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.
It’s Pancake Day here, which means an excuse to revisit one of my favourite Hellboy short stories from Mike Mignola’s wonderful series published by Dark Horse – and here it is, brought to animated life by Element X as a short film!
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
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
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.
The Night Porter, Directed by Liliana Cavani, Starring Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Phillipe Leroy
Cult Films brings a sharp, 4K restored version of Cavani’s 1974 controversial classic to Blu-Ray, and the passage of the decades has not lessened its impact, the ability of this film to be simultaneously fascinating, compelling, provocative and disturbing. Max (Bogarde, an actor too often overlooked these days, I think), is working as a night porter, manning the desk in a hotel in 1950s Vienna, where he and several other old comrades meet regularly to plan how to keep their wartime records in the SS concealed and themselves safe from any possible justice for their actions as part of the Nazi regime. They ensure documents are destroyed and any potential witnesses dealt with to ensure their anonymous safety. There is no hint of regret for their part in the atrocities performed by the SS, only the ruthless desire to avoid ever being brought to account for it.
Max is quiet, not just a man keeping a low profile, Bogarde invests him with a real feeling of a damaged person who has retreated from much of the world, not only to hide his past, but because he feels self-revulsion, even preferring to work night shifts because the harsh light of day shines too bright a light on his life and guilt. He is tightly buttoned, quiet, fastidious in appearance, not rocking the boat with his old SS comrades but neither fully joining in either. When we see him in a scene in his apartment we see behind this quiet, impeccably turned out exterior, his hair awry, pulling his curtains against the coming day, shuddering and crying as wartime memories overwhelm him.
When a famous conductor arrives at the hotel with his wife Lucia (Rampling), the pair recognise one another, triggering flashbacks for both: Max as an SS officer in one of the death camps, Lucia as one of the inmates who captures his eye. It’s an interesting reversal – from the wartime camps where Max held all the power and could indulge in exploitation as he wished, with impunity, now he is the one who is frightened, his potential survival threatened as she now has the power over him.
Except Night Porter isn’t that simple – you might expect after the initial shock of encountering this former SS officer who used her, Lucia would be angry, seek justice, tell her husband and then the authorities who Max really is. But that doesn’t happen – both she and Max struggle with the rush of barely repressed memories, but what transpires, both the wartime events and the current events in the hotel, is a more complicated mix than oppressed and oppressor, there is a strange relationship here. A twisted, very damaged relationship, to be sure, but there is something there, and they feel its compulsion once more, falling into a strange, often sado-masochistic, dark form of romance.
A lot of the criticism of this film, then and now, is that it is basically Nazi sexploitation. And while, yes, it does feature a lot of very odd sexual scenes – a shorn-haired prisoner Lucia, half naked in an officer’s cap, singing Lili Marlene songs as she dances seductively for the SS officers in the camp, for instance, or vulnerable, naked prisoners being filmed by Max as they are interviewed – I don’t hold with the sexploitation label myself. Despite the sexual scenes and nudity it’s often not what I’d think of as erotic, more disturbing, an exploration of two fragmented , damaged psyches. Cavani always maintained that it wasn’t really about the sex, and I tend to agree, those elements are more visual symptoms of the trauma both have lived with.
I first saw this film many decades ago, and this is the first time I’ve rewatched it since – I found it a remarkable and unusual film then, and even more so today. Cavani frames some astonishing scenes – the half-naked cabaret scene I mentioned earlier is a visual that sticks in the mind – but the real standout here are the performances from Bogarde and Rampling, so much communicated through very small gestures, body language, tiny changes to expressions to indicate the whirling turmoil within Max and Lucia.
Cult Film’s 4K restoration does justice to this unusual, provocative movie, showing it off, and including extras such as new interviews with both director Cavani and Charlotte Rampling, both of whom have some interesting insights into this very unusual slice of film history.
The Night Porter gets its 4k Blu-Ray release by Cult Film on November 30th. This review was originally penned for Live For Films
Dawn of the Dead Limited Edition Blu-Ray & 4K UHD, Directed by George A. Romero, Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
“When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth”
I’ve loved Romero’s movies for as long as I can remember liking horror films. Dawn of the Dead, the second of his original trilogy (which later grew into a longer series), still occupies a special place in my Romero Pantheon though, and indeed retains a special place in my favourite horror films of all time, an excellent mix of horror, both from the gruesome deaths waiting everywhere by the hungry, walking dead, but also from the rapid disintegration of civilisation and the way so many humans respond to it, often as bad or worse than the zombie threat itself, leavened with some humour (few zombie horrors offer us the delights of the classic cream pie in the face fight!), and, of course, Romero’s social observations and satire.
I would imagine most collectors willing to spring for this pretty magnificent limited edition set from Second Sight will already be more than familiar with the film, and all of Romero’s works, but for those less familiar, a quick recap. Following the events of Romero’s seminal 1960s, genre-defining class Night of the Living Dead, the plague of the dead reanimating and stumbling slowly but remorselessly in pursuit of living flesh to chew has spread, civilisation is collapsing. We begin with two different scenes which introduce the main character – one set in a news studio, desperately trying to remain on the air and issue emergency information to citizens as communications break down and people give up and flee, one by one (including news helicopter pilot Stephen “Flyboy” Andrews – David Emge – and his partner Fran Parker, played by Gaylen Ross).
The other sees a SWAT squad of heavily armed police backed up my army units storming a down-town building, encountering a mix of gun-toting gang-bangers, desperate civilians and reanimated corpses. This is where we meet Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (the iconic Ken Foree), dealing with criminals, zombies and fellow officers losing the plot and going gun-crazy as the situation falls apart. Even the police are giving up, the city is lost, most are choosing to flee while they can, and Roger tells Peter that his friend, Stephen, is a chopper pilot and he’s meeting him and Fran to escape later, inviting Peter to come with them.
On the run we see encounters with other frightened groups of survivors and the ever present menace of the creeping undead – nowhere is safe, even a rural airstrip where they stop to refuel, seemingly deserted. It is here we see the infamous “head slicing” as a zombie lurches towards Roger refuelling the chopper, unable to hear it over the engine noise, turning as he sees it stand up on a pile of boxes to get to him, only for the whirling blades to slice strips from the top of its skull (bloody but quite amazing special effects by the now famous wizard Tom Savini, all practical effects, long before the dawn of CGI), a scene which manages to be stomach-turning and funny at the same time. A second scene in the small airport building, however, is far harder to take – Peter hears a noise, shoots through the door, only for it to open and two child zombies rush out at him, forcing him to shoot both in the head. They are undead zombies, but it’s still shooting a child, and Foree, to his credit, shows the toll this takes on Peter in a very quiet, understated but effective manner. The message here is clear: the world they knew, of rules and safety, is gone, they now have to commit acts they would never have dreamed of if they are to survive.
It is on the run that they spot a huge structure, which turns out to be an enormous indoor shopping mall – at the time a very new thing in the world. Originally planning to land and grab some supplies, they soon realise they could block the doorways with delivery trucks, clear the few zombies inside, and have a secure location to rest, which has everything they need from radios and TVs to listen for emergency broadcasts to clothes and every sort of food. The temporary stop soon becomes long-term, as what was a brief respite becomes a lack of drive to try and escape further north as originally planned – seduced by all the consumerist delights they make their new home comfortable with furniture from the stores, new clothes, an arsenal of weapons, drink and food. Fran, now several months pregnant, realises that they have essentially created their own comfortable prison, but it is one that will soon be shattered by the arrival of a marauding army of bikers who have been living on the road since the zombie apocalypse, pillaging where they can (and I will go no further for fear of spoilers for those who still haven’t seen this classic).
I will add, however, that re-visiting this film now, in the midst of our resurgent pandemic situation, added another layer for me as a viewer – the urge for our protagonists to hide inside and largely ignore the (unsafe) outside world, the sudden burst of pleasure after normal life is destroyed, in doing something as normal as shopping for stuff, half of which you don’t really need but just want the fun of shopping and buying and feeling normal. Oh yes, that took on a different meaning after all we’ve been going through this year. But then again that’s the mark of good storytelling, that it was written to speak about events of its own time but can still be re-interpreted decades on in a very different situation.
One of the aspects of Romero’s film-making I have always respected was his ability to take something different for each of his zombie films, something cultural and social from the era he made each in – Civil Rights being a huge influence in the original 1960s Night of the Living Dead, Cold War paranoia and apocalypse in the military bunker-set Day of the Dead, social media in Diary of the Dead and so on. Here in this 1970s offering with its vast, sprawling indoor mall of endless shops it is our lust for consumerism – a drive so strong that it attracts not only our fleeing heroes and distracts them with its baubles when they should be making plans to retreat somewhere safer, but also the zombies themselves. The undead have massed around this huge structure, struggling to get past the barricades our heroes put in place.
They are walking corpses, the items in the stores are of no use to them now (and in a dark mirror reflection we see that ultimately most of those shiny items we are so sure our life isn’t complete without are mostly of no use to Flyboy, Peter, Roger and Fran either, except as a dangerous distraction from the reality crashing in all around them). Flyboy opines that the reason so many are trying to get in is because they saw them enter and know they are still there. No, Peter argues, it isn’t them they are after, it is the building, the shops. They are us, or were us, and some dim spark in their decaying brains remembers this place as somewhere they liked to be, and it drives them on still in their undead existence, almost as strong an imperative as the urge for fresh flesh.
These limited edition 4K UHD and Blu-Ray sets are pretty damned impressive – we get three cuts of the film, from the original theatrical version, the slightly longer “Cannes” cut, and a third by the legendary Italian maestro of horror, Dario Argento, who wrote the story with Romero and was instrumental in getting international finance to allow the film to be made. There are CDs of the soundtrack by Argento regulars Goblin, newly commissioned artwork, a novelisation of the film and a hardback collection of essays, Dissecting the Dead.
Also among the extras, in addition to different commentaries on each of the various cuts of the film offered here (from Romero to Tom Savini to Ken Foree and others), there is an entire disc full of extras, which I have to say I really enjoyed working my way through. My favourite here was Zombies and Bikers, which talks to a whole slew of crew and cast, including many who gave their time to appear as zombie extras or the biker army, many of whom would be singled out by Romero for special close-ups and their own mini-arcs in the film. Memories of Monroeville sees Michael Gornick, Tom Savini, Tom Dubensky and Taso Stavrakis return to the original mall to explore some of the locations where they shot scenes and reminisce about the filming. Romero was friendly with people who ran the mall, and they allowed him to use it, but he could only shoot at night after the stores closed, which meant a long, arduous shooting schedule, having to wrap each morning as the automated, canned music and voice over ads on the speakers would come on by themselves (this is echoed in the film where the same music and ads for the stores continues to play in the now empty – save for our four protagonists – mall, another echo of the emptiness of trying to fill our lives with consumerism).
A common thread in these two documentary extras, apart from a nice feeling of nostalgia as those involve look back on the work they did and how they could never at the time have anticipated that decades on it would remain this iconic, landmark film, is the sheer warmth in their memories. Despite the hours, working through the night for little money, many joining the shoot at night after their day jobs, everyone genuinely seems to have wonderful memories of the film, and most especially of the late Romero and what a charming and delightful director he was to work with. It reminded me of the time Romero visited the Edinburgh International Film Festival with Diary of the Dead – decent enough film, not his best though, but the reception the man himself got from the audience was amazing, it was clear how much love there was in the room for this man, he was “Uncle George” to most of us, and I could see that in these recollections in the extras.
It was also very clear from these documentaries, and a previously unseen interview with Romero, that this film, a film that now has a secure place in cinema history, only exists because so many people like those featured in the extras here were happy to put in the time, working for a token fee, to help make Romero’s script turned into reality, while others helped with letting them use locations they could never have afforded to rent or recreate on a sound-stage. With many it came down to a combination of love for his Night of the Living Dead and also a lovely community support aspect – a sort of wow, we’re making a feature film right here in Pittsburgh, not Hollywood, yes, I want to help you make that happen. Again it is such a warm wave of enthusiasm and mutual support for fellow creators which is inspiring to see. All in all this is a terrific collector’s edition, with well-restored cuts of the film in different edits and jam-packed with extras, giving this iconic horror the respect it richly deserves.
The limited edition set Second Sight has put together is a cine-collector’s dream – three different cuts of the film, a whole disc full of extras, newly commissioned artwork, audio CDs (including Goblin’s soundtrack), novelisation and a hardback book, Dissecting the Dead. Dawn of the Dead is released in a special Limited Edition 4K UHD and Blu-Ray by Second Sight on November 16th
Helmut Newton: the Bad and the Beautiful,
Directed by Gero Von Boehm
Blue Finch Releasing
“A lot of the men told me they were afraid, the girls look down on the man who is looking at them.”
Helmut Newton, who passed away in 2004, was one of the most famous photographers in the world, especially in the realm of fashion photography. He was also often very controversial, not least for his very stylised nude images of women. For some they were the height of misogyny, the photographer arranging women’s bodies in a style and pose that fitted some mental image he had, indulging his own inner fetish of how an idealised female form should be, the models denuded, not only of clothes but personality, becoming like artfully arranged mannequins for his camera & mind.
But for others he created images of very strong women, often sexually imposing – as the quote by Newton himself at the top of this piece indicates, in many poses, despite being naked ostensibly for the “male gaze”, the women strike such a powerful pose, often shot from a low angle so they seem to be looking down at the viewer, their physique idealised, and powerful (like a cross between Classic Greek statuary and the idealised athletic bodies Leni Riefenstahl filmed in the 30s), in a manner which could intimidate the viewer. In some ways they look more as if they are the ones in the position of power, quite assured of their own place, tolerating the gaze of the viewer, not at the mercy of it.
Some of this is corroborated by the many famous “talking heads” included in Von Boehm’s documentary, which includes his wife (and sometimes model and fellow photographer) June Newton, Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Anna Wintour, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithfull and more. Rossellini, who was first photographed by Newton with David Lynch during the Blue Velvet shoot, noted he posed her with the famous director almost like a puppet that Lynch was moving as he wanted it to move, which, as she adds, in a way is partly the actor-director relationship so it worked quite well. Charlotte Rampling commented that he could be provocative, but that can be a good thing as she thinks the world needs a little provocation from time to time, especially in the arts, as it stimulates thought and discussion.
The formidable Grace Jones laughingly recalled him dismissing her at first because her breasts weren’t large enough (which rather adds to those arguing he was a misogynist who saw women as objects for his imagination and lens), but he eventually did make a pretty remarkable sequence of photos with her, notably some with actor Rolph Lundgren, which remain pretty striking. These included some interestingly posed nudes with the pair looking almost sculpted, one with Grace, already a tall and pretty striking looking woman as we all know, looking even taller and more imposing as she stand nude in a high position in a truck looking down on Lundgren (and by extension the viewer). “He was a little bit perverted. But so am I, so it’s okay,” Jones added, with a huge laugh.
The film does not ignore his detractors, however – for instance there is a fascinating clip from a 1970s French talk show with Newton and Susan Sontag, where she says that she quite likes him personally, but she has great problems with his work, and considers it to be strongly misogynistic. Newton replies (also in French) that he cannot be a misogynist as he loves women more than anything else in the world. Sontag fixes him with a look and coolly responds that she has heard so many misogynists make exactly that claim that they love women, with the inference being that no, what they really love is their own, internal, idealised version of what they want a woman to be.
There are other moments that show a sly sense of humour – he offers, for instance, to do a portrait shot of French politician Jean-Marie LePen. Who is of course flattered the world famous photographer wishes to do his portrait. Why does Newton – who was a child in Germany during the rise of the Nazis – want to take a portrait of this far-right fascistic politician? Well it turns out he does a lovely portrait, suggesting LePen bring his beloved dogs into the picture – LePen unaware that Newton is quite deliberately styling this portrait of the French far-right politician to look like a famous portrait of Adolf Hitler with his dogs. By the time LePen realises he has been played and the image criticizes and pastiches him and his lamentable politics it is too late and it has gone to press.
Other subjects discuss his work in terms of time and place, especially the 1980s fashion world, where his style of photographing women coincided with the rise of designers like Karl Lagerfeld, their fashions and the stylistic approach of his camera working well together. Other more personal moments reveal the person behind the lens, away from his “perfect”, idealised model imagery, his wife June recalls him taking his camera to visit her in hospital, but knowing this was a coping mechanism, that having the camera there helped him mediate the terror of seeing a loved one ill and in hospital, gave him something to cling to, some structure, a little control
It’s a fascinating documentary of an iconic twentieth century photographer; where you may fall on the discussion over celebrating or exploiting women in his imagery is a debate that I suspect will long continue, and as the documentary shows, those who knew him best, those who worked with him, have different opinions themselves on this issue. What the documentary does well is to show his work, place it in some context both of its time and of his life and influences, and to explore these different views of his work, while also showing that we are talking not just about these issues but about a person and their life, with all the complexities that entails.
Helmut Newton: the Bad and the Beautiful comes out via Blue Finch Releasing in Curzon Home Cinema and Digital Download from October 23rd. This review was originally penned for Live For Films.
Starring Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg, David Gulpilil,
Directed by Nic Roeg
During the Lockdown, BBC4 in the UK broadcast David Stratton’s “Stories of Australian Cinema”, a three part documentary on the history and evolution of film-making in that vast, continent-sized country. Naturally one of the films covered was the legendary Nic Roeg’s 1971 movie, Walkabout and I’ve had a strong urge to revisit this film since watching the series. And then Second Sight announced a limited edition Blu-Ray of Walkabout (packed with extras, including interviews with Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg, in a box set complete with James Vance Marshall’s original 1950s novel), and there I was losing myself in this classic again.
Both then and now there was some debate, not least in Australia itself, around whether Walkabout is really an Aussie film – a British director, US money, but shot in Australia. For my money it is very much an Australian film, not just because of the location, but the way Roeg makes that vast, ancient land an important part of the film. These are not just locations for a scene, the land itself often is the scene, or a strong part of it; the small-scale human interaction within it may drive the actual narrative, but the land itself surrounds everything they do and say, the two English children (Agutter and a very young Luc Roeg as her small brother) in their school uniforms and prim, plummy accents, outsiders in an environment they not only don’t understand but aren’t really equipped to even really try to comprehend, Gulpilil the Aboriginal boy on Walkabout, brought up to respect the land, the stories that go with it, that form his culture and his guide to survival.
The story is essentially pretty simple – the two children, Agutter and Roeg – are stranded in the Outback desert when their father, who has driven them there for a picnic, loses his mind, and attempts to kill them, before setting fire to the car and taking his own life. Agutter hides the suicide from her young brother, grabs some of the food and the two start walking. But they are from a city environment, and a strata of society that back then still had a middle-class that basically tried to recreate the middle-class English existence, there’s no attempt to adapt and assimilate into this other country, it is more an attempt to push a transplanted cultural imperialism onto it, and means they haven’t the faintest idea about the vastness of the Outback, much less how to survive (when they encounter Gulpilil Agutter asks him for water. He doesn’t speak English so she simply repeats herself as if speaking to an imbecile, before muttering that she can’t be any clearer. It’s a polite version of the modern, mono-lingual Brit abroad who thinks if they shout loudly in English the other person will understand them somehow).
The good-natured Gulpilil communicates with them through mime and gesture, mostly with Roeg’s younger brother, the two forming a bit of a bond together. Gulpilil generously helps the pair find water and shares his hunting kills with them, slowly guiding them back towards their own world after some shared travels. You could see it as strangers in a strange land fable, as a coming of age story (especially Agutter and Gulpilil, the two teens on the cusp of adulthood and all that brings with it), or as a survival story, or a mix of all three. And indeed yes, Walkabout is all of these things, but really, those are just the skeletons the film is draped over.
No, the real essence of Walkabout isn’t really those elements, it is a wonderfully-realised dream-like state, using clever imagery, symbolism and cross-cutting and editing, to create an atmosphere and imagery that is as rich as the Outback environment itself, a filmic version of the ancient Songlines and Dreamtime of Aboriginal culture, sometimes languid, like the dream of a half-waking doze on a warm day, sometimes sudden, even violent, mixing Aboriginal culture (Gulpilil, already an experienced dancer despite his young age here, crafts an intoxicating scene entirely through traditional dancing) and allusions to the Garden of Eden, innocence and its loss, nature and the urban.
This isn’t a film that is easy to review, because it’s more than a film, Walkabout is an experience, a waking dream on celluloid that can be shared, and how each of us reacts to those images and sounds will be different. It is a film to lose yourself in, to drink in those rich images, that landscape and nature. A commercial flop on its original release, it remains an important film, lauded by many critics and the BFI as a classic – it helped to kickstart the new wave of Aussie film-making which has gone on to enrich world cinema (something we here obviously care deeply about), and it launched the then-young Gulpilil onto a career which has seen him become an iconic figure in Australian cinema. If, like me, you haven’t seen this film in a long time, this is a very welcome chance to revisit this moving dream of a movie; if you haven’t seen it before then sit back and let this classic wash over you with its rich imagery.
Walkabout will receive a limited edition Blu-Ray release from Second Sight from 27th August
Echoes of Fear,
Starring Trista Robinson, Hannah Race, Paul Chirico, Marshal Hilton, Norman Zeller
Directed by Brian Avenet-Bradley, Laurence Avenet-Bradley
Arriving after generating a lot of good word of mouth on the festival circuit, Brian and Laurence Avenet-Bradley’s Indy US horror offers the discerning horror hound an intriguing, well-made, gloriously slow-burn take on the age-old haunted house genre, not using the (to me anyway) increasingly annoying jump-cuts to generate fright (I don’t think they do, startling is not the same as creating terror or fright), but by doing it the correct way, taking time to build atmosphere, slowly building up events and adding in some red herrings, to draw the viewer deeply into the film.
As you may guess from that statement, I am a sucker for a good haunted house story, but all too often come away disappointed by directors who opt for predictable cliché and quick jumps in lieu of the effort of deeper storytelling and atmosphere-building, the sorts of things that really make a good ghost story work. Here the Avenet-Bradley’s do take that time, allowing their camera to explore the huge, unusually laid out old house from intriguing, often unsettling angles, and their minimal cast (Trista Robinson as Alisa carries much of the film herself, her boyfriend, Paul Chirico as Brandon, often absent – also fairly useless in helping her – her only main help her best friend, Steph, played by Hannah Race) to lay down those foundations that let the story grow at its own pace.
Alisa has inherited this huge, rambling, hillside house from her doting, loving grandfather, who supposedly had a heart attack in the shower… Except a brief prologue hints to us that perhaps this wasn’t quite natural causes and there is someone, something in the house. Alisa moves in with the intent of sorting through her grandfather’s belongings, fixing up anything needing repaired and selling the house on. Her boyfriend can only stay briefly, leaving her mostly on her own, apart from visits from her friend Steph, even when Alisa starts to worry that there is something not right in the house.
The house itself is almost another character in this minimal cast ensemble. Built on a rocky hillside it has multiple levels sloping down, and many rooms, an awful lot of storage spaces (more than you’d expect), crawl spaces behind walls and under the lower parts of the rambling structure, concealed elements above in the high ceiling upper parts. The camera glides around all of these by day and night, and soon generates a feeling of unease even before anything much has happened – there is something just wrong about this house, the size, the layout, the multiple rooms and closets, the hidden little nooks. Despite her growing unease – at first she fears a squatter has been using the weird design of the house to sneak in and camp out somewhere, and she may be right – Brandon shrugs everything off and leaves Alisa to sort the place out.
But she is right, there is something wrong with this place, and not just a potential squatter. It starts slowly, finding something in a different place from where she left it, wondering if she just imagined it, noises that may just be the sounds of an old house or may be something more. Finding items from a squatter in a concealed area should solve that mystery, but no, that’s not the main cause of the noises and unease. The camera follows Alisa through both big, open spaces, like the high-ceilinged, broad living room to the tight confines of the crawlspace under the house.
While you’d expect the latter to create a nice, claustrophobic fear, which it does, the Avenet-Bradleys also manage to craft that fear even in the more open, well-lit spaces, making Alisa seem vulnerable to something that could come from anywhere around her. Even minimalist moves like the camera looking out of a brightly lit bedroom into a dark hallway beyond the open door contrive to create a creeping unease – such a simple move but so effective (it reminded me of Dyson and Nyman’s Ghost Stories, which took a dark staircase in an ordinary suburban home and also made it creepingly terrifying through little more than slow camera moves and darkness and tension).
As Alisa realises there is more going on than a squatter, she attempts, despite her fear, to deal with it in a fairly practical fashion, she’s quite resourceful and determined (I would have been running out of there!). Since most ghost lore hints that a spectre remains because it has some unfinished business in the mortal realm, that it needs help to complete before it can move on, she starts to investigate the house, and her grandfather’s death. Was it really a heart attack? Was this presence there when he lived here? What does it want? Is it connected to her family in some way she doesn’t know, or just a random manifestation?
I’m not going to go any further on those latter points as it would risk us crossing over the border into that unattractive land of Spoiler Country. Suffice to say Alisa is going to investigate, and there may be more going on here than at first we may think. In many ways Echoes of Fear plays the many classic tropes of the Old Haunted House genre, but in many other ways it takes its own path and its own style to generate a genuinely dread-inducing ghost tale, wonderfully slow-burn, building, building, building, to a satisfying crescendo. This is one to watch good and late at night, with most of the lights out, for maximum effect!
Echoes of Fear is released on demand and download by Second Sight from July 20th, and on DVD (Certificate 15) from August 3rd.
The Grudge: the Untold Chapter,
Directed by Nicolas Pesce,
Starring Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver
Directed by the gifted Nicolas Pesce (Eyes of My Mother), and produced by the legendary Sam Raimi, and with a very fine cast, this new take on the established horror franchise created y Takashi Shimizu promises a lot, this promises a lot, but sadly only partially delivers. Originally conceived as a new start on the US version of the J-horror classic series, during production this changed tack, deciding not on a reboot but on a side story, an offshoot covering events that take place in the established history of the other films.
Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood), an American nurse working in Japan in 2004, visits the now infamous house in Tokyo, and leaves in a disturbed state of mind. In fact she is so shaken by her visit to this house she phones in her resignation to the nursing agency and is on the next flight back home, desperate to return to American and her husband and daughter. What she doesn’t realise – and long-term fans will already have guessed – is that anyone who sets foot in that house is now under its curse, and that curse knows no geographical constraints. Fiona is, in effect, bringing the curse to her own home, without being aware of it…
The film takes a multi-part approach to the narrative, criss-crossing different people and families in different years who are all affected by the curse after coming into contact with the house which was once the happy family home of the Landers, including Betty Gilpin’s (Glow) Nina Spencer and Star Trek’s John Cho as her husband Peter, who don’t even live there, but as estate agents come into contact with the curse when Peter visits the house after being unable to get the Landers to answer their phone to deal with their house sale. Others drawn into this cursed orbit include horror queen Lin Shaye (Insidious), newly bereaved detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) and her young son trying to make a new life in a new home after the loss of her husband, and local police officers, one of whom senses the curse and avoids the house, while his partner is slowly driven mad by it.
I thought this multi-chronology approach, with multiple story arcs converging as Muldoon investigates a newly-found body in a car in the woods (newly-found but one that had clearly been there for years) that is linked to the house, a house with a history of previous deaths, was pretty clever in principle, but, for me at least, it didn’t quite deliver as much as it should, with the moving between different characters in different years making it hard to settle into the narrative or really get to know and care about the characters. That said I salute the attempt to shape a different storyline from the previous entries – I’m glad they wanted to make something a bit different, I’m just not sure it entirely gels as it should have.
This is not to say it is a bad film overall though – this old horror hound still found some pleasures here, Pesce and his very fine cast delivering some nicely chilling – and in some cases quite gruesome (a scene chopping food in the kitchen made even me wince) scenes, and, as I said, the idea of the multi-angled narrative of several different years in the life of the cursed house and those whose lives it corrupts is interesting, and a refreshing change of tack in the franchise, and I appreciated that this is part of the established history of the series rather than a reboot. Pesce and cinematographer Zachary Galler also frame and light some very effective scenes (William Sadler’s Detective Wilson, standing on the lawn in the pouring rain, just staring at the house is as disturbing as the more overtly horror moments). It’s not going to win over any new converts, I think, but while flawed, it still has some effective moments and long-time Grudge fans should still find it interesting.
The Grudge: the Untold Chapter is released by Sony Pictures UK on Digital from May 18th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from June 1st, including bonus material and alternate ending.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood,
Directed by Marielle Heller,
Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni
“You don’t consider yourself famous?”
“Fame is a four letter word, like tape, or zoom and face. Ultimately what matters is what you do with it.”
“What are you doing with it?”
“We are trying to give children positive ways to deal with their feelings.”
Fred Rogers, simply knowns as “Mister Rogers” to generations of child viewers, was an institution in American broadcasting for children, an integral part of many a childhood, a virtual friend to many kids who needed one, with his show, Mister Rogers Neighbourhood, which ran from 1968 to 2001 (with a small gap in the 70s). Like many in the UK I knew very little about him as the show wasn’t really known here, and most of what I knew about it I had picked up from references in countless American TV shows and films (the amount of times the show and the man are mentioned in so many different programmes and films gives you an idea of how embedded in the popular culture it was in the US, generations grew up with this).
Not being overly familiar with the show and so lacking that nostalgic affection for it, I was curious to see this movie (especially after it garnered praise at the highly respected Toronto film fest), but also rather worried that without that familiarity and affection for the show and the man, that I might not be able to connect with it. Well, that wasn’t the case – Marielle Heller and her crew and cast (especially Hanks, pretty much perfectly cast, and Rhys as the cynical journalist Lloyd) have crafted a film which is universally accessible to all viewers, regardless of their familiarity or lack thereof with the show, because this film is, at its very core, a film about the emotional depths of the human soul, about the dark places, the things that frighten us, worry us, make us angry, and how we can try to overcome them, about how it is is a good thing to listen, to be there for someone, to help, and in turn that it is okay to admit we are scared or angry, and to take a hand when it is offered.
The film is not, as I first thought, a biopic about Rogers (played by Tom Hanks), rather it is inspired by a late 1990s article about him for Esquire magazine. Journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a famous and respected investigative journalist, and more than a little put out when his editor hands him the assignment of a short interview with Rogers for a special issue on heroes. He’s far from happy, considering this a puff piece, and after his brief meeting with Rogers during a short break filming his show, he feels that there is something more here. While everyone loves Mr Rogers, he starts to think there must be something else, darker, hidden behind the home-knitted cardigans and gentle manner, and begins to plan a much longer piece on his own.
We’ve sadly become all too use to many much-loved popular culture figures later being exposed as something so far from their warm, public persona, and often feel a sense of betrayal, of another layer of cynicism added to our emotional armour when this happens. Here, however, the darkness is very much Lloyd’s own problems being reflected – his cynicism, his still simmering anger years later at the loss of his mother, of his estranged, womanising father’s betrayal of her when she was ill, his worries about responsibility for his and his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their newborn baby. Rogers sees this in Lloyd, and with the same patient, understanding, reassuring approach he took to helping kids deal with emotional problems on his show, he gently befriends Lloyd, helping him to realise he can face that loss, grief and anger, but come through the other side.
This really, really could have ended up being a sugary, shmaltzy, syrupy story. That it isn’t is a huge credit to Heller, Hanks and Rhys, who offer a quite beautiful, emotional tale that will want to make you both cry and smile, while also giving some lovely visual treats – the model of the neighbourhood that was used in the show re-appears here (as do the various puppet characters and others), but that model approach is then also used for the different locations throughout the film, a lovely touch (and props to the model makers re-creating this in the same style as the original), or Lloyd hallucinating himself to be the size of the show’s puppets, on the model set, being asked by Fred about his problems, or a moment with the pair on the New York subway, where passengers recognise Rogers and start to sing his theme song, to his delight.
No, this may be a feel-good film in many ways, but it avoids most of the normal, overly-sugary traps those kinds of films often fall into. Instead we have a piece which feels very empathic, emotionally – you may well find yourself thinking about moments good and bad in your own life as you watch (I certainly did). Neighbourhood takes us on that emotional journey, but tell us that it’s okay, that it’s only human to feel, that it is okay to be sad sometimes, that anger is normal, it is what we do with them, how we deal with them that is important, and how we deal with one another, that bad things happen to us sometimes, but so often there is someone there who wants to help, and it is not weakness to take that hand that reaches out to you. As our entire global community deals with stresses and strains of the pandemic, this may very well be an almost perfect film to enjoy. An absolutely beautiful, warm, emotional journey.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is released by Sony on home digital from May 25th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from June 8th