Archive for June, 2012

Video Nasty

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2012 by dcairns

V/H/S is a faux-found-footage anthology film featuring the work of a number of directors associated with modern horror, such as Ti West (HOUSE OF THE DEVIL) and one who has no such associations, Joe Swanberg, who stars in one episode and directs another.

One thing than has to be said is that any anthology will benefit if the writers read each others’ scripts. Two of the shorts feature scenes where a guy trips and falls downstairs while being chased by an undead ghoul, which then slowly descends upon him. Worse, nearly all the shorts either hinge upon or make reference to the idea of shooting nude footage of women — both the framing structure and the first episode feature scenarios where loutish males try to film their sexual encounters without the knowledge of their partners. The repetitiveness is uninspiring.

In fact, it strikes me as harmful that all the army of directors and writers are male. “Are so many of the characters in these things obnoxious and dumb because the filmmakers are obnoxious and dumb?” asked one critic friend. Maybe not, but it seems to me a Bad Thing to have a horror movie where we’re rooting for the characters to die as swiftly and horribly as possible.

There’s a moderately amusing spoof slasher here, which is the first faint ray of light after ugly and uninspired early episodes, but then Joe Swanberg’s episode as director, scripted by Simon Barrett, turns out to be the best story and the scariest film — twisty and twisted, suspenseful, and with a unique Skype-inflected take on the found footage gimmick. I never thought I’d like Swanberg’s work, but this was funny and gross and creepy. Then the last episode, directed by Radio Silence (a bunch of guys who work together under that collective name) is an effects-laden thrill-ride with a lot of neat visuals and, for once, a group of male characters who aren’t total dickwads.

Horror of an altogether more subtle timbre was on display in BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, the new film from Peter Strickland, who made the acclaimed KATALINA VARGA, which played Edinburgh a couple of years back. This one stars the renowned actor/pouch Toby Jones as a sound mixer at work on a horror movie in Italy in the seventies, whose grasp of reality seems to disintegrate under the oppression of his nasty employers. Very atmospherically shot, with beautiful sound design and a trippy way of messing with reality that recalls THE TENANT, this ultimately feels a touch overlong and repetitive, and once the film’s tenuous hold on reality has been relinquished, there’s nowhere left for it to go in narrative terms. But the analysis of the dynamics of workplace bullying is dead-on, and often funny. There’s also a terrific fake title sequence (for a SUSPIRIAesque thriller called, wonderfully, THE EQUESTRIAN VORTEX) which seems to cram in a decade’s worth of spaghetti horror tropes without tumbling into broad pastiche. Despite the total lack of onscreen violence, the serious giallo fans in attendance — and there were many — seemed well satisfied.

Katalin Varga [DVD] (2009)

Waverley Steps

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2012 by dcairns

Got my complimentary disc of THE 39 STEPS from Criterion. If you buy this Blu-ray you will, among other things, be easily able to discern the poster for THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH in the above image, which purports to represent Waverley Station in Edinburgh…

Dan Sallitt is in town for the Edinburgh International Film Festival with his excellent new feature film THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT. By a very weird coincidence my guest Chris Bourton brought with him the Blu-ray of RUGGLES OF RED GAP, which features a fine essay by Mr Sallitt. We watched the movie and enjoyed it. And by an even weirder coincidence, Charles Laughton’s character in the film is referred to (falsely) as a member of the Black Watch regiment, which is based in Edinburgh.

And — new in shops — my essay is attached to the Blu-ray of THE LOST WEEKEND.

Ruggles of Red Gap [Masters of Cinema] (Dual Format Edition) [Blu-ray] [1935]

The Lost Weekend [Masters of Cinema] (Blu-ray) [1945]

The 39 Steps (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Topic “I”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on June 29, 2012 by dcairns

Dan Sallitt is someone I know, so although it’s lovely to have him in Edinburgh with his new film, THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT, I was nervous about seeing his film in case I didn’t like it. But somebody had already told a friend, “You needn’t worry,” and so it proved. His movie is a tender, sensitive and surprisingly funny film about a seventeen-year-old girl in love with her big brother, and by “in love” I mean just what you would assume I meant if I weren’t talking about a sister and brother. Jackie wants to try “the I word” with her brother, who gently demurs. There’s no shocking or offensive content here, though, apart from that one idea. Maybe this film is really just about that moment that comes in nearly everyone’s life when they’re in love with someone they can’t have?

Dan’s movie is beautiful both in surface (a pared-down style with no camera movement, maybe two pans) and content. The whole thing is inhabited by a kind of filmic and emotional grace. With elegant, formal compositions and a measured pace, he keeps the emotional temperature under control, so that we feel the passions seething inside the characters rather than seeing them erupt all over the screen — but this is by no means a cold film, quite the reverse. Nor does it feel slow — “measured” is not a euphemism for the S word.

Credit must go also to the excellent cast, particularly Tallie Medel as Jackie, the heroine with the socially unacceptable urges towards her brother (Sky Hirschkron, also very fine). She has a fascinating face. You can just see the thoughts flickering behind it, as though she were translucent.

Several of the reviews have focused on the calm performance style, as if it were something uniquely stylised and strange. I didn’t find it so, and I asked Dan about it and he doesn’t really get what that’s about either. To me, it was clearly a version of recognizable human behaviour, the way people do in fact speak. In the same way Altman’s overlapping dialogue is both a noticeable directorial choice and an authentic depiction of how people talk. Dan obviously likes his performances fairly low-key, the tone conversational, the obvious left uninflected. To me it made the film all the more moving, and funny.

Eric Rohmer is obviously a stylistic watchword, but I was pleased to spot a shout-out to Preston Sturges in the use of the expression “Topic A” (which means sex, according to THE PALM BEACH STORY). Another master of dialogue who likes his characters articulate. Dan explained that he felt that the phrase “Topic A” should be in common use and he wanted to popularize it. “I don’t think this film will be the tipping point, though,” he added.

You never know…