Saturday 23 June 2018

THE INSUFFERABLE GROO - Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018

One of the highlights of this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest was The Insufferable Groo, following the exploits of notorious low budget film director Stephen Groo as he tries to raise funding for and then direct a remake of his own elf/human fantasy romance, the Unexpected Race.

Welcome to the world of Stephen Groo, a filmmaker based in Utah who has what can only be described as a DIY aesthetic; writing, directing and starring in his films for a small but dedicated audience of family, friends and subscribers to his YouTube channel. Unlike his most obvious comparison Tommy Wiseau, Stephen Groo is far from a one hit wonder. Firstly, he's yet to have that hit, and secondly, since his graduation from college he has made films constantly. At the most recent count he's at 205 films since the turn of the millennium, not counting his music video tributes to Backstreet Boys and Nickelback.

"I read it to my Mom last night and she felt it was pretty solid". And with that statement you get a fairly good idea of what kind of filmmaker Stephen Groo is. He's a one man Asylum studio, funding unofficial spin offs to Resident Evil and Yu-Gi-Oh, and thinly veiled "homages" to the Twilight and Lord of the Rings series' that would have any copyright lawyer rubbing their hands together with glee. Achieving a certain degree of notoriety and fame through his Kickstarter generated film projects whilst his family lives off his wife's earnings, this doc captures Groo at a turning point in his life; about to embark upon his highest profile film yet, but also in danger of losing the apartment (complete with flooded basement) that he shares with his wife and four boys. Luckily for him he has a fan in Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess (who also produced this documentary), who has spread the work of Stephen Groo to his former cast members, including one Mr Jack Black whose schedule has just opened up.

Using a mixture of animation and behind the scenes filming to tell Groo's story, this film is also intercut with some of Groo's previous work, including his acting masterclass/self-help videos that at first appear to show him as completely delusional, but given time persuade you that this is just a person who has complete faith in his abilities, however misguided that faith might be. In an age when people can be rightly celebrated for the effort they put in and not just the end result, Stephen Groo should be championed. This documentary could quite easily make Groo a figure of fun, and whilst the opportunity to gently mock him is always there, the filmmakers wisely keep their distance and let his work speak for itself. At various times during this film he is shown to be an absolute tyrant on set, unwilling to take on board any of the ideas put forward by his first-time director of photography to the point where she almost walks away from the film, but then also a man who is fully aware of what scenes are vital to complete his vision. Never one to consider applying for permits to shoot on location, when asked to pack up and move on by a park ranger his instincts kick in, mobilising his crew and completing about a dozen set-ups in the space of 15 minutes.

With a slightly bizarre wardrobe that consists of a never ending supply of muscly superhero T-shirts and peroxide blonde hair, reputation as someone who's difficult to work with and a strange and immediately identifiable surname, Groo is a ready made outsider artist/filmmaker in the mould of Tommy Wiseau, just waiting to be discovered and revered by students and stoners across the world.  His life, as well as his films, may be chock full of moments of unexpected comedy and dubious filmmaking standards, but his passion is undeniable and thoroughly endearing.This doc is pre-emptive in that Stephen Groo has yet to have that moment where he tips over into the ranks of classic cult movie directors, but on the evidence of this, it's only a matter of time.

As a study of that special kind of madness that filmmaking stirs up in people, the Insufferable Groo is up there with American Movie, Best Worst Movie and The Disaster Artist. Sure, it's quite probable that Groo's ambition of walking the stage at the Oscars will forever be a pipe dream, that is unless they start to give out awards for perseverance. Then he's a shoo in.

Insufferable? Occasionally. A mad man? Maybe. Admirable? Definitely.


Saturday 16 June 2018

SKATE KITCHEN review - Sundance London 2018

From the director of The Wolfpack comes this semi-biographical story of a group of teenage female skateboarders in NYC, and the constant hassle they face when trying to find their place in the male dominated skate park.

The film follows Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a talented but shy skater who lives with her single mother in Long Island, but after making friends with the Skate Kitchen skateboard group via Instagram, travels into the big city to skate with these other young women. As Camille quickly becomes a part of the group, they skate from park to park, bonding over uniquely female perspectives and experiences of life as a skater, such as the embarrassing "credit carding" injury that Camille experiences at the start of the film, but that I won't dare to explain here. Needless to say, ouch.

Skate Kitchen is directed by Crystal Moselle, who previously gave us the fascinating documentary The Wolfpack, about the Angulo brothers who had spent the majority of their lives confined to their family's NYC apartment, making amateur recreations of their favourite movies, like The Dark Knight and Reservoir Dogs, with little more than duct tape and a basic knowledge of filmmaking. Moselle happened upon the Angulo's in NYC's subway system, and the genesis for this film is similarly happenstance. After encountering some of the young female skaters on the subway, she became acquainted with the whole Skate Kitchen group at the skate parks and used them in a sort of short film/fashion commercial for the Miu Miu brand that's available on youtube. Now separate from those corporate ties that wouldn't quite be in the spirit of Sundance, this quasi-documentary feature film takes the basic premise of the short and expands it by creating newly named characters that stick pretty close to their real-life counterparts but with the dramatic freedom for Moselle to play with.

Possibly the most obvious facsimile of her real self is Nina Moran's Kurt, who is the most vocal and has the bolshy attitude needed to stand up to the boys in the parks. This is a group without an elected leader, but they all know it's Kurt who's fighting back most effectively. However, she is not the focus of the film, as most of the action revolves around Rachelle Vinberg as Camille. Again, her character closely mirrors the actress playing her, but she is a much shyer, introverted person, preferring to silence the misogyny of the boys by showing how good of a skater she is. Camille does show some classic teenage rebellion, like sneaking out to go skating by lowering her board out of her bedroom window on a rope, and letting her mother think she's at the library studying by sending her old photos of books. It's this strained relationship with her mother that kickstarts the story, but as things progress and Camille moves into the city with Janay (Deedee Lovelace), there's a moment where it's a simple hangout film, and all the better for it, until the need for a dramatic arc introduces Jaden Smith as love interest Devon who sows seeds of division in the group.

The problem the film has is that you become so enamoured with this cast of unknowns, that when Jaden Smith turns up about a third of the way through the film it has quite a jarring effect that pulls you out of the real world aesthetic that the film has spent so much time establishing. That's not to say that Smith is bad in the film; on the contrary, he's the best he's ever been, but his presence and the narrative turns that take place around him steer the film away from the other members of the Kitchen, which is a shame, as there's plenty of interesting dynamics in the core group. Dramatic storylines aside, the strength of this film lies in the performances of its raw, untrained cast. Showing us a street level New York City that appears to be ruled by youth, there's a real Raising Victor Vargas or Larry Clark's KIDS feel to the film, although thankfully it's a much more joyous experience than the latter.

The film is strongest when the focal point is the female friendships of its young cast, who, although they all look ridiculously cool and would not look out of place at a fashion show (the cast were in attendance at the screening, having spent the morning in London's skate parks and now looking like complete movie stars), are never fetishised or objectified in the way women skaters may have been had the director not been a woman. Their skating is not about tricks or fails, but is instead about freedom and camaraderie to be found with other young women who don't want to conform to the expected 'feminine' pastimes.

There's many joyous transitional scenes where we join the Skate Kitchen as they weave their way through the New York traffic without a care in the world; but the most indelible moment for me was as they glide along the sidewalk and pass a young girl walking the opposite direction who can't not turn her head in awe of what she's seeing. It's easy to agree with that assessment.


Friday 15 June 2018

HEREDITARY review - Sundance London 2018

Sundance London took place at Picturehouse Central a couple of weeks ago, delivering a wide array of films that made a big splash in Utah at the main festival. Settled in for a weekend of hopefully high quality films, first up on my list was the much hyped horror Hereditary.

Struggling to deal with her grief in the aftermath of her mother's death, Annie (Toni Collette) seeks strength from her husband Steven (Gabriel Byrne) and two children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). When things take a turn for the worse and loss becomes too much for the family to bear, dark secrets come to light that will forever change the way Toni thinks about her mother and challenge her maternal instincts.

Toni Collette was present at the start of the screening, along with the film's director, first-timer Ari Aster. Although Aster has been quick to state that he doesn't consider this to be a horror, let's take that as a marketing ploy to entice the trepidatious off the fence and into a cinema seat. This may be riding a wave of "post-horror" titles (including other A24 releases like It Comes At Night and The VVitch) that have managed to appeal to audiences outside of the traditional multiplex crowd pleasers, but there's no doubt in which genre this belongs to. A more accurate statement about the film came from Collette, who signed off her introduction with "I apologise for appearing in your nightmares".

At the start of the film Annie is grieving for the loss of her mother, a woman she had a complicated relationship with that also affected her relationship with her own children. Annie has always held a grudge against her mother for being a bad parent who cared more about her friends than her, and struggled to allow her back into her life when she needed help. Her youngest, Charlie, was especially close to her grandmother, and starts to exhibit worrying behaviour, cutting the head off a pigeon that flies into the window with a pair of scissors, and then carrying it around it her pocket. Charlie also has what can only be described as a nervous tick, clicking her tongue inside her mouth to create a "tock" sound that is destined to burrow its way into your brain and freak you out every time you hear it.

What sets this film apart is its approach to finding ways to scare you. Although one early scene that may or may not feature a ghostly apparition in a darkened corner of the room is classic haunted house fare, the remainder of the film finds new, more interesting ways to create horror, namely by letting you get to know these characters and toying with your affections to them. Audiences expecting something along the lines of recent horrors like The Conjuring or Insidious may find Hereditary's pace frustrating, as this film is not afraid to take its time in setting up its scenes of terror, avoiding cheap spine tinglers or jump scares. Instead, you are allowed to appreciate and care for these characters before the film's narrative completely side swipes you unexpectedly, delivering what for me was one of the most unexpected and disturbingly brutal scenes (and its aftermath) I have ever experienced in a cinema. Whilst avoiding spoilers about which moment I'm referring to, what I'll say is that in the screening I was in there was a collective sound of disbelief and awe at the audacity of it. This is a filmmaker who knows how to push his audience's buttons.

This is a film that is able to deliver well crafted shocks from a technical standpoint, but it must also be commended for the work of its stellar cast. Milly Shapiro, already a Broadway star from her turn as Matilda, is an incredible presence on screen. As Charlie, she has such an interesting face and way at looking at the world, permanently curious and perplexed by the world around her. Having started his career in tween television and appearances in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and My Friend Dammer, this will be the breakout role for Alex Wolff who, as the grieving teenage son with issues piling up in front of him, runs the gamut of emotional frailty and unimaginable guilt and is fantastic in the role.

But there's no denying that this is Toni Colette's film, in what may be her best performance yet. We've seen her play in the horror genre before, notably as Cole Sear's mother in M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense; but here she delivers an entire spectrum of grief, from the sound of her discovering earth shattering truths that will change her family dynamics forever, to crafting her ornate miniature sculptures that depict the most traumatic scenes of her life, or in what is one of the highlights of the film, berating her eldest child in one of the all time great dinner table confrontations. This is a difficult, immensely challenging role for Collette, but her performance, particularly in the film's head-spinning final act, is nothing short of astounding.

Hereditary arrives with a huge amount of buzz, with some dubbing it the scariest film for generations. Although it's hard to be completely in agreement with the Hereditary hyperbole that has created a massive weight of expectation for the film, this is a damn fine horror with some truly unsettling imagery that will stay with you for a long time. Generations, maybe. There's so much to study and dissect about Hereditary that it is already being lined up as a future classic, and there is a danger that it will become a victim of its own hype, to which I can't help but contribute to. But for audiences in search of new scares that are more insidious than Insidious, this debut feature offers something new and deeply disturbing.