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

Reviews: The Final Stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Lockdown Horror in Host

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reviews: Katriona Chapman’s richly satisfying Breakwater

Breakwater,
Katriona Chapman,
Avery Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Clementine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Jennifer Kent’s powerful The Nightingale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews: the Sea Shepherd

Sea Shepherd,
Sean Azzopardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: The Night Porter

The Night Porter,
Directed by Liliana Cavani,
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Phillipe Leroy

Cult Films brings a sharp, 4K restored version of Cavani’s 1974 controversial classic to Blu-Ray, and the passage of the decades has not lessened its impact, the ability of this film to be simultaneously fascinating, compelling, provocative and disturbing. Max (Bogarde, an actor too often overlooked these days, I think), is working as a night porter, manning the desk in a hotel in 1950s Vienna, where he and several other old comrades meet regularly to plan how to keep their wartime records in the SS concealed and themselves safe from any possible justice for their actions as part of the Nazi regime. They ensure documents are destroyed and any potential witnesses dealt with to ensure their anonymous safety. There is no hint of regret for their part in the atrocities performed by the SS, only the ruthless desire to avoid ever being brought to account for it.

Max is quiet, not just a man keeping a low profile, Bogarde invests him with a real feeling of a damaged person who has retreated from much of the world, not only to hide his past, but because he feels self-revulsion, even preferring to work night shifts because the harsh light of day shines too bright a light on his life and guilt. He is tightly buttoned, quiet, fastidious in appearance, not rocking the boat with his old SS comrades but neither fully joining in either. When we see him in a scene in his apartment we see behind this quiet, impeccably turned out exterior, his hair awry, pulling his curtains against the coming day, shuddering and crying as wartime memories overwhelm him.

When a famous conductor arrives at the hotel with his wife Lucia (Rampling), the pair recognise one another, triggering flashbacks for both: Max as an SS officer in one of the death camps, Lucia as one of the inmates who captures his eye. It’s an interesting reversal – from the wartime camps where Max held all the power and could indulge in exploitation as he wished, with impunity, now he is the one who is frightened, his potential survival threatened as she now has the power over him.

Except Night Porter isn’t that simple – you might expect after the initial shock of encountering this former SS officer who used her, Lucia would be angry, seek justice, tell her husband and then the authorities who Max really is. But that doesn’t happen – both she and Max struggle with the rush of barely repressed memories, but what transpires, both the wartime events and the current events in the hotel, is a more complicated mix than oppressed and oppressor, there is a strange relationship here. A twisted, very damaged relationship, to be sure, but there is something there, and they feel its compulsion once more, falling into a strange, often sado-masochistic, dark form of romance.

A lot of the criticism of this film, then and now, is that it is basically Nazi sexploitation. And while, yes, it does feature a lot of very odd sexual scenes – a shorn-haired prisoner Lucia, half naked in an officer’s cap, singing Lili Marlene songs as she dances seductively for the SS officers in the camp, for instance, or vulnerable, naked prisoners being filmed by Max as they are interviewed – I don’t hold with the sexploitation label myself. Despite the sexual scenes and nudity it’s often not what I’d think of as erotic, more disturbing, an exploration of two fragmented , damaged psyches. Cavani always maintained that it wasn’t really about the sex, and I tend to agree, those elements are more visual symptoms of the trauma both have lived with.

I first saw this film many decades ago, and this is the first time I’ve rewatched it since – I found it a remarkable and unusual film then, and even more so today. Cavani frames some astonishing scenes – the half-naked cabaret scene I mentioned earlier is a visual that sticks in the mind – but the real standout here are the performances from Bogarde and Rampling, so much communicated through very small gestures, body language, tiny changes to expressions to indicate the whirling turmoil within Max and Lucia.

Cult Film’s 4K restoration does justice to this unusual, provocative movie, showing it off, and including extras such as new interviews with both director Cavani and Charlotte Rampling, both of whom have some interesting insights into this very unusual slice of film history.

The Night Porter gets its 4k Blu-Ray release by Cult Film on November 30th. This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Gamish – a Cultural History of Gaming

Gamish: a Graphic History of Gaming,
Edward Ross,
Particular Books

I first encountered Edinburgh-based comicker Edward Ross’s work in one of my second homes in the city, The Filmhouse, a local arthouse and Indy cinema that is also home to the Edinburgh International Film Festival (the oldest continually running film festival on the planet). Back then Ed was producing his Filmish comics, in the finest tradition of the home-made, small press scene, complete with staples holding them together, and on sale in the Filmhouse box office. I picked up each of them as they came out and reviewed them on the old Forbidden Planet Blog, then in 2015 SelfMadeHero published a large, expanded and re-drawn version of Filmish (reviewed here), greatly improving on the original mini-comics to give a longer, more in-depth look at the history of cinema and film and its place in our culture – not just the technical and artistic innovations across a century and more, but also how some films reflect the culture of their days, their preoccupations, worries, fantasies, fear, prejudices (race, class, gender and more).

It made for fascinating reading. When I interviewed him at the 2016 Edinburgh International Book Festival about Filmish I asked what he planned to follow it, and Ed replied that he was considering a similar approach to video games. And as we continue to stumble through 2020’s stormy seas, grabbing at good comics and books like lifeboats to help keep our spirits afloat (or simply to transport us away from the actual world for a while), Gamish arrives, and yes, before you ask, I think it was very much worth the wait. Gamish is very similar in format to Filmish, both in physical appearance (a smaller 235 by 170mm format instead of the larger “comic album” format, although in hardback this time) and layout, but also in approach, not least in a virtual Edward appearing in different settings to guide us through what is happening.

Filmish tackled the century and a bit of film history by taking themes for chapters, such as technology, and Gamish also has a number of themes to help explore the history and the culture of gaming, from the role of technological innovation and artistic interpretation to the portrayal of race and gender, of disabilities, of cultural norms (and blind spots) both in the games and within gaming communities too. And like the earlier Filmish, Ed has undertaken an enormous amount of research to try and place all of this within a historical context – this doesn’t just take a simplistic approach to video game history and evolution, Gamish also explores why human beings play, how that play has become more elaborate as humans moved from hunter-gatherer to early civilisations, and placed the modern video games within that millennia-long history of human culture.

Early in the book Ed asks why it is we play: in fact, as he notes, most animals, especially mammals, play, be it kittens pretending to hunt a piece of string or human children making up games to play in the park or with their Lego and action figures. Play is part of how animals, including humans, learn important skills for later life, of how to be and how to act and how to perform certain acts, but it is also often a bonding and socialising tool as well, teaching us how to interact with others (also helping us form relationships as well as skills), and, of course, it is often hugely pleasurable. Ed takes us to an excavation near Amma, where a new roadworks dug up a 9,000 year old village site. Within this the archaeologists discovered a stone board with rows of indentations, which some recognised as a gaming board. In fact it strongly resembled a version of Mancala, a family of similar games which were widely played around the Middle East and Mediterranean basin back in Antiquity, and is still played to this day, especially in parts of Africa.

Just as ancient cave art such as those in Lascaux, France, or the Aboriginal rock paintings on the Burrup Peninsula in Australia reminds us that our ancestors of thousands – even tens of thousands – of years ago were not some simple “ugh, ugh” brutish, apish people but modern homo sapiens like us, the same bodies, the same brains, the same desire for self expression and abstract thought and creation. And gaming. A few indents in a piece of stone, pavement slab or wooden board, nearby pebbles for playing pieces and human imagination, and we have games we can play with others. As Gamish makes clear, this is not something unique to modernity, or even the great civilisations of the Classical period, this is quite simply a facet of being human, and the first part of the book takes us from those prehistoric games to the slow evolution of more sophisticated games like Go and Chess, which travel around our world and different cultures, being played for pleasure but also as training for the mind in organisation, even in military strategy (think of Chess as battlefield command training).

In this early chapter we first get a glimpse of the technological games that are to come, and which will take the majority of the focus of the rest of the book: enter Wolfgang Von Kempelen with his astonishing Mechanical Turk, a robotic chess player that challenges humans across Europe then later the Americas, this automaton playing against such figures as Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. As many of you will know, after more than a century of touring the globe with great success, the Turk was eventually found to be a fraud: it was not a machine intelligence, but a masterful chess player concealed cleverly inside the mechanism, working the Turk’s arm through pulleys and levers (if you are interested, Tom Standage did a terrific book on the Turk back in 2001 that I highly recommend, my review is here).

So this proved not to be the start of us using clever machines for gaming – but it did inspire much of what came later. Not just in the way Turing (also featured here) used chess as a way to test and try computer learning in the mid-20th century, or the numerous programmers who tackled chess as a way of improving computer learning (eventually leading to Deep Blue beating human grandmaster Kasparov), the very idea of a machine capable of the intricacies of a game like chess, with so many possible outcomes (increasing with each player’s moves) inspired the likes of Babbage, along with Ada Lovelace one of the father’s of what would evolve into modern computing, and computer chess remains a challenge tackled by many programmers and engineers from Turing to today, both in fact and in fiction (consider HAL playing his human crew-mates on the Discovery in 2001).

All of this is fascinating in its own right, and Ed continues to chart the evolution of computer gaming into forms contemporary readers would recognise – heck, some of us even played early versions of these, such as the now iconic Space War (I remember playing a version of this tweaked for amusement arcades in the late 70s and early 80s and loving it), the move from students using room-sized University computers to run games after hours to the first home games and the birth of what is now a multi-billion dollar industry with simple games video games plugged into the TV in your living room, from Pong to the cartridge-based Atari, the explosion of video arcade culture (at one point in the early 80s so popular that in Japan it lead to a national shortage of coins as they were all being rattled into Space Invaders and other games cabinets in the arcades!), and the evolution through those early, simple 8-bit games to today’s hyper-real, fast-paced, detailed graphics and richly visualised alternate realities, from text based dungeons and dragons games to massive, multi-player online fantasy worlds accessed from around the globe.

All of this is interesting in its own right, however what makes Gamish, as with Filmish, at least for me, is that Ed is at great pains to put the human dimension into this history. This isn’t just a straight, chronological history of technical development leading to bigger, better, more sophisticated games and virtual realities. As with Filmish, Ed is interested not just with how we increase the sophistication of our computers, programmes and gaming, but also the how and the why, and also how these have shown up many of our inbuilt social norms and prejudices, as well as how they can be used to tear those down. He looks at how many games for far too long offered only character avatars to the player who were male and white, or, as in World of Warcraft, we get non-human characters representing different cultures but which mostly draw on a very blinkered, European notion of what Native American or Asian culture is.

Gender and sexual identity, as well as ablism are also covered here – he notes how in the increasingly complex gaming worlds your on-screen character could follow multiple paths, even have romances with other characters, but usually those relationships were purely heterosexual. Despite modern games offering multiple options to players to navigate their character’s paths, it hadn’t occurred to the programmers to offer the choice of sexually different tastes, just as many hadn’t thought to include player avatars who had skin other than white, or more female options. Ed also touches on the hostility of a wretched (and thankfully small) section of the emerging gaming community, mostly young, white males, who became so possessive over games as belonging exclusively to them that they attacked female, LGBT or players of different skin colours on forums and in gaming worlds (sadly, as with GamerGate we’ve seen a similar bunch of utter idiots in the comics world too with very much the same notions).

However Ed also covers the more positive aspects of this gender, race and cultural disparity in gaming, bringing forth all sorts of examples where different groups have used the medium to empower themselves, be it refugees creating an idealised homeland they can dream of in cyberspace to transgender and non-binary players who found being able to inhabit any form of virtual avatar was therapeutic for them, and helped them explore their true inner identity in virtuality before making decisions and lifestyle changes in the real world, or Muriel Tramis creating a game where you had to play as a rebelling plantation slave as a way to highlight that dreadful period of history (and by implication its continuing influences to this very day in terms of how some people are perceived and treated even in supposedly free and equal societies).

Naturally this book also touches on that old bugbear of video violence and its possible effect on people in the real world. As Gamish points out, yes, there certainly has been a growth, especially in the 90s, of very graphically violent video games, not least the FPS or First Person Shooter, made famous by the original Doom (which I must admit I loved playing on my early PC, an hour of that would be my unwinding after spending hours on the same machine writing my college essays), and how an often rather lazy connection was made between these and real world violence (especially the dreadful problem of school shootings in the US). As the book points out though, while there should be some concerns, this moral panic was just the latest in a long saga of blaming different new media for societal ills – in the 50s it was rock music records, in the 80s it was “video nasties” and rap music, in the 90s it was video games. Always easier to simply blame those than actually try to understand where families and societies are going wrong to produce those real world problems (it also, as Ed observes, ignores the fact that if the games were indeed the cause of this real world violence then we would be drowning in such acts as millions plays them every single day).

Overall however, while Ed does explore the negative side of gaming culture, the tone here is bright and optimistically hopeful – while he details faults like sexism or ablism or cultural difference ignorance, he prefers to give far more space to positive stories, of individuals and groups who have challenged norms and used technology and gaming advances to their own advantage, to claim some of that virtual, shared cyberspace play realm for themselves, but also to share it with others and so educate us to new ideas and people and ways of being. And frankly I am glad he takes this approach – he’s far from ignoring the many problems, in fact he discusses them, but he chooses to highlight positive aspects of gaming and the power within games to help us make things better by building more understanding through shared activities, learning, creating new friendships with different people with different views on life.

Much as he did in the earliest pages of the book, when talking about our hunter-gatherer ancestors and their early play models that helped them learn skills and socialisation, Ed’s later chapters explore examples of how many today are using the modern, sophisticated gaming environments available to us right in our own homes to do the very same, with different sorts of people all over the world (the book takes pains to depict a wonderfully diverse arrary of characters in its pages, which I greatly appreciated). It’s warm, it has a sense of fun and humour and importantly it has a lot of optimism for the media and for the way it can empower all sorts of people, and right now that feels like a wonderful, uplifting notion to leave the readers on.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Dawn of the Dead Limited Edition Set

Dawn of the Dead Limited Edition Blu-Ray & 4K UHD,
Directed by George A. Romero,
Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross

When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth

I’ve loved Romero’s movies for as long as I can remember liking horror films. Dawn of the Dead, the second of his original trilogy (which later grew into a longer series), still occupies a special place in my Romero Pantheon though, and indeed retains a special place in my favourite horror films of all time, an excellent mix of horror, both from the gruesome deaths waiting everywhere by the hungry, walking dead, but also from the rapid disintegration of civilisation and the way so many humans respond to it, often as bad or worse than the zombie threat itself, leavened with some humour (few zombie horrors offer us the delights of the classic cream pie in the face fight!), and, of course, Romero’s social observations and satire.

I would imagine most collectors willing to spring for this pretty magnificent limited edition set from Second Sight will already be more than familiar with the film, and all of Romero’s works, but for those less familiar, a quick recap. Following the events of Romero’s seminal 1960s, genre-defining class Night of the Living Dead, the plague of the dead reanimating and stumbling slowly but remorselessly in pursuit of living flesh to chew has spread, civilisation is collapsing. We begin with two different scenes which introduce the main character – one set in a news studio, desperately trying to remain on the air and issue emergency information to citizens as communications break down and people give up and flee, one by one (including news helicopter pilot Stephen “Flyboy” Andrews – David Emge – and his partner Fran Parker, played by Gaylen Ross).

The other sees a SWAT squad of heavily armed police backed up my army units storming a down-town building, encountering a mix of gun-toting gang-bangers, desperate civilians and reanimated corpses. This is where we meet Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (the iconic Ken Foree), dealing with criminals, zombies and fellow officers losing the plot and going gun-crazy as the situation falls apart. Even the police are giving up, the city is lost, most are choosing to flee while they can, and Roger tells Peter that his friend, Stephen, is a chopper pilot and he’s meeting him and Fran to escape later, inviting Peter to come with them.

On the run we see encounters with other frightened groups of survivors and the ever present menace of the creeping undead – nowhere is safe, even a rural airstrip where they stop to refuel, seemingly deserted. It is here we see the infamous “head slicing” as a zombie lurches towards Roger refuelling the chopper, unable to hear it over the engine noise, turning as he sees it stand up on a pile of boxes to get to him, only for the whirling blades to slice strips from the top of its skull (bloody but quite amazing special effects by the now famous wizard Tom Savini, all practical effects, long before the dawn of CGI), a scene which manages to be stomach-turning and funny at the same time. A second scene in the small airport building, however, is far harder to take – Peter hears a noise, shoots through the door, only for it to open and two child zombies rush out at him, forcing him to shoot both in the head. They are undead zombies, but it’s still shooting a child, and Foree, to his credit, shows the toll this takes on Peter in a very quiet, understated but effective manner. The message here is clear: the world they knew, of rules and safety, is gone, they now have to commit acts they would never have dreamed of if they are to survive.

It is on the run that they spot a huge structure, which turns out to be an enormous indoor shopping mall – at the time a very new thing in the world. Originally planning to land and grab some supplies, they soon realise they could block the doorways with delivery trucks, clear the few zombies inside, and have a secure location to rest, which has everything they need from radios and TVs to listen for emergency broadcasts to clothes and every sort of food. The temporary stop soon becomes long-term, as what was a brief respite becomes a lack of drive to try and escape further north as originally planned – seduced by all the consumerist delights they make their new home comfortable with furniture from the stores, new clothes, an arsenal of weapons, drink and food. Fran, now several months pregnant, realises that they have essentially created their own comfortable prison, but it is one that will soon be shattered by the arrival of a marauding army of bikers who have been living on the road since the zombie apocalypse, pillaging where they can (and I will go no further for fear of spoilers for those who still haven’t seen this classic).

I will add, however, that re-visiting this film now, in the midst of our resurgent pandemic situation, added another layer for me as a viewer – the urge for our protagonists to hide inside and largely ignore the (unsafe) outside world, the sudden burst of pleasure after normal life is destroyed, in doing something as normal as shopping for stuff, half of which you don’t really need but just want the fun of shopping and buying and feeling normal. Oh yes, that took on a different meaning after all we’ve been going through this year. But then again that’s the mark of good storytelling, that it was written to speak about events of its own time but can still be re-interpreted decades on in a very different situation.

One of the aspects of Romero’s film-making I have always respected was his ability to take something different for each of his zombie films, something cultural and social from the era he made each in – Civil Rights being a huge influence in the original 1960s Night of the Living Dead, Cold War paranoia and apocalypse in the military bunker-set Day of the Dead, social media in Diary of the Dead and so on. Here in this 1970s offering with its vast, sprawling indoor mall of endless shops it is our lust for consumerism – a drive so strong that it attracts not only our fleeing heroes and distracts them with its baubles when they should be making plans to retreat somewhere safer, but also the zombies themselves. The undead have massed around this huge structure, struggling to get past the barricades our heroes put in place.

They are walking corpses, the items in the stores are of no use to them now (and in a dark mirror reflection we see that ultimately most of those shiny items we are so sure our life isn’t complete without are mostly of no use to Flyboy, Peter, Roger and Fran either, except as a dangerous distraction from the reality crashing in all around them). Flyboy opines that the reason so many are trying to get in is because they saw them enter and know they are still there. No, Peter argues, it isn’t them they are after, it is the building, the shops. They are us, or were us, and some dim spark in their decaying brains remembers this place as somewhere they liked to be, and it drives them on still in their undead existence, almost as strong an imperative as the urge for fresh flesh.

These limited edition 4K UHD and Blu-Ray sets are pretty damned impressive – we get three cuts of the film, from the original theatrical version, the slightly longer “Cannes” cut, and a third by the legendary Italian maestro of horror, Dario Argento, who wrote the story with Romero and was instrumental in getting international finance to allow the film to be made. There are CDs of the soundtrack by Argento regulars Goblin, newly commissioned artwork, a novelisation of the film and a hardback collection of essays, Dissecting the Dead.

Also among the extras, in addition to different commentaries on each of the various cuts of the film offered here (from Romero to Tom Savini to Ken Foree and others), there is an entire disc full of extras, which I have to say I really enjoyed working my way through. My favourite here was Zombies and Bikers, which talks to a whole slew of crew and cast, including many who gave their time to appear as zombie extras or the biker army, many of whom would be singled out by Romero for special close-ups and their own mini-arcs in the film. Memories of Monroeville sees Michael Gornick, Tom Savini, Tom Dubensky and Taso Stavrakis return to the original mall to explore some of the locations where they shot scenes and reminisce about the filming. Romero was friendly with people who ran the mall, and they allowed him to use it, but he could only shoot at night after the stores closed, which meant a long, arduous shooting schedule, having to wrap each morning as the automated, canned music and voice over ads on the speakers would come on by themselves (this is echoed in the film where the same music and ads for the stores continues to play in the now empty – save for our four protagonists – mall, another echo of the emptiness of trying to fill our lives with consumerism).

A common thread in these two documentary extras, apart from a nice feeling of nostalgia as those involve look back on the work they did and how they could never at the time have anticipated that decades on it would remain this iconic, landmark film, is the sheer warmth in their memories. Despite the hours, working through the night for little money, many joining the shoot at night after their day jobs, everyone genuinely seems to have wonderful memories of the film, and most especially of the late Romero and what a charming and delightful director he was to work with. It reminded me of the time Romero visited the Edinburgh International Film Festival with Diary of the Dead – decent enough film, not his best though, but the reception the man himself got from the audience was amazing, it was clear how much love there was in the room for this man, he was “Uncle George” to most of us, and I could see that in these recollections in the extras.

It was also very clear from these documentaries, and a previously unseen interview with Romero, that this film, a film that now has a secure place in cinema history, only exists because so many people like those featured in the extras here were happy to put in the time, working for a token fee, to help make Romero’s script turned into reality, while others helped with letting them use locations they could never have afforded to rent or recreate on a sound-stage. With many it came down to a combination of love for his Night of the Living Dead and also a lovely community support aspect – a sort of wow, we’re making a feature film right here in Pittsburgh, not Hollywood, yes, I want to help you make that happen. Again it is such a warm wave of enthusiasm and mutual support for fellow creators which is inspiring to see. All in all this is a terrific collector’s edition, with well-restored cuts of the film in different edits and jam-packed with extras, giving this iconic horror the respect it richly deserves.

The limited edition set Second Sight has put together is a cine-collector’s dream – three different cuts of the film, a whole disc full of extras, newly commissioned artwork, audio CDs (including Goblin’s soundtrack), novelisation and a hardback book, Dissecting the Dead. Dawn of the Dead is released in a special Limited Edition 4K UHD and Blu-Ray by Second Sight on November 16th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films