Tuesday, 30 December 2014

2014 favourites at the cinema

In 2013, I didn’t go to the cinema much, so it seemed redundant to do an end-of-year post. 2014 was different, I’m glad to say, so here’s my favourite seven in no particular order.

1.      Under the Skin
2.      Boyhood
3.      The Rover
4.      The Babadook
5.      Faults
6.      Nightcrawler
7.      The Raid 2

I went to Frightfest this year and although I only went for two days due to the online meltdown obtaining weekend passes. I saw 12 films over Saturday and Sunday and out of that, I’d say 10 had something of merit about them. Two were stand-outs: “The Babadook” and “Faults”. I only felt that “All Cheerleaders Die” by Lucky McKee and Robert Sivertson insulted the intelligence and Guy Pidgen’s “I Survived a Zombie Holocaust”, despite being sporadically amusing, went on too long until you couldn’t help notice that it wasn’t very good.

I’ve been happily surprised at the near-unanimous love Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” has been getting as it’s a proper horror film that doesn’t think that just being scary or gory is all a horror film can do. There is something genuinely dangerous about it and – despite some people thinking the final act is somehow a disappointment – it has an ending that is both logical and carries through on its initial promise. Since most horror fails somehow come its finale, that’s a relief.

Riley Stearns “Faults” is more a psychological horror, but seeing it in a horror context helps to enhance its sense of the uncanny, of something not being quite right. Mostly it has terrific performances, especially from Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as well a great opening scene.


Paul Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is a heady character study of Scarlett Johansson as an alien, trawling Scotland for victims. It’s like Jonathan Glazer took the first half of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” as his template and hasn’t watched a sci-fi blockbuster since. Intimate and trippy, this is the kind of genre flick that gets made too rarely.


Gareth Evan’s “The Raid 2” goes big whereas its predecessor was streamlined. The film may have to go looking for its fight scenes, but when they come they are superlative. We may be ready for them this time around but that doesn’t make them any less exciting and impressive.


“Boyhood” immediately stood as a cinematic milestone just for taking a single child actor and growing up with him and the other actors around him over twelve years. The fact that Richard Linklater crafts a casual bildungsroman from the material is remarkable: every time the film seems to approach the kind of dramatic input that other films would lap up, he goes on to something else. It rambles in the best sense and finds truths that your average biopic could only wish for. Rarely does a film transcend its own gimmick so artfully.

I had heard good things about David Michôd’s “The Rover” before seeing, but I knew it was my kind of thing within the first scene. Then Robert Pattinson turns up and delivers a performance that will surely leave naysayers wondering if really it’s the same actor that helmed the “Twilight” series. And that’s in a film brimming with good performances. This is the kind of film-making that says that not everything has to be spelt out all the time.
I went into Nightcrawler” knowing nothing but Jake Gyllenhaal was a sleazeball and that it was meant to be good. Apparently the trailer gives everything away, but it was all a surprise to me. By halfway through, I was chucking sardonically repeatedly and pretty sure I was watching one of my films of the year.


& runners up…

8.      We Are the Best” for leaving a big punky smile on my face.
9.      Locke” for being a great actor’s showpiece.
10.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes” because this is how you do mainstream effects showcases.
11.  Guardians of the Galaxy” for being a lot of fun where very little was expected.
12.  Maps to the Stars” for being Cronenberg-creepy and for some great performances.
13.  Boxtrolls” for being grimy and odd and funny.

And I will also mention…

The Drop”: exactly what you expect it to be, nothing more and nothing less.

Only Lovers Left Alive” doesn’t quite transcend its frequently bad dialogue, but the soundtrack and the vampires-for-hipsters vibe make up for a lot.

Godzilla” has moments of brilliance, and great monster moments, but too often follows its least interesting angle in search of emotional-connection-with-the-audience.

Interstellar” has emotional-connection-to-the-audience galore, which means its popular but, for me, its best stuff is in the middle section when they leave Earth: that’s where the real awe-inspiring material is.

The Wolf on Wall Street” was as good and as well-made as expected.

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies” was an improvement on the middle part of the trilogy and a fair ending after all, but not enough to match the heights of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy or quite enough to remind us why that was so ground-breaking.

“The Guest” made little sense and seemed to be just an ‘80s nostalgia vehicle: enjoyable for all that, I’m sure, but shallow, too smug and nonsensical.


Biggest disappointment goes to….
Mood Indigo” can’t even have a character walk down the street without something whacky happening. I am a Michel Gondry fan but couldn’t connect to this at all. I find it hard to subscribe to the idea of a woman dying of terminal illness as poetic. What might seem poignant as a music video becomes tiresome and shows its cracks at feature length.

Worst cinema visit:
Has to be when I saw “Maps to the Stars” and had to listen to people eating popcorn for at least its first two acts. And multiple times this year I left the cinema thinking: People do tend to talk through films, don’t they?

Best cinema visit:
Two days of Frightfest: whereas last year was inundated with mostly tedious found-footage or turgid mainstream stuff and the year before that was mostly full of rape, this year provided two days that made me realise that watching so many films with something to offer was just as tiring as watching a lot of crap and waiting for the gems to appear. You kind-of want the good stuff to soak in a bit before the next one… But gorging on brilliant or decent film is always pleasant, of course.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Salem's Lot

Tobe Hooper, 1979, USA

Adaptation of Stephen King’s novel has a small town gradually destroyed by vampires. Its deterioration is watched by typical King heroes: a successful novelist and a teenage horror fan. Central is the old Madsen house with a gruesome, haunted reputation and the arrival of antique dealer Straker and his employer Barlow. Overnight, the vampire is delivered to the quiet town in a crate and the deaths begin.

With two genre heavyweights at the helm with Stephen King and director Tobe Hooper, expectations were high for this adaptation. The general consensus amongst critics appears to be that King’s novel suffered from the limitations of television, but the novel was never particularly explicit in its horrors. It was more interested in the menace and weakening community. In this way, the TV film format seems ideal for King’s picket fence society threatened by the supernatural. The wide cast of secondary yet vividly drawn characters that populate King’s fiction often offer a soap-like backdrop, yet there may be something to Peter Nicholls’ accusation of David Soul being a “predictably wet bit of television casting.”1 It is up to James Mason to deliver the acting delights in a nicely ambiguous turn as Straker. And it is also true that the moments that crescendo to a freeze-frame might hint at CBS censorship more than subtlety. The same year, John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ created a similar community under supernatural threat horror, yet also demonstrated how a film may be both bloodless without compromising its violence too far.
Hooper’s ‘Salem’s Lot’, as Kim Newman has written, is a “respectable rather than devastating” adaptation that lives under the “baleful shadow of ‘Psycho’.”2 He identifies the more typically Hooperesque moment as that when a husband catches his wife and her lover and humiliates them with a shotgun. The feel here, with the over-boiled facial distress and violence implied by editing rather than by outcome, is certainly more akin to ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ than the rather plain direction elsewhere (don’t forget that ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ was relatively bloodless too). Nevertheless, there is enjoyment in its long running time and slow build-up of character and incident that is closer to the novel than the 112 minute film that was subsequently edited from the miniseries.
‘Salem Lot’s greatest improvement upon the novel is in its use of the Glick brother vampires. In the novel, what mostly happens off-stage and is known through dialogue exposition is here given an unforgettable visual rendition. The vampire boys float outside windows, scraping on the glass, demanding to be let in. It is perhaps the film’s most memorable and chilling image, although certainly not it’s only one. I remember as a young teenager watching ‘Salem’s Lot’ and being terrified, not only by the vampires-at-the-window moments, but also at the graveyard cliffhanger and the Mr Barlow reveal. I remember watching it a second time from behind a cushion because I knew it was going to be scary. Its ambience and shock moments certainly worked on me and I am sure this particular mini-series traumatised a generation of horror fans.

The film’s greatest deviation from the novel is in its conception of Barlow the vampire. Hooper has opted to make Barlow a homage to Max Shreck’s ‘Nosferatu’; he is no longer the pretentious, condescending orator of the book: Straker is now his mouthpiece. Barlow’s entrance is another unexpected shocker, but his appearance gains the story little more than monster-make up, but nevertheless a strong defining image. It is at its best when Barlow invades an ordinary domestic dinner scene.

In many ways, ‘Salem’s Lot’ is a successful King adaptation. Despite its TV conventions, ‘Salem’s Lot’ manages some rawness, black humour and shocks; it is at least scary and atmospheric and has aged better than the televised and fondly remembered version of ‘It’. It is a long way down from here to ‘The Lost Boys’. There is no vampire sub-genre deconstruction as in Romero’s ‘Martin’, but ‘Salem’s Lot’s greatest strength is in allowing the vampires the greater visual set-ups and juxtapositioning them against the otherwise naturalistic framing. Vampires sitting in rocking chairs and coming to life on autopsy tables will still provide the delights for genre fans.


·        - Larry Cohen made A Return to Salem’s Lot, another television horror in 1987, but its relationship to the original novel and film was highly tenuous.
·        - Stephen King’s anthology ‘Night Shift’ contains a short story that vaguely follows up ‘Salem’s Lot’ called ‘One for the Road’. Typical of the collection, it is a slight, only mildly satisfying short.


[1]               Peter Nicholls,  Fantastic Cinema: an illustrated survey, (Ebury Press, London, 1984) pg. 145.
2               Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies: a critical guide to contemporary horror films, (Harmony Books, New York, 1988) pg. 54.


Sunday, 14 December 2014


Dan Gilroy, 2014, US

Or the American Dream is for assholes. Something like that. This could be seen on a double-bill with Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”.

Jake Gyllenhall as Louis Bloom is a slime-ball: not particularly likeable but he knows the right things to say when he needs to. He is not a cool guy, but he can spin a tale that makes him sound more important than he actually is; he knows how to spin and he knows how to use his leverage. He’ll use this rather than genuine friendship and he’ll do what it takes to get ahead. He’s a true sociopath, in fact. It’s a blistering performance by Gyllenhall, a career best. By the time he is word-bullying TV executive Nina (Rene Russo) for sex, you can hear in the script why some consider this the best film of the year. Writer-Director Dan Gilroy’s script positively throbs with sardonic black humour. It’s not a comedy but, like a horror, you might find yourself chuckling at Gyllenhall’s outrageousness.

Louis Bloom has nothing: no back story, nothing to fix him in place, nothing to lose. He is a blank slate looking for his chance, for his business opportunity, which he finds when he stumbles upon a film crew filming a car crash and realises that he can do that. 

Chris Cabin notes the moments where Louis Bloom moves a corpse so it is more photogenic and, of course, there is the moment where Bloom walks around a fresh murder site to film it in the most cinematic way possible. Bloom himself states that doing so is crucial. Cabin rightfully prods at this as the point where the film associates Bloom with the film director’s trade: always making murder and death look at their most filmable. Perhaps ‘staged’ is a better term: the giallo genre thrives on this. Cabin takes on Gilroy:

“Sadly, he doesn't develop this deeply alluring aspect of his narrative. Instead, he takes the moral high ground via Ahmed's conflicted character, and in a final twist, provides a shallowly cynical condemnation of the press that reveals a pointed preference for banal pessimism over further exploration of how his own profession thrives off of illicit, even sexy images of murder, pain, and blood”

But I don’t think that is the film that “Nightcrawler” is: it has far more to do with the aforementioned “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Cheap Tricks” than it does the films that directly accuse the audience, like “Funny Games” or “Peeping Tom. The other criticism is that “Nightcrawler” chooses easy and old targets, but as “car crash TV” is currently flourishing, I don’t believe this holds for long. Besides, I saw “Nightcrawler” as far more allegorical and that the world of TV was just one facet of a larger satire. I don’t even think it is subtext: like “Killing them Softly” or “Map to the Stars”, the intent is on top. This is about how those without scruples make business successes. It’s about what people will do to make money.

But “Nightcrawler” is also an excellent character study about a man who is able to go that extra moral-less inch to get what he wants: cash and power. The American capitalist dream is, here, that you will stumble upon a car crash and find away to exploit it; but you must be the one to go and to do what others will not. There is nothing Louis Bloom will not do to achieve his goal: that’s the American Dream right there. At the end, he has taken his chances and is on his way up, through the loopholes.