The Horror of Nostalgia

Recently Ken Loach described ‘fake nostalgia’ in television and film as ‘bad history, bad drama. It puts your brain to sleep.’ Aside from the obvious culprits, Downtown Abbey and Poldark to name a few, the closer you look, the easier it is to see this ‘fake nostalgia’ seeping through the cracks, into more and more programming. Stranger Things is probably one of the most prolific examples today of jumping feet first into Lake Nostalgia with its unashamed shout out to a host of 80’s films. We also have the nostalgically new remake of Stephen King’s IT to look forward to next year.

It seems the days of horror movies having to pull out all the corn syrup-y stops to make their audiences want to regurgitate the overpriced “sausage product” they purchased but an hour ago, has begun to disintegrate and has made way for something else. If we look at some of the most recent ghastly installments reaching our cinemas, we’ll see that the corn syrup is minimal, the deaths few and this teamed with a different approach to what scares the living shit out of us has got us questioning our fears and how the film industry is adapting to society’s fears as a whole.

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows was by far one of the most effective at this. The thrill and suspense of the literal, if albeit a very slow ‘chase’, was what gave this movie its standing amongst the critics. I couldn’t decide whether the film was trying to replicate the awkward sex education programmes of my youth (‘don’t have sex or you’ll be cursed forever’) or if it was trying to portray the baggage we take on when stepping further away from adolescence and into the 18-25 tick box. The ‘curse’ is essentially the worst STD, ex-partner or illegitimate child ever to come out of the woodwork after a passionate night of making love in a car with a man you barely know. It Follows is an interesting example of the return to the past. The adults in the film are briefly touched upon, the audience know they exist, but that’s the extent of it. The film is driven by its young cast, set in an unknown decade, we have televisions reminiscent of the 80’s, but technology that contradicts that. Mitchell’s film represents the monster of adulthood edging closer and closer, slowly it seems, but something that cannot be outrun. We’re never one hundred percent sure that the characters at the end of the film have banished the curse for good.

In a culture of fear, are we now finding ourselves longing for a more simplistic and wholesome horror movie? The notion of a New Sincerity that has been used to describe the likes of Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman can also be seen to be seeping it’s sickly sweet gloop into the horror genre too. It Follows takes us ‘back’ to notions of friendship, love, childhood and the simple act of growing older. Things we can see in front of us, or in the distance getting closer.

If we take Gerard Johnstone’s horror/comedy Housebound as another example. The film follows Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) as she is confined to her family home with her estranged Mother after being put under house arrest, only to discover someone living in their house. Eventually we realise this ominous presence isn’t actually what it seems at all and in fact, ends up saving their lives. Kylie, another character seemingly running from her own impending responsibilities as an adult is now faced with her past (her Mother) and her future (also her Mother). This return to the home and family could be seen as a step back from the conventional horror movies of the early 21st Century in search of a story more simplistic and with characters more true to life to escape the very real horror many people deal with daily. Cinema remains, as always, a key indicator of society’s current state of mind, whether it’s giving us clues to what we’re thinking or alternatively, what we don’t want to think about. But if romanticising and longing for a more simplistic past allows us to produce beautifully shot, thoughtful and fun cinema and television, if it gives us the opportunity to feel the warmth in our bellies as we are transported to our rose –tinted adolescence then my name is April and I’m a nostalgiaholic.

 

Review: Get Out

Jordan Peele’s first feature as director is a confident step away from his previous television exploits: Mad TV (2002) and Key & Peele (2012), throwing off his sketch-show jacket and donning a more provocative and thoughtful attire. While still holding on to his satirical voice, Peele allows the film to linger within the fringes of recognisable genres but, if forced to decide where to place it, GET OUT has definitely created a home for itself as a horror film.

British actor Daniel Kaluuya gives a solid performance as young photographer Chris Washington, who’s about to embark on the most nerve-wracking adventure of any new relationship: meeting the parents. “Do they know I’m black?” he asks his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams) who works to ease his concerns of the initial reception he may receive. Rose, an ostensibly liberal, young white woman, seems to focus much more on Chris’ race than seems comfortable at times, and polices it on his behalf.

Chris’ anxieties are alleviated when he is greeted by a very unassuming and welcoming Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener). From the moment Chris arrives, the scenes are peppered with cringe-worthy moments: A family friend boasting to him: “I do know Tiger” and Dean explaining how he’d vote for Obama for a third term if he could. Initially this could be disregarded as a bunch of middle-class, semi-enlightened white people trying their best to make Chris feel welcome, but Peele wants the audience to look deeper and not to merely accept those awkward moments as “typical” and things that “just happen.”

It’s not long before Chris clocks the family’s slightly odd pair of hired helpers, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), both African American. Their every move seems pre-coordinated, their eyes glazed and smiles fixed. The feel of the film spirals quickly into much darker territory with the introduction of Rose’s creepy brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) over an odd family dinner. The dinner culminates with Missy’s offer to help Chris stop smoking, which subsequently turns into a session where Chris finds himself paralysed and falling into the darkness of what Missy calls “the sunken place.”

What results is a character literally fighting to save his own skin, with the horror elements coming to full fruition in the last thirty or so minutes of the film (greatly enhanced by a pair of deer antlers being used as a murder weapon). GET OUT shares a similar sense of dread with David Robert Mitchell’s IT FOLLOWS (2015): as the horror that will eventually befall Chris lies in wait. Also reminiscent of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series (in which Kaluuya also appears) which shares a combination of witty and provocative storytelling that allows audiences to question the societal issues that are often glossed over or accepted as normal.

The humour is consistently organic to the plot and Peele’s comedic background has served him well here. GET OUT is arguably the best horror film this year so far, not only because of its themes and purposeful prodding of an issue so easily avoided, but in its success at twisting the horror genre into something more original and relevant. Peele has created a fiery response to questions surrounding a post-racial culture, with a satirical but thoughtful telling of white hegemony and racism in a supposedly “liberal” society.

Originally featured on Take One http://www.takeonecff.com/2017/get-out

Welcome to the Hellmouth: 20 Years of Buffy

On a cold January night in 1998 me and a friend tuned in excitedly for the first episode of Joss Whedon’s cult masterpiece. Exiled from the lounge by my Mum, therefore reduced to watching it on the small kitchen television, we sat in the dark as the opening scene unfolded before the soon-to-be iconic Nerf Herder intro began. That was all it took, I dismantled my Dream Phone (keeping the Steve card obviously), binned my Barbie’s and replaced them with all things Sunnydale. Posters, books and that classic 90’s American teen ensemble, green corduroys looked awful on Cordelia and they looked worse on me.

Apart from the questionable fashion choices, (which didn’t really get any better did they?) Each week was packed with a delightful balance of love, death and Willow’s hair. Buffy tore 90’s television a new one, with its humour, strong female characters and engaging storylines. 20 years on it doesn’t fail to promote positive discussion with its following of fans young and old.

Buffy was at the forefront of television that dealt with real issues of young women through the guise of demons and the undead, using it’s witty writing to create a unique series, far from your average teen hero romp. The way the characters communicate in the series was new to television, realistic in a world of the unreal. Whip-smart and clever, it laid the foundations for other shows to do the same, we see this in Whedon’s other projects as well as in future television series. Its use of long story arcs, shifting away from the comfortable episodic layout of the 90’s, made way for the shows we love to binge-watch in our underwear today. Lengthy character development towards the final take down of each series’ “big bad” created a much deeper connection with the characters and the stories themselves.

As the first series to show a lesbian sex scene on American broadcast TV, Buffy paved the way for gay men and women in mainstream television by avoiding the stereotypes so often used in other shows at the time, and by bringing these characters to life, gave them a reality and a story that spoke to its audience. Buffy finds all of its characters in a limbo, between childhood and adulthood, good and evil. The show gave its lead some serious emotional rollercoasters when it came to relationships but in the end her duties, her identity and friendships won out as her romantic relationships take a back seat in her transition into adulthood. We see her fail and struggle, (resulting in a very becoming Double Meat ensemble.) Following the death of her mother, a scene thats execution left us all speechless, what remains is a young girl, being thrown into womanhood, showing the world that inner strength is just as powerful as a roundhouse to the face when it comes to fighting your emotional demons.

The show had its flaws of course, as did its characters but when boiled down, we see a more complex portrayal of the classic Strong Female lead, Buffy is physically strong, it comes easy to her, but finding her feet in the world and becoming emotionally resilient is another battle altogether. Whedon has made the characters in the Buffy-verse much more damaged and darker than you would expect from a show about a small blonde teenager who skewers bad guys with sticks (and the occasional rocket launcher). It’s resulted in a world where we’re taught it’s okay to fail, to break, to feel alone because no matter what our “childhood trauma” is, we all have potential.

Review: Cameraperson

Kirsten Johnson humorously pulls out tufts of grass from in front of the camera, through a frustrating haze and vegetation that requires “natural editing”.

In this unique memoir, Johnson has produced a startling collage of her work, entwined with beautifully placed personal touches. With an impressive back catalogue including FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004) and DERRIDA (2002) Johnson’s personal memoir is made up of other people’s stories, which offer an incredibly insightful look into the true reality of documentary filmmaking.

CAMERAPERSON could have easily become a jumbled mess of scrap footage but Johnson has gathered material in such a way that it is hard not to become invested in the individual stories, even during a mere 30 seconds of film. Stories are developed throughout: a Muslim family living in Foča, a Nigerian midwife and a wounded boy in Afghanistan all re-appear, giving the film a linearity. The collage also plays host to footage of her father and her two children as well as her mother, who slowly becomes less lucid as she succumbs to Alzheimer’s.

Several short montages throughout the film aid audience reflection and allow thinking time; one that stands out is a series of still shots (Wounded Knee, The World Trade Centre, Tahrir Square) a sequence that narrates the historical horrors of the human world. It addresses the morality of documentary filmmaking, and more so, how what is being documented promulgates humans as voyeurs of horror.

“Americans act like they’re being filmed”

CAMERAPERSON shows the art of the documentary and its uniqueness as a form of storytelling. There’s the push and pull between being an observer and being emotionally involved with individual stories which creates a fascinating and engaging truth behind each film. Johnson breaks away from the role of observer occasionally, reassuring a young girl at a family planning clinic, as a friend would do. The way the subjects interact with Johnson herself, shows the impact felt by individuals both in front of and behind the camera. A fundamental element in order to accurately portray the reality of each story, and why it shouldn’t surprise audiences that Johnson felt this was integral to her cinematic memoir alongside family footage.

As well as beautifully endearing and thought provoking sequences, CAMERAPERSON reveals an underlying theme of Western culture and the media. Instead of being mesmerized by the camera, or just too busy to realise it’s there, the American subjects remain un-fazed, comfortable and often more animated and feigning under the gaze of the lens. “Americans act like they’re being filmed”, Jacques Derrida paraphrases while crossing a busy Manhattan road, calling into question documentary realism and authenticity in the Western world. What real stories can be captured if the subjects themselves have evolved to adopt a demeanour that places them in front of a metaphorical camera all of the time?

What CAMERAPERSON leaves behind is not only a unique insight into documentary filmmaking from an angle minimally explored, but with it, a wider sense of knowing. Every story, including her own, lingers long after the lights go up in this thoughtful, well-constructed cinematic scrapbook.

Originally featured on Take One http://www.takeonecff.com/2017/cameraperson

 

 

Review: 20th Century Women

Mike Mills transports audiences back to a 1979 Santa Barbara complete with its waning hippie culture, the final death throes of punk and the rise of female identity in this beautifully acted and poignant film.

Like in Mill’s 2010 film BEGINNERS, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN is peppered with carefully imposed vignettes of pop culture photographs. These, combined with excerpts lifted from books and speeches from the likes of Jimmy Carter and Judy Blume, immerse the audience in the lives of the characters. Although 20TH CENTURY WOMEN may seem sparse in its drama, it still packs one heck of a punch with standout performances and a realistic portrayal of family and identity in a time of change.

Annette Bening plays Dorothea, the strong-minded and straight talking mother of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Dorothea enlists the help of her lodger, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and Jamie’s friend Julie (Elle Fanning), in raising her son to become a moral, well-rounded individual. She soon realises, though, that maybe entrusting Jamie’s future self to two young women who have yet to find their own paths may not have been the best idea. Of course, the opposite is soon realised as the girls give Jamie the emotional tools he needs to connect with his mother.

There is a disconnect between Jamie and Dorothea, a gap that they both try to bridge throughout. Both characters never really communicate in a genuine way until the end of the film, where they evolve and begin to understand each other and in some ways, accept that they never really will. The characters have a past, portrayed through cleverly positioned and detailed voice-overs; the audience are experiencing their present and again through the art of voice-over, become part of their future. The film may end in 1979 but viewers are given enough information to take them through to the year 2000. The motif of a future rushing towards them is carried through the film in forms of fast-paced vignettes and beautifully trippy, time-lapsed driving sequences.

There is a sense of the characters wanting to escape reality: Julie and Abbie do this through fantasy and role-play, which serves as a way for them to open up and explore who they are, but also to protect themselves. Dorothea escapes confronting her own problems by opening her home to everyone else, including shampoo-making mechanic William (Billy Crudup) as well as immersing herself in constant home improvements. Although the film’s central theme is one of family and relationships, it is also a film about nostalgia, of how memories serve as filters, making the past beautiful. Mills creates an authentic 1979 with the film’s subtle fashion choices and soundtrack, flitting between the likes of Talking Heads and Louis Armstrong without it becoming too overpowering. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN is an original and witty coming-of-age film, complete with zingy one-liners courtesy of Bening. It perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the time, a country in the midst of change, soon to make way for Reagan and MTV, and the uncertain limbo of the late 70s and early 80s – reflected in the generation gap between Dorothea and Jamie that neither of them are quite sure how to handle. With Mills already championing a unique style of realistic filmmaking and storytelling, what comes next from him is cause for much anticipation.

Originally featured on Take One http://www.takeonecff.com/2017/20th-century-women 

Film Review: Caleb

CALEB transports audiences into a not-so-distant future with a thoughtful and relevant sci-fi short that deals with the morality of ever-advancing technology and its effect on family and relationships. Filmmakers Amanda Mesaikos and Susanne Aichele explain, “We decided to explore dynamics that lie at the heart of a family and the effects of technology as it hurtles us into the future”.

Caleb (played by both James and William Hall) decides to 3D print himself in order to create a friend to help ward off bullies, which in turn creates a moral dilemma for his parents, both of whom are victims to a world of digital natives: which has ultimately created a disjointed and uncommunicative family unit. Peppered with futuristic touches, CALEB charts the evolution of handheld technology, bioengineering and fashion trends with well-poised performances that give a sense of a realistic future.

Although the family has embraced the modern world, there is still an element of the traditional: Spanish language post-it notes clutter the kitchen, shuffling through papers in bed, a home cooked meal.  “We wanted our film to still feel grounded in a world recognisable to us,” say Mesaikos and Aichele. The deliberate 1970’s EPA-inspired colour grade adds a touch of nostalgia: “we wanted to create this sort of hazy dream-like space between past and future. Something between a dream and a nightmare.” Current events have been thoughtfully evolved into an imagined future. Hints towards diminishing green spaces, over-development and similar realistic issues and trends are subtly interwoven within the narrative, which makes CALEB a refreshing and honest contribution to the science fiction genre.

As well as confronting issues surrounding a technology-ruled existence, this film goes even deeper, exploring society’s stereotypical view of motherhood as Caleb’s mother, Sonia (Elizabeth Healy) knows they must choose between both sons. “We do feel it’s important to challenge the way we view motherhood and fatherhood but also how, on an individual level, be it for men or women, parenthood will challenge your views and decisions,” say the filmmakers. Both boys share identical memories and experiences but are individually affected by their surroundings. This raises questions surrounding what makes us human, what makes us unique and whether both children are as human as each other due to their different reactions to the world around them.

Caleb, complete with its indirect Orwellian undertones, raises questions about the possible consequences that come with a society dominated by technology and if that is something humankind is ready for. Mesaikos and Aichele’s film sits on the fence and offers a diplomacy in its approach to technology and society. Although a world rich in advanced technology seems to be a major player in causing the character’s familial dislocation, it also becomes the very thing that brings them closer together.

Originally featured on Take One http://www.takeonecff.com/2017/caleb  

A horror film that IS just for Christmas

As the festive season looms, the Scrooges of the world need an outlet, something to transport them from the jingle hell of the holidays. As the festive shocker BLACK CHRISTMAS approaches its 45th birthday, we look back at the often ignored slasher film that not only set the bar for future generations of slasher movies, but that transported Christmas from its sugar-coated wonderland to a world of gore, entrails and the creepiest phone voice in the entire world.

Director Bob Clark, perhaps better known for his 1981 film PORKY’S, created what was at the time a frightening, original and humorous slasher film that still deserves an annual visit after the decorations are up. BLACK CHRISTMAS follows Barb (Margot Kidder), Jess (Olivia Hussey) and their fellow sorority sisters as they’re terrorised during their Christmas party by “the moaner”: a deranged serial killer who hides in the attic and makes salacious phone calls, before stalking and murdering the students. BLACK CHRISTMAS is regarded by most as the original slasher film, whose only contenders are Mario Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD (1971) and fellow 1974 slasher THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, all of which paved the way for films such as SCREAM (1996), HALLOWE’EN (1978) and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) to name but a few.

Watch BLACK CHRISTMAS today and it may look predictable and unoriginal, but it was the first of its kind and gave birth to so many of the clichés and thematic conventions that we see in contemporary horror cinema. When we think of a killer calling from inside the house, the go-to film is WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) but unknown to many, BLACK CHRISTMAS did it first. John Carpenter’s HALLOWE’EN was hugely influenced by Bob Clark’s film, and striking similarities can be seen between the two, such as the prowling POV shot as the killer enters the house and the scene in which Hussey’s character discovers a body in a bedroom before being attacked by the killer. Similar to an iconic scene in HALLOWE’EN where Jamie-Lee Curtis discovers her friends’ bodies in a bedroom before her arm is slashed by a waiting Michael Myers.

The phone calls between the killer and Hussey’s character are integral to the film, leading to its climax. SCREAM is another film associated with a phone-happy killer and whose plot hinges on dialogue between killer and potential victim, the element of the known but not known. The characters can hear the killer’s voice but never see their true face until the end. BLACK CHRISTMAS only ever hints at a solution, and the audience is left questioning the killer’s identity: unlike SCREAM there is no big reveal. BLACK CHRISTMAS also introduced the concept of the “final girl” (Hussey) which has been a staple of the horror genre ever since.
In 2006 audiences were subjected to the dreaded re-make, unwelcomed by many critics. However, despite the lack of substance, cinema-goers were treated again to a comprehensive demonstration of the slasher movie conventions audiences know and love. It could be seen as a celebration (although wrapped badly) of the original 1974 film and its influence on horror cinema.

Not only was BLACK CHRISTMAS the first slasher film but it was also by default the first Christmas slasher film, a motif that has been repeated and has given audiences some sensational (and some not so sensational) holiday horrors such as RARE EXPORTS (2010), GREMLINS (1984), CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) and SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984). There has always been this desire in cinema to transform something originally perceived as joyous and warm and turn it on its head into something terrifying and violent. Christmas is a great example, the time of year where people are supposedly content, sitting in front of warm fires, drinking overpriced gingerbread lattés. This proves too much for some, and the need to create chaos ensues. This concept can easily be interpreted as the Western world’s fear of the Other, in a guise of a monster or serial-killer trying to disrupt American culture. BLACK CHRISTMAS was released in 1974, in the midst of the Cold War, where fear of communism was rife throughout the United States. This makes sense in a society with a constantly increasing fear of the unknown which would have played a part in the creation of the entire horror genre in the first place.

As BLACK CHRISTMAS approaches a cool 45 years old, it’s time to revisit the mother of all slasher movies as the lights go up and the plastic tree is laboriously heaved down from the attic. Although, after watching this terrifying treat, viewers may want to think of an alternative place to store their Christmas decorations this year.

Originally featured on Take One http://www.takeonecff.com/2016/black-christmas