FILM REVIEW – Like Someone in Love


An affectionate and lightly humorous portrait of an elderly Japanese man and the young woman he meets through an escort agency, this latest film from the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is an attractive chamber piece which feels frustratingly incomplete.

Although I haven’t seen any other films by Kiarostami, I have seen some which are described as ‘Kiarostami-esque’. His style is extremely naturalistic, and he tells the story at an unhurried, sedate (some might say glacial) pace, mainly through refusing to cut back the narrative space he has created for his characters.

Perhaps he is showing us that the small actions which characters perform ‘off-camera’, as if unconsciously, are more important in establishing character than the way they act during conventional plot events. Perhaps, more broadly, he is seeking to show life proceeding at the pace of life. I’m not inherently against this technique, which is virtually the antithesis of contemporary Hollywood thinking.

In formal terms, the most interesting scene comes at the beginning of the film. A static camera shows us a Tokyo bar full of couples chatting, laughing, sharing drinks. Over the background noise we hear a woman start to talk, to reel off a string of excuses to an absent lover as to why she can’t be with him that night.

During this shot, which lasts for a couple of minutes, we struggle to identify who is speaking, and, realising that no one fits the description, we wonder whether this is an internal monologue. If so, whose consciousness are we being given access to? In the event, the identity of the speaker is somewhat more prosaic, but the effect is interesting and made me wonder how it could be employed elsewhere.

By refusing to give us outright exposition, Kiarostami maintains a sense of mystery about the scenario. There are long shots of the young woman in the back of a taxi, listening to answering machine messages from her grandmother. Since arriving in Tokyo a few years previously, the she seems mournful about the direction her life has taken – not so much that she’s taken to prostitution, more that she has lost her role models and parental figures.

This sets the scene for her subsequent meeting with a lonely, older man, played with a mixture of worldweariness and mischievous humour by the veteran Japanese actor Tadashi Okuno. He seems more interested in companionship than sex, and their relationship evolves into surrogate grandfather and granddaughter.

So far so good. However Kiarostami, having established the tone and introduced the characters, takes his foot off the pedal roughly halfway through. The film becomes more conventional, more concerned with character interplay and coincidence. The longueurs start to feel repetitive and I found myself glancing at my watch.

Another problem is that, in contrast to the old man, the character of the young woman feels unrounded, less than fully realised. Her boyfriend, an immature and violent mechanic, is also fairly two-dimensional.

Kiarostami’s visual sense is superb, and he portrays the ambient sights and sounds of contemporary Tokyo very well: the shift of reflected neon across a taxi passenger’s face, school songs floating from an nearby open window, even just the drone of traffic passing and repassing in the street. The benefit of such directorial sensitivity is to make the screen seem less like a barrier or projection, and more like a window into lives other than our own.

I admire Kiarostami’s aesthetic. However, Like Someone in Love feels rather slight, and a sudden ending (although coming at the right point in the narrative) leaves it frustratingly unresolved.

(France/Japan, 2012, dir. Abbas Kiarostami)


FILM REVIEW – Behind The Candelabra

(USA, 2013, dir. Steven Soderbergh)

This HBO-produced biopic of Liberace follows the famous piano-playing showman in his later years, at a time when he is flush with money and success but starting to worry about the wrinkles round his eyes. He’s introduced to Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon), a golden youth with flowing locks and a swimmer’s body, and they quickly become lovers.

What follows is essentially the rise and fall of a relationship. After a honeymoon period, the pair descend into boredom and ennui. Scott fights against an addiction to drugs and Liberace starts to see other men. The relationship ends in acrimony, and then palimony. At some point Liberace decides to adopt Scott, which complicates proceedings.

Despite being, on the surface, a rather prosaic story, it’s captivating throughout. This is partly down to Steven Soderbergh’s excellent direction, but the script is also very tight. Each scene has been honed down to the bare minimum to (a) tell us the story or (b) show us the characters, but preferably both. For example, a scene in which Scott, who is standing backstage at a show, sees his new, younger rival. There are no words, because Scott’s pained look tells us all we need to know.

Plastic surgery plays a major role in the film. For Liberace, it is a way to prolong the illusion of youth. As for Scott, well, Liberace wants him to look more like his master. After a series of operations Matt Damon’s familiar, boyish face has morphed into a shiny-cheekboned, dimple-chinned monster who stands behind the souvenir display at Liberace’s shows like some animated Nutcracker toy. On the other hand, Liberace’s age-defying surgeries are quite effective. Although he can no longer close his eyes, even when he sleeps, in a creepy, synthetic way he becomes almost ageless. Rob Lowe is also memorable as the plastic surgeon whose immovable, doll-like face is a negative advertisement for his services.

Soderbergh directs in a low-ley, transparent manner, making clever use of wide angles and dolly shots to capture Liberace’s interiors in their shimmering, rococo glory. He experiments with miniature photography to suggest isolation and captivity, and does juddery things with the camera to convey the effects of drugs. As for the sets and the costumes, no expense seems to have been spared.

Michael Douglas’s performance as Liberace is exceptional: probably his finest accomplishment in a decade. Barely recognisable under the make-up and the costumes, he captures perfectly the sequined showman’s glutinous smile and impish eyes. But his real achievement is to make us believe in Liberace, in his tightly contructed persona. Underneath the sugary-sweet exterior, this is a self-made man who is always in complete control, even when he’s half-naked or deprived of his treasured wig. As he says to Scott at one point, ‘Never forget, I’m the band leader.’


(USA, 2013, dir. James DeMonaco)

This high concept, home-under-siege thriller has been the object of much hooting and jeering since it was announced. The elevator pitch? In the near future, the US government has conquered crime by simply allowing all crimes for twelve hours, once a year. Thus we ‘purge’ our evil tendencies. What would happen to a normal family caught up in one of these annual crime waves?

This type of film only works if it makes intuitive sense: our brains must not reject the concept. A good example is Children of Men, which works because it’s vaguely plausible that we might, as a species, for some reason, stop having children. Or Logan’s Run: society has decided that, in order to save resources, all people over a certain age must die. An implausible scenario if set in the near future, but put it in the 23rd century and we’ll give it a chance.

But The Purge really stretched my willingness to suspend belief. After a moment of reflection I wondered, what about the many crimes committed on the spur of the moment, for example crimes of passion and crimes motivated by poverty? Surely The Purge has no effect on those statistics. Similarly for crimes committed over long periods of time, for example fraud.

And what happens if you injure someone during the amnesty and they die a few days later? Will you be punished? No matter that taking away legal consequences of crime might not take away the accompanying social opprobrium. Fear of punishment is not the only thing that stops us committing crime.

In some thudding exposition we’re told that The Purge has also solved unemployment and poverty. Oh really? Later we understand the reason: the privileged use Purge Night as an opportunity to thin the ranks of the poor and unemployed. This is one of the few instances when the film actually seems clever: The Purge as top-down societal management.

On a side note, the idea of a ‘purge’ of negative emotions seemed particularly relevant at the screening I attended, in which the audience cheered every on-screen death. It’s been suggested that the human need for fiction (which would include films, plays, television, video games – any fictional situation where we become invested in a character’s journey) stems from fiction’s ability to serve as a conduit. Essentially, we drain off excess emotional energy by experiencing them vicariously, so a night in front of a violent movie might make us less violent (or at least more passive) in everyday life. In its defence, The Purge merely follows sci-fi tradition in developing contemporary thoughts about human nature into an extreme but logically consistent future situation.

Concept aside, the film itself is disappointing. We follow a suburban family as they do what the majority of ordinary citizens do on Purge Night: pull down the steel shutters and sit tight. Unfortunately they find themselves under siege by demented murderers. Can they hold out till morning?

Second-time director DeMonaco fails to make the most of a scenario – family under siege – that would seem tailor-made to create suspense. (For a successful example of the genre, see Panic Room.) In part, it’s the fault of the thinly written characters. In true B-movie tradition, each character has only so many idiosyncrasies (and no more) as are needed to move the plot forward.

For example, early on we’re introduced to the young son’s remote controlled, night-vision-equipped model tank. No surprises when this rather strange gadget later comes in useful. Ditto the son’s secret hiding place in a wardrobe and a gadget that monitors his heartrate.

The daughter’s function is to fill out the family and to have a boyfriend who will play a brief, ludicrous role early in the film. (Without giving too much away, his actions make absolutely no sense.)

I’m a long-time fan of Ethan Hawke but he brings nothing to his role as the everyman father. Lena Headey, wearing a distractingly glossy black wig, is similarly bland as the mother.

The leader of the home-invaders, a blonde preppy young man with an eerily expressive face, is one of the few highlights of the film. But I couldn’t help wondering why the intruders wear masks. Why hide your identity when there will be no consequences? It seems like the masks’ sole function is to make the invaders seem more threatening, like murderous bank robbers, or perhaps as privileged counterparts of the Occupy protesters, with their ubiquitous Guy Fawkes masks.

The dreary middle third of the film juxtaposes a stand-off between the invaders and the family, with a frantic search for the enemy within. Unfortunately (for the family and for viewers) the house is not equipped with emergency lighting, so we’re treated to some Blair-Witch style camerawork. Meanwhile DeMonaco unsuccessfully tries to ramp up the tension by cutting to CCTV feeds of the garden, where masked youngsters are lounging around, rather theatrically tapping their guns or making faces.

The invaders eventually break in, but are curiously ineffectual. Too often, an action sequence ends with the assailant, seemingly on the verge of victory, being gunned (axed/knifed/whatever) down by an offscreen rescuer.

A twist in the final act cannot save a film that is about as gripping as a handful of wet kippers. The brain rejects.

THEATRE REVIEW – Sweet Bird of Youth @ The Old Vic, London

Tennessee Williams’ uneven and overlong play from 1959 is about a youngish man and an oldish woman, both used up by Hollywood.

The man, Chase, is a failed actor, past his prime at the tender age of twenty-nine. The woman, Alexandra, is a bona fide Hollywood star on the wane. In exchange for money and connections, Chase is willing to let Alexandra use his body, to dream on his comparative youth for a while. It’s an interesting twist on the usual older man/younger woman scenario.

The first scene, set in a hotel room somewhere in coastal Florida, shows us Alexandra waking up with histrionics about her health. ‘Where are my glasses? My pills? My oxygen canister?’ Initially Chase appears to have the upper hand, but as we learn more about their relationship through a series of gripping, although slightly stagey, soliloquys, we understand that Alexandra holds all the cards.

I had my doubts about Kim Cattrall’s ability to play the role of Alexandra. Not for her acting skills, but simply because she doesn’t look as old as she is in real life, which is closer to how she should look in this play. She walks around in one sock, and gropes comically for her glasses, but she never looks old, and as a result we never quite believe in her character’s difficulties. As if to distract us, the director has given her a hideous Jill St John wig, which I noticed they wisely left off the poster.

Apparently Williams wrote and rewrote the script for Sweet Bird of Youth over a period of decades. It’s not obvious he paid much attention to the middle third because, in dramatic terms, the play goes completely off the rails after the first scene. Bafflingly, Williams decides we should care about Chase’s reasons for returning to his hometown, and so banishes the two leads from the stage for the better part of an hour and a half.

We are introduced to the father of Chase’s old girlfriend, a scenery chewing old man who is merely one of a coterie of stereotypical Southerners: the past-it mistress given to drawling limp one-liners over her martinis, the young buck and his gang of thugs, the fussy local doctor and various ‘yes-massuh’ servants.

These characters are ciphers, window-dressing, bumpers for the pinball-machine plot, such as it is, which revolves around something Chase may or may not have done, which may or may not have been his fault, before he left town the last time.

Much of dialogue is flat and uninspired, in particular the lines given to Tom, a politician’s son nursing murderous intent towards Chase. A young woman in white floats around as a rather obvious symbol of ‘youth’, although she is barren, whatever that signifies.

As I heard ‘You’ve simply got to persuade Chase to leave St Cloud!’ for the umpteenth time, I found myself thinking ‘Who are these people? Why do I care? What happened to that play I started watching?’

The melodrama culminates in a racist speech from the obese politician, which is broadcast to flickering television screens in the hotel bar as thunder booms and lightning flickers. Yes, we are in the zone of pathetic fallacy. (To be fair, show me a play set in Florida which doesn’t use the weather as a prop. ‘Oh the hurricane’s coming! Oh we’re stuck in the hotel! Get me a drink!’)

Alexandra makes only fleeting appearances until the final half hour, in a bookending scene with Chase. Chase’s insecurity about his looks has been established rather effectively in the preceding scenes. Alexandra, after a call from her agent, regains her confidence. She sweeps off the stage like a queen, leaving Chase in the hotel room, obsessed with the past, waiting to be murdered for his sins against the politician’s daughter.

The essential problem with the play, apart from its unevenness and loosely-written secondary characters, is that Chase, who turns out to be the main character, requires greater economy of motive. He starts off wanting money from Alexandra, whether through blackmail or through selling his body. Then he just wants to be seen around town with her, a famous actress. Then he wants her to arrange him another chance in Hollywood… This mishmash leaves the audience confused. Who is this person? A generically desperate person can be compelling, but Chase is a bit of a mooner who obsesses over his hairline, and Williams fails to engage us with his dialogue.

It feels like Williams conceived the relationship between Chase and Alexandra, wrote the two scenes which start and finish the play, but struggled to fill the play out further. And they are fascinating scenes, in particular the passages about the passing of youth and the fickleness of the entertainment industry. One can sense that Williams wrote these words with a passion born from experience.

The production is adequate, with a couple of flaws. The Southerner accents fail to convince, but one must be lenient; we are in England after all. The colonnaded set performs double duty: as the inside of a rather grand hotel room and as the outside of a mansion. However the pillars obstruct the actors in the second half. Kim Cattrall is a magnetic Alexandra, Seth Numrich is nervously plausible as Chase, and everyone else is forgettable.

FILM REVIEW – Arbitrage

(USA, 2012, dir. Nicholas Jarecki)

Arbitrage is a plodding thriller set in the distinctly unthrilling world of New York finance. It’s a film in which one of the most emotional scenes culminates in the following line: ‘I’m the Chief Investment Officer! Don’t you realise I could lose my…broker’s licence!?’

The plot is almost proudly traditional: a powerful man makes a mistake and takes a fateful decision to cover it up. It’s the sort of thriller by numbers that Michael Douglas (or, indeed, Richard Gere) might have made in the ‘90s. In fact I felt like I’d blundered into something from that decade, maybe a Grisham adaptation or ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’, another film about the unconvincing unhappiness of being super-rich.

One senses the writer/director, Nicholas Jarecki, struggling to build a character-led drama in the world of finance. In finance people make money, and money is sexy. But the process of making money is deathly dull, especially if it involves buying and selling companies. (Note: the film is in no way anything to do with ‘arbitrage’, either in the technical, finance sense, or as it’s more widely understood.)

Richard Gere is convincing as a hedge fund billionaire caught like a bug in tweezers. In general, however, never have I felt so little engagement with a film’s characters. In part this is due to the ‘peril’ in the script. If I understood the plot correctly, should Gere be arrested or a buyout fall through, some exceedingly rich people will become slightly less rich. Another plot strand involves Gere lying to his banker daughter, a luminescent Brit Marling. But one thinks, so what? A rich, mature woman experiences the low realities of high finance. Surely this is about as First-world a problem as it gets.

There are some good scenes, for example in the Caprice where Gere strikes a deal with another hedgie over coffee. We just about ‘get’ the buzz of making a deal, and the emptiness which immediately follows. A lot of hedge fund jargon is thrown around. It all sounds plausible – plausibly boring. In that sense, if the aim of the film is to show us the realities of the finance world, it certainly succeeds.

So, there’s nailbiting ‘will they or won’t they’ hedgie deal-making and unhappy rich people. Then in the middle hour we get a police procedural which feels like a not-particularly-good episode of Law & Order (again, adding to the general ‘90s feel). Tim Roth, the officer in charge of putting the case together, hams it up as a mixture between Columbo and Jerry Orbach. In trying to conceal his crime, Gere leaves as many loose ends as a box full of shoelaces. Roth does nothing with this collection of ‘he-dunnits’; in fact it beggars belief how badly he runs the investigation. Needless to say, Roth harasses a black guy, cuts corners with evidence, and is eventually yelled at by a judge.

At the end of the investigation, there’s some ‘aha’ themic dialogue about how ‘rich people always get away with it’, but the police ineptitude somewhat undercuts the message. And the macguffin at the end is so badly explained as to suggest some footage was lost in the final cut.

In terms of the technicals, the film is shot in a low-key, unflashy manner, on rather grainy DV. (This might be something to do with the fact that it was released simultaneously online.) Most of the angles are static, which highlights the lack of attention paid to continuity. People literally change position depending on which angle they’re shot from. One can only assume that the director didn’t get enough takes and was afraid to ask his big-beast leads for more. Richard Gere is aging well, but the mascara and foundation is distractingly obvious in certain scenes. The sets seem purposefully bland. Gere and Family appear to live in an upscale Hilton. One thinks, with billions, couldn’t they at least buy some taste? Finally, the soundtrack, a Drive-ish electro heartbeat, fades in and out at appropriate moments, but never loud enough to wake you up.

A strictly conventional thriller with a decent performance by Richard Gere.

FILM REVIEW – The Master

(USA, 2012, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Plot Summary: A directionless young man, recently returned from World War II, meets the leader of a scientific religion known as ‘The Cause’. The two men evolve a strange father/son relationship.

Although Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film succeeds on several levels – recreating the distinctive atmosphere of post-WWII America and bringing out some of Joaquim Phoenix’s and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s finest performances – it’s also curiously bloodless and inert.

Contemporary filmmakers seem to be fascinated by 1950s America: first Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’, and now ‘The Master’. The era has an attractive, instantly recognisable aesthetic which can function as shorthand for both innocence and paranoia. It’s also the decade in which L Ron Hubbard founded his religion of Scientology. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a religion based on self-improvement (mixed with a dash of spiritualism and science fiction) was able to take root in post-war America, a country in which there’s an almost axiomatic faith that anyone can make it if they believe in themselves enough. The Cause is a fictionalisation of Scientology, and the film makes light comment on the credulousness of The Cause’s disciples and its vulnerability to criticism. However the film is mainly about the relationship between the young man, Freddy Quel, and the leader of The Cause, known as the Master.

The first scenes show Freddy goofing around on a tropical beach with his fellow troops as they wait to return to the USA. At this stage he seems like an everyman, a sort of Burt Lancaster in ‘From Here To Eternity’. However we soon learn that he’s an alcoholic and suffers from psychological issues including an obsession with sex and a tendency to sudden violence. It’s unclear whether these issues stem from his alcoholism or are the reason for it – that’s not the point of the film. It’s just important that he’s directionless and unstable, making him an ideal candidate for reprogramming.

Once Freddy falls in with The Cause, he comes to occupy several different roles. First is the Master’s need for a son/apprentice, who at the same time won’t threaten his dominance over his harem of strong-minded women. (He has an actual son, but although there is a clear familial resemblance, the son is highly sceptical of the cult.)

Freddy also becomes a sort of court jester, clowning around for the benefit of the overly-serious cult members. Finally, the Master sees him as a test subject for the efficiency of ‘the Process’ (the cod psycho-analytical technique that the Master uses to convince his followers that they have experienced past lives). As the Master keeps saying, if they cannot cure Freddy of his mental illness, then the Process is useless.

There’s a sexual subtext to the relationship. The Master frequently manhandles Freddy, and in one scene the Master actually spanks him on the lawn as his disciples look on and cheer. Towards the end of the film the Master sings what can only be described as a love song before Freddy leaves him for good. The Master’s homosexuality would explain why the film barely touches on the potential sexual “benefits” of being a male cult leader with a coterie of enraptured female followers.

Part of the drama is wondering whether Freddy will, in the end, outgrow or even ritually slay his ‘father’. The twist comes in realising that Freddy’s problems had always stemmed from his troubled relationships with women: a clue is provided early on by the sculpture of a naked woman he builds on a tropical beach. Once Freddy is cured of this psychosis (and it’s not clear whether it’s the Process, or just the passing of time, that heals his wounds), he no longer needs a Master.

Joaquin Phoenix inhabits the role of Freddy in one of the most striking physical transformations since Christian Bale in ‘The Machinist’. Appearing to have lost twenty pounds and aged ten years, he’s almost unrecognisable under the weight of his studied mannerisms: the slope-shouldered lope, the shiftless eyes, the aggressive stare. On the other side, Philip Seymour Hoffman is utterly plausible as the puffy-faced, avuncular, dominating (yet pettish) ‘Master’. It’s an easy role for him: he’s been playing variants of this man throughout his career. Perhaps the only criticism is that, despite the age makeup, he’s a little young to play someone with adult children.

Although a great deal of care and attention has been put into recreating the period setting, the cinematography is relatively unshowy. There are some interesting compositions (for example when the two leads are thrown into prison). And it’s a remarkable achievement that a film which stretches for two and a half hours manages never to feel self-indulgent.

But it does drag. Part of the reason is that Paul Thomas Anderson chooses to concentrate almost exclusively on the central relationship. (Other filmmakers would perhaps have given more attention to the broader story of The Cause.) Although this relationship is intriguing on many levels, there isn’t much conventional ‘drama’, and the characters are too caught up in themselves to inspire the audience’s empathy.

A pair of remarkable performances save ‘The Master’ from being without interest, but that’s not enough: it lacks the vital spark.

FILM REVIEW – Rust and Bone

(France/Belgium, 2012, dir. Jacques Audiard)

Plot Summary: A penniless Belgian man with a young son goes to live with his sister in Southern France. Working as a bouncer, he meets an attractive young woman. The two become closer after she is disabled by a rampaging killer whale.

This feel-good melodrama, looking at the whale trainers and street fighters of Southern France, inexplicably picked up awards at several major festivals.

Jacques Audiard, director of 2005’s masterly ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’ and, more recently, ‘A Prophet’, has chosen to apply his considerable talents to a film which, although made in the French language and boasting high production values, could show on the Lifetime Movie Network as a heartwarming mid-afternoon tale of recovery from major disability.

And this is because, despite the unusual premise, it’s a very conventional story. Boy meets girl. Girl loses legs. Boy meets girl again. Boy helps girl rebuild her self confidence by (a) taking her for a swim, (b) going to bed with her, and then (c) letting her come to his street fights. Girl gets her self-confidence back. (We know she does because she starts to wear leather jackets and tattoos ‘right’ and ‘left’ on her stumps to show how proud she is of them – although this could also be read as a sign of increasing mental confusion.)

Much of the film feels like plain sailing, punctuated with moments of easily-resolved drama. Matthias Schoenaerts is blandly competent as Ali, a directionless young man with puppyish eyes. His notable characteristics are being incredibly buff and being the world’s most irresponsible father. (Fortunately Ali’s sister takes care of Ali’s young son, which means he can drop in and out of the narrative when convenient.)

On the other hand we never really get to know Ali’s love interest, Stéphanie, played by Marion Cotillard with a permanently sour expression. Well, we know she likes killer whales, but not much more. It doesn’t help that her and Ali don’t have a talky relationship. And from the little we do know, she seems unpleasant and manipulative. For example in an early conversation we hear about how she likes to control men, to make them jealous.

Also, as a rule of narrative economy, one shouldn’t have characters with outrageously eccentric characteristics/jobs unless it’s going to be relevant to the plot; otherwise it’s a distraction. In Stéphanie’s case, it feels like her job as a trainer of killer whales is purely to spice up the scene when she suffers the horrific accident. Sure, at one point she sits on her balcony, looking into the sunset, waving her hands around to Katy Perry in recollection of the time when she commanded killer whales. Later she returns to her tanks, to her whales, to touch the glass. (Her favourite orca swims over to the glass, no doubt wishing he could have another go at this woman who tortured him for years with top-volume renditions of ‘Fireworks’.) But the killer whale angle is window-dressing at best, a laughable distraction at worst.

And the fact that Stéphanie works for a marine park, and therefore has good insurance cover, means that she gets a huge payout. OK, she’s confined to a wheelchair for a while, but she gets a nice apartment and, eventually, some artificial legs. The film thus neatly sidesteps many of the important difficulties most people in the real world encounter after a disabling accident. In effect, Stéphanie just needs her groove back. One might struggle to care that much.

Leaving story and characterisation aside, the cinematography in Rust and Bone is superb. The shabby, sun-drenched, seaside communities of Antibes are captured as capably as the visceral action sequences. Several scenes will live in the memory – pieces of masonry plunging onto Stéphanie’s broken body, adrift in a well of blue; a boy in a shellsuit videoing a blood-crazed Ali as he beats his adversary senseless; Ali punching through a thick layer of solid ice to rescue his son from a frozen lake.

A two hour slab of high-brow schmaltz.

FILM REVIEW – Silent Hill: Revelation 3D

(France/USA/Canada, 2012, dir. Michael J. Bassett)

Plot Summary: A young woman and her father are on the run from a fiendish cult who live in a town called Silent Hill. After her father is kidnapped by the cult, the girl returns to Silent Hill to rescue him and face her destiny.

A sequel to 2006’s ‘Silent Hill’, this schlocky horror thriller connects the dots but doesn’t add much flesh to the franchise. Despite lengthy periods of exposition, it includes so much lore from the prequel and the videogame mythos (nine episodes and counting) that newcomers, and even those who have watched the previous film, may be confused by the plot.

The back story is delivered to the viewer in some of the most clunky, contrived conversations ever put on the screen. The first third of the film is truly excruciating – a particular low point being a scene in which detectives discover a body in a shopping centre. You can sense the scriptwriter straining to have them relay the appropriate facts in as few lines as possible. It’s only once Heather, the vivacious young heroine played with aplomb by Adelaide Clemens (recently seen in the BBC’s ‘Parade’s End’), has arrived in the mysterious fog-bound town of Silent Hill that the film starts to get going.

In Silent Hill, the computer-generated nasties come out of the woodwork, and it’s quite fun as long as one suspends all critical faculties. Naturally, the first place Heather walks into in Silent Hill is…an abandoned mannequin factory. To no great surprise, she’s attacked by reanimated mannequins and a spider monster. Unfortunately the only escape route leads to…the lunatic asylum. And then, the only way she can get to where the cult is holding her father is…through the derelict funfair. Of all the bad luck!

The 3D effects are used sparingly and appropriately. (Who doesn’t love the old ‘knife stabbing into the camera’ trick?) And Heather is a sympathetic heroine. But it should be said that, apart from a scene in which she is pursued by blind demon nurses (a fan favourite from the games), the film is not in the least bit scary. The production design is a mishmash of HR Giger meets Hellraiser meets Doom, as imagined by a teenager. The monsters are slightly repetitive, each being humans with some variation of body or facial disfigurement. They’re creepy at first, but eventually you start to think ‘Oh, he’s missing a nose. That must be painful – no wonder he’s grumpy.’

Also some of the horror seems to be imaginary, occurring only in Heather’s head, dispelling any suspense. Plus, as becomes clear later, it’s not obvious why the monsters are pursuing Heather – they should be on her side (one of the many, many plot holes).

Generally, the acting is abysmal. Kit Harington plays Heather’s boilerplate love interest with a complete lack of charisma. Some of his lines are so bad, the only explanation is that he was mistakenly sent an earlier draft of the script and no one noticed. His Game of Thrones cast-mate, Sean Bean, returns from the first film. For some reason (laziness?) he’s written to be somewhat of a simpleton, like a parent in a children’s program. Grimacing through his scenes, he delivers his lines as haltingly as a lobotomy patient.

And then, halfway through the film, Malcolm McDowell pops up as an actual lobotomy patient: a demented vagrant trapped in a lunatic asylum. He clearly enjoys hamming up his one scene. A sample line: ‘I was Master of the Order, how could I not know the Seal of Megaron?’ (there are lots of references to this infamous Seal). One hopes these fine British actors aren’t taking the same downward, schlock-bound career trajectory as (Sir) Ben Kingsley.

In the end, Silent Hill Revelations is not clever or original. But it’s entertaining. And one can’t be too harsh on a film which includes the line ‘Well, everyone knows you should never build on top of a Native American burial ground!’ Indeed.

FILM REVIEW – Berberian Sound Studio

(UK, 2012, dir. Peter Strickland)

I once lived in a hotel in Italy for six months. To fill up the time I watched a large number of Italian exploitation films from the early 1970s: ‘giallos’ (detective thrillers, so named because their plots resembled those of the cheap yellow-covered novels available in Italy after the war) and supernatural horrors. Although they’re not works of great depth, these films have a very recognisable, sleazy style, lots of plot twists, and generally excellent electronic soundtracks. (The most famous being Goblin’s clashing, discordant music for Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’.)

Strickland is clearly also a fan of the genre. Berberian Sound Studio, his second film, is set within a studio where the sound track is being recorded for a trashy horror, about a pair of girls who accidentally resurrect a coven of witches buried under their boarding school.

The period atmosphere is perfectly recreated, the result of excellent casting and production design. The studio is a time capsule of 1970s sound technology: magnetic reel-to-reels, ancient mixing boards and F/X kits. The horror film’s producer and director, masters of the ambiguous and threatening comment, are the type of sleazy characters you could imagine running a low budget genre production. The actresses playing the schoolgirls are convincingly mournful vamps.

In a clever move, apart from the extremely kinetic credit sequence, we don’t see the actual horror film, only hear it. (It’s a shame, because it sounds like a lot of fun). But we do get to see how the sound effects are produced. For a while, it’s curious and amusing to see these ‘behind the scenes’ improvisations: a hatchet through a watermelon will do for a brain being bashed in, a squirt of oil on a sizzling skillet for a witch-boiling, etc.

As for the plot, initially it seems like Gilderoy, the exceptionally meek English sound engineer played by Toby Jones, will witness a murder or two, perhaps committed under cover of someone recording a particularly excruciating scream.

Strickland plays with these expectations. One of the women whispers vague warnings to Gilderoy about the film’s sinister director. Frequent power cuts plunge the studio into darkness. Gilderoy wakes up in the middle of the night convinced someone is banging on his door. And in another knowing wink to fans of the giallo genre, we never see the person who starts the film’s projector, only his black-gloved hand.

But it seems like Strickland thought these fakeouts and suggestions would be enough to carry a film. He doesn’t then take the plot in a different direction or, indeed, any direction at all. 90 minutes of narrative blue-balls; it’s all atmosphere, no trousers.

It doesn’t help that Toby Jones, although a wonderful actor and (physically) a perfect choice for the part of Gilderoy, struggles to make an impression on the screen. He is so feeble and unassuming, he almost fades into the background of every scene. Again this adds to the film’s feeling of lightness – we simply can’t identify with the leading character.

Towards the end the film loses itself in surreal scenes with unexplained visual effects (are we in a dream? Is Gilderoy in a film?), and long, repetitive shots, seemingly to fill up the running time. As soon as the credits rolled I left the cinema, with an empty feeling and a nagging sense of déjà vu.

In theme and method the film falls into the same category as 2009’s ‘Amer’, directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. ‘Amer’ was also a lovingly crafted tribute to 70s Italian giallos: essentially an experiment in recreating their sleazy/creepy atmosphere through faithful set, prop and sound design. It also paid complete disregard to creating any sort of plot. As a result, it was one of the most boring films I’ve ever watched. (It’s ironic, because at least half of the pleasure of watching a giallo is to follow the ludicrous plot twists before it’s revealed ‘whodunnit’.)

Although lovingly produced, this tribute to a particular genre of film is a frustrating and ultimately boring experience.

BOOK REVIEW – The Orchard Keeper (Cormac McCarthy, 1965)

Cormac McCarthy’s first book is a slow, impressionistic tribute to Tennessee countryside and society in the early 20th century.

There are glimpses of the spare, lyrical artistry which McCarthy is known for in his later works, but overall this is a flawed, verbose text which is difficult to enjoy.

The story begins in 1930s Tennessee. Marion Sylder, a young whisky runner, is attacked by a hitchhiker named Rattner. Sylder kills Rattner and, witnessed by an old hermit, gets rid of the body in a mountaintop reservoir. In the 1940s, Sylder is rescued from a car crash by Rattner’s son, John Wesley, and they form a bond, albeit without John Wesley ever knowing the truth about Sylder and his father. Eventually the federal police catch up with Sylder. Having lost another father figure and with his mother now dead, the young John Wesley strikes out on his own.

It’s been stated that McCarthy was influenced by Faulkner. As such, the chapters (and sometimes paragraphs) leap between time periods and subjects. This means that it’s not the easiest of stories to follow (or, ultimately, to understand).

One of the themes is redemption – Sylder makes up for murdering Rattner by providing a role model of sorts to his son. But his guardianship is paltry, extending to giving John Wesley a puppy from his dog’s litter and letting him spend time around the group of adult bootleggers. It’s also unclear whether Sylder ever makes the connection between John Wesley and the man he killed, which somewhat rescinds the personal, conscious element of redemption. And at the end, Sylder ‘revokes’ his mentorship to try and stop John Wesley following him into a life of crime. At one point it seems like the hermit might act as another mentor to John Wesley, but it’s more of an afterthought, and secondary to the hermit’s role in the story as observer.

The book brims with nostalgia for the backwoods Tennessee society of the early 20th century. Indeed the final line is a panegyric for what has been lost:

“No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains. On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust.”

There are several passages with this kind of lyrical, almost biblical style, which will be familiar to readers of McCarthy’s other books.

Characterisations are a mixed bag. Sylder and his whisky-running friends never seem to come alive off the page. And John Wesley doesn’t receive much attention. He spends a large portion of the book trying to trap minks in the local creek, for no apparent story-telling purpose beyond enabling McCarthy to describe the motion of the river and the flora on the riverbanks (again and again).

But then there are bit parts, like the welfare worker who interviews the hermit, or the local shopkeeper, Mr Eller, both of whom McCarthy sketches with the sort of minimalist precision which he would later become famous for.

And indeed there’s the hermit himself, perhaps the most convincing character in the book, perhaps because, living on his own, he speaks through his actions rather than his words. He’s well into his 80s, a kind of nature spirit who lives in a shack on the mountainside with his old, blind dog. His periodic rambles through the Tennessee forest give McCarthy the opportunity to stretch his authorial muscles. He is for some reason ‘guarding’ Rattner’s body which floats, wreathed in weeds, just beneath the surface of a reservoir in an orchard near his shack. (Thus he’s the eponymous ‘orchard keeper’.)

It’s never quite clear why the hermit is ‘guarding’ the body or feels in any way responsible for it. Towards the end of the book, the hermit shoots at the police when they come to question him about the body, and they take him off to an insane asylum. The police interview is spliced with some of the hermit’s reminiscences. But they doesn’t bring us closer to the truth. In fact, as the story comes to an end, with John Wesley making his way off into the wide world, there isn’t a great sense of closure. It’s as if, in the end, the plot wasn’t particularly important.

And this might be close to the truth. Around two thirds of the book is composed of landscape description. Some of it is superb. For example, the hermit’s first trip through his overgrown orchard is rich with metaphor and fine phrases. And then his final escape across the mountains to a new home has a pure beauty which foreshadows the best parts of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.

However much of the description, for example John Wesley’s walk through town to the trapping store, and a narration of a rainstorm and its effects on the countryside, is unbearably overwritten:

“He was still standing on the sidewalk and now he saw the city, steamed and weaving in heat, and rising above the new facings of glass and tile the bare outlandish buildings, towering columns of brick adorned with fantastic motley; arches, lintels, fluted and arabesque, flowered columns and crowstepped gables, baywindows over corbels carved in shapes of feet, heads of nameless animals, Pompeian figures… here and there, gargoyled and crocketed, wreathed dates commemorating the perpetration of the structure.” (p.86)

The sentence, which reads like it’s been copied from an architectural journal, is indigestible. It also adds nothing: if it is meant to portray a fantastical atmosphere of confusion and unease at being in a strange town, it has absolutely no effect on the ‘observer’, John Wesley, who simply makes his way to a hardware shop to buy some traps.

And then, describing a fast-flowing river after a storm:

“The creek itself was a roily misshapen flume more like solid earth in motion than any liquid… Unless a limb or stick came down, or here: a fluted belt of water curling upward in a long scoop like a snarled lip broken suddenly by a tree branch lashing out of the perfect opacity of it, rapid and deft as a snake striking, subsiding again and invisible with no ring or ripple to trace it by.” (p.187)

The language is clotted, the (several) images muddled, and ultimately the detail is completely unnecessary to set the scene.

One could forgive McCarthy for applying layer upon layer of detail if thereby he manages to build up a convincing, memorable landscape. However the choice of detail too often seems random, which makes the reader feel like he’s getting lots of tiny glimpses of odd aspects of the scene. And McCarthy doesn’t manage to communicate a sense of the mountain setting as a real place. People just wander through a collection of natural features – creek, road, hillside, forest – with the result that the setting feels arbitrary, dreamlike.

It seems like, at this stage in his career, McCarthy lacked the skill to imagine and draw out the few ‘vital’ pieces of description which can carry an entire scene within them. That said, towards the end of the book the writing becomes firmer, more mature, less reliant on repeated imagery, as if McCarthy learnt to write in the process of writing.

Overall I would only recommend this book to Cormac McCarthy completists and those intrigued as to the genesis of his style. It’s not a long book, but its verboseness makes it a difficult and (for me) ultimately unrewarding read.