Sunday, 24 November 2013

In Fear (UK, 2013); Dir. Jeremy Lovering

Horror, perhaps more than any other, is a genre of simple pleasures. The same tried and tested formulas can be repurposed ad infinitum with a reasonable chance of decent renumeration, even in cases where a franchise should have long since succumbed to the law of diminishing returns.

For the discerning fan of horror cinema the devil is in the detail; how skilfully does a film plunder those too-familiar old tropes and, if not give the appearance of being fresh, at least demonstrate enough command of the material that the viewer doesn't think about it too much?

So to point out the influences on Jeremy Lovering's debut feature film would both spoil the plot and be somewhat glib, because there's no question that In Fear is as smartly directed piece of work that deserves an audience.

Tom (Iain De Castecker) and Lucy (Alice Englert), a young couple only a fortnight into their relationship, travel to rural Ireland for a music festival. En route to a nearby hotel they stop at a pub where Tom gets involved in a fracas with the locals although, crucially, the scenes takes place off camera and is reported to Lucy in the car after.

The hotel itself, supposedly situated somewhere amidst the remote woodland, proves impossible to find despite signs apparently pointing the way. As the pair find themselves driving in circles on the narrow roads and darkness descends frustration gives way to despair. Then the question arises of whether something, or someone, is watching them.

It's the claustrophobic weirdness of this first fifty minutes or so that really sets the film apart from similar fare. Like a video game where the player is uncertain how to proceed the narrative enters a torturous limbo with no obvious end in sight. Lovering deploys close-up camera angles  - of the sort that have only really become possible in the past decade or so with digital cameras - to draw us intimately into the couple's predicament. Doubts begin to surface about how well they really know each other and what really transpired back at the pub. We're not even certain whether the cause of their confusion is human or supernatural; the car's satnav mysteriously unable to pinpoint their location.

When the third act changes the dynamic the effect ultimately proves a little disappointing. Classical aesthetics might have deemed an explanation was necessary but with that comes a dissipation of what made this film so compelling. Don't let that detract you from watching for yourself; In Fear is still comfortably the best British horror film since Kill List.

Monday, 17 June 2013

In Search of Vanessa Howard

About eight years ago I picked up a copy of a film called ‘MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY’ (1970), a curious horror comedy about a dysfunctional family with a penchant for macabre games. Although she didn’t receive top billing it was the pretty, vivacious young actress playing the eponymous Girly who really made the piece. Her name was Vanessa Howard and she had the aura of a star.

Howard was born in Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, on 10th October 1948. Originally named Vanessa Tolhurst she was orphaned by the age of three and she and her older sister were raised by adoptive parents. Both girls were keen performers and for a time Vanessa attended the Phildene Stage School in London. According to later press sources this led her screen debut in Judy Garland's last picture, I COULD GO ON SINGING (1963), although I've never been able to conclusively identify her in the released version.

Leaving school at fifteen she declined the opportunity to join her sister at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in favour of practical experience. Her first professional job was as a dancer and singer for Clarkson Roses's Twinkle company for a summer season of a revue-style show at the seaside resort of Llandudno. Later engagements included  a brief spell with the Players' Theatre, performing in their well-renowned Old Time Music Hall, and a one-year tenure as a singer and dancer with the George Mitchell Singers (Mitchell is perhaps most infamous now as the creator of The Black and White Minstrel Show), which in turn led to some early tv appearances. 

Her breakthrough came in 1966 and the West End musical 'On the Level'. Although not a huge critical or commercial success the ambitious production, written by Ronald Millar with music by Ron Grainer, drew considerable attention and though Howard's was only a small role it led to further opportunities. A few months later she was appearing opposite David Tomlinson in a play called The Impossible Years.

On Christmas Day 1967 Howard co-starred with Cliff Richard in a musical version of Aladdin on British television;  it was the first of around a dozen major screen performances that she made over the next six years. Most of these were in relatively obscure films; creaky horrors such as ‘THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR’ (1968) alongside Peter Cushing, or as Peter Cook’s wife in the political satire ‘THE RISE AND RISE OF MICHAEL RIMMER’ (1970). Some of these have since acquired cult status, others which one could argue justly remain forgotten.

So what is it about Vanessa Howard in particular that distinguishes her from the abundance of pretty young actresses who were trying to make a living in the floundering British film scene of the late 60‘s and early 70’s? Perhaps because there’s an archness to her best performances; a subversive mischief that draws attention to itself. Unlike some of her contemporaries with similarly ephemeral careers Howard doesn’t seem content to simply gaze, pout and draw attention to her charms. Watch her in the two black comedies that could be considered her two signature parts - the aforesaid ‘... GIRLY’ and ‘WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL?’ (1972) - and there’s an awareness that it’s all just a game. A bit like the young Malcolm McDowell during the same period, Howard walks the fine line between stylised acting and hammy excess.

Sadly however Howard didn’t enjoy enormous popular and critical acclaim, nor the patronage of high-profile directors. Some of this can be attributed to plain bad luck; as the British film industry nosedived several of her more noteworthy films received little to no distribution. 

She'd met Hollywood producer Robert Chartoff around 1968, while he was based in London working on director John Boorman's LEO THE LAST (Vanessa makes the briefest of cameos in that film).  Romance blossomed, and a beguiled Chartoff left with his first wife, Phyllis Raphael, to be with her (Raphael later recounted the experience of being stranded in a strange town in a memoir: Off the King's Road). Given the professional frustrations Vanessa had experienced perhaps it’s understandable that by 1973 she decided to cut her losses and relocate to domesticity in the US. Understandable but also sad, because there are enough glimpses in her handful of roles to suggest she still had so much more to offer.

The last footage I’ve seen of Vanessa Chartoff, as she now was, is at the 49th Academy Awards in 1977, where she can briefly be glimpsed celebrating with her husband as he (and Irwin Winkler) won the Best Picture Oscar for 'ROCKY'. In later years, following her separation from Chartoff in the early eighties, Vanessa focused her energies into raising her son Charley and also became involved in programs to help divorced homemakers back into the workplace.

I’d always hoped, given the minor cult status of her films, that a latter-day interview with Vanessa might surface someday but must confess to not giving it much further thought. That was until last year when re-watching her early role as the quirky Audrey in the coming-of-age comedy 'HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH' I happened to search her name on Google and learnt that she’d died in 2010, aged just 62, due (I later discovered) to complications resulting from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Hearing of any death can be a sobering experience but what really struck me in the days and months that followed was that Vanessa Howard, or Vanessa Chartoff, or however you wish to define her, remained such an enigma to me. I’d love to write a proper tribute to a woman whose acting work I felt merited greater consideration than it’s previously received, but it’s impossible to get the full measure with so little to go by.

If you knew Vanessa Howard, either here in the UK in the earlier part of her life, or later after she settled in California, I’m very keen to hear your recollections if you’re willing to share. Please get in touch on richardhalfhide at or visit the Facebook page at the link below.

Vanessa Howard Chartoff


Monday, 22 April 2013

A Hijacking [Kapringen] (Denmark, 2012); Dir. Tobias Lindholm)

Commercial shipping is for most people an unknown behemoth, out of sight and out of mind, despite its intrinsic role in global trade. It’s due in no small part to the maritime industry’s exceptionally high safety standards; as with aviation major incidents are relatively few and far between. 

For another industry, one geared towards more vicarious pleasures, such benign subject matter usually doesn’t hold much appeal. 

That was until 2009 when an American ship, the Maersk Alabama, was hijacked off the coast of Somalia, bringing the issue of modern-day piracy into public consciousness. The story of that incident is due to be recounted in Paul Greengrass’s forthcoming Captain Phillips later this year, with Tom Hanks in the eponymous role. 

Before that there's Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking, a modest yet thoughtful Danish production which largely eschews action for a claustrophobic psychological drama. If you’re drawn into imagining scenes of trapped, desperate men uncertain of their fates who slowly forge bonds with their captors that’s really only half the story.

Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), is a young cook onboard the MV Rozen, a Danish merchant ship in the Indian Ocean, looking forward  - with predictable and caustic irony - to being reunited with his family at the end of the voyage. One can reasonably infer from the outset that Mikkel, a simple unheroic man, is not going to turn out to be an undercover special forces op like Steven Seagal’s character in Under Siege. It's not that kind of movie. In the space of a few brief scenes Lindholm deftly applies his verite style to conveying the cramped, mundane yet tranquil life on the vessel.

Switching to the plush headquarters of the Danish shipping company that owns the vessel, we’re introduced to its ice cool CEO Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling, like Asbæk he'll be familiar to some from tv drama Borgen). It's apparent from Ludvigsen's hard line during negotiations with Japanese business partners that he's a man used to being in control, so the sudden news of the Rozen's seizure by pirate presents him with a new and formidable challenge.

The decision to omit the crucial scenes of the ship's assault and capture, a result one suspects as much from financial necessity, is likely to leave some viewers feeling cheated but it’s just the first of many ellipses. When focus shifts back to the vessel the Somalis have firmly established control, locking up Mikkel and some other members of the crew; leaving the fate of others a long-unresolved mystery. We’re introduced to Omar, an English speaking Somalian himself kidnapped (or so he claims) for the purpose of acting as translator and negotiator.

One striking facet to the drama is just how measured and businesslike is the response of Ludvigsen and his company to the situation back in Denmark. It’s testament to the film’s adherence to verisimilitude that there’s no “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” hyperbole here, or even any great sense of urgency. Rather it’s a case of driving down the pirates’ demands to what constitutes acceptable losses to the business, be it human or financial. Thus begins a series of satellite phone conversations between Ludvigsen and Omar, curious in both their brevity and stilted civility.

Tension builds slowly over days, and eventually months, that follow, with Mikkel’s trauma mirrored by Ludvigsen, in his way every bit as much a prisoner. When a solution comes it’s with a bitter coda  that only serves to remind how high the stakes are in such situations.

Although a fictional tale Lindholm's commitment to realism ensures a far more credible hostage drama than most. The Rozen, hired specifically for filming, had itself been the subject of a hijacking in 2007, while some of the sailors employed to play the crew had experience of hijacking in a separate incident. Elsewhere one of the key onshore roles was played by non-actor Gary Skjoldmose-Porter, a security expert with Clipper Group who seamlessly interacts with the professional players.

Yet the starkness of Lindholm's approach is both refreshing and unsettling. We are caught in the No Man's Land between two paradigms: the human and the corporate. The deeper social repercussions concerning corporate responsibility and the underlying causes of Somali piracy aren't explored, which is both frustrating and strangely admirable. Perhaps that's also an uncomfortable truth about our utilitarian age.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The White Sheik [Lo sceicco bianco] (Italy, 1952); Dir. Federico Fellini

Had it been made later in his career one surmises that Fellini's The White Sheik might have more closely resembled the picture it partially inspired: Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo (1984). Both films share a common theme of an unassuming woman being fleetingly transported into a fantasy world of romance and adventure before an inevitable withdrawal back to reality.

As it is this is a fairly restrained directorial debut from the Maestro, albeit with plenty of hints of what was to come. The story centres around newlywed couple Wanda (Brunella Bovo) and Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste), who have arrived at a hotel in Rome for their honeymoon. Whilst the punctilious, petit-bourgois Ivan enthuses about their packed itinerary and meeting with his relatives, Wanda is more concerned with the opportunity to meet try and the star of her favourite Arabian Nights-inspired fumetti* - the eponymous 'White Sheik' - and promptly absconds in pursuit of her idol.

No sooner has Wanda arrived at the serial's production office and explained her desire to meet the Sheik (she's even drawn a picture of him) than she's whisked off to take part in filming his next adventure. Meanwhile a frantic Ivan attempts to discover what's become of his wife whilst trying to conceal the facts from his relatives, who are are anxious to meet her. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Ivan's uncle has arranged for them to meet the Pope and have their marriage blessed the following day.

Taken to a beach where scenes for the photo-story are being shot, Wanda is introduced to the whirling, carnivalesque world of a production, where fantasy and reality grow increasingly blurred; it's unmistakably Fellini territory, if not yet with the polish of Otto e Mezzo. But her enchantment with the Sheik becomes all the more baffling when we finally meet him. Portrayed by Alberto Sordi , who would go on to become Italy's most popular comedy actor, he's not so much a second rate Rudy Valentino as bargain basement; his podgy features being a far cry from most people's idea of a romantic hero. And yet the Sheik appears beguiled by Wanda and - as she falls deeper into the illusion's seduction - the pair set off to sea together in a tiny sail boat, much to the dismay of the crew.

Disillusion arrives abruptly when they return to shore and Wanda is 'introduced' to the Sheik's battleaxe of a wife; it transpires he's more serial philanderer than serial hero and his other half is less than enamored with the young hussy who's caught his eye. As the production wraps and the crew head off a distraught Wanda is left to make her own way home.

In Allen's film - set against a backdrop of Depression-era America - the effect is tragicomic; Mia Farrow's character Cecilia, broken and disappointed, retreats back into the illusion of the cinema to avoid an uncertain future. By contrast Fellini's contemporary film was made during the dawning of the Italian economic miracle; Ivan's relatives are keen to show him all the sights of the renaissant capital and optimism is a striking contrast to that of the Neorealist movement which was already drawing towards a close. Superficially at least the conclusion is an optimistic one, with the reunited Wanda, Ivan and his relatives heading to the Vatican for their meeting with the Pope.

Yet haven't Ivan's frantic attempts to keep up appearances and make the engagement only papered over the cracks? Like Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross at the end of The Graduate there's a caustic irony in their closing glances that suggests the future of the relationship is less than rosy.

*'Fumetti', is the Italian term for comics; it literally means "little puffs of smoke" after the speech balloons commonly used.  Whilst traditional illustrated comics found a readership amongst children, the late forties saw the emergence of magazines featuring which used sequences of still photographs instead. These 'photoromanzi', which typically told epic love stories and were roughly analogous with soap operas, were hugely popular with Italian women right through to the eighties.

Mr Deeds Goes to Town (US, 1936, Dir. Frank Capra)

Most people with a passing awareness of film history will have at least heard of Frank Capra, but perhaps not all will appreciate just what an exalted status the director had in 1930's Hollywood. Before the likes of Welles, Hitchcock or Sturges had truly emerged, and long before film writers began scrutinising the output of Howard Hawks and John Ford, Capra enjoyed a standing unseen since the heyday of DW Griffith.

This was due in no small part to the enormous success of his seminal screwball comedy It Happened One Night, the top grossing film of 1934 and the first to ever pick up all five major Oscars. It swelled Capra's pockets and his ego, allowing him unprecedented leverage with his studio Columbia (hereafter his name would appear above the title), but with the expectation he could deliver more of the same.

For their follow-up Capra and his regular collaborator Robert Riskin eventually settled on a serialised story called Opera Hat, by the prolific author Clarence Budington Kelland. Given that Budington, who would later dabble in politics, was an ardent conservative and critic of Roosevelt's New Deal it's ironic that Riskin's script would espouse an economic policy that draws obvious parallels with that of FDR. But by all accounts the writer only took the bare bones of the original premise: that of a simple country man (Gary Cooper) who suddenly finds himself the reluctant inheritor of his late uncle's $20m fortune.

Naturally not everyone is best pleased that this yokel has his hands on unfathomable riches, particularly when it becomes apparent to his legal advisors that he may not be the malleable puppet they'd hoped for and begins making rather radical plans to redistribute his wealth amongst the poor. He also draws the attention of a savvy reporter (Jean Arthur) who makes a play for his affections in ruthless pursuit of an exclusive only to fall under the spell of his bashful whimsy.

It seems that Cooper was Capra's first and only choice for the eponymous Longfellow Deeds and it's hard to imagine any leading man, even James Stewart, who could have embodied the hero's gauche, straight-talking decency to such captivating effect. Cooper's unique quality was an ability to turn his limitations as an actor into an asset; his physical stature and chiselled looks may be imposing but his brittleness translates into fragility. To see his moral convictions shattered by a manipulative, cynical world is a painful experience.

Events culminate in a court hearing in which Deeds, whose sanity has been called into question by his former lawyers and another claimant to his uncle's estate, must prove he's compos mentis and regain his faith in humanity. It's a rousing if contrived finale.

In his commentary track for the dvd reissue of the film Frank Capra Jr suggests his father felt compelled to raise questions about his own success, and the egregious excess of Hollywood in general, in a period when regular working Americans were undergoing great hardship. One could observe there were probably more constructive ways of addressing this than making it the subtext of a film. What's more even if we were to take it as a rallying cry for social reform it leaves unanswered questions; we never see the final result of Deeds' radical ideas and by the conclusion he might be perceived as dangerously akin to a demagogue.

Capra would return to these themes in the other films in this triptych, Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and perhaps most provocatively Meet John Doe (1941). In the latter film, in which Cooper again becomes the unwitting champion of the common man, the director comes close to intimating that beneath the crowd-pleasing sentiments he may have felt greater ambivalence towards the masses than is generally held.