[Review] The Cabin in the Woods

Posted in Film with tags , , on April 24, 2012 by Icy Sedgwick

The Cabin in the WoodsI’ve long despised the trend towards slasher films set in isolated locations, wherein a group of dizzy young people find themselves dispatched using whatever means the filmmakers hope will excite the most horror/adulation from their audience. We’ve been inundated with this type of film since the 1970s, and while many have tried different approaches to set their story apart from the nine zillion other stories just like it, it seemed a particularly odd type of film to come from the pen of Joss Whedon. Or is it?

To be honest, its tagline gives it away. “You think you know the story.” Instantly it challenges the audience. Do we know the story? Or do we merely think that we do? Even the poster design points to the fact that things are not what they seem, and that the cabin itself is a space to be manipulated…although, manipulated by whom?

Five friends go to stay at a cabin in the woods, owned by the cousin of alpha-male Curt (Chris Hemsworth). On the way, they’re warned of its dangers by a crazy gas station attendant – a warning they choose to ignore. We’re all very aware that these are not just characters, they are also stereotypes – and very important stereotypes at that. Idiotic blonde, jock, stoner, virgin, scholar, mad harbinger of doom – the whole genre doesn’t work without them in some combination or other. True, they’re not always used on an individual basis, but look closely enough and you’ll see some version of them.

At the same time, a group of scientists set to work in an underground lab, reminiscent of Christof’s control centre in The Truman Show. It soon becomes clear that the main pair are controlling the cabin’s environment, although to what end? Is this some kind of 18-rated reality TV show, or government experiment? This being a Joss Whedon production, you’d probably tend towards the latter, but the truth is yet stranger still.

Thing is, the film is a peculiar hybrid of many other films (indeed, the crazed family of killers that arrive to persecute the friends could be lifted from any number of films, and I half expected to see Ash rampage through the woods with his chainsaw) yet somehow completely independent of them all. Sure, all of the elements are present but the combination, and the context surrounding them, turns the film into a mad sort of ‘meta-slasher’.

The design of the film, and its monsters, is gorgeous, with one particular scene involving a set of lifts putting the lobby scene from The Matrix to shame. The art direction surrounding the cabin nods to its slasher predecessors, while the basement acts as a sort of repository of nightmares. However, as well-designed and slick as the film is, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s Whedon’s glorious take on the Final Girl Theory.

Devised by Carol Clover in the wake of the slasher boom, the theory revolves around the idea that such films are populated by disposable characters, each of whom will be punished for their transgressions against the social norm inherent to each film, leaving a ‘last girl standing’, usually the virginal student who does her homework on time and babysits the neighbours’ kids without any interruptions from boys (see Laurie in Halloween). This Final Girl is the only character with the integrity and strength to defeat the monster/killer. The Cabin in the Woods highlights the importance of this cultural myth by making it central to the motivation behind the events of the film, but Whedon goes one step further and adds a whole new layer of mythology. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

I really enjoyed the film, not only for its exploration of key horror theory, but also for its visuals, its strong characterisation, and its willingness to step outside the boundaries of what we’d expect, and to give us something new based on a very old and very tired formula. Full props to Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard for giving us a slasher film that actually didn’t bore me.

4.5 / 5

BAFTA success for The Artist

Posted in awards, Film with tags , , , on February 13, 2012 by Icy Sedgwick

So you couldn’t expect me to rebrand my film blog and NOT talk about the BAFTAs. I didn’t watch the whole ceremony as I find awards shows to be exceptionally tedious, especially when the losers paste on their gracious faces, and the winners ramble on for what feels like hours, but I caught the last half, which let’s face it, always features the ‘big’ awards.

I can honestly say I was genuinely shocked to see The Artist bag SEVEN awards, scooping Best Picture, Best Actor (for Jean Dujardin), Best Director (for Michel Hazanavicius), Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design. I had hoped Bérénice Bejo might also scoop Best Actress but it was fairly obvious Meryl Streep was going to bag that for The Iron Lady. If there was an award for Best Acceptance Speech, then surely Michel Hazanavicius should have won that, with his quick wit.

Now, I wasn’t shocked because I didn’t want The Artist to win. I did – I absolutely loved the film, and I was so pleased to see a black-and-white silent film do so well in an era almost wholly dominated by either ‘tear-jerking’ Oscar fodder, or messy CGI catastrophes. Director Michel Hazanavicius described the film as being a love letter to wife (and star) Bérénice Bejo, but I feel the film was also a love letter to cinema itself, made with the same care and attention lavished on films made in cinema’s silent era. True, Hazanavicius exploited some techniques not available to filmmakers in the 1920s, but The Artist was a beautiful example of ‘proper’ filmmaking, even down to the way he framed his shots.

It’s also an incredibly important pseudo-historical document, highlighting the huge impact that the coming of sound had on cinema. Not only were theatres forced to invest in the expensive new technology, sound also affected the way films were made. Cameras had to be static to allow for microphone placement, while actors famous for frenetic action sequenced, like Douglas Fairbanks, found themselves slowed down and hemmed in by the new frames. Legendary director, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, has to turn his 1929 silent film Blackmail into a talkie at the last minute (although he also filmed a silent version, which still exists at the BFI). Lead actress Anny Ondra had a thick Czech accent, which is no problem in silent cinema, but proves to be an issue when faced with voice acting. Hitchcock worked around it by having English actress Joan Barry standing off-camera to speak the dialogue while Ondra lip-synced. Ondra retired from acting in 1933. Somehow makes the coming of 3D seem fairly pitiful, doesn’t it?

I’d love to see The Artist go on to Oscar success, especially since it picked up three Golden Globes, including Best Actor, but I have a horrible feeling it won’t. Aside from those years when they’ve felt compelled to honour projects like Avatar (proof that a beautiful film can be entirely devoid of soul or originality) or Lord of the Rings, the Academy tend to favour those types of films which feature at least one tear-jerking scene, some kind of underdog triumphing in the face of adversity, a stirring score to accompany ‘heavy’ scenes of drama, or various emotional epiphanies attributed to an ensemble cast. Besides, The Artist was financed by French and Belgian money – over the last twenty years, only two films have won that were not financed by Hollywood (The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire). The fact they’re both recent films makes me hope the Academy are a little more open-minded these days.

One final point I would want to make relates to screenplay. Some quarters have criticised the choice of The Artist as a deserving recipient of Best Screenplay. Erm, you do realise that a screenplay is not simply a compilation of the lines to be delivered by an actor? Just because a film has no spoken dialogue does not mean that it has no screenplay – after all, the actors need some kind of ‘instructions’ as to what to do and when. In many ways, it’s more difficult to write a dialogue-less screenplay, where the actors will need to work to communicate everything they would normally communicate through speech, than it is to write a list of lines.

In short, well done to The Artist…and good luck at the Oscars!

[Review] The Woman in Black

Posted in Adaptation, Film with tags , , , , on February 11, 2012 by Icy Sedgwick

I’ve long been a fan of Susan Hill’s 1983 masterpiece, The Woman in Black, and I received the news of its filmic adaptation with some trepidation. Hollywood isn’t exactly known for translating supernatural literary classics particularly well – anyone who saw the hideous 1999 debacle that was the Jan De Bont remake of The Haunting (originally The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and later the stupendous 1963 film version by Robert Wise) will know what I mean. Ghost stories are often dumbed down, and their atmosphere stripped away to leave mountains of ineffectual CGI and pointless jump cuts. The very fact that Hammer Films were behind the adaptation worried me even more – I love their classic output, but it’s not exactly subtle, is it? As for the casting of Daniel Radcliffe…well, I had my concerns.

Thankfully, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think the cast and crew deserve a hearty ‘well done’ for retaining the chilling atmosphere of the book, although I suspect this comes, in part, from the involvement of Jane Goldman as screenwriter. The story follows young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), who is sent to a remote northern village to wrap up the affairs of a deceased client. The village is suitably Gothic, and its inhabitants close ranks against this hapless newcomer. Desperate to do a thorough job and assure his place at his law firm, Arthur is insistent on exploring the mysterious Eel Marsh House. His sighting of the Woman in Black sets in motion a horrific chain of events in the village, and Arthur takes it upon himself to discover her identity and, hopefully, lay her to rest.

I was worried that Radcliffe would just be playing Harry Potter, and while there was the occasional moment where I thought a magic wand might have come in handy, he more than holds his own alongside more seasoned actors like Ciaran Hinds. Indeed, Radcliffe carries the movie well, and spends much of the film acting by himself. He’s matured wonderfully and cuts a rather dashing figure as the young widower. Hinds is likeable as local landowner Samuel Daily, a seeming voice of reason in a sea of superstition, and his views on Spiritualism are surprisingly relevant to today’s culture of TV psychics.

Director James Watkins uses the CGI sparingly, instead relying on subtle framing and the play between light and shadow to veil his spectres. He did miss one wonderful opportunity to employ the ‘Vertigo shot’ but that’s probably just me being overly picky. He’s quite clearly gone for the ‘chilling’ end of the ghost story spectrum, as opposed to the ‘visually arresting but ultimately meaningless’ option. Special mention goes to the art direction of Paul Ghirardani and set decoration by Niamh Coulter, with the decor of the eerie house adding to the feelings of claustrophobia and isolation. Indeed, I half expected Arthur to encounter Miss Havisham on the staircase, so total was its devotion to Victoriana.

I didn’t find the film ‘scary’ or ‘terrifying’, although I suspect this may simply be due to my own approach to the paranormal – a year spent investigating ‘haunted’ locations, along with a lifetime exposed to the possible existence of the supernatural, desensitises you somewhat. However, I did find myself wrapped up in the story, completely immersed in this lost pocket of Victorian England. It’s a wonderful slice of Gothic filmmaking, full of genuine uncanny instances. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and would highly recommend it to anyone who has been waiting for a decent ghost story since The Others came out. Well done, Hammer – it’s good to have you back.

4.5 / 5

The Clink Prison Museum

Posted in Museum with tags , , , on August 15, 2011 by Icy Sedgwick

The Clink Prison MuseumOn Saturday I decided to indulge in a little sight-seeing before I move away from London next week. I’d walked past the Clink Prison Museum many times over the last seven years as it sits on the route between the replica Golden Hinde and the Tate Modern. As I was already in the Southwark area visiting the Old Operating Theatre (review coming soon) I decided I’d pop in to take a look around.

Oh how I wish I hadn’t bothered. The original Clink Prison was built in 1144, and the museum stands on the site.  After heading down below street level, I was confronted with just a handful of rooms containing replica instruments of torture and punishment, such as the Scavenger’s Daughter, the Ball and Chain, and the Scold’s Bridle. All well and good, you might think, and there were certainly plenty of information boards on the walls. In fact, I’d venture to say there were too many information boards, and many of them well over three feet long. The longer boards were written in such a dry, boring style that it was nigh-on impossible to maintain interest, and the task of concentrating on such a vast amount of text was made even more difficult by the deafening volume of the audio clips being played through hidden speakers.

Worse still, nearly all of the smaller boards were riddled with typos, spelling mistakes, and appalling grammatical errors. The facts displayed may have been correct but one has to doubt the veracity of the information on display if the writer cannot be bothered to use correct English. Indeed, many of the mistakes would have been highlighted in Word, and it would have been best if they’d hired a professional copywriter, or even just a proof reader, to check them before they put them up. One of them even had a handwritten correction emblazoned on it in black marker pen. Hardly a professional image, is it?

It took me just twenty minutes to get around the “museum”. I don’t feel I learned anything I didn’t already know, and if I’d wanted to see a collection of torture devices, I could have easily gone to either Ripley’s Believe it or not in Piccadilly Circus, or the torture museum at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland. I was incredibly disappointed by the visit, and considering the fact I’d paid a £6 entrance fee, I also felt vaguely cheated.

If you’re in London and looking for a way to kill half an hour, I’d suggest you patronise a local coffee shop, or just simply watch the boats on the river instead.

Friday Flash – Something Blue

Posted in Fiction with tags , , on May 13, 2011 by Icy Sedgwick

I’ve taken this flash down as it’s now been accepted for publication!

[Exhibition Review] The Cult of Beauty

Posted in Exhibition with tags , , on April 18, 2011 by Icy Sedgwick
Choosing

'Choosing', George Frederic Watts, 1864. National Portrait Gallery, London

It would be difficult to find someone who hadn’t heard of William Morris, James McNeill Whistler or Oscar Wilde, considering the level to which each name has penetrated the cultural social consciousness. However, it may prove more difficult to find a way to link such initially diverse figures. How many would realise that all three figures were leading proponents of the Aesthetic Movement in the late nineteenth century?

In response, the V&A have assembled their newest temporary exhibition, The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. Running from 2 April until 17 July, the exhibition examines the work of a movement which spanned fine art, textiles, furniture, jewellery, poetry and even photography, among others, in its forty year span.

The 1860s saw the rise of the so-called “Cult of Beauty”. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and James McNeill Whistler began exploring ideas surrounding female beauty. The traditional image of the corseted, prim Victorian woman was jettisoned in favour of a return to the flowing robes of Classical imagery. James McNeill Whistler was the first to explore the idea of “Art for Art’s Sake”, which was his defence against an attack by the influential critic, John Ruskin. Whistler extended his interest into architecture and interior design into the layout of galleries, and staged his own exhibitions to regain control of the viewing experience. Indeed, the idea of beauty was continued beyond simply that of the female, and the artists set about designing their own furniture and decorating their homes in a style that matched the opulence of their paintings.

Unsurprisingly, the fashionable and the wealthy caught onto the trend, and began to decorate their homes according to the styles and fashions favoured by the artists. Portraits were commissioned, women rejected corsets in favour of the more liberated Aesthetic style of dress, and manuals were published to help this new circle in choosing furnishings and decor. Much of the furniture and textiles was inspired by Japanese design, or even art from ancient Egypt.

By the 1880s, the Aesthetic Movement had become a figure of fun, with satire poking a stick at it from a distance. Oscar Wilde invented himself as the first celebrity style guru, and cartoons making fun of the Movement appear in Punch. It’s difficult to think of Wilde being a forerunner to the likes of Gok Wan and Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen, but the parallels aren’t hard to see when you know where to look. By this point, the beginnings of Art Nouveau are self evident, particularly in the illustration work of Aubrey Beardsley.

The V&A have divided the exhibition into four major chronological periods, with each period subdivided into areas. It boasts a vast array of paintings, photographs, jewellery and home furnishings, and as ever, I’m bowled over by the sheer volume of things on display. When the news is full of dark and terrible things, the exhibition provides an opportunity to immerse yourself in a world of truly beautiful things that nourish the soul. Perhaps things can simply be gorgeous for the sake of it, and we should remember a time when art meant more than simply putting your bed on display.

Full price tickets cost £12, while senior citizens pay £9. Full-time students, 12-17 year olds and ES40 holders all pay £7. Art Fund members pay half price. For more details, see the V&A website.

[Movie Review] Source Code

Posted in Film with tags , on April 10, 2011 by Icy Sedgwick

Source Code posterI remember going to see Moon back in 2009, and despite being utterly blown away by Sam Rockwell, I also remember thinking how astounding the film was as a directorial debut for Duncan Jones (also known as David Bowie’s son). I thought it was downright wrong that Moon wasn’t up for any Oscars this year, but apparently no one kissed the right arses.

Anyway. I saw the trailer for Source Code a couple of weeks ago and I wasn’t entirely convinced, not least due to the presence of Jake Gyllenhaal, an actor I’ve never been able to warm to. Still, I had a spare Saturday night and the very fact Source Code was a Duncan Jones film was enough to spur me to go. Thank God I did.

Source Code is, quite bluntly, fantastic. Blurring the lines between traditional “working against the clock to beat the bad guy” thrillers and science fiction, Source Code takes equal parts of quantum mechanics, time travel, and the threat of terrorism and ends up with intelligence and explosions. See, Michael Bay? It CAN be done.

Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot who fought in Afghanistan, and who now finds himself as part of a government project. The Source Code allows him to be projected into the last eight minutes of a person’s life – in this case, that of Sean Fentress, a teacher who is killed in a bomb blast on a train. Colter wakes up as Sean, and is charged with the task of discovering the identity of the bomber before he can strike again. Every time the eight minutes runs out, Colter wakes up in his capsule, and has to report to Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), before being sent back to relive the eight minutes.

It all sounds a little Groundhog Day, and naturally while Colter has the knowledge gained in each of his eight minute bursts to try something different next time, the people around him on the train are none the wiser, and believe him to be Sean. Colter is initially torn between wanting to find the bomber, and wanting information from those running the Source Code project. This parallel between his internal dilemma, and external mission, set up a constant source of tension – not least between Colter and his handlers. The fact that Colter, the mere practitioner, ends up understanding Source Code better than its inventor is a wry comment on our veneration of those who conceive new technology over those who learn to use it. Add to that the romantic subplot which sees Colter seek to save Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he meets on the train, and you have three plot threads that Jones balances like a seasoned professional.

It’s a tense film, and Gyllenhall proves to be a compelling hero. It’s the kind of role I could almost imagine Matt Damon playing, except he’d probably get frustrated as there isn’t much cause for him to run around. Farmiga is also excellent as the conflicted captain, torn between doing her duty and obeying her conscience. The script by Ben Ripley is intelligent without being convoluted, and despite its reliance on quantum mechanics, still retains a human feel. Then again, like Moon did before it, Source Code manages to put a very human face onto science fiction. Christopher Nolan tried to make science fiction thrillers big news with Inception, and Source Code expands and improves the idea by not relying on set pieces.

All I can really say in closing is that Source Code has made Duncan Jones my new favourite director – and rekindled my interest in science fiction. Five out of five!