Monday 29 April 2019


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.


Monday 15 April 2019


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.


Monday 8 April 2019


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.


Sunday 7 April 2019


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.


Thursday 4 April 2019


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.