Wednesday, 6 April 2022

THE HERMIT OF TREIG review

After living a lone, solitary life for 40 years, you'd expect Ken Smith to be a grumpy old loner. On the contrary, his is a life built on his own desire to live life on his own terms, but he's welcoming to those who pass by his little cabin on the hills surrounding Loch Treig. Among those visitors is debut director Lizzie MacKenzie, who after knowing Ken for 7 years, persuaded him to allow her to document his unique day to day life.

With a shared passion for photography that's helped forge their bond (Ken has spent decades capturing the beauty of the Loch and the flora and fauna of the surrounding woodlands), Lizzie - whose voice is ever present off camera, talking to Ken - tries to find out why Ken chose this lifestyle, and what he will do when it becomes too unsafe for a man of his advancing years to live so far away from the rest of the world.

Suffering a traumatic attack when he was 26 that lead to a brain haemorrhage and told he'd never walk or talk again, Ken defied the odds by recovering, then decided not to live on anyone else's terms again. After travelling the world he settled at Loch Treig because of its unique beauty and isolated nature. "It's known as the lonely Loch. There's no roads here". Building his own log cabin filled with diaries, notebooks, photographs and slides, living his life the way he wants has been his life's work - but with his once dark hair and beard as white as the snow on the ground around his cabin, the question of what his remaining days will be like lingers, despite Ken's assertion that he plans to live to 102. He knows he didn't choose an easy life, having to walk 27 miles to nearby Fort William and back again when he needs to do something as everyday as posting a letter, but he clearly feels at home on the banks of the Loch, stating "I think if you love the land, it sort of loves you back. It loves you in all the things it produces for you".

The Hermit of Treig is a wonderfully moving, deeply personal documentary about life, ageing, and most importantly, those connections with others that add joy to our lives. His only regular contact with the outside world is a beacon he has to use once a week so the local authorities know he's okay, but Ken clearly loves having Lizzie around, eagerly showing photos of the first log cabin he built before it burnt down - even going so far as to mock up a charming miniature replica from sticks - and playing up to the camera with his many weather-worn hats, and she similarly enjoys his company too, her camera quietly picking up on his failing memory when he misses diary entries or forgets conversations about his blooming roses. It's a gentle, thoughtful commentary that's respectful of Ken and his tenacity.

A fascinating character study with a real emotional punch over the sacrifices his way of life have cost him (Ken reads a letter he sent to his parents when on his travels, hoping they'd meet him at Heathrow airport but unaware they'd passed away in his absence), it in turn shows the strength Ken draws from the landscape around him. As he puts it, "it's a nice life, ain't it? Everybody wishes they could do it, but nobody ever does." The strikes of his axe might be coming down softer than in previous years, but in spite of his wavering vision and balance and a health scare that leads to a brief hospitalisation, he's not ready to give up his singular world just yet, and who could blame him.

Verdict

4/5

Thursday, 24 March 2022

COP SECRET - BFI Flare Film Festival review

Going to extreme measures to protect the mean streets of Reykjavik, no nonsense cop Bússi (Auðunn Blöndal) is known as the toughest cop around. But when a merging of departments sees him given a new partner in the form of Bess (Egill Einarsson), a sharp suited detective also known for getting results, the two must work together to solve a madman's plot to blow up the city's stadium whilst Bússi also confronts the new feelings he has when he's around Bess.

Kicking off with an all-action car chase across Reykjavik, we're introduced to the Jason Statham-alike Bússi, (all shaved head and leather jacket) a gruff, manly cop who's not keen on being paired up with the well groomed Bess, a pansexual detective who's going to challenge Bússi to the title of best cop around. Paired together to solve a plot to blow up Reykjavik's stadium during the Iceland v England Women's World Cup, they find themselves quickly falling for each other.

The mismatched duo forced to work together until they find common ground is a long standing cliche in Hollywood, particularly with cop movies starring big, bald actors about renegade detectives who don't play by the rules. Such is the height of hyper-masculinity in action movies that it's surprising it's taken this long for someone to take the next logical step, converting that homo-eroticism into a full blown romance between its two leading men. With a wry comedic set up backing up the all action premise, surely it's a formula that can't fail? Sadly, Cop Secret, despite its best efforts, is not the success it should have been. There's things to enjoy in its appreciation of action movies, from its ridiculous villain, Rikki Ferrari (inexplicably, but enjoyably, the only character who speaks English language at all times), angry shouty police chiefs, to adhering to the classic buddy comedy formula, albeit with the obvious twist thrown in.

But in sticking so close to a formula the story feels far too generic, taking inspiration from bad cop movies but not turning those ideas into something more exciting. For want of a better term, Cop Secret plays it straight-faced, but when skewering the action genre cliches, the likes of Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz and Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang did it better. Let's be clear that Cop Secret isn't actively trying to compete with the likes of Vin Diesel, Jason Statham and The Rock, with some ropey digital explosions showing the budgetary limitations. But it is offering a commentary on Hollywood's action genre cinema, including its aversion to including anything openly queer within its narrative, and has some success with that. There's nothing scandalous or inappropriate about the central love affair, and it's there the film does break some new ground.

Directed by Hannes Halldórsson, an Icelandic goalkeeper turned filmmaker - and written by Halldórsson and his two leading men - it's a genre experiment that you find yourself willing to be better, so close it is to striking gold by mixing up the action genre formulas. Sadly, the end result doesn't quite work as a spoof, satire or straight-up action flick.

Verdict

2.5/5

Cop Secret screened as part of this year's BFI Flare Film Festival. More information about the festival and the films included can be found here.

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

A-HA: THE MOVIE - Glasgow Film Festival review

Following Norwegian pop-stars A-Ha as they prepare for their latest tour, this new documentary reveals a wealth of information about the band's history, their solo projects, and how they crafted their most widely known contribution to pop, their 1985 classic hit, Take On Me.

Having sold in excess of 50 million albums over the last 40 years, A-Ha are still touring to this day. In preparation for their most recent stretch of shows and a coveted appearance on MTV's Unplugged, the band allowed cameras to follow their rehearsal progress, including personal interviews that reveal what has kept Norway's biggest musical export going for so long.

In a creative decision that was inevitable, the filmmakers employ the pencil sketch animation style of Steve Barron's classic music video for Take On Me, which - although impressively rendered - mercifully only lasts the duration of the introductory flashbacks that reveal the band members' childhoods. Around the first 15 minutes of the film. It's fitting that the iconic visual motif is used to this extent, as the whole film could be about the band's desire to escape from the long shadow their biggest hit has cast over them. They may have been accused of being 'one hit wonders' over the years, but racked up a number of hits (including the Bond theme for The Living Daylights). Even so, they would freely admit that their career has been defined by their signature song.

The pop band biopic has seen some interesting new twists in recent years, perhaps most notably Bros's After The Screaming Stops which leaned heavily on the ridiculous Anvil-like aspects of pop stardom, painting the brothers Goss to be somewhat disconnected from reality. Here directors Thomas Robsahm and Aslaug Holm deliver a much more grounded portrait of their subjects, largely thanks to the influence of Magne and Pål, the two key songwriters of the group. We get to learn about the band's humble origins, from schoolboy musical experimentation between Magne and Pål, to the bizarre coincidence that one of the witnesses to Magne's father's plane crash death was his future bandmate, Morten, years before they met. Propelled by a strange sense of destiny that the trio were going to perform together, they reminisce how as cocksure teenagers they manifested "we're going to be international popstars... Norway's too small for us" before heading off to London in 1981 in search of fame, fortune and that elusive chart-topper.

If you know anything about A-Ha, other than their early success with the MTV hit Take On Me and their Bond theme for The Living Daylights, it's probably focused on frontman Morten Harket, and the legions of adoring fans he has maintained since the 80s. A striking, elfish looking man who has the level of sex appeal you'd hope a lead singer to have, this meant that his two bandmates were pushed out of frame somewhat. Thankfully for the band's harmony, this film makes clear that Magne and Pål neither courted this kind of attention or begrudge Morten for having it. Throughout the film there's a number of comic moments where they see the funny side of being an after thought when greeted by hoteliers and fans across the world who want to fawn all over Morten, who's perfected a polite smile for the camera when he's clearly weary of the attention he receives.

What's surprising about this documentary is that it avoids the temptation to focus its attention on frontman Morten (who, frankly, is the least interesting of the three), giving the same weight to Magne and Pål's lives and projects away from the band. There's equal narration from all three men, and a revealing look at their surprising musical and artistic depths that would be unknown to all but the most hardcore of fans. There's also discontent within the band always threatening to bubble up to the surface, namely the age old issue with songwriting credits and the share of the royalties. It's here the documentary has the most drama, with the highlight being the deep dive into the production of Take On Me in the early-to-mid 80s. Based on a keyboard riff Magne wrote at 14 years old but largely credited to Pål, it went through numerous guises (different versions were released at least twice in various territories) before emerging as the reworked synth-pop classic we all know and love.

Still, despite the usual dramas you'd expect to find in a band who've been together for 40 years, A-Ha: The Movie doesn't offer much in a way of turmoil. There's a hint that producing a new record might bring old resentments to the front, but they're clearly a tight-knit unit that still pack stadiums on tours, and have been an acknowledged influence on bands like Coldplay. A-Ha: The Movie is a fan-pleasing portrait of the band, but for newcomers or casual observers will offer a surprising level of detail about their long career too.

Verdict

3.5/5

A-Ha: The Movie screened as part of this year's Glasgow Film Festival. More information about the festival can be found here.

Saturday, 12 March 2022

ONCE UPON A TIME IN UGANDA - Glasgow Film Festival review

Growing up watching the Sly Stallone and Chuck Norris action films of the 1980s, Isaac Nabwana dreamt of one day making his own films in his home town of Wakaliga, Uganda. Armed with a digital camera and his own ingenuity building sets, props and camera jibs, as well as drafting in locals to stars for his super low budget action extravaganzas, his films soon found a dedicating cult following online. Among those fans was New York based filmmaker Alan Hofmanis who, after seeing Isaac's film, Who Killed Captain Alex? back in 2012, decided to move to Uganda to help build this emerging film industry, better known as Wakaliwood.

Directed by Cathryne Czubek and Hugo Perez, this documentary explores Isaac's filmmaking techniques on little to no budget (estimates for the overall production cost for Who Killed Captain Alex? range from $85 up to $200), and Alan's efforts to launch Isaac to a wider global audience, acting as producer, promoter, boom operator, as well as getting roped into appearing in some films as the only Muzungu (white man) in the area, and therefore the perfect casting for a specific Ugandan movie trope - "beat up the white man". The only problem is finding him a suitable stunt double - something they get around by 'whiting up' a black actor.

In what many would deem to be an act of madness, this doc effectively captures why Hofmanis would be willing to uproot his entire life for this emerging film industry. A struggling filmmaker himself, it's quite touching how sincere his appreciation for Isaac's films is despite their clear budgetary limitations, and his non-wavering belief that he could be the next big thing if audiences are given the opportunity to see such films as Crazy World, Bad Black, and the upcoming Ebola Hunter. There's a great dynamic between the two men, and despite their cultural differences the only real signs of artistic discontent appear when a high profile local media mogul offers Isaac the opportunity to make a Captain Alex TV series for his network, something Alan feels will distract from his efforts to launch Isaac's films internationally, with the prospect that the Toronto International Film Festival will be willing to feature his latest film at one of their legendary and influential Midnight Madness screenings.

Wakaliwood is proper low budget, DIY filmmaking that makes Troma or The Asylum look like a 300 million Michael Bay production, offering something so pure and unjaded about the filmmaking process that Isaac and Alan are easy figures to root for. It's open for debate as to whether Isaac is the next big action movie director or more akin to Tommy Wiseau or Neil Breen, but you can't dispute his commitment to filmmaking and making it an integral part of his community, going so far as to train the local kids in martial arts so they can one day appear in one of his films.

Radiating with a love for action movies, Once Upon a Time in Uganda is a fascinating look at what collaboration and the filmmaking process can create, showing how a lack of budget can't get in the way of the joy of bringing people together through cinema.

Verdict

3/5

Once Upon a Time in Uganda screened as part of this year's Glasgow Film Festival. More information about the festival can be found here.

Thursday, 10 March 2022

ANGRY YOUNG MEN - Glasgow Film Festival review

When one their gang is found beaten and bloodied, The Bramble Boys discover a new group of heavies called The Campbell Group have moved in on their territory, and are recruiting the youths from the estate so they can gain control of the local milk round. Soon enough, spilt milk turn to spilt blood as the rival gangs embark on a bitter turf war and bodies start to pile up when gang warfare breaks out.

To quote Sean Connery's character in The Untouchables, "they send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue". Well, Angry Young Men has a new take on that, instead delivering justice in a bloody wheelie bin. Written and directed by Paul Morris (who also stars as gang leader, Jimmy), Angry Young Men follows the Bramble Boys of Mauchton as they try to protect their estate from interlopers, The Campbell Group. Although the Campbells are better organised and increasingly bigger in number, Jimmy's gang isn't going to back down without a fight.

Produced on a low budget I wouldn't ever dare to guess, Angry Young Men is a testament to what you can do with minimal money but real filmmaking ingenuity. The camera equipment is probably of the kind you could pick up in the sale at Argos and some of the acting is a bit sketchy at times, but when a film is produced with such an independent spirit, I wouldn't hold those things against it for one second. In fact, it all adds to the appeal, as this is an easy film to want to champion. In this alternate world where the ultimate goal is the control of milk supply and gangs walk around in garish uniforms (the Brambles in berets and camouflage ponchos, the Campbells in bomber jackets and white balaclavas), Morris hasn't allowed his ambition to be restrained by the budget, with drone shots and camera moves that give a real sense of the location and its surroundings, as evidenced in an early chase scene between a guy on crutches and four guys in a black Nissan that's well orchestrated and surprisingly tense. It's also pretty funny throughout, with a dry wit cutting through some of the weirder, more fantastical elements of the plot.

Crucially, despite the odd chuckle at some of the homemade elements (the priest employed for a funeral service has the worst makeshift dog collar I've ever seen), I don't think I was ever not laughing with the film. Fully aware of what its shortcomings are, Morris has clauses written into the script to explain some of the more glaring inconsistencies. Some of the actors' hair inexplicably grows a lot between scenes, but when one of the key characters is told to shave off his hitherto present goatee, it's clearly to cover some out of sequence shooting and a gap in filming. Still, despite the rough edges (or more accurately, because of), even if the ambition outstrips the budgetary restraints, Angry Young Men is so watchable that it's an easy film to cheer on, regardless. It might feel a bit amateur at times, but it also brings to mind the early films of Peter Jackson - like Bad Taste minus the gore. Last time I checked Jackson had done pretty well for himself, and I wouldn't bet against Paul Morris achieving something similar.

I've attended this year's Glasgow Film Festival without actually going to Glasgow, instead watching the films virtually at home. Of all the great films on the line up, this is the one I'm absolutely gutted I wasn't able to experience with a crowd. Needless to say, when and if this gets a general release and makes it into cinemas, I'll be there with a camouflage poncho on. It's fucking brilliant.

The wee bastard offspring of Walter Hill's The Warriors and Peter Mullan's NEDS, Paul Morris's micro-budget feature Angry Young Men is one of the highlights of this year's Glasgow Film Festival.

Verdict

3.5/5

Angry Young Men was part of this year's Glasgow Film Festival. You can find out more about the festival here.

Saturday, 5 March 2022

REBEL DREAD - Glasgow Film Festival review

Rebel Dread tells the story of photographer, DJ, musician and filmmaker Don Letts. Fronted by the man himself, this documentary charts the many twists and turns throughout Letts's life that saw him go from manager of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's shop, Acme Attractions, to touring the world as a filmmaker & musician, and beyond.

It's become something of a cliche to soundtrack any archival footage of London in the 1970s with The Clash's London Calling, but for once given Letts's connection with the band (directing a number of music videos for them, including London Calling), it's appropriate. Over images of civil unrest, Letts narrates his early life in Brixton where he immediately stood out as a flashy dresser and cool looking guy, vying for and getting the attention of the local cultural elite. It's a lively retelling of his life story, from chubby teenager (or as his brother Desmond ruthlessly describes, "a fat motherfucker") to DJ at The Roxy at the height of punk, to eventually filming the bands on stage and turning that into a highly successful career directing music videos, until Letts decided he wanted a piece of that stardom, co-founding Big Audio Dynamite with ex-The Clash member, Mick Jones.

An affectionate look at Letts' life and varied career - where the film falters is the unavoidable problem of having Letts tell his own story. Sure, he's in the position to tell it better than anyone else, but there's the inescapable feeling that he's told these stories so many times that these are the carefully curated versions of the truth. He's a great orator and fantastic at building his own myth, but serving as exec producer and main storyteller, Letts is in clear control of what information were given, and crucially, what we're not. It's not completely a self-aggrandising, back-slapping affair - most notably when Letts reckons with his role as an absent parent whilst touring the world, coupled with his infidelity - but it teeters on the precipice of it, mercifully pulled away at the right moment with additional important voices from his life, chief among them Mick Jones, and Letts's former partner, Jeannette Lee of Public Image Ltd.

At its most revealing and personal when it gets to Letts search for his roots, kickstarted by a trip to Jamaica with John Lydon, it's here where Letts's cultural commentator mask slips the most, offering something that goes some way into distilling the man and his relentless drive for success, approval and legitimacy as a Black, British man working with the biggest names in punk. He's a genuinely fascinating subject, with a life like no other that has almost been engineered by Letts by chance, thanks to his unwavering bravery and ability to build upon the connections he's made in his life, such as how he became friends with Bob Marley in London, largely through force of willing it to happen.

In a career that saw Letts take a long time to decide what path he wanted to follow - DJ, band manager, photographer, musician, filmmaker - this film establishes that he was all those things at any given moment, and capable of doing it well. He estimates he made around 400 music videos for PiL, The Clash and more - let's not forget Musical Youth's Pass the Dutchie - and Rebel Dread proves that Letts's has an astounding level of intelligence, creatively and bravery. I certainly wouldn't write him off playing another important role in music, should he choose he wants it.

Verdict

3/5

Rebel Dread screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival and is now on general release. More information about the festival can be found here.

Wednesday, 2 March 2022

PLEASE BABY PLEASE - IFFR 2022 review

Given a strand entirely focused on her back catalogue (her directorial career may still be in its infancy, but has amassed four features in four years), this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) looked at the films of Amanda Kramer, including her most recent effort, Please Baby Please.


A musical odyssey starring Andrea Riseborough and Harry Melling as a couple questioning their gender roles and theories of traditional masculinity, I've seen Amanda Kramer's latest described as "West Side Story as directed by John Waters", and that about sums it up. Beginning in a quasi 1950's America with Riseborough and Melling's couple, Suze and Arthur, witnessing a savage beating by the Young Gents - a local gang of greasers outside their apartment building - this event sparks discussion about brutality, masculinity and "what is a man, anyway?". From there they both go alone on journeys of self discovery, with Arthur increasingly infatuated with a member of the gang - a rough around the edges type in the body of a Jean Paul Gaultier model - and Suze breaking through the prescribed limitations of her role as wife to find a new side of herself that appeals to her.

If you've seen any of Kramer's work before, you'll know what to expect, with dance-like movements and a hazy, old Hollywood feel mixed with a bold, contrasting blue/orange colour palette. The entire film feels like a queerified, LSD infused Lynchian trip, although - and not just to avoid cliche - not a film David Lynch would make himself, but one a fan of Lynch's work who's devoured his filmography certainly would. In the Bijou 52 cinema Suze visits it even has its own stand in for Mulholland Drive's Club Silencio, complete with a brief appearance from Bobby Briggs himself, Dana Andrews.


Meticulously designed, bombastic and occasionally over the top, it's not subtle about its themes of gender dysphoria and explores them in a manner that may be off-putting for general audiences, but will get lapped up by those with a taste for the surreal. This is the kind of heightened reality, almost stagey film that avant-garde theatre-goers would appreciate, with Ryan Simpkins (who worked with Kramer previously on Ladyworld) dragging it up as junior greaser Dickie, complete with stick on sideburns to fit in with the rest of the unruly gang of youths, who appear to be lead by a man in his 40s. That Simpkins is a non-binary actor adds to the discussion and exploration of the film's gender themes, but this is more fully examined through Riseborough's Suze, whose character is allowed the most growth and potential evolution. The hard to pin down era and setting keep the film at something of a distance, and if you're looking for a more considered take on the dismantling of binary norms, there's other films that better explore this.

With appearances from Demi Moore and Mary Lynn Rajskub in the supporting cast, Please Baby Please is a wild and unpredictable ride that will undoubtedly pull more audiences into the curious world of Amanda Kramer. Despite a great effort from Melling - who's long left Dudley Dursley long behind him with memorable roles in The Queen's Gambit and The Old Guard and has matured into an always welcome screen presence - this is Andrea Riseborough's film. An actor unafraid to take a walk on the wild side - see last year's Possessor for proof - she's having a ball as Suze, with wing tipped eyeliner exploring her masculine side and the opportunity to find her inner Brando. It's a great performance in a film that may not achieve all of its ambitions, but has a lot of fun putting on as grand (and as odd) a show as possible.

Verdict
3/5

Please Baby Please screened as part of the 2022 International Film Festival Rotterdam. More information about the festival can be found here.

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

SWEET THING review

Returning with his first full length feature film in ten years, Alexandre Rockwell's Sweet Thing follows the lives of Billie and Nico (Lana and Nico Rockwell), two children looking for some stability in life away from their alcoholic father and negligent mother. Forced to hit the road when faced with a new danger, they encounter Malik (Jabari Watkins), a renegade street kid who'll do whatever he can to help them on their quest to find peace.

Based on Rockwell's 2013 short feature Little Feet, Sweet Thing stars his children Lana and Nico, along with their mother and his wife Karyn Parsons as the troubled Eve, a strip club bartender with questionable taste in men. When their heartbroken and troubled alcoholic father, Adam (Will Patton), gets locked up by the court, Billie and Nico go to stay with their mother at her boyfriend (M.L. Josepher) Beaux's beach house. When Beaux's control over their mother turns violent and Billie sees the danger they're in, she takes Nico off in search of a better life.

For those unfamiliar with the work of Alexandre Rockwell, he's a staunchly independent filmmaker of low budget, (occasionally) black & white films, scorched by his experience working in the studio system as director of one segment of 1995's noble flop, Miramax's Four Rooms. Since then he's avoided big studio involvement, opting for lower profile, more personal films starring his closest collaborators, friends and family. Sweet Thing follows suit, with the two leads played by his children with Karyn Parsons, Lana and Nico. Rather than an act of nepotism, this casting furthers the personal nature of Rockwell's films. Sweet Thing could only have been made with his children.

At the heart of the film is the performances of Lana and Nico Rockwell, with Lana in particular shining in her role of Nico's surrogate parent and protector. She's a magnetic screen presence that the camera absolutely loves, and even if the role doesn't call for any big dramatic gusto, she's able to showcase her acting and singing talent and hold her own against the more seasoned actors. In some ways there's a home movie feel to it, albeit one where the director is a contemporary of Quentin Tarantino and one of the main cast members was on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It's a family affair that draws on Rockwell's previous films (the opening titles credit it as "a film by Adolpho Rollo", Steve Buscemi's lead character in Rockwell's In The Soup), casting his good friend Will Patton as Adam, the family patriarch and a thinly veiled and unflattering simulacrum for Rockwell himself.

The narrative might not be wholly unique, drawing from other 'on the run' road movies like Badlands (the classic Gassenhauer theme music is used here and fits nicely) and Night of the Hunter, but in a film that exists in such a haze of magic realism that's hard to pin down its setting to any particular era, that only adds to the timeless, ethereal quality to it. It's full of beautiful imagery, whether it's the kids walking down a quiet train track or letting their hair blow out an open car window, and although it's mostly presented in black & white, Rockwell occasionally deploys shots of vivid colour when needed.

Scrappy in places but in a charming, go-getter film school kind of way (the crew was largely made up of Rockwell's NYU students) that you rarely see in the digital age, much like the antics of the self-professed "renegades and outlaws", Billie, Nico and Malik, it's a film full of childhood adventure that's only enhanced by the raw, personal nature of Rockwell's filmmaking. The title hits the nail on the head.

Verdict

4/5

Sweet Thing is available now via blu-ray. The initial release also contains a booklet with an essay by film writer Jason Wood, but is lacking in further extras, such as the desired inclusion of Little Feet, Rockwell's 2013 project that served as the genesis for this film.

Sweet Thing is now also streaming on Mubi.


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