Reviews: Philosophical Musings in A Glitch in the Matrix

A Glitch in the Matrix,
Directed by Rodney Ascher

Dogwoof continue their run of some damned fine documentaries (I particularly enjoyed their Making Waves: the Art of Cinematic Sound, reviewed here), this time with acclaimed documentary director Rodney Ascher, who, among others, previously brought us the excellent Kubrick doc, Room 237, bringing us A Glitch in the Matrix, which arrives with some good word of mouth at the Sundance film fest. The question of what is real – can we actually trust what our senses are telling our brain about the world around us? – is an old philosophical argument, one that, like the debate over whether humans possess free will or if everything is pre-determined (either by a deity or by the nature of the space-time universe itself), has fascinated, and often confused and infuriated, people for millennia.

Simulation Theory posits the possibility that the world we see around us and everything in it, from rocks to people, are all just some form of digital simulation, the “reality” we experience is essentially a deeply immersive virtual reality. Our entire civilisation and its history could be a simulation running on a very advanced computer system by researchers from a technologically superior species (or even our own species in the far future) using it to study history, human behaviour, different possible outcomes in that history, much in the same way we use mathematical and computational modelling to study, predict and test theories.

The film starts with two influential strands which have long fed into this discussion – the cave thought experiment by Classical philosopher Plato (people who are kept in a cave facing only the back wall know the world beyond only by the shadows it casts on their wall) and, unsurprisingly, the great Philip K Dick, returning several times to a talk this fascinating and influential author gave at a convention in the 1970s, while also drawing on contemporary influences, both academic and cultural (as you would imagine, The Matrix features a lot here as both an example of a simulated reality and also as the cultural artefact which brought the basic concept of Simulation Theory to a far wider audience).

Peppered throughout these academic asides and numerous relevant movie clips to illustrate points and make examples clearer there are, as you would expect in a documentary, a number of talking heads adding their voices and viewpoints. In a nice move, Ascher uses normal video viewpoints for some of these contributors, but for the ones who are actual believers in Simulation Theory, rather appropriately, Ascher uses digital avatars for each of them. This fits the feel of the film very well, in addition to giving the documentary an added bit of visual flair, and it soon comes to feel quite normal when those contributors are talking.

Those speakers who are believers outline the experiences in their lives which lead to embracing that belief, although most are quite moderate about it – as one notes, he thinks he may well be in a simulation, while acknowledging that the world could still be the flesh and blood reality most people take it for, but adds whichever it is, it’s his life and he doesn’t let that belief get in the way of enjoying his day to day life. Others get a bit more concerned – what if it isn’t just a scientific simulation, what if we’re in some sort of Sims style game? What if we’re not being studied by an advanced academic but at the mercy of the super-intelligent version of a teenaged gamer? How does this impact how you view life, value your life, friendships, family?

It’s a fascinating discussion, one we can probably never entirely prove or disprove, but an interesting topic to explore nonetheless, and Ascher handles it very well, with a good range of contributors (including one believer who was so traumatised by his belief that he was in a Matrix style artificial reality that none of the loved ones around him were real, and so he committed a terrible action), and it boasts some clever use of appropriate film clips and visual flair to add to the interest level. To coin the old Vulcan phrase, it is “fascinating”.

A Glitch in the Matrix is out now from Dogwoof, on HD Digital, DVD and Blu-Ray

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: The Darkness

The Darkness,
Directed by Tharun Mohan,
Starring Amelia Eve, Cyril Blake, Katherine Hartshorne

Like many, young couples Lisa (Amelia Eve) and David (Cyril Blake) are eager for an escape from the pace and pressures of city life, so when they have the opportunity to stay in David’s grandmother’s country cottage in rural Ireland, they take it. David has a new business scheme he wants some peace and space to work on, while Lisa, a writer, is planning to work on her next book. Naturally it doesn’t quite work out that way – we all know from our movies that if you move into an old house in the country, there’s bound to be something spooky!

It starts with small things – lights going on and off, something being moved, a figure glimpsed briefly out of the corner of the eye. Lisa goes from being unsettled and disturbed by these events to becoming quite obsessed with investigating them, using her research skills as a writer to start exploring the history of the cottage and the nearby village. She discovers a woman raised as an orphan once lived there, Niav (Katherine Hartshorne), a century or so before, finding love and marriage with the man who owned the cottage, finding the family she had never known in her younger life. Lisa herself has a not dissimilar background, so she feels some kinship with Niav, but very soon her research starts to resemble a dangerous obsession and it isn’t clear if there are really strange events happening, or if she is simply becoming more erratic and unstable.

The Darkness mines that seam of “is it real or is it in her head” well, to increase the sense of unease and wrongness, using elements of the psychological thriller-horror alongside more traditional haunting tropes to good effect, as Lisa finds there may be a far more disturbing, hidden past than anyone in the village (with the exception of a now mentally disturbed old priest) knows of. Rather than going down the straight haunting or possession route though, The Darkness instead uses its location wisely and draws on Irish folklore and myth, mixed with human chicanery, to flesh out this hidden history Lisa is now finding out about.

While not perfect, this is an interesting take on the urban couple relocating to the isolated countryside trope – we’ve all seen a hundred horrors along those lines, after all. The Darkness may be small budget with an equally small cast, but its use of local folklore and building the sense of unease slowly works well, and the Irish folkloric aspect lends some freshness to it.

The Darkness is available from Reel2Reel Films from Monday 3rd May

This review was originally penned for Live For Films 

Reviews: Emotional time travel in Synchronic

Synchronic,
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead,
Starring Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides, Katie Aselton

The clock just keeps ticking down, and the lower that number gets, you realise how fucking amazing now is. The present is a miracle, bro.”

Steve Denube (Mackie) and Dennis Dannelly (Dornan) are best friends, who also work together as paramedics on the night shift in New Orleans. As with ambulance crews in any city, they’ve seen pretty much everything in their time, but Steve starts to become intrigued by a number of very unusual injuries and deaths they are called to, in which the only link he can see is that a new synthetic street drug called Synchronic was taken by those involved. The NOPD don’t appear to be following this as a lead however, as the drug itself is not the cause of injury or death. At least not directly – we soon learn that Synchronic has an unplanned for side-effect, regarding a person’s place in the space-time continuum…

The two men, despite being lifelong friends, are, in the best traditions of cinematic buddy bromances, quite different in many ways. Dennis has long since settled down, has a wife, a now almost adult daughter and a newly arrived baby. Steve, in contrast, is still single, living the bachelor life with a different woman on different nights but no actual lasting relationships (save with his dog). We see flashbacks to a traumatic scene in his life, terrible rains and flooding, causing the coffins to break loose from the above-ground cemeteries New Orleans is so famous for – it doesn’t take much to guess this is the aftermath of the terrible damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on the Big Easy, a wound on both the city and on Steve’s emotional state.

(Minor potential spoiler warnings ahead). Steve starts to re-evaluate his freewheeling lifestyle, not just because he is now approaching forty, but because two major events happen: first Dennis’s daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing (in fact she had been at a party their ambulance was called out to in order to deal with drug overdoses), then shortly after his headaches are diagnosed not as regular hangovers from his lifestyle, but a tumour in his pineal gland. Inoperable. He may have years but more likely only months.

He also discovers that his pineal gland is still in the same state of flux of a teenager, not an adult, and a chance encounter with the chemist who designed Synchronic lets him know that the drug’s time-shifting ability only works on younger brains. Convinced that the missing Brianna took Synchronic and that the reason they cannot find her is because it has taken her into the past, where she has become trapped, Steve decides, without telling anyone, to experiment with the drug. He tries taking it but documents his experiences with a video camera; he does seem to be transported for a few moments to an earlier time in the same location. Is this real or only in his perception as the drug influences him? If it is real, how can he fine-tune it to find where the drug could have transported Brianna? Even if he can do this, can he bring her back?

There is something endlessly fascinating about time-travel stories; our experience of the passing of the years is both objective (we know it is passing, we can measure it, document it) but also simultaneously subjective (was that really ten years ago? How could it be?), and although we can remember the past and imagine the future, we’re forever trapped within the flow of the river of time, unable to change courses. Synchronic offers up something a little different on the time-travel sub-genre, and it is an intriguing notion, that a drug could break us even momentarily from the normal flow.

The film is beautifully shot – many of the scenes are night shots of Steve and Dennis on their paramedic duties through the street of New Orleans, and these look superb on the screen. The film makes good use of flashbacks, which dovetail nicely into the fractured chronology as the Synchronic starts to affect Steve’s perception of time’s flow. The fact it moves him only in time but not place is also interesting, and the movie nods to the fact that some periods in the Deep South are not ones in which it is a nice place to be an African-American, a nice nod to America’s long-running race problems without being too heavy handed.

The relationships between Steve and Dennis are well-handled too – Mackie and Dornan produce terrific performances, these feel like two old buddies who have grown up together through all the years have laid upon them, and yet they stick together, trying to look out for one another. Steve doesn’t want to tell his best friend about his illness while he is searching for his missing daughter, his friend of course is angry because he wants to support him. And Steve’s quest to try to help find Brianna in the only way he can, to do something with the time he has left, something important, feels natural, in that way that life-changing moments such as serious illness or the loss of someone can be, to make you re-evaluate what is important in life (hence his quote at the start of this review).

The time-travel aspect is fascinating, especially the way it meshes with Steve’s personal flashbacks, and some aspects of time travel are well-handled (a wordless encounter with an Ice Age human ancestor showing a human link across millennia, an observation that nostalgia is nonsense and the past was often a cruel place for people to live). Ultimately, however, Synchronic is more about the importance of the people in our lives, about emotions, family and love, the vital beauty of the moments of the here and now we are given. A fascinating, emotionally rewarding slice of Indy Science Fiction film.

Synchronic is released by Signature Entertainment on digital platforms from March 29th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from April 5th.

This review was originally penned for the Live For Films site.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kqh4GSFRZU&ab_channel=SignatureEntertainment

Reviews: Brooding, disturing Gothic horror in Reunion

Reunion,
Directed by Jake Mahaffy,
Starring Julia Ormond, Emma Draper, John Bach, Cohen Holloway and Nancy Brunning

I went into this Kiwi film knowing very little about it, other than it had attracted some good word of mouth via the film festival circuit (which is usually a good sign), and that its small cast included Julia Ormond. Sometimes you just get a vibe about a film and know you have to have a look at it, and I had that feeling with Reunion. I’m glad I listened to that instinct, as Jake Mahaffy (he both wrote and directed) has created a superb film which takes in elements of the dysfunctional inter-generational family drama, the horror genre and includes some well-crafted disturbing scenes and imagery that will get under your skin.

Heavily pregnant, Ellie (Emma Draper), reluctantly returns home to the large, brooding, family home and her mother Ivy (Julia Ormond). It’s clear right away that Ellie really doesn’t want to be here, and that she and her mother don’t get along, but we get the impression she’s had little choice in where to go, having broken up with her partner and father of the child she is carrying. The large, old house still also includes her father Jack (John Bach), once an eminent doctor, now confined mostly to his bed or wheelchair and unable to communicate very much, a shadow of the dominant man we see in later flashbacks to Ellie’s childhood, or in the old VHS tapes of family life her mother still has.

Reunion plays with the viewer, only giving us limited information – we have to try to discern what is going on and what the family dynamics are by the impressions we are given, then some flashbacks and old family videos, while later Ellie experiences dreams or visions of moments from her childhood, including a horribly traumatic moment over her deceased half-sister Cara. However, sometimes these visions and flashbacks are distorted, sometimes they play out differently; likewise when she argues with her mother the viewer gets the impression that Ellie is not really a reliable narrator.

We learn she has long-running mental health issues and has been on medication, and we don’t know if we can trust her version of events or if it is all the product of a very troubled mind, and Draper does a remarkable job in conveying a woman in turmoil, worried about impending motherhood, haunted by her past (which may or may not be as she recalls it) and constantly arguing with her mother; it is hard to know if you want to root for Ellie or to dislike her, and I think that’s a deliberate ploy on behalf of both Mahaffy and Draper; it makes the drama and the mystery far more intriguing and draws the viewer in further, I think.

Her mother seems at first to be the practical, put-upon mother who, with a sigh, just gets on with things in that way that mums often do: invalid husband, she looks after him and takes care of what needs done around the family house (it is filled with boxes as Ellie arrives, preparing to clear it out and sell if off, their shared history concealed inside boxes, a metaphor for their actual lives). Her troubled daughter who tried to make a go of it away from the family nest forced to return, yes, mum will sigh and then get on with trying to take her in hand too.

Except as the film progresses we start to question Ivy: is she really the selfless mother taking on care for an invalided husband and an adult daughter who can’t cope on her own? Or does she have other, hidden agendas? As she and Ellie argue we slowly start to move from thinking Ellie’s memories are distorted by her mental illness and trauma to wondering if perhaps she is right, or at least partly right, and perhaps Ivy’s matriarchal stance conceals some dark secrets, that perhaps it isn’t all in Ellie’s head and that Ivy is lying to her, even gaslighting her into believing something that isn’t true. It’s hard to know who to trust, who has the correct version, and perhaps neither of them truly do, and it makes the mystery all the darker and more intriguing.

Mixed through this Mahaffy makes great use of the large, old country house, a place which would have once been impressive, bustling and now houses only three broken souls, personal items boxed up to go, many doors locked (Ivy carries a bunch of keys with her everywhere she goes, a symbol of her attempt to control the narrative of their history as much as it is to control the house). Glimpses of things out of the corner of the eye, doors that move by themselves, glimpses of the ghost of Cara, still the child she was when she died (or is this vision also in Ellie’s troubled head?), it all induces a claustrophobic sense of unease, of something trying to pretend to be a normal family home but not really managing. Woven into this are some superbly disturbing moments, which I am not going to ruin here with spoilers, but suffice to say they added greatly to the brooding, disturbing atmosphere which lies over Reunion.

This is a highly effective, slow-burning, atmosphere-building horror-drama, rewarding the viewer with some deliciously disturbing elements that will remain in your mind’s eye; part family drama, part Gothic horror, part ghost story, part mental health tale, it takes all of these and creates an absorbing narrative, beautifully shot, with Ormond and Draper carrying the film. Highly recommended.

Reunion will be released by 101 Films on digital from March 22nd

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

A Year Ago Today – Deserted Streets

On my Twitter feed I often have a look through my huge Flickr archive of photos to see if I took any photos on this day in previous years, and tweet a few of them. Today I noticed the ones I took on 21st March 2020, a year ago today. I was coming home from visiting a friend on the other side of town; we both knew the Lockdown was coming very soon (it was announced just a couple of days later) and this might be our last chance for a visit for a good while (we had no idea then just quite how long, of course, none of us did, we were all still thinking a few weeks, a couple of months perhaps).

Empty Streets 02

It was around ten or eleven on a Saturday night as I crossed Lothian Road near the Filmhouse. This area is full of restaurants, bars, cinemas and theatres, and so you can imagine on a Saturday evening it is extremely loud and busy. And here it was all but deserted, a couple waiting for a bus and that was it. The Lockdown hadn’t quite started, but the bars, restaurants, cinemas and theatres had all already closed; continental Europe was being ravaged by Covid-19 and cases were climbing alarmingly here. People were scared, streets were empty, places closing; the storm was about to break over us.

Empty Streets 04

Empty Streets 03

It was disturbing to see my city so empty of people on a Saturday night; it was just a preview of what was coming over the next few months. Lockdown hit two days later, we left our bookshop wondering when we would be back, when we would see one another again, when we would be able to see our friends and family again now everything was closed and travel not allowed. We were thinking some weeks, perhaps a couple of months, nobody had any idea just how bad it would be and how long it would keep going for. Over the next few months on furlough I walked the streets of my beloved Edinburgh, and as always my camera went where I did, documenting this strangest time in the city.

Light Traffic 02

No Shopping Here Today 01

On a sunny Easter bank holiday weekend, when the city should have been bursting at the seams with tourists I could stand in the middle of the Royal Mile, devoid of people and traffic, to take pictures, I saw perhaps three or four people on the Esplanade in front of the Castle where normally it would be packed with tourists. It was beyond disturbing, unsettling to walk around this magnificent, old city and see hardly a soul, the very occasional bus going by almost empty. Sounds like the footsteps of the postie delivering mail became a source of reassurance, that some normality still existed. I could hear the music from 28 Days later in my head as I walked through utterly empty Old Town streets, my city, like others all round the entire world, was a ghost town. I’ve seen more people around the town at 4am walking home from the film festival than I did on those strange, spring days…

As I write this a year on we’re still in a second Lockdown after another wave of infections, although the vaccine roll out is giving some hope, and restrictions should slowly ease next month. But in Europe many are experiencing a third wave of infection and the worry is that we may too (as spring weather returned last week I saw large groups of students gathering in the Meadows, flagrantly breaking the Covid restrictions on numbers and distancing, which fills me with anxiety as this is the sort of thing that can lead to more spikes in cases).

We’re now in a very strange mix of fear and hope; it must be a cousin to the strange morass of conflicting feelings those who endured the last war felt. I want to do normal things again. I want to hang out with my friends. I want to sit in a cinema, a pub. I want to be able to go home and see my dad. And we’re all in the same boat.

Tourist Free Zone 03

No Passengers Today

Please keep washing your hands and wear a mask and distance. And don’t dare tell me that doing that infringes your “freedom”. It doesn’t, this isn’t about you and your selfish needs if you think that way, this is about trying to protect everyone around us, our friends, families and communities: you wear a mask to help protect everyone around you; do your bit. We will get through it.

Everything Is Going To Be Alright

Reviews: The Final Stand

The Final Stand,
Directed by Vadim Shmelyov,
Starring Artyom Gubin, Lubov Konstantinova, Igor Yudin, Aleksey Bardukov, Yekaterina Rednikova

Russia, 1941: the full weight of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, is upon the Russian people. The Nazis, having already taken Western Europe with their Blitzkrieg tactics, have turned this ferocious might on the vast lands to the east, storming through huge areas so swiftly that defences are overwhelmed before they can make a proper account of themselves. The enemy is trampling almost at will over the Motherland, seemingly unstoppable, with Moscow itself now in imminent danger of being overrun. The Red Army is bringing in more troops and equipment from far afield, but desperately needs time to marshal them for a defence. The cadets of the Podolsk infantry and artillery schools are going to buy that time.

The Final Stand begins with some beautifully shot battle scenes – if that’s not oxymoronic. Crisp, high-definition shots in slow-motion capture pouring rain (you can almost see the droplets hitting the helmets of the troops), the expressions on the soldier’s faces as they yell in alarm, the mud splashing around them, explosions. And as the film goes back to normal speed we realise this is the cadets in training, not in combat. It’s a good opening, on the one hand Shmelyov is setting out his stall – this is not a film which will hold back in depicting the realities of combat, and it will use refined film techniques to capture them in fantastic clarity – on the other hand it brings in a moment of light-heartedness to contrast against the brutality (the film mixes in some welcome little bursts of humour here and there, it isn’t all action and suffering).

The cadets are all young, so very, very young, just as their real-life counterparts would have been. They are aware of the war coming their way, most have not seen battle but feel they must do their duty to protect the Motherland. They’re willing to serve and risk their lives, but it’s also obvious that these young, untried cadets have that invincibility of youth feeling – while they know many are dying, they don’t quite get that, they are young, unstoppable, eager to prove themselves, it is almost an adventure, they are courting some of the equally young military nurses (their officers, older, more seasoned, know what is coming and are trying to prepare their young charges). Despite the advancing Nazi invasion their mood is high, but they are about to be put to the test, and a great many of these eager young cadets will not return to tell the tale.

While the film has its flaws – Shmelyov is a bit too fond of the high-definition slow-motion, or the fast action that suddenly goes to slow-motion then back to fast (which can be an effective technique, but needs to be used sparingly, I think), the characters and main plot are fairly generic (the big, tough lug with a heart of gold, the shy one, the schoolboy one etc) – it has some damned impressive moments, and some interesting details, such as the threat of Russian-speaking Nazi infiltrators in Soviet uniforms going ahead of the main forces, or the small forces of special troops who operate behind the enemy lines to get information back to the main forces.

And the main battle sequences are impressive set-pieces – screaming artillerymen trying to drag and move their cannon and line it up quicker than the turret on a German panzer can turn and target on them is tense and terrifying. The fearsome Stuka dive-bombers screaming out of the sky – the Russian airforce at this point having been largely knocked out of the game by the Luftwaffe – bombing and strafing almost with impunity, and its horrendous. As with the scenes as German aircraft attacked the almost helpless soldiers on the beach in Nolan’s Dunkirk, you can feel the visceral horror and terror of it, and you’re aware that what you feel is only a shadow of what the real historical characters went through.

While it does have some generic elements and sometimes leans too much on certain visual techniques, like the aforementioned slow-motion, it is beautifully shot, clarity and production values matching any Western war or action film. Like many of a certain age I grew up on war movies, The Longest Day to Reach For the Sky, In Which We Serve, Battle of the River Plate and more, and I still have a soft spot for WWII films, which were once such a huge part of cinema but, like the Western, is a genre that has largely faded these days to a few entries, so I’m always intrigued to see a new one appear, and in this case it is also very interesting to see the Russian perspective.

In Russia the Second World War is often referred to as The Great Patriotic War; while the West took its share of the horrendous butcher’s bill of the war in both military and civilian casualties, the sheer scale of the Soviet losses is just unbelievable. Shmelyov knows he cannot depict all the millions lost in the maelstrom of the Eastern Front, but his group of young cadets, answering their country’s call in its darkest hour, allows those few to stand for the many. A solid, beautifully shot war movie.

The Final Stand is released by Signature Entertainment on DVD and Digital from March 8th.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Lockdown Horror in Host

Host,
Directed by Rob Savage,
Starring Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, Teddy Linard, Seylan Baxter

Six friends – Haley, Jemma, Emma, Radina, Caroline and Teddy – get together online for their weekly Zoom catch-up during the first, long months of Pandemic Lockdown, something we’ve all been doing a lot of over the last, grinding year or so, something that has become commonplace and everyday. As they are all separated under the Covid restrictions, these little online get togethers are a lifeline, as they have been to so many in real life, and to spice it up a little for this week, Haley (Haley Bishop), has invited a spirit medium, Seylan (Seylan Baxter) to join them and conduct an online séance.

It’s fair to say the chums are not taking this terrible seriously, and there is a lot of giggling going on, and a drinking game (take a shot everytime Seylan mentions the “astral plane” for instance), while Haley tries to get them to behave a little more respectfully to Seylan. As Seylan instructs them to reach out to try to contact someone they know who has passed over, Jemma decides claims to have felt a touch on her shoulder and a presence, which she thinks is Jack, a boy who was kind to her back in her school days, but who later committed suicide.

After Seylan’s spotty internet connection causes her to drop out, and with Teddy having left the chat because of his girlfriend, Jemma admits that she made up the character of Jack – he never existed, much less visited her from the other side – for a bit of fun, well, that’s when things start to go wrong. One of the friends has herself and her chair pulled violently across the room as the other watch in shock, another’s glass suddenly shatters, while Caroline thinks she saw a body hanging up in her attic.

The initial reaction of shock gives ways to uneasy laughter as they all assume they are trying to prank one another (in fact the story idea was inspired by director Savage pranking friends during an online meet into thinking he had a spirit presence in his house), but the unease grows and the laughter turns to yells and screams as each of them begins to experience unexplained phenomena, which become increasingly violent. Poor Teddy rejoins the chat in the middle of this with no idea of what has been going on, and finds himself right in the middle of it. They manage to briefly get hold of the medium Seylan again, and she warns that by making up a fictitious dead person to call on, Jemma has actually left an open door through which anything may have crossed, and that being is what is now attacking them.

The whole idea of a circle of friends who don’t really believe in spirits holding a séance for a giggle, then it all going horrible wrong and a malevolent spirit manifesting itself against them is, of course, far from new in horror, and using new technology like the internet for horror scares isn’t new either – take Unfriended, for instance, Pulse or early efforts like FearDotCom. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of horror delight to be had here, and the added element of filming this during the first UK Lockdown adds a new frisson of horror, with that weird combination of being physically isolated, with all the emotional, psychological damage that has had on us all, while still being connected to loved ones, but only through the tenuous ether of Wi-Fi (not hard to compare this to the ethereal connection to the other side where spirits are meant to dwell).

Each actor is in their own home throughout – Savage had to direct them remotely, while the team held workshops to help train the actors not only to film themselves but to set up simple but highly effective physical effects themselves. Connected but simultaneously isolated as this presence they have accidentally invited in manifests in increasingly harmful ways (this spirit does not respect the two metre rule!), the unfolding story makes each of the friends both participants/victims but also at the same time voyeurs as all they can do is watch on their video chat windows (inviting thoughts about the voyeuristic side of our social media in real life, and that connected yet disconnected feeling we often have).

While horror is a broad church, for me it has always been at its most effective when elements of it touch on aspects which any of us could have in our own lives. In the 1890s Stoker brought his Count out of the distant dark and superstitious land and put him right in the heart of the modern city, a world of typewriters and phonographs and everyday items; it made the threat feel more real than the distant lands and castles of earlier Gothic tropes. In Host we’re right into something everyone of us has had to deal with recently, the pandemic, the lockdowns, the isolation, the use of online lifelines, and the confined, trapped feeling that comes with it, and plays with it well; again it makes it more real, more relatable, and that, for me, pushes up the scare-o-meter.

I have to say I was incredibly impressed at the way Savage and his team managed to make a film under lockdown conditions – not just using the lockdown as inspiration for a story, but actually working within those difficult rules to create a whole film (albeit one that clocks in at just under an hour, which to be honest I didn’t find a problem as it meant the pacing was kept going well). Really, I doff my hat to creators who managed to work in such circumstances and still managed to pull together a highly entertaining horror flick, and one which had some really nice horror thrills, from the expected jump-scare of a sudden image appearing or door opening by itself to incredibly creepy moments, such as when a filter graphic appears in mid-air on one friend’s feed, as if the camera thinks there is someone there and it is trying to apply the filter, yet we can’t see anyone, just the filter face.

The tight pacing and relatively short length work well for this story (I think extending it would have weakened it), and again the use of Zoom as the medium helps here, because they are using the free version, and we can see the countdown to the end of the free chat session ticking away, the time running down as the action escalates, and we’re wondering what happens when the timer gets to zero, and if anyone will remain unscathed. And no, I am not going to tell you anything about what happens to who, because I don’t want to spoil it for you! Suffice to say the tension rises as the timer counts down, and there are some inventive and gruesome moments.

This was a Shudder Original, but I am glad to see our chums at Second Sight are doing a special, limited edition Blu-Ray release, which boasts the film, plus a slew of extras, including the cast being interviewed; again these extras were created during Lockdown rules and so, like the recently reviewed Nightingale, couldn’t be professionally filmed but had to be done via Zoom, but as with some of the Nightingale’s extras this in no way impacts the enjoyment of the extras (in fact in the case of this film it rather suits it, being a similar format to that used for the narrative).

It’s pretty remarkable listening to how the film-makers and the cast worked and often improvised their way to creating their parts of this film for Savage to then stitch together – again I am just amazed at how well the creative talent here rose to such a challenge. The limited edition also comes with more extras, including Savage’s original prank video that inspired the story, two short and highly effective films by Savage (Salt, and Dawn of the Deaf), a BFI interview and more, plus a case with new artwork by Thomas Walker, a set of collector’s cards and a book with the original story outline and essays. Highly recommended and inventive Lockdown horror.

Host gets a limited edition Blu-Ray release by Second Sight on 22nd February

This review was originally penned for the Live For Films movie site.

 

Reviews: Katriona Chapman’s richly satisfying Breakwater

Breakwater,
Katriona Chapman,
Avery Hill

Katriona Chapman returns after the excellent Follow Me In, with Breakwater, and, oh boy, it’s just wonderful. The eponymous Breakwater is an old cinema by the seafront in Brighton; like many older cinemas in this era of big chain multiplexes (well, back when we could actually go to cinemas, pre-Covid days, sigh) it is a shadow of its former self, a once grand dame with Art Deco delights from a different era when cinemas weren’t just industrial buildings with seats and a screen, but an experience, designed to be dream palaces to transport you, not just with the film but the whole evening in the cinema.

Somehow, like a handful of others around the country, the Breakwater has managed to hold on in this modern environment, still with a small following, still independent, and crewed by a small group of staff who we are gradually introduced to as new arrival Dan, a twenty-something gay Asian man, is shown the ropes by veteran Chris, a forty-something single lady who is comfortable with her own company. Dan is affable and friendly, and soon fits in nicely with the others, even the teenaged lad that others can overlook (he left school with no qualifications, but Dan doesn’t judge him and just talks to him like a friend).

Dan hits it off even more with Chris, despite the fact she rarely mixes much outside of work and mostly spends her time by herself. He’s open and friendly, she’s warm, supportive, very empathic and caring (she spends time by herself but she’s not anti-social, it should be stressed, she just doesn’t go out much). As the two start to become friends outside of work at the cinema they share more time and thoughts with one another.

Dan gets Chris more out of her shell, getting her to go out for fun with him, to consider a long-abandoned dream of going back to finish her college course (like many she had to give up originally to take care of an ill parent), to stand up for herself a bit more. Chris draws the young man out, to share some of his dreams and his worries, from estranged parents to problems with an ex that he can’t quite get over but knows he should. It’s beautifully done, very, very natural feeling and wonderfully warm. But as they become more involved in one another’s lives Chris finds Dan has other, older problems, especially with his mental health, and it will lead to them both having to make difficult decisions.

That summary really, really doesn’t do justice to Breakwater though: this is a comic to savour, that takes its time to reveal the characters and their lives in a way the evokes very real, natural, believable people, all different in their own ways but clicking together at the Breakwater, in a way that many of us will find familiar from our own work experiences. The pacing and the progression is excellent, Chapman is not afraid to simply have scenes where several of the characters are just standing around in the cinema chatting, or conversely to have several scenes where there are no speech bubbles or dialogue boxes, the art carrying the story and atmosphere.

And what art: here Chapman has opted for a beautiful monochromatic style here, mostly smaller panels focusing on the characters, with the odd splash page that celebrates the faded glories of the old cinema (a now unused old auditorium above the modernised screens, a grand “ballroom” space – it reminded me of a bar I once worked in that was in a converted cinema and also had one whole auditorium above the main area, unseen by most, a ghost of the past). Those artistic asides to the faded grandeur hidden away inside the building also served partly as a way of making the cinema itself a sort of character, but also a nice visual metaphor for the lives of the characters, that we all have hidden secrets and stories within us, some shared with only a very few others.

The main body of the work is those smaller panels focusing on the characters, however, and those are an utter delight – Chapman’s art deftly draws (no pun intended) out her character’s inner lives and emotions, so that even in those wordless sequences I mentioned, the expressions and body language of her cast of characters so clearly expresses their thoughts and feelings.

It’s a fabulous piece of comics artwork, beautifully accomplished, never showy, just the right amount of artistic flourish to delight the eyes without intruding into the narrative, it’s some of the finest work I have seen in ages for bringing out the emotional lives of the characters in a comics work, while the narrative itself, while often warm and touching, also doesn’t shy away from the impact mental health issues can have not just on the lives of those with the illness but those who care for them.

I can’t recommend Breakwater enough, this is a beautiful, warm, engaging, gorgeously-drawn and paced piece of Brit comics that many readers will find themselves empathising with.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Clementine

Clementine,
Directed by Lara Jean Gallagher,
Starring Otmara Marrero, Sydney Sweeney, Will Britain, Sonya Wagner

I was drawn to check out Lara Jean Gallagher’s debut feature film Clementine partly on the good word of mouth it has been picking up on the film festival circuit (including at the Tribeca), and partly because she was been likened to a young Jane Campion (which certainly helped get my attention).

Karen (Otmara Marrero) is reeling from a bad break up with her lover, an older, successful woman artist, D; we find her watching her ex’s home until she is sure she is out, then trying to let herself in sneakily to reclaim the dog. But the locks have been changed; this relationship is most certainly over, it would seem, she’s locked out physically as well as emotionally, and she has to leave after only being able to see the dog through the doorway. Driving off, she decides to leave LA and heads on out into the woods, to the huge lakeside home by the edge of a forest that also belongs to D, only to find the spare key normally hidden nearby has been moved and once again she is locked out. Undeterred she simply breaks open a small window to let herself in.

It’s clear Karen really isn’t in a good headspace – who is after a break up, after all? – but the film gives the impression there is more than just losing her lover that is preying on her mind, and that even she isn’t exactly certain why she has retreated to her ex’s luxurious, secluded lakehouse, or what she is looking for here. A bit of clear space and solitude among the trees and the lakes to think things through? Perhaps, but it feels like there is more going on here.

In fact that feeling that there is much more going on that we’re unaware of extends through the film – while the viewer feels natural sympathy for her going through the end of a relationship, we’re also left wondering, why did the relationship actually end? Did her older, more successful lover discard her and she’s now left emotionally hurt and feeling abandoned? Or was it her own behaviour that drove them apart? We don’t know, but we have seen her prepared to dognap from D’s home while she was out, then to break into her country retreat, neither of which are exactly admirable traits.

The thing is Gallagher, who also wrote the film as well as directing, chooses not to give the viewer the semi godlike overview of the characters and their histories that some narratives do, and that continues when Sydney Sweeney’s precocious teen Lana turns up on the scene. We first see her sunbathing on a small dock near the house, in a bikini, peeling fruit, glimpsed by Karen who conceals herself at first before finally making herself visible and approaching the girl. The way Lana is lounging in her bikini by the dock seemed to me to hint at just a tiny nod to the classic Lolita, and that hint felt stronger later as there is some possible romantic tension between the two women, once they start to drop their guard and talk to one another (with Karen reminding herself that she is much older than Lana, but still clearly romantic and sexual thoughts are there).

Lana too is similarly something of a mystery to the viewer – as with Karen the director decides not to reveal all of their true story to us via flashbacks or cutaway scenes. Instead we have only what she tells Karen to go on, and fairly early on it looks pretty obvious that Lana may be mixing fantasy in with truth in what she reveals to Karen about herself and why she spends so much time by herself up here by the lakehouse. Adding to this is the arrival of young Beau (Will Brittain), supposedly D’s handyman who keeps an eye on the lakehouse, trims the trees, makes repairs (including to the window Karen broke to gain entry). Once more we don’t know his full story either: is he really D’s handyman, or is he just using that as an excuse to hang out with two attractive young women and flirt? Or maybe he is the handyman but he is also there to report to D, who may suspect that Karen has fled to the lakehouse after leaving town? And if so what is his game?

I’ve seen some reviews criticise this approach as frustrating, but personally I thought it was not just a good move by Gallagher, but quite a ballsy one, to give the audience no more information or insight than any of the characters have. We’re having to watch them, listen to them and try and decide what is truth and what is embellishment, or even outright fabrications about themselves and why they are where they are. It’s a bit of a cliché to say “nobody here is quite what they seem”, but it is appropriate, and frankly I found this a great approach. I often find that I can predict where scenes or entire narratives are headed early on in some films, simply because I’ve watched so many over the years that I pick up cues of where things are going. I’m sure many of you have experienced that too.

But here it was different, Gallagher’s less is more approach really worked for me, as did the styling and cinematography of Clementine. At some points it felt like it was going to go into love on the rebound (with added triangle when Beau appears), but at other times it felt like it may become a thriller and there was something dangerous among those hidden character histories, at some points it even felt like it could go into horror territory, or coming-of-age LGBTQ tale. All of this, and the fact we only have what the characters will reveal about themselves, and we are pretty sure they’re not always truthful about it, combined to make this a compelling film for me, and I commend Gallagher for sticking to her guns with this approach, when the temptation to go down an easier, more conventional route must have been huge, and I appreciate that she felt this was the better way to go and stuck to it. An unusual and intriguing piece, I look forward to seeing what Gallagher directs next.

Clementine is released by Bohemia Media on digital from Monday 8th of February

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Jennifer Kent’s powerful The Nightingale

The Nightingale,
Directed by Jennifer Kent
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, and Baykali Ganambarr

Aussie director Jennifer Kent’s debut, The Babadook, blew me away, and many other audiences around the globe. It didn’t just give us a fascinating, engrossing horror, it had such fabulous emotional complexity to it, matched by some beautiful crafted visuals. It was hard to believe this was the work of a debut director. The Nightingale, Kent’s second feature film, has again left me quite happily astonished at how incredibly confident and assured she is in bringing her vision to the screen and getting the best out of her actors. With great accolades accrued on the international film festival circuit, it is now getting a richly-deserved special edition Blu-Ray release by the good folks at Second Sight, which gives us a great excuse to revisit this powerful and compelling film.

It’s the 1820s in Van Diemen’s Land – what would later be called Tasmania – during the era where the Land Down Under was still being used by the British Empire as a colony built using exported convicts, many of whom would have committed what we would consider tiny infractions (stealing bread to stay alive, for instance), and found themselves sentenced to Transportation to the other side of the world, to a land totally alien to them. It was a cheap and exploitative way for the British authorities to start settling this vast new southern continent (well, new to Europeans who, as usual in history, pretty much ignored the fact that others had lived there for thousands of years already, such was the colonial mindset of the era).

Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict, in a remote settlement overseen by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). She’s already well past the duration of her sentence, but Hawkins simply won’t sign her release papers. Claflin makes a wonderful job of delivering his Hawkins, a petty man desperate to be The Big Man (he’s clearly relishing the chance to portray such a nasty character). He’s in charge here, but only of a ragged troop of very sorry looking soldiers and a few convicts, taking every opportunity to show his power over them, but painfully aware of his own junior rank by a visiting superior, and that there are others above him who hold power over him as he does over the people below him, and how he hates that.

The Nightingale is not an easy film to watch – its subject matter is fiercely strong, including gender and race issues, violent sexual assaults and brutal torture and murder of Aboriginals, and that content is there from very early in the film, where Clare is forced to sing to entertain the troops before the visiting senior officer (who Hawkins hopes to impress as he tries to gain a promotion), with the drunken rabble leering horribly at her, followed by Hawkins inviting her to sing to him in his quarters, where he forces himself on her.

Franciosi’s acting is utterly remarkable throughout this film – a scene following this rape sees her lying side by side with her baby, telling her stories by the firelight. Franciosi perfectly captures the competing emotions running through Clare; she is smiling for her infant, bonding with her baby, but behind that smile you can see micro-expressions, especially around the eyes, the trauma manifesting itself, that “what just happened to me, how could that happen?” feeling, and you can see her struggling to hold it in check, to be warm and loving and strong for her child while fighting the effects of the brutality visited upon her. It’s a small scene but just one of many where Franciosi’s acting craft is displayed; she clearly cares about her character deeply and wants to convey all the contrasting emotional depths of Clare.

In one of the many extras on this special edition there is an interview with Franciosi, where she reveals how drawn she was to the part. She tells us that Kent had a psychotherapist in the production, and she was free to constantly talk to the therapist about people who had endured traumas and PTSD, how they reacted both physically and mentally, as well as them taking her to visit women in refuges who had been in violent relationships so she could talk to them. She also commented that some of those women found those scenes hard to watch (they are, and they should be), but also pleased that these issues were being raised so viscerally and visibly in a public sphere, because these are not just historical atrocities but sadly a very modern reality for too many (likewise the abuse and murder of Aboriginal people being shown so clearly was also felt deeply by contemporary Aboriginal viewers).

Clare is put through worse, however, driving her into an almost Western-style quest through the outback for vengeance, with Billy – Baykali Ganambarr – as her Aboriginal guide. At first she’s as bad as the English officers and soldiers, seeing “the blacks” as monsters, not human, likely to turn round and cut her throat if she isn’t careful. She even spend the first part of their trek through the forest with her rifle pointed at Billy. As their perilous trip continues they very slowly start to realise how similar they are, how both have been robbed by the brutal, uncaring Powers That Be, with everything taken from them, their lands, their families. Baykali Ganambarr’s performance too is just something else to behold – modern Australia is still coming to terms with the historical abuse of Aboriginal people, and it seems clear this young actor took very seriously the chance to portray some of that history on the screen. A scene where he is treated with some small humanity by an elderly man sees him break down in tears, “this is my land, this is my land…” he weeps as the gentle treatment breaks the emotional dam within him.

These actors are put through the emotional wringer repeatedly, without even so much as a soundtrack to distract from the vicious horrors inflicted upon them, and yes, it is hard to take – it should be hard to take, after all – but ye gods, the acting craft on show here from these young leads is just superb to see, and the way it is constructed and put together so assuredly by Kent I was again constantly reminding myself that this was only her second feature film, and yet here was this immensely powerful subject matter, deftly handled by director and actors, unflinchingly presented with assured hands on the tiller. I’ve got Kent marked down as one of my directors to watch out for in the future. Like Karyn Kusama after watching Destroyer and The Invitation, I now have Kent on my list of film-makers where I will watch any new work they do (and come on, we all love film here, so I am sure many of you also love finding new talent like this too).

This limited edition Blu-Ray release from Second Sight comes with a pile of extras, including numerous interviews (some had to be recorded during the ongoing pandemic and so aren’t shot in quite the way they would be normally, but that’s to be expected in current conditions, and in fact I think kudos go to the Second Sight team for being able to arrange them during these wretched Covid days). I found Franciosi’s interview in the extras to be the most compelling; I said earlier how deep her acting felt to me, and in this extra she revealed a lot of what went into that performance, and also how much it took out of her (I was unsurprised that at the end of filming, emotionally and physically exhausted, she told her agent to hold offers for a while because she needed the rest). All of that performance, that authenticity, that depth of expression and emotion, is all up there on the screen, a testament to the cast and the crew,

The Nightingale is released on a special limited edition Blu-Ray by Second Sight on February 8th. This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Reviews: the Sea Shepherd

Sea Shepherd,
Sean Azzopardi

The most powerful weapons in the world for shaping public opinion and changing the world are cameras, pens, pencils, paint brushes and the ability to speak passionately in defence of the planet.”
Captain Paul Watson, from his foreword.

Documenting the Sea Shepherd organisation for protecting marine wildlife and the biosphere of the seas, founded in 1977 by activists no longer prepared to simply bear witness and document atrocities with existing groups like Greenpeace, but to take direct action, Sean Azzopardi brings the motivations that inspired this ongoing struggle to vivid and disturbing life. Right from the opening pages we are spared no punches – this is a violent, bloody, gory business that sees the worst and best of human activity in the natural world, and it is not for the faint of heart. In the first few pages we have the working of an explosive harpoon explained, and how it is used to kill a whale in a violent, painful death, before it is hauled onto floating death factories to be ripped apart.

The following pages – and we are only a handful of pages into the book at this point – explores the disgusting spectacle of the Grindadràp, the hunt and mass slaughter of whales and dolphins that takes place in the Faroe Islands. To the Faroese this is an ancient ritual enacted since the days of the Norseman. While it may once have been an important supplement to the local diet in these remote islands, that’s not the case today (in fact, as reports and the book point out, the whale and dolphin meat harvested is considered unsafe for human consumption by EU scientists, due to marine pollution absorbed by the animals), and it is now basically a part of the cultural identity of the islands. And while I am sympathetic to protecting cultural heritage, when it is this brutal, bloody and not necessary, it seems horrible to continue to practise it.

We’re shown how entire pods are driven into bays – every single member dispatched, young, old, even pregnant whales and dolphins, blunt gaffes thrust into their blowholes to drag them onto the beach so a large knife can be shoved through to try and cut the spinal cord. As you can imagine, despite what the local government claims, this is not exactly a swift, humane form of killing an animal, and any slaughterhouse in Europe taking this long to kill an animal would be prosecuted. Here it is not only tolerated but celebrated, a total clash between locals who love their tradition and see no wrong in it and others attempting to protect the sea-going mammals.

Yes, it is a very strong opening few pages – brutal and bloody and shocking. And so it should be.

From here we flash back a bit, with Paul Watson talking about what drove him to leave Greenpeace and set up the Sea Shepherd, and his obvious good-humoured appropriation of the term “pirates” that has been applied to them (which they gleefully allude to in their flag). Have they committed almost piratical acts on the high seas? Yes, he agrees, they have, several times now, not just blocked hunting vessels, they have quite deliberately rammed them. Yes, that is a powerful action to take, he agrees, but the ships they rammed were all acting illegally, with their flagged countries most often turning a blind eye to what was going on, pretending not to be aware of their actions, until the Sea Shepherd crews forced their hands, not to mention bringing the glare of public and media scrutiny to bear.

It’s not all horror and piracy though, there is a strong sense of humour here too – while they have rammed illegal whalers, for the most part Watson describes how they have responded to attacks by hunter’s vessels with a wonderful, almost schoolboy level of fun, such as launching stink bombs onto decks of the offending, illegal hunting vessels. It sounds almost slapstick, and while it is funny, it is also deadly serious and quite effective, and has saved the lives of many whales. Members have been arrested and beaten, but it doesn’t stop them continuing their work.

The artwork throughout is in full colour, and Sean uses this strategically, especially the colour red used judiciously for maximum impact, such as the seas going red with the blood of helpless, slaughtered animals, or an effective repeating sequence of talking heads, the same close up image of Watson but each with a different colour wash in each panel (a little Warholesque) as he talks directly to camera. The style is in a strong, mostly clear-line approach, especially when showing the people, moving the panel frequency and size to suit the subject nicely, and with some very nice larger splash panels dropped in (a sea turtle spread across two pages is just gorgeous and makes you stop for a moment to drink it in, as well as reminding you that these remarkable creatures are part of why the activists do what they do).

If you want to be an effective conservation organisation then you have to say the things that people don’t want to hear. You have to do the things that people don’t want to be seen to be done. You have to rock the boat and piss people off…. We cannot live on this planet with dead oceans. If the oceans die, we die.”

Watson makes no bones about the often controversial nature of their work and campaigns – hunters, local communities, even national governments are often furious with the Sea Shepherd crews for their work (not least because it often shames them in public for ignoring or even condoning not just immoral but often internationally illegal practises by their vessels). Yes, he acknowledges, as can be seen in the quote above, that they do get in other people’s faces, even other conservation groups, while they share their aims, are not pleased with their methods. Similarly Watson and his cremates are dissatisfied with the quieter approach of other groups, stating that sometimes you just have to get your hands dirty to protect the animals and the seas.

In an ideal world this sort of direct action wouldn’t be required, but the sad fact is that there aren’t enough protections in place for both marine animals and the aquatic environment, and those that have been painstakingly hammered out in international law are all too often subverted, either by illegal criminal action or equally illegal but secretly condoned by national government action, so I think it’s quite easy to understand that, up against this mindset, some have decided to take a serious stand and shout it out to the world while they do so. Hopefully this adds another voice to that chorus.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes