Friday, 17 January 2020

A SERIAL KILLER'S GUIDE TO LIFE review

When self-help fanatic Lou (Katie Brayben) meets wannabe guru Val (Poppy Roe), the pair go on a road trip to experience different therapy sessions, leaving an unexpected trial of dead bodies in their wake. One of the crowd pleasers from last year's Frightfest in Leicester Square, A Serial Killer's Guide to Life in now available to rent.



Lou is a simple young woman who spends her time caring for her ungrateful mum, preparing her meals and washing her in the bath. She spends her days listening to self help CDs and attending seminars that are really nothing more than sales pitches for shysters trying to take advantage of the naive and vulnerable. It's at one of these seminars that Lou meets Val, an exorbitantly confident sociopath whose biggest ambition is to be the greatest life coach the world has ever known. Seeing in Lou someone whose life she can help turn around with her unorthodox methods, Val takes control of Lou's life and tries to mould her into a more confident, altogether deadly woman.

Following the trail blazed before them in films like Badlands and Thelma and Louise, there's something so appealingly British about A Serial Killer's Guide to Life that only adds to the charm. Comparisons to Sightseers (another British, coastal murder spree), are obvious, but the dynamic at the core of the film is different, and the story is laced with a not-so-slyly satirical dig at the self help industry. Split into chapters, the start of each accompanied by a monologue by Lou's favourite guru, Chuck Knoah (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), the target of the film (and Val's victims) is the self-help entrepreneurs with their "alternative" medicinal therapies, and the middle class suburbanites who prescribe to them.

It's at these therapy sessions when ASKGTL (as no one's calling it) raises the most laughs, with a fantastically wanky married pair delivering "Sound Therapy" sessions and tuna sandwiches for the journey home the sort of people you can't wait to see killed. A Serial Killer's Guide (as most people are calling it) never pushes too hard for laugh out loud comedy, instead using the absurdity of its premise to raise the odd chuckle, as well as funny performances from the leads, innocent Lou (Brayden) and the icy cool Val (Roe).

Poppy Roe is a real star in the making with cheekbones sharp enough to kill. As well as co-starring, she's a credited producer and was co-editor alongside her husband Staten Cousins Roe; clearly a couple to keep an eye on. In fact, if any evidence of their dedication to their craft was needed, Cousins Roe was nearly late to the Frightfest world premiere of this film due to his wife giving birth the night before. Multi-taskers indeed.

A Serial Killer's Guide to Life is a road trip that might visit a few thematic places we've seen before, but they've packed a boot full of charm and wit to go next to the dead bodies. If you're looking for personal growth don't expect to find a new way of life here, but if you like a bit of senseless killing as a cathartic exercise, this could be the film for you.

Verdict
3.5/5

A SERIAL KILLER'S GUIDE TO LIFE is out now on iTunes and Digital HD
www.aserialkillersguidetolife.com
https://apple.co/2RGlh4g

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

ASYLUM & THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD BLU-RAY reviews


Out now on blu-ray is two classic portmanteau horrors from the legendary British studio, Amicus. Starring a slew of British TV stars alongside more established and iconic genre actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, both Asylum and The House That Dripped Blood follow a similar structure in having a selection of short stories presented with one over-arching story to tie them (very loosely) together. Both of these titles were written by Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, which should give you some idea of what to expect.

In The House That Dripped Blood, a Scotland Yard inspector arrives in town to investigate the disappearance of renowned horror actor Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee), only to discover that his residence has a long history of mysterious deaths with no apparent link between them; and in Asylum, a young doctor must prove his eligibility for a vacant position by deducing which of the patients on the ward is his predecessor and would be employer, Dr. B. Starr, now also one of the "incurably insane".

They're hammy and Hammer-y in a number of great ways that the modern British film industry could learn a lot of lessons from. Firstly, the cast in both films in incredible, tapping a rich vein of British TV stars eager to make a move into films, rubbing shoulders with established names and those whose star was on the wain. Charlotte Rampling, Ingrid Pitt, Patrick Magee, Denholm Elliott, Geoffrey Bayldon (one of these films features Catweazel, whilst the other has Worzel Gummidge, so, something for everyone); I'm just scratching the surface of the talent that appears. Genre legend Peter Cushing features in both films in small roles, with his Hammer co-star Christopher Lee also popping up in The House... as a strict father whose sweet little daughter might be trying to kill him with voodoo. What is most enjoyable here is that given a role he can really (and thematically) sink his teeth into, both men are overshadowed by an incredibly fun performance by Worzel Gummidge and Doctor Who star Jon Pertwee as an ever so serious thespian who starts to become a vampire. His segment, the grand finale of The House... is the campest and funniest one across both films which do have wildly differing tones from sequence to sequence, the effect best described as chilling rather than outright scary. Still, for films fast approaching 50 years old they still are remarkably effective at planting an idea in your brain that will linger for a long while. Of the two films, the fun of the Jon Pertwee story gives The House... the slight edge over the much more dour Asylum, although they work well as a double bill due to their fragmented structure.

It's been said countless times before about portmanteau horrors, but they're often wildly inconsistent from act to act and can (usually) be fairly judged by their weakest sequence. Thankfully, neither film attempts to wow us with a ridiculous number of stories (hello, ABCs of Death), keeping it down to four or five smaller films and one thread to tie them to each other. It's part of the fun that these stories clearly have nothing to do with one another and the writers have gone to very little effort to find thematic links (the stories in The House... all take place in - drumroll, please - a house), but there is an enjoyable layer of mystery to Asylum's wraparound, as Robert Powell listens to the story of each patient to work out who among them was once a renowned psychiatric doctor, now just another potential killer. It's a ridiculous premise and as over the top as you'd expect from the author of Psycho, but it's a guessing game you'll find yourself playing along with all the way to the demonic toys filled finale.

The special features on both discs are a beaut, a particular highlight being the short archive documentary on the Asylum disc that shows how Amicus was operated out of what was essentially a shed on the backlot of Shepperton Studios by two men with big ideas and tight purse strings, clearly a precursor to the Blumhouse model of filmmaking. Both discs not only come with director commentaries and a surprising amount of extras, but also come with reversible sleeves with fantastic new artwork from the legendary artist Graham Humphreys, although it's hard not to spin the cover of The House That Dripped Blood, if only for the incredible tagline "Vampires! Voodoo! Vixens! Victims!".

Clearly the work of madmen with a touch of genius guiding them, both of these Amicus blu-rays offer some genuinely creepy chills and thrills and are essential for anyone interested in the history of horror.

Verdict
The House That Dripped Blood 3.5/5
Asylum 3/5

Special Features
The House That Dripped Blood
- Reversible sleeve
- Audio commentaries
- A Rated Horror Film - vintage featurette and interviews with director Peter Duffell and stars Geoffrey Bayldon, Ingrid Pitt & Chloe Franks
- Radio spots
- Stills gallery
- Trailers

Asylum
- Reversible sleeve
- Audio commentary
- Screenwriter David J. Schow on writer Robert Bloch
- Two's A Company - vintage featurette that visits the Amicus office at Shepperton Studios
- Inside The Fear Factory - featurette with directors Roy Ward Baker, Freddie Francis and producer Max J. Rosenberg
- Trailer

Sunday, 15 December 2019

SUPER SIZE ME 2: HOLY CHICKEN! review

15 years after taking on McDonald's and the fast food industry in Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock returns to take on the intensive chicken farming industry, AKA Big Chicken.


In the original Super Size Me, Spurlock uncovered how unhealthy our fast food chains really are by eating McDonalds for every meal for a month, leading to changes to the McMenu and other restaurants following suit to promote a more healthy range of foods. What he hopes to show in this belated sequel is just how successful he actually was, in particular focusing on the chicken farming industry, the bird seeing a huge surge in popularity in the intervening years. To do that he doesn't plan to eat an exorbitant amount of chicken; instead he's purchasing his own chicks, rearing them on his own "Morganic" chicken farm for weeks, then sending them off to slaughter so he can feed them to others in his own fast food restaurant.

I'm sure that Spurlock, who gained notoriety and celebrity after the Oscar nominated success of his first film, never thought for a moment he would legitimately be able to pull the feathers over people's eyes that he of all people was genuinely going to open a fast food restaurant; but the ruse doesn't take up too much of the runtime of this film, instead taking on the myths of so called "healthy" menus, and the language that is used to convince the consumer they're actually eating good food. To do this he wades through the chicken shit and into the bullshit, visiting various US eateries (including a return to his nemesis, McDonald's) and taking apart their claims by reflecting them back on his own chicken filled "grow house". Free range? The definition is so vague that Spurlock installs a curved grate the width of the grow house doorway in order to qualify. The chickens might never see daylight and spend all day in the crowded barn, suffering broken legs due to their weight and heart attacks due to stress, but technically the option for them to step out into less than a square metre of outdoors is there, so free range they are.

The most entertaining aspect of the film is this dissection of the language being used to dupe us into thinking the fast food industry has actually changed in the wake of Spurlock's original outing. It's depressing to see how easy it is to manipulate the facts to make the consumer think they're being a conscientious buyer, opting for "all natural", "humanely raised", "hormone free" chicken, without actually knowing what that all means. Likewise, i'll never set foot in a fast food eatery again without analysing the decor for inspirational but ultimately nonsensical messages written large on the walls, something Spurlock parodies to great effect at the finale of the film with the grand opening of his new chicken restaurant.

Heck, even this film, with this title, is a product of that same marketing strategy, with Spurlock being a canny showman who knows how to sell a film that's only tangentially related to the original Super Size Me. Even if the message doesn't have quite the same impact, Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! is still a dizzyingly fun documentary that moves at an incredible pace to fit everything in, edited to within an inch of its life with an average shot length well under a second. Like Michael Moore before him, Morgan Spurlock has become a master of this style of documentary and knows all the elements he needs to include in his film, even if they don't go anywhere.

There's a diversion where Spurlock tries to talk to one of the bigwigs at the National Chicken Council that's ultimately fruitless, but features a spicy interaction with an office worker, so makes the cut. Undoubtedly more effective is the real world impact these intensive chicken farming contracts are shown to have on the farmers and their families. They could easily have been the villains of the film (with one farmer shown to be incredibly blasé about hearing a popping sound as he accidentally steps on a baby chick), but up against the corporate might of American industry and a bizarre payment system rigged to penalise them, they're the everyday Joe fighting the man.

Not unlike the chickens Spurlock raises in the film, the narrative is forever in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own body, but just about holds out until the end; and just like the honest propaganda Spurlock decorates his restaurant with, this film might not have the shock value he's hoping for, but it's smirk-worthy fun whilst also being quite a tragic tale.

Verdict
3/5

SUPER SIZE ME 2: HOLY CHICKEN! is released on iTunes and On Demand from 9th December 2019

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

THE PARTY'S JUST BEGINNING review


Following the suicide of her best friend, Liusaidh (Karen Gillan) strives to find comfort by pushing her lifestyle to its limits, hooking up with random strangers and drinking herself into oblivion. Haunted by the image of Ali's (Matthew Beard) death, she tries to come to terms with what happened by replaying the months leading up to his death in her mind.


Stuck in a depressing supermarket job behind the cheese counter and living with her exasperating mother and comatose father, Liusaidh looks for her own kind of solace and relief, usually from casual sexual encounters she has with strangers, followed by a chip supper on the way home. Her biggest step forward comes when answering her phone, often misdialled as a helpline number one digit away, she decides to start talking to an elderly gentleman about his problems and finds strength by supporting someone else; just as she hoped and failed to do for Ali.

The feature directorial debut of Karen Gillan, thematically The Party's Just Beginning shares a few elements with Phoebe Waller-Bridge's magnum opus Fleabag and Sophie Hyde's Animals (starring Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat), although there's very little in the way of fun or comic relief here to balance the tone. Whereas those "wayward" women lived their lives one night at the time, for Gillan's Liusaidh, you don't get the same feeling that, eventually, everything's going to be okay. There's very little in Liusaidh's life that isn't gloomy, so the optimistic appearance of Gillan's Guardians of the Galaxy co-star Lee Pace as one of her conquests offers some glimmer of hope.

It's a bold, brooding story for Gillan to deliver, and with her star very much on the rise in family friendly Hollywood fare like the Jumanji and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises, it's clearly a passion project she's needed to get out of her system. There's obviously a truth to this unflattering slice of life that can only be properly expressed by a native, with Gillan returning to her old hometown of Inverness for a film that isn't going to do much for tourism of the local area.

There's a slight dramatic disconnect in that it's Ali's story that has the weightier themes but is the secondary story behind Liusaidh's, with the structure a little jarring as we flit between present day and flashbacks to Liusaidh's time with Ali with reckless abandon. And it's not exactly the rollocking good time you might be expecting from the (ironic) title; less of a party and more of a "wake up in a bush" morning after hangover that ventures to some extremely dark (but very well-handled) areas towards the finale. Dark and depressing it may often be, but on the whole it's a solid performance by Gillan on both sides of the camera that shows the potential for bigger directorial projects to come.

Verdict
3/5

Monday, 11 November 2019

MAN MADE review

Now available on demand to coincide with Trans Visibility Week, Man Made follows a group of transgender bodybuilders as they prepare for the only competition in the world open to transgender men, Trans FitCon.


Following four of the contestants as they prepare for the event whilst also living their day to day lives as transgender men with vastly different stories to tell, director T Cooper (a writer and producer on The Get Down and The Blacklist) gets intimate access to their struggles and fight to be recognised as the people they always wanted to be. The Trans FitCon event is not one that is solely judged on mass or technique, but rather encourages its participants to express their physicality on stage through body building poses, no matter what their physical form is (the event is open to anyone who self-identifies as a transgender male).

Aside from the last act of the documentary when we arrive at the competition, Man Made is hardly about body building at all. What drives this documentary is much more personal, spending a long time getting to know each of the four main subjects and the different struggles they all face on a daily basis. Dominic is the first bodybuilder we're introduced to just as he's preparing for his top surgery, allowing Cooper to film some of the procedure, along with his recovery afterwards. Dominic competed at the previous Trans FitCon event before top surgery, and plans to use this year to show off his scars and how pleased he is with the results. In a film that is all about self expression, Dominic, a lively 26 year old rapper, is very much the voice of the film. His trans story is the most eloquently expressed, along with his search via Facebook for his birth mother.

If Dominic is the voice, the next body builder, Mason, is the heart of the film. Mason, as well as Trans Fitcon, has competed in mainstream body-building events but has recently learned that he is barred from competing in a local event due to his transgender status via a passive aggressive email that starts "Hello Mr/Ms". With 4% body fat and a strict eating regimen, he is focused on winning the competition with a dedication that may border on obsessive; but over the course of the film reveals some of the darker, more confusing times in his past when he contemplated suicide, and also thanks to the magic of videotape, a surprising and very moving segue to when he was younger and got to tell Ellen DeGeneres how inspired he was by her story.

The two remaining key subjects, Rese and Kennie, have incredibly touching stories that hammer home how making the decision to transition has affected their families and loved ones. Rese no longer has contact with his mother, and after a spell being homeless, is now hoping to move his son along with his new wife to pastures new. Kennie's story is a unique one in that it has impacted his relationship with partner DJ, who as a proud lesbian is now unsure if the romantic relationship will withstand both a change in Kennie's appearance after starting on testosterone, but also her own status as a gay woman.

Cooper's documentary has plenty of human interest boxes ticked, and offers a unique and interesting look at how the world of body building and self expression have clear correlations with the trans journey. All four main subjects have inspiring and vastly different stories that mean they are all driven by different things, and although success at the event clearly means more to some than others, the fact they have a place to participate and express their physicality is important to everyone. Towards the end of the film some of the contestants take part in the Atlanta Trans March on the morning of the competition and have to face off against the bigotry of the uneducated transphobes. Although the film doesn't often stray into darkness and it's encouraging to see that through events such as Trans FitCon that strides have been made to promote inclusivity, Cooper's film doesn't want us to forget that it's still a dangerous world out there for the trans community.

What Man Made makes abundantly clear is that there is no one single trans story. This film just about manages to include four, but from the 12 men who have entered the competition and the voices of some of their families, it's clear that every single person has a different story to tell. Although success at the Trans FitCon event is a common goal, it's the acceptance rather than the trophy that they're after.

Verdict
4/5

Saturday, 2 November 2019

MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND review

Featuring acclaimed sound designers Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom and countless more, now in cinemas and on demand is Midge Costin's documentary about the journey of sound at the movies.



Making Waves starts with a big idea that is hard to dispute. Sound is the first thing we're exposed to, in the darkness of the womb, making what sense we can of the world with the information we're given. It's not too big a leap to equate this to the experience of cinema, with storytellers like Spielberg, Lucas, Kubrick and Coppola name checked as creative pioneers who understood the importance that sound was to their films. That might sound like an obvious statement (as Ang Lee states in the film "movies is sight and sound"), but by charting the history of cinema this film digs deep into how the art of cinematic sound has expanded its role.

Within the first few minutes of Making Waves, we're introduced to talking heads from Walter Murch, Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom, three hugely important contributors to how we experience sound at the movies; and they're just the tip of the iceberg for this film, which has an astonishing line-up of key industry figures on show. The film is largely split into two distinct chapters, firstly following the emergence of sound in cinema from the days of silent film to the introduction of sync dialogue and "talkies" in 1927's The Jazz Singer, and right up to the use of digital sound editing techniques in The Matrix and Pixar films that use numerous layered tracks to create this orchestra. Then the film pivots to be an in depth breakdown of every facet of the "Circle of Talent" that creates what we hear when we go to the cinema; so if you've ever wanted to know what ADR is, here you go. Understanding all these different areas of expertise can be a bit overwhelming, so the film uses some helpful on screen graphics to illustrate each discipline which seem daunting enough to make you wonder why anyone would want to make anything as labour intensive as a film, let alone a big budget blockbuster.

During the first half of Making Waves, there's a sense that with the focus on Walter Murch and his work with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas at American Zoetrope, that we're headed to one film in particular; Star Wars. This actually comes surprisingly early into the film, with the Oscar winning achievements of Ben Burtt well documented (answering the question of what a Wookie sounds like by recording and manipulating the many noises of a bear). It was a given that Star Wars and the Star Destroyer roaring into frame was going to be a feature of this film, but what's surprising is the other films that played an important role in how we experience sound at the cinema today, chiefly the pivotal role Barbra Streisand and her version of A Star Is Born played in introducing stereo sound to cinemas.

There's a danger to films of this ilk that they become 'Film Studies for Beginners' whilst also largely appealing to people who've already studied it. Although there's a certain degree of that when covering the history of the medium, there's also genuine insight from professionals that you won't hear anywhere else that's sure to leave you with the burning desire to immediately re-watch an ever expanding list of cinematic greats. The enthusiasm for their craft is clear, and it's easy to be in awe of their achievements.

Listen up. Making Waves is not only a must see for film fans, it's a must hear.

Verdict
4/5