Saturday, 31 July 2010


Skeletons, a low-budget British film (made on "a shoestring", according to this Guardian article), follows two scruffy professional men whose occupation involves visiting customers, often couples, at their request to uncover their secrets - the skeletons in their wardrobes - using the sort of equipment favoured by new-agers and amateur ghostbusters. Only, in the movie, this equipment works - and they are able to physically explore and investigate their customers' secrets before reporting back to them. The premise is internally consistent, thankfully, so the quasi-supernatural elements are not intrusive (unlike in The Prestige, for instance, which annoyed me earlier this week).

The two are apparently experienced but junior officers who are then given the opportunity by their gruff northern boss, the Colonel - played by Jason Isaacs and his moustache - to undertake a more difficult role which, if completed well, may lead to promotion. However, the job is even more difficult than they had anticipated. They are further beset by a troublesome member of the family they investigate, the 21-year-old daughter - played by the brilliantly-named Tuppence Middleton (who played the lead in last year's silly Brit horror Tormented). To make things even more difficult, one of the duo is battling his addiction to 'glowchasing' - illicitly reliving happy memories using work equipment. In order to complete the job more quickly, they decide to stay with the family, leading to some beautifully balanced and very funny dinner scenes, as well as some strange and moving friendships.

Skeletons is being shown a handful of times at various independent cinemas - a list of screenings appears on the official website - but will hopefully receive longer runs in future. It should: the screening I saw at Manchester's Cornerhouse was moved to a larger screen to accommodate the relatively large audience, presumably many of whom had - like me - been alerted to Skeletons' existence by Jason Isaacs' plugging it on Mayo and Kermode's review show. The Cornerhouse is planning a week-long run in August as a result of its popularity.

Conceptually it shares some aspects with Inception although, featuring few special effects and taking place largely in the English countryside, is dramatically different visually. It has been compared to Withnail & I, and it it has some similarities: the setting, the very British humour, the close platonic relationship between two men of a certain age and, happily, the quality of the script and performances. Skeletons has some interesting things to say about the nature of secrets, memories and the dangers of living in the past. But despite the bizarre premise and story - and although it works well in that respect - it was the unconventional but touching relationships between the six principal characters that really made it for me. I hope Skeletons gains the audience, and the recognition, it deserves.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


Like Shutter Island, Inception stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a man on a singular mission, obsessed with the absence of his wife and children and constantly haunted by their apparitions. Also like Shutter Island, it turns into a dizzying commentary on the fragile nature of reality. They're also both ambitious, portentous concept movies from respected directors - this one from Christopher Nolan, who made Memento and The Dark Knight.

But even more than it recalled Shutter Island, Inception brought to mind David Cronenberg's 1999 movie eXistenZ. (Coincidentally, it's not the only thing to do so recently.) It has similar multi-layered levels of reality and fantasy and similar young, strong, intellectual female characters who expertly design these reality-levels. In some ways the concept is better than that of eXistenZ: in Inception's dreamworld, dreams-within-dreams last longer than their host dreams and so several parallel "events" can synchronise - which they do, in a technically superb and exciting finale. In the to my mind important sense of plausibility, the concept of eXistenZ is superior and thus more satisfying. But the world of Inception is largely self-consistent, despite some minor gaps.

I deliberately haven't explained much of the concept here, because finding that out is an important part of the enjoyment of the film. But it's worth saying that although Inception has been slapped with warnings of complexity and of being hard to follow (notably by Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo), I wouldn't take these warnings too seriously. Yes, it doesn't spoonfeed us, but it does give us ample explanation of what's going on. I was slightly apprehensive about it myself, ensuring I was wide awake before seeing it. But that wasn't too necessary. For one thing, it's got enough explosions and gunfire to keep the doziest viewer awake. I wouldn't want people to miss out on seeing the best film of the summer just because they don't fancy having to make too much effort. Inception is thoughtful - but it's also rip-roaring, dizzying fun. Whether it would survive a second viewing with as much praise is hard to say, but everyone should give it a first.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Collector

John Fowles' first novel, The Collector, describes with insight and tension the relationship between a bizarre, socially awkward man and the young student he kidnaps and keeps locked up in his basement. It's a page-turner with a unique voice, similar in that sense to The Wasp Factory and The Catcher in the Rye. As when White Noise came out a few years ago, my initial delight at seeing one of my favourite novels adapted for cinema was displaced by disappointment when I discovered they shared only a title. But I heard The Collector was the latest so-called 'torture porn' horror from Marcus Dunstan who made Saw and so, as I am quite fond both of the sub-genre and the franchise, I gave it a go regardless.

The premise: Arkin, a softly-spoken former jailbird, is renovating a rich family's home. They like him, and reward him with cash and praise. Unfortunately, not enough cash - he owes his ex-wife money she needs before midnight in order to pay loan sharks: or else...

He decides the only way to obtain this money at such short notice is to break into his employers' home and steal from their safe. There's gratitude for you. But he has a stroke of bad luck - wouldn't you just know it, the local hooded psychopath has done a
Home Alone and turned the place into a massive booby-trapped deathpit.

And that's about it. Arkin tries to rescue the family from the collector - for it is he - with fairly predictable results. There's plenty of gore (much of it not too easy to make out because of the darkness of the setting), several deaths, no plot beyond that described above, and very little character development. In fact, about the collector himself - whose motivations and background are surely the most intriguing - we learn nothing. Oh, apart from the fact that if he likes you, he might 'collect' you (a fate little better than what awaits if he doesn't like you). For all we know, this is Macauley Culkin's Kevin McAllister grown up, traumatised by the horrific injuries he was led to inflict in his formative years and reliving those events in an increasingly violent destructive spiral. (I'd be happy to come on board, if anyone at Lionsgate is reading this and wants my help writing
Home Alone 5.)

As Mark Kermode pointed out on his 5Live show, in a section that might have made me think twice before seeing the film if I'd heard it in time, it might as well be called "the Trainspotter - because if you look like a train, he lets you live".

I concede that the film isn't entirely without merit. The high-tension chases around the house were fairly well done, especially considering the dark set (something I normally despise). And the gory stuff was quite well-shot without being hugely inventive. But why not wrap this up in a bit of plot and character stuff, I wonder? It seemed to be aimed squarely at the audience with whom I found myself sharing the cinema when I saw it: teenage boys determined to show their mates how insensitive to nasty violence they are by laughing through the goriest scenes.

So, congratulations, Dunstan and Co, for letting torture porn sink to its ground state: providing cheap, unexciting thrills for idiots. I hope you're proud of yourselves.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Les Herbes Folles

I like my French cinema like I like my French women - horrific, sexual and extremely violent. Films like Irreversible, A ma souer, and Martyrs. While sometimes hard to watch and at other times simply dull to watch, these movies make their points and stay submerged in my consciousness for a long time after I watch them. Which is, if nothing else, good value for money.

Les Herbes Folles exemplifies a less appealing side of French cinema. Called Wild Grass in English translation, its respected director Alain Resnais seems to think that whimsy is a substitute for storytelling. But it isn't. Amelie was whimsical, but it had charm, a heart, a story. This, on the other hand, has none of these things.

Well, I suppose I ought to concede that it does have a story of sorts. This sorry tale is of a quirky middle-aged dentist and flying enthusiast whose purse is stolen and discarded, before being found by a middle-aged, miserable layabout with his own equally quirky but rather unsavoury personality. The latter, who is married to an implausibly young, attractive lady, begins stalking the former. The dentist is initially wary - as she should be - but soon comes round to finding it charming. Things vaguely build to a lacklustre crescendo.

The film is 104 minutes long, but it feels like 104 hours. The characters are so unpredictable and their actions so implausible that any dramatic tension soon dissipates. The director seems to be aware of the drab piece he has created, for he teases the viewer with two false endings before finally putting us out of our misery.

Is Les Herbes Folles, then, just a joke at the audience's expense? If so, the joke is well-calculated - but it's also rather insulting.