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For Those in Peril (The Scottish Connection #3)

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Winner of Scottish BAFTA for Best Film and a BIFA (British Independent Film Award) for Best Debut Director, Paul Wright’s For Those in Peril was premiered at Cannes in 2013 as part of the Critics’ Week strand and also screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival where it was also warmly received. The Hollywood Reporter later described it as ‘hauntingly atmospheric’ while Variety declared it ‘A visually arresting poetic reverie.’

A version of the following review was originally published here in March 2014.

For Those in Peril Quad

Filmed entirely in the isolated coastal village of Gourdon in Aberdeenshire with the North Sea as its backdrop, the film is an often bleak, even harrowing watch, but also a worthwhile one and its good points undoubtedly outweigh any flaws.

Aaron, played by rising star George MacKay, is a young misfit and the sole survivor of a tragic fishing boat accident that saw his brother Michael (Jordan Young) perish along with four young crewmates in circumstances that are never fully explained and which Aaron has no memory of.

This is the kind of village where if you aren’t employed on a trawler then it’s likely you work in a factory gutting the latest catch and, of course, everyone is devastated by the five deaths, none more so than Aaron and his mother Cathy, played by the always excellent Kate Dickie (Red Road & Prometheus).

Gradually, though, sections of the community begin to turn against Aaron and treat him as a pariah, although he does, crucially, receive support from Jane (Nichola Burley) the onetime intended fiancé of Michael, which infuriates her belligerent father (Michael Smiley).

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On occasion Aaron’s behaviour doesn’t help matters and even without the post-traumatic anguish, he would still clearly lack the kind of easy going self-confidence and ability to socialise displayed by his brother, who appears repeatedly in flashback. Had Michael been the one who’d survived, he would never have been as naive and tactless to plead with a local fisherman to let him get back to sea on his boat without thinking to mention the man’s own loss, his son being one of the deceased.

Even so, it is hard to comprehend why so many of the villagers aren’t more sympathetic towards Aaron’s plight.

This is the type of community usually lauded as close-knit. It might display few signs of being part of the 21st Century world but in the age of the internet and TV shows that openly discuss the kind of issues that Aaron (and presumably others) are bound to be experiencing, it remains a mystery why no one bar his doctor seems to be familiar with the idea of survivor guilt.

Perhaps the story would have worked better if it had been set at least three or four decades earlier, though I should point out that Wright did research comparable real-life incidents, speaking with people affected by loss and he has explained that the animosity is due to the character being a constant reminder of those who didn’t survive, a kind of ‘walking ghost.’

Wright, incidentally, was himself born and brought up in a remote spot on the east coast of Scotland where the mythology of the ocean was relayed to him as a child, although the bedtime fable that Aaron fixates on – recited to him in childhood by Cathy – about a devilish monster living at the bottom of the sea that curses the town and eats all its little children is an amalgam of myths and superstitions from around Europe.

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A number of filmic approaches are utilised by Wright to plunge the audience into the increasingly disturbed state of Aaron’s mind: we see a collage of old Super 8 films and home videos of himself and Michael growing up, and more recent footage shot presumably on a mobile phone along with pixelated TV news reports.

Likewise, sound design is vital to Wright, another layer he uses imaginatively to reflect the mental imbalance of Aaron – his voice-overs are interweaved with snippets of anonymous dialogue that might belong to villagers or possibly come via radio vox pops, there’s some intriguing choral music too. Wright works with contrasts, distorted noises together with clean, sometimes even beautiful sounds, and the whole sensory experience is often disjointed and contradictory.

This is a singular and, in places, a very effective technique.

Another area where Wright excels is with his actors and he coaxes some exceptional performances from them. Some scenes will linger long in the memory. Cathy’s turn at a local karaoke night is utterly believable and almost unbearably poignant as she dedicates The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face to her ‘boys’ and then struggles to complete the song.

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As with many first-time film-makers, influences aren’t always difficult to detect and here the debt to Terrence Malick is conspicuous. Additionally, the subject matter brings to mind one of Wright’s favourite films, Nic Roeg’s masterful study of grief, Don’t Look Now, while one scene in which children don masks and parade along the high street as part of some local gala day tradition recalls the film that was originally paired with Don’t Look Now in cinema double bills – The Wickerman. And this procession has a wonderful twist that certainly took me by surprise.

For Those in Peril won’t be to everyone’s taste. It is self-consciously experimental at times and lacks the narrative drive that is generally expected in a modern-day movie. The story’s daring ending, too, will likely divide viewers. There’s a number of ways that it can be read; magic realism, surrealism, as a poetic and allegorical dream or even as an extraordinary piece of realism, but it failed to entirely convince me.

I’ll predict here that Wright will go on to make better feature films but as debuts go, For Those in Peril is a very promising start to his career and an impressive industry calling card.

Update: George Mackay stars in The Secret of Marrowbone, the directorial debut from Sergio G Sánchez, which will be premiered as part of the European Perspectives Strand at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival.

For more information click here.

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Soundtrack Sundays #3: Tangerine Dream – Sorcerer

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While promoting The Exorcist in West Germany, director William Friedkin was introduced to Edgar Froese after being recommended to take in a Tangerine Dream show performed in an abandoned church in the Black Forest.

Despite the band having never scored a movie before, Friedkin asked them to have a go at doing so for his next film. Although at this point he had no specific idea on what his next film would be.

On the 40th anniversary bluray release of Sorcerer there’s a very informative and often highly amusing extra – Nicolas Winding Refn (yep, that man again) interviewing Friedkin. Here the American director speaks of being inspired by the music and how he first heard it while filming in the Dominican Republic. ‘It was mean and tough and rhythmic and powerful. What I had expected. No sentimentality.’

He cut the film to the music, and it proved absolutely integral to the project. Later, he wrote in his liner notes for the Sorcerer album that if he’d heard Tangerine Dream sooner he would have asked them to score The Exorcist. A tantalising thought.

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As sonic backdrops go, this is one of the best, an impeccably-crafted and mesmerizing accompaniment of chilly synths with that pulsing sound that Tangerine Dream perfected and which has remained influential to this day. It provides in some ways an unexpected heartbeat to the story – the music on its own suggests the autobahns of Germany or big city American streets late at night rather than the twisting, remote roads of the inhospitable jungle region where much of the movie is set.

It certainly ramps up the tension as the four lead characters undertake a high-risk journey, carrying a cargo of unstable dynamite – due to storage problems the nitroglycerin is prone to leakage, meaning any sharp movement could set it off. Not a comforting thought for anybody driving it through such a treacherous terrain.

While Sorcerer the film failed to win over too many admirers on its initial release, the soundtrack album went on to become one of Tangerine Dream’s biggest successes, spending seven weeks on the British album charts, where it peaked at #25.

It’s often been suggested that Sorcerer failed at the box office due to it being released at the same time as Star Wars but I doubt that tells the full story.

As I mentioned on here a few weeks ago, in the 1970s movies weren’t released the way they are today.

Annoyingly in Britain, American films would take maybe around six months to make their way across the Atlantic and when they did finally arrive here, even a potential blockbuster like Star Wars wouldn’t open and blitz cinema screens across the length and breadth of the country like today.

Instead, big releases would open in a select few London cinemas where they would play for a number of weeks before rolling out to other screens in London as well as other towns and cities, although even at this point, screenings would be initially limited to a single cinema chain.

Again using Star Wars as an example, when Lucas’ pop culture phenomenon eventually opened in Glasgow at the tail-end of January 1978, it was originally shown at only one cinema, the Odeon in Renfield Street.

So people like me with no interest in Star Wars had a big choice of alternatives on offer. And did filmgoers desperate to see the film somehow decide if it wasn’t playing locally that nothing else would do?

Other films like The Deep (which was the second highest grossing film in the States when released on these shores) seemed to perform well enough at the British box office.

At my local picture house incidentally, there was choice between Crime Busters and Mayday 40,000 ft. No I don’t remember any of these but they might well be better films than Star Wars.

Sorcerer certainly is. And I’ll also take some hypnotic and futuristic Tangerine Dream synth soundscapes over John William’s throwback score any time.

I reckon the main problem with Sorcerer was the lack of star names in the cast. Okay, still relatively fresh from the massive success of Jaws, Roy Scheider enjoyed a high reputation at the time but he didn’t open films. The other three main characters were unknowns by American (or British) standards.

Friedkin had originally offered the part of Jackie Scanlon to Steve McQueen, who loved the script but didn’t want to leave his new wife Ally McGraw for an extended period to shoot the film abroad. Having one of the world’s biggest stars in a lead role would have helped commercially although my guess would be that artistically, Roy Scheider was pretty much perfect for the part.

Another problem is that, even the standards of the 1970s, Sorcerer is bleak and the four main characters are deeply flawed to the extent that it’s difficult to imagine audiences strongly identifying with any of them.

Scanlon’s background is that of a New Jersey mobster; Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is a coldblooded Mexican hitman; Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is a crooked French stockbroker; while Kassem (Amidou) has just taken part in a bombing of innocent civilians in Jerusleum.

Another problem is the multi-language prologue of the film, where subtitles are used extensively. Not something that certain sections of the public ever seem happy about.

William Friedkin considers Sorcerer his finest work. If you’ve never seen it, I’d advise you to seek it out.

For more on Tangerine Dream: http://www.tangerinedream.org/

Nightbirds & The Neon Demon

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Nightbirds & The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon (2015) Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Nightbirds (1970) Director: Andy Milligan

In his foreword to the BFI Flipside’s release of Andy Milligan’s Nightbirds, Nicolas Winding Refn wrote about coming across Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough’s collection of Milligan film materials on eBay. This haul included many very rare prints, including the sole surviving copy of Nightbirds.

The Danish director forked out $25,000 for the lot.

Refn and Milligan are very different filmmakers and I was a little surprised when I discovered NWR was such a fan. Refn’s movies are as glossy as Milligan’s are grungey. When Refn actors speak, their words tend to be sparse and sometimes enigmatic while Milligan characters are verbose and their dialogue is exposition heavy. Refn employs Hollywood royalty like Ryan Gosling and Keanu Reeves while Milligan tended to utilize friends and contacts from his early off-off Broadway theatre days.

Dubbed ‘Times Square’s Militant Auteur’ by Bill Landis, who devoted a whole chapter to him in his book Sleazoid Express, Milligan was amazingly prolific, punting out a movie every couple of months during his heyday. Despite being associated with New York’s 42nd Street scuzzy grindhouse circuit, he did make a move to London in the late 1960s. Here he shot five films in a period of a year and a half.

The first of the batch was Nightbirds, which until salvaged by Refn had largely been forgotten. It only made its debut on DVD/Blu-ray in 2012 on the always interesting Flipside label.

Nightbirds was shot in 1968 but this was far from the Swinging London of Carnaby Street and Chelsea’s King’s Road. Set in the East End around Spittalfields – an area where Jack the Ripper once operated – this resembles Bronco Bullfrog and Up the Junction rather than the pop art paradises of the capital often portrayed around this time. Smashing Time here? Not very likely.

Dink (Berwick Kaler) is a hapless and homeless twenty year old man. When we first see him, he’s disoriented, staggering down a street. Soon he is puking openly but rather than ignoring him, passer-by Dee (Julie Shaw) tries to help. Good looking and with a verging on posho accent, she takes him to a local cafe and then back to her uber-dingy bedsit. This must be Dink’s lucky day. Later he even describes her as ‘a Florence Nightingale of the streets’ but it doesn’t take too long before we discover that she might have ulterior motives.

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Almost inevitably, a relationship ensues. This will be one of the most lopsided cinematic couplings I’ve ever come across. Dee is dominant in every conceivable way. She’s more sexually experienced than Dink and she’s smarter too. She’s also as manipulative as Dink is vulnerable and this points to a possible reason why she should choose him. He’s also naive to the point of being childlike for much of the time. A perfect victim.

To some extent, this relationship parallels the friendship between Ruby (Jena Malone) and Jesse (Elle Fanning) in The Neon Demon. Both Dee and Ruby display a vampiric viciousness when they fail to get their own way.

Nightbirds didn’t polarize critics. Critics never got to see it. Milligan’s work generally was often seen as a joke, unintentionally funny at best. Stephen King once went as far to dismiss The Ghastly Ones as ‘the work of morons with cameras.’

The Neon Demon also attracted plenty of flak from reviewers. The Daily Mail wanted the British Board of Film Classification to take action on the ‘sadistic horror show,’ calling it: ‘rancid, pretentious and downright creepy.’

You might reckon that would be the perfect recommendation to go out and see it for yourself but many liberal publications despised it just as much. According to the Observer it was ‘dumbfoundingly awful’ and Refn couldn’t direct traffic.

No mention of his great eye for composition or his startling use of super saturated colours – Only God Forgives from 2013 must be the ‘reddest’ movie since Dario Argento shot Suspiria – or his ability to conjure up an unforgettable scene: a mountain lion leaping around a cheap Pasadena motel, some stomach churning moments in a mortuary and the notorious shot involving an eyeball.

And could any other director have coaxed a better performance from Elle Fanning?

On balance, the Observer review somehow managed to be even more ludicrous than the Mail’s. At least the latter got it right with its ‘downright creepy’ description.

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The Neon Demon is set in a world of equally narcissistic and superficial young women with the personality of automatons, all chiselled cheekbones and the kind of cadaverous bodies that look like they could do with a good plate of sausage, egg and chips.

‘I would never call you fat,’ Christina Hendricks, playing an demented but influential agent, tells Jesse during an early audition. ‘Others might, but I never would.’ This is surely both a very pointed putdown of the whole vacuous fashion industry and a comment on the real life, bizarre idea that Christina Hendricks is a chubster.

As I’ve written on here before when I chose the film in my 2017 Best Films of the Year list, agency heads and high end photographers uniformly adore Jesse and the more she is fêted the more she lets the flattery go to her pretty little head. Her looks, though, attract just as much jealousy as praise – rather than an exploitation film this is a film about exploitation. Mainly of Jesse.

Macabre and menacing, haunting and hypnotic, The Neon Demon is a far better piece of work than Milligan’s movie.

Discussing the merits of Nightbirds in the film’s commentary, Berwick Kaler noted: ‘It’s weird. It doesn’t really say much. It’s not that exciting but it sort of grips you.’ He’s certain that with more time and more money at his disposal, Milligan could have significantly improved Nightbirds.

I would guess he’s right. Maybe Milligan just tried to do too much himself and was unable to listen to advice. For his films he would generally write the scripts, cast the actors, scout locations, direct, assemble the soundtrack and edit. Even the outfits credit for Raffine is a reference to the boutique he owned back home in Staten Island. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he did his own catering but apparently he would send out for sandwiches between takes.

Oh the glamour of micro-budget filmmaking.

What unites Milligan and Refn is the fact that they both developed idiosyncratic directing styles early in their careers. In that aforementioned foreword, Refn speaks of how when you watch any of Milligan’s work you’re in no doubt whose film you’re watching and how he might not have been a conventional talent but how being unique is actually always more interesting.

Nightbirds is admittedly a tough watch at times. The sound is sometimes choppy, and the music selected by Milligan is never anywhere near appropriate. Kaler and Shaw put in decent, naturalistic performances but some of the other actors are amateurish. At times it closely resembles a play that’s been filmed.

During a 2015 interview with the Daily Grindhouse, Refn mentioned that he would be transferring his Milligan films to 4K and planned to bring more of his oeuvre back into circulation. Despite my reservations, I’ll likely seek some of these out. I’m sure any movie with a name like The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! or Fleshpot on 42nd Street can’t be any worse than the tsunami of summer blockbuster dross about to clog up my local multiplex.

For more on Nightbirds: http://www.bfi.org.uk/blu-rays-dvds/nightbirds