Saturday, 28 February 2015

It Follows


In the annals of filmic frights, the obscure, unnamed spectre which haunts David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is not, ostensibly at least, likely to challenge the more recognisable entities of the horror brand. Its motivations are completely unknown, so too is its source. Wielding few obvious powers besides the ability to possess random people, familiar and unfamiliar to Mitchell’s youthful cast, this poltergeist-cum-demon-cum-angry spirit could be forgotten in a less assured picture.

In his steady grasp, however, the Follower (for want of a grander name) is rendered terrifying, a relentless, stalking presence which glowers, inside and beyond the immediate frame, for most of the film. With this as the impassive antagonist, It Follows is transformed into a thoroughly affecting chiller, ripe with a sense of cool and a charge of intense foreboding that runs throughout its confidently glacial progress.

Maika Monroe, who broke out in last year’s bonkers but brilliant The Guest, excels again here as Jay, an engaging lead blessed with easy charm. Monroe finds much to work with as she goes from pretty and cheery teen to the desperate prey of a terrible darkness. In the early scenes, Jay’s world is turned upside down when a new boyfriend, Hugh, reveals that he has slept with her for the sole purpose of transferring the hex that hovers above his head, one which manifests itself in the form of murderous individual human automatons, distinguishable by their steady strides and blank stares. The bane is passed between lovers, like some warped venereal disease, reverting to its previous unwilling owner upon the death of the present mark.


She is understandably devastated after this betrayal – capped by a suitably creepy episode in which the chivalrous beau confines her in a wheelchair and explains the new reality – a situation made worse when she discovers that Hugh is indeed telling the truth. Her only hope of survival, for a while, is either to foist the unwanted evil on the next unsuspecting man or try to outpace it. She chooses the latter path, aided by her sister Kelly, friend Yara, a former lover, Greg, and Paul, whose unrequited affection for Jay registers as interesting instead of especially pathetic.

Crucially, Mitchell has populated his piece with believable personalities, warm and good-natured individuals radiating their own distinct identities. Even Hugh is no mere villain, driven by the need to survive rather than any desire to prove his masculine prowess; the Follower has stripped him of all superficial priorities. 

Taking a narrative that occasionally borders on frustrating, the detached air hinting at a larger mystery waiting to unspool, It Follows harvests much from an oppressive, paranoid atmosphere. The director places his story in myriad sparsely populated suburban locales, faintly unsettling characters in themselves. The Detroit setting eventually shows itself through a prism of abandoned urban sprawl, where a verdant invasion creeps over the factories and brickwork of a vast metropolis given back to Gaia. 

Mitchell captures all of this with genuine panache, often shooting the action from watchful, far-off points — springing one subtle surprise, as the group lolls on a beach, with a nifty dash of misdirection — or affixing his camera to moving props as a means of wringing maximum tension from heightened moments. A peppering of genre tropes, from floating household items to ghoulish strangers, anchor the substance, not the style. Yet he does commit to a visceral impact alongside the technical accomplishments: bleeding all but the necessary sounds from the screen; colouring his vision with earthy shades and cloudy tones.

Late on, a frisson of sexual tension complicates matters further. The expedience of sex comes to undermine its emotional significance, though, in actuality, coitus proves no better at staving off the inevitability of the approaching terror than the key conundrum of the film’s unnerving premise. Flee to the ends of the earth, goes the message, it matters not; this curse may never be shirked.

Struggling to bring such a bleak prognosis to a neat conclusion, It Follows suffers some jitters in the latter stages. Any pretensions of context for its ghostly happenings are ultimately abandoned, while a set piece based around a deserted swimming pool offers no discernible point to go with its admittedly striking tableau.

Driven by a curiously evocative electro score, recalling the synthy menace of John Carpenter’s finest work, this is gripping fare that explores surprisingly profound themes and skirts around convention without succumbing to it. If a filmmaker of Mitchell’s considerable stylistic talents can resist the allure of the mainstream, there should be many more scares in store. 

Friday, 6 February 2015

Selma


There is a prevailing wisdom in Hollywood that any film centred on the exploits of important historical figures is likely to attract significant awards-season buzz. If the figure represents triumph over oppression — a theme favoured by most of us, to be fair — then that film and its cast will feature heavily in the conversation come February. 

In truth, this narrative is not especially accurate and for every Schindler’s List there is a Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. That said, however, the snubbing of Selma in every major category, save Best Picture, at the upcoming Academy Awards is puzzling. Ava DuVernay’s civil rights drama is far from flawless yet, by the same measure, it deserves more than a clearly tokenistic nod at the establishment’s annual congratulatory jamboree. 

Selma’s greatest strength rests in its emotional power. Underplayed and sensible enough to allow the subject matter to speak for it, this is, nonetheless, a handsome portrait of a bleak time which still arouses horrified awe. It tugs at the corners of civilisation’s guilt, going for the wells of heartfelt solidarity we instinctively feel with the downtrodden. If exploitative is an inappropriate term to attach here, resonant is not. 

DuVernay finds her noble avatar in the increasingly adaptable form of David Oyelowo. As Martin Luther King he draws humanity, both real and inspiring, from a character most will only ever know by his deeds. This preacher-activist’s non-violent approach to demanding fairness made him no less a despised individual in the sneering, sweat-soaked, racist South, but Oyelowo adds a dash of cold-eyed political manoeuvring to King’s aspirations. 

What King wants, of course, is startlingly simple. It’s 1965 and, despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the previous year, life for the black citizens of Dixie is plagued by prejudice. Voting appears a largely impossible dream thanks to the deep-rooted institutional bigotry rampant throughout the regional bureaucracy. In the opening minutes, Annie Lee Cooper’s (Oprah Winfrey, also serving as a producer) attempt to register is stymied by an arbitrary spot test; later, a strategic discussion by King and friends offers up a particularly lucid précis of the wide ranging problems that stem from being kept off the rolls. In return for maintaining his position as the civilised face of equal rights, King requires federal intervention on the issue from President Lyndon B. Johnson, a purely political animal played with coarse, stooping pugnacity by Tom Wilkinson.

King and the other commanders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — including James Bevel (Common), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) — settle on Selma, Alabama, as the next staging post in their protest campaign. Infested with hatred and overseen by an especially inelegant sheriff, it possesses all the elements required to make a statement. By hinting at an edge of publicity-sniffing expedience in the crusaders’ actions, DuVernay, bravely, goes beyond the quasi-sainthood bestowed on King in the years since his assassination. 

In its meaty middle, Selma does much to impress and appal, capturing, without cynicism, the genuine struggles of black Americans to enjoy full citizenship and the determination of certain whites, whether by guile or by savagery, to keep them from these. At the head of the latter camp is Tim Roth. He has tremendous fun portraying Governor George Wallace, one of history’s leading morons, who spends most of the picture burbling racial slurs and using vile phrases like ‘cradle of the Confederacy’ with no small amount of pride. Incredibly, this is Wallace coloured as an actual person and not the arch villain one would expect to behave in so despicable a manner.

Ranged against him is an army of peace, seeking only its basic humanity and thus, when the hammer falls, when the governor and his network of good ole boys decide that they have had enough of this uppity agitation, their reaction will chill the blood. The director moulds into a horrifying spectacle those seminal events of Bloody Sunday, March 1965, when state troopers and a local posse beat down, with impunity, silent marchers on the titular city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The watching press stared in disbelief that day and DuVernay promptly steps into the swirling haze of an all-out assault, civilians falling under the batons of authorities sworn to protect them. The camera lingers on a mounted vigilante riding down a fleeing woman; it does not recoil as he bowls her over with a bull whip. This vision is barely removed from another century, a useful reminder that there existed only the smallest shafts of light between the sweltering brutality of the plantation and the era of Jim Crow. 


What tumbles from these terrible snapshots is not anger, but sadness, a sense of regret that man may do unto himself such ills. Oyelowo personifies dignity — a word used more than once — in the face of every provocation, turning in a gripping, multifaceted, often unreadable performance, as ripe with wit, realism and gravitas as it is with the kind of soaring, heaven-sent rhetorical skills that occur only once in a generation. However reined in he may be, Oyelowo’s mature depiction is career-defining and plainly Oscar-worthy. 

The film missteps from time to time, dragging King’s apparently fraught, if hugely undercooked, domestic situation into view. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), ultimately becomes a nagging distraction, a rather unjust fate for a woman who dedicated so much of her life to gilding this movement’s legacy. Ironically, for all the subversion of King as a blank and prematurely absent icon, he remains somewhat unknowable by the end; the workings of his mind, the depths of his potential, are kept hidden. Perhaps a running time of two hours is simply insufficient to look beneath the visage of this towering presence.

Selma will not thrill, that is not its purpose. It goes deeper than that, the beautiful simplicity of its story imbuing those underlying ideals with profound significance. In the aftermath of Ferguson, Paris and every other despicable instance of rampant intolerance, even in this age of Obama, no generation should forget that there is much work yet to be done.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Inherent Vice


How cinemagoers choose to receive Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice depends on the category into which they fall. For the casual punter who arrives on a whim hoping to catch whatever is playing, this woozy, tangled and bewildering Californian noir might grate long before its laborious two and half hours are done. On the other hand, surrender to its flow and there are rewards to be had. 

Based on Thomas Pynchon’s trippy 2009 novel of the same name, Inherent Vice comes laced with a sense of creeping confusion; it serves up few answers to indecipherable questions. A refusal to settle, to actually tell a story worthy of any audience’s attention, should not, of course, be interpreted as indicative of poor craftsmanship. Anderson represents American cinema’s genius conscience, a genuine aesthete pulling at the edges of the franchise-saturated studio system. Ironically, his relaxed sensibilities and eye for telling tales in so peculiar a manner both elevate and hobble his vision. 

In truth, it feels like a picture composed of genre peers’ offcuts: the zanier bits from The Big Lebowski; a couple of scenes in Chinatown lacking logic; undercooked snatches of LA Confidential’s hardboiled patois. Anderson is too much of an individual to rip off others but, for all the originality of his work, this is hardly virgin soil. 

The messy plot, set in a 1970s Los Angeles that appears less utopian than grotty, is sticky with the doped fog seeping from stoned private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), the nominal hero of the piece. Sportello operates out of a medical surgery and saunters between small-time cases ever under the influence of his favoured drug. Sandal clad, unhurried, Doc’s meandering existence is upended by the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, Shasta (a damaged Katherine Waterson), whose relationship with Eric Roberts’s reptilian property magnate, Mickey Wolfmann, has apparently gone south.

Seeking her out, Doc plunges into a world of corruption and subversives, narcs and spooks, finding clarity in his stupor. With the aid of some surprisingly sharp detective skills and the gentle nudging of expositor-cum-subconscious Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), he burrows into a quirky central conspiracy. The gaps are filled intermittently, yet the overriding impression is that Anderson does not want us to grasp all of a story that shifts, idly, from strand to strand. Straggling threads tie up here and there, without really committing to any discernible point. Indeed, this is a film wearing instead the look of a test, one requiring the humble viewer to either tune into its strange rhythms or get up and leave.


More pleasure can be found in the host of thrilling performances, in front of the camera and behind it. Phoenix has never looked as baked as he does here, wide-eyed and affable. There is, however, a glittering keenness beneath the surf-bum exterior that saves him from mere buffoonery; it screams talent. 

As the polar opposite of Doc, Josh Brolin outshines even Phoenix as a hard-charging asshole cop who goes by the nickname "Bigfoot" and despises the rumpled PI’s "hippy bastard" social circle. Brolin luxuriates in his character’s suppressed, crew-cut, Nixonesque conservatism, hollering at cooks in Japanese ("MOTTO PANUKEIKU!") and sucking on numerous phallic objects with aplomb. Benicia Del Toro — arguably the only person who knows what’s going on — shows up, too, as Doc’s salty lawyer with the appetite of a sailor. 

As a filmmaker, Anderson’s abilities are plainly undeniable. He is an auteur completely in control of his medium and even the harshest critics must admire the confidence with which these hazily manic narrative pit stops are conveyed. Alongside regular cinematographer, Robert Elswit, Anderson reveals panache in the framing, where his cocky visual style seems like a high-end reboot of the 1970s’ grainier moments. This kitsch pre-Boogie Nights palette, which continues to fade in society’s collective memory, is gorgeous to behold.

The most acclaimed entries in the Anderson cannon are that latter ode to porn’s golden era and There Will Be Blood, an angular masterpiece. Unnerving and magnificent, neither could be ignored. Like it or loathe it, buy in or opt out, his latest is just as tricky to disregard.

A version of this article was first published here.