful in terms of the basic storyline and fans of the 1973 version will have a lot to be happy about. 

Madison (Just Go With It) gives an impressive performance as Sally, carrying much of the film on her shoulders. Pearce has less to do as the distracted dad but copes well despite having the lion’s share of bad dialogue. As for Katie Holmes, well, she’s not too bad but she is miscast as the caring, maternal Kim.   

As we mentioned, the first half has a lot of genuine scares, with first-time director Troy Nixey creating a great atmosphere and finding plenty of ways to make the audience jump out of their seats. It’s a common complaint of films of this nature, but it’s true that once we see the creatures in the walls the film becomes a lot less scary. It’s still a lot of fun, but when Sally starts fighting back, the tone changes and del Toro’s sense of humour comes into play. As Kim tries to figure out what’s going on with Sally, the screenplay’s weaknesses become evident and no amount of creepy drawings can save stilted arguments about Architectural Digest Magazine. 

It’s still entertaining and things do pick up for a solid finale. It’s not the film that we may have hoped for given the talent involved, but it’s a highly entertaining, good-looking haunted house movie.

Verdict: While it is let down by its second half and an occasionally dodgy script, there’s still a lot of fun and scares to be had and the production design is wonderful.



Monday, 3 October 2011

Raindance Preview

Ahead of London’s Raindance Film Festival, Fohnhouse were invited to a cluster of advance screenings of some of the low-budget movies in competition. What’s exciting about these films is that they’re passion projects made by people who’ve gone out and made something special to them. There will be full reviews when the films are given a wide release, but here’s a quick overview of what we saw.

Of the selection we were shown, our favourite would have to be Mike Cahill’s ANOTHER EARTH, which has already found a distributor in Fox Searchlight (UK release in December). This sci-fi drama has an alternate Earth appearing in the sky on the same night that a young woman (co-writer Brit Marling) causes a car crash. Released from prison a few years later, she builds a relationship with the man whose wife and son died in the collision. It’s a little pretentious in places and Lost star William Mapother never quite convinces but it’s beautifully shot, the soundtrack is great, and Marling is superb. She wrote an excellent character for herself: lonely, withdrawn, but fascinated by the possibility an alternate world might offer. Fans of Gareth Edwards’ Monsters should find much to love in this contemplative, emotional film.

We were also impressed by Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe’s offbeat comedy drama BLACK POND. It cleverly casts the notorious Chris Langham (The Thick of It) as the head of a family accused by the tabloids of murder. Black Pond is deliberately difficult to get a handle on, shifting from comedy to tragedy and back again with no warning. It doesn’t all work, particularly some of the more self-consciously experimental touches, but the characters are very well drawn and the cast (including Simon Amstell), are excellent. By the end we found ourselves strangely moved. Another British drama, STRANGER THINGS (dir. Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal) begins with a young woman returning to her mother’s house after her death only to find a homeless man taking refuge there. As the two begin a tentative friendship, it reminded us a lot of Tom McCarthy’s superb The Visitor. It may be too slight to really make a strong impression, but it is touchingly heartfelt and its stars Bridget Collins and Adeel Akhtar are excellent. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the Norwegian-American relationship drama EXTERIORS was not a success. The story of two miserable young foreign actresses in LA and their callous, awful boyfriends, it’s 80 minutes of crying and arguing. Despite good performances from Gitte Witt and Ruta Gedmintas as the two miserable girls, Exteriors is a long slog through poor dialogue, inelegant comparisons between bad relationships and auditioning, and unlikeable characters. Also disappointing was British found-footage horror HOLLOW, which puts its four characters in a country house near a creepy tree that may have malevolent supernatural powers. It starts promisingly, some of the acting is solid, and there are a couple of effective moments in the final third, but overall it’s too predictable, adhering much too closely to found footage tropes and too clearly influenced by The Blair Witch Project.

Finally, we saw two documentaries: WHERE MY HEART BEATS (dir. Khazar Fatemi) and HEAVEN+EARTH+JOE DAVIS (dir. Peter Sasowsky). The former tells the story of Fatemi’s own return to Afghanistan after fleeing with her family 20 years ago. Fatemi sets out to give the ordinary people of her homeland a voice, which leads to some powerful accounts from victims of the conflict and stranded refugees who were told that it was safe to return. However, the decision to keep a focus on Fatemi’s own journey is often distracting, and the lack of personal distance leads to a cloying sentimentality that seems at odds with some truly upsetting footage and moving stories. 

However, we would urge you to see the latter documentary. The tale of Joe Davis, a brilliant one-legged American inventor, artist and scientist. Sasowsky expertly shows how his obsession with these bizarre ideas (sending vaginal contractions into space is the most memorable) is linked to his artistic side, how he won’t or can’t think of his work in terms of financial gain (which leads to frequent evictions), and how the constant stream of ideas means that nothing is focused on for very long. Davis is great company, even if you don’t fully understand what he’s talking about. It’s a very well-made look at a fascinating individual. 

The Raindance Film Festival kicked off on the 28th of September and will run until the 9th of October, and you can see all these films there (and many more, of course). Head down to the Apollo cinema in Piccadilly Circus to get in on the action.