Tuesday 31 August 2010

Cherry Tree Lane: Vintage Violence? (The List, Issue 665)

When it comes to going to the cinema, how much screen violence is too much? Or is it more to do with the type of violence? Paul Gallagher ducks the punches

Paul Andrew Williams’s Cherry Tree Lane is a real-time enactment of the break-in and torture of a middle class suburban couple by vengeful teenagers. At a mere 77 minutes, it’s still a brutal, unpleasant endurance test, and much of its power comes from Williams’s stylistic choices. From the film’s opening – a portentous ultra-slow zoom onto a front door – he eschews the furious editing of modern American horror, as well as the more traditional camp vagaries of the genre, in favour of something less comfortable, more shocking, and closer to art house in form. Torture scenes unfold in beautifully composed long takes, and most of the gut-wrenching violence takes place just beyond the camera’s line of sight, with sound filling in the blanks in audience members’ pummelled imaginations. It’s an impressive display of technical expertise, but I struggled to understand why Williams would want to put anyone through such an experience. It’s not a question that he convincingly addresses at any point in the film.

I had a similar reaction recently watching another horror of sorts. Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me features two protracted scenes of brutal and humiliating violence against the film’s female characters; powerfully shocking scenes that have no justifiable place in what is an otherwise traditional, even unremarkable, noir.

These examples represent a growing number of British filmmakers employing the extreme tendencies of art house cinema in mainstream horror films, in a universally empty-headed manner. In the wake of what James Quandt referred to in 2004 as the ‘New Extremity’ – European filmmakers including Gaspar NoĆ©, Catherine Breillat and Bruno Dumont who consciously provoked with painstakingly realised sex, violence and debasement – burgeoning British filmmakers have a new reference, more immediate and shocking than stylised Italian Giallo, but are doing nothing constructive or insightful with it. In fact, with their ‘realistic’ aesthetic, James Watkins’ Eden Lake (2008), Thomas Clay’s execrable The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael (2005) and Cherry Tree Lane serve only to reinforce the inaccurate stereotype that the only teenagers this country produces are fearsome amoral troublemakers.

The film that Cherry Tree Lane immediately brings to mind is Michael Haneke’s home-invasion grueller Funny Games, in which the divisive Austrian director dared audiences to withstand the extreme humiliation and pain he put his characters through. Haneke was making a point about screen violence though; you can disagree with him, but his motivation is clear.

Williams claims that his motivation was ‘to see if I could create what it would be like if this really happened’, while Winterbottom, reflecting on negative reactions to his film, simply said ‘I was surprised that people were so shocked by the violence’, suggesting a distinct lack of reasoning behind their provocative presentations of violence. Film is primarily a means of communication; on this evidence, extreme violence is the current easy option for directors with nothing to say.

Cherry Tree Lane, selected release, Fri 3 Sep. The Killer Inside Me is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Mon 27 Feb. This article first published in The List magazine.

Monday 30 August 2010

National School's Film Week 2010

I’m pleased to be taking part in National Schools Film Week again this year, which is happening in cinemas in Glasgow and Edinburgh from 28 October-5 November. The programme offers free cinema screenings for school classes, during school hours, featuring a huge range of films, from this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker to Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel, and everything you can imagine inbetween.

The idea of National Schools Film Week is to inspire pupils by opening them up to films they might not usually choose to watch, as well as equipping teachers by offering them new ways of approaching familiar subjects through film. They get industry professionals and film critics to come and talk before or after screenings; this year I’ll be introducing the Edinburgh screening of Pedro Almodovar’s most recent film, Broken Embraces (pictured).

This year Film Education will be supplementing its usual advice to schools with a special Not Just A Trip To The Movies guide at www.filmeducation.org packed with tips for teachers suggesting the broad range of ways in which they and their students might make the most of a NSFW (an unfortunate abbreviation, but it's the one they're sticking with) screening, before, during and afterwards.

Booking is open now for over 50 screenings in Glasgow and Edinburgh through the week, and you can find out more at www.nsfw.org.

Sunday 29 August 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

In Edgar Wright’s new film, Scott Pilgrim, as played by Michael Cera, initially comes across like a Romeo for the Playstation generation, and not in a good way; he’s whiney, self-pitying, fickle in his shifting affections and overall a rather unsympathetic character. Added to this Hot Fuzz director Wright front-loads the film with visual gimmicks and whizz-bang effects that cleverly set up the video-game reality of Scott’s world but don’t hold much promise of depth. But stick with it, and slowly a human heart emerges from beneath both Scott’s detached exterior and the film’s flashy digital surfaces.

The plot is simple. Scott, bass player in struggling indie band Sex Bob-omb, meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead; cool as a whole crate of cucumbers) at a party, and is immediately consumed with desire for her. He soon learns that if he wants to date her he will have to defeat her seven evil exes in a series of duels. Fighting ensues.

As in Wright’s debut feature Shaun of the Dead, the central conceit of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – fights between humans presented in video game ‘vs.’ styles - is one that he previously used in one very funny scene of his brilliant TV show Spaced. Unlike Spaced though (or Shaun and Hot Fuzz), which was grounded in recognisably mundane - and very English - real-world contexts, it’s interesting that his first Hollywood feature is presented in a completely fantastical style throughout; perhaps a comment by Wright on the American film industry’s detachment from the real world?

His more probable motivation for the hyper-stylized setting (apart from Pilgrim’s graphic novel origins) is that here Wright is focusing on considerably younger characters than in his previous films; this is a generation that is increasingly distanced from reality, looking at the world through more and more filters. Scott’s world is a video game, and he is completely detached from real humanity – even “getting a life” isn’t as transformative as it sounds – and while Wright loves that world and plays with its aesthetics to tremendously entertaining effect, he ultimately recognises that it needs to be invaded by something real, otherwise it’s not worth living in.

So while the film is difficult to warm to in its earlier stages, it’s understandable why Wright chose to make it so. He should also be commended for taking a Hollywood budget and doing something that visually justifies it. Wright places the emphasis on images here - a bold move, considering his previous films’ strengths were arguably in performance and dialogue - but his visuals are inspired and unique (and often funny) enough to take the weight. Whether Scott Pilgrim will hold up to repeat viewings as well as Shaun and Hot Fuzz remains to be seen, but after one sitting it confirms Wright as a director continuing to challenge himself, and rewarding his audience in the process.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Avatar: Special Edition, The Illusionist and The Girl Who Played With Fire (Radio Scotland Movie Cafe)

 Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl Who Played With Fire
Click here to listen to the show

The Movie Cafe returned to Radio Scotland today after a break for the Edinburgh Fringe, and I was back on to discuss the cinema re-release of Avatar - what's so special about this 'Special Edition' and does anyone actually want to see it?

Myself, host Janice Forsyth and film critic Jon Melville also reviewed Sylvain Chomet's beautiful new animated film The Illusionist, the Edinburgh-set story of an aging magician and the young girl he takes under his wing. The film premiered earlier this year at Edinburgh International Film Festival, where Janice had also interviewed the director, also featured in this programme.

In the third segment of the show I stayed on to throw in my comments on the second part of the Swedish film adaptations of Stieg Larsson's 'Millenium' trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire. We also got on to discussing David Fincher's American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and the challenge that he will have, in particular to better these films' realisation of lead character Lisbeth Salander.

Listen to the show here