Reviews: The True Don Quixote

The True Don Quixote,
Directed by Chris Poche,
Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Jacob Batalon, Ann Mahoney

Once you’ve seen how life could be, you can no longer see it as it is.”

I’ve long loved Miguel de Cervantes and his immortal The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, the first part of which was published in Spain in 1605; for over four centuries it has been regarded as a classic work of literature, and a major influence on so many other creators (could De Rostand’s glorious Cyrano exist without the Don?), and here, once more, that story inspires new telling. Quixote has long since entered the imagination of so many around the world; the tales even give us the term “quixotic” to describe someone’s character; few works of art so enter our world quite on that level.

Chris Poche both adapts Cervantes and directs here, working from the first book. And while you don’t need to have read the full text – I’d imagine while many may not have read it all, most are familiar with the basic idea – as a long time admirer of the Don, I was pleased to notice how many beats from Cervantes Poche plays upon. The dreaming man, surrounded by his books of ancient chivalric deeds and quests is happy among the pages, away from the disappointment of real life, until well-intentioned family (in the books his housekeeper and a local priest, trying to help him, here Ann Mahoney’s Janelle, his niece, who lives with him) burn his books in a desperate attempt to bring him back to reality.

Of course it has the opposite effect – Daniel Kehoe (the brilliant Tim Blake Nelson – Oh Brother, Where Art Thou) becomes Don Quixote de la Mancha, in home-made armour, and sets off on his questing, finding along the way his noble steed (a battered old scooter and sidecar which he makes off with) and a squire (Spider-Man’s bestie, Jacob Batalon). Instead of freeing galley slaves, the delightfully demented Don attacks two police officers overseeing prisoners on a work detail, rather than the legendary tilting at windmills, he mistakes an oil derrick for the giant he must battle; there are even some of the scenes from the inn, all beautifully, rather joyfully translated not into the medium of film, but also to fit the contemporary setting (Louisiana), deftly done, managing to bring it into the modern world yet maintain the heart and soul of the original story. They even keep the “the balm of Fierabras” segment (no, you really don’t want to drink this miraculous cure-all!)

Nelson is, as ever, quite wonderful, and his Don Quixote holding forth on chivalric deeds in a broad Southern accent is a delightful mix-match and contrast, while Batalon begins as a fairly passive character, drawn along by Nelson’s Don, but slowly becoming something more – rather pleasingly Batalon’s Kevin/Sancho Panza manages to straddle both the ludicrous yet enticing imaginary world Don Quixote sees with the real world around them, trying in both to help him. The police are hunting them down, many scorn them, yet some are won over, but we know that this cannot continue – it’s the modern world, and just as Cervantes had his modern world that saw Quixote and his fixation on chivalry and knightly deeds as old fashioned, even silly in their era, so too there is seemingly no place for a madman running around with a sword in the middle of a neighbourhood, convinced he is on great quest.

Or is there? I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say Poche takes that central notion from Quixote that has drawn so many dreamers to him across four centuries: is it better to be made to face the real world, grounded, practical but miserable, or to be lost in your own delusional version, but happy? And how does that affect those around him too? As to how the real world, the police, the family and the Don and his Sancho fare against all of that, well, you will have to watch the film to see what happens to our battered, deluded, yet pure of heart knight errant.

This is an absolute delight of a film, and it is clear Poche and his cast love Cervantes and his noble (if mad) Don – for all his deluded insanity, he’s never played as a fool, and while it is frequently funny, it’s not laughing at him too much (okay, some of the time!), as much as holding a mirror up to our own everyday lives and asking, really, wouldn’t it be magical to embrace a little of this? Poche even manages a sort of short musical number at one point, which had me laughing and clapping my hands in joy.

A film for my fellow dreamers and others who know that we should always charge the giants.

The True Don Quixote is released by Signature Entertainment on digital platforms from August 2nd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: The Green Sea

The Green Sea,
Directed by Randal Plunkett,
Starring Katharine Isabelle, Hazel Doupe

Simone (Ginger Snaps and American Mary’s Katharine Isabelle) is an American artist, living a solitary life in a remote country house in Ireland. Formerly a famous musician, now turned writer, she’s far behind on following up her extremely successful debut novel, and goes through her days with minimal contact with the outside world, and copious amounts of alcohol. Her few forays into the nearest town are ordeals for her – she is stared at and to be honest is her own worst enemy, her awful behaviour and attitude alienating everyone she has to come in contact with.

It’s while driving back at night from the town, laden with more supplies (mostly booze), and having already been drinking, she runs into “the kid” – literally. Hazel Douge’s wide-eyed young innocent walks out in front of her on a lonely country road after dark. Panicking and unsure what to do, Simone brings her home, where fortunately she’s taken no more than some bruises and cuts in the accident. Simone plans to cut the young woman loose the next day, dropping her off at a bus stop, but when she’s still there hours later some part of her that still remembers decency decides she can’t leave here there, and she offers her the chance to stay with her for a little while, doing housework in return for a roof over her head and some spare cash.

So far, you may think so familiar – misanthropic loner meets younger person in need, reluctantly becomes involved in their life and slowly both come out of their shells. Well, although there may be an element of that here, The Green Sea really doesn’t follow that generic trope too closely, in fact quite often I wasn’t sure exactly where it was going (I mean this in the good way, it’s no fun when you spot the plot points telegraphed in advance and know where a narrative is going). Plunkett, who wrote as well as directed, makes this quite tough to watch – not, I hasten to add, because of poor filmic work, far from it, but rather because he and Isabelle are not afraid to present us with such a thoroughly unlikeable central character in Simone.

Even after taking in the girl, Simone remains awful – she screams and shouts for the smallest of offences, clearly doesn’t want any attempt at a relationship, even going so far as to grudgingly tell the girl her name but then comment she doesn’t want to know her’s, because that would be the possible start of a relationship. She’s so horrible, insensitive and self-centred that it is often quite uncomfortable watching her. And I think that is part of the point here – we see her as such an awful person, then start to get little glimpses of something that happened, something awful, that has pushed her this way. Slowly it becomes apparent Simone isn’t just nasty, she’s mentally ill, suffering from guilt, depression and trauma, and worse, she clearly feels she brought it on herself, that she deserves this – she’s not acting out and being rude to others just because she is nasty, it is more like she wants others to hate her and leave her alone, like she feels she deserves their hatred and scorn, and wants to encourage it.

It’s a brave move to have one of your two main characters in a small, intimate film be so thoroughly unlikeable for so much of the running time, but I think it pays off in the end, as you go from thinking what a wretched excuse for a person she is to starting to realise how badly damaged she is, and that changes how you view her and her slowly growing relationship with The Kid. Doupe creates a remarkable performance, not just for such a young actor, but also given her nameless character has so few lines – most of her exploration of the world around Simone is through expression and body language, not words and verbal interchange, and this conveys a sense of both innocence and otherworldliness to her. And perhaps, just perhaps, there is more to her than we see at first, perhaps she’s not just some teenage runaway, perhaps there is more, perhaps there is a reason these two very different people have been put together.

This is a very unusual film – as I said I really wasn’t sure quite where it was going, and Simone acts in such a loathsome manner so often it is actually hard to watch in places, until you start to realise why she is as she is. The film delves slowly into deep hurt and emotional dark waters, but there are hints in here too that even if we think we deserve to languish unloved in those depths, that the world may yet still offer us a route back to the surface.

The Green Sea is released on various platforms by Reel to Reel Films from July 5th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Reviews: Witch Hunt

Directed by Ella Callahan,
Starring Gideon Adlon, Elizabeth Mitchell, Abigail Cowen, Christian Camargo, Echo Campbell

Ella Callahan, who both writes and directs here, delivers a compelling take on witchcraft that explores its historical overtones, rooted in men’s fear of powerful, independent women and their compulsive need to control and dominate them into submission. While the Witch Hunt is set in contemporary America, and touches on modern issues, it also traces its lineage back the days of the early colonists, long before America was a nation, opening with a highly disturbing sequence – in this new land of growing intolerance it isn’t enough simply to persecute any woman who shows magical abilities, to deny them the normal rights of any citizen, they can and are subject to the barbaric, monstrous death sentence passed down through history for witchcraft: being burned alive.

Right from the start Callahan shows us this repressive, brutal society in action, a red-haired woman tied to a public stake, the looming figure of the Witchfinder, seen at first only from behind, clutching the burning torch, the flames lit and rising, the desperation on the woman’s face, then the screaming as the heat, smoke and flames reach her, her skin burning as she is forced to endure this utterly horrific, violently painful and prolonged death. The god-fearing citizens watch the spectacle, among them her own two young girls, the older sister Fiona (Abigail Cowen), and her much younger sibling, Shae (Echo Campbell), forced to watch their mother’s death, powerless to help, aware how easily the crowd could turn on them for being “different”.

This isn’t even a society where witches are hunted for practising dark magics on anyone – simply being born with magical ability is enough. The magical beings are all women, the witch hunter force we see are usually male, lead by Christian Camargo’s officer, who proudly explains that his family have been witch hunters for generations. To him this is a matter of honour for his family, but in reality it simply shows how the same lies, fears and bigotry are perpetuated endlessly through the generations and years. This is a US with border wall to stop women fleeing to sanctuary in Mexico, where schools indoctrinate the students into unquestioning belief in the constitutional amendment that covers the witchcraft persecutions. Schoolgirls are routinely subjected to medical tests for “witch marks”, those who do not pass are given a modern form of the medieval “ducking”, strapped to chairs, dunked into the school swimming pool to check if they are witches or not (something which can obviously go horribly wrong).

Martha Goode (Elizabeth Mitchell) is a single mother, bringing up her teen daughter Claire (Gideon Adlon) and her two smaller boys after the death of her husband, in a large, remote old farmhouse. She is also a part of a modern day “underground railroad”, which, like its predecessor before and during the US Civil War in the mid 19th century, uses a network of safe houses to transport and hide victims before smuggling them to safety. Of course this comes with enormous risk – the authorities are now pushing not only for more sanctions on witches but to also impose them on the children of anyone found guilty of witchcraft, regardless of what they have or have not done.

Claire doesn’t understand why her mother risks them all for strangers – she and her teenage girlfriends have been brought up to accept the witch hunting as necessary and required, so she is already suspicious of these desperate women (in much the same way the Nazis ensured all levels of society were given the same brainwashing of anti-Semitism in the 1930s), and being a teen she also resents the fact that this means she doesn’t get to do regular teen stuff like have her friends over (obviously impossible in case they saw one of the hidden witches in the house). When Fiona and little Shae wash up on their doorstep and a breakdown in the usual underground chain means they have to stay longer than usual, it puts the family at far more risk, but also means Claire starts to get to know the similarly aged Fiona, and this begins to change things.

This is a fascinating and disturbing film – it harks back to the earliest histories of Europeans in the Americas, with the bloody, violent witchcraft persecutions of innocent women (even Martha’s surname Goode, could be seen as another nod to that terrible time as several women famously accused during the infamous Salem trials were from the Good family), but it also draws heavily on the modern day. The large wall along the southern border and the callous men of the witch hunting department who patrol it has obvious echoes in the recent Trump era in the US, while the fact that, as with earlier historical cases, this modern witch hunting uses society and law to police and control women, keep them in their place, with men ensuring the laws are carried out without mercy. It partakes as much of Atwood’s superb Handmaid’s Tale as it does historic abuse of women for witchcraft, touches on the #MeToo era movement, the slavery era, even the Suffragette era (as with that time, many women have been conditioned by their society to believe and support these laws which harm other women), and draws in feminist iconography from pop culture, such as Thelma and Louise.

I suspect this is one of those films where the more you think about it, the more you will see in it – it’s a gripping and frequently disturbing narrative in its own right, not least with Camargo’s witch hunter who is so matter of fact about the rightness of his brutal repression and the almost powerlessness of the women caught up in this system, but there are so many elements to think about here that it will resonate in your head long after viewing. Forget that pretty generic poster and cover artwork, this is a far more complex and mature work than it would suggest, and well worthy of your time.

Witch Hunt is released by Signature Entertainment on DVD and digital platforms from July 5th

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

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: Helmut Newton, the Bad and the Beautiful

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.

Reviews: Walkabout

Walkabout,
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

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

Reviews: The Grudge – the Unseen Chapter

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.

Reviews: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

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

Happy birthday, Charlie Chaplin

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.”

The opening of the final speech in Chaplin’s first talkie, The Great Dictator. Released as the nations of the Earth fell into the horror of the Second World War, it remains a stirring oration, full of optimism, that the tyranny of the greedy and selfish shall pass, that people can be better than we have been. Reposting today to mark Chaplin’s birthday and also because, dammit, we need optimism and hope right now.