Tuesday, 10 September 2019

TUCKED DVD review

When new girl Faith (Jordan Stephens) starts as a performer at a Brighton drag club, ageing Queen Jackie (Derren Nesbitt) takes her under his wing. Having recently discovered he only has six weeks to live, Jackie enlists Faith to help tick some life experiences off his bucket list, and hopefully reconnect with his estranged daughter, Lily (April Pearson).



The world of drag is one that has seen a huge boost in popularity in recent years, in no small part thanks to TV shows like the hugely popular Ru Paul's Drag Race, but until now UK drag has been under explored. Brighton is one such place that has a thriving drag scene, with a mixture of old school cabaret clubs and newer, edgier comic performers bringing in the crowds. In Tucked, the grand old dame of the club, Jackie, sings Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive, and walks the floor telling dirty, innuendo laden and self deprecating jokes like "I'm not fat, i'm just easier to see" and "do you know the difference between your wife and your job? After 5 years, your job will still suck", followed by the newer, glamour-puss queen Faith, whose act relies as much on beauty as it does biting wit.

Tucked may draw you in off the strip with the promise of a story about drag queens of different generations, but it's really not about that at all. This is a story about Jack 'Jackie' Collins, an old, straight man who in the evening enjoys dressing up in women's clothes and performing to a crowd, but who in the day is lonely, and haunted by past decisions that have cost him his family. His life only changes upon the arrival of Faith at the club, who after Jackie discovers she is sleeping in her car, gives her place to stay. After learning about Jackie's illness, Faith hopes to repay Jackie's kindness by helping him tick some things off his bucket list like getting a tattoo and doing drugs, leading to an awkward but funny interaction with drug dealer Steve Oram.

Brighton native Jordan Stephens, AKA one half of Rizzle Kicks, puts in a solid performance as Faith, a young queen who doesn't "think that what's between my legs defines me". This unwillingness to conform to a specific gender identity hints at aspects of Faith's life that are ripe for drama, but despite Stephens receiving top billing, I'm sure even he would concede he is the supporting player here, rightfully making space for his co-star Derren Nesbitt. A veteran actor with credits as far back as 1956 and roles in films ranging from Where Eagles Dare to The Amorous Milkman (which he also wrote and directed), he's been relegated to occasional Grandad roles in recent years but is astonishing here.

Jackie is a complex, damaged man, and the performance from Derren Nesbitt is why you should see this film. He's in almost every frame of the film and completely dominates the story with this empathetic, wholly believable character he's portraying. Although the dichotomy between his character and the much younger Faith is only touched upon briefly, and Faith's story is under-explored to say the least, the story this film tells, albeit probably not the one you were expecting, is still a compelling one.

There's a charm about Tucked that's exemplified by Jackie's club routine. Yes, some of the jokes are old hat and have punchlines you can see coming a mile off, but they're delivered with real heart and conviction, the material being elevated by the performer to another level.

Verdict
3.5/5

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR BLU-RAY review

A 1980s classic given the special edition blu-ray treatment it deserves, out now is Flight of the Navigator.



Flight of the Navigator will hold a special place in the heart of many children of the '80s, and although there's often a fear that revisiting these older films will lead to crushing disappointment, as soon as this film's opening UFO fake out is revealed to be a dog frisbee catching competition and Alan Silvestri's jumpy electronic score kicks in, you know you're in for fun. 12 year old David (Joey Cramer) has the usual things to worry about like how to talk to girls, taking his dog Bruiser for a walk in the woods and his bratty younger brother being a constant annoyance. All this changes when, after falling in the woods, he returns home to find his parents no longer live there and that he's been missing for the last 8 years, his whereabouts a complete mystery. More peculiarly, he hasn't aged a day in that time, his little brother is now a foot taller than him and his parents thought he was dead. Oh, and NASA are very interested in the star maps that now appear to be in David's brain, and what they might have to do with the giant spaceship they've found.

It's one of the all time great kid's horror "what would you do?" scenarios that's only the first act of this film. A Disney co-production released by Buena Vista but deemed too dark a set-up to bear the Walt Disney logo, in their hands Flight of the Navigator could have been a sanitised family comedy called something like My Big Little Brother, but instead it's closer in tone to an Amblin movie, full of childhood trauma, shady government officials and conspiracies. And let's be honest, the title is awesome.

About that aforementioned flight, this is very much a film of two distinct halves, firstly with David encountering this brave new world of 80s things like MTV, a robot named RALF and Sarah Jessica Parker, before his psychic bond with a super cool looking silver spaceship leads to the second half of the film, which literally soars when it kicks into gear. With effects that still look great, the mixture of practical and photographic morphing effects really make the ship come to life. Watching this now, it's surprising how clearly divided down the middle this film is, as fond memories place the scenes of David flying around in the spaceship talking to Max (the onboard computer that sounds suspiciously like Pee Wee Herman after downloading the star maps from David's brain) as the bulk of the film. That's not to say the first half is forgettable and doesn't set up an enjoyable mystery scenario, but as the title suggests, it's the Flight of the Navigator that we want to see. Boy, is it fun.

It's a film ready to be enjoyed by audiences young and old, and this new blu-ray edition from Second Sight (in a beautiful looking slipcase) has been given a plethora of extras that will answer your questions like, "how did they make the spaceship look so cool? and "I wonder what the kid in it looks like now?". Don't wait for the often threatened remake, invest in the original and go for a wild ride.

Verdict
4/5

Special Features-

- New 4K scan with restoration supervised by Randal Kleiser
- Directing the Navigator - Interview with Randal Kleiser
- Playing the Navigator - Interview with Joey Cramer
- Mother of the Navigator - Interview with Veronica Cartwright
- Brother of the Navigator - Interview with Matt Adler
- Art of the Navigator featurette
- Commentary by Randal Kleiser and producer Jonathan Sanger
- Reversible sleeve with new and original artwork

Limited Edition also features-

-Rigid slipcase with new artwork by Rich Davies
- 100 page book with original storyboards, behind the scenes photos and a new essay by Kevin Lyons
- Reversible poster with new and original artwork


Tuesday, 3 September 2019

MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN review

Director Alexandre O. Philippe employs interviews from those involved to surgically dissect Memory, screenwriter Dan O'Bannon's original title for Star Beast, his script featuring one of cinema's most indelible monsters, that eventually became known simply as Alien.



This documentary starts off in a truly bizarre way, with a dramatic interpretation of worshippers at the Temple of Apollo, somehow linked to Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi horror in a way that isn't immediately clear. It's a bold opening, and one that fittingly reminds of the opening sequence of the Ridley Scott created story for his Alien prequel, Prometheus, albeit in a way that might be off putting for some viewers who aren't fans of the mythology he grafted onto the story later on. Philippe's documentary has grand ideas of being a quintessential psychological study of the Star Beast and the men behind her, employing the use of lofty, literary talking heads speaking of the Lovecraftian influence on O'Bannon's work, with mixed success.

This doc largely concerns the pre-production stage of the classic film and how it came together to form the Alien film we know and love, so the absence of future lead Sigourney Weaver from the talking heads is not detrimental. Some of the contributions are archive footage, most notably from director Ridley Scott and Dan O'Bannon, but these are presented in an original and ingenious way via monitors that would form part of a control console, not dissimilar to how Dallas and Ash consult with MOTHER. Thankfully the film is not solely made of re-used interviews, with actors Tom Skerritt & Veronica Cartwright offering new material for the film (Cartwright's recollection of the Chestbusrter scene is a highlight), as do art director Roger Donaldson and, most importantly, O'Bannon's widow, Diane.

With her help, the key figure this film tries to studiously examine is Dan O'Bannon, the originator of the Star Beast and frequently unheralded figure in the creation of the Alien franchise. This doc goes some way to righting that wrong, deep-diving into his personal history (his health issues, obsession with sci-fi) that shaped the beast's story. Not all of this thorough examination makes complete sense, as the list of possible films that may have influenced O'Bannon's script are a bit tenuous, like Queen of Blood featuring a dead alien in a chair, just like Alien does in the form of the Space Jockey. In this regard the film reminds of Room 237, a fantastic look at the creation of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, but a film with some incredibly outlandish theories about what hidden symbolism is contained in the film. Here it's a similarly myth building exercise that is maybe a touch too conspiracy theory heavy, but that will undoubtedly give fans of the Alien franchise new material to repeat down the pub.

It also takes an extended look at the work of artist H.R. Giger and O'Bannon's obsession with his work after discovering his bizarre, sexualised, industrial portraits when working on the ill-fated Jodorowsky version of Dune. Both O'Bannon and Giger are presented as tortured artistic geniuses, and although it's worth noting that both of their spouses have executive producer credits on this documentary (I am completely speculating, but I would assume their co-operation was essential in order to get the film made), they don't shy away from revealing some of the shenanigans that lead to O'Bannon's reputation as a loose cannon, a reputation that undoubtedly fed into his battles with original Alien director Ridley Scott over the vision for the film, and his later issues in finding regular work in Hollywood.

Although this doc, with its foreboding industrial soundtrack and leisurely pace, is often presented as a dour experience, it's often raises a chuckle or two. Chief among these moments of development hell fun is imagining the versions of the film that could have been, like the low budget version from 'The Pope of Pop Cinema' himself, Roger Corman, who saw the script pass over his desk, but graciously told O'Bannon to go after a studio with a bigger budget (but to come back to him if he had no luck).

Memory undoubtedly contains compelling insights into the production for both newcomers and older fans of the franchise, but despite providing a lot of material over which to speculate, it never convincingly lands on who to credit for the creation of the Alien franchise. It's worth noting that the only other films Alexandre O. Philippe chooses to include are brief mentions of Prometheus and Alien Covenant, both also directed by Ridley Scott, so perhaps he's making his position clear as to whose vision wins out for him. What's certain is that for fans to make an informed decision of their own, Memory is essential viewing.

Verdict
3.5/5


Saturday, 31 August 2019

SEAHORSE review

When Freddy McConnell decided he wanted to have a child, as a transgender man he decided the simplest option would be to carry the child himself, coming off his prescribed testosterone and onto folic acid to prepare himself for potential pregnancy. Director Jeanie Finlay follows Freddy as he confronts issues with his biology, self belief and societal expectations of what he's allowed to do.


The basic logline for Seahorse (and its subtitle "The Dad Who Gave Birth") would undoubtedly have the heads of some Daily M@!l readers spinning, but as sensational a headline it may make, that is not the aim of director Jeanie Finlay or the film's subject, Freddy McConnell, who has gamely allowed intimate access into the process of being a trans person wanting to conceive a child, hoping to provoke nothing other than discussion and offer hope to others.

Finlay's films have always been notable for the willing contributions of her subjects (The Great Hip Hop Hoax, Sound it Out and the excellent Game of Thrones documentary, The Last Watch that managed to silence some of those disappointed in the finale but showing the sheer amount of work and love that went into making the show), and it's no different here. With complete access to his life and interactions with Freddy's family & friends, and it's an important part of the film that his family don't all come across as the open, liberal people you would hope or expect them to be. Much like the audience for this film, they are real, inquisitive people who often clumsily try to navigate their way through this experience by asking Freddy awkward questions. The film isn't trying to vilify them, but as a document that may be of help to viewers who may encounter such a scenario in the future, show what questions don't need to be asked. This is evident at a dinner populated by Freddy's mother's friends aimed at imparting wisdom of "motherhood" onto Freddy, when one woman has to ask "so are you going to be called Dad?", before the group starts to list heteronormative ideals of masculinity and conjure up images of Demis Roussos as something for Freddy to aspire to.

Although this story has plenty in common with any story of someone hoping to start a family and conceive (expensive trips to the doctors, the near misses, the pregnancy tests), it's crucial that the specific journey of Freddy as a transgender person is captured, something that a talented filmmaker like Jeanie Finlay understands could not accurately be told be a cisgender person. Luckily, Freddy is an articulate video diarist, recording late night thoughts and important steps in the journey, like when his prospective co-parent CJ who had been an important part of the early stages, has second thoughts about the arrangement for unclear reasons and walks away. It's here that Freddy's mother steps in to become a big part of the film, sharing her own stories of being a single parent, including the absolute killer line "I loved being pregnant. Everyone should experience it, especially men". She's also able to share photos and videos of Freddy's childhood, a potentially tricky resource for Finlay to mine, but treated respectfully and with Freddy's consent.

The film does a great job of documenting the unconscious bias Freddy faces at every step, something that won't survive Freddy's strong attitude, changing the M to a P on every page of the Maternity paperwork he is asked to fill out. This is done not as an act of defiance but in order to point out how unprepared the established systems are to deal with trans rights in something as basic as starting a family, a luxury cisgender people have no barriers in doing. One of the threads that runs through the film is Freddy's relationship with his own father, a figure absent from the film and notably from Freddy's everyday life. Their exchanges occur via polite but strongly worded emails, his voice only heard in the home video footage of Freddy as a child.

Seahorse is a thoughtful film that tells a deeply human story of one person wanting to bring more life and love into the world, and why them being trans should not prevent them the opportunity to do that. Culminating in a beautiful scene that is profoundly moving and joyful, Seahorse questions what it takes to be a parent and offers a tremendous amount of hope and optimism for the future.

Verdict
4/5

Thursday, 29 August 2019

CRITTERS ATTACK - FRIGHTFEST review

 
Children of the 1980's will be well versed in films with tiny monsters running around small town America. On the top end of the scale is Joe Dante's Gremlins, a Spielbergian family horror with cute, marketable furry monsters as well as the hideous ones; the bottom end of the scale occupied by Ghoulies, best remembered for its toilet dwelling monster on the VHS box art. Somewhere in the middle of that scale is the Critters franchise. Not a complete rip off of the spawn of Gizmo, but I think it's fair to say the Crites wouldn't exist without the appearance of Gremlins on the big screen in 1984.


The Critters films existed in a brief bubble between 1986 and 1992, in an era where practical puppetry ruled, just before they were summarily trampled by the CGI dinosaurs that were to come. Now, after a small screen revival at the start of 2019, the Crites are back in film form, with a (mostly) new cast of characters and some interesting developments in the Critters canon.

The film introduces us to Drea (Tashiana Washington), a young woman dreaming of attending Leroy College, the alma mater of her deceased mother, but can't seem to catch a break with the admissions board. Hoping to make herself known, she takes a job as babysitter to one of the professor's children. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, two mysterious objects have crash landed, one containing the Crites as we know them from previous films (and quickly making a meal out of a takeaway delivery boy), the other housing a new, mysterious white creature the Crites seem to be looking for.

There's so much to enjoy about this reboot of the franchise, 27 years after the last big screen instalment. Wisely, they've opted to avoid the introduction of CGI Critters, maintaining the practical puppets that resemble evil little hedgehogs. That may well have been a budgetary decision, but it's worked in the film's favour. Sure, there's times when in the cold light of day the lighting does the look of the puppets no favours at all, but when they're put into darkness (as the previous remote farmhouse, inner city block and, er, outer space settings did), the little beasties look much more menacing.

The filmmakers also know that a Critters film needs to deliver a healthy amount of fun, so the introduction of the (minor spoiler) white Critter Queen, later dubbed Bianca, lends a new element of bizarre world building. She's a character that clearly takes some inspiration from the introduction of the female Gremlin in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (bonus points if you know her name is Greta), standing apart from the almost identikit design of the other (male) puppets. Also, no spoilers for the plot of the film, but it helps that she's kinda badass.

Of course there are also humans in the film, lead by Tashiana Washington's Drea. As a young woman eager to fulfil her dreams whilst also caring for her younger brother Phillip (Jaeden Noel), her drunk uncle Sheriff Lewis (Stephen Jennings) and now professor's kids Trissy & Jake (Ava Preston & Jack Fulton), she's a likeable character that, crucially, you don't immediately want to see get eaten by the Critters.

35 years into the franchise and operating with a low budget, director Bobby Miller should be commended for offering the Critters series a new lease of life. Sure, it's corny, ridiculous and not the most original film you'll see this year, but for nostalgic fans of the original series, this more family friendly iteration is pitched about right, offering some characters you can root for, some you can't wait to see get eaten, and plenty of ridiculous Critter action.

Hey, I managed to get all the way through this review without mentioning the only piece of Critters trivia anyone knows, that Leonardo DiCaprio was in Critters 3! Except for now.

Damnit.

Verdict
3/5

Saturday, 17 August 2019

JT LEROY review

Now in cinemas and available to download, starring Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern and based on one of the greatest literary hoaxes of all time, Justin Kelly's film tells the true story of how two women came to embody the fictional street kid turned author, JT Leroy.



You may not be aware of the "hoax" in the early 2000s that shook the literary and celebrity world, but this film tells of how writer Laura Albert, writer and creator of fictional personalities that she would often use to confront her own issues, convinced her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to pose in photographs as JT Leroy, the credited author of Albert's latest book, Sarah. When Hollywood comes calling to adapt the book into a film and JT becomes an in demand presence at meetings, parties and the Cannes Film Festival, Knoop becomes a semi-reluctant avatar for JT until, with questions about her own identity coming forth and a growing rivalry with Albert over the ownership of JT, the entire scheme starts to unravel before them.

Quite fittingly this story has been told from two different angles before, first in Savannah Knoop's book Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy, then two rival documentaries - The Cult of JT Leroy and Author: The JT Leroy Story. The latter, directed by The Devil and Daniel Johnston filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, was one of my favourite films of the year it was released, although it was very clearly told from the point of view of Laura Albert. She is essentially the narrator of that film, asserting her ownership of the persona she created, and not always coming over well. This film takes inspiration from Knoop's memoir (the film was also co-written by Knoop with director Justin Kelly) and is very purposely told from the other point of view, from the person who became the physical manifestation of JT at the photo shoots and celebrity parties.

What is most striking about the film is how relevant its subject matter feels to today, even more so than the documentary which only came out a couple of years ago. Through Knoop's eyes this is a study of gender and sexuality that is years ahead of its early 2000s setting, but never feels like it is appropriating the current exploration of gender identity. Simply, the story of JT was the start of a sea change in how these concerns are explored. In the film we see Knoop, a short haired, sexually fluid young woman binding her breasts to look less feminine (or at least an atypical kind of feminine), adopting a male persona by donning baggy clothes, a long blonde wig & sunglasses and pitching her voice down a couple of octaves. Physically JT appears of ambiguous gender, something that increasingly confronts Knoop's own personal feelings as they consider sexual desire towards Diane Kruger's Eva. Is Eva attracted to Knoop's physical appearance in the form of a man, or is it the ambiguity that holds the attraction? Added to that is Albert's relationship with Eva, talking to her on the phone under the guise of JT. Collectively JT and Eva are in a relationship between two people that actually involves four people, one of whom is fictional.

A large part of the success of the film is the dream casting of Laura Dern as Albert and Kristen Stewart as Knoop. Not only are they great physical matches for their counterparts, they share fantastic on screen chemistry as the collective writer, body and conscience of JT Leroy. Stewart has consistently proven that she is one of the best young actresses working today, and the uncomfortable reservedness she has previously been criticised for works for the bewildering puzzle her character is pulled into. As Laura Albert, Dern is simply astonishing, capturing the nuances of Albert's mannerisms (very much on display in Author) down to a T. She is a larger than life character, desperate to achieve a higher level of respect and celebrity, and Dern captures that hunger well as Albert's jealousy allows the facade to slip as she slips from character to character. Although Albert's discomfort at losing part of JT to Knoop is well explored in this version of the story, what is less covered is her reasons for creating these multiple fictional personas, as told in Author. A victim of abuse who would call suicide hotlines pretending to be teenage runaways, she created a method of escape that she continued to use when working for phone sex chat lines and when crafting the persona of JT.

It is helpful to have some prior knowledge of the story in order to truly understand some of the eccentricities that seem outlandish. I would recommend seeing Author... if only to see that Dern's horrendous "British" accent as alter ego Speedy is actually pretty damn close to Albert's original, and also to understand the true identity of Diane Kruger's ambiguously European Asia Argento facsimile, Eva Avalon. I would assume the new character has been created to avoid any potential legal issues coming from Argento, but without that prior insight into Argento's personality there's something a bit lacking in Kruger's interpretation and relationships with both Albert and Knoop, leaving her character the least developed. Jim Sturgess also appears as Savannah's brother and Laura's husband Geoff, a wannabe successful musician pulled into this bizarre world of celebrity and given his own fictional counterpart in the form of Astor, member of Twist and Scream, the band "JT" writes the lyrics for, fronted by Albert's Speedy. Sturgess is perfectly fine in this supporting role, well aware that this is Dern's and Stewart's film.

If this film is your first exposure to the story of JT Leroy you may be forgiven for thinking some of the details may seem far too outlandish to be true, but in all honesty this is about as bizarre a feature film interpretation of the real story could be, and there's various books and documentaries to back up and expand on the story. Dean and Stewart deserve high praise for accurately embodying Albert and Knoop who are painted in the film as far more complex characters than JT ever was. As a real life account of gender identity and sexual fluidity JT Leroy is an important and timely film, the subject matter given no easy answers yet asking a lot of the right questions.

Verdict
4/5


(this review is an update of the original review, published after the premiere of the film as the closing night gala at this year's BFI FLARE Film Festival.)