Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Take Shelter

Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, and Shea Whigham

Director: Jeff Nichols

121 minutes (15) 2011
Second Sight Blu-ray region B 

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary  

Jeff Nichols’ second feature, Take Shelter is basically a psycho-chiller about one man’s fall into madness. Working-class dad Curtis (Michael Shannon, The Runaways biopic, and star of director Nichols’ debut Shotgun Stories) lives in a small-town in Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar, Miss Sloan, Molly’s Game), and his daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) - who needs an expensive operation to fix her deafness. 

Curtis begins suffering apocalyptic nightmares of escalating weirdness: yellowy rain, freaky storms, a dog attack, poltergeist activity or alien visitation, and what could be viewed as zombies. He wakes up one morning having wet the bed, but he’s still too ashamed to tell Sam about his dreams. Their family doctor prescribes mild sedatives, and refers Curtis to a psychiatrist in the city but, knowing that his wife would find his absence too suspicious, Curtis agrees to see a local counsellor instead.

Following a panic attack at work, Curtis frets about the paranoid schizophrenia which afflicted his mother, decades ago. He fears that his delusions or hallucinations - which are all psychological horrors, so far - are proof that he’s inherited his mother’s illness. Sam thinks Curtis has gone crazy when he starts digging up their backyard to extend an old tornado shelter into a survival bunker. She doesn’t know about the bad dreams until Curtis has a seizure in his sleep. Once she’s heard about his nightmares and understood his fears about mental health, Sam is level-headed and remains loyal, although she struggles to cope with his bizarre behaviour, and worries about how this may affect young Hannah.

The eerie story reaches its big emotional climax when Curtis is confronted by a former workmate with a score to settle, and the argument unleashes a public outburst by Curtis, ranting a dire warning to the Lions Club community of local families. As if to prove him right later, rather than sooner, there are sirens wailing and Curtis leads his wife and kid into the relative safety of their new shelter. The family sleep through a tornado, but “what if it’s not over?” worries Curtis. It’s the first of many what-ifs that punctuate this drama.

Like a scaled-down indie version of Alex Proyas’ Knowing (2009), Take Shelter lacks grandly spectacular visions of inexplicable disaster, but it more than makes up for that with its mix of real world anxieties (unemployment and recession descend upon Curtis and his family), and the sheer oddness of a gloomy fable about the potential terrors of any sudden climate change. However, Take Shelter is nothing like Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow (2004). On the genre spectrum, it’s much closer to Larry Fessenden’s excellent The Last Winter (2006), especially when, unsurprisingly, it finishes with an IOU for its end-of-days scenario. 

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Lake Placid: Legacy

Cast: Katherine Barrell, Tim Rozon, and Sai Bennett

Director: Darrell Roodt

89 minutes (15) 2018
Sony DVD Region 2

Rating: 6/10
Review by Jeff Young

A consistently amusing Hollywood monster movie, Lake Placid (1999) was about a giant crocodile, discovered in quiet waters, whose rather unsettling and ultimately man-eating presence proved to be typically stifling in US rural setting, and it enlivens the otherwise routine lives of a mixed group of scientists, park rangers, and local lawmen, all trying to catch it or kill it. A-list stars Bill Pullman and Bridget Fonda are quite amiable leads, and the picture’s special effects were outstanding for such obviously B-movie exploitation material. Although the entertaining adventure unfolded with blatantly formulaic rules and it eventually succumbs to a predictable ending, lots of situations offered a delightful blend of horror and humour with a commendable lightness of touch. The original is well worth hunting down if you want likeably brainless fun that won’t disappoint a family audience.

TV-movie sequels followed with diminishing returns: Lake Placid 2 (2007), Lake Placid 3 (2010), and Lake Placid: The Final Chapter (2012), followed by Lake Placid vs. Anaconda (2015), and the latest addition to this busy franchise, Lake Placid: Legacy (2018). Shot in South Africa, this misadventure claims to follow directly on from events of the original feature, but without including any of the Bickermans, the family whose actions linked the previous movies together. It is nevertheless competent as a monster movie about a 50-foot beast with routinely annoying kids that go trespassing in a clearly quarantined area where the giant, man-eating croc lives.

They find a bunker complex, seemingly abandoned 20 years ago, and then descend quite recklessly into darkened tunnels of the giant creature’s lair. Minotaur maze mythology is touted by allegorical subtext and then flaunted by reference in dialogue, just in case any viewers missed its subgenre relevance. There’s a frantic search for a way out, and any exit will do while misfortunes jinx or dog even their most promising escape routes, and tensions increase to fragment any cooperation between the desperate survivors.

A directorial focus upon characters and their various interactions, with sisterly mutual dependence in marked contrast against macho rivalry of buddies, sadly inhibits much genuine suspense here, so that rather too much of this plays like an urban exploration drama of endurance gone wrong, boasting a few slasher movie thrills (complete with ‘final girls’) that distinguish the mayhem of its explosive climax. Joe Pantoliano appears in a pivotal sequence to explain the corporate back-story elements. Special effects for the dinosaur hybrid creation are pretty good, although the film-makers do tend to rely upon concealing shadows and low-lighting to mask any flaws in these visuals.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

The King

Cast: Elvis Presley, Alec Baldwin, and Rosanne Cash

Director: Eugene Jarecki

107 minutes (15) 2017
Dogwoof DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

Anyone can be Elvis. A white jumpsuit with flares and a rhinestone cape. Slur Can’t Help Falling In Love over the karaoke backing-track wearing a big black fake quiff, a curl of the lip, and an ‘Uh-Huh, thanyew very much.’ We can all be Elvis. Except – of course, that we can’t. Elvis was simultaneously a charismatic human being and ‘a mysterious unknowable person,’ as well as being one of the most instantly identifiable icons of our time. 

Elvis Presley straddles the tumultuous post-war decades of traumatic change in a way that continues well beyond his 1977 death. Writers and academics Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick rationalise and contextualise it all in ways that Elvis himself never could. And here he’s made over into a metaphor for America itself. An embodiment of the American story. ‘Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?’ asks Jack Kerouac. Paul Simon, a far more intellectual and articulate artist than Elvis ever was, ‘walked off to look for America,’ by way of Graceland.

Film-maker Eugene Jarecki uses Elvis as lodestone for a personal quest to hunt out the lost destiny of America on the eve of the Trump disaster. He uses Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce for the ride, with its Tennessee plate 2C-9279, relaxing into the back-seat upholstery, musing in a kind of awe that ‘the King sat in this car.’ ‘I thought he only drove American cars?’ queries Emmylou Harris, obviously thinking of the Cadillacs that Elvis was in the habit of giving away to strangers. John Hiatt sings the Neil Young line about ‘the King is gone but he’s not forgotten,’ and then gets emotional in the back seat of the Rolls.

The road-trip starts at the shotgun Tupelo shack where Elvis Aaron was born, and where he still shakes the money-maker. ‘Elvis, Elvis, Elvis, that’s all that Tupelo has thrived on. That’s the only thing keeping it alive’ complains one disgruntled resident. And downtown Tupelo where the dirt-po’ white-trash Presley family lived on the racial divide of the black neighbourhood. A time of the America Dream. And an American Nightmare of segregation and Ku Klux Klan lynchings. ‘The American Dream was always someone’s fantasy, and someone else’s drunken nightmare.’ The film splices anecdote, guitars, opinion, rhetoric, analysis and movement. American music, and by extension, global 20th century music, charts the interaction of black and white strands, from the very first shellac record by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, through Bix Beiderbecke, Scott Joplin’s Ragtime, Robert Johnson at the Blues crossroad, into Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. A fusion… or cultural appropriation, depending on your viewpoint, in the great American democratic experiment founded on the genocide of its native peoples and built by slavery.

Then across the Memphis City Limits where all those southern traditions come together, B.B. King, Martin Luther King, plus the King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll. But also Stax, ‘Soulsville USA’ and Aretha. Jarecki follows young Elvis from the ‘Lauderdale Courts’ social housing project – which is now on the tourist trail, to the Assembly Of God Church where he heard Gospel and the gospel, to Hume High School. Then to Sun Studios where Elvis – the skinny, broke, Momma’s boy, by turns confused and humble, cut That’s Alright Mama. The echo is still there. I could feel it as I paced that same studio floor. Sam Phillips story has been multiply told. Yes, Elvis took from Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, and Big Mama Thornton’s sophisticated bitching on the original Hound Dog, the forbidden music he hunted out on Beale Street and black radio stations. But he equally took from Bill Monroe’s bluegrass country Blue Moon Of Kentucky.

He was the perfect fusion of both. Philips’ incarnation of the white man with a black soul, totally intuitive, as natural as breathing. Unconsciously, unintentionally, unaware, he was spirit of the times, the personification of a revolution sweeping the nation… and then the world. On the chaos theory principle, he was the ripple that became the tsunami. What did he want? ‘if you’re not happy, what have you got?’ he rhetorically parries an early interviewer. It’s doubtful if he ever achieved that ambition. Instead, Colonel Tom Parker, the Ultimate Carny Barker, pulled ‘the temptation of Christ by the Devil’ scam, the Faustian Pact that monetised and destroyed him. With Elvis as ‘King Kong’ – captured, tamed and exhibited.

King Kong (1933) is accused of being a racist movie. And Elvis meant shit to Chuck D. Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, and Muhammad Ali put their celebrity on the line for social issues. Elvis never did. Except by example. When he jokily TV-announces Long Tall Sally as ‘by my friend Little Richard. I’ve never met him, but he’s my friend,’ he was normalising respect, that Black Lives Matter. He denied that In The Ghetto was about a black victim of the system, by recalling the poverty of his own beginnings. Hunger has no colour. ‘America has ruled the world with the moving image’ observes a perceptive Mike Myers. With clips of protest, Vietnam, race riots, and news talking-heads illustrating the tale alongside bites from the semi-autobiographical Loving You (1957), the brooding King Creole (1958) and then the family-fun G.I. Blues (1960). Elvis went into the army as James Dean – it says, and came back as John Wayne.

From New York the Rolls drives to Detroit, motor-city where Motown records aimed not to be an R&B label, but the ‘Sound Of Young America’. And where, post-collapse, Eminem takes cultural appropriation into Rap. No-one draws parallels between 8 Mile (2002) and Jailhouse Rock (1957), but they’re there. Then down Route 66 with the Handsome Family, to Hollywood. From the 1968 ‘TV Comeback Special’, to Las Vegas – the ‘radioactive mutation of capitalism’ according to Myers. Through the Greed Is Good years. Elvis with Nixon. Auctioning the triple-Elvis Flaming Star (1960) Warhol print. Elvis commodified, merchandised, bought and sold, over and over. In another unscripted metaphor, even the Rolls breaks down. ‘If Elvis is your metaphor for America, we’re about to OD.’

‘Let’s make America great again. America is great when America does great things,’ the movie voice-overs. Trump’s election is a conundrum. Evidence of a loss of national confidence. From the vibrant violent optimistic opening-up of the Elvis years – the 1950s and 1960s, to a retreat into some mythical past. What does that mean for the state of the nation now? At the time of the record’s release, I resented Elvis remaking Mickey Newbury’s wistfully nostalgic American Trilogy into a jingoistic epic of bombast. Yet strangely it comes close to being a statement of his own belief, and when he sings the line ‘hush little baby, don’t you cry, you know your daddy’s bound to die, all my trials, Lord, will soon be over’ it still have the power to break hearts. If Elvis naively believed in the American rags-to-riches Dream, it’s because his trajectory is its embodiment. Post 9/11 and post-Obama, maybe Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs now perform that function? But no-one can be Elvis, no-one other than Elvis Aaron Presley can ever be that.