Monday, April 11, 2016

DARLING



I must admit that I came to Mickey Keating's “Darling” with a lot of personal baggage. Being a massive fan of Roman Polanski's “Repulsion”, the film that Keating's is obviously modelled on, and although intrigued by its trailer, I still attacked my viewing of “Darling” with a sense of arrogance that what I was about to witness was a rip-off of Polanski's masterpiece, and would not hold a candle to it, let alone be worthy of being mentioned together in the same breath. However it didn't take me long to realise that I may be wrong and that my arrogance was unfounded as Keating clearly had an understanding of his story he wanted to tell, and although influenced by “Repulsion”, this was not going to be just some carbon copy.

Darling” is about a young twenty-something girl who accepts a job as a caretaker for a large residential building while its owner is away on holidays. The owner is up front with Darling in regards to the history of the building and the fact that some consider it to be haunted. She also explains that the previous caretaker actually committed suicide by jumping from the third storey balcony. Despite these stories, Darling agrees to the job and is soon left to her own devices, on her own in this huge house. With little to do, Darling's mind is continually wondering, but her mind is not a healthy one, as it becomes pretty clear that she is disturbed and struggling after being victim of a horrific crime. Human interaction is sparse, so Darling's only company are her thoughts, fantasies and memories which could be a lethal cocktail for the young girl as she seems to descend quickly from a mental perspective. This decline reaches fever pitch when she decides to actually go outside for a walk down the streets of New York, only to bump into someone from her past.

Right from the opening minute of “Darling” I was with the film. From the eerie early shots of a foggy New York, to the brief scene with Sean Young as the home owner, I was already buying into a film I was expecting to hate and roll my eyes at for being a soulless copy of one of my all time favourites. I was basically sold by the five minute mark when the actual title came up on screen. Darling has been shown through the house and the camera settles on a sitting room. It is a simple but beautiful room, furnished with class and style but not in a way that looks overdone. It is the picture of perfection, when suddenly this terrifying music plays over the top of the image and the title is emblazoned in the middle of the screen in garish pink font to chilling effect. But it is also the perfect representation of Darling herself; from the outside she looks so pure and innocent, and well put together, but inside is a rotting desperate mind. From this moment, I was pretty sure I was going to like the film.

Even though I was impressed by this opening five minutes, I also was worried by the fact that it looked like an arty student film. By that I mean there was a lot of weird and wild camera angles used in a kind of show-offy way that didn't necessarily suit the story. It had a feeling of someone who wanted to chuck as many cool shots into his film as possible, sort of to prove what he could do. However, these shots seem only to exist at the beginning, as the visual style begins to settle down and exist for the better of the story rather than to draw attention to itself. That said, “Darling” is a stunningly beautiful film to look at. The stark black and white photography is something to behold, and gives the film an other world quality that is paramount to its success (whilst also working as a nodding wink to “Repulsion”). As the visual style settles, Keating is able to amp up the eeriness of his film to the point that it truly does feel “Polanski-esque” whilst at the same time having its own identity as a terrifying paranoid thriller.

Being as this is a film with one character alone by herself in a house for the majority of its running time, it goes without saying that the film lives or dies on the performance of the titular role, and as may be obvious by now, Lauren Ashley Carter knocks this out of the park. She is Darling. You do not see the actress playing the character at all, only the character herself. Whilst watching the film, I didn't even realise that I was familiar with Carter from both “The Woman” and “Jug Face”, even though she obviously looks the same. All I saw in her was Darling. The way Carter plays her is minimalist with a cold approach. Although physically present in every scene, she always comes across as if her mind is elsewhere; that she is forever vacant, like she is looking out into the distance instead of what is right in front of her. Also because she is a damaged soul, it is hard to believe that everything Darling sees is actually the truth, rather it could be her mind's interpretation of the truth which gives the film a real unsettling atmosphere to it all. There are two scenes in the film where I think we see Darling for who she really is, when her psychosis breaks down and we actually see Darling reacting honestly to a situation even if that is in an obviously painful manner. One of these scenes is the acting highlight of the film when Darling meets a man at a bar and invites him back to her place. Before leaving she rushes to the bathroom and stares at herself in the mirror as we see this cold girl transform before our eyes, as she realises the enormity of what she is about to do, and she breaks down in tears, screaming at her reflection, and then composing herself again. Keating shoots the scene in one shot, so it is all up to Carter to make it work and because she nails it so perfectly it is the one time we are allowed in to see the “real” Darling briefly. I was just blown away by this short scene.

With Darling's mind not being entirely healthy, and as good as Carter is at making it look believable, Keating is smart to include other little audio cues to help represent what Darling is going through. Through the use of a loud and always ticking clock, to the rhythmic ringing of a telephone, to the always whispering voices Darling hears, we understand that whilst she may be always alone in the house, in her mind it is a whole other story. The poor girl is slowly losing her mind with the noise drowning out who Darling really is.

It is well known by now that I am a huge fan of cinema that deals with the fracturing of the mind, but I am equally a fan of ambiguity in cinema and Keating lays the framework here to give credence to the idea that Darling may not be in total control of her actions. From the initial stories of the house being haunted, Keating also adds some other details in the film so that you could see this story as one of possession (for lack of a better word). These things include a necklace of an inverted cross, some insidious Latin writing etched into a night dresser beside Darling's bed and a mysterious locked room, not to mention the voices again in Darling's head. All this could be used in evidence that something more of a supernatural order existed within this story, rather than just Darling suffering a complete mental breakdown. Personally though, the film is much stronger to me and resonates more emotionally if the supernatural side of things is nothing but a red herring.

In regards to negatives to the film, I do not have many. I will say that I thought that some of the music choices were a little on the nose in the fact that they were used loudly to scare audiences, which I think this film was above doing, although this happened few and far between and the other thing was that I am not a fan of the flashing strobe light effect that is used a bit in this film. This is a personal thing because it actually messes with my eyes a bit but I will say that this technique is effectively used to help create the eerie atmosphere of the film. There was one major thing that I hated which was the very end of the film, the final scene which takes place mid-credits. Obviously this is going to involve spoilers so for those that do not want to be spoiled, please skip to the next paragraph. The mid-credits sting is of the Sean Young character interviewing another caretaker and telling her the same stories of the house being haunted. It may not seem like much, but to me this pushed the ambiguity of the story towards the supernatural reasoning which I did not like at all and I felt that the scene should have been removed entirely. The other reason is because this is Darling's story so who cares about this other girl. Anyway, it is only thirty seconds of this fantastic film, so I shouldn't let it overcome how I feel about it, but you never want to leave an audience member feeling angry when the movie ends.

Overall, “Darling” turned out to be a massive surprise. I expected it to drown in its own pastiche but it actually rose above it and created its own identity to be a stunningly terrifying and disturbing mental thriller, that I have no problem mentioning in the same breath as Roman Polanski's “Repulsion” or “The Tenant”.


4 Stars.

 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

THE PACK



While the great Ozploitation days of Australian cinema are now long gone, every couple of years we still seem to make a genre film that is proof to the world that we still know how to make these films well. Sadly though, nowadays these films barely seem to get distributed and only reach the smallest of audiences, meaning that the glory days of the 70's and 80's, where genre films were made at a regular interval in Australia, are never likely to return. The last great and overlooked Aussie horror film that came out was 2011's “Crawl” directed by Paul China, which was a brilliant study in suspense, and since that film came out, I have been looking for the next Australian genre film to knock my socks off. I have now found that film with Nick Robertson's “The Pack”.

The plot of “The Pack” is simplicity at its finest as a farmer and his family have to try and survive the night from a pack of wild dogs who have entered their property and seem determined to viciously kill them all. Initially attracted to the farm by the sheep on the land, the dogs then turn their attentions to the humans that reside there.

As you can see from the above synopsis, there really isn't a huge deal to the story of “The Pack” but the execution in telling this simple story is nothing but first rate. As is the norm these days in a horror film, “The Pack” begins with a pre-credits sequence that sees an elderly couple (who are also farmers) brutally attacked by the dogs, an attack that costs the pair their lives. From here on though, we spend the next twenty minutes getting to know the family who are going to be the stars of this film, the Wilson's. We learn that they are struggling financially, and as such both parents are working in an attempt to not lose their farm; a battle which appears they are losing. We are also made aware that the live-stock that are the main source of this family's income, are being cut down in numbers regularly by some sort of animal venturing from out of the nearby woods. Life is not easy for the Wilson's and yet they refuse to lie down and give in, and it is obvious that they all love one another, despite the tension this financial hardship is causing them all. By giving us this time with the family, director Nick Robertson makes us care for this family. We do not want to see them hurt and knowing how much they are already struggling, we want to see them succeed. They are good people and deserve to be happy.

Following on from this opening twenty minutes, the film is all about suspense as the dogs circle and try to get inside the house to get at their prey whilst the Wilson's do everything in their power to stay alive. As great as the set up of the family is in the opening minutes, the reason for the success of “The Pack” has to do with the way the following hour is played out and handled. Robertson clearly understands suspense and how to get the most out of it, ratcheting up the tension until it is unbearable. I have watched “The Pack” twice now and even though I knew what was going to happen in my second viewing, I could not believe how tense I was whilst watching it. My fists were clenched and I was coiled up tight like a ball on my couch. When I realised this, I really understood just how brilliantly this film had been made and directed. In fact it is Nick Robertson's direction and Gabriella Muir's sharp editing that make the film so nail bitingly tense. Between the two of them, it is clear that they just know how to put together a story. There is no excess here, we are only given what is needed for the story to work and this benefits the film greatly. The film's myopic vision of the family's plight is all that the film is about, and that is what we get. Every shot seems to be perfectly chosen to compliment the next, and there is never anything show-offy here. Even the use of sound has to be highlighted as Robertson often drowned out the film of any sound at all, increasing the tension just before an attack would begin. I also appreciated the lack of any jump scares or cheap tactics to try and frighten the audience. All of his scares are well designed and earned. I especially enjoyed the scenes when you see the dogs approaching quietly in the distance, so that you knew they were around but never sure when they would attack.

Speaking of the actual dog attacks in the film, they are handled magnificently throughout. The ferocity and power of these dogs is never in question. What is amazing though is just how few shots actually have the actors and dogs in the same space at the same time. Often times the dogs and actors have their own shots, but the way it has all been put together, edited and matched, you always believe that the danger they face is directly in front of them and thus your fear for these characters is very real. I have nothing to back this up, but from watching the movie I believe that they used a combination of real dogs, animatronic or puppet heads (for the close ups of the dogs biting at the actors) and on the very rare occasion, some CGI. Also when the human characters fight back against the dogs and beat, bash, stab or shoot them, they are very rarely in the same shot. It is action shot, and then reaction shot but again, it all works amazingly well and is incredibly believable.

Another thing that is believable is the family dynamics of the Wilson family. There is no doubting that these people are an actual family. This is achieved by the very naturalistic performances of the cast, particularly Anna Lise Phillips as Carla, the matriarch of the family, and Jack Campbell as Adam, the father. Phillips is particularly impressive as although she comes across as someone who is frightened during this ordeal, she is still always a very strong character throughout. She never is the shrieking damsel in distress needing a man to save her, rather she is out there doing whatever she can in the moment to protect her family. In fact when it all boils down to it, she has a lot more success at it than her husband who always seems to get injured. I also very much liked Campbell's performance as Adam. He is definitely an alpha-male, a rugged farmer who isn't afraid of hard work and he comes across as a tough man. It is obvious he loves his family and kids, but isn't someone who goes easy on them. He expects them to pull their own weight too. He is a man of action, and not someone who would sit by expecting everyone else to do something instead. In saying all that, my favourite scene with Adam is a brief scene where he lets his rough exterior down for a second and shares a candle-lit dance with his wife. It is a beautiful scene that shows the love and tenderness between the two of them and is also the final moment of happiness before the terror of their night begins.

As great as this film is, it isn't perfect (but what film is) but the negatives are rather minor. In terms of performances, I felt that Katie Moore, who plays Sophie, the teenage daughter of the Wilson's, came across a little wooden. I would never call her performance bad per se, as she plays a permanently pissed off teenager well, but I always felt her “acting” in her role where as everyone else comes across much more natural. Another (small) issue I had with the film is that for a film called “The Pack”, there was very little pack action when the dogs attack the family. I understand that when the minor characters of the film are attacked, the dogs all pounce as one, however when the Wilson's are involved the dog action is more one-on-one, which is a small conceit to give the family are better chance of survival. The other minor problem I had was that the conclusion of the film isn't entirely satisfactory in the fact that it just sort of ends. Granted I had more of a problem with this on my first viewing than I did on my latest watch of the film.

Overall though, I found “The Pack” to be a stunning Australian horror film that is yet another master class in suspense. The film has been stunningly directed and performed and I also loved that the film had a strong sense of place. It just felt like Australia throughout. It is a short film, running only 85 minutes, but is endlessly entertaining and the re-watch factor is very high. “The Pack” knocked my socks off and I thoroughly look forward to whatever director Nick Robertson does next. Here is hoping it is another horror film, because as “The Pack” demonstrates in spades, he clearly understands how to get the best out of the genre on very little.


4 Stars.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

OVER YOUR DEAD BODY


Prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike is a master of many genres but it has been a long while since he has tackled a horror film. This is all the more surprising for the fact that his most famous film is arguably his 1999 horror classic "Audition". Although he has skirted the edges of horror with a number of his features since, it would be fair to state that "Over Your Dead Body" is his first pure feature length horror film since "Audition". You would think such a return would be greeted with great expectation from both the public and critics worldwide, but the film has come and gone with barely a whisper. So does this lack of recognition have anything to do with the quality of the film or is this just a film that has fallen through the cracks and has yet to find its audience?

The story of "Over Your Dead Body" is about two actors, Miyuki and Kosuke, who are romantically involved, and who are in the middle of rehearsals for their latest play, an adaptation of “Yotsuya Kaidan”. The play is a famous Japanese ghost story about a samurai who is haunted by the ghost of his wife after he chooses to betray her for a younger woman. Miyuki and Kosuke both play the leads in "Yotsuya Kaidan" and as they get deeper into rehearsals they find life imitating art, as Kosuke starts an affair with a younger co-star. As reality and fantasy begin to merge in Miyuki's mind, she starts to have a break down where she attempts to go out for revenge against her boyfriend in a similar manner to that of her character in the play.
With every review I write for a Takashi Miike film, I seem to mention the fact that he is very hit or miss with me. The man is very technically gifted and understands how to put together a great looking film always, but my problems with him are a result of his massive imagination and the fact that I feel he over stuffs his films with so many ideas that they become bloated, and exhausting to watch, not to mention that they start to become a little messy, narratively speaking. There are times when this "balls to the wall" approach pays off in spades ("For Love's Sake" being a perfect example),but more often than not I usually come away from Miike's films wishing he restrained himself just a little more. "Over Your Dead Body" is the most restrained effort I have seen from Miike for quite some time and the film benefits immensely from this. This is a very deliberately paced film, with the story taking its time to unfurl. The biggest surprise of the film is that the majority of its running time is devoted to the rehearsals of the play so we essentially get to see its story play out from beginning to end, with the actual story of infidelity between the two actors being close to a footnote. This is perfect for a western audience who may not be familiar with the famous story that the play in the film is based on, but I'm not sure how it would play to a Japanese audience, as this may come across as unnecessary padding.

Whilst I mentioned that "Over Your Dead Body" is a very restrained film for Miike, it is also a very low key effort too. There aren't really any big moments in the film, rather it is a film that relies on atmosphere rather than sudden bursts of violence. That said this is still a Miike film and fans of the director will likely be impressed by this film's final twenty minutes, which is when it takes a turn towards the bizarre and bloody. The main problem with the film is that because the majority of the film is actually a play, there is no suspense or danger associated with it because we know that none of what we are watching is real. Again, for Western audiences this would be less of a problem because we are learning the story that is going to end up relating to the "real life" story later in the film, so we are still invested in the play.

Again, because the majority of the film is a play, Miike is able to use this to his advantage in regards to the lighting styles he employs. He is able to get away with using quite artificial and theatrical (not to mention dramatic) lighting to create a bold and unique look to the film. Nothing comes across as looking real or natural and yet due to the nature of the story, it works perfectly. Likewise the set designs, are all stage bound and thus look artificial but stylized in a way that gives the film an extra kick to it. The scenes set in the real world have a pared back and slick look to it, to the point of it looking sterile. The lighting is either very straight forward and flat looking, or extremely dark. Unfortunately this causes the audience to respond more to the play rather than the narrative behind the scenes which I'm sure was meant to be the point of the film.

In terms of acting, like the film itself, most of the performances are of a low key nature, with most of the roles being underplayed. I thought Ko Shibasaki, who plays Miyuki, fared a lot better than her co-stars at portraying two distinct characters and making them both easily identifiable. She also does a great job convincing us of her character's extreme mental breakdown. Ebizo Ichikawa, on the other hand, really gives a flat performance throughout when playing Kosuke, and the samurai character he portrays in the play. He barely emotes through the whole film and looks bored the entire time. He walks through each scene with nary a presence and unfortunately I thought he was the weak link to the film. I say unfortunately because his character has the longest amount of screen time. It's true that “Over Your Dead Body” is a quiet horror film, but you can still bring an intensity or an intent to a performance without needing to go over the top.

I mentioned earlier that the film's final twenty minutes are quite bizarre and bloody in nature, and I am sure that long time fans of the director will really get the most out of these scenes, however from my perspective, the whole finale seemed rushed to the point that at times it is a little incoherent. To be honest, there is one part of the finale that I am thoroughly confused about (I have my theory as to what is happening, but have no idea if this is actually correct). Whilst there are no moments like the infamous scene from “Audition”, there is one scene towards the end that involves household utensils that will get everyone talking. It is a scene that comes out of nowhere, (in terms of the intensity behind it) and is the film's bloodiest. It is also a scene that will make you feel sick to your stomach when watching it. The reason why I think the finale is rushed, and thus doesn't have the necessary impact I expect was intended, is because of the majority of the film is about the play and as such we are invested more in the characters of “Yotsuya Kaidan”, as opposed to the characters of “Over Your Dead Body”. The final twenty minutes is about them though, and since we have spent little time with them until now, it is hard to care (or understand) about what is happening between them. Just as you start to invest in them though, it is over, which is a little frustrating.

The above review is actually for the 95 minute version of “Over Your Dead Body” that is found on the U.S blu-ray.  After watching the film, I was horrified to learn that there was a director's cut, available in Japan, that is an extra sixteen minutes longer. Unfortunately I have no idea what this extra footage entails, but you would think that the finale may be lengthened to make more sense or the more “meta” qualities of the film may be explained more or better layered into the story. It frustrates me no end knowing that there is another version out there (and one that is called a “director's cut” no less), and if I ever get around to seeing it I will amend this review to include some details of it.

Overall, I found Takashi Miike's latest horror film “Over Your Dead Body” to be a bit of a mixed bag. From a directing point of view, I was highly impressed. I loved Miike at his most restrained (it reminded me of his part in the omnibus feature “Three....Extremes”, which was entitled “The Box”), but unfortunately this low key approach seems to have affected some of the performances within the film. I also felt that he got the balance wrong between the narrative of the play and the narrative of his movie, focusing too much on the play even though these scenes were better and more artistic in nature. Fans of Miike may also be disappointed because the madness of his previous films is toned down here, although that is not to say they are totally absent. At the end of the day, I would call “Over Your Dead Body” a near miss, but I would really like to check out that director's cut before declaring that conclusively. Until then though, I can only give this version of the film.....


3 Stars.