Saturday 27 April 2013

A to Z - The Woman in Black

Originally I was going to do Watchmen for W, but I couldn't be bothered with the inevitable comparisons to the comic, so I decided to settle for The Woman in Black instead. It was one of my favourite films of 2012 (I reviewed it here on my film blog), and it was nice to see Hammer back in such period style. After all, they really made their name with lush period Gothic horrors in the late 1950s and 1960s, so it makes sense that they'd revisit what they know for this gorgeous adaptation of Susan Hill's 1983 novel of the same name.

I read the novel a while ago, and I'm due to see the stage version in May, and I was a little apprehensive about seeing the film. Adaptations can pretty much go either way, and be better than the source text, or suck beyond all logical reason. For The Woman in Black, I wouldn't say it's better than the source text, it just tells the story differently. Being a film and not a novel, it has the luxury of being able to do this - some scenes naturally work better when viewed rather than read. The trailer was a strange one though, and seemed to imply the sorts of CGI shenanigans which made the 1999 remake of The Haunting so abysmal. The Woman in Black falls under the Radcliffean mode of the Gothic, in that events are implied but not directly shown, and I was worried that Hammer had gone the other way, for the grand guignol school of the Gothic, and had turned the story into a special effects bonanza. I was also curious about the casting - could Daniel Radcliffe really carry a film?

The answer, in my humble opinion, is yes. Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a London solicitor struggling to cope with the loss of his wife during childbirth. He's given one last chance to redeem himself with his employer, and he leaves his young son with his nanny while he heads to Eel Marsh House in the remote village of Cryphin Gifford to sort out the paperwork left behind by Alice Drablow. The villagers are a peculiar sort, gripped by a fear of the mysterious Woman in Black, and Arthur's presence does nothing to allay their fears. After he begins to see her, children in the village begin to die in horrible ways, egged on by the Woman. Can Arthur work out who she is and what she wants before his son arrives with his nanny?

Radcliffe is marvellous as the lead - I was worried he might be too young to convincingly portray a widower with a son, but he pulls it off. He carries most of the film, pretty much acting alongside the looming bulk of Eel Marsh House, but his scenes with Ciaran Hinds, who plays a local landowner, demonstrate how much Radcliffe has grown as an actor since his first wobbling steps in Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone twelve years ago. Credit must also go to Kave Quinn's production design, as well as the art direction of Paul Ghirardani and Kate Grimble, and the set dressing of Niamh Coulter - The Woman in Black is a gorgeous film, and perfectly captures both the cluttered aesthetic of Victorian décor, as well as the brooding spaces of a Gothic ghost story.

Some of the reviews describe The Woman in Black as being slow, or having a "crawling pace", and I think this in part reveals a problem with modern filmmaking. We're used to things being thrown out of the screen at us, or having either a scene of exposition every five minutes - anything that takes time to establish a mood, or mount a growing sense of trepidation, is viewed as being slow. It's a more naturalistic way of telling a story, unspooling it as the protagonist searches for answers - in the Google era, we're too used to finding information at a click of a button. Instead, I'd say that The Woman in Black reaches a certain level of creepiness, and while I didn't find it scary (unlike the people screaming in the cinema when I went to see it), I did find it unsettling. To me, that is the mark of a good ghost story...

Here's a scene from near the end of the film, as Arthur tries to lure out the Woman in Black.

Friday 26 April 2013

#FridayFlash - Seconds

Click. Wind the film on. Focus. Click. Repeat.

Six shots later, Dana rewound the film and popped open the back of her camera. Her fingers danced a familiar routine as she removed the film, and added another. The new film was black and white, and strictly for artwork. Not like the colour film she'd just finished.

Dana slipped the used film canister into her pocket and slung the camera over her shoulder by its moth-eaten strap. She'd develop the film when she got home.

Dana did some calculations as she walked. The film was composed of thirty six frames, so that meant she'd taken thirty six shots over a period of forty minutes. Each exposure was just 1/100th of a second long. She'd captured nearly a third of a second on film. Added to the films she'd already processed, that gave her three seconds of suspended time. She drummed her fingers against the camera. Three seconds wasn't enough. Even just thinking about it had taken long than that.

Dana opened her front door and deposited her camera on her desk. A pile of developed photos sat beside the phone. She picked them up and leafed through them. 288 shots, all of her. 288 snapshots of time. She sat down and fished the canister out of her pocket. Would another thirty six snapshots make a difference? Three seconds of extra time didn't feel like enough. It wasn't enough. The doctors had given her only six months, and she could never shoot enough photos to offset that, to buy her more time.

Her gaze roved around the room and alighted on her flatmate's video camera.


Thursday 25 April 2013

A to Z - Vacancy

You might think that I'd have chosen V for Vendetta for this letter, and I wanted to, but at the same time, one of the driving forces behind my choices has been picking films that people might have heard of but not seen, or which they had never heard of at all. I'm spreading the cinema love, so to speak (except for yesterday's choice). Well I figured instead of choosing the obvious, I'd be a little different, so I've opted for Vacancy.

Released in 2007, Vacancy tells the story of a married couple, David (Luke Wilson) and Amy (Kate Beckinsale), who end up having to spend the night in a less than salubrious motel after a problem with their car. They're not getting on too well so they're less than thrilled, but they've soon got bigger things to worry about when they realise the motel is being used to stage snuff movies, as the guests are done away with and the videos sold on. It's as if Norman Bates decided to branch out in the early days of VHS.

I think some people stayed away from Vacancy, worrying that it would veer into torture porn territory. I must admit, I was expected a Saw-style plot when I first saw the trailer. It would have been easy for the makers to fall into that trap, particularly when you consider the release of The Strangers the following year, a virtual remake of Them (2006), in which a couple are terrorised at home. Perhaps people were put off by the inevitable comparisons to Psycho. Instead, the film is a taut little thriller, weighing in at just 85mins, that deals more with the conflict between the couple and their antagonists than it does the previous acts committed in the motel.

We've got a long-running tradition at Castle Sedgwick that my mother will start watching a film, and if it's tense enough, she'll exclaim part way through that she wishes she'd never started watching it - when you hear that, you know they've gotten the suspense right. Naturally, as I've brought it up, she uttered those words while watching Vacancy - and it's not surprising. Unlike some thrillers, that plod along on their way to a predictable conclusion, mistaking melodrama for suspense, Vacancy actually generates suspense - and maintains it. Its short running time makes it easy for them to sustain their pace, and makes it an enjoyable watch.

Normally I'd get annoyed at a film that tried to copy Hitchcock's style but Vacancy manages it very well, and I think it's helped in part by the fact that David and Amy begin as a troubled couple, but grow in stature into more capable adults who don't just flail around screaming. They're my type of people, in other words. I was really impressed by this film and if you like compact little thrillers, you might be too!

Wednesday 24 April 2013

A to Z - Underworld

I'll be honest with you, I got really, really stuck to think of a film beginning with U. It wasn't that there aren't any - far from it - I just couldn't think of any that I actually liked, or had seen. But I didn't want to skip a day so I thought "To hell with it", and I decided to include a film I don't particularly like, but want to celebrate for a sole reason.

Michael Sheen.

If you haven't seen Underworld, you're not missing all that much. There's a war going on between vampires and werewolves (here known as Lycans), and the two are not supposed to mix. Indeed, Kate Beckinsale plays Selene, a death dealer who dispatches Lycans without a thought (or, it would appear, an actual reason). The film is pretty much an excuse to make Beckinsale wear skintight rubber and PVC, and stalk around looking moody. I mightn't mind so much if she had a shred of charisma but she comes across as having all the personality of a stale sandwich.

The vampires in Underworld live in a coven, a somewhat hedonistic existence where they all prowl about pouting and squabbling for position in the hierarchy, and the arrangement is presided over by a particularly ineffectual specimen named Kraven (Shane Brolly), who simpers and scowls but never quite attains the level of menace that you'd expect from a vampire kingpin. That's reserved for Bill Nighy, who pops up as Viktor, one of the vampire ancients, and he partially saves the film from complete tedium.

The real honour for Film Saviour goes to Michael Sheen, who plays Lucian, leader of the Lycans. He's altogether a more attractive character, partly because he's Michael Sheen and automatically ten times better than anyone else who stars alongside him, and partly because he infuses Lucian with the charisma and appeal that the other characters (except Bill Nighy) lack. Part of my problem with Twilight was I was expected to prefer the vampires, but the werewolves had better characterisation, and the same thing happens here. Why would I root for the somewhat self-centered vampires when the Lycans just seem a bit more 'with it'?

So Selene stalks around the city, being all moody and monotonous in her voiceover, and she tracks down Lycans with that sort of "I'm doing my duty but I'm not going to question it" determination that you get in these warrior types. She encounters Michael (Scott Speedman) who has the capability of being a vampire/werewolf hybrid, and it all gets a bit silly so I can't remember why that's important as I was too bored with what was going on to truly take it all in.

If it wasn't for Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen, there's no way on earth that I would have included Underworld in my A to Z, but as it stands, they're both excellent, and I couldn't think of anything better...

Tuesday 23 April 2013

A to Z - Tombstone

Given the fact my first published book was a Western, you may be wondering exactly why there haven't been any Westerns in my A to Z so far. Well, wonder no more, because I've saved the very best for T - Tombstone. Granted, the 1993 film plays fast and loose with history, and it's not exactly accurate, but it's damn fun!

Kurt Russell plays Wyatt Earp, legendary old West lawman, who heads to Tombstone, Arizona, to make his fortune with his two brothers, Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton). The boomtown is plagued by a local gang known as the Cowboys, led by Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) and it seems that only Wyatt will stand up to them. Of course, he's not alone - he's aided and abetted by old friend, Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer). After the Earps attempt to arrest members of the gang, and the confrontation becomes the gunfight at the O. K. corral, things escalate on both sides. Can Wyatt run them out of town?

I love Tombstone. It's one of those films that teeters on the edge of being crap, but it so glorious in its hamming up of history that it becomes brilliant instead. Kilmer in particular is a revelation, and his performance as the tuberculosis ridden, drunken Holliday steals the film from the more serious Earp brothers.  He's so eminently quotable, as well - and his rolling gait and manipulative streak made this sort of character cool well before Captain Jack Sparrow. Yes, the film has inaccuracies - for one thing, the gang was led by Ike Clanton, portrayed here as the bumbling fool who follows Johnny Ringo around, and for another, the other Earp brothers are missing entirely.

Thing is, we're used to Hollywood changing the facts to suit the demands of a narrative. History is not fiction, and sometimes things need to be bent in order for them to suit the form of popular entertainment. I wouldn't call this a dramatisation, but more of a story inspired by the events in Tombstone. Indeed, Earp was subject to many rumours and tales about his life and exploits even while he was alive. As far as Tombstone goes, it's a pretty good epitaph.

I'll leave you with one of my favourite scenes, where Earp is dealing faro in the saloon and Johnny Ringo meets Doc Holliday for the first time...

Monday 22 April 2013

A to Z - Session 9

Can you believe we're onto S already? Madness. Anyway, I had a whole bunch of films I wanted to talk about for S, and I spent a lot of time going back and forth between Session 9 and Suspiria. Eventually I settled on Session 9, although I'm not overly sure why. I love both films, and both have an interesting use of space, but I think Session 9 is one of those films that deserves more attention than it gets - Suspiria is bombastic enough to force its way into your consciousness. Check out this clip if you wonder what I mean.

Anyway. Onto Session 9. The film is set in the old Danvers asylum in Massachusetts - sadly only the façade remains, and developers have been attempting to turn the site into luxury housing for a while now. Danvers State Hospital opened in 1878, and closed in 1992, becoming one of those alluring abandoned buildings that quietly rots without the presence of people to care for it. Session 9 was made in 2001, six years before the demolition began, and in some ways, it turns Danvers itself into a ghost, immortalising the building on screen in the way way Victorian post mortem photography captured the dead.

Peter Mullan plays Gordon, an asbestos removal expert hired to rid the building of its asbestos before it can be used for something else. He undercuts the competition by saying he can do a three week job in one, and brings in the rest of his crew, Phil (David Caruso), Mike (Stephen Gevedon), Hank (Josh Lucas) and Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), to start working on the job. Danvers soon starts to have an effect on everyone - playing on Jeff's fear of the dark, Hank's greed for money and Mike's fascination with the darker side of humanity. Gordon almost appears immune - but is he?

Danvers is probably the main character of the film, and it's a fantastic one at that, following in the lineage of the House of Usher, Hill House in The Haunting, and the Overlook in The Shining. With its labyrinth of corridors, its peeling walls and assorted asylum detritus, its strength lies in the fact that this is no set - this is real. The film intertwines the fates of the asbestos removal crew with the story of Mary, a former patient whose therapy tapes are found by Mike in an old office. He obsessively listens to them, hearing her story unfold, building up to the revelations of session nine.

Session 9 is a cross between a horror film and a psychological thriller, and it certainly had the sort of effect on me of wiggling under the skin like a splinter you can't quite remove. I've long been fascinated by abandoned spaces, and they don't come much more epic in scale than Danvers. Part of the thrill of the film is getting to explore a place you'll never get to see, and the fact it was digitally filmed lends it an air of realism that makes it all the more uncomfortable. I wouldn't say it gives it the air of a documentary, but it certainly looks more 'real' than other films. Given its investigation of some of the inhumane forms of treatment used at Danvers, it makes Session 9 a chilling watch.

I think I'll let the trailer do the talking (but ignore the dates at the beginning, they're wrong)...

Sunday 21 April 2013

A to Z - Rear Window

No A to Z of movies would be complete without at least one entry by Sir Alfred Hitchcock, and this one actually features two. While I could have used his films for an array for entries, so far I've restricted myself to The Lodger for L, and now Rear Window for R. I must admit, Rear Window is actually my favourite of Hitchcock's American films (his 1935 version of The 39 Steps being my favourite of his British ones) and even now, I still find myself caught up in the tension, despite knowing how it all turns out.

Rear Window is one of those ideas that's been ripped off time and again - a contemporary version, Disturbia, came out in 2007 and starred Shia LaBeouf in James Stewart's role. The 1954 Hitchcock film was actually an adaptation of a 1942 short story by Cornell Woolrich, called "It had to be Murder", and necessitated the construction of the giant apartment building set. The only apartment that we actually enter is that of L. B. Jeffries (James Stewart), an award-winning photographer who's laid up with a broken leg. He has nothing else to do all day so he's taken to giving his neighbours nicknames and stories based on what he sees them do. There's Miss Lonely Hearts on the ground floor who's looking for love, and Miss Torso the dancer who practices her moves in her kitchen.

Things take a darker turn when he begins to suspect the neighbour directly opposite, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), has murdered his wife and he enlists the help of his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and his physiotherapist Stella (Thelma Ritter) to investigate further. Thorwald tells the police that his wife has gone to stay with relatives, but Jeff isn't convinced, and tension rises when Lisa actually enters Thorwald's apartment to look for clues.

One of the ways in which Rear Window works so well is because we, like Jeff, never leave the space of his apartment. We can only look out of the window. Other characters, such as Lisa and Stella, may come and go, but we may not, locking us into Jeff's point of view within the cinematic space. As a result, we are just as helpless as Jeff to intervene in events outside the window. There has been some work into the film in terms of its relationship to 'the gaze', which in this case is very much granted to Jeff, and even when Lisa is exploring Thorwald's apartment, she is doing so on behalf of Jeff, and is still not given a gaze of her own. The film is even likened to the experience of cinema itself, as we sit in darkened rooms and watch events unfold on screen, events in which we have no participation. Indeed, Jeff's interest in Lisa only begins to grow once she has crossed to the other side of the apartment complex and become part of this 'screen'.

As I said earlier, I know what happens in the film, and yet every time I watch it, I end up getting caught up in the suspense. I suppose that's how Hitchcock got his most famous nickname. It's also a masterclass in storytelling - the 'ordinary world' is established, with New York in the grip of a heatwave and Jeff stuck indoors, and this world is altered with the suspicion that a murder has taken place. Tension is ratcheted up throughout act two, in which Jeff and Lisa make their inquiries, until the climax when truths must be uncovered and danger faced. I absolutely love it.

Anyway, I'll leave you with this clip, where Jeff decides to take a closer look at the salesman across the courtyard...