Saturday, 31 October 2015

Eden Lake (2008)

Low Budget. Horror. Rising stars. All three things seem to intersect quite often, especially at the start of big careers. Eden Lake, a low budget British horror film starring unknowns Michael Fassbender and Jack O'Connell, alongside Kelly Reilly, is no different.

In a way that feels very "Deliverance but in the English countryside", Jenny (Reilly) and Steve (Fassbender) are a city couple looking to spend a romantic weekend out in the countryside on the shores of the soon to be developed Lake of the title. Their waterside peace is quickly shattered by the appearance of some local teenagers lead by O'Connell's Brett. Things escalate after a Steve confronts the group about their unruly behaviour, and we suddenly find ourselves in a Daily Mail writer's worst nightmare about hoodies who certainly don't want to be hugged.

While Kelly is in the lead role it's Jack O'Connell's unhinged performance as the leader of this gang of what are basically children that makes Eden Lake stand out as low-budget horror done right. He's a manipulative, machismo obsessed man leading children. Halloween classics might centre around the supernatural, but we've all met real people like Brett who we fear could end up going down the same road if they run into someone who won't back down. And that's really scary.

Eden Lake, through its protagonists, takes a look at what it really means to be a man and how one gets there. Steve and Brett are two sides of the same coin, where one is a real man who knows when to back down or cut something short and the other is so scared of being seen as weak that things will get crazy in an instant. It's almost enough to feel sorry for the boy, but soon enough he'll savagely beat one of his "friends" or threaten them with death if they don't do as he says, and then you'll remember why he's Eden Lake's version of that hillbilly who likes to get a little too acquainted with the tourists.

Short, to the point, tense and not totally out there, Eden Lake should be a highlight of the early careers for many of those involved. One of the finer products to come out of the UK horror scene in years.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Locke (2014)

Locke is one of those films that sounds awful on paper, and has every chance of being awful in reality, but manages to pull through thanks to the talent and care of everyone involved.

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) leaves the construction site he foremans on the eve of his biggest work project to date and sets off on a journey that will change his life irreversibly. On his two hour drive from Birmingham to London he tries to navigate his way through both his rapidly crumbling professional and personal lives via phone calls to his wife, family, coworkers and a figure from his past.

As the viewer you're trapped in this car for the duration of the film, just you and Tom Hardy. Once over the ridiculous Welsh accent (although, that is just how they talk) it's Hardy that this entire production relies and thrives upon. It's just him in a car talking to disembodied voices and it just works so goddamn well. It's a testament to what film can really be even at it's barest minimum. This is a man's entire life falling apart. There are no set pieces, no explosions. Just a guy in a car doing the speed limit, most of the time.

It's this bare bones approach that makes you focus on what works so well. Hardy pulls off this troubled man who is trapped by a decision he made that was so out of character with grace. He captures all the many faces of a man who is prepared to pay the price for the mistake he's made, in effect he's playing a number of characters within Ivan Locke himself.

Locke is grounded so much so in this minimalist storytelling that the verisimilitude of it all is what grabs you so much. Sure, we might not all be critical to the biggest concrete pour in Europe, but everyone will experience a night close to Ivan Locke's when your work life and your home life and everything else comes crashing down on you all at once and you just do your best to cope. Stories like that are relatable because, although this might be the most interesting night in Locke's life, it's probably on par with the most interesting night of most people's lives.

You can have all your superheroes, or your eldritch horrors or your international super spies and they're all well and good, but Locke is real. And it's just captivating.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Spring (2015)

There has always been a place in my black heart for horror movies. They bring something primal and base to the world of film that other genres just can't present. Fear, despair and melancholy are something every person experiences through life. It might not be caused by an axe murderer or some dreadful apocalypse or a prolonged haunting but it's there. It's real, and it's human.

Of course, the opposite holds true as well. On the opposite side of the coin are love stories. Not rom-coms, but love stories. And again, the best of these are the ones that feel real.  The fairytale ending may be satisfying in the short term, but it holds no real emotional impact. The ones that hurt, where it feels like the end of the film isn't the destination but just a waypoint on the journey, stick with you. (Which is why I think everyone needs to see Eternal Sunshine and Lost in Translation but I say that often enough).

Spring takes the stronger elements of both worlds and mixes a strange, heady cocktail of tropes to present one of the more weird and wonderful films of the past year. And in true indie fashion it's the strangeness of it that will mean it'll go underappreciated forever and that's a tragedy.

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead make up the directorial team, with two relative unknowns taking the lead, in the form of Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker. Pucci is Evan, a young Californian who finds his whole life unravelling around him at breakneck speed. When the camel's back finally breaks he takes the leap most of us dream about and just packs his bags and leaves. Not long after his arrival in Europe he becomes enraptured by the enigmatic Louise (Hilker). The pair share a fast-forged love over a number of days, but Louise can't hide a dark side of herself forever.

The entire film seems share the slightly hazy, and jetlagged demeanour that Evan has while adjusting to a new continent. It always seems to be behind a slightly faint, smoky-dewy barrier. Early morning and dusk make up the majority of the scenes too, giving it this eerie ambiguity over when exactly things are taking place. It all combines into an atmosphere where even when nothing seems wrong, it feels different. Like the first time you were drunk.

A "strange not scary" bent is evident in how the horror aspects are handled by Benson and Moorhead. There is an amount"traditional" horror fare, especially in some of the visceral, Lynch-ian body horror moments, but also a nihilistic attitude to other moments that would typically be accompanied by a loud, shrill audio sting. Why yes, there is a disgusting animal corpse down that cliffside, but it's not dangerous. It's just a bit weird and not very pleasant. Spring just accepts strange things for what they are and moves on.

Spring is a visually beautiful and innovative film. Set on the Italian coast and making fantastic use of drone shots to see the slightly crumbling towns and cliffs from above as well as the two lovers captures a magical feeling about the otherwordly limbo in which the film takes place.

This is a horror/romance film unlike anything I've seen for a long time. With a heart as big as some of the tentacles of its monster, Spring will make you sit in a state of unease while reminding you to worry less about working and more about living.

Friday, 24 April 2015

The Voices (2014)

Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) had a bit of a difficult childhood. He had a rough life. His mother was seriously mentally ill and his step-father was abusive. But that's all behind him. Jerry works a job he enjoys well enough at a bathroom fittings factory. He's got a nice apartment (even if it is above a disused bowling alley). Most importantly, he has his two lovable furry companions, Mr Whiskers and Boscoe. When he comes home from a shift on the factory floor he'll often recount his day to them as he pours their food and water.

And between mouthfuls, Mr Whiskers and Boscoe will reply.

The Voices is a black comedy drama following Jerry and how he deals with the reality presents itself to him, and how it's different to everyone else's. Things all reach a tipping point at the start when Jerry, the new guy at work, is asked to help organise the company picnic and he's joined on the task by the lovely Fiona (Gemma Arterton). As can probably be guessed from the fact that this is a black comedy, things don't exactly play out well. Things quickly unravel and we take a trip down the rabbit hole involving talking cats and dogs, severed heads in the fridge and obscene amount of takeaway and tupperware containers and one particularly brutal slaughtering.

With The Voices, director Marjane Satrapi leads you up the garden path then brutally stabs you within about the first half an hour. While some black comedies are funny films with a dark subject (like In Bruges or Sightseers or Fargo) The Voices is a lot darker and punctuated by funny moments. As soon as you get used to the concept of Ryan Reynolds talking to a Scottish cat and a dopey dog (both also voiced by Reynolds, fantastically I might add) it stops being funny and becomes really quite sad as it becomes more apparent what's really going on in those scenes. That's not to say that the film isn't funny because it is. It's just that the tactic used throughout is typically something absurd happening directly after something really quite troubling occurs. The finale just before the credits roll is something quite inspired to say the least. The Voices is just kind of like that though, making use of misdirection. The first 15-20 minutes certaintly left me feeling quite confident about hwo the plot was going to go. Wrong. Completely wrong. Things got a lot darker, a lot quicker than I expected.

Satrapi brings a really interesting visual style to the film that really brings it to life. Jerry's world is bright, populated by saturated colours and soft hues. The grisly, visceral gore that punctuates the film makes for an odd mix of the quirky and the horrific giving The Voices a unique feel.

Reynolds' performance is just as important as the visual style in making The Voices memorable. Jerry is a simple yet troubled man. He just wants to be happy and healthy and not be alone. He's not the most intelligent guy and he's in the grips of a truly awful illness that pretty much means he can't achieve all three of the things he wants. Reynolds' showing as Jerry is simultaneously harrowing, hilarious and supremely melancholy. I've never previously rated Reynolds, but his role here has really, really got me excited for what he can do with the darkest comedy in comics that is Deadpool next year.

The performances of Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick are also worth mentioning. They both play characters that they've done before, but they've done them before because they're good at them. Arterton is the sexy and fun woman who can actually be quite cruel and harsh, and Kendrick's the quiet, sweet, slightly self-conscious girl who wouldn't hurt a fly. Arterton's range of expression in her face in particular is astounding.

So, The Voices. It's really dark. Like really, really dark. There are moments of truly absurd hilarity and the kitschy aesthetic that clashes violently with some of the grislier visuals give it a unique and refreshing take on the black comedy genre. the humour in no ways detracts from the drama and it takes much more of a back seat as the picture goes on. The film doesn't make comedy out of the illness though, and rightly so. Jerry is a man afflicted with a terrible situation and you'll watch parts of this film through your fingers not because of the gore but because you feel awful for everybody involved.

Monday, 9 February 2015

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Name the two things that are msot overdone in TV and film right now.

If you said "vampires" and "mockumentaries" then congratulations, we're both unusually tired of two quite specific things. It's strange then that this is the vampire mockumentary we didn't know we always wanted.

What We Do in the Shadows comes from the minds of Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, two of the creative minds behind the massive cult hit Flight of the Conchords. Such a comedy pedigree bleeds into the bones of WWDitS and the style of humour blends well.

 WWDitS is the documentary put together by the New Zealand Documentary Board team that shadowed four vampire flatmates in Wellington, NZ. The house is like a police lineup of vampire classics: the violent and explosion Vladislav from somewhere  in Eastern Europe, a fancy 18th Century dandy in the form of Viago, Deacon the stylish and swaggering "youngster" at 183 years old and Petyr, the Nosferatu-esque ancient horror.

The four of them tackle issues that come up in all eternal lives. They have to feed on human blood, they struggle to keep up with technology, pine over long-dead lovers and argue about who has to wash the blood stained bowls that have been in the sink for years. The combination of the supernatural issues they face and the mundane gives the undead foursome a very human appeal, despite some of the sometimes digusting and sometimes hilarious (often both) things they carry out on their nights.

The style of humour is rapid, with quickfire jokes coming one after the next. The mockumentary style is used not like a crutch as it is in most TV shows right now, but to block off sections of the film with relative ease. It creates an atmosphere that feels almost like a combination of sketches, with little overarching plot, so don't go in expecting some Twilight drama you'll have trouble finding the vein.

A lot of the humour does feel quite obvious, but it's played off so smartly and genuinely that it works well enough to carry it off. Yes some of the jokes have been done before, and yes they were done because they were funny. The most cliché example lives in the rival pack of werewolves that the guys encounter a number of times through the film. The werewolves v zombies dynamic is nothing new, but the biting banter exchanged between the two, especially from pack's the alpha male (played by Flight of the Conchords' Rhys Darby). It's an easy joke to make, but not easy to do well, and this right here is one of my highlights.

The humour can kind of repeat itself, and not everything is original, but the quality of the jokes the team behind WWDitS breathes new life into at least two lifeless genres that have sorely been missing the blood in their veins.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

John Wick (2014)

If you want your action sequences to an A standard and your movies to a B, then John Wick might be the Keanu Reeves return to the floor that you've been waiting for.

Reeves reappears in the form of John Wick, a hitman who comes out of retirement to avenge the killing of his dog, itself a final gift from his recently deceased wife. In his campaign to get revenge on the killer he'll tear apart the Russian mob, the hitman underworld and large swathes of New York City.

This film is built purely on one major strength: the  unrelenting, visceral action. Teaming up with Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, whom he first met on the set of The Matrix where they were charting the choreography, Reeves brings the familiar finesse and weight to the bullet ballet that takes up a majority of the screen time.

"Gun fu" is a term that I have laughed at, am laughing at as I type, and will most likely laugh at in the future. It's a silly term, but it completely works because it's made for ridiculous movies. That is not a bad thing. Much in the same way that Kung Fu films had crazy, unbelievable fights that could never happen, films like John Wick have people so effective at combat and killing and shooting that it makes Gun Fu an applicable description. The weapons of the killers in John Wick are extensions of their owners' bodies making it as much as a martial art as karate or judo.

Wide, extended shots allow the beauty of all the fight choreography to really shine through. Where many films cower behind frenetic motion and quick cuts, John Wick avoids the shortcuts even in its sure to be iconic night-club chase-come-massacre.

All this action takes place in a hammed up B movie hitman underworld completely bathed in style. Once he rejoins the criminal profesion, Wick inhabits a world where there are killer clubhouses, a hitman code and everybody seems to know everybody else's name and business (all things that, I imagine, don't tend to work out too well for your modern contract killer). The supporting cast, made up of femme fatales, unnerving hotel concierge and Russian playboys, pad out this world and bring it to life in that charms in a way only something out of a B movie can.

Somehow pulpy and fresh, John wick delivers a visceral, uncomplicated take on the B movie revenge film and Keanu Reeves proves that, as well as not physically ageing, he still possesses the skills to inflict unblinking, unemoting pain on the countless unnamed thugs of the mythical underworld.

Monday, 12 January 2015

The Guest (2014)

Jesus, new surprise favourite right here.

If I'd known who Adam Wingard was before today I'd have seen this a lot sooner. Hot on the heels of You're Next, and V/H/S and V/H/S 2 Wingard produces this and adds to the list of fantastic horror-comedy films I never realised he was in charge of. It's the sort of black comedy that you'll probably only appreciate if you've watched a lot of horror movies, producing laughter at times that'll makes family members worry about you.

The Guest is a darkly violent thriller in which a soldier, just discharged from the US army, meets the family of a fellow soldier whose dying wish was that his family was taken care of. David Collins arrives in small town New Mexico and is exceedingly polite, warm and helpful. Things take a dramatic turn as David's particular brand of "help" escalate everything around the family to dreadful ends.

Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey fame, brings a psychotic energy to the main character. He's very polite, charming and a smooth talker, but at the drop of a hat is prone to extreme threats and even more extreme violence. In a bizarre sort of way, David isn't a bad guy despite all the atrocities he commits. He genuinely thinks he's helping because of everything he has been through. An unerring sense of loyalty to his dead friend and the family he swore to protect just makes the exciting conclusion of The Guest an even more messed up finale.

This is a brutal film. Like You're Next, there is a lot of on-screen, bloody violence. Wingard takes a different approach to combat than some of the films that obviously influenced the action scenes in other ways. It manages to achieve the same raw and harsh feel that the Bourne films have, but does so in the opposite way. Where Bourne has a shaky camera jumping all over in a frenetic craze, The Guest locks off with steady shots so you see every punch, stab and shot in visceral detail.

The Guest draws inspiration from a lot of places, action films like Bourne actually being one of the smallest contributors. There are countless pastiches and allusions to other horrors movies and directors throughout, all done fleetingly enough to not overstay their welcome or be too obvious about it. Importantly, none of these are jokes. The Guest plays it straight throughout.

 The real influences are from films like the director's previous works and some other really style-heavy films. Drive and Only God Forgives are two that the film is very reminiscent of, in soundtrack and visuals respectively. The Guest features this eerie synth-heavy soundtrack from start to finish that hits the beats perfectly. Oddly enough, most of it is played in the film itself, from the car stereo or the DJ decks or the soundtrack to a party. Seriously, the soundtrack and sound design elevate this from "pretty good" to "holy shit", and I'm not even that into synthy stuff. It takes the creepiness that Dan Stevens seems so natural at and builds a wonderful sense of dread.

Visually, the film riffs on similar levels to the soundtrack. It's so incredibly eighties in so many ways. Lots of flashing visuals, neon and bright lights punctuate the film's major setting in the desert via parties and other scenes to create this cocaine-haze of an atmosphere culminating in the mind bogglingly hectic, bright, visually delightful finale.

The Guest is a great thriller. With creepiness and dread seeping out of every pore for the first half, the payoff in the last act as everything comes to a head is totally worth it. With it's brooding synthy score and hallucinogenic visuals it's a feast for the sense. And with the correct, specifically fucked up sense of humour it'll have you laughing from start to finish.

What. The. Fuck.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Nightcrawler (2014)

For months I've been excitedly yammering from my soapbox about how fantastic Jake Gyllenhaal is and how much of a roll he is on. If anybody now questions my stance on the matter, I shall simply point them towards this film and await their grovelling apology.

This is a guy who has been making the right moves from the start and has a back catalogue to back up such a claim. Gyllenhaal's had a strong starring career spanning over a decade filled with films like Donnie Darko, Jarhead, Brokeback Mountain and Zodiac. His last three films were Enemy, Prisoners and End of Watch. All three of these are fantastic. It's not often that you get someone these days who is consistently in such high quality productions without selling out to either Hollywood blockbusters or easy cash cows like rom-coms. You can't get away from the fact that Prince of Persia exists, but Gyllenhaal has a filmography that will lead to many people, much like myself, looking over it and slowly coming to the realisation that he's one of the most talented actors working today.

And so, combining such a talent with a film like Nightcrawler is a guaranteed recipe for success. Nightcrawler sees Gyllenhaal as the creepy, psychopathic Lou Bloom who jumps head first into the dark underbelly of LA "nightcrawling"; the act of turning up at crime scenes, filming them and selling the footage to local news. Carjackings, home invasions, robberies, traffic accidents. All fair game. Lou takes the motto "if it bleeds, it leads" to heart and sets out on a terrifyingly escalating quest to become the best at this parasitic, leeching profession.

Lou Bloom is quite reminiscent of Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) in many ways. Both are high-functioning psychopaths without any real regard for the people around them. Neither are the heroes of their stories. Both of them are likely to be held up as rolemodels for success. Neither of them should be. Both of them eschew real dialogue for verbose monologuing. Neither of them see relationships as anything other than transactions of power.

The film itself has many similarities with American Psycho as well. Where AP was a satire of 80s yuppie culture and excess, Nightcrawler is a biting attack on both the media with its voyeuristic take on tragedy and by extension the people that consume it. Where news in an idealistic world would be all factual, informative and focussed on the important issues, that's not how it works in the real world. What people want to see is something provocative and graphic. One news editor's description of her programme to Bloom hits modern TV news right on the nose: "Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the road with her throat cut".

Nightcrawler makes you very uncomfortable with a person like Lou Bloom, but he's the kind of necessary evil to produce the media society loves to consume. Any normal person would say they want to see important issues on the news: political reform, humanitarian works, corruption etc. But look around facebook and twitter and the things getting most shared are much closer to things like vigilante justice, isolated horrific incidents and the occasional heroic act of a single person. It doesn't take a genius to figure out though, that to have the footage of the cop pulling the kid out of the burning car, you had to have someone stop, not help and then get their camera out. Lou Bloom is that person. Lou Bloom makes a living out of the being that person.

Dan Gilroy made Nightcrawler as his directorial debut, and what a feature it is to debut with. The film is slick and twisted throughout. It delves deep into the nocturnal darkside of LA and its morality-free world of ambulance and cop chasers and only briefly comes up for air. Much like its main character Nightcrawler doesn't let up and doesn't let go for its entire run. It's a brutal and critical attack on the unbridled voyeuristic, spectacle obsessed media. A 21st century twist on the American Psycho taking aim at the producer and consumer of a culture rather than just the members of it. It's a completely twisted take on the quintessential American Success Story.

Nightcrawler is simply fantastic from start to finish. It was everything I expected it to be from the first time I saw the first teaser all those months ago. It's incredibly rare that I let myself get hyped up so much for something and then it actually delivers up to my expectations.

Just go see Nightcrawler. Just seriously go see it.