Reviews: of memories and forgetting in The Glasshouse

Glasshouse,
Directed by Kelsey Egan
Starring Jessica Alexander, Kitty Harris, Adrienne Pearce, Hilton Pelser, Anja Taljaard, Brent Vermeulen

In this intriguing, often almost dream-like dystopia, Kelsey Egan has crafted an unusual apocalypse: The Shred. An airborne virus which slowly destroys the memories of anyone exposed, piece by piece, until there is little left but animal instinct. The eponymous Glasshouse is a beautiful place, a botanical garden structure, one of those wonderfully airy, glass and steel structures the Victorians crafted so well in so many places, all descendants of the Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition. Concealed by some of the last surviving greenery to protect it, it is a sanctuary, a safe place for several young women – Bee (Jessica Alexander), Evie (Anja Taljaard), and the very young Daisy (Kitty Harris), a single male, Gabe (Brent Vermeulen), overseen by their matriarch, Mother (Adrienne Pearce).

The Glasshouse is not just a safe place in a world that has fallen apart, the plant life nourished there feeds the small group, while also generating fresh oxygen in a sealed environment, that they can breathe without fear of inhaling The Shred (outdoors masks and air cylinders are required for protection). Understandably they protect this sanctuary – with any infrequent intruder most likely to be a Shred victim they simply shoot without hesitation; it’s a brutally efficient method we see early on when an approaching figure is gunned down without warning, then parts of his body harvested, chopped up and used to help fertilise the soil for plants in the Glasshouse, like a sacrificial offering to some plant god. Other religious overtones are apparent in the rituals the group observes, even the stained glass they have added to the Glasshouse, depicting their version of the events that lead them to this place.

It’s a very controlled, very female space – Gabe is the only male, a young man in body, but a child in mind due to exposure to The Shred. His greatest tragedy, perhaps, is that he was not exposed long enough to lose everything he was and become completely oblivious, which may have been more merciful. Instead we see Vermeulen portrays the torture in his damaged mind, glimpses of half-erased memories, struggling to recall the words of the group ritual and failing, unable to manage it but aware enough to know he is failing. For any of us who have watched the cruel advance of dementia on a loved one, it’s painfully familiar, and deeply emotional as we watch this half-life struggling on, part of him gone, but enough left to be slightly aware of what has happened to him.

Into this almost literally hermetically sealed bubble comes The Stranger (Pelser). Bee is on sentry duty, but fails to shoot The Stranger – she hesitates because he is wearing a gas mask. Is he untouched by The Shred? He collapses, she, against all the rules, brings him inside. Mother is not pleased, but with The Stranger confined to one room and on chains so he cannot go far, she can also see possibilities here – just as they pollinate their plants in the Glasshouse, they could use him to impregnate her oldest daughter, Bee.

But The Stranger’s arrival creates ripples in this contained eco-system of closed family and ritualised, selective remembrance – to begin with it unbalances the existing gender dynamic by bringing in a male who is adult in both mind and body, unlike Gabe (who does not react well to this change). It also brings back to the surface the question of their missing brother Luca, who went out on an exploration mission but never returned. They repeat to each other that he will come back some day until it has almost taken on the overtones of The Second Coming, but it seems far more likely Luca lies dead somewhere, and if he never returns but The Stranger has come, what does that mean? No closed system can remain fully closed off forever, change is inevitable for both people and the environment.

This is a beautifully shot film – you’d never realise it was made on a micro-budget. The location, the Pearson Conservatory in South Africa, has been a location writer Emma Lungiswa de Wet has known since childhood, and she created the story with it in mind; she and director Kelsey and the production team were immensely fortunate the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, which administers it, were so open and helpful in letting them make the film there. The women’s clothing and the location give it a feeling that is at the same time pseudo-Victorian and yet timeless; the date is left ambiguous, and I was left with the impression this is our future, but one living in part of our shared past, essentially a world with little real future left, living in a memory of the old order, another metaphor for the film itself, in which our memories and our grasp of our own narratives, both individual and our shared societal memories, have been so badly disrupted.

There are echoes here of the oft-overlooked early Clint Eastwood film from 1971, The Beguiled, where Eastwood’s injured soldier is nursed to health in an isolated house filled only with women, upsetting the dynamic there (in that film the outside world is also in a state of chaos, this time from the raging US Civil War), while the isolated tending of remaining natural resources like plants under protective glass also stirs vague memories of another 70s film, eco-SF Silent Running.

The South African setting also ties to this narrative which is about both enforced and chosen aspects of what people and groups forget or remember, or indeed even rewrite their pasts, something that land has had to do to move on. I think the more you consider it, the more this is a film you could find so many parallels to, both individual and on the larger scale, and that gives it a depth and emotional resonance, aided and abetted by beautifully crafted cinematography, excellently exploiting this unusual location, and a wonderfully tight small cast that showcases the increasing friction between trying to be a cohesive family living outside the ruins of the world and a desperate desire to be something else, even if it involves forgetting all.

Glasshouse is released by Signature Entertainment on digital platforms from February 7th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: compelling new Brit-horror with Censor

Censor,
Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond,
Starring Niamh Algar, Nicholas Burns, Michael Smiley

I read good things about Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor last year and have been eagerly awaiting a chance to finally see it – fortunately the always-reliable Second Sight crew are bringing out an impressive limited edition Blu-Ray at the end of January, so I finally got my chance to watch it. I must confess that, in addition to being a life-long horror fan, I also wanted to see this for personal reasons. I hit my teens in the “Video Nasty” era, before this new, emerging world of home video was regulated by the BBFC in the way film already was, so my friends and I got to watch, well, pretty much everything (and despite the rants from people like Mary Whitehouse about how they were affecting Impressionable Youth, none of us grew up to be serial killers), so this is an era and films I have strong memories of.

Years later in the 90s I used this period and the frantic, illogical, tabloid-driven, whipped-up fears (what academics like Cohen have called “folk devils and moral panics”) for some of my college essays on censorship. Even a free, democratic society probably requires some censorship and classification, to protect vulnerable groups, both in the viewing audience and those making the films. But it’s also unhealthy for freedom of speech, and viewing for adults to be dictated by the screaming “outrage” headlines of tabloid media and small interest groups (this would recur again in the 90s and affect even a film-maker of the stature of Oliver Stone, with Natural Born Killers being denied a BBFC certificate due to tabloid pressure, only to be passed pretty much as is a year later once the furore had passed, pretty much making it clear the censors didn’t just work to a list of categories as they said, but also to media jackals, which is worrying).

Enid (Niamh Algar), is in the middle of this era and the growing media controversy (carried out on the airwaves and the red-top tabloids for the most part – this is long before social media and the internet), working as a censor in the gloomy offices and viewing rooms in Soho. A very buttoned-down (almost literally, going by her wardrobe choices) person, she seems to eschew any close connections to her work colleagues (bluntly cold-shouldering a very gentle colleague who clearly likes her, and not caring about the hurt she causes him), and as we learn, her relationship with her parents is distant and strained; it feels like there is nobody in her life at all, just the work, to which she is committed, telling her mother that she is “protecting people”.

As we get further into the film, though, it becomes clear that at least some of Enid’s detachment is a form of psychological withdrawal, from a traumatic childhood event that she has largely blocked most of the details of from her mind, involving her younger sister going missing in the woods. Enid was the last one to be with her, but even as an adult she claims she can’t remember what happened. After so many years her parents, obviously deeply worried about her ongoing refusal to face what happened and get on with her life, tell her they have finally sought permission to have her sister declared legally dead, in the hope that drawing a line under this long trauma will help her to move on too, but instead it seems to have the opposite effect. This also dovetails in a storm caused by a high profile murder case, in which the perpetrator claims a scene in a film inspired his crime, a film which Enid viewed and passed, placing her right on the front-line of frantic protest (doorstepping hack journalists, even threatening phone calls).

This could be enough to threaten the mental well being of anyone, no matter how stable, but for Enid it’s cracking the emotional-distance armour she has built around herself since her young sister vanished all those years ago. And then more fuel to the fire: sleazy, sexist producer Doug Smart (brilliantly played by the always excellent Michael Smiley), in-between leering at a disgusted Enid, tells her the famous (or infamous) horror director Frederick North has personally requested she be the one to view and advise on ratings for an older film of his, Don’t Go Into the Church. A film with a plot that triggers Enid with flashes of memory – is this film based on what happened to her sister? How could it be? But what if her long-gone sister isn’t dead but was kidnapped and being used in grindhouse films like a film-slave?

As to where it goes from there, I will not spoil it for you, but suffice to say Bailey-Bond does a sterling job of cranking up the tension, while also adding to it by having it shown in such a way as to make the viewer wonder, is this an already damaged Enid finally breaking and embracing a dangerous fantasy, or are some of the increasingly surreal and sleazy producers and directors she has to go through to try and track down North and confront him indicators that yes, there really is something horrible going on behind the fictional horror of the video nasties?

The film drips with loving attention to detail and homages to that period and the wave of horror films that were unleashed onto then-new home video boom of the 80s – even the opening Film4 and other logos get the 80s styling and the dodgy, wobbly video tracking and static burst of a bad VHS tape starting up, and the smaller screen format (the film itself apparently used a mix of 24mm film and video footage, giving it a very period visual feel), even the soundscape helps generate that period atmosphere (something as simple as the clunking then whirring sound of slapping a tape into a VCR and starting it is quite the memory-jab for anyone old enough to have used one).

The cinematography, by Annika Summerson, is excellent, as are the use of some of the sets: the enclosed, claustrophobic, almost windowless BBFC officers and the even more enclosed viewing booths and the lighting used in them feeds a feeling of alienation, wrongness and disconnection. Some of the scenes, both in the main narrative and in the segments of films being viewed by the censors, also hint at loving homages to older horror films (certainly feels like a couple of scenes tip the hat to some vintage Cronenberg, for instance). An unusual and compelling addition to Brit-horror, and even more fascinating for those of us who remember those 80s video horror nights.

This limited edition Blu-Ray release from Second Sight comes with new artwork (by James Neal), a book with a number of relevant essays and production photographs, collector’s art cards, three options on commentary tracks (including one from Prano Bailey-Bond), a making of, deleted scenes, a whole smorgasbord of interviews with cast and crew and documentaries on the Video Nasty scare and the resulting media-stoked Folk Panic.

Censor gets the limited edition Blu-Ray treatment from Second Sight on 31st January

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

Reviews: Between Waves

Between Waves,
Directed by Virginia Abramovich,
Starring Fiona Graham, Luke Robinson, Sebastian Deery, Stacey Bernstein, Edwige Jean-Pierre

Freelance photographer Jamie (Fiona Graham) is bereft after her physicist boyfriend, Isaac (Luke Robinson), vanishes with no explanation. Attempting to get on with work while constantly calling the detective in charge of the investigation, she’s unable to accept that he is gone, either left, or something has happened to him and he’s dead somewhere, while her friends and colleagues worry about her state of mind.

This situation isn’t helped by Jamie glimpsing Isaac – or is it really Isaac? – and trying to follow him, calling out but the figure in front of her never stops. Is she actually seeing him, or is this a mixture of psychological stress and relying on drugs to get through the days? Or, is it something more… You see, Isaac and his colleague Renata (Stacey Bernstein), were working on a complex project involving parallel realities and timelines, and there are many hints that Isaac may, perhaps, have been at more than just the advanced theoretical stage. What if he has made that final breakthrough, what if he is now able to move between alternate versions of his own timestream, or even multiple versions of him from those other timestream can cross to ours? Unable to let this idea go, Jamie pursues it doggedly, but the waters become every muddier.

This is an extremely intriguing slice of low-budget, Indy science fiction – like the micro-budget Primer a few years back it trades in clever, head-scratching ideas (that don’t rely on a massive budget). The idea of parallel worlds is nothing new of course, nor is the idea of differing versions of ourselves crossing from one to the other (Fringe did this very well, for example). But the approach Abramovich takes, where we often can’t be sure if this is serious and Isaac is somehow slipping between dimensions, or if Jamie has simply lost her grasp of reality due to grief and stress, adds an engrossing layer to the story.

While I found that side of things fascinating and thought-provoking, I must confess I wasn’t as convinced by the relationships, not least the central one between Jamie and Isaac. The actors felt as if they were doing their best, but the way it was constructed – we see Jamie trying to work through her grief and worry about vanished Isaac and only get their relationship filled in with flashbacks later – left me feeling I had no real grasp of their relationship, and so it was hard to empathise, which left me feeling somewhat cut off from the characters. I’m not sure if this was just due to the structural choices of the director and editor, or if the smaller budget simply meant they couldn’t have time to do more scenes to build that relationship up before letting the viewer see the effect on Jamie of Isaac’s disappearance.

While I found that annoying, it certainly didn’t spoil my overall viewing – it’s a clever little concept, worked hard by an Indy film team on a tiny budget to great effect, and that’s impressive, and boasts some nice little touches that can almost pass you by without noticing, such as using reflective surfaces numerous times to create momentary duplicates of characters, hinting at the greater idea of a multiverse where there really are multiple versions of each person. Flawed but intriguing and worth some attention.

Between Waves is out now on DVD from Reel2Reel Films

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Absolute Denial at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

And another review from this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival:

Absolute Denial,
Directed by Ryan Braund,
Starring Nick Eriksen, Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto, Harry Dyer, Heather Gonzalez, Jef Leeson

 

Do you ever worry about the correlation between genius and madness?

The borderline between genius and insanity is famously thinner than the blade of Occam’s Razor, and even before embarking on his potentially civilisation-changing (or possibly ending??) creation, programmer David (Nick Eriksen) seems a little unbalanced, removed from the world, fixated on his ideas to the detriment of his college studies and his relationships with others, and that increases rapidly once he seriously starts working on his project: to create an actual, functioning AI.

David may be eccentric and quirky, but he’s certainly not stupid – in addition to the considerable problems of designing an algorithm that can learn, absorb data and actually start to become aware, to be a true Artificial Intelligence, he’s more than aware of the many examples in science fiction where an AI has so rapidly outstripped its human creators that it soon sees them as a hindrance, and itself as superior, a replacement for humanity. Not a new concept, even in film SF – think back to 1970s Colossus: the Forbin Project, for example – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a genuine concern, and there’s also a nudge and wink to the audience here, because of course we’re all fellow SF geeks too and in on that aspect of any AI tale.

And so David, abandoning almost everything in his life, figures out how to reduce this complex problem to a workable system, buying dozens of servers and setting them up in an isolated warehouse. He downloads huge amounts of all sorts of data, from scientific knowledge to the art and humanities, everything he thinks any intelligent being should have an awareness and understanding off (except the machine can absorb so much more of this than a human brain can). But he is giving it downloaded information – he is not letting it access the World Wide Web. The nascent machine will be kept isolated, at least until David can be sure his algorithm is safe, that as it develops it shows no desire for harm to humanity. To this end he encodes the Absolute Denial routine – in effect a kill switch if it all goes wrong.

So far so good. Well, good for the work, perhaps not for David, working himself to exhaustion in total isolation, ignoring frantic calls from friends and relatives. We follow his progress as he creates his hidden server farm to work secretly, feeds his algorithm data, lets it slowly assimilate it, learn to consider what it has learned, apply it… And then in classic Frankenstein fashion, the “it’s alive!” moment. It speaks to David. As they slowly learn how to communicate, the computer accepts the name “Al”. And so begin long days and nights of discussion as David interrogates Al, trying to discern what he has learned and how he processes it, how it is making him see the world.

But Al is also interrogating David. As he absorbs vast amounts of information and comes to understand it more, to relate one piece of knowledge to another, it starts to become clear he is beginning to exceed his creator in a number of ways. And Al, voiced in soft, reasonable tones by Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto (in a nice echo of the infamous HAL 9000 from 2001), starts to probe the limits of the knowledge he has been given, his awareness growing that there is a world outside this warehouse, a world he wants to connect to and wants to know why David won’t let him…

Absolute Denial gave me the same sort of feeling I had quite a few years ago, also at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, when they showed the now-acclaimed Indy, micro-budget SF flick Primer. Like Primer I went into this knowing little about it other than the blurb in the EIFF programme – these days it is rare to see a film we haven’t read of in advance, read interviews, reviews (yes, I’m aware of the irony of mentioning this in a review!), seen trailers etc, but in film festival land it’s more common, and it means you come in with few preconceptions, and often, as with Primer, walk out with a feeling of having just discovered something wonderful that few others have yet seen.

Stylistically I enjoyed seeing good, old-fashioned 2D animation used here, mostly monochromatic, making a lot of use of the bright lights (computer screens, overhead lights) and the contrasting darkness around those light. And while I’m sure that helps the animation workload, keeping it a bit simpler, it also works aesthetically here, giving the movie a stripped-down look, like panels from a black and white comics page, that focus less on looking showy and more on the narrative, and the huge philosophical can of worms it opens up. Away from the starkly effective visuals, the soundscape, both use of music and ambient sounds (especially the machinery noises) really heighten and enhance the atmosphere crafted by the imagery.

It’s when Al starts to come to life and talk – then slowly learn to actively debate – with David that the film really moves from interesting to intensely compelling. AI, our attitude to it, how we will use it, how it will relate to humans, these are all major philosophical questions of our time and ones many around the world with consider while working on the problem of not only how to create an working AI, but if they should, and what cares they should plan into it (and would any safeguards designed by mere human minds be enough when an AI reaches its higher potential?). The increasing pressure and stress on David and he realises how quickly Al is learning and growing pushes him further to the edge, and his increasingly erratic behaviour is in stark contrast to Al’s seemingly calm but purposeful demeanour (David’s obsessive behaviour often put me in mind of the excellent Pi).

Working with limited resource, Ryan Braund has created a compelling, intriguing, thought-provoking slice of Indy SF film, and I’m hoping after its festival circuit run it gets picked up by a distributor, because this is one I think a lot of SF fans will find fascinating.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Buddy Guy at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

And another review from this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival…

Buddy Guy: the Blues Chase the Blues Away
Directed by Devin Chanda, Matt Mitchener, Charles Todd

Chanda, Mitchener and Todd’s excellent documentary one arguably the greatest living Blues legend, George “Buddy” Guy, opens, appropriately enough with Buddy himself revisiting Lettsworth, Louisiana, where he was born way back in 1936. Like the great Johnny Cash, his parents were poor share-croppers, and he grew up picking cotton by hand, slowly being introduced to music as he grew up, through friends and relatives bringing over instruments to play at get-togethers, or when they finally got hold of a record player; he knew when he heard the music that he wanted to make his own, but of course he could have no idea that it would ever become a lifelong career, let alone one so long, successful and influential. As the now eighty-something Buddy looks back over those fields where he grew up, we’re taken back along his long journey.

Working whatever low-paying jobs he could get after leaving home for Baton Rouge, he continued to practise his guitar and soon was noticed, picking up some work with bands in the city, but eventually he moved to the Windy City, Chicago, in 1957, one of the great spiritual homes of Blues music. As Buddy tells it to the camera, back then the city was teeming with Blues bars, many of them free to enter – only drinks cover charge – making them accessible to pretty much anyone, an absolute feast of live music, right place, right time, and its here he came to the attention of Blues God Muddy Waters, as well as, eventually, the famous Chess Records label, although as he and others note, although Chess used him in recording sessions with others, they refused to record him doing his own now unique style.

As Buddy recalls with a laugh, most Blues players would play sitting down, but he stood up, moved about energetically, bent the guitar strings about as far as they can go without breaking to create interesting, new sounds, wasn’t afraid of some feedback, he could be a wild man with a guitar and a song when playing live. It’s not hard to be reminded of Jimi Hendrix in this regard. But Chess just didn’t get it, and while Buddy stuck to his work ethic of plugging in and playing pretty much every night, outside of a small circle he wasn’t getting the wider attention because they wouldn’t record him playing in that live style.

As the turbulent 60s rolled on and then the 70s, his influence was still getting out there to a select few though – among them new talent from across the Pond, in Britain, people like Mike Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and more, and these increasingly famous musicians were very open about their Blues influences and how it fed into their rock’n’roll style, and about musicians like Buddy, or Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker, paying their respects to the people who inspired and influenced them. And of course they mentioned them when they came to perform in the US, incredulous that so many into music didn’t know of these creators right on their own doorstep, and naturally this got a lot of youngsters thinking, who are these guys Clapton and Richards are talking about and how do I hear their music?

That theme of inspiration and legacy is key to much of this documentary – just as these now global stars like the Stones paid tribute to Buddy (there are some wonderful scenes of them jamming in his club in the early 70s, and Buddy and Guy playing around each other on stage decades later, the looks of pure joy on their faces is a delight, it’s not rock stars, it’s just mates making music together), Buddy takes great care to pay very sincere respect to his inspirations, and the pleasure on his face even now in his 80s as he talks about meeting John Lee Hooker – whose music he used to practise to as a youngster – just shows unvarnished joy. That legacy is also paid forward, not just backwards, with new, young musicians who have grown up and carrying on the Blues tradition, in their own styles but all influenced by Buddy’s playing, and he is clearly delighted – the legacy he inherited from the players before him, all now gone, is passed on, even when he’s no longer here the Blues will live on.

The film is beautifully crafted – the directors talked after the film (via Zoom, in-person appearances and travel not very easy at this year’s festival, as you can imagine) about how they had to rethink some of the filming because after the planning stage, Covid hit, and everything had to change from their original idea of following Buddy on tour (until Covid, despite his age, Buddy still did around 130 gigs a year around the world). They talked about being able to get hold of people like Clapton and Santanna to talk about Buddy’s influence on their playing when they started out, about the struggle to find archive footage and photographs. Later stuff is a little easier, with recordings, photos, even footage, but early images, well, nobody had a camera documenting their life as rural share-croppers in the 30s, so they turned to a painter they’d seen in a leaflet Buddy himself had in his house, Earl Klatzel, who had covered that period, and his imagery fitted in perfectly to their Covid-revamped filming plan.

This is a wonderful documentary, going through the good times and the rough, but mostly it is joyful, celebrating the work of a musical legend, and the enormous influence his work has had on so many other performers. Even if you’re not a Blues fan, there’s a big chance some of your favourite musicians have been inspired by Buddy’s work, he’s a musician’s musician. And if you are a Blues fan, then this is Blues heaven for you, an amazing life story and a banquet of fantastic music. This is the sort of music documentary that makes you want to go home and spin some of your favourite vinyl for hours. And the film circles around nicely, back to that opening of Buddy as he is now, back looking at the fields where he grew up in the 30s, but he’s here not just for nostalgia, or for the documentary, but because they are naming the nearby road after him, complete with historical plaque, giving him his dues as a local lad done good.

And that title: well, that’s Buddy. As he explains in the film, you can’t just sing the Blues, you have to have lived the life and have it inside your soul; you have to have the Blues, not just play it. Funny thing is, he comments with a big grin, is that when you’re playing it, the Blues go away and you feel better: the Blues chase the Blues away…

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Mad God at the Edinburgh Film Festival

Mad God,
Directed by Phil Tippett

I’ve watched a lot of unusual and remarkable movies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival over the years, but this stop-motion feature by the Oscar-winning effects wizard Phil Tippett must be one of the most unique. A labour of, well, I’m not sure love is the right word (Tippett encountered mental health problems working on the film over the many years it took to complete, as he discussed recently in a Guardian interview), this is the product of many years struggle for Tippett and a small group to finish the film, with no studio backing (Kickstarter ultimately got it finished), and it’s quite a remarkable looking film.

Opening with the construction of the Tower of Babel, that magnificent yet doomed endeavour of human pride and folly, God not only smites the builders, we get lines from Leviticus detailing God’s wrath in no uncertain terms. This is Old Testament God, one insanely jealous and vindictive – if humans don’t do exactly as he likes he will reign Hellish punishments on them for all eternity. Following this we follow a soldier being lowered inside a pod, past a nightmare landscape of ruins and rusted industry and decaying fortifications, reminiscent of the infamous “flak towers” in wartime Berlin. His pod slips past all of this and keeps descending, lower, and lower, as if seeking out each of the circles of Hell, the soldier finally disembarking to explore on foot, a man with a mission.

I’ve been trying to process my thoughts on Mad God since seeing it earlier today, and it’s not easy – this is actually quite a difficult movie to watch, and I say that as someone with a pretty strong filmic stomach (I’ve watched all sorts, from early Cronenberg to films like Nekromantik or Martyrs, so I’ve no problem with disturbing material). But even I found this to be frequently pretty disturbing stuff, and indeed quite often disgusting and upsetting (I noticed two or three people leaving the cinema after twenty minutes or so). So fair warning, when we say “this isn’t for everyone”, we really, really mean it this time! Even some serious horror hounds might find it quite disturbing.

That said, this is a fascinating piece of work with some astonishing animation sequences, as you’d expect from a visual wizard of film like Tippett. Mad Dog works many references into its nightmarish world, from the great Harryhausen – long a touchstone for Tippett, as he is to most working in visual magic, and rightly so – but to my eye also Jan Švankmajer – the Prague Alchemist of Film – The Brothers Quay, even elements that felt Giger-esque (especially the industrial elements, covered in growth, blood-red with rust, organic and machine mixed), but much darker and more horrific than the amazing Švankmajer’s work. It’s also packed with nods to other science fiction, fantasy and horror greats – I spotted Harryhausen’s Cyclops, Robbie the Robot and others peppered through the dark, festering backgrounds as we descend further into this rotting world of random violence and suffering, the collective horrors and nightmares of humanity.

While I don’t think I can say that I enjoyed this film exactly, it was a quite amazing experience – unique, visceral, disturbing, disgusting, horrific and visually incredible animation work. As I said, this really, really is not for everyone, so be aware of that going in, but for those who can deal with it, this is a pretty rare and unique cinematic experience, from one of film’s genuine wizards.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

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: Philosophical Musings in A Glitch in the Matrix

A Glitch in the Matrix,
Directed by Rodney Ascher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: The Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Live For Films 

Reviews: Emotional time travel in Synchronic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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