Tuesday, 10 September 2019

TUCKED DVD review

When new girl Faith (Jordan Stephens) starts as a performer at a Brighton drag club, ageing Queen Jackie (Derren Nesbitt) takes her under his wing. Having recently discovered he only has six weeks to live, Jackie enlists Faith to help tick some life experiences off his bucket list, and hopefully reconnect with his estranged daughter, Lily (April Pearson).



The world of drag is one that has seen a huge boost in popularity in recent years, in no small part thanks to TV shows like the hugely popular Ru Paul's Drag Race, but until now UK drag has been under explored. Brighton is one such place that has a thriving drag scene, with a mixture of old school cabaret clubs and newer, edgier comic performers bringing in the crowds. In Tucked, the grand old dame of the club, Jackie, sings Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive, and walks the floor telling dirty, innuendo laden and self deprecating jokes like "I'm not fat, i'm just easier to see" and "do you know the difference between your wife and your job? After 5 years, your job will still suck", followed by the newer, glamour-puss queen Faith, whose act relies as much on beauty as it does biting wit.

Tucked may draw you in off the strip with the promise of a story about drag queens of different generations, but it's really not about that at all. This is a story about Jack 'Jackie' Collins, an old, straight man who in the evening enjoys dressing up in women's clothes and performing to a crowd, but who in the day is lonely, and haunted by past decisions that have cost him his family. His life only changes upon the arrival of Faith at the club, who after Jackie discovers she is sleeping in her car, gives her place to stay. After learning about Jackie's illness, Faith hopes to repay Jackie's kindness by helping him tick some things off his bucket list like getting a tattoo and doing drugs, leading to an awkward but funny interaction with drug dealer Steve Oram.

Brighton native Jordan Stephens, AKA one half of Rizzle Kicks, puts in a solid performance as Faith, a young queen who doesn't "think that what's between my legs defines me". This unwillingness to conform to a specific gender identity hints at aspects of Faith's life that are ripe for drama, but despite Stephens receiving top billing, I'm sure even he would concede he is the supporting player here, rightfully making space for his co-star Derren Nesbitt. A veteran actor with credits as far back as 1956 and roles in films ranging from Where Eagles Dare to The Amorous Milkman (which he also wrote and directed), he's been relegated to occasional Grandad roles in recent years but is astonishing here.

Jackie is a complex, damaged man, and the performance from Derren Nesbitt is why you should see this film. He's in almost every frame of the film and completely dominates the story with this empathetic, wholly believable character he's portraying. Although the dichotomy between his character and the much younger Faith is only touched upon briefly, and Faith's story is under-explored to say the least, the story this film tells, albeit probably not the one you were expecting, is still a compelling one.

There's a charm about Tucked that's exemplified by Jackie's club routine. Yes, some of the jokes are old hat and have punchlines you can see coming a mile off, but they're delivered with real heart and conviction, the material being elevated by the performer to another level.

Verdict
3.5/5

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR BLU-RAY review

A 1980s classic given the special edition blu-ray treatment it deserves, out now is Flight of the Navigator.



Flight of the Navigator will hold a special place in the heart of many children of the '80s, and although there's often a fear that revisiting these older films will lead to crushing disappointment, as soon as this film's opening UFO fake out is revealed to be a dog frisbee catching competition and Alan Silvestri's jumpy electronic score kicks in, you know you're in for fun. 12 year old David (Joey Cramer) has the usual things to worry about like how to talk to girls, taking his dog Bruiser for a walk in the woods and his bratty younger brother being a constant annoyance. All this changes when, after falling in the woods, he returns home to find his parents no longer live there and that he's been missing for the last 8 years, his whereabouts a complete mystery. More peculiarly, he hasn't aged a day in that time, his little brother is now a foot taller than him and his parents thought he was dead. Oh, and NASA are very interested in the star maps that now appear to be in David's brain, and what they might have to do with the giant spaceship they've found.

It's one of the all time great kid's horror "what would you do?" scenarios that's only the first act of this film. A Disney co-production released by Buena Vista but deemed too dark a set-up to bear the Walt Disney logo, in their hands Flight of the Navigator could have been a sanitised family comedy called something like My Big Little Brother, but instead it's closer in tone to an Amblin movie, full of childhood trauma, shady government officials and conspiracies. And let's be honest, the title is awesome.

About that aforementioned flight, this is very much a film of two distinct halves, firstly with David encountering this brave new world of 80s things like MTV, a robot named RALF and Sarah Jessica Parker, before his psychic bond with a super cool looking silver spaceship leads to the second half of the film, which literally soars when it kicks into gear. With effects that still look great, the mixture of practical and photographic morphing effects really make the ship come to life. Watching this now, it's surprising how clearly divided down the middle this film is, as fond memories place the scenes of David flying around in the spaceship talking to Max (the onboard computer that sounds suspiciously like Pee Wee Herman after downloading the star maps from David's brain) as the bulk of the film. That's not to say the first half is forgettable and doesn't set up an enjoyable mystery scenario, but as the title suggests, it's the Flight of the Navigator that we want to see. Boy, is it fun.

It's a film ready to be enjoyed by audiences young and old, and this new blu-ray edition from Second Sight (in a beautiful looking slipcase) has been given a plethora of extras that will answer your questions like, "how did they make the spaceship look so cool? and "I wonder what the kid in it looks like now?". Don't wait for the often threatened remake, invest in the original and go for a wild ride.

Verdict
4/5

Special Features-

- New 4K scan with restoration supervised by Randal Kleiser
- Directing the Navigator - Interview with Randal Kleiser
- Playing the Navigator - Interview with Joey Cramer
- Mother of the Navigator - Interview with Veronica Cartwright
- Brother of the Navigator - Interview with Matt Adler
- Art of the Navigator featurette
- Commentary by Randal Kleiser and producer Jonathan Sanger
- Reversible sleeve with new and original artwork

Limited Edition also features-

-Rigid slipcase with new artwork by Rich Davies
- 100 page book with original storyboards, behind the scenes photos and a new essay by Kevin Lyons
- Reversible poster with new and original artwork


Tuesday, 3 September 2019

MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN review

Director Alexandre O. Philippe employs interviews from those involved to surgically dissect Memory, screenwriter Dan O'Bannon's original title for Star Beast, his script featuring one of cinema's most indelible monsters, that eventually became known simply as Alien.



This documentary starts off in a truly bizarre way, with a dramatic interpretation of worshippers at the Temple of Apollo, somehow linked to Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi horror in a way that isn't immediately clear. It's a bold opening, and one that fittingly reminds of the opening sequence of the Ridley Scott created story for his Alien prequel, Prometheus, albeit in a way that might be off putting for some viewers who aren't fans of the mythology he grafted onto the story later on. Philippe's documentary has grand ideas of being a quintessential psychological study of the Star Beast and the men behind her, employing the use of lofty, literary talking heads speaking of the Lovecraftian influence on O'Bannon's work, with mixed success.

This doc largely concerns the pre-production stage of the classic film and how it came together to form the Alien film we know and love, so the absence of future lead Sigourney Weaver from the talking heads is not detrimental. Some of the contributions are archive footage, most notably from director Ridley Scott and Dan O'Bannon, but these are presented in an original and ingenious way via monitors that would form part of a control console, not dissimilar to how Dallas and Ash consult with MOTHER. Thankfully the film is not solely made of re-used interviews, with actors Tom Skerritt & Veronica Cartwright offering new material for the film (Cartwright's recollection of the Chestbusrter scene is a highlight), as do art director Roger Donaldson and, most importantly, O'Bannon's widow, Diane.

With her help, the key figure this film tries to studiously examine is Dan O'Bannon, the originator of the Star Beast and frequently unheralded figure in the creation of the Alien franchise. This doc goes some way to righting that wrong, deep-diving into his personal history (his health issues, obsession with sci-fi) that shaped the beast's story. Not all of this thorough examination makes complete sense, as the list of possible films that may have influenced O'Bannon's script are a bit tenuous, like Queen of Blood featuring a dead alien in a chair, just like Alien does in the form of the Space Jockey. In this regard the film reminds of Room 237, a fantastic look at the creation of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, but a film with some incredibly outlandish theories about what hidden symbolism is contained in the film. Here it's a similarly myth building exercise that is maybe a touch too conspiracy theory heavy, but that will undoubtedly give fans of the Alien franchise new material to repeat down the pub.

It also takes an extended look at the work of artist H.R. Giger and O'Bannon's obsession with his work after discovering his bizarre, sexualised, industrial portraits when working on the ill-fated Jodorowsky version of Dune. Both O'Bannon and Giger are presented as tortured artistic geniuses, and although it's worth noting that both of their spouses have executive producer credits on this documentary (I am completely speculating, but I would assume their co-operation was essential in order to get the film made), they don't shy away from revealing some of the shenanigans that lead to O'Bannon's reputation as a loose cannon, a reputation that undoubtedly fed into his battles with original Alien director Ridley Scott over the vision for the film, and his later issues in finding regular work in Hollywood.

Although this doc, with its foreboding industrial soundtrack and leisurely pace, is often presented as a dour experience, it's often raises a chuckle or two. Chief among these moments of development hell fun is imagining the versions of the film that could have been, like the low budget version from 'The Pope of Pop Cinema' himself, Roger Corman, who saw the script pass over his desk, but graciously told O'Bannon to go after a studio with a bigger budget (but to come back to him if he had no luck).

Memory undoubtedly contains compelling insights into the production for both newcomers and older fans of the franchise, but despite providing a lot of material over which to speculate, it never convincingly lands on who to credit for the creation of the Alien franchise. It's worth noting that the only other films Alexandre O. Philippe chooses to include are brief mentions of Prometheus and Alien Covenant, both also directed by Ridley Scott, so perhaps he's making his position clear as to whose vision wins out for him. What's certain is that for fans to make an informed decision of their own, Memory is essential viewing.

Verdict
3.5/5


Saturday, 31 August 2019

SEAHORSE review

When Freddy McConnell decided he wanted to have a child, as a transgender man he decided the simplest option would be to carry the child himself, coming off his prescribed testosterone and onto folic acid to prepare himself for potential pregnancy. Director Jeanie Finlay follows Freddy as he confronts issues with his biology, self belief and societal expectations of what he's allowed to do.


The basic logline for Seahorse (and its subtitle "The Dad Who Gave Birth") would undoubtedly have the heads of some Daily M@!l readers spinning, but as sensational a headline it may make, that is not the aim of director Jeanie Finlay or the film's subject, Freddy McConnell, who has gamely allowed intimate access into the process of being a trans person wanting to conceive a child, hoping to provoke nothing other than discussion and offer hope to others.

Finlay's films have always been notable for the willing contributions of her subjects (The Great Hip Hop Hoax, Sound it Out and the excellent Game of Thrones documentary, The Last Watch that managed to silence some of those disappointed in the finale but showing the sheer amount of work and love that went into making the show), and it's no different here. With complete access to his life and interactions with Freddy's family & friends, and it's an important part of the film that his family don't all come across as the open, liberal people you would hope or expect them to be. Much like the audience for this film, they are real, inquisitive people who often clumsily try to navigate their way through this experience by asking Freddy awkward questions. The film isn't trying to vilify them, but as a document that may be of help to viewers who may encounter such a scenario in the future, show what questions don't need to be asked. This is evident at a dinner populated by Freddy's mother's friends aimed at imparting wisdom of "motherhood" onto Freddy, when one woman has to ask "so are you going to be called Dad?", before the group starts to list heteronormative ideals of masculinity and conjure up images of Demis Roussos as something for Freddy to aspire to.

Although this story has plenty in common with any story of someone hoping to start a family and conceive (expensive trips to the doctors, the near misses, the pregnancy tests), it's crucial that the specific journey of Freddy as a transgender person is captured, something that a talented filmmaker like Jeanie Finlay understands could not accurately be told be a cisgender person. Luckily, Freddy is an articulate video diarist, recording late night thoughts and important steps in the journey, like when his prospective co-parent CJ who had been an important part of the early stages, has second thoughts about the arrangement for unclear reasons and walks away. It's here that Freddy's mother steps in to become a big part of the film, sharing her own stories of being a single parent, including the absolute killer line "I loved being pregnant. Everyone should experience it, especially men". She's also able to share photos and videos of Freddy's childhood, a potentially tricky resource for Finlay to mine, but treated respectfully and with Freddy's consent.

The film does a great job of documenting the unconscious bias Freddy faces at every step, something that won't survive Freddy's strong attitude, changing the M to a P on every page of the Maternity paperwork he is asked to fill out. This is done not as an act of defiance but in order to point out how unprepared the established systems are to deal with trans rights in something as basic as starting a family, a luxury cisgender people have no barriers in doing. One of the threads that runs through the film is Freddy's relationship with his own father, a figure absent from the film and notably from Freddy's everyday life. Their exchanges occur via polite but strongly worded emails, his voice only heard in the home video footage of Freddy as a child.

Seahorse is a thoughtful film that tells a deeply human story of one person wanting to bring more life and love into the world, and why them being trans should not prevent them the opportunity to do that. Culminating in a beautiful scene that is profoundly moving and joyful, Seahorse questions what it takes to be a parent and offers a tremendous amount of hope and optimism for the future.

Verdict
4/5

Thursday, 29 August 2019

CRITTERS ATTACK - FRIGHTFEST review

 
Children of the 1980's will be well versed in films with tiny monsters running around small town America. On the top end of the scale is Joe Dante's Gremlins, a Spielbergian family horror with cute, marketable furry monsters as well as the hideous ones; the bottom end of the scale occupied by Ghoulies, best remembered for its toilet dwelling monster on the VHS box art. Somewhere in the middle of that scale is the Critters franchise. Not a complete rip off of the spawn of Gizmo, but I think it's fair to say the Crites wouldn't exist without the appearance of Gremlins on the big screen in 1984.


The Critters films existed in a brief bubble between 1986 and 1992, in an era where practical puppetry ruled, just before they were summarily trampled by the CGI dinosaurs that were to come. Now, after a small screen revival at the start of 2019, the Crites are back in film form, with a (mostly) new cast of characters and some interesting developments in the Critters canon.

The film introduces us to Drea (Tashiana Washington), a young woman dreaming of attending Leroy College, the alma mater of her deceased mother, but can't seem to catch a break with the admissions board. Hoping to make herself known, she takes a job as babysitter to one of the professor's children. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, two mysterious objects have crash landed, one containing the Crites as we know them from previous films (and quickly making a meal out of a takeaway delivery boy), the other housing a new, mysterious white creature the Crites seem to be looking for.

There's so much to enjoy about this reboot of the franchise, 27 years after the last big screen instalment. Wisely, they've opted to avoid the introduction of CGI Critters, maintaining the practical puppets that resemble evil little hedgehogs. That may well have been a budgetary decision, but it's worked in the film's favour. Sure, there's times when in the cold light of day the lighting does the look of the puppets no favours at all, but when they're put into darkness (as the previous remote farmhouse, inner city block and, er, outer space settings did), the little beasties look much more menacing.

The filmmakers also know that a Critters film needs to deliver a healthy amount of fun, so the introduction of the (minor spoiler) white Critter Queen, later dubbed Bianca, lends a new element of bizarre world building. She's a character that clearly takes some inspiration from the introduction of the female Gremlin in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (bonus points if you know her name is Greta), standing apart from the almost identikit design of the other (male) puppets. Also, no spoilers for the plot of the film, but it helps that she's kinda badass.

Of course there are also humans in the film, lead by Tashiana Washington's Drea. As a young woman eager to fulfil her dreams whilst also caring for her younger brother Phillip (Jaeden Noel), her drunk uncle Sheriff Lewis (Stephen Jennings) and now professor's kids Trissy & Jake (Ava Preston & Jack Fulton), she's a likeable character that, crucially, you don't immediately want to see get eaten by the Critters.

35 years into the franchise and operating with a low budget, director Bobby Miller should be commended for offering the Critters series a new lease of life. Sure, it's corny, ridiculous and not the most original film you'll see this year, but for nostalgic fans of the original series, this more family friendly iteration is pitched about right, offering some characters you can root for, some you can't wait to see get eaten, and plenty of ridiculous Critter action.

Hey, I managed to get all the way through this review without mentioning the only piece of Critters trivia anyone knows, that Leonardo DiCaprio was in Critters 3! Except for now.

Damnit.

Verdict
3/5

Saturday, 17 August 2019

JT LEROY review

Now in cinemas and available to download, starring Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern and based on one of the greatest literary hoaxes of all time, Justin Kelly's film tells the true story of how two women came to embody the fictional street kid turned author, JT Leroy.



You may not be aware of the "hoax" in the early 2000s that shook the literary and celebrity world, but this film tells of how writer Laura Albert, writer and creator of fictional personalities that she would often use to confront her own issues, convinced her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to pose in photographs as JT Leroy, the credited author of Albert's latest book, Sarah. When Hollywood comes calling to adapt the book into a film and JT becomes an in demand presence at meetings, parties and the Cannes Film Festival, Knoop becomes a semi-reluctant avatar for JT until, with questions about her own identity coming forth and a growing rivalry with Albert over the ownership of JT, the entire scheme starts to unravel before them.

Quite fittingly this story has been told from two different angles before, first in Savannah Knoop's book Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy, then two rival documentaries - The Cult of JT Leroy and Author: The JT Leroy Story. The latter, directed by The Devil and Daniel Johnston filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, was one of my favourite films of the year it was released, although it was very clearly told from the point of view of Laura Albert. She is essentially the narrator of that film, asserting her ownership of the persona she created, and not always coming over well. This film takes inspiration from Knoop's memoir (the film was also co-written by Knoop with director Justin Kelly) and is very purposely told from the other point of view, from the person who became the physical manifestation of JT at the photo shoots and celebrity parties.

What is most striking about the film is how relevant its subject matter feels to today, even more so than the documentary which only came out a couple of years ago. Through Knoop's eyes this is a study of gender and sexuality that is years ahead of its early 2000s setting, but never feels like it is appropriating the current exploration of gender identity. Simply, the story of JT was the start of a sea change in how these concerns are explored. In the film we see Knoop, a short haired, sexually fluid young woman binding her breasts to look less feminine (or at least an atypical kind of feminine), adopting a male persona by donning baggy clothes, a long blonde wig & sunglasses and pitching her voice down a couple of octaves. Physically JT appears of ambiguous gender, something that increasingly confronts Knoop's own personal feelings as they consider sexual desire towards Diane Kruger's Eva. Is Eva attracted to Knoop's physical appearance in the form of a man, or is it the ambiguity that holds the attraction? Added to that is Albert's relationship with Eva, talking to her on the phone under the guise of JT. Collectively JT and Eva are in a relationship between two people that actually involves four people, one of whom is fictional.

A large part of the success of the film is the dream casting of Laura Dern as Albert and Kristen Stewart as Knoop. Not only are they great physical matches for their counterparts, they share fantastic on screen chemistry as the collective writer, body and conscience of JT Leroy. Stewart has consistently proven that she is one of the best young actresses working today, and the uncomfortable reservedness she has previously been criticised for works for the bewildering puzzle her character is pulled into. As Laura Albert, Dern is simply astonishing, capturing the nuances of Albert's mannerisms (very much on display in Author) down to a T. She is a larger than life character, desperate to achieve a higher level of respect and celebrity, and Dern captures that hunger well as Albert's jealousy allows the facade to slip as she slips from character to character. Although Albert's discomfort at losing part of JT to Knoop is well explored in this version of the story, what is less covered is her reasons for creating these multiple fictional personas, as told in Author. A victim of abuse who would call suicide hotlines pretending to be teenage runaways, she created a method of escape that she continued to use when working for phone sex chat lines and when crafting the persona of JT.

It is helpful to have some prior knowledge of the story in order to truly understand some of the eccentricities that seem outlandish. I would recommend seeing Author... if only to see that Dern's horrendous "British" accent as alter ego Speedy is actually pretty damn close to Albert's original, and also to understand the true identity of Diane Kruger's ambiguously European Asia Argento facsimile, Eva Avalon. I would assume the new character has been created to avoid any potential legal issues coming from Argento, but without that prior insight into Argento's personality there's something a bit lacking in Kruger's interpretation and relationships with both Albert and Knoop, leaving her character the least developed. Jim Sturgess also appears as Savannah's brother and Laura's husband Geoff, a wannabe successful musician pulled into this bizarre world of celebrity and given his own fictional counterpart in the form of Astor, member of Twist and Scream, the band "JT" writes the lyrics for, fronted by Albert's Speedy. Sturgess is perfectly fine in this supporting role, well aware that this is Dern's and Stewart's film.

If this film is your first exposure to the story of JT Leroy you may be forgiven for thinking some of the details may seem far too outlandish to be true, but in all honesty this is about as bizarre a feature film interpretation of the real story could be, and there's various books and documentaries to back up and expand on the story. Dean and Stewart deserve high praise for accurately embodying Albert and Knoop who are painted in the film as far more complex characters than JT ever was. As a real life account of gender identity and sexual fluidity JT Leroy is an important and timely film, the subject matter given no easy answers yet asking a lot of the right questions.

Verdict
4/5


(this review is an update of the original review, published after the premiere of the film as the closing night gala at this year's BFI FLARE Film Festival.)

Monday, 12 August 2019

KALEIDOSCOPE review

Available now on digital, this psychological mystery stars Toby Jones as Carl, a lonely former convict dealing with the aftermath of his first date with Abby (Sinead Matthews) when his estranged mother (Anne Reid) makes an unexpected appearance back into his life.

The film opens on a drab living room, Jones waking up on the sofa where he hears a bang at the door with no one there. Trying to recall what happened the night before he finds a broken chair at the bottom of the stairs and, more disturbingly, a dead woman in his bathroom. After setting up this scenario, the film then flashes back to Jones's Carl preparing for his date and talking to his kindly neighbour, borrowing a very loud shirt from her to make a lasting impression. Soon, Carl is back at his flat with his date, Abby, trying to not disturb the neighbours with the loud music she wants to play and not seeing the ulterior motive Abby may have as she rifles through his belongings when he's out of the room. To add to Carl's woes, his answering machine has a message from his mother (Anne Reid), who's in London the following day and wants to visit.

From this set up Kaleidoscope sets up a murder mystery that lives up to the film's tagline, "Murder is a matter of perspective". Has Carl murdered Abby? Why has his mother appeared now, and what has happened to them in the past to make him hate her so much? Carl's scattered memory and mis-memory of events is what drives this story, as he pictures confrontations with Abby and his mother that may or may not have ever happened, like Patrick Bateman and Norman Bates rolled into one with some added Memento thrown in too.

Directed by Rupert Jones (yes, Toby's brother), Kaleidoscope is a stylishly dreary looking film, the furniture in Carl's flat looking like it's been there for decades. There's some nice touches, like the mosaic tiles used in his kitchen, a whirling, eye shaped spiral staircase and a shot that the camera returns to a few times shows the vastness of the block of flats Carl lives in. This labyrinthian visual doesn't allow us to easily pick out where Carl is, and infers the many stories that might be happening is these blocks, the mania of the landscape mirrored in the shirt Jones decides to wear on his date.

The biggest gripe to have with Kaleidoscope is that the central mystery of the film is not as compelling as it is at times confusing. The shifting, rotating visual logic of a real kaleidoscope is not easily transposed onto this story, as Carl struggles to keep a grip on his reality, and the switching presence of Abby and his mother doesn't necessarily make narrative sense, but does make the film something of a head scratcher you won't be able to solve. It's quickly inferred that it was something between Carl and his mother that lead to his prison sentence, the film teasing possibilities that can be seen in the third act when his mother becomes his manipulator once more, shifting their dynamic against his will. Toby Jones is an actor who is always on top form, realising than his perennially put upon face works well in dark, twisted films like this and Berbarian Sound Studios, and as his mother Anne Reid revels in the darkness of her character.

Kaleidoscope is neither as bright, colourful or playful as the children's toy that shares its name, but it's still an intriguing watch with a fine central performance by Jones, even if the machinations around him do become slightly predictable.

Verdict
3/5

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

CHARLIE SAYS review

 American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol director Mary Harron's latest film follows the journey of Leslie Van Houten from disillusioned teenage runaway to key member of the Manson Family, depicting the infamous murders of July and August 1969 and her later incarceration.

When Quentin Tarantino's latest, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was first announced, the biggest outcry was that given the backdrop of the film was the Manson Family murders, the supposedly accidental poor timing of the release date (50 years to the day of the infamous murders) quickly saw a shift in date occur, but still within weeks of the anniversary. Well, also released almost 50 years to the date of the Manson Family murders is Mary Harron's Charlie Says, also depicting the aforementioned murders, but from the point of view of the murderers. To be fair to this film (and to Tarantino's), it has been 50 years so of course there is going to be an increased interest in the subject, and as we'll get to the murders here are treated with a modicum of respect.

Harron's film's focus is on one of the members of Manson's family, Leslie Van Houten, played here by Skins and Game of Thrones actress Hannah Murray. A disillusioned drifter who found her way onto Manson's ranch by hitching a ride with some of his family members, she is portrayed as an innocent in the world, finding guidance and a place to belong in Charlie's world. Murray, playing a character roughly ten years younger than her age, has an eternally youthful face, and with that a childlike innocence, rightly or wrongly, automatically aligns with her character. Murray is a good actress and is the backbone to this film, but her casting comes with the danger that the culpability of the real Leslie gets diminished to a degree. The women who followed Charles Manson have always been categorised as weak minded sociopaths, committing deadly crimes on his command, so there is a danger that a film about their lives would humanise them and detract from the murders they committed. What's admirable about Harron's film is that it tries to balance this by offering a new vantage point, focussing as much on their jail term after the murders as their time in the lead up to August 1969.

In these post murder scenes the film divides its focus between Murray's Leslie and teacher Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), assigned to provide college courses to the three women excluded from the general population and confined to the Special Security Unit of the prison. As an outsider looking in, Faith tries to understand why these women committed such horrific crimes, and why Manson is able to keep his grip on them even after all contact is broken, the women collectively shaving their heads after Manson "spoke" to them in their cells. It's a strange, not altogether fluid transition to have our audience focus shift from Leslie in the pre-murder scenes to Karlene in the post-murder scenes, but Wever is as solid a performer as always and delivers a tonic to the hippie madness of almost every other character. 

The focus of the film never shifts to Manson, keeping him pontificating to his followers and playing his guitar in his long desired wish to be a famous musician. The film explores this side of his persona through his association with The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson (an uncanny James Trevanna-Brown), a frequent visitor to Manson's ranch who negotiated the use of one of Manson's songs on a Beach Boys album. Manson is played quite convincingly by Matt Smith, the one time Dr Who and star of The Crown, still looking for that role that will provide his Hollywood breakthrough. Smith has always provided committed performances, and he's no different here. Although the film never puts him front and centre, Manson exists as a spectre, moving from cool hippie beatnik to a violent manipulator of women, talking of their "tiny female brains" and plotting his Helter Skelter race war. Smith is at times charming and terrifying, and provides the film with a truly loathsome Manson, which for all the interest in the members of his 'family' is the real draw for this film.

The Manson Family murders are, for want of a better word, legendary, and Harron's film walks a fine line between glamourising the murders and providing a thrilling, entertaining story. The Tate/LaBianca murders are shockingly realised, but via short sharp shocks of violence and shots of the aftermath that, barring one scene, avoid the graphic splatter of blood.

A curiously structured film that is worth seeing for its core performances, if Tarantino's film has you wanting to know more about the Manson Family murders and those involved in the dark side of a Hollywood legend, this film is a thoughtful, unsensational attempt to deliver that.

Verdict

3.5/5

Monday, 1 July 2019

SHE'S MISSING review

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



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

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

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

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

Verdict
2.5/5

Friday, 21 June 2019

SHEFFIELD DOC/FEST 2019 - DIEGO MARADONA review

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


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

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

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

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

Verdict
4/5

SHEFFIELD DOC/FEST 2019 - Part Two

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



Sunday, 16 June 2019

SHEFFIELD DOC/FEST 2019 - Part One


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, 27 May 2019

BENJAMIN review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict
4/5

Monday, 29 April 2019

PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict
3/5