Thursday, 28 May 2020

ROMANTIC COMEDY review

Directed, edited, written and narrated by Elizabeth Sankey, lead singer of indie pop duo Summer Camp, Romantic Comedy looks at the history, stylings and motifs of the film genre, and how it's able to have such an emotional connection with its audience.


Comprised of re-purposed and contextually relevant clips from countless rom-coms, if you've seen any other films from the increasingly prevalent essay film documentary sub-genre, most notably Charlie Shackleton's excellent Fairuza Balk narrated teen movie exploration, Beyond Clueless, or the shorter form Inside Cinema doc strand currently available in the BBC iPlayer, you'll have a good idea of what to expect from the structure of the film. Romantic Comedy is presented slightly differently via the personal journey Sankey sends us on through her narration, starting off in a typical teenage girls bedroom before showing us how focused this genre is on making sure its audience's end goal is marriage. Along with Sankey's narration, there's also a chorus of largely female voices (among them The End of the F**king World star, Jessica Barden) to provide insight into various points this film raises, such as why Bridget Jones is both the "HBC" (Head Bitch in Charge) and also a problematic purveyor of ridiculous and dangerous beauty standards, proclaiming herself overweight at a perfectly normal 9 stone.

When dissecting the history of the genre, we go back as far as the 1930s and the screwball comedy era when the starlets were able to be the ones in charge before their agency was stripped away by the predominantly male writers and studio execs, and their only happiness to be found in the arms of the tall, dark and handsome leading men. It digs into the lunacy of the genre's more outlandish meet cute set-ups, like Sandy Bullock's near psychopathic behaviour in the dubiously titled While You Were Sleeping, as she lies to a man in a coma's family and pretends to be his fiancee. Although the title and set-up could easily be affixed to a stalker horror film, her actions are presented as cute and kooky, as the rom-com genre's leading ladies so often are with the rise of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. The most egregious examples of the MPDG figure are called out, as well as the 'lens of indieness' used to excuse those films' behaviour, like 500 Days of Summer's objectification of Zooey Deschanel's title character, and the rather unnecessary addition in the film's title sequence of calling another woman "bitch".

Sankey's narration openly admits that despite her admiration for the genre, it's not one that is as easily accessible to anyone that is non-white or non-straight, and so defers to her contributors to share their experiences of watching these films whilst also not seeing any approximation of their own lives reflected back at them. It's possibly the genre's greatest flaw, and while this film does cover it to an extent, it's probably fair to say that a thorough dissection of this issue is perhaps not Sankey's aim, and would have derailed what is essentially a celebration of the genre. As well as exploring the impact these flaws have on its captive audience, Romantic Comedy is also just a great opportunity to relive some classic moments the genre has given us, like Cameron Diaz and friends breaking into a rendition of the comically graphic 'The Penis Song' in The Sweetest Thing. Seriously, I wouldn't necessarily recommend watching The Sweetest Thing and its frank sexuality isn't something typical of the genre, but if you need a taster before watching this film, that scene is on Youtube for your eyes and ears to enjoy.

The soundtrack, written by Sankey's husband and Summer Camp bandmate Jeremy Warmsley, serves to pick up those sweeping romantic moments, like the song Women in Love and its backdrop of passionate cinematic embraces. It's here that the films bear the closest of its resemblances to Beyond Clueless, the soundtrack of which was also provided by Summer Camp. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as Beyond Clueless was one of my favourite films of the year it was released and the accompanying Summer Camp soundtrack is one I have listened to countless times, independent of the film; but despite the different targets and voices behind the films, Romantic Comedy doesn't hit quite as hard, if only by virtue of it being less unique an experience.

At a brisk 78 minutes, it still finds plenty of chances to bask in the reflective glow of the unattainable ideals the rom-com genre offers its audience. Montage heavy, moving from scene to scene, film to film at breakneck speed in order to illustrate the repeating motifs and archetypes at work across the genre; a rare exception to this is in the discussion of the rightly revered Nora Ephron and her script for When Harry Met Sally. As Harry and Sally (Billy Crystal and genre queen Meg Ryan) exchange barbed relationship advice to each other on the steps of a New York brownstone, the scene is allowed to play out to its redemptive conclusion. When done right, it's hard not to be swept up in the power these films have.

Romantic Comedy does throw a net that (arguably) lands outside of the genre boundaries of the title, bringing in God's Own Country and Silver Linings Playbook to sit alongside Mystic Pizza and Sleepless and Seattle, but it's at its best when celebrating the purest examples of the genre. To borrow a couple of film titles, Romantic Comedy is a fun collection of some simply irresistible moments in cinema that might make you fall in love, actually, with the genre all over again. Definitely one to consider renting for your next sleepover.

Verdict
3.5/5

Romantic Comedy is now available in the UK on Mubi.


Monday, 11 May 2020

THE SHED review

When a vampire takes refuge in the shed behind troubled high schooler Stanley's house, he must call upon his socially awkward best friend Dommer, and Roxy, the girl he likes, to help him get rid of the monster before the sun sets and it can leave to wreak havoc on the town. But with the ravenous beast sinking its teeth into anyone that gets near the shed, how is Stanley meant to do that, exactly?

Largely taking place around the ramshackle hut of the title, The Shed is a great example of a simple idea, done well. There's almost nothing offered in the way of backstory as to where the vampire in Stanley (Jay Jay Warren)'s shed has come from, just a short scene at the beginning where his neighbour Bane (a cameoing Frank Whaley) finds himself fleeing through the woods from the vampire that is about to bite him and in turn make him into a vampire. There's no explanation as to why any bloodsucker would end up in the woods of this small town, but really nor is one needed. Once Bane's been bitten and taken shelter from the sunlight in Stanley's Grandpa's shed, he stays there like a rabid pitbull in a kennel, protecting itself from anyone who dare stick their head in, dragging them into the darkness with him whilst occasionally throwing out the odd body part he doesn't want to eat.

There's a couple of films that The Shed liberally nods towards, and not just from the horror genre. Aside from a fairly blatant hat tip to Ferris Bueller's Day Off as Stanley sprints through his neighbours's back yards to try and beat the Sheriff to his house, the 80s teen movie this most recalls is director Tom Holland's Fright Night. Sure, the house next door is a lot smaller and the vampire here is nowhere near as snazzy a dresser as Chris Sarandon's Jerry Dandrige, but there's something about the relationship between Stanley and best friend Dommer (Cody Kostro) that reminds of Charley Brewster and Evil Ed; and if we can go as far as that film's 2011 remake, The Shed's leading man Jay Jay Warren does share a resemblance (and apparently a wardrobe) with its Charley Brewster, the greatly missed Anton Yelchin. The film largely rests on Warren's shoulders as the likeable but also generically bland rebellious teenager, as the rest of the cast either end up as vampire fodder (some deserved, some not), or like Roxy, don't really have a lot to do until the finale.

It's not without the odd occasion where the film feels like an elongated short story idea creaking at its limit, also bringing to mind another great 'My Pet Monster' scenario in the superb 'The Crate' sequence from George A. Romero & Stephen King's portmanteau horror Creepshow. That's a story that, had it been expanded into a feature film would have undoubtedly had a similarly lessened impact, but The Shed should be commended for its willingness to throw the odd curveball into the mix, namely some bizarre and unexpected dream sequences starting with an early fake out scene that abruptly dispenses with the picture of a happy family life it has painted in favour of Stanley's daily routine of bullying at the hands of his overbearing Grandpa Ellis (Timothy Bottoms).

The Shed is atmospheric enough to please genre fans looking for something new to sink their teeth into, and the sun drenched fields surrounding the primary location make for a nice visual departure from the vampire sub-genre tropes. The physical transformations of the vampire/s don't have a reliance on over the top CGI effects that, frankly, this film wouldn't have been able to afford anyway, instead favouring some decent make-up work and that old vampire mainstay, shadows and dim lighting. A low budget horror that sells its central premise very well, The Shed might not be the barnstormer it hopes to be but nor should it be confined to the dog house. Well worth checking out.

Verdict
3/5

Signature Entertainment presents The Shed on Digital HD from May 11th

Monday, 4 May 2020

WE SUMMON THE DARKNESS review

Indiana, 1988. After meeting three guys at a heavy metal gig, a trio of young women invite them to one of their houses to party. However, things are not immediately at they seem, and the two groups find themselves fighting each other to survive.


Alexandra Daddario leads the film as Alexis, a strong willed young woman who along with her close friend Val (Maddie Hasson) wants to see Beverly (Amy Forsyth) step out of her comfort zone and be more assertive with men. Having picked up three dudes in a van who share their appreciation of heavy metal music, Beverly sets about getting to know Mark (Keean Johnson) better, whilst Val and Alexis play a dangerous game of 'Never Have I Ever' with Kovacs and Ivan (Logan Miller and Austin Swift).

We Summon The Darkness sets its satanic panic stall out early, as Johnny Knoxville's preacher John Henry Butler appears on the radio following a report of numerous ritualistic killings taking place across the country. Tying the killings to the pervasive nature of heavy metal music, his words don't dissuade the three young women from attending the concert their headed to, or from picking up three random guys they know nothing about.

The first half hour is a fairly generic party film, just with more conversations about the ever changing roster of Metallica band members. It does shift dramatically during a drunken, campside game of 'Never Have I Ever', that not only reveals intimate truths but also the real motivations behind attending the gig. From there the film becomes something more reminiscent of cinematic Rooms both Green and Panic, as plenty of violence is doled out between them. Added to that, there's unexpected visitors that throw the whole night's plan up in the air.

We Summon The Darkness has a few good things going for it, chiefly the opportunity for Daddario to play a character that goes against the 'All-American Girl' perception audiences might have of her rom films like Baywatch and the Percy Jackson series. As Alexis, she's a domineering figure, pushing her friends around to suit her needs. There's also a fun, all too short appearance from Johnny Knoxville as a character who has more to do with the story than first appears. There's also a healthy dose of violence inflicted on both groups, and whilst never as gruesome or shocking as that on display in the clearly influential Green Room, there's still enough to satisfy an audience with an unhealthy bloodlust. The rest of the characters, however, do seem to be rather bland one note caricatures (heavy metal t-shirts and scraggly hair) that, although you're not necessarily rooting for them to be offed, you don't really care when they are.

Still, it move at a pace and has some fun, ludicrous twists and turns along the way. The 80s setting does offer a nice bit of texture, but the religious cult aspects could have been delved further into if it wanted to offer a true satanic panic movie. We Summon The Darkness may not be summoning any points for originality, but the cast are game, and it has enough going for it to make it a fun watch for those about to rock.

Verdict
3/5

We Summon The Darkness is available to rent and buy on digital now.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

EMA review

From Pablo Larrain, the acclaimed director of Tony Manero, No and Jackie, Ema follows a young dancer forced to give up her adopted son after a tragic fire. Deciding she wants to be with him over anything else she has in her life, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is willing to give up her husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal), and do whatever is needed to track Polo down and be his mother again, no matter how many lives she has to burn to ashes along the way.

Ema opens with a searingly indelible image, as Ema, decked in protective gear and wielding a flamethrower, looks on at the traffic signal she has just set fire to. It's this flair for pyromania that has caused her world to fall apart, following a fire caused by her son Polo that has burnt and scarred her sister's face and seen him re-enter the care system to be adopted by someone else. The film starts in the wake of this event, and tries to fill in as many of the blanks as it can with an early montage sequence, intercut with a pulsating, modern expressive dance sequence choreographed by Ema's husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal), the video screen behind them bathing the dancers in the light of an ever changing sun. It's beautiful and its vibrant, but in what is a common occurrence in the film, the visual display outweighs the reveal of the main story points, leaving us starting on the back foot.

As is quickly revealed, the separation of Ema, Gaston and Polo is one Ema aims to be as temporary as possible, as she hassles Child Protective Services for information on his whereabouts and then unleashes a calculated, often dastardly and cruel plan in order to get back into his life. Using the help of her dance troupe, your feelings towards this masterplan may differ wildly from a display of a mother's unconditional love to unquestionably sociopathic behaviour. What is indisputable is that Ema's methods are morally complex, to say the least.

Personally, I found a whole lot to enjoy in Mariana Di Girolano's performance as Ema as she plays with the lives of others, namely Raquel (Paola Giannini), the divorce lawyer she hires but can only afford to pay in dance, and a firefighter named Anibal (Santiago Cabrera), both of whom Ema has sexually charged relationships with. Her actions are cold, calculated and self-serving for sure, but there's a propulsive drive to the film that doesn't allow you to question her morality plays too much, until her well choreographed plan reaches its crescendo and the true depth of her plan is revealed.

Di Girolamo has a youthful, innocent face that allows her character to get away with the many manipulations she has at work, but along with her selfish behaviour, this counteracts against her standing as an obvious mother figure and can make her seem like a spiteful brat. It doesn't help that Polo isn't much of a presence for a large majority of the film, and seems to be in far safer hands with his new family. It's also surprising that Larrain regular Gael Garcia Bernal's Gaston is such a secondary character in the film and in Ema's life, as the power dynamic between them says a lot in the short time we see them together. There's an argument to be made that Ema is drawn as a modern, unstoppable feminist superhero figure (wielding a flamethrower will do that), using her sexuality to get herself the family she thinks she's entitled to, but the film stops short of tipping too far into pulp territory.

Character flaws aside, what you definitely come away from this film with is how beautiful it is. The dance sequences in warehouses, basketball courts and on rooftops lit by the Chilean hillsides behind them are often breathtaking, and you don't have to come to this film with an appreciation for modern dance to see how visually arresting the movement is. In that respect, Ema, with her shock of slicked back blonde hair, is the perfect centre-point for the film and its exquisitely lit, bold, vibrant colour palette. The dancers, her lovers, the lights, the camera... the whole world literally revolves around her as she moves through it with shark like intensity.

Larrain's films are always well crafted and executed, but to my mind his films have never moved along with such rhythm before, thanks to the infectious reggaeton music that accompanies most of the dances. By the end of this film you may not be a fan of Ema's character, or in fact most of the key characters who will leave you will many moral quandaries. There's a pervasive nature to the film's erotic thriller leanings that are shocking, but after the dust has settled it's the rhythm and the visual flair that will be the enduring elements of the film.

Verdict
4/5

This review was previously published as part of my coverage of the 2019 London Film Festival. Ema is currently streaming on Mubi and can be viewed here.