Talking Movies

October 4, 2013

How I Live Now


Saoirse Ronan impresses as a sullen teenager facing up to WWIII, but worryingly once again her performance is better than the film that contains it.

Caustic American teenager Daisy (Ronan) arrives in Britain, travelling as an unaccompanied minor. Well, unaccompanied except for the competing voices of self-help mantras and hyper-critical judgements in her head. She is collected from the airport by her English cousin Isaac (Tom Holland) illegally driving a Range Rover home to their isolated farm where Daisy meets Piper (Harley Bird), who’s frightfully excited at having a substitute big sister, and neighbour Joe (Danny McEvoy), who prefers their home to his abusive father’s. Daisy swoons over a dishy falconer (George MacKay), glimpsed as they drive past him, only to discover that he’s her cousin George. Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) is distracted by government worries over possible terrorist attacks and so Daisy has to adjust to her cousins’ irritatingly bohemian lifestyle. But by the time apocalypse comes proceedings are all very early Ian McEwen…

How I Live Now is a very well made film. Last King of Scotland director Kevin McDonald gets very natural performances from the child actors even as his oblique portrayal of nuclear apocalypse gets increasingly brutal. Some of his visuals are simply stunning. The detonation of a bomb in London sees the shockwave preceded by a tsunami-like moment of eerie calm and atmospheric reverse and then a magical fall of snow as the sky darkens. And driving thru the deserted motorways of England recalls 28 Days Later, as do the brutal eruptions of violence in rural camps and an extended suspense sequence when Daisy and Piper investigate a deserted army base for signs of what happened. However the lack of detail grates when you’re expected to swallow not just nukes and poisoned reservoirs but, somehow, massive mobilised armies of terrorists.

Ronan edges slightly towards her role in Hanna towards the end, but, especially initially, she’s doing something new. She’s playing a far more abrasive character than any she’s essayed before and doing it very well. Indeed the film’s so good at upsetting audience expectations as to its genre that it’s a while before you notice that it’s gradually forgotten the hyper-critical voice in Daisy’s head that was presented as the key to her character in the opening act, and then sporadically later on; when planning her trek home. The most troubling element though is not the implication of possible inherited schizophrenia that is literally dispensed with when the shooting starts, but that we’re expected (even down to the tagline on posters) to root for Daisy to get home so that she can continue an incestuous relationship with her first cousin

How I Live Now is too solidly well made a film to not be given 3 stars but its central romantic motif makes it hard to truly like it.



July 18, 2013

Bitten By A Bug That I Love

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 4:24 pm
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I’m not a fan of zombie movies, especially movies with fast-running zombies; which I always consider cheating, they’re creepy enough already. So it’s only fitting that I shuffle aside to let a true zombie afficianado have a rant. Elliot Harris, who will no doubt be found holed up in Highbury with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost come the zombie apocalypse, writes:


I suffer from an affliction. While widely known, it’s not understood. Sufferers are frequently a point of ridicule from the media, strangers and friends alike. What is this affliction, you ask? Simple, I love the idea of zombies. There, I said it! I read books and comics about zombies, I watch TV shows and films about zombies, I play computer games about zombies. I’m not some sort of apocalypse waiting/wanting nut-job. Nor am I some sort of society-hating gun-nut. Actually, I’m pretty sure that I’d fall in the first wave. I can’t run very fast or far. I neither own nor can shoot a gun and I’ve no survival skills. What interests me is one simple question, a question with no real answer: What would happen if zombies were anything other than a work of fiction – what if they were real and how would the society react?

OK, that’s really three questions, but, I believe, that they truly go to the essence of a great zombie story. Zombies can be and have been used as a metaphor for society ills – everything from consumerism to the idolism of celebrities. Deep psychological questions can be posed by an author, a film maker, even a song-writer using this metaphor. That’s not to say that everyone gets it. Some look at zombies as the perfect excuse to make shlock about Real American Heroes™ blasting the faceless, unrelatable villain away without having to consider the impact that the use of a gun or a weapon of any sorts can bring. There’s one major problem though; Hollywood simply won’t make a good Zombie film.

Hollywood doesn’t want to make an honest to goodness zombie film. The essence of a zombie apocalypse is that there is no going back. Society has collapsed. Zombiesm cannot be cured. The police, the army, the government can’t help – they’re gone. Numbers of infected way outweigh those who have managed to survive… and even the use of the word survive is a misnomer. Uninfected is a more appropriate word. Those uninfected left, those very few are like prisoners on death row, with no chance of appeal, no chance of pardon. What’s left is a bleak, far too bleak for Hollywood to ever make a film about. It’s simply unmarketable. People want the good guys to win out. Hollywood pushes it to the limit, having society on the very bring with only a 59th minute, 100+ yard ‘Hail Mary’ of a pass to pull things back from the brink.

That’s to say that Hollywood has never made a zombie film, they have. Plenty in fact, but almost all of them suffer from Hollywood’s ‘don’t worry, the good guys won. Now go buy our merch’ shtick. A look at the zombie films of recent years backs this up: 28 Days Later – the zombies starve to death; Shaun of the Dead – the zombie outbreak is quelled; Warm Bodies – zombies start to regress to humans; World War Z – a vaccine is designed to dissuade zombies from attacking the inoculated. The few exceptions of note are Zack Snyder’s early 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead and Zombieland, which was originally planned as and later remade into a TV series, are far outweighed by the junk pumped out year after year.

Good and original Zombie content that that genuine ask the “what if” question, or that play with zombies as a metaphor rather than gun fodder is sadly a rarity. It’s such a shame, because without those “what if” questions, we’re little more than zombies.

January 11, 2012

The Darkest Hour 3-D

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Emile’s fine…

Emile Hirsch stars as a young tech entrepreneur in Chris Gorak’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama set in Moscow, and produced by Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov. Hirsch and his business partner and lifelong friend Max Minghella arrive in Moscow to launch a Russian expansion of their social networking site Globe Trot. Only to find that they’ve been royally screwed by their dodgy business associate played by Alexander Skarsgaard lookalike Joel Kinnaman, who has the advantage over them of actually speaking Russian and has stolen their idea. Disconsolate they retreat to Zvezda nightclub where they meet two users of Globe Trot, Olivia Thirlby and Rachael Taylor. Kinnaman shows up for a celebration of his business deal, but a fight is halted by a sudden power-cut that heralds the descent of alien invaders. What resemble glowing jellyfish descend from the skies and then become invisible, before shredding any human who touches them with a blast of electromagnetic wave energy that reduces them to their molecular structure instantly.

The Darkest Hour recalls Cloverfield in its quick setting up of a small group of people before realistically killing them off in shocking and suspenseful ways as they grapple with an alien invasion they don’t really comprehend. The script by Jon Spaiht was originally conceived for small town Ohio by Leslie Bohem & MT Ahern but became a far different beast when the chance to explore Russia opened up. Unfortunately the script lacks Drew Goddard’s wit and so, unlike Cloverfield, you’re not fully on board with rooting for these characters before they’re thrown into peril. The peril though is very well handled. A sequence in a deserted Red Square is memorable both for its stunning location and its tension as our heroes try to escape detection by an enemy they cannot see. Gorak’s love of 28 Days Later is clear from the joy he finds in filming scenes in a Moscow whose 14 million citizens have been reduced to a thin dust on the eerily empty streets.

These Americans and Australian are totally lost in an urban environment where even the street signs are in an alphabet they can’t read. Gorak makes daytime a source of terror as only at night can the aliens be easily detected when they light up electric outlets. The science is explained by a nicely deranged Dato Bakhtadze as Sergei, riffing on Brendan Gleeson’s role in 28 Days Later. Indeed the stars are comprehensively outshone by their support. Veronika Vernadskaya as Vika has some wonderful moments as the resolute teenage survivor. Gohas Kutsnko as Matveo is magnificent as a Russian soldier who has figured out to how to defeat the aliens and plans a Leningrad style resistance; he would rather die with Moscow at his back than survive in exile. This recalls Colin Farrell’s character in The Way Back, but with Bekmambetov advising we can apparently now regard this as a real Russian trait.

The ending stresses the note of hope too much, when the world’s population could now probably live comfortably in North London, but this is a solid piece of work.


October 26, 2011

Top 10 Scary Movies

Hallowe’en is almost upon us! This weekend Contagion, Demons Never Die, Paranormal Activity 3, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and others will all contend for the horror audience at the multiplexes, while the Screen’s Monster Mash and especially the IFI’s Horrorthon with special guest (and cult hero) Michael Biehn (Aliens, Planet Terror) will cater for the hardcore ghouls. But if you’re staying in for TV or DVD scares instead here’re quality shockers to get you thru the horrid holiday.

(10) Psycho
Hitchcock’s 1960 low budget classic influenced all the other films on this list as it dealt a tremendous hammer blow to restrictions on cinematic violence. Hitchcock’s direction is almost parodically showy as the first act of the film is essentially an enormous shaggy-dog story, setting up a number of prolonged blackly comic sequences. Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates is a terrific resonant villain, especially in the chilling final scene scored by Bernard Hermann with full-on Schoenbergian atonal serialism, while the shower scene with Janet Leigh being slashed to Hermann’s bravura stabbing violins orchestration remains an iconic ‘pure cinema’ scare.

(9) The Host
You may not have heard of this one before but this recent Korean effort is already well on its way to classic status. A hilariously dysfunctional Korean family try to save their abducted youngest member from a mutated monster created by American polluters. Brilliant special effects create scares aplenty while the script is both scathing of American power politics and sublimely absurdist. This pre-dates Rodriguez’s Planet Terror in collecting misfit characters with useless skills, like a hesitant Olympic archer and a Molotov cocktail flinging former student radical, and paying off those set-ups in hilarious and unexpected ways.

(8) Halloween
John Carpenter was probably gazumped by Black Christmas to creating the slasher flick but he certainly codified the conventions of the genre with this 1978 movie. I’ve long thought Carpenter a deeply over-rated director but this film, powered by his deceptively simple yet still creepy music, features numerous sequences of nerve-rending suspense as Jamie Lee Curtis’s baby-sitter is stalked by the homicidal madman Mike Myers in his William Shatner mask. Treasure Donald Pleasance as the psychiatrist Loomis as he dead pans his reply to Curtis’ question “Was that the boogieman?” – “Yes, as a matter of fact it was”.

(7) Night of the Living Dead
George Romero usually gets far too much credit for what is tangential social satire in his Dead films, but there’s no doubt that he invented the modern zombie genre with this piece. By not cutting away when the undead started munching human flesh, and concentrating the action in a claustrophobic setting where the mismatched survivors turn on each other under the constant strain of both repelling the zombies and dealing with the ticking time-bomb of their infected, he gave us the still resonant archetypal zombie set-up. The ending is as chilling as in 1968.

(6) The Exorcist
This 1973 shocker, scored by Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and directed by William Friedkin at the short-lived height of his powers, remains one of the highest grossing movies ever made. Stephen King thought its secret was that it struck a nerve with parents concerned that they had somehow lost their children to the dark side of the 1960s, while simultaneously attracting those self-same kids eager for transgressive thrills. It’s equally likely that such frighteningly realised demonic possession just freaks people out, especially when Max Von Sydow’s stalwart priest realises he’s once again facing the originating villain, Lucifer.

(5) The Evil Dead
The Evil Dead is not a comedy-horror classic like its acclaimed sequel Evil Dead 2, but an extremely gruelling gore-fest that bookends the extreme horror tendencies of the 1970s. Director Sam Raimi made his name directing his school friend and subsequent cult legend Bruce Campbell as plucky college student Ash, fighting off evil spirits inadvertently summoned by his friends by reading an arcane tome at a remote cabin in a forest where even the trees turn out to be evil, damn evil, and prone to doing things that are still controversial. Prepare to lose your lunch.

(4) 28 Days Later
Alex Garland’s first original screenplay was blatantly a zombie reworking of The Day of the Triffids, but there are worse templates than John Wyndham’s particular variety of realistic sci-fi. The post-apocalyptic concerns of that classic became horror gold through Danny Boyle’s customarily frenetic direction of the terrifyingly energetic Infected pursuing Cillian Murphy thru an eerily deserted London. The obligatory survivors turning on each other motif is enlivened by the quality of rhetoric given to Christopher Eccleston’s barking mad soldier, while the climactic eye gouging is perhaps the most horrific act ever committed by any screen hero.

(3) Don’t Look Now
1973 classic Don’t Look Now is on the surface an art-house study, rendered in editor turned director Nicolas Roeg’s typically disjunctive style, of a couple consumed with grief over the death of their daughter trying to forget their loss and begin again by travelling to Venice. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland though begin seeing a red coated little girl tailing them at a distance thru the streets, and become convinced that it may be their dead daughter, leading to an ending so genuinely nightmarish that it will freak you out even if you’ve seen it before.

(2) Alien
Alien is a great horror film which skilfully masquerades as sci-fi, including the score from Jerry Goldsmith at his most dissonant. Ridley Scott firmly establishes the characters before bumping them off in his Gothic space-ship full of dark shadows and dripping roofs. Stephen King has noted that the absence of almost any action for the first hour leaves the audience extremely nervy for when events finally occur. The alien attacks are superbly orchestrated and you’d need nerves of steel not to do a sitting high jump at least twice in the final 20 minutes. Don’t watch while eating…

(1) Scream
Neve Campbell confidently carries this 1996 classic directed by rejuvenated horror maestro Wes Craven from Kevin Williamson’s razor sharp script. Scream is a blackly hilarious self-aware dissection of the clichés of slasher movies which is also simultaneously a genuinely brilliant slasher flick filled with gory attacks and jump out of your seat moments. Williamson’s delicious dialogue is brought to memorable life by an ensemble cast on truly top form, including star-making turns from Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette, Rose McGowan and Skeet Ulrich. Enjoy, oh, and please do remember, “Movies don’t create psychos, they just make psychos more creative…”

May 18, 2011

Scream on the Rocks

I was listening to ‘Pure Shores’ while unsuccessfully trying to find someone else excited about seeing Scream 4 a few weeks ago, and it led to these musings on how something can be all-conquering, then just disappear…

I was surprised that no one I knew was excited about a new Scream film, given that Kevin Williamson had returned to writing duties, and has lately been writing wonderful (cliff-hanger a minute, major twist every episode) dark popcorn for The Vampire Diaries. 11 years though is a long time… The Beach was released in February 2000 and, this being in prehistory when MTV not only played music but played certain videos on constant rotation, its imagery penetrated deep into people who never saw the film courtesy of All Saints’ video for the sublime ‘Pure Shores’ incorporating an awful lot of clips from Danny Boyle’s film. 11 years ago I finally saw Scream on TV and then Scream 3 in the cinema in quick succession and never got round to watching The Beach till 2003. It’s odd to think that these films, which were all pervasive at the time, seem to have been more or less forgotten. In the case of Danny Boyle his belated and ill-advised entrance to major Hollywood movies has been completely forgotten because of a couple of belting truly Alex Garland scripted movies since, and an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. The Beach also represented after the American Psycho debacle DiCaprio’s attempt to make a post-Titanic film that proved he could act. He’s long since been able to point to his Scorsese collection, and latterly Revolutionary Road and Inception, so The Beach is also a footnote for him.

But why has Scream fallen so low in popular esteem that its belated sequel could so utterly flop? Perhaps Scream has been a victim of its own success. It brought forth a wave of self-conscious horror films like Final Destination where good jokes were as important as scary shocks, and the audience and film-makers continually winked at each other regarding clichéd conventions of horror cinema that could still be exploited to make you jump in your seat, but only if that was followed by a good pay-off line. That arguably brought forth a counter-wave, the infamous torture porn of Saw, Hostel and Wolf Creek, where the film-makers grabbed the audience by the throat, demanded they stop winking, stop turning away, look at this horror, be horrified, and start screaming now… Now it seems to safe to declare torture porn more or less dead, we seem to be stuck in a field of shlock, Piranha 3-D, the everpresent efficient teen horror, My Bloody Valentine, and nouvea 70s viciousness in the form of remakes, Last House on the Left, and nasty originals, Eden Lake. In that landscape where torture porn seems to have permanently upped the acceptable ante for both gore and viciousness the very concept of a Scream 4 is an anomaly if not an embarrassment.

I only hoped that Scream 4 might be as good as Scream 2, but truthfully it’s more like Scream 3, the one Williamson didn’t write – an efficient film with flashes of inspiration. There are wonderful moments throughout, not least Courteney Cox muttering that a massacre must take place at a Stab marathon, “what could be more meta?”; a confused David Arquette asks what that means, to which she replies “I don’t know, it’s just some word I heard the kids using.” Scream was a great film because it was original, the cold open of Scream 4 with its nods to how Scream 2 introduced Stab, a film of the events of Scream, goes far too far in alienating the audience with postmodern meta-nonsense at the expense of emotional engagement. When you have not one, not two, but three different sets of TV stars (from, deep breath, 90210, Privileged, Veronica Mars, True Blood, oh forget it) all enacting the same basic scenario with commentary on the predictability of said scenario, mixed with snipes at torture porn, it’s time to return to basics. But the basics aren’t easy. The motive of the Ghostface Killer is a huge problem. Each sequel has tied itself in ever more preposterous knots regarding motivation, and Scream 4 obeys that rule of sequels. An even greater problem is the split focus caused by the bizarre notion the film persistently voices about itself being a remake rather than a sequel. The ‘new’ versions of original characters Billy Loomis, Randy and Stu don’t work at all because they are severely underwritten, while the beloved original characters aren’t given enough screen-time either. Hayden Panetierre and Emma Roberts are the only actors of the new young cast given enough material to really make an impression, and a good deal of this is purely due to their skills rather than the script. Roberts in particular is not afraid to be shown in a far colder light emotionally than you can imagine her aunt ever being willing to play, and her relationship with screen cousin Neve Campbell powers the film.

And then, if you’re me, you realise something with a shock while watching – Adam Brody isn’t going to step up to the plate in the third act and do something, his minor supporting role is just that; he has been totally forgotten. How terrifyingly forgotten The OC has become. Only 4 years after it finished its 4 season run which was captivating and hilarious and spawned a whole set of music, books, comics, styles and clichés, Seth Cohen himself, Adam Brody, can’t seem to get good parts anymore outside of Jason Reitman enabled cameos. Josh Schwartz is now the guy who co-created Gossip Girl or Chuck. He’s never thought of as the youngest creator of a primetime network show which was what The OC made him. And so it is that Kevin Williamson is now the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries not the wunderkind behind Scream or even Dawson’s Creek. Glory is fleeting…

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