Wednesday, 29 August 2012

PREVIEW: Venice Film Festival 2012

69th Venice Film Festival 2012: Aug 29 - Sept 8

I missed the preview of this last year as it so quickly sneaks upon you - "oh it's sometime in September" - and then it hits September, and realise it's already been on for three days. So, I'm on the ball with it this year and ready to dip into the three most interesting sections:

Venezia 69 - the official in competition films for the Golden Lion award at the 69th Venice Film Festival

Out of Competition - as on the tin, a selection of big name films but not in the running for the main prize

Orizonetti - the new trends in world cinema

Here are my picks below - some really exciting flavour this year.

OPENING FILM: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
The new film from Indian filmmaker Mira Nair (who directed Natalie in New York I Love You) will open the Venice Film Festival on Aug 29, screening as an out of competition film. It stars Riz Ahmed (Four Lions) as a young Pakistani man working on Wall Street but caught between ambition, loyalty and a hostage crisis. Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland and Liev Schreiber make up the rest of the cast of the film, which is adapted from the best selling novel by Mohsin Hamid.


The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is one of the most talked about of the year, with one of the hottest topics being where it would premiere. Here or Toronto seemed the most likely, and Europe it is - though thanks to the rather unconventional pop up screenings that have been taking place in the USA, the Venice audiences won't be the very first to see it. Whilst the director is still adamant the film is not about Scientology, the idea of a controversial group with a charismatic leader (here played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is what draws in war veteran Joaquin Phoenix, his first film since his faux retirement from acting and 'rap career'. By all accounts excellent, this has to be in with a good shot at winning the Lion.

Apres-Mai (Something in the Air)
Someone else who is coming back to film after a short break is French auteur Olivier Assayas, with his first film since 2008's Summer Hours. His new film centres on a young Parisian student, Gilles, and is set in the late 60s/early 70s - a heady time when young people wanted a say in politics, art, love and most importantly, change. Journeying through Europe, Gilles (Clement Metayer) and his schoolmates are faced with many of life's choices, and discover who they really are. I'm not au fait with any of Assayas' previous work, but this film made me think of The Dreamers which I loved, so I'd watch it for that.

At Any Price
Zac Efron's pursuit to become the next Leonardo Di Caprio continues with the former High School Musical-er making yet another interesting choice for his CV - alongside upcoming The Paperboy, he stars here alongside Dennis Quaid as a defiant son rebelling against joining the family agriculture business and wanting to become a professional racing car driver (hello!), but problems arise when the business becomes subject to an internal investigation. At Any Price is directed by well regarded American director Ramin Bahrani.

I am just ridiculously excited about this film since the trailer was released last week (see below). It stars Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace as two business women locked in a deadly - and passionate! - power struggle. Could go either way, but its look and tone of vividly stylish yet hedonistic melodrama has totally won me in - the mask totally put me in mind of Nip/Tuck. If this is obscenely brilliant then we can forget The Black Dahlia ever happened, Brian De Palma.

To The Wonder
All of a sudden, Terrence Malick has a whole stream of films coming out since The Tree of Life burst the dams last year. His next, defying a usual 6 or 7 year break, premieres at Venice and is To The Wonder, a film about love starring Rachel McAdams (two films in competition!) and Ben Affleck, with support from Javier Bardem and Olga Kuryleko. You're not going to get much more from it than that as Malick films are traditionally drip fed at the best of times, and as Natalie has two upcoming films with him out in 2013 I'm trying hard to get on board with this director, who has a lot to say but can't always do it coherently IMO.

Spring Breakers
Also really excited about this - Harmony Korine's new film about a group of young girls who have criminal intentions for their Spring Break weekend... until things go awry and they are arrested on drugs charges, but then unexpectedly helped out by local thug (James Franco) who has his own plans for them. I'm mostly pepped up due to the cast containing Ashley Benson (Hanna in Pretty Little Liars) and it has that wild, exploitative vibe to it which reminds me of something trashy and watchable like Wild Things. Korine is a marmite filmmaker though: I remember several walk-outs when Trash Humpers played at Leeds a couple of years ago.

Honourable mentions: Pieta (Ki-Duk Kim), Betrayal (Kirill Serebrennikov)


This is the first feature film from documentary maker Henry Alex Rubin (Murderball) and features an all star cast in a film which sees many different characters and stories about people looking for connection in today's highly dependent technological world. Jason Bateman, Alexander Skarsgard, Hope Davis, Michael Nvqvist and Andrea Riseborough are just some of the names appearing and it promises to be something much more independent and appealing ensemble piece than a Valentine's Day or What To Expect When You're Expecting.

Forgotten (Du Hast Es Versprochen)
This German thriller from first time director Alex Schmidt looks very juicy indeed. It tells the story of three young girls - two of them best friends - who lost contact suddenly after their ninth birthdays. Several years on and now adults, the two meet again and begin to reconnect, deciding to take a trip to their special childhood place - a summer house on a small island (warning bells!). There they discover an old playmate of theirs who lived on the island went missing as a child and was never seen again, and as they dig into the past horrible secrets emerge that centre on the two women. Looks creepy and... is that snow in the promo picture? I am so sold on this, as long as it's atmospheric and menacing, and not ridic hokum.

The Iceman
IT'S MICHAEL SHANNON PLAYING A REAL LIFE PSYCHOPATH! I don't know much more I can say to make everyone totally excited about this. Shannon is bringing the terrifying Richard Kuklinski to the screen, who despite being a devoted family man was rumoured to have murdered more than 250 people between 1954 and 1985 in America. The film also stars Winona Ryder (as Kuklinski's unsuspecting wife), Chris Evans, Ray Liotta and James Franco, and at the helm Israeli director Ariel Vromen. I love a true crime film and with it being Michael Shannon involved, this is one of those films where I'm really excited about just seeing new promo stills. Can't wait to get reaction on this - it's probably the film I'm most looking forward to from Venice this year.

Penance (Shokuzai)
I'm also really excited about this film as the premise sounds excellent: "Fifteen years ago, tragedy struck a small town when young school girl Emili was abducted and killed by a stranger. Four girls who had been playing with Emili at the time are the first to discover her body. The abductor is never found and the crime goes unsolved. Crazed with grief, Emili’s mother Asako condemns the four girls, none of which can remember the abductor’s face. She tells them, “Do whatever you have to to find the killer. Otherwise, you can pay a penance that I approve.” Deeply affected by Asako’s condemnation, the four girls become adults burdened with the curse of “penance” which eventually triggers a chain of tragic events." This 270 minute film was actually a Japanese TV mini-series, which is being shown uncut as a film here in Venice, written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse) and based on the novel by Kanae Minato, who also wrote the excellent Confessions. It sounds extraordinary and I hope we get to see some form of it over here.

If the last film sounds extraordinary, then Bait is off the wall. Not only are the residents of a small Australian town being targeted in the local supermarket by a crazed masked assailant, then a tsunami hits bringing chaos to the town.. and a Great White Shark. Yes, you may wonder, why on earth is something like this playing at Venice? It sounds like the next pulpy B movie, but could this be a surprising horror hit? In the vein of Piranha, obviously: it's directed by Kimble Rendall, who has worked on The Matrix trilogy and a couple of Nicolas Cage films - make of that what you will. It sounds spectacular, and if I'm going to a multiplex to spend £10 on popcorn and a drink alone then I'd want to be watching something like this! Stars Phoebe Tonkin (The Secret Circle), Xavier Samuel (The Loved Ones) and Julian McMahon (Nip/Tuck)! I love a bit of Julian McMahon... THE TRAILER IS AWESOME.

"Why does it keep circling?"
"It's curious... it's not sure who we are."

I think I'm in love with this film.


Me Too (Ja Tozhe Hochu)
I'm still quite new to Russian cinema, having only seen a couple of films to my name (though that includes the excellent Rusalka), but this one caught my eye because of the intriguing synopsis: a group of friends are travelling to the Bell Tower of Happiness, said to lie hidden somewhere between St Petersburg and Uglic with the power to make people disappear. Each of the young people believes they will be the one chosen by the Tower. It has that mysterious, folky feel about it which always makes me a happy film-goer! Directed by Alexey Balabanov.

Leones (Lions)
A group of young people roam and play in the depths of a forest, unable to leave this wall less labyrinth they find themselves in, and struggling to work out why they are here. This Argentinian film from first time director Jazmin Lopez has echoes of Innocence and A Thousand Oceans where the line between fantasy and reality is blurred. It sounds dreamy and playful and though I can immediately guess what the metaphor is here, it's still something I would jump to go and see.

Bellas Mariposas (Beautiful Butterflies)
This is a strange sounding little film from Italian director Salvatore Mereu, about two best friends who go on an incredible adventure together, yet one of them desperately needs to get home to help her neighbour who is in great danger at the hands of her older brother. Mereu read the novel written by Sergio Atzemi, whose style and plotting impressed him so much he was moved to turn it into a film, which is now premiering at Venice - and is my token Italian pick of the festival!

Araf/Somewhere in Between
This is the new film from Yesim Ustaoglu, who sat on the Venice jury herself in 2002. It centres on two best friends, who live in a small town, work dead end jobs, and watch trashy television living a drab life of non-existent fantasies - until Mahur comes on the scene, and both girls fall for him creating a complex and tragic love triangle which will finally see both the girls forced to grow up. I'll keep an eye on this one, as I've yet to watch any Turkish cinema and this sounds like a great place to start.

CLOSING FILM: Kiss of the Damned
And so I, and the festival, end with a horror movie and Xan Cassavetes' Kiss of the Damned being shown at International Critics Week. This is the debut feature film from the daughter of actor and director John Cassavetes, who also writes, and is the tale of two vampiric sisters (Roxane Mesquida and Josephine de la Baume) who target a small Connecticut town. I loved Mesquida as the creepy obsessive lesbian in Kaboom and she's the perfect fit for this. Baume was recently in One Day and ITV1's Titanic mini-series. Though the market is awash with vampire films at the moment, hopefully this one will give a strong focus on the horror, and we'll have another Thirst on our hands and not an effing Twilight.

You can find all the films screening at the Venice film festival here, including the independent strands Venice Days and International Critics Week. The Golden Lion will be announced on the last day of the festival, September 8th.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Imposter

**spoilers ahead for those uninformed**

The marketing team behind this year’s biggest documentary (“it’s the new Catfish!”) are bloody brilliant at what they do. When The Imposter premiered at Sundance earlier this year, despite solid reviews it did little to stand out amongst the bigger names such as Beasts of the Southern Wild and top documentary winners Searching for Sugarman and The Queen of Versailles, both of which have been released in the UK in the last few months to modest applause. But the lead up to The Imposter’s release date in the last month has been immense, largely thanks to the entire cinema industry lauding it as one of the year’s best films and the enigma which began to surround it – you’re best off going in not knowing anything about it was it’s unofficial tagline. As prime target of this marketing, I was swept up in the wave of excitement and did my best to avoid the trailer as much as I could and anything written about it at all. So hyped up I was that I went to see it on its opening day of release on Friday, intrigued to find out the secrets to the story and also because I am desperate for my first 5 cheese film of the year, and I thought this would be it. Sadly it didn’t quite live up to the sky high expectations, but it was an astonishing watch, and will undoubtedly be the best documentary you will see all year. British, too!

Despite wanting to remain ignorant about events, the film does not try to cover your eyes – within the first few minutes of meeting the imposter of the title – Frenchman Frederic Bourdin – he tells his side of the story from his point of view. 13 year old blond haired and blue eyed Nicholas Barclay goes missing from a Texas town in 1994, and his family fail to hear from him again. Four years later in a small town in Spain, Bourdin poses as a homeless teenager and being pressed by the authorities into giving an identity, he impulsively picks the first option Missing Childrens Services offer him – that of Nicholas Barclay. He would be 17 years old now – yet Bourdin is 23, has a French accent, dark hair and brown eyes, and a moment of haste suddenly becomes a huge lie he must now assume. Terrified the family will reject his appearance, he does all he can to become the image of the 17 year old missing American, from dying his hair blond, to getting matching tattoos, to later down the line fabricating a story of his abuse at the hands of a military run child exploitation ring who put solution in his eyes which changed them from blue to brown. His anxiety – and then surprise – of convincing the family and subsequently the US Embassy and FBI is imparted in his narration, and at this point we are as incredulous as he is. But of course, all is not right here – especially when his lie starts to become unravelled and he makes a staggering allegation: the family have accepted him as Nicholas to cover up the fact that they know what happened to him – they killed him and hid his body.

The narrative and structure of the film is very clever indeed - loved how it was all told in the present as well, allowing the narrative to switch tone very fluidly. Because you cannot believe these people were brainwashed into believing that this person is Nicholas and a member of their family, when the idea comes up that there is a sinister edge to this - that maybe they know this isn't the truth, but it's a cover for the grisly nature of what really happened - you as a viewer are being coerced into believing the story. It's seductively devious, the personality of Frederic Bourdin; it's as much his story as it is the family's. When Nicholas’s sister is showing Bourdin family photos and telling him "you must remember her and him and this and that" you start thinking, oh my god, she knows what he's doing here is deceitful and immoral (not to mention illegal), but she is helping him to live the lie because she has her own secrets to hide. And so you start thinking this is real, this is going to be the big “twist”. Nicholas’ brother, whom he had a troubled relationship with, isn't there to give interviews, so is the big reveal going to be that he killed Nicholas and is now in jail and that's why he doesn't appear on film? But as soon as you’ve been fed the clues to join the dots in your head, the trail goes cold. Nicholas’s brother is not there because he died of a drugs overdose and bam – you’ve been fooled yourself.

There is no killer twist to the story – the ending is left deliberately open ended with plenty of room for debate. Are the authorities so desperate they are willing to believe anything, and is this a family brilliantly covering their tracks or victims, not just of a bereavement but of being masterly duped in their own vulnerability? I was faintly disappointed Bourdin’s claim was left at just that, a claim. I wanted to leave with my jaw on the floor, but instead you have to make your own mind up about what happened. And I can’t help but think if the family have something to hide, why would they allow Bart Layton and his crew to make a whole documentary about their torment and allow the audience to scrutinize them so?

This is such a surreal case that the minds of the people involved have been so stretched and manipulated that they're willing to commit to the most outlandish of theories and statements: this story is so twisted and bizarre that maybe there is some truth in Bourdin’s claims – the FBI detective and private investigator are willing to believe literally anything. The latter was a right character, very old school with some brilliant one liners about hot cakes, and “she kept wondering why I kept going on about ears”. He really wanted to be at the centre of an amazing discovery, a nationwide scoop – of course when he starts digging up gardens to find Nicholas’s remains we know it’s not going to come to anything. This was part of several staged moments in the documentary that I was less keen on, and the choice of incidental music at times verged on melodramatic cable crime channel.

There’s no doubt Bourdin is one hell of a crazy character. He is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and the ultimate manipulator. The meticulous and daring story he tells of assuming this missing child's identity and being terrified of being found out is so believable, it's astonishing to discover at the end that he has done this tens of times before. It's a routine for him, not some wild decision. (We did have a chuckle when they were reeling off all his previous identities and one of them surely sounded like "Jimmy Saville....") The way he pretends to be several people/witnesses involved in his case as well is just incredible. He is sentenced at the end to fraudulently obtaining a passport and perjury, but it's never disclosed whether he received any psychiatric treatment for his condition. Questions remain: why didn’t he run away once he got to America (he seems disappointed rural Texas is not the American dream)? Is he genuine when he says all he wants is a family to love and accept him, and just do normal things? Or is this all a game to him? He seemed very keen that the media knew who he was and his story, but this is what ended his impersonation. He has the air of being a professional actor, whereas in reality he is a charlatan and a pathological liar. Clearly a remarkably strange individual, and the perfect subject for a documentary.

The Imposter is every bit as thrilling and mind boggling as the critics have made it out to be – go with friends and ponder it for yourselves afterward. But on reflection, its sensation is only fleeting.

Monday, 27 August 2012

SUMMER 2012 REVIEW: The Indies

Your Sister's Sister
This feels like it's been on the festival circuit an age, but now I've finally gotten to see Lynn Shelton's new film about Jack (Mark Duplass) still grieving for his late brother take up best friend Iris's (Emily Blunt) offer of staying in her father's old cabin to get some much needed head space. But when he gets there he finds Iris's sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) instead, who's got her own problems. The two of them bond over Tequila, and after spilling some drunken secrets end up sleeping together - though Hannah is a lesbian -but a seemingly off the cuff moment bears repercussions as Iris unexpectedly turns up the next day, planning to tell Jack that she's in love with him, and Hannah is revealed to have a hidden agenda. If you have a sister yourself you are going to strongly connect to this film, in a deeply emotional way that only family connections can (see Brave!). There's a moment when all the secrets tumble out and the threeway genial dynamic is destroyed, leaving Iris torn between her sister, whom she adores and looks up to, and her best friend whom she has fallen in love with, and how to react to the two of them - where does her strongest bond lie, and does she find it most difficult to forgive Jack because she is closer to him, or because he isn't family like Hannah is, and there isn't that instinctive need to re-connect? The slow rebuilding of relationships is perfectly done, and had me crying A LOT when Jack makes his speech to both the sisters. Leading up to that, the film is playful, funny and the characters - and actors - are so at ease with one another the largely improvised conversations work a treat - particularly loved all the scenes in the kitchen when they are preparing food (horrible vegan food!). Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt could totally be sisters too - inspired casting. This was my first Duplass film too (as an actor) and I thought he played the endearing dork really well. The only bum note was the added layer of having Hannah use a faulty condom because she's desperately trying to have a baby - if they needed something more to flesh the story out, which I don't think they did, then don't make it completely ridiculous. The open ending was the only way they could get out of it - signs of digging a hole too deep and realising you put the spade in the wrong place.

Killer Joe
The second collaboration between director William Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts is just as riveting and nasty as 2006's Bug, if only lacking a satisfying ending. Waster of a white trash family in rural Texas, Chris (Emile Hirsch) is being chased down by a local drug gang whom he owes a lot of money to. Trying unsuccessfully to get money out of his father (Thomas Haden Church) and his wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), he instead comes up with a plan to bump off his estranged mother who has apparently named his sister Dotty (Juno Temple) as beneficiary to her $50,000 life insurance. And he knows just the person to do it for them as well - corrupt detective 'Killer' Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) - but when the desperate family are unable to pay upfront, Joe takes an interest in Dotty as his 'retainer'. This film has divided so many people, with the tone being sickly gruesome and the humour -as this film pushes the plot to its extreme - pitch black. There is one infamous chicken scene that has led to walkouts, but considering this happens in the film's claustrophobic climax, if you've stuck with the film for that long then you stomach what you chew - chicken has never been so tasteless, but never been so talked about! I had fair warning, so had already pushed the boundaries in my head with where it could go, so the reality in itself though uncomfortable viewing was not nearly as bad as I had imagined! Having seen Bug earlier in the year (with the brilliantly psycho Michael Shannon) I came into Killer Joe pre-disposed to the dirt, and the violence, and the sheer torture Letts puts his characters through. It is difficult to watch in places - particularly Joe's seduction of the virginal and vulnerable Dotty - Juno Temple at her finest - and the very ending when Friedkin doesn't let up on the graphic audacity of the messed up people in the trailer. They're a good match these two - though you can tell throughout that this is a play, Friedkin translates that to the screen with the atmospheric revulsion and the boldness of the cast makes the ride distastefully entertaining - in fact I'd consider it as one of my favourite films of the year so far (what that says about my disposition, I don't know!). The twist is inevitable of this poisonous family, pulled out by a assertive and charming but utterly deranged Joe, and it's too bad the tension which shifts to playful but troubled Dotty - "don't get me mad" - descends into chaos rather than reward. Still, Killer Joe will stick with you whether you have an uneasy bad taste in your mouth for several days afterward or a feeling of wicked joy - luckily I'm a vegetarian so I don't have to face a drumstick again.

Seeking a Friend For the End of the World
OK, so this film wasn't on my radar not particularly being a fan of either Carrell or Knightley, but then came to my attention when I realised it a) was written and directed by Lorene Scarfaria, who was responsible for the delightfully funny and life affirming Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, and b) it has Gillian Jacobs in, only my most favourite person in the entire world right now with her cutest dimples and expectant face (shut up, now). And there was promise of some other great cameos as well with Patton Oswalt and Bob Stephenson, so I went along to take my chances. And I hated it - God I hated it, for about an hour the tone was all over the place, Knightley's Manic Pixie Dream Girl was grating and her comic timing woefully short, and the episodic structure awkward and unfunny. I just didn't get it, and was waiting desperately for miss Gillian to show up, which she eventually did (above) as a crazy waitress ("why didn't you tell me that? HAPPY BIRTHDAY!") which livened me up somewhat for five minutes before the film blathered around for a little bit more. It's only when the film has finished with its haphazard antics and wacky adventures - couple run into hit men, couple get arrested, couple end up in a macho bomb shelter (I'm not even sure why they have a dog with them for the most of it) - that we start to finally get somewhere with these characters, and their inevitable falling for one another. But it's so sweetly done - the scenes on the beach, when Knightley waxes lyrical - ahem - about her love of vinyl and her life back at home in England - the touching bond between these two wins you over. There's a moment when the film is given an ending - and ending that would have satisfied the majority of people, but the fact it then continues means we're going to get the final reconciliation between the two. The last 15 minutes are extraordinary - the impending apocalypse has until this moment been treated with an air of novelty and excitement, and it's only when the things you rely on - the newsreader signing off hours before the comet hits and the empty beep of the TV just flatlining pierces straight through you - disappear that you realise its just you and death. Probably the most frightening way to die, and the final scene on the bed reduced me to such a wreck I had to sit through the majority of the credits wondering how to escape to the toilets without being seen looking like a crazed mess. Immensely affecting - I left with a strange sense of loss in a daze - I'm afraid I'm failing to emphasise with those who came out feeling comforted! A beautiful ending and eventual triumph by Carrell, as good here as he is in Little Miss Sunshine, and Knightley, though she should stick to the drama as that's where she excels, more than makes up for the rough ride which precedes it. Never has a film won me over so completely when I wanted to walk out halfway through.

Sound of My Voice
Ever since last year's Another Earth I have been keeping my eye on Brit Marling, though her cult drama where she plays a mysterious leader claiming to be from the future attracted my attention from the off when it premiered at Sundance last year, alongside similarly themed Martha Marcy May Marlene. Couple and documentary makers Peter and Lorna have initiated themselves into this underground group, which meets in an unknown location (they are blindfolded on the drive) once a week, where Maggie (Marling), dressed all in white and seemingly unable to function properly without a breathing tube and specially grown food, speaks to them of her story and her message. She says she awoke with no memory of who she was, in a bathtub, and with very little energy. When her life finally comes back to her, she realises she has travelled back in time, from a point in the future where the world has descended into war and famine, and her purpose is to warn the people in the present of the coming terrors. How her group of followers have been selected is not explained, but sceptics Peter and Lorna adopt the strange rituals of the cult - showering, fasting, a special handshake - to blend in, but with the intent of secretly filming the activities in the hope of exposing Maggie as a fake. Whilst Lorna remains focused on the job, Peter's relationship with Maggie becomes more intense as she breaks him down during therapy sessions, and shows a sudden kinship and faith in him, asking him to perform a task for her which results in the final climax of the film, and the unravelling of Maggie. It's compelling throughout, from the first scene where Peter and Lorna soundlessly make their way to the cult's secret meeting place under heavy guard from Maggie's right hand associates, to the bizarre cut away scenes that have no apparent relation to the narrative with a young girl outcast by her classmates and an FBI agent who is seen thoroughly bugging a hotel room. How this is all ties together is very clever, but the story has too many loose threads to successfully create a neat conclusion, and - it's main fault - the whole thing is just too short. At 85 minutes it flies by, and with sketchily drawn characters and frustrating non sequiturs, you're left with too many questions that could have been eliminated if only there had been another 20 minutes or so. Peter and Lorna's long relationship is told to us by Maggie through VTs, and this is not enough to make you relate to them, or connect with them as they fight over Maggie and their intentions and ambitions. And the final scene - which suggests the audience has been fooled all along - is tenuous, not smart enough to justify a fulfilling twist. Strange and puzzling, Sound of My Voice is intriguingly different but the docu style of it will leave you feeling detached, and with writing less sharp than on Marling's Another Earth. A funny one to ponder, but ultimately lacks the staying power to truly distract you.

Having thoroughly enjoyed this Summer's earlier Scandinavian crime caper Headhunters I was back for more with another adaptation of best selling novelist Jo Nesbo's work - this one done previously, but given a belated release date over here due to the former's success - Jackpot, in which a group of ex convicts and their duty manager win big on the pools, but then are unable to amicably share it out. And that's putting it mildly! Having not read any of Nesbo's books I'm beginning to realise why he's so popular, with an ingenious mind for inventive and blackly comic plot devices and twists, and adept at littering the narrative with deft touches to enhance the story which later turn out to be the breadcrumbs to working out the entire convoluted, rousing plot. The story is told to us in flashback, after Oscar (Kyree Hellum, who was in the brilliant North, and why are all the protagonists in these adaptations variations of Steve Buscemi?) is arrested by police, the only survivor in a shootout at a lap dance club. As we hear what happened from Oscar's viewpoint, under the eagle eyes of the infuriating police detective (Henrik Mestad), at the start we have no doubt this is our hero and he is telling the truth, but as the story goes on... could we be as fooled as the detective is? Perhaps it's the clumsy nature of these buffoons, but the film does drag in places and it's not as instantly enjoyable as Headhuters, where the stakes were much higher. But it shares the same DNA and remains entertaining throughout, picking up the pace in the final third where we get the obligatory double bluffs and crossings, all precisely done, with a satisfying ending - even if the landlord was playing it a bit too Ricky Gervais. It's bloody and gory, and leaves you baffled and bemused at the dark sense of humour possessed in the northern icy lands and there are some genuine laugh out loud moments. A strong follow up to a refreshingly egregious screwball genre.

Thursday, 23 August 2012


The Pact
I previewed this earlier in the year at Sundance, and was looking forward to a creepy, haunted house story oozing in tension and delivering in scares. What's clever about The Pact - which has a lot more going for it than people are giving in credit for - is that it starts out being one thing, terrifying enough in itself as the house is possessed by a restless and seemingly malevolent entity, and then blends into something as equally horrifying. Caity Lotz plays Annie, who returns to her family home after her mother dies at the request of her sister, who then vanishes from the house. After staying there alone waiting for her sister to come back, she begins to sense a supernatural presence in the house, which after nights of paranoia, culminates in the spirit attacking her and driving her out, first to a detective (Casper van Dien) and then to creepy medium Nichole (Agnes Bruckner) where they discover a secret room boarded up in the house which holds terrible memories. The trailer makes it look completely supernatural, and your typical ghost story - although I loved the twist on it being a tiny, badly decorated apartment rather than a sprawling menacing house. It was claustrophobic, and the blackness of some of the rooms terrifying - some of the biggest jumps came from the camera following the visitors around the house. But when the plot shifts subgenres, and it becomes apparent the spirit is trying to warn Annie about the larger evil living in - or rather under - the house, the reality of the horror is, for me, a hugely creepy pay off and you'll never trust the house that you live in again. A competent and promising first effort from writer/director Nicholas McCarthy.

The Innkeepers
Ti West is the new indie darling of the horror genre, with his acclaimed and terrifying House of the Devil from a couple of years ago, and short film stints in The ABCs of Death and V/H/S (below). But The Innkeepers proves to be his most accessible, from the outset a typical haunted house story (or in this case, falling apart B&B) - but what's successful here is his token long, drawn out waiting style he brings to the plate, and a clever ending which will give much resonance to further viewings. Claire (Sara Paxton, from the CW's short lived The Beautiful Life) and Luke (Pat Healy) are bored housekeepers-slash-amateur ghost investigators, working the final days in the life of the Yankee Pedlar Inn before it is closed down for good, and trying to get substantial proof for their website that the hotel is really haunted by the ghost of suicide bride Madeline O'Malley. The film - split into old fashioned chapters - focuses primarily on Claire, who is brilliantly played by Paxton as a charming over expressive goofball, who dissolves into fandom when one of her favourite actresses checks in for a stay (Kelly McGillis), and cheekily teases her colleague as the two of them play affectionate pranks on one another. But it's her determination turned obsessive nature over the weird noises in the hotel, the history of the ghosts, and the warnings of the actress - now a medium - which drives the film to it's frantic and tragic conclusion. The build up is superb, with almost nothing happening in the first hour, almost lulling you into thinking this is a different genre piece altogether. But when the action kicks in, it blows apart the impending sense of unease into full blown terror. Claire may do some things you'll want to throw your hands up in the air and smack her for, but the narrative is solicitously and astutely spun to make the ending inevitable, instead of a cliche. There's definite layers here, but don't read too much into the film as peeps on IMDB have - it's straightforward, and with so many nods to The Shining I thought we were going to get one final twist - but the ending has already been told to you, if you just listen carefully.

I'm always excited about seeing films that are supposedly so scary they cause people to throw up and pass out at screenings - that's what happened with V/H/S at Sundance earlier this year, and why I've been tracking this film closely for a watch myself. It's an anthology of stories from some of the most prolific young directors working in the genre today, with the clever premise the short films are on old VHS tapes, hidden away in a house a gang of youths break into at the start of the film, whose curiosity to watch what they're stealing gets the better of them. There are five video tapes - here's the lowdown:
1. Amateur Night (dir: David Bruckner) - a group of three lads go out of the town in the aim of pulling some girls and taking them back to their hotel room. Of the two they drunkenly take back with them one passes out almost immediately, whilst the other - with the freakiest set of eyes this millennia - seems into hooking up with all three of them at once.... kinky. Until she becomes a succubus and starts ripping their flesh off with her teeth! This opening scare from Bruckner (The Signal) was well paced and gory, he's very adept with the shaky camera style. Good start.
2. Second Honeymoon (dir: Ti West) - the second tape is the film's most flawed, but personally, best short. It's weird, and twisty, and was the only time I had to hide behind my hands. A young couple embark on a road trip through Nevada, staying in cheap motels, recording the event on their video camera. After an unsettling encounter with a girl knocking on their door at night, the couple are visited in their sleep by a masked invader (above) who - sooooo creepily - turns the camera on to film their actions. The heavy atmosphere contrasted with the ignorant breeziness of the morning after is skin-crawling ("JUST WATCH THE GOD DAMN FOOTAGE!"). The twist is clever, but makes you question what went on before as sorely pointless. So great to watch, but frustratingly puzzling in retrospect.
3. Tuesday the 17th (dir: Glenn McQuaid) - from the high point we then dip down to the lowest part of the electrocardiograph of V/H/S and the weakest story of the five from I Sell The Dead's Glenn McQuaid. From the outset - a group of teens going off on a weekend trip into the woods - the narrative slides into familiar territory and you find yourself relaxing: what could possibly happen here that we haven't seen a billion times before? And almost immediately, the kids start getting bumped off, in uninteresting ways, and it's a relief to know it'll be ending soon as we head to the next instalment.
4. The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger (dir: Joe Swanberg) - onto the strangest of the video tapes, this short is bizarrely directed by Joe Swanberg, who has developed a home in the mumblecore movement (Uncle Kent, Nights and Weekends) and is not a name you would associate with horror - I'm fascinated as to how he joined this project. His contribution is the jumpiest of the lot and has a great supernatural feel to it and ingenious use of Skype to mix up the recording style - but then just takes a giant leap into WTF and loses credence. Bizarre science rather than a horror.
5. 10/31/98 (dir: Radio Silence) - those pesky Americans and their backwards dating - that title is Halloween 1998 for clarity, and tells the story of a group of boys who go on a search to find this amazing party they've been tipped off about, only to find the house from Repulsion with the satanists from House of the Devil upstairs. Probably the most satisfying of all the films, it ends the anthology on a high note even though I'm sure I've seen this in an episode of Supernatural sometime. Surely it's time the trio of directors that make up Radio Silence move onto features?
The ups and downs V/H/S takes as we watch its own content could be wickedly effective if only they were given a clever context, a sinister connection. But the wraparound story, Tape 56 (dir: Adam Wingard), is so awful it tails off before we even get an ending! It's set up brilliantly, with one of the gang watching the tapes whilst the dead owner of the house is slumped in a chair behind him, and only upon the changeover from tape 3 to 4 do we realise the armchair is suddenly empty - smartly, scarily done. But what happens next is just an incoherent mess without a payoff, and the film's sudden ending with the stopping of the fifth short - without concluding the wraparound arc - will leave many including myself a bit cheesed off. Not half as scary as everyone's making it out to be - and who's being sick? The same people who threw up in Cloverfield? - but I enjoyed the thorough and entertaining romp through all the genres of horror, from creature to slasher, even if the premise was better than the end product. I'd recommend for a Halloween night.

V/H/S premieres at Film4's Frightfest tomorrow, Friday August 24th. Tickets available here.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

SUMMER 2012 REVIEW: The Blockblusters

I didn't mean to see this at all, but this actually worked in my favour. Watching and listening to the output of scorn, disgust and actual pure hate of this film from expectant fans in the days after its release, I had only one emotion: enjoyment. You see, I can't stand films set in space (see Star Wars, Trek, Moon, 2001, etc) so whilst everyone else was getting in a tizz about it, I remained oblivious to all trailers, clips, feature articles, knowing next to nothing about it apart from it being a 'vague prequel to Alien', which in itself I've only seen once, and I think I was doing something else during the majority of it. But then I was dragged to go and see it by the (then, not quite) hubby, and despite my extraordinarily crafted sulking-stubborn deployment, go and see I did. I thought I wasn't going to have a clue what was going on, and certainly the prologue didn't help matters. But once we got into the story, it was a simple affair really, and so akin at times to Jurassic Park that I found it kind of lovable: scientists travel to an unknown destination, seeking out answers to the creatures that lived before us, straying off the path of the leaders, taking things which they shouldn't, escaping from a massive storm in buggies... I personally loved that bit, it just needed a bit of Jeff Goldblum to spice it up a bit. The planet the action takes place on - LV223 - is so beautiful and dramatic, I loved the ship's descent, hovering above valleys, waterfalls, and mountains, and was crushingly disappointed that all we got to see there was the inside of a big temple. It made me wish this has been a completely different film - a hybrid of this and Avatar would be nice please, Mr Hollywood (without Sam Worthington, obvs). No doubting Prometheus was beautiful to look at, and despite the storyline being somewhat unambitious for something trying to be so er, ambitious, it's sci-fi lite approach/misfire (whichever way you look at it) was a joy to me, and I lapped it all up eagerly. Something I thought was going to be heavy and obtuse was actually a big old adventure! Having had no pre-conceptions and avoided the hype, I somehow emerged the biggest fan of Prometheus ever (which isn't to say I've largely forgotten it now). Michael Fassbender was particularly brilliant as super android David, and having no sci fi models to compare him to found him surprisingly like Edward Scissorhands, with the utter devotion he has to his maker, in this case a completely unrecognisable Guy Pearce (halfway through I was still waiting for him to turn up... then realised he'd been there all the time). Less impressed by the rest of the cast, but this was more down to the poorly drafted characters they had to breathe life into - Charlize Theron the most wasted, Noomi Rapace the most devalued. Traits and motives shakily established, half heartedly carried through. And some really rubbish deaths, too! I won't wander too much into the Alien debate, especially after having only watched the one shit sequel, but I will point out Ridley Scott never said this was a direct prequel, but that it was "two or three films away from that" - so expect a trilogy of prequels ala Star Wars before you get your answers then... and realise it's not so hateful after all.

Snow White and the Huntsman
The problem with SWATH herein lies in the credits: "screen story by Evan Daughtrey, screenplay by Evan Daughtrey, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini" - and separately - based on the Brothers Grimm fairytale. It has a lot of underlying narrative to it, and ultimately they all try and squeeze themselves into the finished film, leaving a story uneven in tone and a pogo stick of quality. Yes, this is a different take on the classic well-known tale of a girl hated by her step-mother for her beauty, who is taken into the forest on the preconception of death, only to escape and find a new home with seven dwarves. It's an epic fantasy adventure, with nods from everything to Lord of the Rings to Labyrinth, and though I adore these films, I don't want to see hotpotch versions of them popping up again and again. It was at its best when Snow and the Huntsman are on the run from the Queen, exploring the land around them and allowing the large editorial team's imaginations to go mental. I LOVED the opposites of the Dark Forest and the Faerie Sanctuary, and only wish we could have stayed in these places longer instead of having to go back to the castle. The troll was ace, too. I'd be perfectly happy to sit through several more adventures in this visually breathtaking land, bulging with personality. Oh, if only that could be said for the people that inhabit it! Snow, The Huntsman, the Queen all yelled, and fought, and cried, and went through the whole wheel of emotions as loved ones are taken from them and individual hardships become unbearable - yet somehow you don't feel like you're on anybody's side in particular. The desire to make the story more complex - introducing backstory and new characters blurs the line between good and evil, and whilst this could have made the story rich and satisfying, it only succeeds in creating apathy and entanglements (alongside The Hunger Games, the second most banal love triangle of the year). The special effects are impressive, but the end result feels limp. Not the finest hour for any of the main cast, though the ensemble of British excellence that is the dwarves, when they finally turn up, is thoroughly watchable, and provide the only true emotion in the film. What the film sorely lacks is focus, and an endgame: it leaves itself open for the inevitable sequel, but devoid of humour and lacking the passion to get us excited for the next instalment. Amid recent scandals, it'll be interesting to see where this goes next.

The Amazing Spider-Man
This is a better told origin story than Sam Raimi's 2002 incarnation, with likeable characters that sparkle on screen, but it lacks the spectacle and awe of the action set-pieces the former engraved in us. Not the finest label to give a superhero film, it's cute: Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone - loved up in real life - are adorable as childhood sweethearts Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey (ignoring the comic books), and their natural chemistry and individual charisma make them eminently watchable - particularly loved Stone's pattering away of her father whilst she hides an injured Spidey in her bedroom, and Garfield's pitch perfect languid and lanky teenager. The relationships elevate the film, not just between the lead characters, but between Peter and his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, as he rebels against their guardianship whilst clinging onto them as his only family. It's a big theme here: with more time spent on what happened to Peter's parents than working on the villain of the piece, Rhys Ifans' Lizard (this film will always be memorable for me for the woman who declared as the credits rolled at the end, "who's Rhys Ifans?"). His motives are murky, and the climax of the film cliched and predictable, with Spidey saving New York from his biological takedown with ease. Well, with a bit of limping. That's what I wrestled with the most: the scene of New York's construction force coming together to make a path to Oscorp for a wounded Spidey to swing to felt like it should have been a soaring joyous moment, but instead felt empty. The prowess from Marc Webb in this area was sadly lacking, but perhaps he will learn for the sequel - he doesn't need to worry about his cast anymore. There was lots of humour which I loved too (small knives!) and it did what every superhero film should do - embrace its fantasy with a great sense of fun. Great egg gag, too.

The Dark Knight Rises
There are many things I admire about Christopher Nolan, and being no Batophile myself, can appreciate what he's done with these characters, and this world, to make them believable, credible, and sublimely assured. But I think he played it safe here. A perfect blend of the dark and brooding Batman Begins and the chaotic beauty of The Dark Knight, this works perfectly to finish the story and to please the many hoards of fans. But I just wish he had made it its own thing and gone against the grain to make something as individual as its predecessors. Though I still personally find Begins the dullest, Rises is the least interesting of the trilogy. Smartly and sensitively dispelling the Joker, the third film picks up several years later, with Batman and Bruce Wayne both in hiding (has no one figured it out yet?), whilst Gotham is slowly being disarmed by Bane (Tom Hardy/Deckard Cain). Forced to take a stand, a rusty Bat - but with some brand new weapons that only made me giggle - is pitted against this new strand of enemy: brute force. The Batman/Bane stand-offs are gritty and real, but with it lacklustre. Action too is a yawnfest, having seen this all before and better in The Dark Knight. It's the plotting which is superior, and even though the twist left me less satisfied than an avid reader of the graphic novels, it was a proper twist and not a retcon - wonderfully gratifying to discover the hidden clues left by Nolan upon several re-watches. At 165 minutes I was quietly stressing, but this never drags which is a testament to the richly layered storytelling and characters. The newbies were great - Anne Hathaway much better at the beginning when she's being insane and a teeny bit bisexual with Juno Temple (you know it) though she becomes tiresome later on, particularly when she bursts into save Batman's life in the final fist-off with Bane. Joseph Gordon Levitt stood out as Blake, and though a little ineffectual in moments, can now handle himself well under Nolan's camera. The ending was cheesy as hell, and a lot more black and white than some people are making it out to be (not everything is Inception, peeps) but thankfully finishes, putting a tidy end on this trilogy. The most comic book of the three films, you could lift several scenes and put them onto glossy paper. After watching them within a few days of one another, I was surprised how much this echoed The Amazing Spider-Man at times - despite its darkness, Batman has finally embraced its genre!

Pixar's latest dips into fairy tale and myth for the first time, and sees them also set a story abroad (as opposed to under the sea or in space), as they head for medieval Scotland. Despite the brilliant animation company being pocketed by Disney back in 2006, Brave is the first film where that relationship becomes fully apparent. Perhaps it's the use of a female protagonist in (oh my God I want her hair) Merida - the first for Pixar, but just another creation in a long line of Disney princesses - she reminded me a lot of Aladdin's Jasmine, facing the same predicament of having an arranged marriage with a suitor when she's not ready, and wants to be free to make her own choices. But instead of fighting with her father, Brave tackles something unique in the long stream of animation films from these two power houses: the mother/daughter relationship. Beautifully depicting baby Merida being completely besotted with her mother, this precious bond has been strained by tradition and a mother's sense of duty against a stubborn teenager who feels powerless and ignored. A tomboy anyway with a love of archery and adventure, Merida has an easy connection with her carefree father, but it's her close and therefore more suffocating relationship with her mother that she beats upon, and desperate to get out of her prescribed destiny, runs away to strike up a bargain with a witch to change her fate. This is - along with Up - grown up Pixar, with a maturity to its story stifling out the traditional wacky capers and hilarious quotable jokes for a change, which is a shame because though charming it does lack in the delight factor. Males will also find it difficult to relate to the more subtle, delicate parts of the film - brilliantly done - which presides on a mother and daughter literally working together to 'mend the bond that has been broken' - a torn tapestry perhaps, but we all know what the bigger life lesson is on offer here. Brave is gorgeous to look at, with an exquisitely haunting soundtrack capturing the myth and lore of rural Scotland perfectly, making up for what's disappointingly lacking from the narrative. The first half was wonderful, top-end Pixar, with an opening that rivals the very best the company has ever produced. I was confident the lukewarm reviews had missed something. The discovery of the witch's cottage magically took me back to the best cartoon witch I've ever seen on the screen in Journey Back to Oz, and I was in story telling visual heaven. Then they crucially made a decision which changed the whole tone of the film, reeking of Disney in every way, which just spoilt it for me. In fact, I'd go so far to say Brave connivingy cheats you as a viewer, as the majority of the second half of the film is missing from the trailer. They'll probably say not to give the big reveal away, but I cynically suspect it's because it's achingly tiresome. Here we go again, you'll mutter, let's bring in the animal humour. You have at your feet a whole world of magic, beauty, dynasty  - and yet you decide to do this? Definitely not one of Pixar's best as they missed a trick, but has plenty of heart and a headstrong, likable protagonist, exploring the theme of family in a new, and gently satisfying way. If you're a girl then you will be moved to tears.

I'm slightly bemused as to how well this is playing to audiences, though I can understand its appeal: it's the debut big screen venture from comic writer Seth Macfarlane, best known for American Dad, The Cleveland Show, and of course the juggernaut Family Guy. But avid fans of his work - and I am one of them - will know Family Guy lost its mojo years ago, and the creator himself has even confessed to secretly hoping it'll finally (ironically) get cancelled by Fox soon as it's run its course. Films is obviously the area he wants to move into now - but with Ted, in which he voices the foul-mouthed titular furry character, it's just Family Guy re-moulded. Current Family Guy at that - meaning the jokes often hang in the air awkwardly, instead of zipping neatly by. Ted in himself is just a different variation of Brian, with exactly the same self righteous tendencies and liberal recreations - I found all the constant smoking/womanising/expletives tiresome (at least Brian writes hilariously shit novels). In fact the dynamics were pretty similar all round, with Mark Wahlberg's John being lazy, stuck in a dead end job, perfectly happy stuck in a juvenile rut not going anywhere. And whilst Mila Kunis (who plays Meg in the cartoon) is the more grown-up, successful one - she shares the same sense of humour and that is why they love each other and she can accept his flaws. It's Peter and Lois! Too bad the best thing about Family Guy is Stewie, and there was no equivalent here. We did get the actor who plays Joe - you can tell immediately - who has a hilarious gag, with Ryan Reynolds cameo-ing - yet again for Seth Macfarlane - playing a gay character. Kudos to him. Norah Jones was less winsome. The plot in itself was yawningly predictable, down to the beats and the character arcs, but was overall quite sweet and I did shed a tear when Mila Kunis makes a wish which brings Ted back to life. The cynic in me knows it's only for the sequel - I think the film would have found a more bittersweet and mature depth if they had chosen to end the magic there. I would have much preferred that ending - she could have wished for John to have the strength to finally let go, as in the end, nothing really changes. Wahlberg and Kunis were great though, with a real fun chemistry between them which made them really watchable as a couple. But I have to say - there needed to be more Joel McHale, as he's just brilliant. Playing here Mila Kunis' boss as a more leery Jeff Winger - perhaps in the more infuriating moments of the film it was just me crying out for a Community movie instead. The most interesting part of the film by far was the sub plot involving the creepy father and fat kid, who are desperate to get their hands on the magical teddy bear, making the last 15 minutes of the film what the whole thing should have been - solid joke, after joke, after joke - the best one coming right at the very end - Ted's worth sticking around just for that beauty. Patchy overall, I probably won't be investing in this again, less the inevitable sequel. It's a worry Mr Macfarlane may have already peaked, or he may need to change up his schnizzle as if he's bored, then we're all bored.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

I'm Back Brats!

Sorry to just call you all brats. It's a thing (above).

So you may (or not) have noticed there has been absolutely nothing happening on the blog for nearly three months. I apologise for this, and can only blame doing proper grown up-py things, like planning a wedding, and then getting married, and then go on a massive holiday to recover, and then realising you have to go back to work, and marriage wasn't actually a portal into a new parallel universe where only parties and cakes and people doting on you all the time exist. Oh, and the Olympics happened.

But now I am back, and in true quick-let's-get-it-over-with style, and I will putting up a plethora of back catalogue film reviews in miniature, catalogued fashion in the next couple of days - the Summer blockblusters, the hidden away indies, and the (surprisingly for this time of year) horror films. Of which one is actually relevant as it is not out until LATER THIS YEAR.

There are also some other sight changes to the blog - Filmdar now appears on the right hand column of the main page, with links to the trailers. They are in choronological order. Watch out for September when it will run all the way down the page's footer there are so many films out. Nataliedar has been retired, not because my love has dwindled, but because she will be taking on less projects in the immediate future as she has also been doing grown up-py things (I like the fact we both got married within weeks of each other). TVDar still exists, and the Fall trailers are now beginning to pop up online so keep checking back for updates.

The biggest change has been merging all of my reviews from other blogs and film sites onto culturemouse to create a huge conglomeration of film reviews, rather like when you open lots of packets of Chewits and then individually soften each one and then pummel them altogether to make a massive Chewits ball and then bite into it... nope, no-one? Film A-Z is now born, so if I've seen a film since approx 2008 and reviewed it, then here it will be for you to read. You'll have to forgive my younger self for such appalling 'writing' and use of exclamation marks, but gotta keep it realz, y'know? My 22 year old self meant well.

There's some really exciting stuff coming up in the next few months, including Venice, Toronto, Raindance, London and Leeds, not to mention specific releases and then there's all the wonderful TV going on simultaneously. I will try to bring it you all as much as I can, but in the meantime, I'll work on getting up to date and just thanking God that no one put any traps down whilst I was gone.