Sunday 7 December 2014

Le Fear 2: Le Sequel

Director: Jason Croot
Producer: Jason Croot
Cast: Kyri Saphiris, Seye Adelekan, Hadrian Mekki
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener

Le Fear 2: Le Sequel is, not unexpectedly, a sequel to Jason Croot’s previous feature Le Fear, but it functions as a stand-alone film, being merely the next attempt by woebegotten indie film-maker Carlos Rivalos to direct a horror film. (The fictional) Le Fear was his 21st film; (the fictional) Le Sequel is his 22nd. Rivalos is the only shared character in both films.

Now here comes the bad news. At a micro-budget level, the hardest genre to make is comedy (well, possibly musical would be harder – I’m not sure anyone’s ever tried that). Most of the low-budget indie comedies I’ve been sent have failed to generate a single laugh in this office – and sadly, Le Fear 2: Le Sequel maintains that tradition. I could see it was trying to be funny. A lot of the situations could, on paper, be described as ‘wacky’ or ‘zany’. But not a single smile cracked my face throughout the entire 90 minutes. And I’m not some sourpuss grumpypants; I really wanted to enjoy the film. But it just doesn’t work.

I have previously identified the subgenre of the ‘recursive mockumentary’: real films about the making of fake films. Examples include Mark WithersBare Naked Talent aka Hardcore: A Poke into the Adult Film Orifice, Keith Wright’s Take Me to Your Leader and Steve Lawson’s Just for the Record. I’m sure there are many others. Le Sequel sits on the border of that subgenre because although it’s shot in a handheld, fly-on-the-wall, shaky-cam style, it’s not actually presented as a documentary. Rather like The Thick of It or Arrested Development or any number of modern sitcoms, the visual impression given is that there is a camera crew documenting these people’s lives, but there very obviously isn’t an actual camera crew within the reality of the show.

That’s not a problem. The problem largely lies with Croot’s decision to work without a script. Improvisation, whether on screen or on stage, often sounds like a good idea. We don’t need to write a script, we don’t need to learn a script, we can just wing it. The problem is that, unless you are an absolute top-level comedy genius, or prepared to work incredibly hard, improvised films tend to be, frankly, a bit shit. Hardcore (which was good) and Just for the Record (which was dire, despite the presence of talented, experienced actors) were both scripted, so not directly comparable.

Take Me to Your Leader however was completely improvised by the cast around Keith Wright’s basic plot structure, and that works. But it only works because Wright shot 80 hours of footage and distilled it down to 80 minutes of film. That’s the sort of ratio you need to work with in order for a film like this to succeed. That’s not 78 hours and 40 minutes of alternative takes, that’s vast quantities of hard work simply junked: entire scenes, entire subplots, whole characters. Making an improvised film is vastly more labour-intensive for the cast, crew (especially the editor!) and director, and requires a ruthlessness unequalled in the artistic sphere: a willingness to kill one’s own babies that makes Sophie’s Choice look like picking a starter in Pizza Hut.

It’s clear that some of Croot’s cast have developed characters and can effectively improvise them in the situations they’re given. That doesn’t mean what they say or do is funny of course. As explained above, improvisation has a high signal to noise ratio and only a very small amount of what is filmed will ever be good enough to keep. I found an interview with Croot wherein he says that he shot 24 hours of footage (over six days). And that’s simply not enough to fashion a watchable film of this type. And it shows.

Carlos Rivalos himself is played by Kyri Saphiris (Eva’s Diamond). It’s not clear why the character has a Spanish name; Saphiris himself is a Londoner with a Cypriot Greek background and as such Rivalos neither looks nor sounds Spanish. Now I’m frankly confused by Saphiris’ performance. He’s clearly a decent actor, but on the face of it he seems to be terrible at improvising. His dialogue is full of erms and ers and simply repeating what the other person has just said. All hesitation and repetition. He’d be utterly useless on Just a Minute. But given the quality of the actor’s performance (in terms of maintaining a character and delivering his ‘lines’) and his experience, I’m left wondering whether this is how he has chosen to play Rivalos (chosen, presumably, in the previous film).

Whatever, the effect is the same. The central character’s dialogue doesn’t sound natural, it sounds like the actor is stalling for time while trying to think of something to say. It’s exactly what you don’t want in a film like this. Some of the other actors also display this tendency and the scenes they share can be painful, along the lines of: “Er, it’s the wrong size.” “It’s the wrong size?” “Er, yeah. It’s sort of…” “So it’s the wrong size?” “Erm, yeah.” “Right. Yeah. It needs to be, what, er, smaller?” “Yeah, erm. Smaller.” (Not actual dialogue, but you get the idea.)

Let’s turn our attention now to the actual story, a word I choose carefully because I think it would be misleading to use ‘plot’. Rivalos approaches South African investor Dirk Heinz (Andrew Tiernan: The Bunker, Quatermas Experiment remake, Man Who Sold the World, Dead Cert) who offers him $10 million to make the film, provided that Rivalos puts in £500,000 of his own money, to which end the director remortgages his house. Right from the off we’re in trouble because Croot gives us an establishing shot of a modern office block, all steel and glass, then sets the actual scene in an ‘office’ which is a windowless room with breeze-block walls. If you can’t find/afford an expensive office location … don’t set a scene in a venture capitalist’s office. Have the two men meet at Rivalos’ home, or in a restaurant, or shoot a telephone conversation with tight close-ups. But don’t expect us to believe that a millionaire investor spends his days in what is rather obviously someone’s garage, especially after an establishing shot of a 15-storey glass tower.

When Rivalos gets to his ‘film set’, he finds that it is in fact a small touring caravan parked on an industrial estate next to a busy road. And this is where the story’s reality falls apart. His various cast and crew turn up, none of whom he has met before, and they start shooting what they believe is a ‘£10 million production’ inside a cramped caravan. This just doesn’t make any sense, or reflect in any way the reality of film production at any budget level, and as such the various reactions of the characters don’t make much sense either, and hence there is no credibility in most of the characters or situations.

Rivalos’ principal nemesis is producer Efi, a young Nigerian chap who constantly promises that everything will be okay and then utterly fails to deliver what the director wants. (Nigerian-born Seye Adelekan, making his feature debut, is a singer-guitarist who has played with Paloma Faith and Ellie Goulding and whose own Afrobeat songs have received a lot of acclaim – add another name to the list of ‘pop stars in British horror films'.) Faced with Efi's ineptitude, Rivalos swiftly descends into simply repeating variations on the theme of “This is all shit!” which very rapidly becomes tiresome. On paper, the characters probably sounded hilarious, but on screen they’re not funny at all.

Jason Croot himself (a jobbing actor with credits back to 2000, including Umbrage: The First Vampire) plays a Frenchman who doesn’t speak English, Chafarafa, variously referred to as either ‘script editor’ or ‘script supervisor’ (despite those being two completely separate and unrelated jobs). Efi brings along two Nigerian women: production designer Africa (Roxy Sternberg, who had a recurring role in Law and Order: UK) and runner Femu (Scherrikar Bell), who claims to be a big name singer in her home country.

Africa gives the caravan a ‘horror’ feel by sellotaping up some pound shop Halloween decorations. The ‘special effects’ are an inflatable alien taped to a remote control toy car. And so on and so on. Everyone seems to be bad at their job, but for the most part that’s all we get. They’re shit, and the production is shit, and Carlos Rivalos stares blankly ahead and says “What the hell’s going on?” and “It’s all, erm, sort of, shit, isn’t it?” Yes it is, but it’s not entertaining.

Among all this are a few recognisable faces. Erika Spawn herself, Victoria Hopkins (Doghouse, Zombie Women of Satan) - never less than awesome - gives the production a massive shot in the arm with her scenes as make-up artist/sexual predator Queenie. Elegant Eleanor James (Colour from the Dark, Hellbride) turns up later on as Vanessa, an actress hired to play a vampire (which shows how long this has been in post; Ella retired from acting in 2012) who refuses to do any ‘stunts’ or indeed anything more strenuous than sinuously winding her body and arms in a vaguely spooky way. This will sound really base but the only scene in the entire film I really enjoyed was Queenie’s (fully clothed) lesbian seduction of Vanessa. Not, I must stress, because of any perv value but because it was two very talented actors working together in a self-contained scene away from any nonsense about caravans, inflatable aliens or breezeblock offices.

Ever-suave Julian Lamoral-Roberts (Nightscape: Dark Reign of Thanatos, Bordello Death Tales - also credited as co-producer/executive producer) lends his rich tones to another vampire actor who plays in the scene that Vanessa shoots. Except that JLR is also in some scenes as an unnamed driver and it’s entirely unclear whether that’s supposed to be the same character…

To return to the whole story/plot dichotomy, the problem here – and I think it may be the biggest of the film’s many problems – is that there is absolutely no development or structure. The whole film is just things going repeatedly wrong around Carlos Rivalos as he tries to make a film. Narrative development is completely absent, and the various scenes could have been assembled in pretty much any order, as long as they were topped and tailed with the bits in Dirk Heinz’s luxury office/lock-up. There’s an old saying about the three act-structure: in the first act, a man climbs a tree; in the second act, he falls out of the tree; in the third act we examine him and if he’s alive it’s a comedy, if he’s dead it’s a drama. Le Fear 2 doesn’t work because it is just a succession of people repeatedly falling out of trees for the best part of 90 minutes.

The problematic absence of plot is not helped by the paucity of characterisation. There are so many characters that few have the chance to make any impression and those who do need to be fairly clear-cut and single-minded, like Queenie. At the heart of this is Carlos Rivalos himself who is just the dullest, least interesting, least dynamic lead character that I’ve seen since I suffered though Zorg and Andy. Granted, he’s not an arsehole like Harlan Noble in Just for the Record, but he’s also not an ambitious, na├»ve debutante like Jack Innov in Hardcore or a likeable optimist like Corbin West in Take Me to Your Leader. Rivalos is just a miserable sod who looks bored even when he’s angry, and we’re given no chance to judge his talent because we’re neither told about nor shown any of his previous work.

Here’s what Jason Croot has missed, and it’s crucial. In any story about somebody struggling to achieve something against overwhelming odds, we the audience have to be really rooting for that person. We have to really want them to succeed. We have to care about them. That person needs an indomitable confidence and self-assurance, however misplaced, however unwarranted. That way, when they come close to jacking the whole thing in (which should, of course, be at the start of act three), we feel their pain – and then we cheer and applaud when whatever it is that turns them back to the task, turns them back to the task. The hell with it. Everything might be against us. We might have no budget, no talent, no support and no prospects, but damn it we’ve got hope and heart and each other and we can make this work. And if it doesn’t work, nobody will be able to say we didn’t try our damnedest and we can hold our heads high and be proud of what we have achieved. Even if no-one else ever sees it, even if people do see it and everyone who sees it hates it, we will have made this film. It will be ours. Our film, our achievement, created through our teamwork and our hard graft, and no-one can take that away from us. Go team!

Which is not what you get when the director of the fake film simply sits around complaining about how shit everything is.

Truth be told, I felt much more sympathy for producer Efi than director Carlos. Efi and Africa and Femu are potentially great characters and, although they are presumably meant to be seen as part of Rivalos’ problems, I had a lot more interest in, and empathy with, them than I did with him. Efi is whatever the Lagos equivalent is of a Cockney wide boy (but with a much less ghastly accent). His response to everything is basically “My friend, this will all be taken care of. I have it all in hand. You should not worry. Look at me. I am not worrying. And neither should you, my friend.” Africa is almost scarily cheerful, just one step short of breaking into a chorus of ‘Oh Happy Day’. Where Efi is full of charm and bullshit, Africa is full of joy and warmth. He knows what’s going wrong but sees no need to admit it, even to himself; she knows what’s happening and is absolutely certain that it’s all okay. Meanwhile Femu is also confident but her confidence is slightly (and credibly) undermined by her frustration at being deployed in a low-level, unskilled role when she should really be a star.

Crucially, Efi, Africa and Femu all want the film they are making to succeed and are busy coming up with ideas (many of them admittedly bad) which adapt to the situation they’re in. I was rooting for them. I wasn’t rooting for Carlos Rivalos, a boring, sad, ineffectual little man whose life is one long self-pitying shrug. It’s not like he’s even got an alcohol problem or some other redeeming characteristic. He’s just a grumpy fucker. There’s your problem, right there. Nothing at all about this film makes me care about the lead character. I don’t want him to succeed and if he fails it’s his own miserable fault.

This is not a formula for a successful motion picture, real or fake.

As mentioned, Efi, Africa and Femu are all Nigerian and the film makes numerous references to ‘Nollywood’, the little-known but hugely successful cinema of that country, often cited as the fourth biggest national cinema industry in the world after Hollywood, Bollywood and Hong Kong. Efi and friends bring a Nollywood sensibility to the movie that they are trying to make, which includes such unlikely occurrences as a random witch doctor showing up on set during a take, brandishing an advert for an international phone card.

Now, I’ve watched a little bit of Nollywood. It’s an extraordinary brand of cut-price cinema completely unlike anything else you’ve ever seen, and they do make a lot of horror movies over there (though I’ve never got round to actually reviewing any on this site). However, most people who watch a film like Le Fear 2: Le Sequel will never, ever have seen a Nigerian film and I suspect many will be completely ignorant that an indigenous, culturally distinctive African popular film culture even exists. Consequently audiences won’t have the ‘mental real estate’ to grasp the nature of what Efi, Africa and Femu are trying to do and there’s a danger that the film might be considered patronising, imperialist or even racist. In my opinion, adding the Nollywood angle to the story adds an unnecessary layer of complexity for very little reward. Those three characters are interesting and fun enough in themselves. Though they could have benefited, like everything else in the film, from a bit more actual comedy.

Underpinning all of this is the fundamental question, articulated by Carlos Rivalos on numerous occasions: “What the, sort of, erm, bloody hell, is, erm, erm, going on?”

Very clearly, the film being made is not costing £500,000, let alone 10 million US dollars. But it’s not clear what those figures refer to, or what Dirk Heinz’s intentions are.  We have to assume he’s scamming Rivalos, if only because he’s Sewth Effreecarn and, as the song says, “I’ve met the King of China and the working Yorkshire miner but I’ve never met a nice South African.” Heinz turns up ‘on set’ towards the end of the film (and that’s another oddity – it’s not a set, it’s a location) where he threatens ready-to-quit Rivalos with violence because he ‘has ten million invested in this film’. But he doesn’t. Does he? Is Heinz meant to be an idiot who has thrown ten million dollars at a useless film? Or is he a crook who has conned half a million quid out of Carlos Rivalos? Is the whole thing some version of the classic email hoax of ‘you’ve won/inherited this huge amount, send a smaller amount to get it’? That’s known of course as ‘the Nigerian scam’, but is that relevant? Right at the end, Rivalos returns to Heinz’s shed to show him the footage he has managed to cobble together and the executive producer proclaims himself delighted. Is that meant to show he has no fucking clue about films, or does it mean his scam has worked? Did he want Rivalos to make the worst film in the world as some sort of tax scam? Is this a 21st century cinematic equivalent of The Producers. I have literally no idea.

On top of which, just as an aside, how the jiminy is an unsuccessful indie film director living in a house worth half a million pounds, and indeed what sort of bank would advance a mortgage of that size to someone with no fixed income.

Also in a large (and surprisingly name-heavy) cast are Aiko Horiuchi (The Grudge 3) as a Japanese actress who doesn’t speak English and Ian Cullen (who was in a 1964 Doctor Who adventure and a 2014 Doctor Who online story!) as the caravan’s unhappy owner, plus Catherine Balvage (Puritan, It’s a Wonderful Afterlife), Tom Bonnington (The Wrong Floor, A Haunting at the Rectory), Leila Reid (When Evil Calls, Patrol Men), Shona McWilliams (When Evil Calls), Sean Earl McPherson (I am Cursed) and 1st AD Natalie Ames (an extra in The Seasoning House). Many of the cast were also in Croot’s second feature Demons and Doors which, despite the title, isn’t a horror film. Matthew Taylor (camera on World War Z and Daddy’s Girl) is credited with cinematography on Le Sequel; Danielle Farrington with make-up effects.

Le Fear 2: Le Sequel is yet another of those films which I really wanted to like but which repeatedly felt flat, failing in numerous ways for numerous reasons. And normally, I wouldn’t have posted a review because in general, when a film-maker sends me a screener of a new, unreleased movie, it does neither of us any favours if I take it to pieces, however constructively. No-one wants their first review to be a negative one, or their only external review on the IMDB page to be a demolition. And I honestly don’t derive pleasure from tearing things to pieces. I do however enjoy carefully taking things to pieces, exploring and explaining in what ways (in my opinion) they have been, as it were, ‘misconstructed’.

So I wasn’t going to review Le Sequel until I looked at the IMDB External Reviews page and was surprised to find nearly 40 reviews already on there, which means my views aren’t going to be all that people read about this and my negativity will not be so damaging as it might have been. But what’s really curious is that when I started reading those reviews, every single one was positive, many of them lavish in their praise. Really, really positive. "It's truly uniquely hilarious. Odd and strange and yet over the top bliss. In simple terms a great comedy that stands out above most of the comedies today!" trumpets one hagiographic review. Another says: "I also adored how natural the dialogue in the script flowed, and some of the lines are just hilarious!”

Now, film appreciation is subjective, comedy films even more so. I’ve written many reviews over the years which many people have disagreed with. Fine and dandy. But I thought the effusive, sometimes extravagantly over-the-top praise lavished on Le Fear 2 was interesting, because it says a lot about how online film criticism works. I’m going to sound like a ghastly snob here, and I don’t mean it that way, but it’s unavoidable.

Democratisation, yes it’s a Good Thing. Nowadays, absolutely anyone can set up a blog, starting writing their opinions of movies they have seen – and bang, they’re a film reviewer. But only in the same sense that anyone can get up on stage at the pub’s karaoke night and bang, they’re a singer. But that’s fine. Everyone has to start somewhere. I look at some of the reviews I wrote in the early days of this blog, back in 1998/9, and I cringe. I’m sure the stuff I was writing in fanzines in the 1980s was even worse. Film criticism, like any other form of writing, is something that you can only get better at by doing it.

So there are a lot of people out there writing their views of the films they watch at the cinema or on DVD or Netflix or whatever. This is one of the reasons why I never bother reviewing mainstream movies. When there’s 200 External Reviews on the IMDB, including Variety, Rolling Stone, the Guardian, the Sun-Times etc – who the hell is going to notice or care what I have to say? But if you think that the world will benefit from your opinion of Guardians of the Galaxy, knock yourself out.

Two things I have noticed about such amateur reviewers over the years. One is that they tend to see everything as black and white. Films are absolutely great except the ones that suck. I used to see that back in the 1990s when wannabe reviewers would send sample pieces to SFX. Aspiring critics have a tendency to review their favourite films, and I always used to caution people: when submitting sample reviews, pick something that has both good and bad points and explain what they are. That advice still holds today, by the way.

The other thing I have noticed is that amateur film reviewers get very excited when someone sends them a freebie. I’m old and cynical and I’ve been doing this for two decades and in my glory days I sat in Soho screening rooms with wine and nibbles and got paid for the privilege so I’m unfazed when a screener pops through my letterbox (or increasingly, when a Vimeo link and password pops into my email inbox). But imagine that you’re some teenage kid, writing a blog about movies you like, and you get an email out of the blue from an indie film-maker inviting you to watch their unreleased film. Wow, that’s the big time. Suddenly you’re Ain’t It Cool News.

Again, I’ve been there. I can still recall the shiver of amazement I felt when a publisher actually sent free copies of some unpublished books to our crappy little sci-fi society for review. Holy cow. It’s nerd Christmas.

The upshot of all this is that if you dig around on the web for film reviewers and film sites that no-one has ever heard of (and I certainly have never heard of most of the reviewers linked from the Le Fear 2 IMDB page, despite spending a considerable portion of my life on IMDB External Reviews pages) you are going to (a) make someone’s day and (b) get an effusive, glowing review. To what extent that review is useful or helpful, as opposed to a middling review from me or Fangoria or Dread Central or Bloody Disgusting or AICN or whoever, that’s a matter for debate. But that’s what I see with Le Fear 2. I may be out of step with most other reviewers (though I did find one or two whose views matched mine) but I think that’s because I’m about 18 years out of step with them. And I’m wondering whether aiming those Vimeo links - a screener costs nothing at all now – at amateur reviewers was actually part of Jason Croot’s marketing strategy. If so it’s as good as any, I guess.

None of which, sadly, alters my own critical opinion of Le Fear 2: Le Sequel. There is no real plot. The set-up and motivation don’t make sense. The central character is unsympathetic. The improvisation doesn’t work. And it never achieves its principal aim, which is making me laugh. Sorry.

Le Fear 2 was shot in 2012, around the same time that the first film was made freely available on Vimeo, and spent a couple of years in post before screener links were sent out. Croot has announced plans for two more sequels and a prequel, which seems a wee bit ambitious. Personally, I’ve spent enough time with Carlos Rivalos, the miserable sod, although I would potentially be interested in a film about the further adventures of Efi Womonbongo, provided it had a proper script.

MJS rating: D+

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