Monday, 19 August 2013

Frances Ha; The Conjuring; The Hunger

 Frances Ha

After the mirth-free zones that are The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, you could be forgiven for thinking that Noel Baumbach’s latest directorial credit would be another take on the middle class ennui of the privileged yet unhappy Americans that arthouse audiences seek out for a classier dose of Schadenfreude. And yet, Frances Ha is full of warmth and joy.

The ingredients are still there - starving artist struggling in the big city but with a relatively wealthy parental safety net, reaching that point of adulthood where a lack of direction moves from malaise to panic. But instead of the naked confusion and anger, there is joy at finding friends and celebrating what the city has to offer, up alongside the awkwardness of breaks in communication and the difficulty in balancing practical survival and fulfilment.

As the co-writer, star Greta Gerwig undoubtedly has a huge influence and tempers some of Baumbach’s more sombre excesses. Crucially Frances Ha presents a loose knit group of people who are all likeable, flaws and all, and the female lead doesn’t pin her existence around a male relationship.

The Black and White photography suits New York well, giving the film more of a timeless feel as it could comfortably slot in amongst other NYC cinema of the last 3 or 4 decades.

Having just watched 2 seasons of Lena Dunham’s Girls, the similarities are undeniable, but the underlying themes of female friendship and educated, directionless women in their 20's scratching a living in New York are larger than that series and this film. This is both a great little character study and a loving, honest look at a particular generation.

The Conjuring

Setting itself up as yet another classic ‘period’ horror, taking place in 1971 and trumpeting about the ‘true story’ origins, The Conjuring finds itself too sharp to convince when compared to originals such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or recent homages like The House of the Devil. Its cinematography is more in keeping with the likes of director James Wan’s previous horror offering Insidious, though this isn’t such a bad thing, for instance when the digital clarity of the photography picks out the eerie skews of shade in the basement.

Speaking of the basement, The Conjuring is rammed with some of the most obvious of all horror clichés.
  • family arrives at big old house in middle of nowhere
  • house with ghoulish past
  • bricked-up rooms
  • youngest kid soon making imaginary friend/s
  • bumps in the night
  • doors opening/closing by themselves
  • crew of exorcist/ghost investigator types
  • an exorcism
  • creepy doll
  • apparitions glimpsed in mirrors/windows
  • creepy music box
  • reverse Hansel and Gretel - the apparition guides people to the optimum haunty bit of the house by making noises and moving things

But The Conjuring doesn’t just steal from the old classics, as a number of riffs from Paranormal Activity are adopted wholesale, mainly the grabbing of the sleeping leg variety.

The cast are superior, with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga good as the open-minded ghost hunters, and Lili Taylor great as usual, here playing the mother of the family targeted by the other-wordly.

Still, however polished it is there is nothing original here, and again unlike House of the Devil it’s not enough of a loving retro-production to compensate for that same-old same-old feeling, nor is it good enough to compete with the likes of the Exorcist.

The Hunger

Tony Scott’s début feature set the tone for much of his future work - stylish and a little empty.
The Hunger isn't the first attempt to bring the vampire myth up to date and it won’t be the last, but it doesn't avoid the issue of cementing itself fully in its time. The film is so 80's it hurts, from the goth club opening to the endless smoking of the first half and maze of rooms full of billowing net curtains and doves in the second, the film was already a museum piece once released.

Early on the film feels a little like a music video aiming for French chic, as Catherine Deneuve and Bowie smoulder from behind sunglasses and plumes of smoke, the editing cutting quickly as various unnatural light filters wash everything in moody hues, but once Susan Sarandon pops up it feels that the lack of dialogue  in the earlier scenes is more to do with the acting chops on offer up to that point than a stylistic choice.

Sarandon sticks out as an intense focal point in the second half, both in her passion for her new romantic interest in Deneuve’s vampire, and in the addiction/withdrawal scenes as she battles with her change, her blood losing the fight with ‘inhuman’ blood. Also the idea of a room full of boxed-up former lovers, suffering through their immortality in dessicated bodies is a little bit more chilling than the average crappy fang-flick, but the lack of engagement with most of the characters blunts the true horror you should be feeling because of it.

Pre-echoes of Scott’s later 80's flicks Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop 2 are there to see, particularly BHC2 with the opportunity for showcasing Hollywood opulence and Brigitte Nielsen’s glacial vamp, cold stares from within her severe suit and shaded eyes, but like those films The Hunger is all surface.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Jurassic Park 3; South West 9

Jurassic Park 3

It’s nice to see the return of Sam Neil and Laura Dern along with that iconic score, but William H Macy and Tea Leoni also fare well as slightly caricatured exes, searching for their lost son on one of the endless string of islands that John Hammond seems to have seeded with dino-clones. Alessandro Nivola is also good as the younger, hungrier version of Neil’s archaeologist showing off some 3D printing at the start which becomes a key plot point, but what’s happened to him? Seemed to have such potential…

Action stations kicks off after about 20 minutes of set-up and barely lets up as the cast are chased around the island by reptilian predators. Good to see continued mix of CGI and animatronics making the dinosaurs seem more realistic - the Spinosaur isn’t too cheesy as the inevitable step-up from the threat of the T-Rex (though some scenes attempting to ape the tension of the original’s stand-out encounter inevitably fail), Raptors have a nice update with feathers and vocal communication even if this is at odds with those in the first film, and the Pteradons are very creepy in their fog-filled aviary, a tingling sense of the alien with their huge heads, beaks and beady eyes.

I had memories of really enjoying this at the cinema when it was released in July 2001, and it’s good to see that it hasn’t aged in the last 12 years, particularly if you see it as the schlocky B picture it is.

South West 9

A time capsule piece that seems to occupy a strange middle ground, too big to be a TV special but too small to be a proper movie. Somehow doesn’t feel very cinematic despite some high speed/ slo-mo, cross-fade and other trickery, but does feature some clips of archival protest footage which cement the characters, culture and time.

Director Richard Parry was clearly fond and knowledgeable of the counter-culture scene of London from the late Nineties to the turn of the Millennium with all the crusties, raves and pill-popping that entails, but it does sometimes feel a bit fabley or adult fairy-tale, at odds with the gritty realism of the war-torn news footage he shot from the mid-nineties, included on the DVD as an extra.

I get the impression that the original intentions may have been a little loftier than the eventual result - it’s got drugs, sex and a gun so it was probably easier to fund in the aftermath of the UK gangster geezer explosion that spewed out after ‘Lock, Stock’ became a hit.
Unfortunately the only equivalents I have that spring to mind when thinking of ensemble pieces looking at underground culture are the likes of Soderbergh’s Traffic, an unenviable rival however different in tone (the voice-over threading the flash-back & forward narrative points toward a serious intent, however gaudy some of the visuals, action and characters).

A scrappy love letter to a snapshot in London’s life, South West 9 is good in parts but is scuppered by its own aim of identifying so closely with its subject - it becomes something of a museum piece rather than a film that continues to live.