Monday, 1 July 2019

SHE'S MISSING review

Out now after a recent appearance at the Edinburgh Film Festival is Alexandra McGuinness's thriller about Heidi, a young woman going in search of Jane, her Rodeo Queen friend who has mysteriously gone missing.



A story about a strong bond between two women, what drives the story is the differences in the relationship between the two friends. On the one hand there's the rebellious and unpredictable Jane, and on the other the safe, normal Heidi. In many ways they are mismatched friends, leading very difference lifestyles and destined to go down differing paths eventually. Jane (Eiza Gonzalez) wants to be Rodeo Queen and find a better life for herself, whereas Heidi (Lucy Fry) is apparently content to wait tables and date local cowboys. It's only when Jane disappears that Heidi begins to realise how empty her life is without her.

It's a gorgeous looking film, bleached by the sun like an old missing persons poster, but the story moves at the speed of a tumbleweed in a not particularly high wind, and also suffers by removing its most intriguing and instantly watchable characters for a large portion of the film. Eiza Gonzalez is a star on the rise after appearing in last year's Baby Driver and is set to appear in the Fast and Furious spin off Hobbs and Shaw later on in the summer, and despite her character Jane's disappearance from this story her star power is palpable, making you wish she... well, that she wasn't missing.

There's the exploration of a much meatier storyline involving Josh Hartnett as a manipulating cult leader type figure, but he arrives too late into the film to carry enough impact on the overall experience you'll have with it. Heidi does begin to expand her horizons with some ayahuasca taking desert rats and goes on a journey of self discovery and reflection, but even then she still suffers from being the less interesting character out of the initial pairing.

She's Missing doesn't quite deliver on its sex, drugs and rodeos promise and the mystery aspect is never as compelling as you'd hope, but the cast put in fine performances in what is a beautiful looking but uncompelling drama.

Verdict
2.5/5

Friday, 21 June 2019

SHEFFIELD DOC/FEST 2019 - DIEGO MARADONA review

The opening night premiere at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest was Asif Kapadia's follow up to Senna and Amy, his previous biographical works that looked behind the fame of two stars of sport and music. This time Kapadia aims to dig under the infamy of one of football's most controversial and much discussed figures that is the "Hand of God' himself, Diego Maradona.


The film starts with the arrival of Diego Maradona in the "poorest city in Italy", Naples, in July 1984, following a car as it zips through the streets like they're fleeing a bank robbery. Instead, they're transporting Maradona to a press conference to announce his signing with the club, a move that at the time made no sense for his career but has since cemented his place in sporting legend, taking the team from near relegation to champions in a few short years. Kapadia's approach to reveal what made Maradona into the man he is today is to uncover the duality of his character; on one side the charming family man, Diego, and the other, the drug addicted, womanising persona of Maradona.

It's true that from the footage assembled, Maradona could be a different person depending what day you caught him on, particularly in the later years of his club career when his drug addictions really started to take their toll. And Kapadia and his team have managed to uncover and restore hours of personal home videos (procured from Maradona's ex-wife who he is currently suing and is currently suing him), that reveal how devoted he was to his family as the boy-done-good from the slums, looking after those closest around him. Even if you don't follow football, you'll have heard the name Maradona mentioned, and probably not in a complimentary way. It was he who scored for Argentina in the quarter final of the 1986 World Cup against England, just a few years after the Falkland Islands conflict, using the "symbolic revenge" of his hand, and a goal that is still being discussed like it was last weekend. His prowess on the pitch and ability to unite an underdog city makes for a powerful and compelling story, as Maradona ascends to a higher plain of celebrity to his fans, until his beloved Argentinian national squad is made to play Italy in Naples during the 1990 World Cup and the fans that worshipped him revolted.

What surprised me most about Kapadia's film was that, for a film with so much football (a sport I have no interest in) in it, I was engaged throughout all of the matches. This is due to some incredibly enthralling footage of Maradona showing off his skill on the pitch, as every player he comes up against pales in comparison to his footwork. Even though the two hour plus running time might seem like an overly long amount of time to spend with such a controversial character (a tight 90 minutes perhaps?), the extra time is well deserved and passes by quickly. There's also plenty of off pitch drama, as Maradona is forced to stay playing for Naples against his wishes, and personal problems with his refusal to acknowledge the child he fathered with a woman who was not his wife. It's testament to Kapadia's craftsmanship that what would be potential issues (an unlikeable central figure and a film that is 95% non-English language, for example) don't register during viewing.

Kapadia's film may have a less endearing hero than Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse at its centre, but he's still able to provoke sympathy for this once great sportsman. Whether you feel that is rightly or wrongly may depend on your view of Maradona as you go into this film, but it's undeniable that Kapadia has managed to reveal a staggering amount about him as a cultural phenomenon who went off the rails. Part gangster drama, part sports film, all tragedy; this film does not try to challenge what you think about the man, but you're going to have a better informed opinion at the end.

Verdict
4/5

SHEFFIELD DOC/FEST 2019 - Part Two

My second stint at this year's Doc/Fest had a very different flavour to previous outings, as the films I had lined up had a much more arty, experimental vibe to them. To an outsider Doc/Fest may appear to be about your common or garden documentaries (if there is such a thing), but the festival has actively expanded into so much more, including the many VR virtual reality experiences on offer and the Alternate Realities strand. This year, they also had some weird installation where you could create your own perfume, if that appeals. For me though, the documentary features have always been the main draw, but this year I did try to step outside my comfort zone for a change.

First on the day's agenda was a trip down a back street to the hidden cinema gem that is the Curzon, to see This Film is About Me, a film that has as much in common as captured performance art as it does film. Starring Renata, it features long periods of silence, some sort of ASMR appeal and a dreamy, David Lynchian industrial tilt to its soundscape. As Renata looks directly into camera as she soliloquises, it's a unique experience that will baffle those without an open mind.

After a little ticketing snafu that meant my space in The Magic Life of V was given away, I opted to stay in the Light Cinema to see Sunrise with Sea Monsters, a 71 minute study into data storage, starring a little hard drive with a blinking light in a whole host of dramatically juxtaposing locations like the Westfield shopping centre, blocks of flats and Tate Britain. Positioning the upright standing 1tb LACIE hard drive in centre frame like it's the monolith from 2001, voices float around discussing the various storage methods people use and what researchers have done to make sure important information is being stored for future generations.


If this doesn't sound like your sort of thing, I think it's only fair to say the same went for large portion of the audience who walked out at various points. Now, I wouldn't necessarily see this as a slight against the film, but it does highlight where its biggest draw is. Asking people to sit and ponder data storage, even for 71 minutes, is a big ask, particularly when the film makes its point clear almost instantly and the continues to re-state that point from different science bods. Where this film should be ideally be playing is in a dark room in an art gallery where people can amble along, sit and drink it in for a few minutes and then get up and leave. Sunrise with Sea Monsters is unapologetically arty in its delivery, but in bitesize portions has some interesting things to say about data storage. No, really.

The third film of the day meant a return to the Showroom, and the screen where I spent many a Monday morning falling asleep during film lectures during my Uni days. Keen to not repeat that habit  on this day, the film was Rushing Green with Horses, a biographical snapshot of the life of the director, Ute Aurand, shot on a bolex camera across a number of years, and presented to us on a precariously erected 16mm projector at the back of the auditorium. Now, I love old formats and tangible film, but as this film was a gentle, delicate life story with long periods of silence and the comforting whir of the projector behind me, I'd be lying if I said I didn't fall asleep at one point. I'd chalk that up to the much welcomed coma it politely cradles you into, with Ute's family, friends and soft Germanic accents apparently living a completely idyllic lifestyle of picking fruit, listening to pop music and just being altogether lovely. The film was split into two 45 minutes reels that necessitated a reel change in the middle, so thankfully I know I didn't miss much as I was awoken by the first reel coming to an end and the process of the director loading the second reel onto the projector. Now, that's a first.

The last film of the day took a step away from the arty side of documentary and into the world of magic with The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, a documentary unsurprisingly about the magician The Amazing Johnathan. If the name doesn't immediately ring any bells, if you saw any of Penn and Teller's TV work in the 90s, you'll most probably recognise him from his occasional appearances there. A shock magician with a long running Vegas show before his diagnosis of a heart condition which doctors said would give him one year to live, this documentary follows his battle with his illness and desire to get back on stage. Well, sort of.

What's extremely difficult to do is talk about this documentary without revealing its many secrets, and there's a lot. I think it's fair to reveal that the filming of Johnathan takes a turn when director Ben Berman discovers that he's not the only person filming Johnathan for a documentary. From there Berman challenges how much he should believe from his subject (including his entire diagnosis), how close he should get to him and what steps should he take to ensure he has an end product that's better than his opponent's. This is less about The Amazing Johnathan as it is about the process of documentary filmmaking, as Burman becomes more focused on his journey through the process, in his quest for the truth about the entire endeavour looking at Johnathan as some sort of Colonel Kurtz figure. In a Charlie Kaufman-esque move, Berman becomes a main character in the film he was meant to stay behind the camera for, revealing his own story in order to find common ground with Johnathan, the eccentric Las Vegas magician with issues with drugs, fame, and quite possibly telling the truth.

I went into The Amazing Johnathan Documentary knowing little more than the blurb and a passing recognition of him as an obscure cult figure from the 90s, and that's probably as much as you should know about this film going in. I can't say I know too much more about the man now, but I do have a newfound appreciation of director Ben Berman and the lengths a director might go to ensure they have a film someone might want to see. Well, he's managed it with this film. Engaging, constantly surprising and often hilarious, I don't know what sort of release this will have in the UK (it premieres on Hulu in the US), but it's well worth seeking out.

And with that my Doc/Fest journey was over for another year. There is an awards element to the screenings, with Luke Lorentzen's Midnight Family winning the Grand Jury Award, Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Earth winning the International Award, Miko Revereza's No Data winning the Art Award and Archana Atul Phadke's About Love winning the New Talent Award. I'd love to say that they're all great, but as per usual I saw none of the award winners. Perhaps the fact I still enjoyed the majority of what I saw is a testament to the quality of films on offer, or perhaps just a sign that I'm a sucker for the weirder films. Ah well, there's always next year.



Sunday, 16 June 2019

SHEFFIELD DOC/FEST 2019 - Part One


Continuing one of my favourite annual traditions, last week I managed to spend a couple of days in Sheffield for what is always one of the film festival highlights of the year, the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, or Doc/Fest to you and me.

Taking place at numerous venues across the city with a who's who of filmmaking talent making their way up North (this year including Werner Herzog being perhaps the biggest name to grace the festival with his presence), what continues to be most impressive is not just the varying kinds of documentary on show, but how the city becomes dominated by the festival for a few days. Walking up and down Sheffield's many hills and past the outdoor cinema and its deckchairs, it's hard to not notice the orange Doc/Fest logo everywhere you go, along with an apparent army of Orange t-shirted volunteers keeping everything running smoothly. Never mind how good or bad the films might be, this is how film festivals should be run.

Onto the films proper, there were a number of big premieres and high profile screenings spread across the weekend, and I was lucky enough to attend some of them. Big hitters I missed were Summer Camp's Elizabeth Sankey's Romantic Comedy, a sort of follow up to/expansion of Charlie Lyne's incredible teen movie essay film Beyond Clueless (to which Sankey and bandmate/husband Jeremy Warmsley provided the score), and a BAFTA masterclass from director Asif Kapadia, at the festival with his latest film, Diego Maradona.  Luckily, I was still able to see Kapadia's film at the premiere, and Doc/Fest delegates get access to the excellent Doc/Player, so i'll be able to catch up on Sankey's film later.

Part of the fun of Doc/Fest is looking at the schedule of films and planning your day and route around the city. I started the first day with a screening of XY Chelsea at what is unofficially the undisputed home of Doc/Fest, the Showroom Cinema (helpfully mere metres away from the train station when you arrive in the city). I always try and not read up too much on each film beyond the basic subject matter, so knew this concerned the controversial figure of US government whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, and not much else. In what may have been a bit of crafty promotion/propaganda, when queueing for the film I was enthusiastically handed a flyer, denouncing the work of the director, Tim Travers Hawkins, and the film as a whole, such is the apparently unfair portrayal of Julian Assange in the film.  Well, I've seen the film now, and Assange is mentioned for all of about two minutes, purely due to his involvement in Manning's leaks. It's an interesting look at Manning's life, post release from prison, and charts her growing public persona, crucially deciding to not document her transition process and focus on her position as a very modern activist in modern Trump era America.

The second feature I caught was the provocatively titled, What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?, following the lives of a black community a year after the death of Alton Stirling at the hands of local police. The local chapter of the Black Panthers are lead by vocal and outspoken beliefs that there's little that's changed in America since the time of slavery, and that the police are keeping them subdued to the advancement of the white race; Ronaldo and Titus, two young boys innocently finding things to do in surroundings not designed to nurture young minds so go playing by the train tracks; and Judy, singer at the local Oopoopadoo Bar, sharing her horrific stories of rape and crack addiction in the hope of helping others. Shot in black and white by Italian director Roberto Minervi, it's beautiful to look at, powerful in its statement, but at 2 hours and 3 minutes running time, also a bit overlong.

My last film of the first day, the opening night premiere at Sheffield City Hall, was for Asif Kapadia's Diego Maradona. Kapadia, a director who has made narrative and documentary features throughout his career, is perhaps best known (definitely at Doc/Fest) for his two previous biographical documentaries, Senna and Amy, the latter winning him an Oscar. It's fair to say then that Diego Maradona arrived with a world of expectation, with this portrait of such a controversial figure coming from the man who documented Ayrton Senna's career and tragic demise in motorsport and crafted an incredibly moving look at the misunderstood and mistreated Amy Winehouse. What differs here is that Maradona is still alive, and there had been reports and worries during the production of what his involvement would mean to Kapadia's access to footage and ability to tell the truth. Thankfully, Kapadia is a master at this sort of thing now, and Diego Maradona (the film) is a fascinating, raw, sympathetic and often damning portrait of Diego Maradona (the man). Adopting the idea that there are two main characters in the film (the affectionate family man Diego, and the troubled footballer worshipped like a god, Maradona), what's most surprising to me as someone who's allergic to sport was how much I was swept up by the football on show. And there's a lot of football in this film.

Maradona's fame and status as one of the greatest footballers of all time managed to reach even a layman like me, but it's fair to say that beyond gossip of his womanising ways, ties to gangsters and infamous "Hand of God" goal against England in the 1986 World Cup, I knew next to nothing about him. This film begins at a pace, with what appears to be a car chase through the streets of Naples, hurrying to announce Maradona's arrival in the city and at the football club as its saviour. From there it follows his career ups and downs, including two World Cups with Argentina and leading Napoli to league winning titles before his personal demons lead to it all crashing down in front of him.


The footage, both on the pitch and off, that Kapadia has managed to assemble is mightily impressive. It's told linearly, with off screen voices from major players in Maradona's life (his ex-wife, his personal trainer, his mistress) providing colourful commentary to his many achievements, whilst also debating why such a talented sportsman was able to be so easily corrupted. Much like Amy, this film tackles the price of fame, and although Maradona may not have experienced a tragic demise in the same way Winehouse did, it's still troubling to see home videos of the man as he loses his grip on who he was and succumb to his addictions.

Watching football matches played 30 odd years ago is surprisingly tense stuff, with new angles and super sharp film (stored in an archive and going to rot until Kapadia stepped in to save it) showing just how talented a player Maradona was on the pitch. It's electrifying to watch, even if (or perhaps, particularly if) you are not a fan of the sport. You may think going in that at 2 hours and 10 minutes Kapadia should have aimed for a leaner running time (a tight 90 minutes, perhaps?), but the extra time is warranted to truly dig down into Diego and Maradona. His voice is not absent from the film, and without wanting to reveal any spoilers, the most recent scenes of him that reveal the damage his addictions and lifestyle have had on him are sad to see. What's undeniable after seeing Kapadia's film is that Maradona's was a sporting talent like no other, and no matter of your feelings towards the man before the film, afterwards it would be hard to not agree that should be celebrated.

Being the opening night premiere, Kapadia was on hand after the film to talk through his approach to his work and this film, and boy, he's one hell of a raconteur. He revealed that, quite surprisingly, one of the best sources of footage he found was Maradona's ex-wife, currently suing and being sued by Diego, but the guardian of countless hours of home video and early sporting achievements. Thankfully willing to provide access to Kapadia and his team, if only to stop the reels of nitrate film from being lost to time, it's from the footage that Kapadia managed to craft the story he tells here.

And with that my first day at Doc/Fest was done. Expect part two and more in depth reviews of films to follow soon.

Monday, 27 May 2019

BENJAMIN review

Benjamin (Colin Morgan) is preparing to release his second feature film and navigate his way his way through life as a single gay man in modern London. Ahead of a screening of his film at the London Film Festival, the socially awkward Benjamin meets Noah (Phenix Brossard), the hip lead singer of a band who might be his perfect match. Both vegan, both children of divorce... they might be perfect for each other.

Amstell's career trajectory is a curious one, going from a (albeit extremely witty) children's TV presenter, to stand-up comedian, to panel show host, to film director. It is possible that your knowledge of him begins and ends with his time as co-host of T4's acerbic Popworld or taking over the reins of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, in which case you've been missing out on one of the more interesting developing voices in modern pop culture. Firstly, his film Carnage, which envisioned society 50 years in the future looking back at current farming techniques, delivered its message whilst being very funny; and his memoir HELP was one of the best things I've read this year.

Benjamin is clearly a film with close ties to its creator, starring Colin Morgan as a thinly disguised substitute for Amstell. Styled with tousled hair and comfortable jumpers, he's defiantly uncool in the modern London he finds himself in; more coconut water than cocaine, and out of place at the trendy clubs and social gatherings he finds himself invited to. There's some very accurate commentary on the nature and growth of youth culture that Benjamin, barely in his 30s, is at least two cycles away from being at the forefront of the people driving all that is cool.

Forced to step out of his comfort zone by his friends, it's at one of these parties where he happens across Noah (Phenix Brossard), performing on stage with his band. Feeling an instant attraction to each other, they are able to begin a relationship due to Noah's upfront sexual confidence overcoming Benjamin's awkwardness. 2019 is not a great time to be compared to Woody Allen, but let's just say Amstell's ode to newfound love shares some of the hallmarks of Allen's classic romantic 70s era. When Benjamin asks Noah "what's your type?", his response to hearing "I always end up with geeks like you" is a simple "oh, good".

But this isn't a film that relies solely on witty one liners, often finding moments of joy in the little things new couples share, like going to the shop to buy water after taking too many magic mushrooms, or having a long, engrossing stare at each other as they share a bath. These moments feel real, romantic and true, helped by the gentle, melancholic piano led score composed by James Righton from The Klaxons, featuring a beautiful recurring motif that oozes romance and longing.

The character of Benjamin is a clear portal for some of Amstell's neurosis, but his best friend Stephen (Joel Fry) also embodies Amstell's career as a stand-up, including a scene with what might be one of the most disastrous gigs of all time. This is a very funny film that has real heart in its romance and real hurt in Benjamin's insecurities about his work as a filmmaker and the creative process. Any creative types worth their salt will find a lot to empathise with here.

Benjamin is so delicately handled and well observed, this bodes very well for the future of Simon Amstell as a filmmaker. It may feel premature to start to apply auteurist theory to what is Amstell's first theatrically released feature film (not including his vegan faux-documentary that debuted on the BBC iPlayer last year), but his singular voice is all over this. Every awkward interaction, every sarcasm infused one-liner that's really an expression of the character's own insecurity... It's brilliant.

Verdict
4/5

Monday, 29 April 2019

PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH review

Returning with some new blood in the creative team, the latest instalment of the long-running Puppet Master franchise is now in cinemas. But is it any good?

I'll be honest, as big a fan of genre films as I am, the Puppet Master franchise is one that has largely passed me by, only being familiar with the original and a bit of the sequel that starred The Room's Greg Sestero, if only out of morbid curiosity. But I think that's okay, considering this sequel (by my count, the 13th entry into the franchise, including the crossovers with the Demonic Toys series) acts as a soft reboot of the franchise, the rights shifting from Full Moon's Charles Band to the publishers of Fangoria magazine a couple of years ago.

This latest entry into the series starts in Postville, Texas, 1989, introducing us to puppet master Andre Toulon (now played by Udo Kier) and his dastardly sadistic ways, before flashing forward to the present day, as Thomas Lennon's Edgar moves back in with his parents following his divorce. Whilst going through some old belongings he happens across one of Toulon's dolls (sorry, puppets) that was owned by his deceased brother, and decides to sell it at an upcoming puppet convention being held at the hotel where Toulon's murders started 30 years ago. But is it a good idea to bring all of Toulon's creations back to the scene of one of his most infamous crimes? No, it isn't.

The release of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich has clearly been timed to match up with Dragged Across Concrete, the latest cinematic offering from director S. Craig Zahler,  credited here as screenwriter. Zahler, a master craftsman of gore-filled films with thinly veiled social commentary such as Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Bone Tomahawk, has previously been criticised for his films' supposed right-wing leanings and problematic depictions of race and race relations, including the casting of Mel Gibson in his latest film. Well, it's safe to say this film isn't going to do much to persuade audiences otherwise, troublesome in its depiction of anyone not a straight white male. The film's most prominent black character is called Cuddly Bear and Charlene Yi's Nerissa is a timid, nerdy asian girl stereotype, although the film almost goes out of its way to create a hero out of Markowitz, Nelson Franklin's Jewish comic book store owner. In Zahler's defence, he's the film's screenwriter (directing duties falling to Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund) but numerous changes were apparently made to his original draft. The film leans so heavily into over the top exploitation you can see the intended tone with tongue wedged firmly in cheek, so even with the film's issues of representation it's entirely possible that Zahler saw this as a way to let the film comment on its own franchise as well as his filmography.

Lending credence to the idea that this is one big joke is that at least three of the core cast members have a background in comedy (Thomas Lennon, Nelson Franklin and Charlene Yi), and, well, it's a film about killer puppets. Lots of them. Adding to this film's genre appeal is the (re)appearance of scream queen favourite Barbara Crampton as a police officer/tour guide for the hotel. To be honest, her role in the film never makes complete sense, but it's a nice nod to her role in the original film and her function as exposition machine to those new to the franchise is vital, even if she displays some of that odd Zahler wit by shouting down a German woman who disputes her swastika knowledge.

When the scheisse hits the fan and the puppets inevitably re-animate and start killing all of the guests in the hotel, it's up to Edgar, his girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) and Markowitz to pull everyone together, using the auction guide as an instruction manuel on how to defeat each puppet. It's at this point in the film that Lennon's character starts to lose ground to the far more charismatic and thematically potent Markowitz, with Nelson Franklin's character stepping forward to honour his jewish heritage and get some revenge on past atrocities, including some gallows humour involving an oven and a puppet designed to look like baby Hitler.

To give the film its due, despite the potentially problematic themes at its core it's done with a wry smirk, and the puppets deliver some disgustingly graphic kills, including the jaw-dropping sight of a headless corpse peeing on its own detached head. That's where the film is at its most entertaining, even if the puppet characters are thinly drawn clones with tiny variations, much like Critters, Ghoulies, Gremlins, etc. The human characters don't inspire much sympathy to make you not want to see them get killed, except for Nelson Franklin's Markowitz who pretty much steals the entire film from under the rest of the cast.

Flawed, occasionally problematic and it's got no idea how to satisfyingly end its ludicrous story apart from killing or gravely wounding most of its characters (holding some back for the inevitable sequel), but as a throwback to corny 1980s horrors Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is a welcome reboot.

Verdict
3/5