Grotesque, understated and romantic, truly scary, and deeply satisfying.
As a great fan of B-grade horror schlock, I was looking forward to ‘Hostel’, a film produced by Tarrantino and directed by Eli Roth whose previous film, ‘Cabin Fever’, had the slutty girls outliving the virgins in a neat reversal of the usual moralistic route taken by so many films of the genre. Despite that twist, it had nothing to redeem itself and any queasiness it may have induced in me was soon forgotten along with the rest of the film.
Philip French, in his Observer review, sums it up rather nicely:
‘Two American students backpacking around Europe are lured to a small town outside Bratislava, which is both olde-worlde and post-industrial. Appalling things happen to them and to an Icelandic friend. The picture combines soft porn and sadism and is unlikely to do for Slovakia what The Sound of Music did for Salzburg.’
Two thirds of the way through the film I suddenly thought to myself, ‘I’m really not enjoying this, why am I watching it?’ There was no dramatic tension, no suspense, nothing scary and no sense of anticipation. Once the maiming, mutilation and killing started, you knew that there’d be more and that it could only get worse. Gratuitous violence is expected from this sort of film but I found it gratuitously gratuitous.
It was truly grotesque.
Just before the film started, I saw whom I thought must be Moviebuff sneak into a seat near the front of the cinema. I confirmed it a day later and am gratified to know he thought much the same as I did about the film.
Just a few days later, I watched a film that is a masterpiece of understatement and repressed desire. David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter’ (also known as ‘Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter’) was released in 1945 and describes the love affair that develops between two married people who chance to meet at a railway station.
For the next few weeks, they continue to meet at the station on a Thursday, sometimes going on to see a film together or to take a drive in the country. Their affair ends when the character portrayed by Trevor Howard, a doctor, moves to Johannesburg with his family to take up a position there. It was made during the second world which, arguably, was the time in which the British were at their peak in terms of selflessly doing their duty for society at large. Watching it from the perspective of our much more individualistic ways there are times when you want to knock their heads together and urge them to follow their hearts. But the strength of the emotion conveyed by both actors, especially by Celia Johnson, portrays love, doomed love at that, in a much more powerful way than any amount of nudity and passionate declarations of love found in the films of today. The over-refined, clipped English accents (think of the Queen) of the time are almost laughable in these much more egalitarian times but they become incidental once you get drawn into the affair.
Filmed in black and white, the impossible choices faced by the actors are beautifully captured. Each time they leave each other, amidst the hissing and puffing of majestic steam trains, is almost clichéd in its portrayal of separation and distance but the atmospheric power of the film banishes most of the cynical responses one has as a modern movie-goer.
In case you think I’m a fan of films made in that era, I’m not. So if you’re not either, you may also love this film.
It was back to horror a couple of days later.
‘The Descent’, directed by Neil Marshall, director of ‘Dog Soldiers’, a great werewolf flick, tells the story of six women who go caving in the Appalachian mountains where they discover some very nasty troglodytes who give them a rather unpleasant time. Before the arrival of the supremely vicious troglodyytes, the film works brilliantly as a psychological thriller exploring how the claustrophobia of the caves affects the women whose friendship is beset by multiple personal agendas.
There’s a dramatic change after the first gory attack – the film turns into standard gory horror fare but it's done effectively and scarily, making excellent use of various lighting effects. And, unlike the male bonding that happens in ‘Dog Soldiers’, these women turn on each other in a way that is almost more frightening than the troglodytes.
A really good horror film needs suspense, anticipation, dread and sufficient amounts of gore to make you want to hide your eyes.
‘The Descent’ has it all.
After hearing Amy Adams being interviewed on Radio 4 the other day, I knew that I wanted to see ‘Junebug’. I saw it last night and, getting up from my seat at the end, ‘sighed with satisfaction’, to use a phrase by Peter Bradshaw in his review of the film. He sums it up perfectly as follows: ‘This is a movie that sheds fascinating and compassionate light on families: when a stranger comes among them, each individual family member behaves atypically, strangely to them, and they become strangers to each other.’
Amy Adams more than deserved her Oscar nomination for best actress for her role as Ashley, the naïve, maddeningly chatty, pregnant woman who latches on to her sophisticated, older sister-in-law with endearingly infuriating enthusiasm. Nothing much happens in the film apart from a subtle exposition of how an unsophisticated family living in a rural area of the US southern Bible Belt reacts to the arrival of their son who lives in the big city with his new wife, an ambitious art dealer. Amy Adams is excellent but the acting is uniformly good. I particularly enjoyed Ben McKenzie's portrayal of the reticent and resentful under-achiever, her high-school sweetheart whom she marries. They live at his parents' house.
George, the older, successful son who's moved to the city, is played by the deliciously hunky Alessandro Nivola. Madeleine, his art-dealer wife, is played by South African actress Embeth Davidtz.
Several of the reviews refer to Madeleine as being an upper-middleclass Englishwoman although she's not referred to as such in the film and she doesn't try to disguise her South African accent. In fact, Madeleine's description of her background is very similar to that of Embeth Davidtz. I know that the English South African accent, particularly if quite mild, is notoriously difficult to imitate and, I suppose, to recognise, but there are enough flat vowels for a film critic to know that the accent isn't English upper-middleclass.
I know that some people will find the lack of pace and barely discernible plot bad for their attention span but I think it's a really great little film that satisfies on many levels.