Friday, 29 October 2021

THE GUEST - LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY review

Released just in time for Halloween (trust me, it makes sense), the latest film to get the boxset treatment from Second Sight, Adam Wingard's The Guest is out now in a limited edition 4K UHD format.

When soldier David (Dan Stevens) turns up at their door claiming to be an army buddy of their deceased son Caleb, the Petersons invite him into their home to stay. As David ingratiates himself with the family through his old-fashioned charm, politeness and willingness to help out around the house, Anna (Maika Monroe) starts to become suspicious of his motivations for being there, but when David puts his military training to use by protecting Luke (Brendan Myers) from school bullies, it's clear the family has no idea what kind of person they've allowed into their home.

On paper there were no sure signs that The Guest would turn out to be a success. Director Adam Wingard had made some ultra low budget horrors, like the excellent single location thriller You're Next and contributions to the V/H/S short film collections; and sure, Dan Stevens had gained a devoted following by way of his role in TV's Downton Abbey, but a quick leap to action movie star would be seen as unlikely by even the most optimistic of his fans. Which makes it all the more of an achievement that The Guest is as compelling and as fun as it is, mixing genre tropes, subverting expectations and serving a healthy dose of John Carpenter infused nostalgia into its winning mix.

When the mysterious David meets the Petersons, they're all struggling to deal with the loss of Caleb, bottling up their emotions and not sharing their grief with other members of their family, instead living their own separate lives as four people in the same house. This changes on David's arrival, who at first charms matriarch Laura (Sheila Kelley), seeing in him the damaged soldier she wishes she still had in son Caleb, unlike father Spencer (Leland Orser), who sees David as a potentially dangerous intrusion on his life, before eventually finding some level of camaraderie with him. But it's the lives of Caleb's younger brother and sister who David has the most impact on, stepping in to confront a group of Luke's bullies like a guardian angel, and socialising with Anna and her friends, much to her immediate disapproval.

A stronger, more confident person than the meek Luke, David is comfortable in being the protector/surrogate big brother, who, not unlike Arnie in Terminator 2, has violent methods to get his point across, as evidenced in the film's stand out bar fight scene. Likewise for some of the undesirable characters Anna associates with, David has no qualms in showing them what he's capable of, whether it's carrying kegs into a house party or stripping a handgun down to its component parts in seconds and then putting it back together again to make sure it has the power he wants and will shortly need.

It's at these moments where David offers true glimpses of who he is (and what he's capable of), that The Guest really comes alive. To reveal too much of his backstory would be to spoil too much of the mystery the film cultivates for him, however it's fair to say that this film does not end up where you think it might after the opening scenes. Written by frequent Adam Wingard collaborator Simon Barrett, The Guest openly riffs on John Carpenter's back catalogue (not just via the synth based score), cherry picking ideas and twisting them into something new, all the while maintaining the same tension building exercises Carpenter perfected in films like Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13. What if, instead of a blank faced William Shatner masked killer, it was a charming, handsome, polite young gentlemen who came home that night? And what if he also had the capacity to unflinchingly do away with those in the way of his goal - in this case preserving the well-being of the Peterson family?

The Guest is a film that openly skates close to the edge of ludicrousness, but does so with a knowing wink and a charming smile. The Carpenter riffs are plain to see for any fans of his late '70s and early '80s output (look out for Halloween masks at the school dance), with some Terminator vibes to boot, but newcomers can also appreciate the conspiracy thriller aspects of the story, and the top performances from Maika Monroe (who followed this with It Follows, which is one hell of a one-two punch to get yourself instant Scream Queen hall of fame status) and Dan Stevens, delivering an unexpectedly cool and seductive performance that must have left many a Downton fan scratching their heads. Come the finale, the film doesn't quite stick its landing (in part due to the lack of a sequel it clearly sets up, but that sadly never materialised) and leaves us wanting more time spent with these characters. But, seven years after the original release, The Guest deserves a re-introduction, and with this super collectable edition, he's dressed to impress.

Verdict

4/5

SPECIAL FEATURES

 - New commentary by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett

 - Archive commentary by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett

 - The Uninvited Guest: A great new interview with Dan Stevens

 - A Perfect Stranger: A new interview with Maika Monroe

 - By Invitation Only: A new interview with Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett

 - Producing The Guest: A new interview with producers Keith Calder & Jess Wu Calder

 - Light & Fog: A new interview with director of photography Robby Baumgartner

 - Lighting Strikes: A new interview with production designer Tom Hammock

 - The Sounds of The Guest: A new interview with composer Steve Moore

 - Deleted/Alternate scenes & Outtakes with optional director commentary

LIMITED EDITION:

 - Rigid slipcase

 - Soundtrack CD

 - 160 page book with new essays by Tim Coleman, Zena Dixon, Craig Ian Mann and Zoe Rose Smith. Script to screen with storyboards and script extracts, behind the scenes photos and Adam Wingard soundtrack notes.

 - 6 collectable art cards


Wednesday, 20 October 2021

HALLOWEEN KILLS review

Picking up directly after the conclusion of 2018s relaunch of the franchise, Halloween Kills continues the efforts of Michael Myers to haunt the people of Haddonfield on Halloween night.

2018's Halloween - a sequel to 1978's Halloween that relaunched the franchise and the timeline, in doing so wiping out the existence of all previous installments, good or bad - saw Jamie Lee Curtis return to the role of Laurie Strode, now caught in a permanent survival mode and haunted by the memories of the events of Halloween night, 1978. An alcoholic loner whose supposed paranoid fears have cost her her family, the end of the first film saw her worst fears come true when Michael attacked her home, but reunited with her daughter and granddaughter (Judy Greer and Andi Matichak) as Michael stood trapped in a burning building.

It's fair to say that the Halloween series has had many ups and downs over its 40+ years of existence, with poorly judged plot machinations, mediocre remakes and no real explanation as to why Michael chooses to kill on October 31st when he could be out trick or treating. Avoiding contrived explanations altogether, this sequel makes the good choice to continue the action of the previous film into the late hours of October 31st, 2018, bringing in a slew of new characters to face off against Michael whilst Laurie - badly injured by Michael at the end of the last film - receives medical attention at Haddonfield Memorial Hospital.

Well, when I say new characters, what Halloween Kills actually does is re-introduce legacy characters to further their stories in this new timeline. Okay, so there may not be many fans of the franchise (Halloweeners, maybe?) who are curious about how nurse Marion (Nancy Stephens from Halloween's 1, 2 & H20) has been holding up,  but the boy Laurie was babysitting 40 year ago, Tommy Doyle, is an important character within the lore of the films. Now played by Anthony Michael Hall (after Paul Rudd last occupied the role in the widely hated Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers), Tommy spends his Halloweens bringing together survivors of Myers's first killing spree to commemorate the lives of those lost, and along with childhood friend and fellow survivor Lindsey (played by original actress Kyle Richards) is ready to round up the townspeople to take down Myers when they hear of his latest crimes.

Given that the marketing for these most recent entries in the franchise has been focused on the face off between Michael and Laurie, it's surprising to see how little screen time they share in Halloween Kills. Instead co-writers David Gordon Green and Danny McBride have dug deeper into John Carpenter's toy chest to play with different characters and create a story that draws from the now non-canon original series, in particular the Haddonfield Memorial Hospital set Halloween II from 1981. There's a heavy dose of fan service and plot contrivance at play with the use of Tommy Doyle, whose survivors club seems an unlikely group of damaged misfits, still coming together 40 years later to remember that fateful night in 1978. However, when word gets out of Michael's ongoing rampage and mob mentality takes over, it's nice to see the franchise dig into one of the most timeless tropes of the slasher franchise - watching stupid people get killed for making stupid decisions in a variety of violent ways.

One of the biggest criticisms of Green's first instalment was that it didn't deliver enough blood and guts to satiate the appetite of modern horror audiences. Well, it seems that Green's taken that criticism on board, as Halloween Kills is one of the most violent films I've seen in some time. From the off, as Michael tears through a group of firefighters attending the burning house he's trapped in, this is a more visceral, nastier, deadlier Myers than before. In that respect, Halloween Kills delivers in spades, and as Michael works his way from house to house (now no longer bothered about babysitters and their boyfriends. Anyone with a pulse will do), we fear for what's coming next.

Given Jamie Lee Curtis is the marquee name for this franchise, it was a bold move to restrict her role to the extent this film does. Some of the tactics this film uses to distract us from that do work, including an extended flashback sequence to the night of 1978 that focuses on Will Patton's Officer Hawkins interaction with Michael (played in flashback by Thomas Mann, opposite Jim Cummings in a great cameo), but Halloween Kills struggles to find relevance in being the middle part of a planned trilogy that will come to a close next year with Halloween Ends. It's definitely a leap forward for Green as a horror director, creating some tense moments and bloody set-pieces, but the mob mentality storyline, with its "evil dies tonight" chant, sits uneasily in a post-Trump world, making you want to side with Michael who, lest we forget, is on a killing spree.

There's some interesting ideas set up about Michael's motivations (or lack thereof) to be explored in next year's grand finale of the Halloween franchise (or at least until it gets rebooted again), and despite fears that this is a placeholder instalment, as the film's final moments raise a number of questions about Michael's seemingly supernatural survival ability that can't go unanswered, Halloween Kills makes itself necessary viewing before we get to next year's ultimate face off between the franchise's most enduring characters.

Verdict

3.5/5


Tuesday, 19 October 2021

THE BETA TEST review

Weeks away from marrying his long time fiancee, Hollywood agent Jordan (Jim Cummings) receives a mysterious purple envelope, inviting him to a no strings attached sexual encounter that will fulfil all of his deepest desires. Jordan gives in to the temptation to explore a darker side of himself, but when he's contacted by blackmailers he starts to question everything and everyone around him, including the loyalty of his best friend and business parter PJ (co-director PJ McCabe) and fiancee Caroline (Virginia Newcomb).

Jim Cummings made a big impact back in 2018 with his first feature film, the tragi-comic and heartwarming Thunder Road, putting in the effort to make sure he was generating plenty of positive buzz on Film Twitter by turning on his natural charm at Q&A's, and touring his film around as many cinemas in the UK that would have him. Thankfully Cummings is no shyster and Thunder Road was one of the very best films of that year, and with his one man movie studio attitude he became an easy figure to root for in a manner that mirrored his role as a down on his luck cop in Thunder Road. Since then he's delved into genre fare with last year's The Wolf of Snow Hollow (where Cummings again played a cop), and now is back with The Beta Test; a much darker, scuzzier, sexier film, taking on the role of a Hollywood agent who lets the temptation to dive into the underbelly of Tinseltown get the better of him.

On the verge of landing a career defining deal with some executives from China, Jordan is suddenly coming to the realisation that he's part of a dying breed, and that his contribution to the filmmaking process is becoming increasingly redundant. Although he'd like to fool himself into thinking he's not like the old school of toxic wannabe moguls that came before him (Jordan claims things have changed "since Harvey"), it doesn't take much for him to allow his darker impulses to take over and then to become a lying, manipulative maniac when he becomes increasingly desperate and paranoid. When he thinks he hears his assistant Jaclyn (Jacqueline Doke who also appeared in Thunder Road) repeat something lewd he'd specified on the check box form that came in his purple envelope (top, sub, dom, face-sitting, etc), he cruelly admonishes her, much to her befuddlement.

As modern paranoia thrillers go, The Beta Test might not quite rival the mindfuck nature of David Fincher's The Game and Jordan mercifully stops short of going full Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, but the DNA of those films is definitely here, and there's tremendous rewatch value as Cummings's nervous comic energy shines through as Jordan can no longer hide the truth that he's something of a desperate fool. A proponent of the "fake it til you make it" school of thought, there's an exchange the film repeats with varying results, as Jordan tries to manipulate people into providing him with the information he needs by bluffing his way through, and then claiming he's an undercover cop when all as fails. It's played for all its comic absurdity by Cummings, who can do flustered incompetence like no-one else. Jordan is King of the bullshitters, and by far the most damaged and toxic man he's played so far (he barely wavers in deciding to cheat on his fiancee), but there's enough moments of comedy in his performance that you can't help but root for him, albeit with us asking ourselves why in a post-Harvey world.

Occupying the roles of lead actor, editor, co-screenwriter and co-director of The Beta Test (sharing some responsibilities with collaborator PJ McCabe, who also stars in as supporting role), it's quite possible that Cummings has encountered some men like Jordan in his career on the outskirts of Hollywood, although he's one of the new school of independently minded producers who's calling that entire method of filmmaking into question. With a wider scope than Thunder Road but still produced on a small budget with a skeleton crew, non name actors, and multi-tasking polymaths making the creative decisions, The Beta Test further expands on Cummings's message to Hollywood that filmmaking can be done differently, but also serves as a sly 'fuck you' to the people who engineered it to serve themselves.

It's not without fault, opening with a jarring scene of grisly violence that will have you thinking the pendulum has swung too far away from the heartwarming charm of Thunder Road in an effort to show scriptwriting range (not that that film didn't also include moments of unhinged mania - in fact, they're undoubtedly the most talked about scenes), but it's an outlier that isn't indicative of the rest of the film and therefore doesn't completely gel with it. The Beta Test is a colder, more emotionally detached film than his previous work, but when there's a camera on Cummings and he's letting his character's neuroses spill out, he's doing what he does best, and it's a lot of fun to watch.

Verdict

4/5

The Beta Test is in cinemas now.

Friday, 15 October 2021

CANNON ARM AND THE ARCADE QUEST - London Film Festival 2021

One of the highlights among the documentaries at this year's London Film Festival was Mads Hedegaard's joyful Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest, fresh from its debut at CPH:DOX and Hot Docs. Following in the footsteps of the almighty retro arcade doc King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest charts another plucky contender hoping to make gaming history by playing his favourite arcade game for 100 hours straight.

The gamer is question is the brilliantly named Kim "Kanonarm" Köbke - a nickname he's had since he first starting playing games in Danish diners in the 1980s - a mulleted Danish grandfather who loves listening to Iron Maiden and playing the classic arcade game Gyruss surrounded by his friends at Copenhagen's Bip Bip Bar. Already the holder of the impressive record of playing Gyruss (an outer space set shooter that sees you manouvre a space craft around the screen as you blast away patterns of stars) for 49 hours on one coin, his aim is to beat that record in honour of Thomas, a friend of the Bip Bip Bar who they lost to suicide.

The record attempt is not without its health risks, and although Kim is in decent shape for a man his age, people have died attempting similar endurance records, so his team of supporters have tailored a complicated score tracking system to make sure the game - much like the famed Donkey Kong kill screen - doesn't crap out on him and bring his record attempt to an abrupt halt. Starting off with 5 lives, the problem is he can technically accrue around 250 extra before the game errors, so he must keep track of how many he wins so he doesn't hit the top limit, but also, building up those extra lives so he can grab some much needed sleep for ten minutes or so is a crucial part of the plan. With his team monitoring the ever changing cache of lives, all Kim has to concentrate on is his scoring, keeping his eyes open, and hastily run to the garden whenever he needs to take a leak.

The comparisons to Seth Gordon's King of Kong are unavoidable, with its use of flash graphics and retro 8-bit sounds a major part of the fabric of both films, but director Mads Hedegaard doesn't shy away from acknowledging the existence of the former, even going as far as featuring a couple of the big names from that film and the world of arcade gaming. Both Walter Day from official video game scorekeepers Twin Galaxies, and the self-proclaimed "greatest arcade machine player" Billy Mitchell (who talks to Kim and his friends via telephone ahead of their record attempt, and before a cheating scandal sees him fall from grace in the eyes of his fans) appear briefly. But prior viewing of King of Kong isn't necessary to enjoy Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest's own underdog story, with Hedegaard going some way to show why the quiet, unassuming Kim is such an unlikely but perfect subject for a documentary, and how his mind works when he's playing the game. If you do know your arcade gamers, needless to say that Kim is definitely more of a Steve Wiebe than a Billy Mitchell, and gains more of our support for it. As for Kim's team, they're a similarly unique group of gamers, more vocal and outgoing than Kim, doubling up as experts in the fields of music theory, physics and poetry in their every day lives.

The documentary spends its first hour detailing the prep and training needed for Kim's big record attempt, before switching into its final act as Kim settles down in front of the Gyruss machine and gives us the kind of one man against the odds battle not seen since the finale of Rocky. It could be easy to dismiss the film and his record attempt as frivolous or unimportant, but as we hear the game play on and Kim's accumulation of lives fall away as he attempts to rest his brain for a few precious minutes, it's one of the tensest moments in cinema I can recall. Without spoiling the outcome of his record attempt, what I will say is that if you've ever had your own life-engulfing obsession that seems completely alien to most people, you'll find so much to relate to in Kim and his friends. Touching on mental health and finding the support you need from your friends, ultimately all these guys want is for their efforts to have a lasting impact in the world they call their own.

A gloriously fun journey into this outsider lifestyle anchored by a loveable group of misfits you can't help but root for, Cannon Arm and The Arcade Quest is undoubtedly the best snapshot of this subculture since King of Kong and a truly captivating underdog story. A strong recommend.

Verdict

4/5

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

BOY MEETS BOY review

In Berlin for a weekend break, junior doctor Harry (Matthew James Morrison) meets dancer Johannes (Alexandros Koutsoulis) in a club, just as his weekend of dancing and casual sexual encounters is coming to an end. With hours left before his flight home, Johannes agrees to show Harry the sights of Berlin as the two men open up to each other about their lives, loves and relationships.

Owing a huge debt to Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, Boy Meets Boy follows the two young potential lovers as they breathe in the atmosphere of the city, debating everything from the benefits of finding sex on Grindr and Tinder to whether Eurovision is "gay revenge for the World Cup" as they bicker and build a real connection that neither are used to experiencing. Harry, an aimless doctor looking for his calling in life, has become accustomed to finding brief fulfilment via casual sex he has through dating apps, conditioning himself so far into the lifestyle that he never wants to have sex with the same person more than once, whereas Johannes believes in the power of forming a bond with another in a traditional relationship, albeit one that may come with caveats to a partner's behaviour.

I'm a sucker for a decent film set over the course of one day in a beautiful city, and this vibrant, talky, unabashedly frank romance doesn't disappoint. The topics they cover are at once insignificant and hugely important, allowing both of the lead characters to get the measure of the man opposite them whilst contemplating whether this connection could lead to more than their limited time together might allow. Directed and co-written (along with Hannah Renton) by Daniel Sanchez Lopez, the two, often opposing, viewpoints of the young men adds a real spark to their day together, with their cynicism and prejudices laid bare to reveal how they both think they should be navigating their way through this world of modern queer relationships. Both Morrison and Koutsoulis impress in their roles and have fantastic, exhilarating chemistry with each other throughout in a Berlin that positively glows, leading to some gorgeously romantic, cliche-defying scenes as they enjoy the prospect of a dance by the river and give in to their impulses.

A film that is hopeful in its outlook but that doesn't ignore the harsh realities of modern love, sex and relationships, Boy Meets Boy is a frank, often bittersweet and emotionally raw film that also bathes in the unavoidable romantic splendour of its sunny locale. The Linklater comparisons may be inevitable and justified, but equally, this is a brief encounter I'd be happy to see more of in the future.

Verdict

4/5

Boy Meets Boy is now available to buy on DVD and digital, and also at the peccapics website.

Monday, 6 September 2021

HANDSOME review

Unsure of what the future holds for them, brothers Nick and Alex, who has Down's syndrome, embark on a journey to discover if it's pre-determined that Nick will have to become Alex's full time carer, or is there a world where Alex can experience understanding and empathy from others and get support for his disability? Together with a small documentary crew they travel across the world to speak to other families affected by Down's to see how they have adapted.

Dealing with a subject matter so personal and so close to the hearts of many families, not least those featured in the documentary, Handsome needed to walk the fine line of being informative and educational whilst also not losing sight of what its aim was. Sadly, despite having some fine moments between the Bourne brothers and the families they meet on their journey, too often Handsome feels orchestrated and manipulative of Alex's presence, rather than inclusive and giving him an active role in his life. At the centre of the film is Nick, serving as our narrator and guide (and modelling himself heavily on Louis Theroux), meeting a diverse range of people who also have siblings with Down's to ask how their lives have been impacted and what they see their future being.

It's here where the film is the most successful and moving, as real people tell their own stories, delivering their visions for the future with a hopeful tone. In what becomes one of the film's most poignant moments, interviewee Molly goes as far as calling Nick back to correct her earlier statements, worried that the whole project and her input aren't reflective of her relationship with brother, Charlie. Which of course is true, as despite the best efforts of her (and the film as a whole), you can't encapsulate that bond between siblings in one 90 minute film. As for Nick and Alex who travel to New York, Mumbai and Hanoi together on this trip of a lifetime, it's clear that they are close and share a shorthand between themselves, and although the film doesn't shy away from showing some raw, confrontational moments between them, too often this feels staged and manipulative of Alex, as if Nick is pushing his buttons to get a better reaction for the camera. It's uncomfortable viewing, and despite Nick's voiceover stating that "I don't treat him any differently as a brother because of his disability", it's open for the viewer to decide if that's truly the case.

It's notable that unlike the families they meet around the world, no other member of the Bourne family features in the film, with only passing (somewhat condescending) mentions of their mother, and of a third brother with a barbed critique from Nick for his lack of involvement. Had the film included their voices serving as a counterpoint to Nick's opinion, it would offer a more balanced account of Alex's life. An obvious comparison to draw is with this year's superb The Reason I Jump, which similarly dealt with individuals with language and speech problems but that always felt it kept its primary subjects at its core. That also featured interviews with the family member of the key figures, but also gave voice to them and kept its focus on them. Here, not enough credit is given to how perceptive Alex is of the situations he's placed in.

A globe-trotting adventure that is a technically adept piece of filmmaking from brothers Luke (director) and Ed (cinematographer) White, Handsome unfortunately falters in its treatment of Alex, treating him like a prop in his brother's efforts to become a crusading investigative journalist (as can be seen by the film's ill-advised attempt in its third act to become an exposé on government ran concentration camps that ultimately leads nowhere). Where the film succeeds is in the honest, deeply personal accounts of the key contributors, each of whom have faced different obstacles in caring for their children and siblings with Down's. Not without its merits, but the presentation of Handsome and focus on Nick proves to be its downfall.

Verdict

2/5

Sunday, 29 August 2021

THE TOLL review

Following a chance encounter with one of his old adversaries, an unassuming toll booth operator (Michael Smiley) stationed in the middle of nowhere must contend with his dark past catching up with him and the price he will have to pay for it. But with the whole town committing a litany of wrongdoings, it's up to local police office Catrin (Annes Elwy) to keen everyone in check before more trouble arrives in town.

On the Pembrokeshire border where he thought no one from his previous life would ever find him, Smiley's (unnamed) toll booth operator lives a quiet existence, taking a small fee from the few people who pass down his road. However, his status quo is rocked when he's recognised by Elton (Gary Beadle), an old colleague/rival who gave up looking for him twenty years ago. Reporting his whereabouts to big boss Magnus (Julian Glover), Smiley's character has no option but to react accordingly and prepare for retribution to arrive on his doorstep. Meanwhile, local copper Catrin who spends most of her days speed checking cyclists, suddenly finds criminal activity in the town flaring up, with angry Welsh farmers, gun toting triplets, Paul Kaye's lovesick ambulance driver and Iwan Rheon's wannabe hoodlum all landing on her radar. But what, if anything, has this to do with the seemingly law-abiding local toll booth operator?

With a narrative that purposely jumps around the timeline of events, it's not too far into the runtime of The Toll that having just survived a hold up by three balaclava'd youths, Michael Smiley's character says to Elwy's befuddled bobby, "the chronology is confusing, I'll give you that". Thankfully, director Ryan Andrew Hooper's debut feature film and Matt Redd's script is aware enough of genre expectations that it knows when to subvert them and when to lean into them. Sure, for the story to make sense you've got to suspend your disbelief early on to take some of the film's more larger than life characters seriously (Evelyn Mok and Darren Evans's Elvis loving smugglers are high on that list), but the cast are a lively, sprightly bunch that bring a lot of energy to the otherwise remote and sparse countryside where most of the film is set.

In many ways an unapologetic throwback to the twisty-turny, expect the unexpected small time gangster sub-genre that sprang up in the wake of the success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; to its credit, The Toll is one of the better ones, offering a cast of colourful characters that make this a breezy 83 minutes to enjoy, with the ever reliable presence of Michael Smiley adding enough of an element of danger to keep us on our toes throughout. Likewise Annes Elwy in what could have been a thankless role, as Catrin, the only person in town with a clear moral compass and drive to do the right thing, brings a lot of warmth to an otherwise chilly affair.

Using its overly complicated plot to mask some of its shortcomings, The Toll is still the best British gangster film in recent memory, with a satisfyingly explosive climax and fine work from Smiley and Elwy.

Verdict

3.5/5

The Toll is in cinemas and on premium digital 27 August from Signature Entertainment 


Wednesday, 4 August 2021

THE NEST - SUNDANCE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2021

English businessman Rory O'Hara (Jude Law) moves his American wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), and two children to the U.K. to pursue a new job opportunity working for his old mentor. Moving them into a palatial estate, the family tries to adjust to their new life whilst Rory goes after a deal that will make him rich. But, as things start to go wrong on the grounds of their new home, Allison begins to question if Rory has been telling the truth or if the venture was always destined to fail.

It's been 10 long years since director Sean Durkin's debut feature, Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, and although he's been involved in producing a number of films in the interim, it's good to see him back behind the camera for another dose of atmospheric indie drama filled with a creeping dread. Whereas his debut showed the world what new up-and-comer Elizabeth Olsen could do, here he's teamed up with established stars Jude Law (also an exec producer on the film), and the ever reliable Carrie Coon as a husband and wife trying to have the perfect life, or at least make it look like they have.

Set in the 1980s, when Rory tells Allison that he's received a call from his old boss offering him the opportunity to lead a new venture in London, she reluctantly agrees to the upheaval of moving across the Atlantic, where she can also have space to run her equestrian business. Setting up home in a grand house (rented, with the option to buy) that's ten times too big for a family of four, Rory promises they can fill the empty space with new belongings and memories, just as soon as his big deal comes through. Enthusiastic and charming, Allison and her children have no choice but to go along with Rory's plan, although Allison sees through his bravado enough to know there's more going on than first appears.

Jude Law is fantastic in the role of the arrogant, pompous, braggart Rory, playing to his strengths and audience expectations as a man who wishes he was born into the life of his Talented Mr Ripley character, Dickie Greenleaf, and is willing to lie to everyone in order to make his friends and co-workers think that's the case. In reality Rory leads a life not as charmed as that, but is so status obsessed that you could easily imagine him enjoying a nice business lunch with American Psycho's Patrick Bateman. Both a product and victim of the 80s, as Rory tells tall tales about his achievements and property portfolio (much to Allison's amusement) he's largely unlikeable, with a stand-alone (and standout) scene where he takes a trip to a place from his past the only real glimpse into his motivations that generates some audience sympathy for him.

But by far the most interesting, and most likeable character, is Carrie Coon's Allison. Finding the move to the U.K. like going back in time, she rejects others instinct to reduce her to a trophy wife, quick to point out when her and her husband are introduced as Mr & Mrs Rory O'Hara that she does have a name of her own. There's a delightfully caustic scene where, tired of being denied her own agency, orders from the menu for her husband - "my princess", as she puts it - and chastises the waiter when he hesitates upon her order. Although the 80s might not have been that long ago really, the gender politics feel incredibly outdated and are a major theme of The Nest. Whether it's her status as an American woman, or simply a sign of the changing tide in feminism, she's unafraid to speak her mind, cut her husband's bullshit to shreds, or leave a formal meal in search of gin & tonics and a disco playing The Communards. Coon and Law are both outstanding, and with any justice will see some recognition comes awards time.

What is missing from The Nest is more investiture in the family life and the children Sam (Oona Roche) and Ben (Charlie Shotwell). Both have subplots involving teenage rebellion and their fear of the ginormous, old, imposing house they now have to live in, but it's only towards the finale that we really see how they co-exist as a four. Without wanting to step too far into cliche, the house and its grounds play a hugely important role in the film, but it's to the film's credit that when things take a turn into the surreal, it's not inconceivable that the house played an active role in whatever is challenging the harmony of this family.

Although not as triumphant a statement as Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, The Nest is still a stylishly shot, bold, foreboding piece of storytelling from Sean Durkin with two fantastic lead performances from Law and Coon. Often acerbically funny and with a withering stance on male bravado, this view of family life will offer some uncomfortable home truths to many.

Verdict
4/5

The Nest screened as part of Sundance London and will be on general release from August 27th.

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

ZOLA - SUNDANCE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Undoubtedly the first film to ever be based on a twitter thread, A24's latest urban nightmare follows the true-is story of waitress and part time stripper Zola (Taylour Paige), who, after a chance encounter with fellow dancer Stefani (Riley Keough), agrees to go to Florida with her in order to make some quick cash. When things take a dangerous turn, Zola must do what she can to make it through the weekend.

A wild story that was the talk of Twitter in October 2015 when Aziah "Zola" King started her 143 post thread about her weekend in Florida with the words "Y'all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch fell out?", I doubt she ever thought it would get optioned and turned into a feature film... but here we are. A cautionary tale that quickly found its way into urban legend, it arrives on the big screen pre-loaded as a stranger than fiction journey into the unknown. Sure, there's inaccuracies, embellishments and details changed (presumably for legal reasons), but Zola mostly lives up to its reputation as a story like no other.

Doing for Florida tourism what Robocop did for Detroit in the 80s, the world Zola blindly stumbles into is dark, dirty, and potentially deadly. This is a Florida built on the sexual manipulation of women, treating their bodies like a commodity to be sold at will by men who install fear as their primary weapon. In Zola's case, it's the man known as X (Colman Domingo), introduced as Stefani's "roommate" but who it quickly becomes apparent has a much more authoritative role in Stefani's life, selling her body and attempting to do the same with Zola. Carrying more street smarts than Stefani and not as willing to be manipulated, the film is largely about Zola's survival instincts and knowing when to step headfirst into danger in order to find her way out at the other end. Although not expressed narratively in the film, there's a clear subtext that she has seen dangerous situations in her past, best expressed in a fight or flight confrontation she has with Colman Domingo's X when she initially tries to leave. It's a tense and terrifying moment in a film that flips from comic to troubling on a dime.

Hugely important to the film is the racial dynamic between the four key cast members, Paige, Keough, Domingo and Succession's Nicholas Braun as Stefani's pitiful boyfriend Derrek. Stefani and Derrek both spout ebonics and often say things that make Zola visibly uncomfortable, as does X's accent which he switches at will to scare those around him. What becomes more apparent as the film leaves the strip clubs and heads to the hotel rooms, to the series of men who start to knock on the door there's a difference in worth (and price) between Zola and Stefani, but that Zola can use to aide her survival. Much has been made of the "blaccent" Riley Keogh adopts as the manipulative and manipulated Stefani (accusations of cultural appropriation not helped by her being Elvis Presley's granddaughter), but it's a superb, committed performance from an actor we're only just starting to see the best of. Likewise to Taylour Paige, who imbues Zola with a world-weary quality that makes her effortlessly likeable.

Propelled by music from Mica Levi, with the pinging sound of phone notifications creating the rhythm of the world (and informing us when the film is directly quoting from the original Twitter thread), at 86 minutes, director Janicza Bravo's film is whip fast and doesn't over stay its welcome, although for such a mythologised modern urban cautionary tale that's fraught with danger, better care should have been taken to wrap up the story more coherently. As it stands, it's a film that not only demands, but requires further reading to allow you to fully grasp how crazy a weekend Zola really had. Lead by two outstanding performances from its leads and with impressive support from Domingo and Braun, Zola is a film worth talking about.

Verdict

3.5/5

Zola screened as part of this year's Sundance London Film Festival and will be on general release from Friday 6th August.

Monday, 2 August 2021

THE SPARKS BROTHERS - SUNDANCE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Returning to its home at Picturehouse Central after the pandemic rendered last year's festival a virtual only affair, Sundance London took place last weekend with some of the highlights from January's Park City iteration. Chief among them was the opening night film, Edgar Wright's debut documentary about Ron and Russell Mael - aka musical dynamos Sparks - the aptly named The Sparks Brothers.

Around in various forms since the late '60s, The Sparks Brothers follows the career of the Maels, going from album to album and one outrageous musical statement to the next, using interviews from a seemingly never-ending parade of celebrities and musicians who tell us the impact their music had on them. Chief among the contributors are the Maels themselves, offering an introduction and commentary to their long and storied career for those audience members drawn in by the lure of Edgar Wright. Truth be told, I count myself among that crowd, as outside of This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us, I wasn't hugely familiar with the Sparks' ouvre. But Edgar Wright is a director who's built up a loyal following who will trust in his artistic and musical taste, so The Sparks Brothers comes with a certain level of intrigue into why he chose this band to be the focus of his first non-fiction film. 

It doesn't take long to see this is the perfect fit for director and subject, with a shared sense of madcap creativity between Wright and the Maels, and Edgar's distinctive laugh often audible off screen during Ron and Russell's pieces to camera showing that there's a close bond between them. It's fair to say that the Maels have the ability to be aloof and distant in a traditional interview setting, but there's a barrier that's been broken down that gives a real peppy energy to their interviews, with Wright matching and indulging in their flights of fancy (using props, gags and short snippets of animation) to keep the interview process alive.

Wright has pulled together a huge array of talking heads, and appropriately for an American band who always felt more English in their artistic sensibilities, they come from both sides of the pond. Sure, it's great to hear the opinions of Flea and Beck, but equally fitting to see Jonathan Ross and Dr Buckles himself, Adam Buxton, gush about their love for the band. Even ex-band members from decades past pop up to gush about the artistic triumph that is Sparks, just happy to have been involved in what has become the Mael Brothers' life's work. Topics such as their personal lives are largely ignored or side-stepped (when asked their sexual preference, Ron's answer is "horny"), except for The Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin admitting to a brief fling with Russell, although she now regrets not directing her affections towards the more mysterious Ron. To this end, The Sparks Brothers manages to contain vast amounts of fanboy details whilst maintaining a lot of the mystery around the brothers' lives. It's to its credit that it doesn't feel like it's missing anything crucial.

More than anything, Ron and Russell are great company, and it's hard through the many music videos and TV performances on shows like Top of the Pops not to get a small thrill every time when the exceedingly odd but utterly brilliant Ron, complete with his infamous moustache, finds the camera pointed at him and stares directly down the lens with a strained smirk/smile on his face. A man hugely aware of how his image was perceived by their fans and the world at large (as described in the film, school kids thought Marc Bolan had joined a band with Hitler), Ron may be a musical genius, but also one of the most singularly unique pop stars to have ever existed.

Structurally, the film feels like it reaches a crescendo that it just about manages to sustain for its last ten minutes, although at 2 hours 20 it is definitely overlong with some diversions that could have been resigned to deleted scenes on what I expect will already be a jam packed home entertainment release. But, when a filmmaker is deep diving into a subject he loves and having such a great time doing it, it's easy to get swept up in the mayhem of the Maels and forgive Edgar for over-indulging. A loving tribute to a band you can easily take to your heart, if you weren't a fan of Sparks before, you will have been converted long before The Sparks Brothers reaches its end.

Verdict

5/5

The Sparks Brothers was the opening night film for this year's Sundance London, and is now also on general release.