Near Dark (1987)

Following in something of the grainy exploitation footsteps of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) — his 1986 film Aliens even gets a name-check here, though he was after all Kathryn Bigelow’s then-soon-to-be- and now-ex-husband — Near Dark takes instead the vampire mythos and reconfigures it into a dusty, grungy road movie with Western overtones. The word “vampire” is never uttered, so what we are presented with is a motley band of leather-clad ne’er-do-wells blazing a path across the mid-West, killing random locals and draining their blood for sustenance. One such is naïve farm boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who is smitten with drifter Mae (Jenny Wright). She for her part takes pity on him and just bites him rather than draining his blood, meaning he survives but is turned into one of her kind. At this point, the entire crew is introduced, led by Lance Henriksen’s Jesse, although it’s Bill Paxton as the loud-mouthed and dangerous Severen who makes the most impact in the film (and so is given prominence on the posters). Even 30 years on, the film still looks excellent, with a score by German electronic group Tangerine Dream which is at once both an archetypal example of scoring from this strain of 1980s genre cinema and also somehow avoids seeming really dated, like a lot of the era’s soundtracks now tend to. Undoubtedly the film is playing with contemporary fears around AIDS and other epidemics — isn’t that what they always say about vampire films? — but it works as an enjoyable genre piece, if a rather nihilistic one.


FILM REVIEW
Director Kathryn Bigelow | Writers Eric Red and Kathryn Bigelow | Cinematographer Adam Greenberg | Starring Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 January 2016

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Criterion Sunday 28: Blood for Dracula (1974)

Of the two roughly-matched Paul Morrissey Euro-horror films starring Udo Kier and Joe Dallesandro, I think I slightly prefer this one, dealing with the Dracula story. Kier, of course, is the titular count, and Dallesandro is Mario, a peasant with socialist principles who works for an aristocratic Italian family. The increasingly sickly Count has come to Italy to seek virgins to replenish his blood, and happens upon the di Fiore family with their four daughters. Of course, despite the protestations of the mother (a delightful Maxime McKendry), it turns out that at least two of them are no longer so thanks to Mario’s charms, and so Dracula finds himself increasingly unsatisfied. Given the provenance and the largely Italian cast (including the family patriarch played by neorealist director Vittorio de Sica), there’s a sort of campy charm that suffuses the whole enterprise with a faint aura of ridiculousness. Kier remains a superbly haughty villain, seeming to channel Gary Numan in his gothic vampiness, while there’s a cameo appearance by Roman Polanski in a tavern scene. Some of the sexual politics are deeply dubious (Mario’s relationship with the youngest daughter is particularly problematic), though given the care Morrissey has taken with the adaptation of both films, one could certainly see this as a critique of certain underpinnings of the original story — though this hardly makes such elements any the more pleasant to watch. However, for those who are well-versed in the Dracula mythos, this certainly does provide an interesting take on it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Paul Morrissey | Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller | Starring Udo Kier, Joe Dallesandro, Maxime de la Falaise [as “Maxime McKendry”] | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 March 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (aka دختری در شب تنها به خانه می‌رود Dokhtari dar sab tanha be xane miravad, 2014)

© Vice Films

There is a lot to like about this film. As a feature-length debut it casts a long (chador-clad) shadow, with a largely stylish use of its widescreen black-and-white frame, and a commanding central performance from the laconic Sheila Vand as the unnamed girl of the title. It’s a vampire film, but not a horror precisely, more of an existential mood piece, like the Jarmusch of Dead Man but without the deadpan humour, with a central character who takes her style cues from Anna Karina and the early nouvelle vague. It has been called a ‘western’ as well, which I think gets at some of the frontier-like emptiness of its setting, nominally an Iranian town called “Bad City” but actually shot in California.

But the style can be a weakness, as you get the sense that the project started with a visual motif — the forbidding figure cut at night by a woman wearing the traditional Iranian chador, the long cape-like black garment which is affixed over the head and billows out behind — with the film then being built up around this. So those sequences where Vand is walking down darkened streets have a compelling inky monochrome beauty, with her lithe movements practised at home in front of a record player, but when other characters are introduced — whether Arash Marandi’s putative love interest, or Marshall Manesh’s drug-addicted father — the narrative focus wavers a bit, as if uncertain what to do.

At times, too, the film turns into something of a musical, as a track is cued up on the turntable then plays out at length, though the director’s taste seems geared towards mid-2000s indie rock, which doesn’t always seem to mesh with the forbidding atmosphere created by the musical score elsewhere. Possibly the most compelling other character is the even more laconic performance from Masuka, a cat, whose presence structures the film and also conveys key plot points to lovelorn Arash.

However, for all this — and surely some of my reservations boil down to personal taste — it remains a strong and distinctive directorial debut with a compelling representation of female empowerment that undercuts the expectations created by its title.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Ana Lily Amirpour آنا لیلی امیرپور | Cinematographer Lyle Vincent | Starring Sheila Vand شیلا وند, Arash Marandi آرش مرندی, Marshall Manesh مارشال منش | Length 101 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 28 May 2015

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 26 November 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Madman Entertainment

The ‘mockumentary’ is a canny choice of genre for a New Zealand film, as its documentary form hides some of the shortcomings that come from low-budget production. We’re relying on the charisma of the performers and their comic writing (already tested in such ensembles as actor/writer/director Jemaine Clement’s Flight of the Conchords, who had their own US TV series for a couple of seasons), rather than the quality of the sets and camerawork. And as a comedy take on the popular vampire legend — appropriating all the iconography and transposing it to a quotidian situation of three mates in New Zealand sharing a flat together — it certainly has its pleasing moments, with strong turns from its three leads, particularly Taika Waititi as the upbeat central vampire, Viago. It was also nice for me to see my adopted home city of Wellington on screen for a while, as a lot of it is shot on location in the streets. Yet despite there being some good laughs, it still feels like a bit of a throwback to the 80s and 90s when this kind of film was at the height of its popularity, and stylistically it’s particularly reminiscent of the Belgian film C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1992), with its similarly deadpan mockumentary take on a serial killer — functionally, not a million miles removed from a vampire. As ever, a lot of the good gags are in the trailer, and the feature length doesn’t always make them more resonant (I gather that the film originated in an earlier short film by the same team). Still, I did laugh (quite a bit at times), so for those looking for some light relief and a bit of meta-humour at cinema’s expense, it’s a fine choice.


CREDITS || Directors/Writers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement | Cinematographers Richard Bluck and D. J. Stipsen | Starring Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh | Length 85 minutes

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)


ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch | Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux | Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt | Length 122 minutes | Seen at Odeon Leicester Square, London, Thursday 6 February 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Sony Pictures Classics

The new Jim Jarmusch film starts on a turntable as a vinyl record spins, before cutting to matched shots circling first Tilda Swinton and then Tom Hiddleston from above, with them sprawled in poses of narcotic ecstasy in their respective homes. These are the doomed lovers of the title, Eve and Adam, and it’s a fitting start, putting us straight into the dizzying, woozy whirl of their lives. They move around a lot — he is based in Detroit, she in Tangier — but little really changes for them, for they are trapped in the eternal purgatory of being vampires, subsisting on packs of blood sourced from reliable local hospitals. It’s a film of beautiful textures — visual and sonic — and it feels almost autobiographical after a fashion, for the vampires are nothing if not artists, preying on millennia of culture as much as on blood.

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Byzantium (2012)

It’s become obvious to me since starting this blog quite recently, that it’s important to engage with film at a wider level than just going to check out the latest multiplex offerings (though I shall continue doing that of course). One of the most vibrant expressions of film culture is the film festival, of which London, like all large cities, boasts a great variety.

Sci-Fi-London 12 This is now the 12th year of London’s Annual International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, though they prefer to be known as the hyphen-happy Sci-Fi-London for short, not least because the annual festival is just one aspect of their ongoing engagement with this niche of film culture. However, the festival is the highlight of their calendar, and every year brings a diverse new crop of films that bear some relationship to the stated subject, though in a range of genres and styles, with quality ranging from the amateur to auteurist. It’s all enthusiastically brought together by possibly the most idiosyncratic and charismatic of festival directors, Louis Savy.

This year is no exception, and this opening night film was given an engaging intro by Louis, followed by a Q&A with the film’s producer Stephen Woolley, as well as its charming and eloquent writer Moira Buffini, and cast member Daniel Mays. Many of the other screenings also feature special guests. The festival runs until 6 May this year, split between the (very comfortable and pleasant) Stratford Picturehouse and the BFI Southbank.


FESTIVAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Sci-Fi-London || Director Neil Jordan | Writer Moira Buffini (based on her play A Vampire Story) | Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt | Starring Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Gemma Arterton, Jonny Lee Miller | Length 118 minutes | Seen at Stratford Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 30 April 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© StudioCanal

Before I even start this review, can I just state, if it wasn’t already obvious to you, how spectacular the film poster is. It’s a gloriously eyecatching image featuring the titular hotel, which is ostensibly located on the Hastings seafront where most of the film is set. If the movie itself can’t possibly compete with this singular, gorgeously baroque vision, its images are still wonderfully striking, thanks to the work of Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt, who also recently worked on The Place Beyond the Pines (2013).

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