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


Monday, 15 April 2019

THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT review

Starring Sam Elliott and his recently Oscar-nommed moustache, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot is out now on VOD with a DVD/Blu-ray release on 6th May.



Your enjoyment of The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot will very much depend on your expectations of it. If you are going into this expecting some sort of pulpy, Uwe Boll directed alternative history with zombies dressed in Nazi uniforms and secret space stations on the moon, you'll be sorely disappointed. However, if you have an open mind and are intrigued by the presence of Sam Elliott and Aidan Turner, or perhaps the names of indie veteran John Sayles & special effects legend Douglas Trumbull on the list of producers, then you may be pleasantly surprised by this low key but thought provoking gem. As plainly said by Elliott's Calvin mid way through the film, "it's nothing like the comic book you want it to be".

Starting in the late 1980s, Calvin Barr (Elliott) is a man haunted by his past actions during the Second World War. Carrying the burden of his secret with him for the last 45 years, he is struggling to reconcile his actions as a younger man, even if they were for the greater good. Flashing back to the 1940s, a confrontation is teased between a young Calvin (Turner) and an unknown figure surrounded by Gestapo officers. If you've got this far I'm sure you've read the title, so the reveal will come as little surprise to most. Back in the 80s, old Calvin tries to bond with his younger brother Ed (Larry Miller), before receiving a visit from a couple of government agents with another assassination job that only he can do. There's a killer in the Canadian Mountains that's carrying a disease that could feasibly wipe out all of humanity... The Bigfoot.

Okay, the first thing that needs addressing is the Bigfoot in the room. That title. Perhaps so many years of lacklustre, schlocky, straight to DVD crapfests have warped my mind into expecting nothing more than the bare minimum from a certain kind of title, but is it fair that this film may suffer as a result of low expectations? In terms of creating intrigue about a film, there's an argument that this has the greatest film title of all time (an argument put forward by Larry Miller in the extra features), and for sure this is a film that immediately becomes a talking point by subverting those expectations and delivering a genuinely interesting study of grief with a sweet romance as a backdrop. It's impossible to argue with the Ronseal nature of the title, which is (spoiler alert) an accurate description of what happens in the film, so perhaps it's best to sidestep the title and concentrate on the story.

The Man Who... tightrope walks a mixture of tones (Inglorious Basterds in the war scenes and The Notebook in the later scenes) before turning into a monster hunt with a dash of The Old Man and The Gun thrown in; but surprisingly it keeps its balance, never teetering over into campness nor soppy melodrama. Poldark's Aidan Turner is not an immediately obvious choice to play a younger Sam Elliott, but in their respective timelines they together inhabit the character of Calvin well, both before and after his time in the war. Turner gets to have an old fashioned romance with school teacher Maxine (Masters of Sex's Caitlin Fitzgerald), before heading off to war and coming back a changed man, and Elliott's iteration gets a renewed purpose in life care of the government that covered up the truth of his mission all those years ago.

There's no avoiding the fact that The Man Who....'s title is such a literal behemoth that it may overshadow what is at heart a rather lovely surprise of a film. The cast are all on top form and, in what could have easily been disposable genre fare, keep the drama grounded in reality, even when the story takes a turn for the fantastic. I'm sure the casting of Elliott and Turner will help this find an audience, but here's hoping this finds one appreciative of its eccentric charm, perhaps drawn in by the lunacy of that title but captivated by the subtlety of the performances.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot delivers on the promise of its name, but surprises by how deep and affecting a story it has at its heart. It may be an oddity, but it's an easy one to recommend.

Verdict
4/5



Monday, 8 April 2019

GIANT LITTLE ONES: BFI FLARE FILM FESTIVAL review

Following a late night sexual encounter with his best friend Ballas (Darren Mann), Franky (Josh Wiggins) gets ostracised by his high school swimming team, dumped by his girlfriend Cil (Hailey Kittle) and becomes the target of bullies. Hoping to handle the situation and rebuild his friendship with the resistant Ballas without the interference of others, he shuns the offer of guidance from his single mother (Maria Bello) and his homosexual father (Kyle Maclachlan) that he cut out of his life after their divorce.



Queer coming of age stories have become increasingly present on our cinema screens, with The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Love, Simon and Call Me By Your Name a few examples of films that managed to reach a wide audience. Giant Little Ones appears to tick many of the same boxes as Love, Simon - the all American male lead, complex parental relationship, the high school setting and the trauma of being outed against their will. What sets Giant Little Ones apart is a story that is more complex than it first seems, its main character's journey less predictable than it appears.

It's a beautiful looking modern suburbia, with complicated and disassembled family units occupying wide streets with bicycling kids and late night fireworks. To an outsider of that world it's both realistic and somewhat magical, the early scenes show an idyllic American teenage life before a loss of innocence changes everything. Giant Little Ones also convincingly encapsulates some aspects of the spectrum of high school sexuality and the grown-ups' struggle to keep up. There's a thrill to Cil's early encounters with Franky and her desire to lose her virginity to him in the right way (his offer of sneaking off to the park after dark is quickly dismissed), and some overreactions from the teachers who see the bullying of one of Franky's gay classmates and decide to segregate the locker room. In this world of sexual relationships and identity that is opening up to them, it's not easy to announce yourself in any way or stray from the pack.

Although this film is Franky's experience he isn't the most interesting character in his own story, he's just found himself in an extraordinary situation. That sounds like a slight against the film, but there's an array of interesting secondary characters (notably most of whom are female) that offer council to Franky whilst dealing with their own issues. Mouse (Niamh Wilson), a girl exploring her gender identity by stuffing her shorts with a mock penis is comfortable in exploring who she is and is seemingly judgement free from the majority of the school, apart from Franky pointing out that her substitute penis is almost comically large. Another stand out is Taylor Hickson's Natasha, the sister of Ballas and old friend of Franky's. A survivor of assault with a tendency to drink too much, she is treated by her parents and former friends as damaged, unable to rebuild her life and find her way back to normality. Both of these young women have stories as complex, if not more so, as Franky.

The biggest problem the film has is how Franky's relationship with Ballas, very much the core of the story in the early scenes, falls by the wayside for a large portion of the story. Obviously there is a chasm that has opened up between them and their conflict is addressed in a typically masculine display of violence in the film's most troubling scene, but the film sets up a unique dilemma between these best friends which could have been better explored. Apart from that there's a lot to like about the film, not least the performances by its young cast, lead by Hilary Swank lookalike Josh Wiggins.

Whilst not immune to skipping around the odd cliche, what is most admirable about Giant Little Ones is how it subverts the coming out story and brings in supporting characters (Franky's female friends, his parents, including a great turn by Kyle Maclachlan) to paint a much larger, complicated picture about teenage sexuality and fighting back against the norm.

Verdict
3.5/5

Sunday, 7 April 2019

JT LEROY: BFI FLARE FILM FESTIVAL review

The closing night film for this year's BFI Flare LGBTQ+ Film Festival, starring Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern and based on one of the great 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 it follows how writer Laura Albert, writer and creator of fictional personalities that she would often use to confront her own issues, convince her sister in law Savannah Knoop to pose in photographs as JT Leroy, the credited author of Albert's latest book. When Hollywood comes calling and JT becomes an in demand presence at meetings and parties, Knoop becomes a hesitant avatar for JT before eventually 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, who talks to people on the phone as JT and whose words became those of JT's. She is essentially the narrator of that film, asserting her ownership of the persona she created. This film, taking inspiration from Knoop's memoir 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 a long blonde wig and 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 her mannerisms 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 makes her slip 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. 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 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 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

Thursday, 4 April 2019

BEING FRANK: THE CHRIS SIEVEY STORY review

Based on the life of musician Chris Sievey and the comedy character he created that came to dominate his life, Being Frank is now in cinemas and on VOD.


If you grew up in the North of England in the 80's and 90's, you just knew who Frank Sidebottom was. I couldn't tell you when I first saw Frank on TV, so prolific were his appearances that it just felt like he's always been there. What I can tell you about is the time I unwittingly met Chris/Frank. Whilst doing temp runner work for local Manchester based TV station Channel M's breakfast show in the mid 00's, I was introduced to a man called Chris who had come into the studio to take part in a segment featuring a group of local school children. After shaking Chris's hand he disappeared behind a divider to get ready for the show, only to appear moments later on camera wearing the head of Frank Sidebottom. Scratch that, he WAS Frank Sidebottom. I had just met Frank Sidebottom. Reader, my jaw hit the floor. Frank may not have been a Hollywood celebrity, but for a young guy growing up in the North, Frank was a truly original icon. But what I knew absolutely nothing about was the man under the mask, Chris Sievey.

Sidebottom's visage of big eyes, pursed lips and side parted hair is certainly an indelible one, but most people will come to this with only the prior knowledge of Frank's previous big screen incarnation in the very, very loosely based version of him played by Michael Fassbender in Frank. In order to tell the real story of Frank and his creator, filmmaker Steve Sullivan took the soon to be relegated to the rubbish tip contents of a damp basement containing Sievey's archive of recordings, writings and papier mache creations, and with the full cooperation of his family set out to discover what made Sievey tick. Sievey, a struggling musician from Sale (just around the corner from Sidebottom's beloved Timperley) first taste of fame was as the frontman for the punk/new wave band The Freshies. Although popular in and around Manchester, they were never able to break through to mainstream success, despite their best efforts to appear on Top of the Pops with their biggest hit "I'm in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk", thwarted by an ill timed strike at the BBC. It was through this band that Sievey was able to express many avenues of creativity, foreseeing the importance of video by creating a multimedia experience for their fans via personalised VHS tapes with painstakingly crafted artwork done by Sievey. In fact, Frank started life on these videos as a super fan of the band whose bedroom was adorned with Freshies memorabilia, before becoming the focus of Sievey's creative endeavours and widespread popularity with his Oh Blimey Big Band, Fantastic Shed Show (featuring the classic TV segment, Bobbing for Betamax) and even playing Reading '92 on the same bill as Public Enemy and Nirvana.

What is apparent from watching Being Frank is that Sievey was something of an untapped creative genius, more than just a novelty act in a papier mache head who once introduced Bros in front of 55000 teenagers who booed him off the stage. He could be considered alongside unheralded artists such as Vivian Maier or an "outsider artist" like Daniel Johnston, and this film will go some way to establish what a creative genius he was, peppered with interviews from previous colleagues and friends like Mark Radcliffe, Jon Ronson and John Cooper Clarke, all completely in awe of Sievey's ability to surprise them with outlandish ideas. One such example is the truly innovative double sided record Sievey released that featured a single for The Freshies on one side and a computer programme lyric video on the other. You can only imagine what Sievey could have done with Frank in the modern YouTube era.

A fascinating creative mind he may be, but the film does not shy away from showing Sievey as a complex, often difficult person to be around. Starting from pushing his future wife into a canal on their first date to his teenage son having to carry his drunk father home from the pub,  he would shrug off bailiffs coming round to take the television away and consistently fail to provide his family with a stable income and eventually land in deep trouble with the taxman, in turn using his tax dilemma to create more content for Frank as he declared bankruptcy. There comes a moment in Sullivan's documentary where we see Frank's head removed to reveal the face of Sievey, nose pinched to create Frank's infamous nasal tone, dripping with sweat and exhausted from performing, and it's only here that we realise Sievey's face hasn't been seen on screen for at least half an hour. There is a pervasive, all conquering aspect to Sievey's performance as Frank that suddenly hits home how much his life became dominated by his comic creation prior to his death in 2010. At least this documentary is able to reveal some of the other work Sievey should be remembered for, and if super fans stick with the film until the very end of the credits they're invited to delve even further into Sievey's psyche.

Near the end of the film his brother recounts a story where Chris jumped into a skip to salvage some cardboard sheets and ponders what he used them for. Could it have been new costumes for his sidekick Little Frank or a prop for a comedy skit he'd just thought of? Well, therein lies the point of the film. Being Frank is an infectiously joyous dive into the creative world of one man who made things because he wanted to, championing those undiscovered artists who see the endless creative possibilities and inspiration that is all around us.

Verdict
5/5

Thursday, 28 March 2019

MINDING THE GAP review

Now in cinemas and on VOD, Bing Liu's Oscar nominated documentary follows the lives of three skateboarders in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois.



It's almost a cliche that when you see a group of skateboarders one of them will be holding a camera, but what are they going to do with all that footage? Sometimes it's turned into montages of slickly delivered moves or a compilation of epic fails that they can watch in their front room, but in the case of Bing Liu he's taken that footage then pivoted his camera towards his friends lives away from their boards, giving us one of the most moving studies of masculinity you'll see this year.

The film focuses on three main subjects - Keire, a young black man looking for a way to make his family proud; Zack, a dropout hoping to fulfil his duties as a father, and Bing, the director of this film dealing with his own family trauma. It's perhaps an obvious statement to make, but Minding the Gap isn't really about skateboarding. It's more about living up to familial and societal expectations, understanding how the sins of the father fall upon their children and breaking a cycle of abuse through the support and common (in this case tarmacced) ground we share with our friends.

Rockford, Illinois is shown to be a smorgasbord of skating arenas, where the youth are able to film themselves performing tricks and be largely ignored by the local police, just as long as they stay out of trouble. Zack, the charming and rebellious Bam Margera-alike leader of the group has his demons close to the surface, often revealed when his drinking gets the better of him. This is a film compiled of footage and events from close to a decade of filming, and particularly in the case of Zack, it pulls no punches in depicting him with deep, troubling flaws, whilst allowing him the opportunity to learn from his mistakes. Zack is arguably the initial focus of the film, but much like the younger generation of skaters featured in the film who begin to pity his lifestyle instead of revere his lack of responsibility, there comes a point where he doesn't seem like the fun guy to hang out with anymore.

It is Keire who has the truest emotional journey of the film. As the youngest member of a predominantly white group of friends, although it is never something they aim to do he is clearly made to be uncomfortable by some of their othering of black people. There is a scene filmed at a social gathering where his face cannot hide the discomfort he feels as someone tells a joke that includes the N word, something that is caught by Liu's camera but that the group of friends are oblivious too. Keire rides a board that states "this device cures heartache", although one recurring event in the film is how often he breaks his boards by accident, his serenity giving way to anger that his means of escape has gone. One scene flashes back to a much younger Keire taking revenge on a bully by attempting to break his board, but as a small child at the time he doesn't have the physical strength to do it or the emotional strength to walk away. As an adult he is now learning how to do that.

Although it's clear that Keire's relationship with his father was strained at best, he often returns to his father's words in order to make sense of his place in the world, told that "if you could choose again, choose to be black" because you consistently get to prove people wrong. Keire is a young man determined to make something of himself in a way that Zack hasn't had top contemplate. Although the film does focus on Zack and Keire with Bing using his own story to form bridges between them, there is the presence of Nina, the mother of Zack's child, that offers the film another viewpoint. She is largely the only female voice in the film, and can be seen to have the most solid growth into adulthood and a world of responsibilities.

The visual language of a "skateboarding film" is well established by now, but as well as the on-board tracking camera and over shoulder interviews there are a number of motifs the film keeps returning to. Rockford almost feels like a deserted town with no "adults", with static shots of solidly built family homes suggesting more happening on the inside. The subjects' parents are present, most notably Bing's heartbreaking interview with his mother, but at its core Minding the Gap is about a journey down a road with your friends by your side.

With his directorial debut Liu has earmarked himself as one to watch. As director, editor, cinematographer and subject, he tracks a number of issues that he and his friends have had to face, including some horrific instances of domestic abuse that has had a deep effect on all three men. All three may have used skateboarding as a way to escape their family homes, but by looking past race, class and wealth he finds the commonality between them.

Verdict
5/5

Saturday, 23 March 2019

SHARKWATER: EXTINCTION review

The follow up to his 2006 documentary Sharkwater, this sequel sees activist and director Rob Stewart dive further into the 80 million shark deaths per year that are unaccounted for.


The original 2006 documentary causes some waves (yes, a pun) on its release, forcing governments to react and leading to the banning of shark-finning in countries around the world. This next chapter starts with a horrific and heartbreaking reminder of the need for action, showing a shark get stripped of its fin for soup and then callously thrown back into the ocean to die. Here director Rob Stewart and his team hope to continue the momentum of their previous work and shed light on the often illegal practices that are putting the future of this species and ours into jeopardy.

It's a worrying statistic that we kill 150 million sharks a year, but scientists can only account for 70 million of those. So what is happening to the others, and why can't governments offer any explanation as to how this is happening in their waters? A small group of activists with relatively limited resources, it's impressive how close Stewart and his team are able to get to high ranking officials in the Costa Rican government, and the danger of meeting people afraid to say too much to them for fear of reprisal from local "businessmen".

The film tries to tackle the problem of a pending shark extinction from a number of angles, meeting tourism fisherman such as Mark 'The Shark' in Miami, who estimates that he personally has killed 50 thousand sharks, although others place the figure closer to 100 thousand. The team also witnesses a spoiled haul of 38 thousand fins in trash bags, seized before it could be illegal transported across the border. Rob and his team also investigate the loophole where, although 90 countries have banned the practice of shark-finning, they haven't banned the import of shark fins. This means fishing vessels just need to move their cargo to a shipping vessel before they arrive into port to get around the law, something his crew capture on film happening metres away from the dock. Another thread of the film is how consumers are being mislead about how widespread a problem the disappearance of these sharks is; proven when, after purchasing a number of products ranging from cat food to face cream at supermarkets and fast food restaurants, they get them tested in a lab for traces of shark DNA. The results are shocking and a worrying sign of how little we know about where the latest 'secret ingredients' come from.

It's hard to disagree with Rob Stewart's assessment that the only reason these destructive and aggressive methods of fishing are allowed is because the wider public don't know about them. The following could be considered a spoiler, but if you're coming to this film with any prior knowledge of the filmmaking team you will be aware that director and driving force behind the project Rob Stewart tragically passed away in a diving accident in early 2017 when filming a sequence for the documentary. The incident is tactfully handled (completed by his long time collaborators) in a way that doesn't overshadow Stewart's goal to raise awareness of the plight of these sharks, whilst also honouring the devotion he gave to his life's work and allowing his message to be heard.

An exquisitely shot film that captures the majesty of the sharks in their undisturbed surroundings, for all the frenetic, undercover photography of Rob and his team turning spies above sea level, the serenity and beauty of the footage shot underwater is undeniable. A powerful documentary that carries more meaning and emotional weight than Stewart could have aimed for, the message of Sharkwater: Extinction is clear. This isn't some practice limited to lawless men in foreign lands, this is something that is happening in people's own countries with the willing participation of your government. An often harrowing journey, the atrocity after atrocity against these sharks shown here asks the audience to step up and do something to stop it. This is activist cinema at its finest.

Verdict
5/5



Wednesday, 13 March 2019

CANNIBAL TERROR BLU-RAY review

The second of this week's new 88 Films cannibal related releases sees a married couple venture into cannibal country in search of their kidnapped daughter, Flaurence.

Perhaps best known as one of the original video nasties, it's worth pointing out that this film only really made its name onto the list by virtue of having the word 'cannibal' in its title. To be fair, it does also feature cannibals in the film (I'm looking at you, Cannibal Holocaust 2 AKA Green Inferno), but 'Terror' is a bit of a stretch. The film begins with what can only be described as jaunty calypso music, as two thieves masquerading as businessmen (Olivier Matzot & Antonio Mayans) and a buxom woman (Pamela Stanford) decide to kidnap the daughter of a local dignitary and hide her out in a safe house at the edge of a "jungle". When one of the thieves, Mario, decides to rape the wife of the homeowner, they are forced to flee into the neighbouring woodlands inhabited by a tribe of cannibals.

Right from the off this film just seems off. The dubbing of a film from its original language to English can be unavoidably distracting, by why oh why did they choose to dub the little girl's voice with clearly that of a grown woman? Particularly when, in a film that has long stretches with no dialogue, this little girl doesn't ever seem to stop talking whenever she's on screen. Maybe we should be applauding them for avoiding a lazy stereotype, but the casting of young, white Spanish men as the cannibal tribe was a bold choice, or perhaps (more than likely) a helpful budgetary workaround to rope in people who liked the sound of appearing in a movie without really knowing what they were letting themselves in for. Wearing elaborate face paint designs, they look less like your typical cannibal tribe and more like the front row of an Ultimate Warrior tribute wrestling match.

The entire concept is ill conceived, with a number of poorly delivered scenarios constituting what amounts for a plot. For some reason the filmmakers have decided that it would be a good idea to cross cut between a sex scene with no actual bearing to the plot with a vicious rape out in the woods, what dialogue there is is of the standard of "this is right on the edge of cannibal country. They'd love to put you in a soup", and although cannibals are a real phenomenon, this film seems to think they're just better organised zombies. There's debate over the actual amount of involvement from Jess Franco, prolific director and writer of White Cannibal Queen, Zombie Lake and countless other low budget exploitation films, but one would assume he jumped ship fairly early on as even by his standards, this is pretty low grade stuff.

Now, I'm not saying there isn't things to enjoy about this film. For a start, the re-using of actors in multiple roles has to be commended. For example, when one of the main characters gets eaten by the cannibals, the same actor appears 15 minutes later wearing a huge fake handlebar moustache, and in what is one of the bravest filmmaking choices I've ever seen, they re-use the same actor playing the cannibal chief as a different character IN THE SAME SCENE.

This may be an unforgivably dreadful piece of filmmaking, but I'd be lying if I didn't find elements of Cannibal Terror to enjoy out of sheer ridiculousness. If you're a fan of schlocky genre fare, I would imagine this would go down a treat with some friends and the ability to pause, rewind and re-enjoy.

Verdict
1/5

Special Features-
 -That's not the Amazon! - The strange store of the Eurocine cannibal film cycle.
 -Deleted scenes
 -Trailer

GREEN INFERNO BLU-RAY review

Released on the 88 Films label, this Italian production sees a group of westerners encounter more than they bargained for in the Amazon jungle, AKA The Green Inferno. The plot (what there is of it) consists of four travellers, searching for a missing professor in the Amazon jungle and interacting with the Imas tribe in order to earn their way back out again. In the jungle they capture monkeys using blowpipes, have a close call with a jaguar and are witness to some bizarre and potentially deadly customs, such as having their exposed genitals threatened by a poisonous snake. The message here is, if you go down to the Amazon jungle today, don't be surprised if you end up dead.

Release number 49 in 88 Films' long running series of vintage Italian shockers, this 1988 Antonio Climati film (variously known as Natura Contro/Against Nature, Green Inferno and in some places as Cannibal Holocaust 2) is a strange, often confusing journey through cultural stereotypes. Firstly, if you approach this film looking for something akin to Cannibal Holocaust, you'll be sorely disappointed by the lack of cannibals as the closest this film gets to flesh-eating is the tiny fish that tries to swim up a guide's rectum.

To wind it back a bit, the film starts with the pretty cool stealing of a sea-plane which is then driven down the highway to their take off destination, followed by the introduction of Jemma (May Deseligny) a journalist interviewing a man about shrunken heads but more concerned with the whereabouts of a missing professor who has entered the Amazon jungle never to be seen again. With her three co-conspirators, they follow his path into the jungle and into immediate danger. Perhaps the biggest problem this film faces is the inescapable feeling that the main characters (jock guy, jock guy number 2, nerd with glasses and woman) deserve anything that happens to them as frankly, they shouldn't be there in the first place.

Still, the location is wonderful, and there's a gonzo documentary approach to the early scenes catching shots of fresh water dolphins and tending to ill monkeys in a way to establish the exotic weirdness of their destination but also the beauty of this land, untouched by modern life until now. The main characters take part in the capture of tree-dwelling monkey using blow darts in a manner that is slightly unsetting. Whether it's the sight of drugged up monkeys or the capture of a jaguar in a pit, if you know anything about the lack of animal welfare in films of the late 1970s and 80s (most notoriously in this film's cinematic step-cousin Cannibal Holocaust) it's easy to be distracted by how real the danger to these animals appears to be. Along with that, the actors appear to be in some danger too, as they come perilously close to the jaguar as they attempt to drag it out of the pit.

Apart from sounding like a kick-ass name for a super hero, the Green Inferno is another name for the uncompromising Amazon Rainforest, shown to be the most deadly place imaginable, but then also a giant water park built for the pleasure of the white folk. A native girl is caught by the current and is at risk of drowning in the river? No worries, just get dragged behind the seaplane using your feet as makeshift skis to save the day. There's a strange mix of tone that is at once a deadly trip into the jungle using witch doctors to heal snake bites, but then laughing and joking around, not dissimilar to Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach.

It may be a greatest hits of jungle hysteria, but as long as you don't go into it expecting flesh-eating tribesmen and gory body mutilations, Green Inferno is a fun, bizarre and occasionally culturally problematic travelogue.

Verdict
3/5

Special Features-
 -Option to play the film in English or Italian (either way the dubbing doesn't line up)
 -Scenes from documentary 'Banned Alive'
 -Italian opening and closing credits
 -Trailer

Thursday, 28 February 2019

THE UNHOLY BLU-RAY review

Following a near death experience that he inexplicably survived, Father Michael (Ben Cross) is given his own parish, St Agnes. There, he meets Millie (Jill Carroll), a teenage runaway who has become involved with a local nightclub owner with links to the occult. As Father Michael tries to save Millie and determine if the demonic goings-on are a hoax, he is forced to question the strength of his beliefs.

One of a number of religious films released in the years after The Exorcist, The Unholy takes the familiar idea of a priest trying to save a young woman but sets itself apart from the opening scene, which sees Father Dennis, the former priest for St Agnes, praying at the alter as a red-headed temptress in very see-through clothing approaches him for the last kiss he will ever have. With its garish lighting and liberal use of wind machines its like a more biblical version of Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart music video, but also with more boobs.

It turns out that when he died, Father Dennis was also trying to save Millie from her association with Luke (William Russ), the owner of a local club called The Threshold that performs on stage ritual sacrifices of debatable authenticity. Luke, a weird Billy Idol-esque bad boy with a strong 'N'awlins' drawl denies having any real association with the occult and also wants to save Millie. Is Luke really who he seems or is it possible she's leading both of them on?

It's inevitable that any horror with a heavily religious theme is going to be compared to The Exorcist, but to give it its dues, The Unholy does its best to offer something different than a simple clone of that film. At times it lacks the subtlety or restraint of The Exorcist, and that had a teenage girl masturbating with a crucifix. This is more in B-movie territory, the kind of schlocky nonsense that in the early 90s you'd find in the VHS collection of your mate's older brother, with corpses bursting into flames and voluminous bloody vomit splashing down at the foot of the alter. Nice.

It also relies more on some gloopy creature effects, that work to a varying degree in the context of the story. Some of the scenes of demonic possession are exemplified by billowing curtains and torn up pieces of paper flying around, but by and large this is a well shot film with a nice visual style. Hal Holbrook, Ned Beatty and Trevor Howard pop up in small roles, but the film belongs to Ben Cross who really sinks his teeth into the role of Father Michael, giving an admirably weighty performance that keeps the film from slipping into farce. With shades of Suspiria and The Wicker Man, The Unholy is an enjoyably pulpy take on the religious horror movie.

Verdict
3/5

Special Features-
- Audio commentary from director Camilo Vila
- Isolated score and interview with composer Roger Bellon
- Audio interview with production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca
- 'Sins of the Father' with Ben Cross
- 'Prayer Offerings' with production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca
- 'Demons in the Flesh', the monsters of The Unholy
- Original ending with optional commentary from producer Mathew Haydon
- Theatrical trailer
- TV and radio spots
- Storyboard and stills gallery