Saturday 31 August 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday 29 August 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Saturday 17 August 2019

JT LEROY review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday 12 August 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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