Thursday 27 October 2016


Re-teaming with her Clouds of Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper stars Kristen Stewart as a medium in Paris haunted by the death of her twin brother.

Based on a promise to send a sign from the other side that she and her brother Lewis made to each other before he died, Kristen Stewart's Maureen has remained in Paris, visiting fashion houses to find outfits for the vapid celebrity she works for. Soon she finds herself falling into a world of death and suspicion that may have more to do with her than she wants to admit.

There's no getting around it. Personal Shopper is a completely bizarre offering that is impossible to pigeon hole; but since when should that be a negative thing? Mixing genres in a manner that should create a red carpet disaster, instead we're given a wholly unique and bold statement that is equal parts head turner and head scratcher. It starts in a seemingly traditional haunted house set up where Maureen believes her brother's spirit may still be, before adding in a hefty dose of workplace boredom (despite her job looking kind of fun), topped off with a prolonged dialogue free sequence where Maureen has a flirty text based game of cat and mouse with a supposed admirer/potential stalker, all while travelling to London and back on the Eurotunnel.

Surprisingly, among all this chaos the film actually works; as a dark comedy, as a ghostly chiller and as a piece of entertainment. That could be attributed to the bold direction of Assayas, but more so the praise should be levied at Stewart. Moving further away from her role in the Twilight films that made her a star, here she continues to announce herself as an actor to be reckoned with. As Maureen she is in nearly every frame of the film, her fantastic ingrained laisse fair expression befitting her character perfectly. Stewart is known for that slightly cold disconnection that has followed her throughout her career, and in many ways she is the ultimate millennial malaise poster girl; but a fearless approach to role choices has served her well in recent years and will continue to define her as an actor more than those sparkly vampires ever did.

With its elements of horror and the fashion world coming together, there's a risk of it being compared to Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon, although this is a much darker affair that will keep audiences guessing right up until the final moments of the film. A wickedly bizarre marriage of Pret-a Porter/The September Issue and The Orphanage/The Others, Personal Shopper is a completely baffling film that defies all expectations. A goofy delight.


Monday 24 October 2016


Perhaps the craziest and most disgusting film we will see in our lifetime, The Greasy Strangler is now out on DVD and blu-ray.

I, err, well, err, what?

If you had asked me for an immediate reaction after first seeing The Greasy Strangler, that may have been all I was able to put together. Part of the line up at this year's Sundance London Film Festival, The Greasy Strangler has to be the most insane film released in cinemas this year. We are introduced to Big Brayden, a lank-haired oddball who lives with his father Big Ronnie. Together they operate con artist tours of the local disco hotspots, pointing out the street corners where some of the greatest hits of the seventies were supposedly created. It's on one of these tours that Brayden meets Janet, a local girl he starts a romantic relationship with, causing Big Ronnie's jealousy get the better of him and the return of a murderer who goes by the name of The Greasy Strangler.

It's no spoiler to say that Big Ronnie is the aforementioned strangler, attacking his victims in bloodthirsty, animalistic fashion, all while covered head to toe in a thick layer of grease. Ronnie then covers his tracks by putting himself through the car wash ran by his blind friend Big Paul, before hitting the town in his crotchless disco get up to dance the night away. Yes, that actually is the plot of a movie that you could be watching right now, but instead you're reading this. Thanks for the hits, but you really need to sort your priorities out.

Big Ronnie (played by the exquisitely named Michael St Michaels) is the cinematic villain of the year. A deliciously greasy bastard who is fuelled by hate and hotdogs, his thinly veiled contempt and outright hostility towards his son is something to behold. Choosing to blame his son for his wife leaving him for a man named Ricky Prickles, whenever his rage hits a certain level he feels the need to murder again, covering himself in a thick layer of grease before he does so. St Michaels has a fantastically condescending voice, spouting puerile and grotesque one-liners designed to keep his son right where he wants him; in the kitchen cooking the most disgusting and greasy food you will ever see.

Brayden (Sky Elobar) is a sweet idiot man-child held back by his domineering father his whole life, only choosing to stand up for himself and try to expose his father as the strangler when he fears that he's next on the list of victims. Their relationship is Steptoe and Son re-imagined through the eyes of The League of Gentlemen, a fucked up family portrait with genuinely appalling characters at its heart. Janet, the "hootie tootie disco cutie" that gets between this family unit is for all intents and purposes the femme fatale of the film, and despite an unglamourous approach to nudity that revels in the unconventional, there is an underlying sweetness to her and Brayden's romance that will almost make you forget what this film is actually about. Not for long, obviously.

Produced by Ben Wheatley's Rook Films and released by Elijah Wood's SpectreVision production company, this is literally the most invasive movie I've ever seen, and I mean that as a positive. This film doesn't just get under your skin, it gets all over it like a thick layer of... well, you get the analogy. There's so many things in The Greasy Strangler that should make you want to gouge your eyes out, but instead, it draws you in and forces you to love it. I was fortunate enough to catch The Greasy Strangler at this year's Sundance London Film Festival (where they bring the most revered and buzzed about films over from Utah), and although at first I wasn't completely sure that I even liked it, I found myself thinking about it on an almost daily basis and wanting to recommend it to everyone I know, to the point where I realised that yeah, I actually really like its batshitcraziness.

I suppose if you pour enough grease into your eyes and ears it's going to seep into your brain, and that's the effect I want from a midnight movie. This film is destined for word of mouth infamy, and with its infectious electronic soundtrack, disgusting behaviour and the strangest way of pronouncing potato you will ever hear, this is genuinely subversive in a way you can't call bullshit on. Unquestionably hideous at times, love it or hate it there's no doubt that The Greasy Strangler is that rarest of things; a completely unique cinematic experience.


DVD extras include a commentary from the director and stars.

Sunday 16 October 2016


Paul Dano stars as Hank, a man stranded on an island and close to suicide when a farting corpse called Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore, quickly realising that he may be his only hope of survival and escape from the island. Swiss Army Man is the latest release from distribution company A24 (who after Green Room, The Lobster and American Honey can do little wrong this year), picked up after the film caused quite a stir at Sundance.

From directing duo Daniels (whose background is in left of field TV comedies like Children's Hospital and NTSF:SD:SUV, and yes, they're both called Daniel), Swiss Army Man could quite easily have been little more than Weekend at Bernies meets Cast Away. Both excellent films in their own special way, but thankfully this is neither as slapstick as Bernies nor as isolated as Cast Away. The film, largely a two hander between Dano and Radcliffe's beached boys, is full of invention, and a bizarre and unique idea that pays off.

I'm not one who's easily amused by fart jokes, and although it's understandable why Swiss Army Man has become known as the farting corpse movie, it's much more. So much more. Despite delivering a number of fantastic performances in recent years, it hasn't been the easiest of tasks for Daniel Radcliffe to free himself from the shackles of the boy wizard. Well, nothing announces yourself as a fearless actor more than appearing in a film that features a close up of your hairy arse crack and an erection that doubles up as a compass.

Rather than just emitting bodily gas, Hank soon learns that Manny is able to provide him with everything he needs to survive; drinking water, chopping tools, and eventually conversation, as he starts to relearn the ability to talk. Showing himself to be a highly talented comic actor, as Radcliffe's Manny regains sentience and a boyish innocence to romance and the world, his ability to deliver a one-liner that would be a social faux pas in polite company is both hilarious and signifying of the burgeoning bond between himself and Hank.

Dano is one of the most talented actors working in independent cinema today with a near impeccable taste in projects. However, it appears that he is well aware of his typecasting as the lonely, hopeless romantic type, and Swiss Army Man both plays to and subverts that image. Hank is in love with a woman he rides the bus with every day, and it is the exploration of his relationship with her that provides an introspective commentary between himself and Manny that helps solidify their bond.

A story of the power of friendship and what it means to be alive, together Hank and Manny create a makeshift world from trash, recreating scenes from Hank's life that allow him the chance to do things differently this time. In this respect the film taps into a Gondry-esque charm, recalling the creativity of Be Kind Rewind along with the emotional introspection of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This approach also applies to the soundtrack which largely consists of a vocal chorus, provided by Andy Hull from Manchester Orchestra. It's dreamlike and ethereal and unexpectedly touching.

Based on its synopsis alone, it is understandable why audiences may be sceptical, but they needn't be. Paul Dano is dependable as ever and Daniel Radcliffe provides what is undoubtedly one of the bravest performances I've seen in a long time. Surprisingly deep and introspective, Swiss Army Man is a philosophical, funny and flatulent delight that deserves to be talked about as one of the greatest films of the year.


Friday 14 October 2016


Andrea Arnold's latest film stars Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf as part of a crew of magazine salespeople travelling across the American heartland. A band of roamers drifting from town to town, partying and falling in love with each other, when they pass through Star's (Sasha Lane) town, she jumps at the chance to be taken away from her life of familial burden, line dancing and Nickleback. Using the same method to find a lead actress as she did when casting the unknown Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold found Sasha Lane during a visit to the American college blow-out spring break. Star is in almost every frame of the film, and Lane's wide eyed innocence helps inform the journey her character takes.

The film looks beautiful, as you would expect from cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who shot Arnold's debut Fish Tank as well as last year's Slow West and Catch Me Daddy, two vibrant and visually arresting films. Arnold's films have always encapsulated a kind of social realism that seemed to be utterly British, but these often undocumented and neglected areas of the USA (where she went to study film before returning to Blighty) fit her lens perfectly. The use of music is also greatly important in creating the tone. Most of the music comes from within the film, during the group's journeys where they sing along collectively as if it's some bonding ritual, and by using the particular genre of hip hop that it does, it makes no mistake that this is a film about the youth of today.

One of the most powerful aspects of American Honey is how it shows the watered down element of the "American Dream" that is still available to these kids. Whereas their parents may have sold cars or real estate, these poor and unskilled kids are selling magazines. That's not to say they're not good at it, and there's a number of scenes where Shia's Jake shows Star how he uses his charm and wit to sell magazines door to door. There's money to be made, and the group lie, cheat and steal in order to get a sale. It's here that Jake and Star differ on their outlook at life, as she wants to show the truth, not more bullshit. Star resorts to using her sexuality and femininity to make sales, jumping in the back of cars with men she doesn't know, giving the film a palpable undercurrent of sexual threat that's unnerving and constant.

The developing relationship between Star and Jake is infectiously romantic, and the film as a whole has a strong sense of physicality to it. As Jake, Shia delivers a fantastic performance. It's fair to say that after his wilderness years a lot of people will have written him off, but this is a real coming of age as an actor for LaBeouf. Still under 30 when  this film was shot, the maturity he displays in comparison to his younger crew members shows the treacherous chasm there is to cross in your twenties, and how difficult it can be to come out the other side unscathed. The supporting cast (also largely cast via Arnold's preferred method of finding untrained actors from real life characters) don't really have a lot to do besides party, although Riley Keough's Crystal at least is able to provide an antagonist for Star as her permanently angry boss.

Like any road trip, you've got to make sure the passengers are entertained before they get irritated, and American Honey does suffer the issue of being over long with a few false endings, repeatedly placing Star in situations not dissimilar to one she was in twenty minutes ago. I wouldn't call it an issue with pace, as the film relishes in taking its time and stargazing from the off, but could be improved with a tighter edit towards the finale.

A sometimes meandering look at a journey across the American heartland, Andrea Arnold has nevertheless created another believable world where real life experiences have informed the performances of her cast. A film about youth, love and the vibrancy of living life, American Honey is among the year's most beautiful and best, anchored by a strong performance by Shia LaBeouf and the announcement of a new talent in Sasha Lane.


Thursday 13 October 2016


Part of the London Film Festival's Sonic strand, We Are X charts the 30 year career of X Japan, a glam metal band from Japan in the run up to their performance at New York's Madison Square Gardens.

It's hard to see a music bio-doc these days without what I call "getting a touch of the Anvils". The life of a musician is a ridiculous collection of screaming fans, cliches and rock star behaviour, and although there's clear comparison points with Anvil, X Japan are a rock band who actually made it, but with a surprisingly small following in the western world.

Director Stephen Kijak's previous films include the Scott Walker documentary 30 Century Man and the Backstreet Boys doc, Show 'Em What You're Made Of, and here he wisely chooses to focus his lens on Yoshiki in favour of the other band members. He is the heart and soul of the band of almost indeterminate age (he could pass for someone younger than the band he created), who has dominated Japanese music, fashion and art, starred in his own comic book by Stan Lee and is shown to be kept together by doctors who allow him to keep touring and performing. I'm sure there's a certain amount of showmanship involved, but Yoshiki wears a neckbrace when he drums to combat the damage from the excessive head-banging of his youth, which might be the most rock and roll injury there is.

The running joke in This is Spinal Tap is that the drummer's chair is a continuously revolving door due to its occupants choking on their own vomit/spontaneous combustion, but the opposite is true here. Yoshiki is the band's creator and chief songwriter who has remained the one constant, but there has been an immense amount of tragedy within the other roles in the band, including multiple suicides and unsolved deaths. These subjects are handled sensitively and are a tad under investigated, but in order to focus on the band as a touring entity, that's understandable. There is also a certain amount of unexpected comedy to their larger than life career, and lead singer Toshi's brainwashing by a religious cult is approached as a shining example of the pressures of being in the band.

There are a number of talking heads from famous western rock stars, including Gene Simmons who puts forward the idea that if X were comprised of white, English speaking men, they would be the biggest rock band in the world. He may have a point. Although I was not familiar with the band at all before the screening, during the post-film Q&A with director Stephen Kijak and band drummer/songwriter Yoshiki it was abundantly clear that X Japan fans are amongst the most fevered and loyal in the world, and that Yoshiki was probably the most famous person I had ever been in the presence of, despite not knowing who he was two hours earlier.

The band, like their epic 30 minute rock ballad Art of Life, have many different facets to their success, and this documentary (made with the full co-operation of the band) goes a long way to respectfully cover as many aspects as possible. When watching We Are X it's hard not to fall in love with this band, and even if you are unfamiliar with them going in, the performance footage with thousands of cheering fans chanting their battle cry "We Are X!" will soon change that.

Made with real affection for the band and its fans, We Are X is a crowd-pleasing documentary that proves that X go all the way to XI.

Wednesday 12 October 2016


In 1984 Tim McVey achieved what was thought to be impossible. He scored the first ever billion point game on Nibbler, armed with no more than a quarter and two days in which to do it. Receiving notoriety, fame and even a day named in his honour by the city, McVey returned to his life as a casual gamer until, 25 years later, he was forced to come out of retirement to protect his record against a number of new challengers.

Man Vs Snake assumes you've already seen 2007's highly successful documentary King of Kong, which let's be honest, if you're taking the time to read a review of a film that revolves around an arcade game called Nibbler, is probably true. Undoubtedly made to capitalise upon and continue the legacy of that film, Man Vs Snake fleshes out the world and community these guys live in, in particular the Twin Galaxies arcade owned by Walter Day, a man who seemingly spends half his life dressed as a sports referee despite the majority of arcade game achievements being a one man triumph against the odds with no real reason for a mediator.

"The Dodge City of video games where people would come for a showdown", it just so happened that the mild mannered Tim McVey lived on Twin Galaxies' doorstep and so was able to spend his youth honing his skills at the arcade, alongside the often shameless self-promoter (and by most accounts the villain of King of Kong) Billy Mitchell. Mitchell returns here, but is a secondary character in McVey's story who, although not quite as sympathetic a person as Kong's Steve Wiebe, appears to be a thoroughly likeable average gamer who once achieved something impressive.

Much like the arcade games itself, the film is able to be alluring and addictive, despite the game carrying no way near the same cultural cache as Donkey Kong did for King of Kong. Essentially the same game as Snake from Nokia phones from the early 2000s but played in a Pac-Man maze, Nibbler is a relatively obscure game that was all but rendered obsolete through advancements in games in the mid-80s. However, for retro gaming fans there is an obvious charm to it, and watching the aforementioned Nibbler dart around the screen at an ever increasing pace does become hypnotic to watch.

This covers a lot of similar ground to King of Kong, but without that central clash of characters, focuses more on McVey's family life and the support of his wife through his pursuit of regaining his title. The film tries to emulate the sense of competition that drove King of Kong, and although there is potentially foul-play gaming bad-boy Dwayne Richard and an Italian Kickboxer to contend with, it's clear that regaining his record is an endurance contest that McVey has to achieve by himself. It may be a strange world where the records are verified by the philosophy spouting Walter and his Twin Galaxies scoreboard, but be in no doubts that this is a sports comeback story on a par with Rocky Balboa.

Shot over a number of years and using some well realised animated sequences to fill in the gaps, Man Vs Snake is an affectionate look at an often bizarre sub-culture that is able to raise a number of laughs, but crucially not at the gamers or their pastime pursuits. A charming and enjoyable tale.


Tuesday 11 October 2016

BITE review

People often return from holiday with many things. Memories, photographs, possibly a straw donkey. Well, Casey (Elma Begovic) has come back from celebrating her bachelorette party covered in insect bites and with an, ahem, nasty infection. Returning to the apartment building that also houses her domineering and disapproving future mother-in-law, Casey's bite soon becomes an oozing mess that she tries to hide from her friends and fiance as it changes her into...something else.

After the brief pre-title sequence that sees Casey on her bachelorette party where she received her bite whilst having a dip in a remote spring (captured as if it's found footage; an over-used gimmick in the horror genre currently, that is thankfully jettisoned when the film returns home), the majority of the film takes place solely within Casey's apartment. A budgetary choice i'm sure, but it works well in amplifying her increased isolation as the sickness takes hold. Retracing her steps by watching the video camera footage her friends captured on holiday in order to find out what actually went on, as she undergoes her transformation the film certainly delivers the ewww factor, turning her from a clammy mess into something amphibious and genuinely disgusting. Even the neighbours dog doesn't want to be walked by her anymore. 

What works is that the bulk of the odd and disgusting things around her apartment are achieved practically rather than relying on CGI effects. What's missing is any real sense as to why this is happening to Casey. The obvious touch point for any body horror is David Cronenberg's The Fly, which tapped into the 1980's fear of the AIDS pandemic to deliver a film with a real social conscience. Bite does cover a similar theme with Casey's potential promiscuity whilst abroad and the consequences therein, but there's a concerning implication that her desire for a normal sex life is what is being punished, something I doubt the filmmakers were aiming for.

There's some ropey acting among the supporting cast that detracts from the game portrayal of Casey by Elma Begovic (her mopey fiance does little more than stare at himself in the mirror, raising serious questions about the plausibility of their relationship), but as direct to VOD/DVD low budget horrors go, Bite isn't terrible, and the suitably slimy effects work alone warrants a watch by any fans of the body horror genre. Kudos to Begovic for creating pathos for a character who could be seen as a simple monster; it's just a shame that the dark sense of humour shown in the opening and closing stings is absent from the rest of the film.


Friday 7 October 2016

YARN review

As shown from the opening title card, director Una Lorenzen's Yarn wants to draw parallels between the noun (continuous strand of twisted threads) and the verb (a long, often elaborate narrative). To do that it follows a number of artists with differing approaches to their use of the medium of wool, with vastly differing ideologies and outcomes.

If you were hoping for a history of knitting and crocheting, this film is not it, more an exploration of how the metaphorical and literal capabilities of woollen thread has been been adopted by the art community and used for a multitude of artistic sensibilities. The large sculptural pieces that blend the functionality of the thread with an inherent playground potential created by Japanese artist Toshi are incredible, and it's interesting to hear how the art community's stance on her work changed once children decided to enjoy her work in a more tangible way.

Also featured prominently is Tinna, the Icelandic graffiti artist who specialises in adorning grey lampposts around cities with her colourful political statements. She is most vocal about what changes she would like to see in the world, and what her philosophies are about how her work can help. Olek the crocheter is also a major figure in this sub-sub-genre, and has a number of impressive pieces featured that find a clash between mother nature and this creative method.

Oddly fascinating if not a reel too long, it's an entertaining globe-trotting adventure that proves interesting to see how the public react to these artworks, from huge crocheted canvasses telling us to "keep calm and eat my cock" to people walking around cities knitted into full body suits. There's a number of scenes that show the interaction of the general public with these works, although this doc chooses to capture what's going on rather than attempt to interview anyone in conventional documentary fashion. It would be interesting to hear their responses, but director Una Lorenzen has chosen to position her camera alongside the artists and their co-conspirators during these collisions of worlds.

Witnessing a crocheted mermaid swimming under the sea of Hawaii is undeniably beautiful, but despite the efforts of the artists to bring their work to the world, it's fair to say that this is a niche interest film. It's a shame that the feminist thread wasn't pulled a bit harder to uncover why there is such a gender disparity within the artists who use this medium, but Yarn is not short of charm and creativity, and might just be the most colourful film I've ever seen.


THE GUV'NOR review

Upon its release in 1998, Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels instantly became one of those films you could completely devour, finding out about who these actors were and where they came from. Did you know Jason Statham used to be an Olympic swimmer? Or that Dexter Fletcher was in The Long, Good Friday as a child? Or that the Cockney henchman used to be a bare knuckle boxer with ties to London gangsters? Guided by his son Jamie, The Guv'nor looks at the history of the man who started out as muscle for hire, became known as 'The King of the Bouncers', and then eventually a film star, Lenny McLean.

Aided by the use of grainy videotape that shows him scrapping in the ring, right from the off the film announces who McLean was, then follows Jamie on a trip around London to try and find out why he was the way he was. Included on Jamie's tour is the run-down shed where his father trained to be a boxer (now a public park), and the location of the nightclub where his father was shot while working on the door (now a Pret a Manger). This was a very different London, and Lenny was tough enough to survive it.

Jamie is a lively cockney geezer, and like his father, a natural in front of the camera. It's clear that Jamie has been delivering stories about his father for his entire life, but that he sees the documentary as a chance to dig a little bit deeper into Lenny's past, despite the reluctance of a number of family members to take part. Still, this absorbing documentary doesn't shy away from talking about the demons that made him the man he was (some that appear to be present in Jamie, albeit diluted), and despite his public history as a boxer and late in life film star, there's still a few things that prove to be revelatory.

His time as a fighter is well documented here, and even goes to the lengths of visiting a modern bare-knuckle boxing match to show how tenacious a fighter he was in comparison. His rivalry with Roy Shaw (in which he took over the mantle of The Guv'nor) is used to show how committed to the art of boxing he was, and there's a number of talking heads, including Lock, Stock co-stars, who describe what a tough but loveable man he was in his later years (the film was dedicated to him after he died a few weeks before its release).

In pugilists parlance, this documentary doesn't appear to be pulling many punches, but it chooses to slip past some topics it prefers to leave alone. There's a lot of talk about how things were done "in them days", including some stories of horrific violence inflicted by Lenny, but (perhaps not surprisingly) there's no one willing to say a bad word about him on camera.

In that respect The Guv'nor is an often one sided depiction of McLean, but this film (from the producers of Gascoigne) uses its impressive resource of archive footage to paint a portrait of a family man who, with incredible ferociousness, fought his demons his entire life to become a modern folk hero. There's a recently wrapped dramatisation of his life on the way coming from the same producers, but they've got a fight on their hands to cover Lenny's 'Raging Bull meets Legend' life story as well as this documentary does.