Talking Movies

August 27, 2018

From the Archives: Eden Lake

Another dive into the archives pulls up a Michael Fassbender horror movie that announced a new British director.

Eden Lake may be the first entry in an entirely new sub-genre, the socio-economic horror film, as this film might be more accurately and threateningly re-titled The Chavs

Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly play a polite middle-class London couple who travel to Eden Lake in the depths of the English countryside with the help of their sat-nav. Steve (Fassbender) plans to propose to Jenny (Reilly) over the course of a romantic weekend camping by its idyllic lapping waters. However the surroundings really are a place where every prospect pleases and only man is vile because a group of hoodie wearing teenagers mercilessly harass them for the day, and then the next day steal their jeep. An attempt by Steve and Jenny to get it back sees events very realistically spiral totally out of control.

Eden Lake is relentlessly tense from the first time you hear a voice announcing government proposals to deal with under-age offenders on the car radio as the couple drive out of London. Fassbender (a personal hero of mine) breaks his own rule of always obviously enjoying himself far too much in his work, as, after initially grinning like an idiot, his character Steve is sucked into the nightmare of dealing with this chillingly realised teen gang. Be warned that Eden Lake features a nigh unwatchable scene where, following the accidental killing of a vicious dog belonging to the gang leader Brett (a terrifying Jack O’Connell), Steve is tied up with barb wire and slashed and stabbed by every member of the gang, who of course all have knives like box-cutters, while the sole girl in the gang films the torture on her mobile phone.

Believe it or not things actually get even worse after that; being burnt alive, having a spike driven through your foot and being stabbed in the neck with a shard of glass are horrors still to come for the characters. It’s easy to see why Kelly Reilly was cast as Desdemona in Ewan McGregor’s West End production of Othello last year as her character Jenny is a frustratingly helpless victim until the incredibly bleak final reel.

The writing, directing and acting are as taut as can be and the shlock horror make-up is exemplary. Eden Lake is technically a superb achievement that belies its small budget and announces writer/director James Watkins as a notable talent. I cannot, however, think of a single reason to see this film. It is horror without humour, without the supernatural, without hope or relief. It is horror that could actually happen, and to you. Jack O’Connell’s surly Brett is the worst school bully you ever feared, on crack. Eden Lake would make you feel unsafe walking the streets of England with anything less than a Samurai sword strapped to your waist. Too close to the bone…

3/5

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May 11, 2016

Green Room

Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier follows up the succes d’estime of his second feature, 2013 revenge thriller Blue Ruin, with an equally visceral assault on mainstream horror.

green-room-is-a-must-watch-brutally-insane-movie-sundance-review

The Ain’t Rights wake up in their tour van to find they’re out of gas and off the road. Pat (Anton Yelchin) and Sam (Alia Shawkat) cycle to a parking lot to siphon gas. Rescuing the stranded Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner) they head to a disastrous afternoon gig after which apologetic DJ Tad (David W Thompson) sets them up with a backwoods gig for gas money. They are troubled to find a certain neo-Nazi vibe there, and so naturally lead off with a provocative Dead Kennedys number. But when they walk offstage to find Amber (Imogen Poots) and Werm (Brent Werzner) standing over the dead body of Emily (Taylor Tunes) in the green room, provoking neo-Nazis goes from a risky proposition to a lethal one as Gabe (Macon Blair) imprisons them, waiting for supremo Darcy (Patrick Stewart)…

Green Room recalls 2008’s Eden Lake. Saulnier’s writing and directing are spare and taut and the shlock horror practical FX are exemplary. Eden Lake was an equally superb technical achievement that belied its small budget and announced James Watkins as a notable talent. Reviewing Eden Lake, however, I couldn’t think of a single reason to recommend watching it. It was horror without humour, without the supernatural, without hope or relief; horror that could actually happen, and to you. Green Room is an equally plausible nightmare. You are stapled to your chair by dread and tension, even though there is humour in Macon’s nice guy thug, and the band’s agonising over their Desert Island Discs picks. Stewart is a gruff presence but Poots steals the film with the best lines (“Madonna. … And Slayer”) and a casual facility with extreme violence.

Green Room is not an easy watch. Once Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) is insinuated into the green room to guard the band the clever edits, memorable imagery, and character moments of touring musicians become a distant memory. Dogs rip out throats, box-cutters slice open stomachs, heads explode with shotgun blasts, arms are broken asunder, and a Gotham-aping mutilation occurs. This is where the lack of supernatural or glee becomes a problem. The Kingslayer losing his sword-hand for acting morally in Games of Thrones horrifies in a way that Ash losing his hand in Evil Dead 2 does not, not only because of differences in overall tone but also because it’s his self-definition. Saulnier goes grand guignol gross-out on the mutilation, then backpedals on its life-altering horror by visually covering it up, as if belatedly concerned it’s excessive enough to distract.

Green Room is undeniably an indelible cinematic experience, but not one that will leave fond memories. We await Saulnier’s impending MR James adaptation Red Rune with an awed anticipation.

3/5

February 8, 2012

The Woman in Black

Director James Watkins abundantly fulfils the promise he showed with 2008’s Eden Lake by unleashing a terrifying film that establishes him as a true master of horror.

Daniel Radcliffe is back in the realms of the supernatural, but this time he has no magical powers with which to fight evil… Watkins’ Eden Lake was a social horror in which chavs terrorised a yuppie couple, but his follow-up is a classical haunted house story set in the early 1920s. The film unnerves from the prologue where three young children commit suicide at the behest of the titular ghost. Radcliffe’s struggling London lawyer has lost his wife in childbirth, and is sent to the Norfolk broads on sufferance that if he doesn’t clear up the nightmarish paperwork concerning Eel Marsh House he will lose his job. The unwelcoming villagers try to convince him not to stay, and the ‘incompetent’ local solicitor thrusts documents in his hands; begging him not to visit the house. Driven by duty Radcliffe ignores them…

Sam, a wonderful Ciaran Hinds as the friendly local toff, is contemptuous of the villagers’ superstitions but in this acutely observed 1920s the huge numbers of War dead has created a hunger for communication with the gone thru mediums. It quickly becomes clear that any sighting of the Woman leads to a child’s death. And Radcliffe has a child… Eel Marsh House, situated on a mountainous rise in the Broads with a road washed away by tides twice daily, is a tremendously eerie location. Inside, courtesy of the world’s creepiest toy shop, the dimly-lit house is primed for scares. Classy horror might best be described as a concentrating on dread to create terror rather than on gore to elicit horror. This is the best ‘classy horror’ film I’ve seen since 2008’s The Orphanage, because a maestro is conducting.

Watkins disdains the ‘ha, made you jump!’ scares that blighted Black Swan. Instead he delivers three amazing releases of tension in innocuous but sharp surprises at the house, before a slightly unnerved Radcliffe returns to the village only to encounter a true horror. It is when he returns to Eel Marsh House and informs Hinds of his intention to work thru the night and get shot of the paperwork in one go that things become terrifying. Hitchcock defined suspense as the pleasurable/tense wait for something you knew was going to happen, and Watkins delivers multiple bravura sequences of truly terrifying attendance on the arrival of malevolent spirits. Jane Goldman’s lean adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel creates an escalating feeling of sheer dread and the ending defeats the cliché you may be expecting. That’s if you don’t bolt, screaming, before the end…

Eden Lake was a dazzling technical achievement but it was hard to recommend. The Woman in Black, while almost unbearable for the nervously disposed, cannot be recommended enough.

5/5

May 25, 2011

Hex to Jonah Hex: The Rise of Fassbender

I realise with a shock that I’ve been neglecting Michael Fassbender in this blog, so it’s only right to devote my 100th blog post to the man from Kerry.

Fassbender has risen in just seven years from playing the villain in a Sky One show to playing the nascent super-villain in a keenly anticipated summer blockbuster. Next week will see a piece focusing on my concept of Fassbendering, but this week let’s focus on how he made this journey. Fassbender had appeared in Band of Brothers but arguably first truly came to public consciousness as the actor in that famous Guinness ad at the end of 2003 who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. Characteristically Fassbender ended the ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again. He then played the resident Big Bad in Sky One’s Buffy homage/rip-off Hex. As fallen angel Azazeal he impressed with dark charisma, cut-glass English accent, and the distinct vibe that he was enjoying this part far too much.

2004 also saw him star in Canadian TV movie A Bear Called Winnie where, as a compassionate vet in the Canadian Army who rescued an orphaned bear cub en route to Britain for WWI, he showed an admirable ability to goof around with the adorable pet bear that would be immortalised as Winnie the Pooh. He then played the first of his continuing series of historical figures in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot as Guy Fawkes, and ended 2004 in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, displaying his fine ability to be ambiguous as the murder suspect that Holmes insists is a killer despite all evidence clearing him. He then had a showy turn as he smoked and drank his way thru After the Funeral in 2006 as a dissolute possible murderer in ITV’s Poirot, before making the jump from TV movie to actual movie, and London to Hollywood; notably later than his contemporaries Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy.

Fassbender’s ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where things really caught fire. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning, perhaps because he’s realised just how flashy this supporting role is… Stelios is the Spartan who jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Our arrows will blot out the sun”. Fassbender delivers the famous riposte in a supremely nonchalant manner, and later forms one half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and has a slo-mo fight alongside Astinos where they attack and sever Persian limbs left, right and centre. When the Persian mystics are throwing bombs it is Fassbender who runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. Who does something awesome in the denouement to enable Leonidas be even more awesome? Fassbender, of course. Who holds hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines? Fassbender. This is the kind of thing that gets you noticed when your film is an unexpected massive hit.

2008 saw him tackle two more historical figures and also contribute an upsetting turn to stark English horror Eden Lake. I reviewed that film and argued for it as a socio-economic horror as Fassbender and Kelly Reilly’s polite middle-class London couple travel to an idyllic camping spot only to be mercilessly harassed by hoodie-wearing teenagers who steal their jeep, leading to a nigh unwatchable scene where Fassbender’s innocent victim comes up against the gang’s barbed wire and box-cutters. If Fassbender had undercut his 300 image by playing sacrificial lamb to Kelly Reilly’s survivor type he made up for in Channel 4’s Civil War mini-series The Devil’s Whore where he scooped the most dashing role, coveted by Dominic West, as the Levellers’ leader Thomas Rainsborough. He made Rainsborough so charismatic that you could understand why people ignored the contradiction of an aristocrat leading a prototypical socialist movement. The series itself lost momentum after Rainsborough’s tragic demise, which not only underscored Fassbender’s outshining of West and John Simm as leading man, but ironically hammered home the loss to history of the progressive ideas of the Levellers; stifled by Cromwell only to return as demands by the Chartists in the 1840s and actions by Clement Attlee in the 1940s.

Fassbender combined elements of those roles as sacrificial lamb and charismatic leader for his tour de force performance as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s debut film Hunger. I regard Hunger as a biopic so utterly oblique as to de-politicise its subject; indeed in its shocking single depiction of just what it is the IRA does it invalidates all accusations that McQueen and co-writer Enda Walsh are somehow ‘fellow travellers’. Turner Prize-winner McQueen reinvented the possibilities of cinema with a film that could almost be a video installation on how the human body slowly declines into death, and how beauty can be found in the mundane. Fassbender was luminous in his one lengthy scene with dialogue, where he argues with Liam Cunningham’s priest, forcing you to appreciate both his point of view and why men would follow this man out on hunger strike and die for him. Fassbender also emulated his acting hero Daniel Day-Lewis as he lost 14 kilos while playing the part and weighed just 59 kilos by the end of shooting. Writing about it at the time I praised Fassbender’s “awesome commitment to the part in the third act as he just wastes away in front of your eyes. This is a mesmerising performance of insane dedication that should see Fassbender go on to even juicier roles.”

And go on to juicier roles he did, as 2009 saw Fassbender work with two auteurs, and also Joel Schumacher. Tarantino’s riotous rewriting of history, Inglourious Basterds, oddly enough saw Fassbender being one of the few people playing things straight in his supporting role as Lt. Archie Hicox. As a former film critic dispatched behind enemy lines, most of his lines were delivered (allegedly in a Kerry accent initially) in his second language, German, bar glorious exceptions like “There’s a special place reserved in Hell for people who waste good scotch”. He then starred as Connor opposite newcomer Kate Jarvis as Mia in Andrea Arnold’s kitchen sink drama Fish Tank. A bracingly abrasive picture of life on an Essex council estate punctuated by moments of amazing lyrical beauty, Fassbender’s character opens up possibilities for his girlfriend’s two daughters in a stunning pastoral sequence where he gives them the attention and affection their mother denies them, and encourages Mia to channel her simmering rage at her life into focused attempts to escape it thru professional dancing. Arnold has made the most layered use of the possibilities of Fassbender’s ready smile, as his grinning Connor appears at first as the perfect surrogate father before she traumatically reverses that winning charm. This disquieting role emphasised Fassbender’s freedom from leading men’s crippling need to be loved in every role. Schumacher’s Blood Creek meanwhile may well be remembered eventually as the film where Superman and Magneto clash, but that would require that someone in the world sees it first.

In 2010 he reunited with both Dominic West and Liam Cunningham for Neil Marshall’s nonsensical historical British action film Centurion, which all concerned presumably filed under ‘guilty pleasure’. He ended the year in a nonsensical historical American action film as henchman Burke in Jonah Hex. His first appearance in the trailer saw him grinning manically while setting fire to a barn with someone in it, but sadly the film was shredded from its initial intentions. One hopes that Fassbender may eventually get to properly work with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films. And that leads us to right now, one week before the release of X-Men: First Class

So, why is Fassbender a personal hero? Obviously some of it has to do with Fassbendering, but it’s also because Fassbender is a genuinely talented actor with an immense range as well as a charming whimsicality. He can play comedy and tragedy, heroes and villains, equally well, and move from blockbuster to art-house, whimsy to avant-garde, with ease. His part as the younger version of Ian McKellen’s Magneto, as he begins the slow and half-justified decent into super-villainy, is one of the performances I’m anticipating most this year. X-Men: First Class, and Soderbergh’s Haywire in August, as well as Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Promotheus next year, should catapult Fassbender into the genuine leading man status that Colin Farrell so narrowly missed out on through choosing big-name directors working on vanity projects rather than good scripts. Fassbender in addition appears to be about to make the leap without sacrificing his ability to take on interesting roles in smaller films; with roles as Carl Jung (his latest historical figure) in Cronenberg’s drama A Dangerous Method, Rochester in a pared down Jane Eyre, and the lead in a new Steve McQueen film Shame, all of which are due to be released in the same period as the Vaughn, Soderbergh and Scott blockbusters mentioned above.

The Rise of Fassbender is only just beginning…

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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