Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Cell 211 (2009)

In this taut and claustrophobic prison thriller a freak accident lands an unfortunate guard, Juan, in the nightmare situation of waking up alone in the eponymous cell just as a full scale riot ensues; in order to survive he must convince the inmates he is one of them and tension rises as he befriends the imposing leader of the rebellion, Malamadre,brilliantly played by Luis Tosar. Can Juan sustain the deception? If so, how far will he have to go to do so? Will somebody 'out' him? Are all the prisoners as they seem? And will Juan get to see his pregnant wife again? You’ll be on the edge of your seat preparing to find out as the days unfold!

Successful prison-based films should leave the viewer feeling transformed, as if they have suffered a sentence, too. From Brubaker (1980) to Shawshank Redemption (1994) to A Prophet (2009), Carandiru (2003), Bronson (2008) and Hunger (2008), these films depict prisons as a bowel of hell, an immense pressure cooker, a place where testosterone levels can at any moment clash explosively; they embed the viewer in a confined, subnormal environment and brush them up against the dregs of society. Often these films span several years, or decades, and leave the viewer feeling like they've been on the worst journey imaginable; Cell 211 only spans a few days but leaves the viewer no less battered, which, along with its many well-deserved Goyasis, is a testament to this superb film’s power and Danial Monzon's brilliant direction.

Monday, 2 July 2012

King of the Ants (2003)

The King of Ants (2003) is a tough, bone-crunching crime thriller in which an odd-job man unwittingly falls in with a bad crowd that, with disturbingly little persuasion and a small sum money, he is assigned to spy and then murder an accountant. After carrying out the assignment but not receiving his fee and refusing to leave the country when told to do so, he is imprisoned by the gang. Then events get even more violent and twisted... I’ll leave it there with the plot, any more than that will do it a disservice.

Overall, The King of the Ants is a serviceable film with a brutal edge, and the harshness of that edge should come as no surprise to those accustomed with the films of Stuart Gordon. For the first 10 years of his filmmaking career (85-95) Gordon was known for his gruesome and blackly comic HP Lovecraft adaptations including Re-animator (1985), From Beyond (1986), Castle Freak (1995) and Dagon (2001). Since then he had a change of tack and brought his horror tropes to stories set in the real world, most notably Stuck (2007), which was based on a bloody true story. So, as in films like The King of Ants, Gordon brings an atypical abjectness to these dramas, and in this film in particular there are moments of horror and sadism where it really stands out. During the main protagonist’s imprisonment the gang ties him to a chair and wraps some foam around his head and proceed to repeatedly beat his head with golf clubs, their aim: to turn him into a vegetable. These scenes hurt. As a consequence the victim suffers from brief but horrific hallucinations involving transsexualism, chainsaws and a shit-eating creature that’s bizarrely a cross between a giant cactus and a woman; Gordon’s Lovecraftian past seeps in to sublime effect.

Another noteworthy feature is the film’s screenwriter: Charlie Higson, on whose debut novel the film is based. The reason this surprised me was down to the fact that, for me, Higson was synonymous with The Fast Show (94-01). I was aware he had become a successful children’s author but I did not know about his previous adult books. It was like finding out Johnny Ball had written Hostel (2005)! And if I knew about Higson's early novels and his perverse adult film Suite 16 (1994) then this revelation would have been even less of a surprise.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Ward (2010)

After dabbling in a spot of arson a disturbed young lady (Amber Heard) is admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she is subjected to Doctor Stringer’s pioneering therapies and accosted by an angry ghost that begins to kill her fellow ward-mates one by one.

Set in the late 60’s this workman-like horror achieves a good sense of time and place: the hospital has its obligatory haunted corridors and secret rooms, Jared Harris lends enough ambiguity to his role as the Doctor so we never know whether he is coolly mad or genuinely caring, but I never felt like the film added anything new to the genre. So it maybe a run of the mill horror that goes through its predictable machinations but the acting is sturdy and there are a few neat shocks; to be fair, it’s a perfectly good friday night chiller but what I found to be really at stake here is the reputation of its director, John Carpenter.

John Carpenter is responsible for creating classic pieces of cult genre cinema (Assault of Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Christine, Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China), and since those classics, which were made over 25 years ago, he succumbed to a series of flops (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Ghosts of Mars, Escape from LA, Village of the Damned) which have left his fan base always eager to see if his latest work will rejuvenate or disappoint them. It’s a case of him not necessarily (re)creating a “Carpenter” film - especially when we have learnt that the likelihood of this happening is now so low - but more about containing enough  Carpenteresque moments to satisfy fans. The fans know Carpenter has the ability; surely his light will shine again, we hope, or maybe it will just be a faint glimmer, we will except.

This fall in standard is not unusual. For example look at Dario Argento (the less said about his input post The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) the better) and Francis Ford Coppola (after Rumble Fish (1983) what happened?). They had great periods, some spanned a handful of classic films, others more. Then the magic ran out. Maybe it’s not necessarily to do with talent being limited but more to do with a change in the way studios are run; restriction has dampened their flame.

So with The Ward, Carpenter did not create a new cult classic to add to his still impressive filmography, but the sad thing is that from a director who was so individual, this film could have been made by any horror hack.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Film: Some Thoughts on Mirrors & Movies

I love the horror genre and when I see a film that’s succeeded in frightening me - since it so rarely happens these days - I do a little celebratory dance.

Ok, I don't really do a dance but I do feel like I've found a little bit of treasure and feel the need to celebrate, as I did recently after watching Mirrors (2008). Not that I didn't see that coming because, as with haunted houses, evil children, bodily mutations and clowns, mirrors freak the hell out me out.

But, I wondered, why do mirrors freak me out?

I suppose it stems from being taught about a mirror’s cursed other worldliness from an early age; what other everyday household object can bring bad luck?

Aside from this pervasive superstition art, myths, literature and film also contribute to imbuing mirrors with a sinister side.

From Perseus’ mirrored shield fatally casting Medusa’s reflection back on herself, to the magical mirror in the Brothers Grimm's Little Snow-White (1812) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass (1871) where the mirror acts a portal into another world (the imagination); mirrors transcend being just reflective to something altogether more powerful, holding infinite possibilities.

For some reason I’ve always found the convex mirror which lies in the background between the married couple in Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (1434) eerie. Even though it reflects the two people in front of the couple (possibly the artist, or witnesses), when it's viewed from a normal distance the reflected people could be perceived to be the viewer, bringing the painting creepily to life.

Surrealist painters M. C Escher and Salvador Dali have both painted themselves caught in a mirror’s reflection. And Escher painted a self-portrait in which he’s framed in a mirror, as if he’s standing behind the mirror, peering out at the viewer.

In films, mirrors are widely used to the point of becoming a cliché: how many times have you seen a protagonist looking into a shattered mirror to symbolise split personality; or the reflections of two people caught in two separate mirrors to symbolise distance in a relationship.

But it’s specifically in the horror genre that mirrors come into the fore, and where better to start than on another mirror cliché: the bathroom mirror shock-cut. You've probably seen it many times before but it still can work, playing on a knowing anticipation.

Mirrors can sometimes lead to other worlds, as in Carroll’s Alice. Jean Cocteau played with mirrors and in Blood of a Poet (1932) and Orphee (1950) they lead to a different dimension where simple camera trickery (reverse photography and slow motion) help . And with Evil Dead I & II (1981/87) Sam Rami followed suit with mirrors that have watery surfaces and get up to malevolent tricks - at one point nearly causing the lead protagonist to strangle himself.

Malevolent mirrors are not unusual, capitalising on the power they have to lie and corrupt those that stand in front as in the portmanteau films Dead of Night (1945) and From Beyond the Grave (1973) where the mirrors cause their owners to, respectively, attempt suicide or commit murder in order to feed the mirror.

It’s scary when mirrors don't do their job and choose instead to lie like in Dolores Claiborne (1995) where a character looks at herself in a mirror only to confronted by her back; a conceit which may have been lifted from Rene Magritte’s Portrait of Edward James (1937).

Mirrors are also used as fetishistic objects as the Tooth Fairy killer in Manhunter (1986) does, putting shards of mirror in his victim’s eyes, or in Peeping Tom (1960) whose psychopath records his victims watching their own death distorting reflected in a mirror.

For me, the most audacious mirror scene in a horror film has to be in Deep Red (1975) where the killer can be spotted in a mirror 90 minutes before identity of the murderer is unveiled.

And finally, on a lighter note, my favourite mirror scene is the reflection dupe in Duck Soup (1933) where Groucho and Harpo battle it out, mimicking their increasingly bizarre routines to maintain the illusion of passing a mirror to great, classic, comedy effect.

On Writing: To Be Feared or Revered? Who's Occam and what's the Deal with the Razor?

In a previous blog (9/03/10) I used an Esther Freud quote to suggest that good writing is achieved through good editing, and it's with this lancing of unnecessary words that Occam’s Razor comes in.

In a literary sense, the rule of Occam's Razor is essentially: prune all inessential words. There are many variants but I’ve often wondered: who's Occam? And what’s this razor? Was Occam Sweeney Todd’s predecessor? Was he a murderer or a philosopher?

A dichotomy like this is important to resolve, so I decided to put a face to the name.

It turns out that the name Occam refers to British born William of Ockham (1288-1348), an intelligent, multi faceted Franciscan Friar who was a logician and theologian, and is known as the pioneer of nominolism as well as the father of epistemology and one of the major figures of scholasticism; all that despite never completing his Masters at Oxford University and being charged with accounts of heresy. Not bad for a University drop-out and possible heretic!

At least the image I now have of Occam/Ockham is less malevolent than before.

Monday, 19 April 2010

A Random Story (in less than 500 words)

The Hound of Consequence

The phone rang. Al dropped the potato he was peeling and rushed to the hall.
“If that’s Brenda and Gary, we’re not visiting them,” Sara said catching the potato as it rolled off the work surface.
“What! Why?”
“I can’t explain it. I’ve just got a bad feeling about tonight, so say no, ok?”
Al answered the call. “Hello. Yes I know it’s you Brenda. Well, I’m afraid we can’t make it, we have ummm…”
Sara opened up a newspaper and thrust the cinema listings at Al.
“We’re going to the cinema tonight to seeeeee,” Al followed Sara’s finger. “Final Destination… Is it? Well, we’ll be the judge of that. I’ll pass that on, bye.”
Al hung up.
“You angel,” Sara said and kissed Al on the cheek.

Later, Al and Sara were driving to the cinema.
“What are we going to see?” Al said.
“We could see The Final Destination.”
“Seen it.”
“You haven’t. This is The Final Destination. You’ve seen Final Destination - the first one - and its two sequels. This is the new one.”
“Final Destination 4?”
“Yes, but it’s called The Final Destination because it is, at the moment, the final Final Destination. The ‘the’ is very important.”
“The ‘the’ is very confusing.”

At Brenda and Gary’s house Brenda was in the kitchen arranging her guests’ drinks on a floral tray. She lifted the tray, felt its weight and considered asking Gary for help, then shrugged the idea off, approached the kitchen door - which was only open a smidgen - and expertly opened it with her knee. She was about to alert her guests when the edge of the rug nearest her right foot inexplicably lifted, causing her to fall forward, releasing the tray. A deluge of glass, liquid and Brenda fell onto the rug. Gary ran to her aid.

The next morning, after wondering around the house, mug of coffee in hand, following Sara’s fragrant trail from the bathroom, down the stairs, to the front door, Al was preparing for another job-hunting day. He sat in the conservatory, placed the mug on a table and looked out into the garden. A bullfinch sat on the fence; its chirps were the only sound breaking absolute peace.
Al turned his laptop on and supped his coffee. He looked back into the garden, the bullfinch had gone – absolute peace.
Until the nearest window’s handle moved down by itself. The window slowly opened. A howling wind squeezed through the gap and snaked around Al who was buffeted by the roaring force.
The howling stopped.
Silence returned.
Al caught his breath then gasped: his mug inched forward then balanced on its side before completely tipping over, spilling his coffee.
The howling wind returned, snaked Al and exiting through the window.
Al's crotch grew warm from the coffee spilling off the table. Stunned, he looked into the garden; a bullfinch sat on the fence.
Then the phone rang. It was Sara.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Film: The Cove & Activist Documentaries

Last month the Academy Award for Best Documentary went to The Cove (2009), and deservedly so. It’s a powerful, disturbing and unflinching look at what's been going on in Taiji, Japan where an estimated 23,000 dolphins are butchered every year. It’s also the story of Ric O'Barry who deems himself responsible for the growth of the inhumane dolphin industry.

O’Barry was the dolphin trainer on Flipper (1964-67). From living closely with dolphins he came to acknowledge their intelligence and how unsuitable they were for captivity. He also came to realise that the dolphin’s smile is 'one of God’s great deceptions’. And with that, O'Barry's mission in life took a u-turn, as he says: 'I spent 10 years of my life building up the dolphin-in-captivity industry and spent the last 35 trying to tear it down.'

Archive footage shows O'Barry releasing dolphins and getting arrested for his actions. And we see the ingenious lengths both he and his crew go to to capture what goes on in the concealed cove. Despite being frequently followed and questioned by the secret police, intimidated by security and risking banishment from Japan, O'Barry and his crew boldly continue their mission undeterred.

The Cove reminded me of two other recent documentaries: The Devil Came on Horseback (2006) and Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (2008). At the forefront of each of these documentaries are activists who risk (and lose, in the case of BVJRFACC) their lives bravely capturing images of injustice.

In TDCOH Brian Steidle, former marine turned campaigner, photographs the genocide of non-Arab villagers at the hands of the government backed Janjaweed in Sudan. Witnessing the aftermaths of massacres he photographs innocents who have been butchered in their tents or chained to the ground and torched. His photographs were printed in the New York Times.

In BVJRFACC a group called Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) record the Burmese military junta's violent oppression during the 2007 anti-government protests. The DVB record video footage of Buddhist monks being beaten and found murdered, and a Japanese journalist (Kenji Nagai) fatally wounded at point blank range. The footage is sent to contacts in Norway where it's broadcast across the world.

During the final moments of The Cove cameras finally infiltrate the heavily guarded concealed area and record an act of horrific slaughter that turns the sea red and stomach upside down.

These documentaries hold the camera's unblinking eye at atrocities and ask us to watch, learn and, most importantly, do something. But these reports wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the activists, these exceptional people, our modern day heroes, who brandish one of the most powerful and important weapons on the planet - the camera.

* This is a link to O'Barry's blog, Save Japan Dolphins, which charts the effect The Cove has had, and some posts regarding the recent fatal incident in Orlando's Seaworld where a killer whale drowned a trainer.

* This is a link to Democratic Voice of Burma's website.

* Daniel Steidle's website is down at the moment (I think he's in Haiti at the moment) so here's a link to The Devil Came On Horseback's website.