Thursday, 19 November 2020

DAWN OF THE DEAD - LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY review

Ten years after the release of George A. Romero's seminal zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, he decided to cement his reputation as the king of the zombie genre with Dawn of the Dead. Building on the racial and social allegories of the first film, Dawn added rampant consumerism to the mix, setting itself largely in the confines of a deserted shopping mall with an unconventional family unit of survivors who take on the undead as well as a violent biker gang.

For many horror fans, Dawn is the true gem in Romero's zombie filmography, expanding the universe and lore of the genre massively after the more subtle aspects of his black and white original. Here, the gore, the effects and the violence is ramped up hugely, in no small part thanks to the efforts of Romero's fellow Pittsburghian, special make-up effects legend Tom Savini (also on board as a stunt man, plus one of the lead biker invaders). Sure, the zombies all have a strange grey complexion that's unique to this film and the blood is an almost eye-scorching red giving the film a colour palette like no other, but the sheer ingenuity and complete disregard for health and safety employed in the zombie kills is the stuff of legend.  Take for example, Savini blowing the head off a zombie mannequin with a shotgun to get the explosive desired effect, all plain to see here (depending on what version of the film you watch).

I could bang on about how great and truly essential a film Dawn of the Dead is for any lover of horror, but to be honest, if you've gone looking for a review of this boxset, chances are you've already seen the film countless times and just want to see if it's worth upgrading from whatever version you have and investing in this new edition. Well, to cut a long story short, yes it is. It really is, and here's why.

The boxset, available in blu-ray and 4K UHD formats, houses 4 blu-rays and 3 audio discs and is packed full of things to sink your teeth into. There's three different cuts of the film (the theatrical cut, the Cannes cut and executive producer Dario Argento's slightly different European cut), the soundtrack by Goblin and two additional music discs, and a 160 page hardback book and a novelisation too, collecting various essays about the film. For me though, the meatiest morsel of the collection is disc 4, with a ton of NEW special features and films that cover the making of the film from all angles. You want a new hour long documentary that speaks to the actors (more accurately, Pittsburgh students and friends of Tom Savini) from most of the memorable zombie kills, plus another short documentary where Savini tells us how he did the effects behind those kills? You got it. Also included on this disc is Roy Frumkes' beloved Document of the Dead film, now with an extended cut that adds half an hour of content.

UK fans of this film have long been forced to traverse the minefield of importing foreign boxsets and owning a multi-region player, and that was just for DVDs (Anchor Bay put out a superb boxset over a decade ago, but this improves upon even that). Now on blu-ray and 4K UHD, with love, care and attention to detail, Second Sight have compiled what is undoubtedly the definitive compendium of Dawn of the Dead, all inside what must be one of the greatest looking boxset of all time with the original artwork put to great use. This is a collection that will inspire serious shelf envy.

At a time when the world seems a bit apocalyptic-esque and life in lockdown isn't too dissimilar to what this film's main characters are going through, let's either take comfort that we don't quite have it as bad as these guys do and/or sit and take notes in case survival skills become necessary. Enough to set the pulse racing of any true Romero fan, for a film that's recently passed its 40th anniversary, Dawn of the Dead has never looked as good as this.

Available to buy now from all good retailers, but buying directly from Second Sight will bag you some additional art cards.

Verdict

5/5


Special Features

- Zombies and Bikers - new documentary packed with interviews with the undead cast

- Memories of Monroeville - a fun tour of the Monroeville Mall how it is today

- Raising the Dead - The production logistics

- The FX of Dawn with Tom Savini

- Dummies! Dummies! - A New interview with the eye-patch wearing scientist on TV.

- The Lost Romero Dawn Interview - a newly discovered archive interview

- Super 8 Mall Footage - Behind the scenes footage by documentarian Ralph Langer

- Document of the Dead - Roy Frumkes' classic making of documentary, with optional extended cut

- The Dead Will Walk - Romero profile from 2004

- Trailers, TV & Radio Spots

- Commentaries on all versions of the film

Friday, 23 October 2020

HERSELF - London Film Festival 2020

Co-written by and starring Clare Dunne, Herself tells the story of Sandra, a mother trying to rebuild a life for herself and her children after escaping an abusive relationship. Stuck on a waiting list for housing and living in an airport hotel, she decides to take charge of the situation and build a house herself.

Set around Dublin, Sandra has to juggle part-time jobs whilst also caring for and raising her two young daughters, sharing custody with the man who subjected her to horrific physical violence and emotional manipulation. Tired of living in the temporary accommodation at the airport that won't allow her to walk through the main entrance with the other guests, Sandra finds a solution in low cost housing by building a new home in the back garden of Peggy (Harriet Walter), a woman she cleans for who was close friends with her mother. Finding help from local builder Aido (Conleth Hill) and a small army of volunteers, Sandra spends her weekends secretly constructing her new home away from the gaze of her domineering ex, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), and the housing authorities.

Starting off with a horrifically tense scene of domestic abuse (that only comes to an end when her eldest child runs for help, triggered by a secret codeword her mother has been forced to equip her with), what's most surprising about the journey Herself takes you on is how uplifting it becomes. Thankfully, this isn't a domestic abuse drama that lingers on physical violence, and although there's moments of gaslighting and coercive behaviour peppered throughout the film, for the most part Herself is about Sandra's journey to assert herself to those around her and slowly create a world that is safe for her and her daughters. In the lead role of Sandra, Clare Dunne might not be a name you will be instantly familiar with, but she's undoubtedly a star on the rise, having co-written the film with Malcolm Campbell and given herself a chance to show her acting range. In what's a nuanced, believable portrayal of a woman at her wits end dealing with bureaucracy of housing associations and the judgemental glares of other parents at the school gates, it's of no surprise to learn that Dunn has a stage background, including working with co-star Harriet Walter and director Phyllida Lloyd on the Donmar Warehouse's all female Shakespeare Trilogy. The supporting cast are all solid, including the two decent child performances of Sandra's daughters but the film completely belongs to Clare Dunne, who's in almost every frame and is completely magnetic on screen.

Far from a gritty, Nil by Mouth-style kitchen sink drama or misery memoir, Herself is not a film that lays it on too thick, opting for subtle beats in Dunn's behaviour to show her frustration at the system that seems keen to blame her for the situation she's in, not her husband. It also has something to say about the ridiculous logic of government welfare schemes when, in what seems to be a perfectly smart bit of reasoning that of course gains little traction, Sandra points out to the authorities that rather than spend 33,000 a year on housing her and her children, for 35,000 they could build low-cost housing for her that she could then pay rent back on. The film doesn't often go down the I, Daniel Blake route, but when it does, it makes compelling arguments for the need for changes to this system.

There's a certain amount of wish fulfilment as friends and well wishers step in to help Sandra achieve her dream, but it's hard to be too cynical about a film that embraces its sentimental edges, and the sense of community spirit it has is infectious. Herself may have a shadow of darkness to it, but at its core is a pleasing, well delivered family drama, with a stand-out performance from Clare Dunn.

Verdict

3.5/5

Thursday, 22 October 2020

BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS - London Film Festival 2020

As the doors open for the last time at Nevada's 'Roaring 20's Cocktail Lounge', the regulars gather to reminisce about their favourite memories of the place, hoping to make a few more before the day is out. Among them is Michael, bringing with him celebratory doughnuts and determined to be the first one in and last one out to show his allegiance, even starting his day with a shave in their public restroom as if it's his own home. Alongside a host of friends cultivated atop a barstool, they plan to celebrate, commiserate and shoot the shit until last orders is called.


Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a hang out movie of the highest order, as if Richard Linklater and Charles Bukowski went for a drink together in a dive bar and their collective creative mojo conjured a film into existence, filled with booze addled romanticists spouting words of wisdom and lushes bemoaning the lives they've deprived themselves of in favour of staring at the bottom of a glass. '20's', as it's known to its patrons, is not a place of particular renown or infamy, but to these people it's important, and not just as the place where they can drink away their problems, when really, they should either be at work or at home with their families.

At times an unashamedly rose-tinted ode to the old-fashioned watering hole, this film isn't afraid to also show that the euphoria of that first, second or third drink quickly fades, and delivers some home truths about how wrong they might all be by spending their lives there. Michael, who prides himself in "not becoming an alcoholic until after I became a failure", rejects his Aussie neighbour at the bar's drunken proclamation that "this is home and you're my family", cutting him off and setting him straight. It might feel that way at the time, but that is not the real truth.

For all intents and purposes this presents itself as a genuine 'barfly on the wall' documentary, capturing the real lives and cross-talking interactions of these people in the space of a day. However... like many a tall tale told at a bar, that's not the whole truth of the matter. Despite first appearances, there's an element of structured reality at play here, with many of the "regulars" actually comprised of local actors, poets and performers, brought together to create something that blurs many a line, and not just due to the effects of alcohol. That's not to say that there's a Barney Gumble or Cheers' Norm here, as although you could politely describe a number of them as 'characters', they're never caricatures. It's not often that the boundaries of documentary appear stretched, with the possible exception of bartender's son, Tra, who drifts in and out of the story with his friends, hanging out in the alley outside the bar, seemingly with an ulterior motive that adds the closest we get to a traditional narrative structure when the camera switches to follow his antics.

It's cleverly constructed by brothers Bill and Turner Ross, who direct and handle the cameras themselves, floating around to get close to the often inconsequential conversations held around the bar, catching some snippets and missing others and using the mirror behind the bar to catch the smiles and hangdog expressions of the listeners. The camera crew is never acknowledged by the clientele (there are no interviews or even glances towards the lens), so the brief reflection of a camera lens in the mirror is the only time the ethereal presence of the camera crew is broken. As to what extent this is a depiction of reality, or a possible reality, is up to you to decide. What narrative there is never encroaches on the enjoyment of eavesdropping on these incredibly diverse, interesting people, and I found there to be enough truth in their words to make Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets an occasionally sad, but equally raucous and highly entertaining documentary, right up til closing time. And if if it does ruffle some feathers by defying the conventional boundaries of its genre? Well, I say cheers to that.

Verdict
4/5

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

NEW ORDER/NUEVO ORDEN - London Film Festival 2020

On the day of Marian's high society wedding, local dignitaries and politicians arrive at her parents house for the ceremony, despite the civil unrest and rioting that is happening on the neighbouring streets. Further complicating things, the registrar is running late and an ex-employee, Rolando, has arrived pleading with the family for money to fund the urgent surgery his wife needs. As Marian tries to get some cash together to help him, the violence in the streets threatens to penetrate the comfortable surroundings the assembled guests are in.

New Order begins with a brief montage... a threat of what's to come... showing violence, degradation, and the sight of a naked, blood soaked Marian (Naian Gonzalez Nervind) for us to interpret as we please. It then takes us back to the morning of Marian's wedding, where wealthy, important people arrive for her wedding at the grand, high walled house of her parents, each offering a financial gift to start off married life comfortably. So far, so Parasite. What follows flips the entire structure and driving narrative of the film on its head, instead demanding its audience take part in a disturbing, hard to stomach depiction of a world on fire, figuratively and literally.

Without wanting to spoil how much a rug pull the film employs at its halfway point, I'll just say that the scenes that take place in the ten minutes after the inciting incident are some of the most violent and graphic I've seen committed to film, and even after the pace of the film and the action slows down, New Order gleefully shocks you with more disgusting acts of violence. The social and political commentary subtext is clear, and the punishments delivered will be all too familiar to some regions of the world, and all too close to becoming a reality to others. However, I find that the filmmakers have taken a misstep along the way, as although I cannot fault the performances of the core cast, nor the impact it has had, New Order is a film I find difficult to recommend.

The world we live in is increasingly on a knife edge, and although I am sure that the aim of director Michel Franco is to show that we live in a fragile society, and all people are fallible and capable of the worst things imaginable when pushed, he needed to take a stronger standpoint against the fascists to offer any sort of entertainment value, instead offering no discernible delineation between privilege, greed, and full-on nazism. This is extreme cinema that wants you to question what form of dehumanising violence is more stomach churning than the other, asking you to account for your own complicity when you change the channel if footage of war torn countries appears on the nightly news.

A powerful, troubling indictment of society's worst impulses it may be, but the despicable lack of regard for human life means New Order will stay with you like a stain on your memory. An incredibly difficult watch that you won't want to repeat again.

Verdict

2/5

Saturday, 17 October 2020

ROSE: A LOVE STORY - London Film Festival 2020

Living a secluded life out in the woods with his wife Rose (Sophie Rundle), the isolated world Sam (writer Matt Stokoe) has created is put into jeopardy when his delivery of fuel fails to arrive on schedule. Forced to head into town to confront the people who've taken his money and not supplied the goods, the stability of their lives is tested and the reason for their seclusion may be revealed. Sam is prepared to protect Rose at all costs, but is he protecting her from the outside world, or is it the opposite?

A low budget British indie with no notable stars, I went into Rose: A Love Story pretty cold, knowing only that there was some festival buzz around it, and it's turned out to be one of my favourites of this year's LFF. A curious mix of survival horror and sweet romance, it's a film that keeps its mysteries close to its chest, laying down plenty of intriguing ideas, visual clues (leeches in masonry jars) and genre motifs in its first half, before the introduction of a new character upends Sam and Rose's world and we start to see the harsh reality behind their choice to shut themselves off from everyone else.

The opening scenes, where Sam goes to confront the young man who's stolen from him, ratchet up the tension that's already at a respectable height after the dark woodlands setting has been established. Dangerously low on fuel to power their generator, Rose, working away on her typewriter, is plunged into a darkness that she seems welcome in, her adverse reaction to the sight of a small cut already showing us signs that she's no normal shut-in. When Sam returns to their home in the woods he's clearly scared of what he might be facing, but with a lockable safe room within their house, he has planned for all eventualities to make sure Rose is protected. Well, almost all. The second half of the film switches the set-up drastically, as the quiet, unsteady balance of their marital bliss is upset by the arrival of Olive Grey's Amber, caught in one of Sam's rabbit traps and in urgent need of medical attention. Reluctantly allowed into the home by Sam, he must weigh up if helping Amber is worth the risk to Rose's safety.

Rose: A Love Story succeeds in establishing the convincing coupling of Sam and Rose, in no small part due to the natural chemistry between Stokoe and Rundle that comes from their real life relationship. Both on board as producers and with a script by Stokoe, this is clearly a passion project of theirs, brought to life brilliantly by first time feature director Jennifer Sheridan. Having mostly worked in short films and TV as an editor, director and writer, this is an impressively assured debut by Sheridan, presenting an ominous mood that suggests the horror genre may be something she should explore again in the future. Likewise Stokoe, who's crafted a gruff, brooding calling card for himself as a writer and actor that will certainly serve him well.

Making the most of of its remote, snowy surroundings (the snow apparently not by choice, but just the result of unexpected weather at the time of shooting), Rose: A Love Story taps into a feeling of isolation and fear of the outside world that feels all too relevant right now. And although the restricted focus of the film might leave some hoping for a grander finale than it's able to offer, there's plenty of simple, effective scares to enjoy in the preceding 90 minutes to make this a stand out offering for recent British horror filmmaking.

Verdict

4/5

Thursday, 15 October 2020

DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA - London Film Festival 2020

Performed at Broadway's Hudson Theatre and based on his most recent studio album (with the inclusion of many of his classic hits), David Byrne's American Utopia sees him team up with director Spike Lee to capture the performance art aspect of the live show on film.

It's impossible to begin any discussion of concert films without including 1984's Jonathan Demme directed Stop Making Sense, the film that caught Talking Heads, arguably in their prime, and introduced the world to David Byrne's infamous large suit. That film opened on David Byrne alone on stage, gradually bringing out the rest of his bandmates to create an orchestra of sound and vision, and he repeats the trick here to great effect. Seated, barefoot, wearing an grey suit so unremarkable it must be remarked upon, and holding a prop brain, he delivers an elegy that will run throughout the show, before he's joined onstage by back-up vocalists Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba. They dance, sing and emote their way through the rest of the show, as do the other vocalists and musicians, all carrying their instruments to allow free movement on the stage. Actually, unlike the freewheeling performance of Stop Making Sense, the term "free movement" is a misnomer here, as there isn't a single moment in American Utopia that doesn't seem like a perfectly choreographed piece of visual artistry, blend together dance and music. There's not a single (bare) footstep out of place.

This is a show that requires its musicians to play an active part in the visual tapestry of the performances, moving them around the limited space the square stage affords them, with the modern lighting techniques bouncing bright white lights off their grey suits to illuminate them or change the shape of the performance area as it wishes. The choreography looks like it would challenge the most seasoned of dancers, but the band look like their having a great time throughout, with Byrne eager to show the respect he has for them in a roll call that gives each a moment to show their musical skills. Cliched, perhaps, but there's a party atmosphere that regularly has the audience up and dancing.

The widest appeal of this will of course be to existing David Byrne and Talking Heads fans, although it's a show that will surely win over many more to the fold. Byrne punctuates the musical performances with a regular address to the audience, and it's here where the show takes on a most surprising tilt, as Byrne gets political to talk to his assembled fans (and clearly, us) about the importance of voter registration and turn-out, using the in-theatre lighting to illustrate his points. The live show originally ran up until February 2020, and was set to return before Covid-19 shut down Broadway, but it's remarkably topical in a way Byrne and director could not have foreseen, with one of the highlights of the show arriving in the band's performance of Janelle Monae's protest song, Hell You Talmbout. Here, for the first time, the linear reality of the show is broken to include photos of the men and women named in the song who have died because of police brutality, with newly added tributes to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor giving the song's performance a unique timeliness, and the perfect meeting of David Byrne and Spike Lee's principles. There's not much opportunity for Lee to add his directorial flair, with him and his cinematographer and regular collaborator Ellen Kuras confined by the physical boundaries that come with the recording a concert - but here it's unmistakably the work of Spike Lee.

American Utopia is a wonder to watch, cinematic by virtue of being utterly impossible to take your eyes off, and featuring plenty of David Byrne's past hits that will have you as engrossed as the live audience clearly were. Byrne's vocals and wealth of visual creativity show he's still a force to be reckoned with, and with the added relevance to the times we're living in, this beautiful, vibrant companion to Stop Making Sense is unexpectedly vital viewing.

Verdict

5/5

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

ONE MAN AND HIS SHOES - London Film Festival 2020

Directed by Yemi Bamiro, One Man and His Shoes charts the rise of the Nike Air Jordan brand and the impact it has had on culture, leading to a demand that is so high, some people are willing to kill to get their hands on a pair.

Starting all the way back in the mid 1980s, when Michael Jordan was a fresh faced 6'6 college basketball player, Bamiro's documentary goes over some ground already covered in the Jordan sanctioned Netflix documentary series, The Last Dance, but after throwing its net wide to discuss the plight of a black community ravaged by crack cocaine and mandatory minimum sentences, One Man and His Shoes zeroes in on Jordan as an up-and-coming player chosen as the face of a new kind of sports shoe. Rather than being a standard sneaker that might be worn by other basketball stars (as was the case with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson), this would be a shoe bearing the name Jordan, designed for him and the legions of basketball fans who wanted to emulate his sporting prowess and own this coolest of status symbols.

In the first half of the film there's a great deal of effort put into explaining the perfect storm that lead to Jordan being picked as the player to wear the controversial first run of Air Jordans (they were banned by the NBA, not because they gave MJ an edge but because they weren't the regulation white colour, but that didn't stop fans from believing the former), and a ton of talking heads from sports writers, sneaker writers and marketing lecturers offer their take on why it was such a runaway success story, with sales expectations of $3 million after 3 years soon eclipsed when they made $126 million in their first year.

Much like the rise of Michael Jordan himself, it's a wild story that is easy to get swept up in, although the filmmakers know that a desire to dig into the varying designs and appeal of each model of Air Jordans is limited, but not completely absent, paying a visit to one collector who has 1175 pairs of shoes and other Jordan memorabilia worth over a million dollars in his house. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't share too much about where he lives. Instead this film shifts focus onto the darker side of the fervent fandom that goes with the launch of a new design, as huge queues wrap around department stores and purchase limits are put in place that mean not everyone who wants to buy a pair of new Jordans (and who can afford the hefty price tag) gets them, and so a resale market has emerged that sees the shoes go for thousands of dollars online, and worse, people assaulted and killed for their shoes.

It's of no surprise given the dark turn this film takes that there's no involvement from Michael Jordan, Nike, or key figures like Spike Lee - who hot off breaking out with his debut She's Gotta Have It, directed and co-starred in a series of commercials with Jordan that helped shape the brand's public image - instead putting grieving families as the focus of the final section of the film as shocking stories and footage of beatings and murders takes the place of on-court triumphs and the history of basketball endorsement deals. It's a bold swing that might shock audiences looking for a light-hearted documentary about sports shoes, but this film is more concerned with looking at the lasting effect this cultural behemoth has had on society, asking big questions about how much a billion dollar brand like Air Jordan and Nike should be held accountable for the criminal actions of consumers.

Like any great sports movie, One Man and His Shoes is not about sports, but it's unexpected how little it is about shoes too. Audiences expecting something light on its toes may be taken aback by the heavy pivot it takes, but it's a better film for facing up to the dark side of fandom.

Verdict

4/5

One Man and His Shoes is available now on the BFI Player


Thursday, 8 October 2020

STRAY - London Film Festival 2020

Switching gears to be a virtual festival, with screenings taking place at home on the BFI Player and some select films also receiving screenings at venues up and down the country, the BFI London Film Festival 2020 is now underway. One of the first films I was able to catch at the festival was Elizabeth Lo's documentary Stray, following the life of Zeytin, a stray dog living on the streets of Istanbul. With a camera always close by, Zeytin shows us a typical day in her life, weaving in between traffic on busy roads, drinking from fountains and crossing paths with other dog friends and adversaries along the way. Her closest allies are a group of teenage Syrian refugees who live on the streets and in derelict buildings, sharing a lot of similar problems and treated the same way by the authorities. The film doesn't present this as a heavy handed allegory, but the subtext is plain to see. When the stray dog population grew out of hand, the Turkish government enacted a controversial plan to cull most of the dogs, leading to protests that saw them change the country's law, making it illegal to "euthanise or hold captive any stray dog". This has lead to an uneasy truce that sees the dogs roam the streets as they please, almost as if it is their city and they are the ones allowing the human population to be there.

The concept of Stray is a simple but powerful one, telling a larger story via Zeytin's life. This could have quite easily been a documentary charting the refugee crisis and focussing on the homeless children that occupy the streets, but the choice to home in on a stray dog, and Zeytin in particular, has provided a richer world to explore and capture on film. There are other dogs in the story, namely her best friend Nazar and a Kartal, a puppy who has caught the eye of the teenagers; but for the most part the camera is never more than a few feet away from Zeytin, often racing to keep up with her lawless antics. The closest thing I can compare it too is Larry Clark's Kids meets that episode of The Simpsons where Santa's Little Helper runs away, although rather than fighting bears or saving babies from burning buildings, these dogs show off their freedom by digging through trash for food and humping in the middle of a women's rights march. A documentary with a clear message behind it, using Diogenes quotes to equate the respect that is shown to the dogs in contrast to the treatment of the refugees sleeping on the streets, it has to be said that if the message somehow falls flat, Stray also works as a hang-out movie, so engrossing it is to watch the different behaviours of the dogs and how they interact with one another. Even if you're not a dog person, you'll soon be completely enthralled by Zeytin's journey.

The camera is positioned no higher than dog head height at all times, giving a unique perspective on the world and a true sense of what it must be like to feel like to be ignored by society. The people around them are literally higher-uppers. We hear the sounds of the streets and eavesdrop on the conversations of passers-by and people the dogs choose to sit down next to, their words carrying like an echo, and for the dogs just another source of noise in their city. What's surprising is that even though the camera stays about 3 feet off the ground and shows the dogs facing a forest of human legs before them, what we do see of the city paints it as a vibrant, bustling place to be, full of visitors, workers, traffic and nightlife. It's unlikely to be used by the Turkish tourism industry, but this film captures the beauty of the area, as well as the uglier side in the treatment of the young boys sleeping rough on the streets.

Showing a daily routine like no other, Stray is an impactful, moving documentary that is expertly captured by debut feature director (also producer, cinematographer and editor), Elizabeth Lo. Tinged with a sense of sadness but also playfulness, it's hard not to be moved by the whole experience.

Verdict

4/5

Sunday, 20 September 2020

BILL AND TED FACE THE MUSIC review

In the works for the best part of two decades, Bill and Ted Face The Music sees Keanu Reeves's and Alex Winter's alter egos return to the big screen 29 years after their last big screen outing. Downtrodden by life and still trying to write prophesied song that will unite the world, the Wyld Stallyns bandmates are thrown back into a time travelling adventure in order to save their marriages to the princesses and prevent the collapse of space and time as we know it.

It's been a long time since Bill and Ted last graced our screens, and despite the idea of this mooted sequel occasionally lighting up social media whenever it was talked about by Reeves or Winter, 29 years is a long time to wait for a sequel to a pair of films that, although much beloved by their original audience, don't carry the same cultural cache as other legacy sequels that have arrived in the last few years, like 2018's Halloween, Blade Runner 2049 or the currently delayed Ghostbusters: Afterlife. But that's not to say that audiences won't be keen on lapping up a bit of late 80s, early 90s nostalgia particularly with Keanu Reeves experiencing a huge surge of interest in his output, post-John Wick success.

Face The Music dips back into ideas from the first two films, sending the pair of lovable slacker types on a journey through time in order to steal the song they're destined to write from their future selves who've already written it, with the added pressure that life as we know it will come to an end if they don't perform the song by 7:17pm that evening. Hopping back into the time travelling phone box that helped them navigate history the first time around, they meet the future Bill and Ted at various time points, only to find that the years haven't been kind to them. At the same time this is happening, their daughters Bille and Thea decide to help out their dads by also travelling through time to put together the greatest band in all of history, tracking down Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong and, in what is one of the best pieces of casting for the film, Kid Cudi as himself who's also an expert on the space/time continuum. Oh, and there's also a killer robot sent from the future trying to wipe them out.

Of course, the main draw of the film is the re-uniting of Keanu Reeves with his long time friend, Alex Winter. The film couldn't be made without either of them present, but I'm sure Winter, who has spent most of the last 20 years behind the camera, will acknowledge that it's Reeves star power that has allowed this film to be made at all. Whilst Bill and Ted have retained most of the joie de vivre they previously had, the idea of losing their wives sees them in introspective mode, particularly Reeves's Ted. Frustrated that they haven't fulfilled their destiny, they are on the verge of giving up before Kristen Schaal's Kelly arrives with a stark message from the future.

Approached with some trepidation after the first trailer was a bit limp, I was still cautiously optimistic about the return of Bill and Ted, hoping that at the very least the film could offer a few laughs to raise a nostalgic smile. Thankfully it achieves that, despite the occasional stumble along the way. The time travelling plot device is a complete rehash of the original and the re-characterisation of the future Bill and Ted's may not make a lick of sense, but it moves so quickly that the less successful moments don't linger for long and we're onto the next part. Personally, I was always more of a fan of Bogus Journey than Excellent Adventure, which saw the heroes travel through the afterlife and encounter William Sadler's Death, and if you've seen the trailer it will come as no surprise that Sadler returns again to inject some life into proceedings when they're in danger of becoming stale. You could argue that the film would benefit from Sadler having more screen time, but I think it's timed perfectly to allow him to swoop in and play a key role in the finale without overstaying his welcome.

Of the new cast members, most of the screen time is given to Bill and Ted's daughters, Billie and Thea (Brigette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving, sneakily gender swapped from the finale of Bogus Journey), with the new generation being chips off the old blocks by following their fathers' love of music whilst also inheriting their aloof slacker mentality. Weaving is a star on the rise after her lead role in last year's Ready or Not and brings a joyful enthusiasm to her role, but it's Lundy-Paine who's the standout of the pair, perfectly capturing the mannerisms of the young Keanu from the previous films. This is by no means an attempt to set up future instalments of the franchise that focus on them, but their presence does compliment their fathers' roles and recapture some of the exuberance that's missing from the more weary Reeves and Winter. They work excellently as two pairs on their own separate journeys, but the film is at its best when the cast is allowed to band together.

Another completely bizarre addition to the cast is Barry's Anthony Carrigan as a robot assassin sent by dissenters from the future to destroy Bill and Ted in an effort to save the world. As well as looking oddly fleshy for a robot, there's character revelations about him that will leave an indelible mark on your psyche, so bafflingly strange they turn out to be. He's no competition for Sadler's Death, but he becomes a strangely compelling part of the story as he reveals more about himself. Less well served are Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays as former princesses and current Bill and Ted spouses, Elizabeth and Joanna. They are also sent on a quest through time of their own to discover if there's happiness beyond their lives with the Wyld Stallyns, but this is C, D or even E plot stuff, only really noticed when they happen to intertwine with the action of our Bill and Ted.

Not quite excellent but by no means bogus, this latest instalment in the franchise has managed to breathe a bit of new life into the story with the clever introduction of the Wyld Stallyns offspring. It's squarely aimed at those already familiar with the previous Bill and Ted films, but could well appeal to their next generation too. Check your cynicism at the stage door, and Bill and Ted Face The Music is a sweet return for two of the most lovable doofuses cinema has ever known.

Verdict

3/5



Thursday, 17 September 2020

FRIGHTFEST 2020 - The Round-up

Forced to move online after the Covid-19 outbreak scuppered plans for the usual August Bank Holiday horror film extravaganza, this year's Arrow Video Frightfest might have been a compromised experience that missed out on some of the particular joys of the festival (getting to know the people sat next to you far too well, witty horror decal t-shirts, the odour of Lynx Africa), but was still something of a triumph. Here's my thoughts on what some of the films had to offer.


12 Hour Shift

For those who don't have jobs with unsociable working hours the festival started on the Thursday night with an Evolution of Horror presented pub quiz and the premiere of the slightly ropey looking Sky Sharks, but for me the festival kicked off on the Friday with Brea Grant's 12 Hour Shift. Starring indie horror royalty Angela Bettis (best known for May and her lead role in the TV version of Carrie that people forget exists) as Mandy, a tired nurse who supplements her income by selling organs on the black market. On this particular night in question, things go wrong for Mandy when her cousin Regina (Chloe Farnworth), in charge of the collection and delivery of these organs, loses a kidney in transit. Rather than sacrifice one of her own to the local crime boss (Mick Foley), Regina returns to the hospital to get a replacement kidney by any means necessary.

12 Hour Shift is a pleasingly over the top 'night in the life of' a bunch of criminals, low-lifes, and people just trying to get by, that takes a simple premise and adds layers and layers of mishaps and unexpected twists and turns to deliver a funny, ridiculous, horror farce with great performances from an ensemble cast. Bettis is solid as the world-weary former drug addict Mandy, but a lot of the film is stolen by her co-star Farnworth, who plays Regina like a prototype Harley Quinn, making the film all the better for it.


The Horror Crowd

Frightfest doesn't just stick to narrative features, and regularly offers up some documentary gems that you won't catch anywhere else. That might sound like a dig, but oftentimes the docs are so niche in focus that they're solely aimed at a horror festival audience. One such example is Ruben Pla's The Horror Crowd, which sees director/presenter/interviewer Pla reach out to the many contacts he's made during his time as a jobbing actor in LA's independent horror scene. For that reason, the level of fame of his interviewees varies wildly, from established directors like Russell Mulcahy and Darren Lynn Bousman, modern horror icons like Lin Shaye, to lower budget filmmakers like Big Ass Spider! and Lavantula's Mike Mendez. In its favour, Pla seems to be over the moon to be acquainted with everyone he talks to, and gives no preferential screen time to anyone.

It's harder to tell this year with the festival taking place in living rooms rather than Leicester Square, but there's an old adage about Frightfest that when the filmmakers appear to introduce their films to an audience, the nicer and more enthusiastic they are in person, the worse their film will turn out to be. I've witnessed this with my own two eyes, but maybe with the social distancing something is off this year, as Pla seems like a genuinely lovely guy, and his film was perfectly decent too. It's not going to win awards for documentary innovation, but it was never striving for that either, with Pla never fully settling on whether his place should be in front of or behind the camera as he works out his style along the way. The Horror Crowd's sole aim is putting a camera in front of Pla's friends and asking them to talk about their experiences working in the (usually low budget) world of horror movie making. That the spectrum of talking heads is so varied gives the film a unique angle, and there's some great insights from filmmakers like Ernest Dickerson, and the producer of the Final Destination, Craig Perry. It might not be the most elegantly delivered film, but a lot of the content is sound enough. It's a bit like Frightfest in that regard - bringing together a collection of oddballs with a shared love of horror and letting them compete over who is the bigger horror nut.


Blind

One of the most hyped films of the festival after the trailer revealed a genuinely intriguing villain in the mannequin-face masked Pretty Boy, sadly Blind ended up being an abysmal experience. When a routine laser eye surgery goes wrong, actress Faye (Sarah French) confines herself to her Hollywood Hills home, unaware that she is being stalked by a masked intruder. Her biggest chance of accepting her blindness comes from her new best friend Sophia (Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2's Caroline Williams) and the kind, mute Luke (Tyler Gallant). Hmm, mute you say? I wonder if that's going to play a crucial part in the story later on.

Blind suffers from a complete lack of research into laser eye surgery, the day to day lives of blind people, and it would appear, scriptwriting, so excruciating an experience this turned out to be. Lead actress Sarah French doesn't appear to have ever seen a blind person, or even another actor ever play a blind person (apart from maybe a guest spot on Saved By The Bell), so poor is her approximation of how she should communicate with others or act in her surroundings. The same goes for Caroline Williams (also a producer of the film) as Sophia, who finds it appropriate to caress the face of a mute man to assess his attractiveness. Add to this Luke's fake-sounding robotic voicebox, a panty-sniffing sushi delivery boy, no attempt at subtlety whatsoever and what you have is a film that defies the possibilities of suspension of disbelief.

As I said, there's something genuinely creepy about the mannequin-faced bad guy of the film, and his actions as he becomes more involved in the story are just plain weird; but even that image becomes neutered by the sheer terribleness of the film and a finale that features the most laughably contrived monologues I've ever seen. Light on horror and heavy on unintentional laughs, the biggest scare is that the film ends with "Blind...Part One." In retrospect I should have heeded the warning of The Greasy Strangler's Michael St. Michaels who appears early on in the film to state "this is bullshit". Right you are, sir.


Dark Place

The last film of Saturday was not a feature film outing for Garth Marenghi, but was a portmanteau collection of horror shorts made by indigenous Australians. Five films all of varying length, the filmmaking style and quality also differed from film to film, from the first short, Scout, a powerful but miserable tale of sex trafficking and the treatment of aboriginal women by white men, to the more comedic and extreme final film, Killer Native, that was like a Sam Raimi re-telling of The Nightingale. Often pulpy, outlandish and playful with genre, it's a nice collection of calling cards for a new generation of filmmakers.


The Clapboard Jungle

Sunday's line-up was an eclectic mix of filmmaking documentaries and topical infection horrors, the day starting with Justin McConnell's behind the scenes diary of the making of his feature film, Lifechanger, that appeared at Frightfest a couple of years back. Like Ruben Pla before him, McConnell has roped in some of his connections to provide heir own insights into the world of movie making, with Guillermo del Toro front and centre to start the film off. McConnell info dumps us at the start to bring us up to where his career is headed at that point, acknowledging that he's "not really anybody" and that there are thousands of other filmmakers like him.

What sets McConnell apart is the sheer amount of dedication he puts into his work, including this film which was shot over a number of years whilst he worked on other things. He comes across as ambitious and driven, but knows the game well enough to know it doesn't always come down to talent, and that a heavy dose of luck is needed. A horror filmmaker himself (as well as occasional film programmer at the Toronto After Dark festival), but the issues he talks about here like the death of cinema and the competitive and over-saturated market are applicable to all areas of the industry. Its biggest value is as a cautionary tale to those bold enough to try and navigate through the low budget film industry, as he takes us with him to try and find backers for his various projects, going through the hell of the sales booths at Cannes and Frontieres at Fantasia Fest, all in the hope that something will gain traction.

There's some absolute gems of interviews from genre filmmakers like Tom Holland (the Fright Night one, not the Spider-Man one), Sam Firstenberg, Richard Stanley, Barbara Crampton and Larry Cohen, who are all candid about their experiences and hopeful that a young filmmaker like Justin can make it. For anyone considering becoming a filmmaker who thinks they've got what it takes to survive in the industry, this doc will be a real eye opener.


Hail to the Deadites

The list of horror film franchises with fervent fanbases is endless, but unlike the attention given to the fans of other genres, such as Star Wars and Star Trek fans, there's not too many documentaries that look into the eccentricities of their most devoted horror nerds. Hail to the Deadites aims to do that with Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films, following the experience of a number of fans who tour around the many horror conventions that take place across the United States, all in the hope of meeting their idols - in this case, Evil Dead lead actor, Bruce Campbell.

At first what is most noticeable about HTTD is that it features no footage from the film franchise, but cleverly gets around this expensive road bump by including fan-made animations and recreations of some of the most famous scenes, even taking in a detour to Evil Dead: The Musical (respect to the producer of the show who earnestly states to the cast after a well received performance, "we're changing lives"). There's a sense that this has changed shape from its original form, almost like someone has taken the raw footage collected by someone else and given their best shot at repackaging it into something more palatable (including an incredibly cheesy voice-over), but for what is essentially a fan made movie it makes the most of the access it manages to get (a trip to Bruce Campbell's brother's house proves surprisingly fruitful), even if it is oddly out of date, covering the return of the franchise on TV in Ash vs The Evil Dead in 2015. It by no means needed to be a feature length endeavour and will appeal to absolutely no-one who isn't a mega fan of the Evil Dead films, but has a sweet, go-getter charm to it that gets bonus points for managing to snare the curmudgeonly but playful Campbell for an interview.


Two Heads Creek

On at the same time as HTTD was Two Heads Creek, an Australian set comedy horror that follows a brother and sister in search of their birth mother in a small, stereotypical Aussie town. I was fortunate to receive an advanced copy of Two Heads Creek for review, but it's proven a tough nut to crack that I've gone back and forth over a few times. Apparently well received by most that appreciated its comic gore and Shaun of the Dead vibes, for me it proved simply too problematic to enjoy without wanting to call it out on its many transgressions. Yes, I completely dug the over the top gore, delivered by a huge piece of machinery designed to turn people into mulch, and there's a number of witty one-liners, most of which are delivered by co-lead Kathryn Wilder as a pompous princess out of her depth in a country she can't relate to; but where the film proved problematic for me was in its approach to race and where to draw the line at co-opting cultural stereotypes. The film starts in Brexit Britain, making the decision for the two Polish siblings to leave an unwelcoming and hate-fuelled city an easy one, but then leans far too heavily on portraying the Australians as simpletons.

The Outback and similarly secluded Aussie locations have proven fertile ground for horror films like Wolf Creek, feeding off the fears of backpackers entering into the unknown, and Australia has a history of commenting on its own issues with race in films like Dead End Drive-In, and it's fair to say that there's a playful relationship between Australia and the UK where a certain amount of gentle ribbing is allowed. But in its effort to be as shocking as possible, Two Heads Creek often crosses the line between the territories, painting the Australian inhabitants as boomerang throwing, XXXX drinking, in-bred, Australia Day celebrating dimwits, and treating its sizeable asian cast as little more than a punchline.

Following in the muddy footsteps of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, House of Wax, Deliverance, and other Hicksploitation films, it may not be a sub-genre that's known for its subtlety or for painting non-city dwellers in the most flattering of lights, but aside from the moments of comedy and extreme gore that will appeal to a wide audience, Two Heads Creek ended up having too many issues for it to be a place I'd want to visit again anytime soon.


Hall

It was bound to happen, really. Just as life imitates art, so does art imitates life, and so here we have Hall, an infection horror set in the confines of a hotel. It hardly has the most exciting of titles, but the pared back name brings with it the promise of a no-fuss horror that would make the most of its location. Sadly, this did not turn out to be the case with Hall, which follows the efforts of a battered wife trying to flee her husband with her small daughter, just as the outbreak occurs. Concurrently in the neighbouring room, a Japanese woman is trying to escape from equal danger, stalked by people from her past her want to hurt her.

Firstly, on the positive side there's some decent effects work in Hall that draw you in during the many flash-forwards the film includes in its opening act, and the cast, including an impressive child actor who appears to have been cast based on her resemblance to Heather from Poltergeist, seem well up for a grisly night in the hotel. Unfortunately the filmmakers don't capitalise on the set-up they have, with the film moving at an increasingly glacial pace once the infection sets in. More foreboding than scary, it does offer some jumps in the last 15 minutes as the abusive husband hunts down his wife and child, but a late in the day shot at saying something satirical doesn't really land, and a post-credits TV report hat ups the conspiracy factor is a tedious information dump. A film with promise and some impressive visuals, but without the story to make it into anything memorable.


A Ghost Waits

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Frightfest that endured this year is the word of mouth buzz that accompanies some films. This was the case with A Ghost Waits, which if it had been shown in the bricks and mortar cinemas would have had queues around the block. Originally screened at the Glasgow Frightfest event that took place at the start of the year before Covid, this low budget, black and white love story was brought back to this festival to allow the main festival audience a chance to see it. One of the convenient parts of this year's festival was that films weren't going to reach capacity, and so decisions on which films to see could be made late in the day, which is exactly what I did when I switched my choice over from Aquaslash (great title but apparently terrible), to A Ghost Waits a few minutes before the start time. And I'm glad I did, as it's a delightful film that could warm the cold, dead heart of any hardcore horror fan.

MacLeod Andrews stars as Jack, a building surveyor who crashes at a perpetually vacant property when he finds himself in need of a place to stay. He soon discovers that the reason tenants keep breaking their lease is because of the spectral presence of Muriel (Natalie Walker), who is purposely scaring people away to keep the place empty as part of her afterlife career. Engaging her in conversation when her attempt to spook him out of the place fails, they connect over chats about the afterlife, God, the movie Memento, and Johnny Cash. However, when the spectral agency she works for hear about her failure to remove Jack from the building, they send a ringer to finish the job.

A Ghost Waits might have more in common with a Duplass Brothers film than a traditional horror film, but there's enough horror flavour added to it to give it a unique edge. Sure, it's not perfect and the budgetary restraints are regularly plain to see (Muriel's ghostly make-up is little more than caked on white face paint and heavy direct lighting), but it's sweet as all hell, and in lead MacLeod Andrews has a future star in the making, such is his ability to take what could be sugary dialogue and make it believable and often moving. I'm not sure what the release plans are for it, but it's sure to hit a streaming platform at some point, and is well worth your time.

__________________________________________________________________________


And so there you have it. By no means exhaustive coverage of the festival, but hopefully a helpful guide to what to track down when they appear in cinemas, in DVD stores, or online over the next few months. Kudos to the Frightfest team for pulling together a great selection of titles to view, and for how smoothly the whole event went. It may have been missing some of the more livelier aspects that come with attending a horror film festival, but where it counted the most - delivering a memorable array of titles for horror fans to gorge upon - it was a great success. I'll see you next year, Frightfest...


hopefully.


Wednesday, 16 September 2020

WHITE RIOT review


Set against a backdrop of a rising right wing political ideology and how members of the punk, reggae and ska music scenes fought against it through the Rock Against Racism campaign, Rubika Shah's White Riot follows the creation of the Temporary Hoarding magazine by a group of artists and journalists, and the triumphant Rock Against Racism concert they organised when tensions were at their highest.

Although the Victoria Park Rock Against Racism concert is the main event, this is not in any means a concert film; in fact, the actual concert only occupies about ten minutes of the running time towards the end. Shah's documentary is more concerned with exploring the political atmosphere at the time that would necessitate the need for the concert, with the shameful views of Enoch Powell and National Front leader Martin Webster allowed on TV along with shows like It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Love Thy Neighbour and the Black and White Minstrel Show that went towards creating a nation of disenfranchised white youths, willing to blame people based on skin colour alone. 

It's got a hell of a pounding, propulsive soundtrack, including The Clash's London Calling and the eponymous White Riot (band member Topper Headon is on hand to stress that the far-right faction that chanted along to the latter obviously didn't listen too closely to the lyrics), Poly Styrene of X-Ray Specs, Sham 69, and the now unfortunately, ironically named Tom Robinson Band. It makes no bones about outing the views a number of famous musicians aired at the time, with 'the great coloniser' of Blues, Eric Clapton spouting some horrendous racist remarks, and punk icon Johnny Rotten coming out of it pleasingly well by saying he "despise(s)" the National Front at a time when punk was readily adopting nazi uniforms and iconography.

But separate from all the celebrity musician interviews and footage of riots and protests on the nation's streets, the core of the film is the grass roots efforts of a small number of people, including the co-founder of Rock Against Racism (RAR) and the politics and music magazine that documented their efforts, Temporary Hoarding, Red Saunders. Saunders, a photographer and sometime performance artist, is the chief contributor to the film and documentary gold who put himself in the heat of the action serving as the frontman for the RAR campaign. Now in his 70s and sporting a mighty beard, it's the interviews with him that drive the film, whether it be rediscovering old issues of Temporary Hoarding that helped reach out to the youth before the NF got their hands on them, old TV interviews between him and Janet Street Porter or him posting letters in the NME telling Clapton what he thinks of him ("who shot the sheriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you"). The importance of Temporary Hoarding and the artists and writers who contributed cannot be understated, and even the punk aesthetics of the magazine have clearly been an influence on the visual design of this film.

As the film heads towards its finale, with prominent and influential musicians willing to attend protests (although it's noted that The Clash were "too cool to hold placards") and perform at the Victoria Park concert, there's the hopeful sense that the movement was winning out against the fascists, as can be seen be the sheer number of attendees to the pre-concert march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park. Saunders told the local council that they expected 500 people to turn up to the gig. Actual numbers vary depending on which person you speak to, but safe to say that number was eclipsed.

What's most concerning about Shah's documentary (that I first saw when it premiered at last year's London Film Festival where it won the Grierson Award), is that 40 years after the events of the film and in the 11 months since I first saw it, the issues it raises about right-wing rhetoric and the excessive force used against peaceful protesters by a biased police force have only become more applicable to our times. It was a topical film then, it feels vital now. It's not a film that's factoid heavy but that is unapologetically political, utilising its wealth of archive footage to show how the NF were able to gain traction among the youth of the day, but also how a combination of great music, truth and the power of protest can be an unstoppable force.

Verdict

5/5

White Riot is in cinemas from Friday.

Monday, 31 August 2020

SHE DIES TOMORROW review

 

The latest film from Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine as director, the remake of Pet Sematary and Alien: Covenant as an actor), sees her behind the camera to deliver a bizarre story about a group of Los Angelinos who through mysterious reasons come to the realisation that they will die tomorrow.

Kate Lynn Sheil stars as Amy, a recovering addict who is the first know she is going to die the next day. Her friend Jane (played by indie stalwart Jane Adams) thinks Amy’s oddly calm demeanour is a sign that she’s relapsed, until she also is struck with the realisation of her own impending demise. Quite how they have landed at this idea is not due to any message they hear, or a Grim Reaper giving advanced notice, but comes in the form of a simple, rational acceptance.

This film has the potential to enlighten, confound, and maybe even annoy its audience; so obtuse it is in delivering its basic idea. It feeds into the palpable sense of anxiety many are feeling right now, and is one of a number of films being released that, although it couldn’t have predicted the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing introspection a lot of people have put upon themselves, it taps into many fears of our own mortality in a manner that is incredibly timely.

Faced with her own imminent death, Amy doesn’t go on a Purge style rampage or even attempt to reckon with her own existence and deal with unfinished business. Instead she’s overcome with a curious sense of acceptance, her biggest consideration towards her legacy being her hope to be turned into a leather jacket, something she chooses to spend her final hours researching. As this acceptance of death spreads to Jane and then onto others they are in contact with, there’s a calmness they’re swept up in, visualised on screen as a wave of blue and red lights that bathe the faces of the actors as they stare down the barrel of the camera lens, as if they are about to transcend from their world and into ours.

They’re not the easiest bunch of characters to bond with, the most memorable being Katie Aselton as Jane’s obnoxious sister-in-law Susan, talking about dolphin rape over after-dinner drinks with bemused friends. When Jane arrives at the party with her newfound mortality check, the pervasive nature passes onto the rest of the group and turns them into equally docile and accepting people. 

It’s a slow journey that makes the night seem to last longer, but this measured approach never seems accidental. The pace of Seimetz’s film and the visual language on screen reminds of the films of David Lynch, in particular Eraserhead (but nowhere near as bizarre as that). The concept of fatalism will intrigue, and there are clear correlations to the paranoia and anxiety of life mid-pandemic, but despite an arresting visual flair and some solid performances (including a low-key but scene-stealing turn from TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, and brief appearances from high profile stars Josh Lucas and Michelle Rodriguez doing bit player roles), this will enrage as many viewers as it enthralls.

Verdict

3/5




Monday, 17 August 2020

YES, GOD, YES review

Set at a Catholic youth retreat in the early 2000s, Yes, God, Yes sees Stranger Things' Natalia Dyer star as Alice, a typical high school girl with an increasing number of questions about sex. When an AOL chat room encounter leads to her receiving unsolicited porn and engaging in some unexpected cyber sex, she decides that the retreat her classmates are raving about might offer her the answers she's looking for.

 

Dyer is of course best known for her role of Nancy in the immensely popular Netflix series, Stranger Things, which is beloved by a huge audience around the world. Which is why it's strange that, outside of the older cast members Winona Ryder and David Harbour, the younger faction of the cast (with the exception of Finn Wolfhard in the IT films) has been quite slow to head to feature films. But with her cast mate Joe Keery in cinemas this week with Spree and her on and off-screen boyfriend Charlie Heaton maybe, possibly, finally making his blockbuster bow with his role in the long delayed New Mutants due any day now, the time is right for Dyer to join them on the big screen. Well, that's in theory, of course, as Yes, God, Yes is making its debut straight to VOD, possibly in part due to the Covid pandemic, but also by virtue of being a smaller, indie film, but a belter nonetheless.

At Alice's Catholic high school they teach abstinence before marriage, warn of the dangers of masturbation, are pro-life and anti-hem lines more than two inches above the knee. Alice is curious to know what some of these new phrases she's hearing her classmates say actually mean, including the 'salad tossing' she's been accused of doing to one of the boys in her class. When her best friend Laura (Francesca Reale) hears about Kirkos, the new four day retreat some of the "cooler" girls have attended, they both decide to go along to the next intake, with Alice hoping she can silence some of her questions, such as why she wanted to rewind her Titanic videotape to re-watch the steamy sex scene, before she ends up burning in hell. Sadly, Alice's hopes are soon squashed as she finds herself instantly attracted to Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), a slightly dumb, overly-enthusiastic team leader with fantastically manly, hairy forearms and a proclivity to helping damsels in distress.

It's an unashamed throwback to some similarly themed films released around the time this film was set, like Saved and But I'm a Cheerleader, but with a more refined, real world sense of humour. Although it exists on the tamer end of the scale (the closest this film comes to an American Pie moment involves Dyer and a mop handle - less vulgar than it sounds), at its core Yes, God, Yes is a sex comedy, and an often cringingly funny one at that, steering clear of the more dramatic angles taken on by The Miseducation of Cameron Post and the Church vs common decency conversion dramas of recent years. Here the spin is that this isn't a place they're forced to go to for mending their 'wicked ways' or to stem their feelings of homosexuality (in fact, it's not a subject that's covered at all here), Kirkos is an optional retreat for the students, ran by Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) from school, and is a broader stab at the overall absurdity, hypocrisy and unhealthy attitudes fostered by teaching purity instead of proper sex education.

It's a great performance from the charming Dyer, who plays the conflict between Alice's innocence and burgeoning sexual desires with great comedic effect, discovering new things about her body with the help of the classic mobile phone game, Snake. No, really. Written and directed by Obvious Child's writer Karen Maine (expanded from her short film of the same name), Yes, God, Yes is a smart, thought-provoking little gem of a film that I highly recommend seeking out.

Verdict

4/5



Sunday, 16 August 2020

SUNDANCE LONDON 2020 review

Sundance London normally takes place every year in June at its London home of Picturehouse Central, but this year, for obvious reasons, the organisers have had to pivot to an abridged online version of the festival. I've attended the London leg of the festival for the last few years now and it's always a highlight of the film festival calendar for me, so it was with some sadness that it wasn't able to go ahead in its full format, but hey, at least it was able to continue in a form that kept everyone safe. Rather than back to back screenings, this year's festival opted to focus on three of the most popular films from January's original run - the Paul Bettany starring Uncle Frank, Andrea Riseborough's Egypt set existential dilemma, Luxor, and the Grand Jury prize winning documentary, Boys State. Here's my thoughts on all three films.

Uncle Frank
Set in 1970s South Carolina, Uncle Frank follows college student Beth (Sophia Lillis) and her professor uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) as they travel from their New York lives back home to attend a funeral. Also in tow is Frank's longtime partner Wally (Peter Macdissi), who Frank would prefer to keep a secret from his family after a traumatic encounter with his father (an intimidating Stephen Root) in his youth has left him afraid of their reaction to him being a gay man.

Directed by Six Feet Under creator and American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball, Uncle Frank is fundamentally a film of two halves, first focussing on Sophia Lillis's character as she leaves small town Creekville, and the close knit family life and expectations of her as a young woman behind to pursue her studies in New York City. There she comes to learn that the comfortable bachelor lifestyle her family think uncle Frank lives is not entirely true (he even goes so far as to have a female friend pose as his sometime girlfriend), and that he is in a long term relationship with Wally, an Arabian immigrant who is similarly secretive to his own family. When they have to return to Creekville for a family funeral, Wally sees this as the perfect opportunity to meet Frank's family, travelling behind them against Frank's wishes.

There's a period in the film where it's just Lillis and Bettany driving alone, and they're among some of the best scenes in the film. It's not much of a road movie, more concerned with the dramatic potential at the other end, but it's a shame more time wasn't given to the development of this pairing. Both are on journey's of discovery, and despite the sense of fun Wally injects into every scene, there was room for more scenes between these three before their arrival in Creekville and the sidelining of Lillis's character.

Despite the introduction of Frank's long held trauma over the end of his first relationship and his increasing alcohol consumption, the drama and jeopardy of Frank's return home is never earth-shattering, but more by-the-numbers in a pleasingly portrayed way, although the reading of a will provides a real kick in the teeth moment that shakes the course that Frank is on. The film has an often repeated idiom along the lines of "I'm going to be who I want to be, not who people say I should be" that gives an indication as to where the story might head for Frank and Beth. We the audience might see where this very sweet, sincere family drama is going too, but that doesn't detract from the charm and solid performances from a great ensemble supporting cast (I haven't even found space to mention that Steve Zahn, Judy Greer and Margot Martindale also feature in the film), and its leads, Bettany, Lillis, and a stand-out Macdissi.

Luxor
I'll be honest that of the three films on this year's slate, the premise of Luxor didn't immediately grip me from the outset, but I was pleasantly surprised with how much it drew me in to its world. The film with an emotional resonance that Eat, Pray, Love could only dream about, Luxor follows Andrea Riseborough's doctor, Hana, as she returns to Egypt after many years away, bumping into her ex-boyfriend Sultan (Karim Saleh) on a ferry and then reliving and re-evaluating some of the choices she made in the past. Directed by Zeina Durra, it's a beautiful piece of wanderlust filmmaking that'll have you booking flights to Luxor (although maybe without Hana's emotional baggage) as Riseborough visits ancient tombs that literally speak to her, and manages to spiritually free herself enough to dance in front of a room full of strangers at a hotel bar before despair grips her again.

There's a real air of the contemplative reckoning of Before Midnight to Luxor, with Hana walking through incredible scenery on an introspective journey to heal her mind from the horrors she's seen in the world, having just finished as a medic in Syria and about to head to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. This leads to long periods with little or no dialogue and no non-diagetic sounds, including when she visits archaeologist Sultan at one of his digs. The film also features real archaeologist Salima Ikram, essentially playing herself to give her opinions on the spiritual tourism of the area, with large numbers of (often older aged) visitors claiming to be reincarnations of ancient Egyptians. For Hana, the connection with the world she is looking for is much more current, and even if it's not always overtly stated in dialogue, Riseborough's performance is so strong that we are on Hana's journey with her, experiencing the magic realism of hearing voices from beyond to guide her along her path. Luxor is a journey unlike anything else I've seen on screen before, and worth experiencing for yourself.


Boy's State
The last film of the festival was the Documentary Grand Jury prize winning Boy's State, following a group of young men attending the yearly American Legion sponsored, conservative leaning political summer camp that takes place in Texas each year (there is a girl's state too, although not featured in this documentary). If you think American politics and its cast of characters has become too much of a presence in the daily news cycle, save a bit of room for this thoroughly entertaining documentary that's enlightening about the kinds of 16 & 17 year old boys that would actively choose to enter into the world of politics, performing a mock election and campaigning to decide who gets to be a number of roles, the big daddy of them all being Governor. They all arrive as equal people, or Statesmen, and are assigned as either a Federalist or Nationalist, the party platform to be decided as things go on and the camp mentalities start to resemble something not a million miles away from William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

The mixture of nerves, charisma, strategy and natural leadership talent on show is truly jaw-dropping, and a real insight into the system that breeds such a powder keg of bravado and toxic posturing. There's an element of play-acting to it, both to the camera and to their followers, but as these young men stand on a stage in front of hundreds of their peers and spout their views about guns and abortion, the approval their words gets from a braying crowd goes some way to explaining why change moves so slowly in Washington.

Of the cast of characters, there's a number of stand-outs in both the Federalist and Nationalist camps, including the Bill Clinton-a-like Robert McDougall, with his soft texan drawl and easy going manner that makes him an early hit with the camp, the workhorse Ben Fienstein who, despite making some questionable choices (there's an ever present conflict between how much this is reality and a morality free game), is a strong political presence in his camp; and Rene, who on the back of a crowd-winning speech is quickly voted as party chairman, only to see a small faction turn against him and call for his impeachment. He's also able to cut through the pomposity of his surroundings to deliver some of the film's best zingers, including saying about a competitor "I think he's a fantastic politician, but I don't think 'a fantastic politician' is a compliment either". But, the absolute star of the film is the plucky Steven Garza, who's a man with principles who actually believes in his campaign platform for Governor and who wants people to vote for him because of his policies, not his charm offensive. As his position on gun control (a major issue at this event, particularly in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas shootings earlier that year) is called into question, along with the rumours that he organised a pro-choice rally in his home town, he's ballsy enough to stand his ground and say "what I'm going to say next could cost me my chances of winning, but I'm going to say it anyway". It's his refusal to not pander to his voters that makes him a stand out figure in the film, but it's the fact that he does differ so much from his 16 and 17 year old peers that makes you wish the glimmer of hope he offers outweighed the overwhelming majority.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

So, there you have it. Luxor and Uncle Frank have release dates pencilled in for later in the year (although nothing's set in stone these days, but try to check them out when released), and Boy's State is already available to view for Apple TV+ subscribers. As for Sundance London, it's a shame the organisers had to compromise his year, but it was a quality selection, at least. Here's hoping that Sundance London 2021 gets to return to its regularly scheduled slot at Picturehouse Central next year with even more independently produced gems. I, for one, will be there.