Sunday, 28 February 2021

RIDERS OF JUSTICE - Glasgow Film Festival review

When his wife dies in what appears to be a tragic train accident, soldier Markus (Mads Mikkelsen), returns home to care for his daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), who survived the crash. Also among the survivors was Otto (Nikolas Lie Kaas), a theoretical scientist who thinks the events leading up to the crash point to it being an elaborate hit on one of the other passengers, soon to be a key witness against a notorious biker gang. Approaching the grieving Markus with his ideas, they form an unlikely group of vigilantes to bring down the bikers, the Riders of Justice.

Mikkelsen's latest collaboration with director Anders Thomas Jensen - that also sees regular co-stars Nicolaj Lie Kaas and Nicolas Bro as members of his crew of hackers - Riders of Justice is a darkly funny action thriller that asks some deep philosophical questions about fate, coincidence, chaos theory and the butterfly effect. Otto is the inventor of a probability calculator that is able to analyse coincidences to predict trends before they happen, but that had no clear real world application until the tragic crash. Along with his colleagues Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Bro) they convince Markus that the blame can be assigned to the Riders of Justice, as a whistleblower former member was also on the train and a suspicious looking man who exited the train shortly before the crash resembles the brother of the gang leader. More emotionally stable than her father, Mathilde too hopes to work out why this tragedy befell them, covering her walls in post-it notes that chart the events of the day. Had someone not stolen her bike, could she and her mother have avoided the tragedy, or was it the phone call Markus made that morning to say he was going to be away for three more months the reason they took the train? Who, if anyone, is to blame?

From the outside Riders of Justice looks like a suitably dour experience, and it certainly offers moments of that. As an emotionally shuttered man full of pent up aggression, Markus is unable to vocalise his grief and quick to lash out with his fists at his daughter's blue-haired boyfriend Sirius (Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt), or Otto's group of hackers, posing as the psychiatric help his daughter pleads with him to get. With his shaved head and greying beard, Mads's Markus is a departure from the silver fox roles he's become popular for in recent years, but it's as impressive a performance we've come to expect from Mikkelsen. He's on fantastically brooding form as the stoic soldier, unable to express any emotion apart from rage, but able to convey so much with his physicality in place of an over abundance of dialogue. When the film pushes into its action elements, it goes hard, and these scenes impressively show that Markus is a highly trained soldier who's willing and able to kill when needed. The easy comparison would be to Liam Neeson's role as a killer turned family man in Taken, but it's more akin to a 21st century Death Wish, albeit with a weapons expert at its core.

The team that forms around him, Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler, are a ragtag bunch of misfits, all middle aged men who've never really grown up, specialising in some form of illegal activity that pulls them in to a darker world without fully comprehending the danger they're putting themselves in. They're the primary source of the dark comedy in the film, with comic observations such as what detergent is the best one to use what hastily cleaning up a crime scene, and what should you do when you find a sex worker tied up in someone else's house? These moments of levity help cut through and enliven what would be a taut revenge thriller, sitting nicely alongside Jensen's other darkly comic works with Mikkelsen and Kaas, Men & Chicken, The Green Butchers and Adam's Apples. It's also another appealing entry into the "Mads and friends get into ill-advised mischief" cycle of films alongside the upcoming ode to alcohol, Another Round.

Delivering enough gunfire and bloodshed to appeal to action thriller fans whilst also revelling in its black humour, Riders of Justice digs into a grieving man's emotional state to ask questions about causality, the futility of pride and the price of vengeance.

Verdict

5/5

Glasgow Film Festival runs between 24th February and 7th March. All films are released at different times, whereafter they can be rented for three days at £9.99 each.

Friday, 26 February 2021

UNDERGODS - Glasgow Film Festival review

Director Chino Moya's debut feature film offers a nightmarish vision of a world fallen to ruin. Told via loosely connected stories that look at various ideals of family life, Undergods is a harsh warning of how close our fragile society and a collapse into a heartless dystopia really are.

A husband concerned that his wife is having an affair with the mysterious stranger from the 11th floor; a prisoner free to return home from the Orwellian gulag he's been captive in for fifteen years; a father telling a bedtime story of industrial fraud and kidnap to his young daughter. What do these things have in common? Well, this film, obviously. Sharing tonal similarities with last year's Vivarium but with a much grander canvas, every segment of Undergods connects in some way to the idea of family - marital paranoia, strained loyalties, bitter resentments, a father expressing his love - in this debut film from writer/director Chino Moya. 

Hitherto a music video director for the likes of St. Vincent, Marina and the Diamonds and Years & Years, it's clear that Moya is something of a (gulp) visionary director, crafting a world of harsh, brutalist tower blocks both new and in ruin, filled with characters you wouldn't stomach spending more than the allotted time with. The cast includes a number of (to be polite) "interesting" British faces, such as Kate Dickie, Ned Dennehy, Tim Plester and Burn Gorman, all playing various socially inert degenerates, but the only characters who appear throughout are Johann Myers and Géza Röhrig's K & Z who drive around their barren, industrial wasteland looking for victims they can sell off to the local factory, but hey, at least they have fun while they're doing it. For all that Undergods plunges into the depths of human misery, there's some comic moments too, albeit springing up from a dark place.

The structure, or lack thereof, may be too baffling for your average audience (there's no 'A' story, no 'B' story, just a collection of scenes that flow into one another, connected by little more than a single character or even a single frame), but for sci-fi fans willing - and hoping - to have their worldview stretched with some gorgeous, despairingly bleak imagery, Undergods delivers the goods.

Verdict

3.5/5

Undergods is screening as part of the Glasgow Film Festival between 26th February and 1st March.

WRONG TURN (2021) review

When his daughter and her friends go missing while hiking along the Appalachian trail, Scott (Matthew Modine) arrives in the local town to find a guide who'll help him find them. Fighting for survival against The Foundation, a society of survivalists that live in the woods and uses rudimentary but effective booby traps to catch their prey, Scott's daughter Jen (Charlotte Vega) does whatever she can to keep herself and her friends alive.

Written by Alan McElroy, the writer of the original 2003 Eliza Dushku starring original, if you think you know what to expect from a Wrong Turn movie, this latest installment/reboot may surprise you. Ostensibly an excuse for producer Stan Winston to showcase some of the effects work coming out of his studio, the original traded heavily on hicksploitation tropes - the bad guys being grotesquely deformed, inbred cannibals murderising the sexy, young, and oh-so-very white cast. Subtle it wasn't, but it was successful enough to warrant five direct-to-video sequels and prequels in the decade that followed. I'll be honest that I've not seen any of the sequels, but did see the original in the cinema and even recently treated myself with a belated rewatch that affirmed its status as a marginally effective, unoriginal but schlocky enough horror.

And so it's fair to say that I approached this reboot with about as much trepidation you can have before you simply just don't want to watch something, but strong word of mouth coerced me into giving it a go. And I'm glad I did, as it's a very different beast to the original franchise run. Very different. Gone is the reliance on facial abnormalities and a sweaty, Texas Chain Saw Massacre-esque vibe for its antagonists, to be replaced by The Foundation, a deer skull masked cult that use the woods as their weapons against outside intruders. The fresh meat has had a makeover too, introducing BAME and queer characters into the ensemble, admirably without them seeming shoehorned in. There's still some ripe hicksploitation going on in the local township, with rent-a-redneck Tim deZarn (Mordecai in The Cabin in the Woods) trying to scare off the group of yuppies, and later warning Matthew Modine's concerned father Scott that "Out there, nature eats everything it catches... right down to the bone".

Wrong Turn 2021 is a film of two halves that you can almost split exactly down the middle of its (too long) 1 hour 50 runtime. The first half - where Jen, her history buff boyfriend Darius (Adain Bradley) and the rest of her Instagram-friendly gang of hiking hipsters get lost in the woods when looking for an old Civil War fort - is the stronger half, keeping their rivals hidden amongst the trees and out of sight. The threat they offer is effectively spelled out early on with a great set-piece involving a felled tree rolling towards them at a pace, and the film ticks along nicely as the group is thinned out by some nasty looking booby traps. There's some jumping around in the timeline, but the second half - with its more formal introduction of The Foundation and their society, and the efforts of Modine's character to track them down - is a complete U-Turn that's not an altogether satisfying experience.

Without wanting to spoil the full extent of how The Foundation operates, it's entirely possible that writer McElroy found some inspiration for Venable (Bill Sage), the righteous leader of his unorthodox society, in a certain character played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan in a popular post-apocalyptic TV show. Charismatic with a salt and pepper beard and some twisted morals that almost make sense, there's some truly icky elements to this character and what he's willing to allow others to do that leave a bad taste in the mouth and make you wish they'd go back to squashing people with trees. There's certainly things to enjoy after the arrival of Venable, with some graphic special effects work and some delicious rug-pulling that subverts what we've seen so far whilst also wink-wink, nudge-nudge commenting on the downfall of America ("you tell me, whose world is barbaric?"), but without a doubt The Foundation are most effective when sparingly used out in the woods, skull mask adorned.

Such a change of approach this is, one might suggest that this was never intended to be a reboot/distant relative of the original Wrong Turn, but is instead a canny marketing move based on McElroy's involvement. I don't know the truth, and maybe it doesn't matter if the move is a success. Time will tell if this dramatic change of direction will give the rebooted franchise the longevity of the original run, but it's a safe enough guess that fans of the first series of films, as surprised as they might be, will find plenty to enjoy about this effectively gruey reboot.

Verdict

3/5

Signature Entertainment presents Wrong Turn (2021) UK Home Premiere on Digital Platforms 26th February and Blu-Ray & DVD 3rd March

Thursday, 25 February 2021

CREATION STORIES - Glasgow Film Festival review

Starring Ewen Bremner as Alan McGee, the head honcho of the 90's indie record label success Creation, this biopic follows McGee's life from his own childhood dreams of being a rock star to representing some of the biggest rock bands in the world in Primal Scream and Oasis. Told with the caveat that what we are about to see mostly happened, but that "some of the names have been changed to protect the guilty", Creation Stories covers McGee's story through a haze of excess and success, with drug addiction, rehab, and a flirtation with the politics of New Labour, all soundtracked by some classic hits from the era.

Based on McGee's 2013 memoirs of the same name, Creation Stories treads a well worn path of rock music biopics, starting with the younger Alan (played by Leo Flanagan) singing in his childhood bedroom with posters of Bowie, T-Rex and (ahem) Slade on his walls, before a move to London to find fame and fortune turned him into the cynical, jaded music exec he's best known as. Structured around series of interviews the older Alan (Bremner) gives to Suki Waterhouse's music reporter, Gemma, the film jumps into flashbacks to show Alan's earlier life in his native Scotland under the disapproving glare of his father (a fantastically gruff Richard Jobson). As formulaic as they are these earlier scenes are the most appealing portion of the film, in no small part due to Leo Flanagan as the enthusiastic younger incarnation of Alan. When the film does the clichéd biopic move of switching its lead character to the bigger name actor (wearing a series of unconvincing wigs) 20 minutes in, it's a tough ask to accept the mid-40s Bremner as someone 20 years younger. That's not to say that Bremner's not good in the role - in fact, he's great - and as the action moves along to the higher points of McGee's career (such as his discovery of Oasis through sheer dumb luck) he's arguably playing the role he was always destined to play.

With the script co-written by Trainspotting's Irvine Welsh, you'd hope Creation Stories would more effectively tap into that Cool Britannia era that McGee was a figurehead for and that director Nick Moran was himself no stranger to, having starred in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels at the tail end of the decade. Sadly, it feels like a missed opportunity. As much as McGee enjoyed his celebrity (and fair enough, this is based on his memoirs), the vast majority of this film's audience will be wanting to know more about the musicians he's associated with, but the film moves along so quickly that the likes of Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain are on screen for mere seconds. Even when the much coveted appearance of the Gallagher brothers comes an hour in, they're ushered off screen and only appear again fleetingly, despite James McClelland's pretty decent approximation of Noel.

It would be near impossible to talk about this film without mentioning the high watermark of music industry biopics, Michael Winterbottom's 2002 film, 24 Hour Party People. Tony Wilson shares enough in common with McGee (both power hungry men in the right place at the right time, or as McGee would put it "situationists") that there's cross-over beyond their association with Manchester music acts. It's clear that 24HPP was used as a basic blueprint for this, but as highly regarded as that film is, music bios have done some interesting things with their presentation in the intervening two decades, beyond quick editing and a jukebox soundtrack, and the fantasy elements this film employs to show McGee slapping Maggie Thatcher's arse or watch Paul Kaye's record company sellout get buggered by a corporate bigwig. It's also difficult when a film like this ticks so many boxes in the music biography checklist (drugs, rehab, bad wigs), not to think of the Johnny Cash spoof, Walk Hard: A Dewey Cox Story, which only seems more and more spot on since its release.

Nearly buckling under the weight of its cameos, from the inoffensive but forgettable (Ed Byrne as Alistair Campbell), the surprisingly convincing (director Moran as Malcolm McLaren), the outright caricature-ish (James Payton as Tony Blair) and the utterly bizarre (Jason Isaacs as a foppish crack addict), it's a shame that the supporting cast aren't given more opportunity to shine, as there's some great turns there from the likes of Michael Socha as McGee's record company colleague 'Slaughter' Joe Foster. As it stands, the film rests solely on the shoulders of Bremner's performance, and he does succeed in inhabiting McGee, both physically and in attitude. The film plays with the notion that McGee is either a genius or a blagger, with his unwavering assertion that one day he'll have a band that's "bigger than U2". It's just a shame the film doesn't pay more attention to them when they do turn up.

In terms of evoking the anarchic spirit of the Britpop era, Creation Stories doesn't quite hit the mark with its formulaic and unsurprising story, but it's a great central performance from Bremner with a blinder of a soundtrack. It might have limited appeal outside of rock historians and Oasis enthusiasts - who may also be frustrated by the lack of focus on real rock and roll stars - but as to whether they'll like it... it's a definite maybe.

Verdict

3/5

Glasgow Film Festival runs between 24th February and 7th March. All films are released at different times, whereafter they can be rented for three days at £9.99 each.


Sunday, 21 February 2021

THE DOG WHO WOULDN'T BE QUIET/EL PERRO QUE NO CALLA - Rotterdam International Film Festival review

Making its debut at this month's IFFR, the award winning The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet (El Perro Que No Calla) follows Sebastian (Daniel Katz) as he tries to placate his neighbours and workplace when his dog, suffering from immense loneliness, creates a noise issue by crying out in his absence. Choosing to completely change his way of life, we follow Sebastian as he navigates his way through and acclimatises to a number of unexpected personal and societal twists and turns.

Directed and co-written by Argentinian director Ana Katz, this monochrome social-realist fantasy depicts key moments in the life of Sebastian (Daniel Katz), a graphic designer and owner of an 8 year old dog who can't bear to be without him, to the point where he sobs until he returns. Sebastian is a shy, caring man who only wants the best for his pet and everyone around him, and is so unshackled to his own sense of emotional wellbeing that he's willing to change his life to keep others happy, including moving to a remote farm where he can live with his dog in peace. But when tragedy strikes and his life is up-ended once more, he finds himself at a loss, unsure of what direction his life will take and how much control he has in it.

Packing a lot of this man's life into its 73 minutes runtime, it's hard to gauge how much time passes on screen - but given the number of different hairstyles Sebastian dons, at least 5 years - as he drifts from job to job, caring for sick people and helping distribute food with a grocer's co-operative. Jumping between what appear to be random times in his life, it's a beautiful, peaceful film and Sebastian is a character that, even through inaction, seems all too relatable. He's an emotionally guarded but altogether "good" person, holding onto the frustrations he feels as life continually serves him another curveball. This may be his first screen credit, but it's a terrific, insulated performance from Daniel Katz, who's in almost every frame of the film. Even when he's not saying much (or even anything) in a scene, there's a deep sadness and emotional warmth in his eyes that speaks volumes.

Despite the hard to fully pin down synopsis I've offered, it's not all doom and gloom in Sebastian's life. In amongst the tragedies and setbacks that befall him, there's surprising moments of well-observed comedy, such as Sebastian's neighbours all arriving one by one at his house to complain about the noise from his dog, all squeezed into a small space and all carrying umbrellas, or the two way dancefloor seduction Sebastian shares with a young woman (Julieta Zylberberg) and the well placed jump forward in time that reveals the outcome of their encounter. Under Katz's direction, it's easy to become fully immersed in Sebastian's world, even when the story takes an unexpected sci-fi turn. I say sci-fi, but after the 2020 we've just had, seeing characters forced to don oversized face coverings and confirm to a set of strict rules - in this case the need to stay under a height of 4 foot - seems all too plausible. Still, it's another turn you don't see coming, partially illustrated by one of the moments of animation that are peppered throughout. 

A film about facing life's many unexpected, often suffocating moments of rigour head on, The Dog Who Wouldn't be Quiet continually shifts from the path you think it's on, giving lovely, sweet scenes of this average man's life that feel all too relatable, even when pushed into the realm of satirical sci-fi. A quiet, emotional, meditative experience. Enjoy.

Verdict

5/5

Saturday, 20 February 2021

WITCHES OF THE ORIENT/LES SORCIERES DE L'ORIENT - Rotterdam International Film Festival review

Reunited more than 50 years after they competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the surviving members of the Japanese Olympic volleyball team reminisce about their incredible sporting success. So impressive was their winning streak that it was looked at as almost otherworldly, leading the foreign press to dub them the "Witches of the Orient". Using new interviews, vintage anime and archive footage of their training sessions, Julian Faraut's new film charts the team's rise from humble factory floor beginnings to facing off against their biggest rivals in an Olympic final.

One of the highlights of the recently wrapped IFFR Rotterdam International Film Festival (that is, until the second leg begins in June), French director Julian Faraut's Witches of the Orient (Les Sorcieres de L'Orient in its original French) is a fascinating blend of archive materials and volleyball anime - a subgenre that sprang up at the height of the team's success and that is still being made today - along with new interviews with the team, now all in their seventies. Gathered around a grand roundtable - the setting for a catch up meal rather than an in depth interview - Faraut nods to the level of fame and hero-worship they once received by introducing each player with stylised on-screen graphics. More appropriate for characters from a Saturday morning cartoon that a group of septuagenarians, these intro's reveal the taunting, often cruel nicknames they played under (Blowfish, Horse, Kettle, and so on), bestowed upon them by their coach, Hirofumi 'The Demon' Daimatsu, based on how he judged their physical appearances. 

It's certainly jarring by modern standards to see such an un-PC approach to coaching, and alongside the footage of Daimatsu relentlessly hurling balls at his team, it stands as both a relic of a different time and a (not excused) display of how he pushed them to greatness, training them 6 days a week, 51 weeks a year. Maybe it's Stockholm syndrome or just the ability to look back on their youth with fondness, but the team all remember the barbs and nicknames in good humour, and have a lot of praise to offer for Daimatsu.

The film follows the team's humble beginnings from the Nichibo Kaizuka factory - with players graduating from the factory floor to becoming part of the sports team - all the way through their success at the World Volleyball Championships and towards the prospects of bringing home Olympic gold. As fate would have it, Tokyo was chosen as the host city for the 1964 Olympics, marking the first time television would be broadcast from Asia to the United States as well as the introduction of two new Olympic sports, judo and volleyball. With huge political and cultural ramifications, as well as national pride at stake - particularly when the volleyball team were to face their biggest rivals, the USSR, in the final - the importance of winning wasn't lost on these women.

Paralleling their success with that of Japanese industry, Faraut employs a number of energetic montages to show how the team was trained to win. Cut together to create a collage of animation, old footage and a propulsive new synth soundtrack courtesy of Grandaddy's Jason Lytle, Witches of the Orient resembles something akin to a music video Spike Jonze would have made at the turn of the millennium. The volleyball anime that shows them jumping like superheroes is incredibly fun to watch and gives the film a truly unique way of telling the story of these women. Likewise the footage of them training, showing the relentless regimen they were under, has a rhythmic quality that pulls you into their world.

Where the film does hit a wall somewhat, is in the modern day interviews with the players. We see their family lives as doting grandmothers (and in one case a still active love for volleyball), but these sequences do go on longer than necessary and stop the momentum the film builds with its archive material. Faraut's approach is about offering these clashes in speed and sources, switching gears from a Portishead scored montage to a more sedate, formal documentary 'slice-of-life' style, but an argument could be made that had he presented a documentary that was solely comprised of just the archive, all the high points would remain intact.

In the same way his 2018 tennis doc In the Realm of Perfection was less an expose of John McEnroe as a public figure of some repute and more a dissection of the mechanics of how McEnroe was such a skilled athlete, where this film succeeds is in selling the Nichibo Kaizuka team as a force to be reckoned with. As the film sets into the final showdown against the team from the Soviet Union, the reveal of the restoration work on the original film is incredible, looking and sounding as good as new. I'm sure the original footage was passable, but the attention it's been afforded gives this film the sporting climax it deserves. Director Julian Faraut has crafted a truly fascinating documentary on the young lives of these women and the pressure they were under to succeed from the powers that be. Inventively presented and compelling, Witches of the Orient is a gripping, joyous experience. 

Verdict

4/5




Monday, 15 February 2021

MORE THAN MIYAGI: THE PAT MORITA STORY review

Known to most for playing Mr Miyagi, one of cinema's greatest mentor figures, this new documentary goes into revealing detail about the actor behind the role, Pat Morita. Starting his show business career as a stand-up comedian before moving into comic acting in a whole host of American sitcoms, he was also a man burdened with a traumatic childhood and a devastating drink problem.


With the current interest in the Karate Kid franchise and all things Cobra Kai following the incredible (and let's face it, surprising) success of the reboot series on Netflix, you could be forgiven for expecting this film to spend the majority of its time focusing on Morita's role as the kindly janitor turned Daniel-san's unorthodox Karate teacher - but as the title suggests, there's a lot more to know about Pat Morita than his signature, Oscar nominated role as Mr Miyagi. Made with the involvement of Morita's widow, Evelyn Guerrero-Morita, and loosely structured around a radio interview she gives about Pat, writer, director and editor Kevin Derek's film follows a traditional bio-doc structure, starting way back at the start of Morita's life and moving forward. 

Born in San Francisco in 1932, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita was diagnosed with spinal TB at the age of two, forced to wear a restrictive cast for the majority of his childhood and told it was likely he would never walk. Then, just as he recovered from that trauma, he and his family found themselves at the outbreak of World War II and were whisked away to an Arizonan internment camp (or as they were told, a "relocation centre") for the duration of the war. Deciding at the age of 30 that he wanted to pursue his dream of a career in show business, he left his family's restaurant and went into comedy. Given the reductive moniker "The Hip Nip" by his manager - and mother of Lenny Bruce - Sally Marr, Morita's stand-up routines would involve self-effacing jokes about Pearl Harbour and a subversion of the audience's expectations when he opened his mouth and spoke with an American accent. From this he launched a career in television, often playing small bit parts as Asian characters of ill-defined origin in The Love Boat, MASH, Laverne and Shirley, Sanford and Sons, and most notably his breakout role as Arnold in Happy Days. One of the most interesting tidbits the documentary offers is the revelation that the network standards and practices office wanted him fired from the role for being an actor of Japanese heritage playing a Chinese character, until Morita himself was able to come up with a convoluted back story for his character that convinced Happy Days creator Garry Marshall and kept him on the show.

What's most surprising about Morita's story is how much there is to tell before you get to his iconic role in The Karate Kid. Given its fair dues with talking heads from Ralph Macchio, William Zabka and Martin Kove - all now reliving their Karate Kid roles in sequel series Cobra Kai - it's a credit to this documentary that it doesn't dominate his story, even if it did come to define his career. More Than Miyagi paints Morita as a lively joker, at odds with the composure his most famous character displayed, and an actor willing to adopt the American interpretation of Asian culture even if it was completely alien to him. When asked in an interview if he had any karate skills prior to making the film, his quick-witted response was "The only martial arts I was involved in were Garry Marshall, Penny Marshall and maybe (Chicago department store) Marshall Field's".

The doc casts a wider net when examining some of the shockingly racist casting decisions that blight Hollywood's history - from race-switching Marlon Brando and John Wayne to Mickey Rooney's ghastly caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany's - but also the cultural stereotypes Morita was asked to play at the start of his career, and again towards the end when his Oscar nomination seemed like a distant memory. A success story who was also held back by racial prejudice and ignorance, despite him knowing that his casting didn't make sense he wasn't ever in a position to turn down paid work.

Director Kevin Derek must have a taste for martial arts and Karate Kid lore, having already completed two previous documentaries about "The Real Karate Kids" and a biography of Fumio Demura, Morita's stunt double for Miyagi. Here he's assembled a great selection of interviewees, from friends James Hong, Tommy Chong and Lance Burton, to the core Karate Kid cast and also a very willing array of Happy Days co-stars, all gushing over how much fun they had with Morita. One of the most powerful moments of this film falls to The Fonz himself, Henry Winkler, who reveals what kind words he gave to Morita when his spiralling drink problem scuppered his involvement in a Happy Days casts reunion special.

Despite the notable non-involvement of his daughters, there's a tremendous amount of appreciation of Morita's life and career, revealing a sweet, funny, extremely troubled man who had the odds stacked against him from the start but worked hard to create a truly memorable character. A little rough around the edges in places (there's some glaring typos in the on-screen text), there might not be anything new in the by-the-numbers way Morita's story is presented, but More Than Miyagi uses its tried and tested formula well, delivering some fascinating insight into an entertainer who became an unlikely icon.

Verdict 4/5

More Than Miyagi is streaming now on all VOD platforms

Saturday, 13 February 2021

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Drawing to a temporary close last weekend, the 50th edition of the Rotterdam International Film Festival (better known as IFFR) switched up its format for these pandemic stricken times, mirroring most of the other big-hitter festivals by shifting online, but rather than offering a reduced festival Rotterdam is setting itself apart by expanding and splitting in two - a February programme and another, more optimistic instalment scheduled for June that aims to incorporate outdoor screenings an in-cinema events across The Netherlands that will highlight the festival's rich history and reputation of championing emerging filmmakers from around the globe.

Incorporating different areas of competition - the Tiger Competition, the Big Screen Competition and the Tiger Shorts Competition -  that comprised 30 features and nearly the same amount of shorts, the winners were announced as part of the closing night celebrations, that also honoured director Kelly Reichardt with the second annual Robby Müller Award for her work in film. With so many films on offer it's simply impossible to take them all in - I missed out on the new Mads Mikkelsen film Riders of Justice that I was hoping to see - but along with the switch to a virtual format there's a newfound joy in going into screenings (at home) blind with no pre-conceived ideas or word of mouth buzz that you'd expect at old-fashioned "physical" festivals, apart from the occasional mention on Twitter that's not always a sure-fire benchmark of quality.

Directed by Félix Dufour-Laperrière, French animation Archipelago/Archipel creates an almost trance-like world of imagery and poetry, using natural landscapes and archive film as part of their palette to aide the animation of the imagined islands of the title. Using a variety of techniques from simple line drawings to rotoscoping, my personal favourite element was the inverse silhouettes it employed that draw the eye like the keyhole of a door to another world. It's a technique used before, perhaps most notably in the Pixar short Night and Day, but accompanying the dialogue that's delivered as if it's a confessional diary entry written by a warring couple ("You don't exist", "You're wrong"), there's a deeper emotional weight to it. I'll be honest that it's the visuals that make Archipelago a compelling experience, and even if you do check out from the continuing narrative as you're entranced by a rotoscoped swimmer or old film brought to new life with some animated enhancements, the cyclical nature of the film is forgiving.

Drawing way too much inspiration from Todd Phillips' Joker, The Cemil Show follows a shopping mall security guard (Ozan Çelik) as he lives out his fantasy of being a movie star by studying and copying the performance of his idol, Turgay Goral, the villain in a series of films in the 1960s. By chance, Cemil's co-worker Burcu (Nesrin Cavadzade) happens to be Goral's daughter, giving Cemil access to a VHS archive of his past performances that will push the already unhinged wannabe actor over the edge of insanity. As his delusion becomes a psychotic desire to become Goral's villain for real, Cemil puts the lives of Burcu and the original film's director in serious danger.

It's a sad, joyless film with a thoroughly unclear message that's drastically and un-ironically hampered by its own desire to ape Joaquin Phoenix's Oscar winning turn as Arthur Fleck in Joker, not helped at all by budgetary limitations that mean a large proportion of scenes are shot on the empty level of a multi-storey car park. There's some surprisingly effective character work by Cavadzade, as Burcu becomes increasingly fed up with her lot in life, but the performance of Çelik as an average Joe turned homicidal madman just isn't convincing.

Dutch director David Verbeek's Dead and Beautiful follows the nocturnal activities of a group of young, wealthy urbanites as they explore the benefits of their newfound blood lust on the streets of Taiwan. Waking up after a spiritual cleansing with fangs, they retreat to the empty luxury penthouse owned by one of their billionaire fathers and plot how best to make the most of life as a vampire. Equal parts socio-political and sociopathic, Dead and Beautiful taps into the 80's yuppie excess of Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys and Flatliners. It's a pleasingly inventive update on the genre that treats vampirism like a designer drug, starring a group of characters that are blinded by their immense privilege and contempt for everyone else.

Nodding heavily towards Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Alice Lowe's Prevenge and Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, Black Medusa stars Nour Hajri as Nada, a near mute young woman who picks up random men in the nightclubs of Tunis in order to violently and sadistically murder them. When her workmate Noura extends an offer of friendship, Nada rejects her, until a dangerous turn of events sees her calling on her in her time of need.

Presented as a 'Tale in Nine Nights', it's a mystery as to why Nada is doing this, although the sexual humiliation she inflicts on these men (such as penetrating them with a broom handle) hints towards her motivation. Shot over 12 days with a small crew, it's a gorgeous black and white that features a number of outdoor day-lit scenes that show off the vibrancy and beauty of Tunis. Despite being almost entirely mute and carrying a blank, numb expression, Hajri's a compelling presence on screen and manages to convey a lot with a simple stare. A troubling look at a woman taking action against the repulsive side of life in her city, Black Medusa is a dark, catharsis-free revenge fantasy. 

More than 50 years after competing at the Tokyo Olympics, the surviving members of the Nichibo Kaizuka volleyball team are brought back together to reminisce about their worldwide success that lead to them being dubbed the Witches of the Orient, and the rigorous training they were put through by their head coach, Hirofumi 'The Demon' Daimatsu. Using some of the vintage volleyball anime that became prevalent after their success on the world stage and footage from their training sessions, director Julian Faraut has crafted a truly fascinating documentary on the young lives of these women, and the pressure they were under to succeed.

Cut together to create a collage of animation, old footage and a new propulsive soundtrack, Witches of the Orient (or to give it its original French title, Les Sorcières de l'Orient) resembles something akin to a Spike Jonze music video montage, but with a deeper emotional journey served with its use of the present day interviews with the women, now in their seventies. As the film sets into the final showdown against the team from The Soviet Union, the reveal of the restoration work is incredible, making it a gripping, joyous experience to watch. Inventively presented and compelling, Witches of the Orient is a fantastic achievement in documentary filmmaking.

In Karen Cinorre's dreamlike Mayday, Grace Van Patten stars as Ana, a waitress at a wedding who in the middle of a storm warning is transported into a new world where soldiers are falling from the sky and the world she knew is out of order. Teaming up with a troop of young women lead by Mia Goth's Marsha, they listed to radio signals from their beached submarine and fend off the danger posed by the continuing appearance of new soldiers around them.

A 'girl's own adventure' with a World War II meets Wizard of Oz slant to it, Mayday throws a lot of creativity at the screen and not all of it sticks. The world they're in is a befuddling one, and although unexpected dance routines and synchronised swimming might make for charming interludes, it's hard to see what relevance they have to the story. Van Patten, an absolute star on the rise after solid performances in Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories and Dolly Wells' Good Posture, serves the script well and has a great interplay with Mia Goth, but there's not enough substance to make this feel more than just a flight of fancy.

The final feature I was able to see and one of the absolute delights of the festival was Ana Katz's The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet/El Perro Que No Calla, following a young man, Sebastian (Daniel Katz), as he tries to placate his neighbours and his workplace when his dog suffers immense loneliness when he's not there and cries out until he returns. The deserved winner of the Big Screen Competition prize, it's a fascinating and completely unpredictable story that jumps ahead to key moments in Sebastian's life as it takes a number of unforeseen turns, including a segment that sees characters forced to wear breathing helmets and obey a strict protocol to stay below 4ft. Science fiction that's utterly feasibly given the 2020 we just had, it's a film that continually shifts what you think it is, giving lovely, sweet moments of unexpected comedy to balance the rigours of Sebastian's life.

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Thursday, 11 February 2021

WILLY'S WONDERLAND review

When a silent, perma-snarling drifter (Nicolas Cage) sustains tyre damage to his car when travelling through small-town Hayesville, he finds himself saddled with a $1000 bill for the repairs and no way to pay it. Agreeing to work off his debt by spending the night cleaning Willy's Wonderland, a run-down family restaurant populated by animatronic characters, he faces more than he bargained for when the machines start to violently attack him, all while a group of vengeful teens are trying to burn the place down.

With no disrespect to the man, there's something of an expectation in recent Nicolas Cage movies that's now being milked for all it's worth by film marketing departments. Writ large on many Cage film posters from the last few years is the promise that this is his most "extreme", most "crazy" appearance yet - a reputation that simply can't be sustained, not even by Nicolas Cage. And so for fans of his regular output (and it is certainly that, with 18 feature films completed in the last three years and a Joe Exotic mini-series still to come) there's an omni-present feeling that his films don't live up to the hype, despite the best efforts of Cage to one-up himself, appeasing his fans with wild outbursts and oddball line-readings that create these buzz worthy moments.

With Willy's Wonderland he's trying something a bit different. Also on board as a producer, Cage's drifter (an un-named man known only as The Janitor) rolls into town not looking for trouble but inevitably finding some, facing off against a group of raggedy-looking, psychotic animatronic puppets, all whilst not saying a single word. Yes, the actor famous for some of the most gloriously insane lines of dialogue in film history, the stuff of YouTube compilation dreams, plays a character who remains completely mute throughout the film, even when he's taking on Ozzy Ostrich armed only with a mop or Gus Gorilla with a toilet plunger. There's no mistaking that this is a choice of the character to not engage with other people's bullshit rather than any physical impairment, and although I haven't gone back to check the original script to check, it wouldn't surprise me one iota to discover that this was a character choice made by Cage on the first day of filming in order to flex his acting muscles whilst also subverting the audience expectation of him.

The premise of Willy's Wonderland is pretty basic, really, riffing on the old 'spend one night in a haunted mansion' trope and adding in an admirably cheeky amount of the cult video game, Five Nights at Freddy's. Whereas the game sees a security guard have to spend consecutive nights fending off Freddy Fazbear and his psychotic animatronic friends in a dark, moody, family restaurant, Willy's Wonderland sees a JANITOR spend ONE night fending off WILLY WEASEL and his psychotic animatronic friends in a dark, moody, family restaurant. Actually, what am I saying? They're completely different premises and are LEGALLY NOT THE SAME THING. To be fair to the writer of Willy's Wonderland, despite the obvious similarities, the intellectual property rights must have been looked at and cleared beforehand (attempts to make an official FNaF film adaptation have repeatedly fallen through), and the brazenness of it all goes towards the tongue in cheek attitude that works in the film's favour.

There's some gloriously stupid shenanigans as to why this family restaurant ended up housing a group of homicidal maniacs - involving a suicide ritual, a dark secret that implicates the entire town, and Beth "Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion" Grant's local Sheriff - but the film moves by quickly enough that you don't pay more attention than is necessary to the plot, instead delivering you set-piece after set-piece of a blood-spattered Cage taking on Willy and his animal friends as they sing their super-catchy birthday song with murderous intent. These confrontations do become a bit 'samey' after a while and are more reliant on being bloody than they are scary. Even after the film introduces the group of cliche-driven, stereotypically annoying teens (lead by best of the bunch, Emily Tosta) to the mix and they become fodder for the furry freaks, a near re-setting of the same scene kicks in (you might say, almost like a video game) as Cage's janitor cleans a room, picks off an enemy, leaves them in a trash bag by the door for the morning and then has to start back at square one again, cleaning up the bloody mess he's just made.

Having Cage vocalise the madness going on around him might have been a hat on a hat, but it's a pity Willy's Wonderland won't get included among those numerous YouTube compilations as it's enjoyably daft fun that can be ranked high in Cage's recent filmography. His janitor is a cool, calm, Snake Plissken-esque bad-ass who takes the attacks from the 7-foot furries with fury in his stride, hoping to get through the night with his supply of energy drinks and a few games of pinball. It's even more of a pity that Willy's Wonderland was deprived of its planned theatrical release back in October, as it's a film that would benefit a great deal from the presence of a crowd - this would have gone down a storm at Frightfest with its Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama/Waxwork vibe - but watching from your sofa it still delivers plenty of ridiculous, over the top "Cage Rage" moments, even if it's hard not to miss those one-liners.

Verdict

3.5/5

Signature Entertainment Presents Willy’s Wonderland Home Premiere on Digital Platforms 12th February


Sunday, 7 February 2021

RAMS review

In the Southern Australian valley of Mount Barker, the Grimurson brothers haven't spoken to each other for 40 years, despite living side by side on what once their family sheep farm, now split down the middle. When a bacterial infection forces them and all the local farmers to slaughter all their livestock, Colin (Sam Neill) secretly hides his prize ram and a few of his favourite ewes in his house, going to great lengths to avoid their discovery by his elder brother Les (Michael Caton) or the town veterinarian, Kat (Miranda Richardson) knowing that the Department of Agriculture could take his farm from him if they find out.

A remake of the 2015 Icelandic film, Hrutar (Rams in English), Rams transports the story to Southern Australia and casts Antipodean acting legends Sam Neill & Michael Caton as the warring Grimurson brothers. Separated by nothing more than stubbornness, a wire fence and a bitter feud that goes back decades, when Colin detects signs of Ovine Johne's Disease (OJD) in one of Les's prize-winning Rams, he has to report it to vet, Kat (Richardson). When the bureaucrats from the Department for Agriculture get involved, they order all local farms to relinquish their livestock to be destroyed to keep the OJD localised to their valley. Unwilling to let them take his flock away from the land they were raised on to be slaughtered, Colin does the sad deed himself, secretly storing the best of his animals in his home in the hope he can save the rare breed once the crisis is over.

There's a lot to be said for the appeal of a grizzled Sam Neill in a thick knit jumper, and although Colin isn't quite as socially awkward as Hec in Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople, he's on fine 'grumpy old bastard' form. Even so, he's able to carry on friendships with the local farmers, unlike his reclusive, alcoholic and extremely cantankerous elder brother who keeps himself to himself and only communicates with his brother via messages delivered by the farm's trusty sheepdog. Both victims of foolish pride, there's great performances from Neill and Caton - acting opposite each other for the first time since the 70's - and the film is at its best when they're sharing the screen, even if they're not sharing dialogue. The back and forth between them sees Les shooting Colin's boots with his rifle and Colin delivering his drunkard brother to hospital in the bucket of his digger, all without a shared word. 

There's much to enjoy in this sweet, charming romp, even if at 2 hours it's far longer than it needs to be. Time is taken to appreciate the sprawling Australian vistas for all their beauty, and the landscapes unforgiving nature as characters have to join forces and battle the threat of bush fires taking out the town. As a potential love interest for Colin, Miranda Richardson's Kat is sadly under utilised, and Leon Ford's Department of Agriculture agent stops just short of being a pantomime villain of William Atherton in Ghostbusters proportions, but when Colin and Les inevitably face off against each other and (fair enough, I'll say the obvious) lock horns, the film does switch up a gear and hits all the right tragic-comic notes to make Rams a bit of a beaut. 

A film about family and caring for one's own flock, it's genuinely touching to see Colin talk to his sheep to remind them "you are beautiful, you are beautiful, but you're best". There's a farcical, Wallace and Gromit-esque charm to seeing Sam Neill shepherd his flock around his tiny cabin, using his bathtub as a trough and a grate in the floor to secretly dispose of the mounds of sheep dung, and it's surprising how much comedy can be mined from a charming pair of low hanging sheep testicles. With delightfully curmudgeonly performances from Caton and Neill, Rams is as heart-warming as a thickly knit woollen jumper.

Verdict

4/5

Signature Entertainment Presents Rams on Digital Platforms 5th February, and is available on iTunes.

Friday, 5 February 2021

SUMMER OF '72 review

In 1972 Tuscaloosa, layabout slacker Billy (Devon Bostick) wants to spend his summer mowing lawns for a quick buck, avoiding Vietnam and hanging out with Virginia (Natalia Dyer), the wild new patient at the asylum his psychiatrist father runs. Billy's childhood best friend Nigel (Marchant Davis) runs the local BBQ shack under the watchful eye of law enforcement, simply for him being black. As Billy and Virginia's romance develops and the status of her mental health is increasingly erratic, Nigel starts to fight back against the police oppression as cracks begin to appear in his and Billy's friendship.

Based on the novel by Glasgow Phillips and released in the States under the original title of Tuscaloosa, Summer of '72 (there must now be enough Summer of ... films to populate the last century) begins with vintage '60s news reports of Governor George Wallace, who showed his dissatisfaction with the desegregation of the University of Alabama by infamously 'standing in the schoolhouse door' to block new students of colour from entering, and was the victim of a failed assassination attempt when he ran for the Democratic primary in 1972. Although this footage don't have a direct correlation with the plot of this film, it's an effective shorthand to give an idea of what sort of prejudice the Black citizens of Alabama were having to live under from some of the highest people in elected office. The correlations with modern day are pretty clear from the outset.

With his unkempt hair, sunglasses and ready supply of reefer, Billy has no idea what a charmed life he's lived so far, even with the tragic death of his mother years earlier that haunts him. The son of a successful doctor (Tate Donovan) he lies around aimlessly, doing odd jobs to keep his father off his back. This changes when Virginia - a quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl if ever there was one - appears on the scene to shake up his life a bit. A new patient at his father's asylum, admitted by her own father for her wild "nymphomaniac" ways, Billy is immediately drawn to the chaos she offers, even if he doesn't know if she truly lives up to the lunatic label they've given her. Responding to her pleas to get her out of there, Billy takes her fishing and to meet his best friend Nigel, and enjoys one of those 'driving with the roof down, wind blowing in your hair, making out in a field' kind of romances that's the stuff of teenage dreams and that you only see in movies. Things aren't as easy for Nigel, who has to contend with law enforcement driving by his business to intimidate him, something that doesn't sit well with his Black Panther friend Antoine (hip-hop artist YG) who plans to retaliate by attacking the station house.

Filmed in 2017, released in the US in March last year, and now reaching these shores after the death of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, there's elements of Nigel's arc in Summer of '72 that feel incredibly timely. Tired of the threat of police brutality and facing up to how much an ally his white friend Billy can really be if he's blind to the struggles Nigel has had to face all his life (his mother being Billy's maid, as well as his mother's best friend), he starts to follow the guidance of Antoine that, "if he's not part of the solution, he's part of the problem", cutting Billy out of his life. It's an interesting plot thread, and coupled with the earlier footage of Alabama history would make for a compelling narrative with Nigel as the lead, but his friendship with Billy and increasingly volatile reaction to law enforcement is very much the 'B' story of the film, taking a back seat to the love story between Billy and Virginia.

As the free-spirited Virginia, Dyer (best known for Netflix's Stranger Things, but also in last year's surprisingly subversive Catholic high school comedy, Yes, God, Yes), has got a touch of True Romance's Alabama Worley about her with her charming but unpredictable, free-spirited ways; and although Summer of '72 never ventures too far down a Bonnie & Clyde/Badlands route, it's clear as it progresses that it wants to hit some of those 'young couple on the run' sub-genre tropes along the way, with some lovely sun-drenched scenes, a good attention to period detail and a rather sweet love story, even as Billy becomes concerned about Virginia's mental state.

There's a sense that they've missed a trick in not paying more attention to Nigel's story, instead focusing on the white couple and treating the palpable racial tensions as a mere backdrop to their romance (oh, to be young, in love and clueless of the world around you), meaning that when the threads do interweave, they don't always gel too easily. There's solid support from Tate Donovan as the well respected doctor, hiding his darker side and association with the Sheriff's department from his son, and some fine performances at its core from Bostick, Dyer and Davis. Those expecting a history lesson on Alabama's race relations may feel short changed, but if you want an sweet teenage romance with a little edge, Summer of '72 provides it.

Verdict

3/5

Signature Entertainment presents Summer of ‘72 on Digital Platforms 1st February, and is available on Amazon and iTunes.


Tuesday, 2 February 2021

POSSESSOR review

Using high tech brain implants that place skilled operatives inside the mind of an unwitting host, a secret agency assassinates high profile targets with no way it can be traced back to them or their clients. Once the job is completed the extraction method is simple; a self-inflicted bullet to the brain to bring the mind of the agent back to their own body. As the process continues to take a toll on the mental well-being of agent Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) she assures her superiors she's ready for her next mission inhabiting the mind of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), but quickly loses her foothold on his body as Colin's consciousness starts to fight against her intrusion.


Arriving a whole eight years after his debut feature, Antiviral, Possessor marks a turning point in the career of writer/director Brandon Cronenberg, both artistically and critically. Although Antiviral was well-received by those that saw it, it's fair to say that it didn't reach a huge audience outside genre fans drawn in by the intrigue that his family name brings. It was unavoidable that Cronenberg the younger was always going to have to work hard to spring out from behind the shadow of his father, David, particularly when working within the body horror genre that marked arguably the high point of his father's filmography with films like Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly. But it's also worth noting that those successes occurred twenty years into his career, having spent years directing for television before 1975's Shivers gave him a clear calling card. For Brandon, who has spent the years between features working on short film projects, there's clearly some shared DNA with his father in his approach to horror (and more specifically body horror) but Possessor has quite rightly been heralded as the arrival of a true visionary filmmaker.

Possessor arrives on digital and blu-ray with great word of mouth and some notoriety, thanks in part to its more extreme elements of gore and special effects. The opening scene sees a young woman enter a crowded bar and proceed to stab a man to death (and then some), who then puts a gun in her mouth but finds herself unable to pull the trigger. Shocking and gruesome, it's a bold, blood soaked introduction to what's to come. As the police guns the young woman down, the conscience of Vos (Riseborough), the agency's lead assassin, returns to her own body, mission completed but not faultless. Pale and with bleached blonde hair, Riseborough's Vos looks like a ghost or inverse shadow, maybe of her former self, maybe of someone else. As she debriefs to her superior, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and tries to re-stabilise her mind to her own reality by describing her connection to various personal items, it becomes clear that due to the lasting after effects of her work, her family life has become strained to breaking point. Returning home to see her son, she has to rehearse what she is going to say to him in order to pass as a normal person, and not the hollow shell she sees herself as.


Assuring her superiors that she's ready, Vos takes on a new mission to assassinate wealthy businessman John Parse (Sean Bean), by inhabiting the body of his daughter's boyfriend, Colin Tate (Abbott), with only a few days to finish the job before the effects could cause lasting damage to Vos's psyche. But as Tate's host starts to fight back against the invading presence of Vos's conscience in his mind and their physical and mental worlds start to intertwine, the fight for control spills out into the real world.

If you're confused, don't worry. Possessor is certainly a film that's full to the brim with outlandish sci-fi concepts, like the dream world of Inception going on in the mind of someone who's just gone through the door behind the filing cabinet in Being John Malkovich (or maybe the other way around?), but it's a thoroughly entertaining experience. For sure, there's moments around the mid point of the film where Christopher Abbott is on screen and it might be difficult to track whether we're looking at Tate or Vos acting as Tate, but that's kind of the point. What's for certain is that as the story progresses and the film reaches its bravura psycho-sexual set-piece that gives it its most indelible image (and its poster and cover image), you'll just be happy to be along for the ride with them, no matter who may be in control.


Indelible it may be, but it's also not the only incredible piece of effects work, courtesy of British special effects master Dan Martin. A frequent collaborator or Ben Wheatley and with other notable recent credits including Richard Stanley's Colour Out of Space and Jonas Akerlund's Lords of Chaos, anyone who's seen the effects work there will be able to attest to their quality and also visceral impact. There's some truly nasty make-up effects in Possessor as Vos gets to work, and it's stomach churning in it's detail as teeth, eyeballs and fingers all find themselves on the wrong side of Vos/Tate. The inclusion of "Uncut" on Possessor's cover may call back to an era of banned films and highly compromised edits and is undoubtedly there as a marketing ploy for gorehounds, but it is a reassurance that the inclusion of these moments has been deemed necessary and not exploitative by the ratings board. And it's not all blood and guts. There's also an incredible effect that marks the start of the mission, visualising the physical melting away of Vos, only to reform as Tate that can only be described as beautiful.

It's a vividly directed film by Cronenberg, utilising bold reds to differentiate between Tate and Vos's POV and contrasting yellow flares, coupled with a blurring lens and quick cuts as things become more detached from reality between the two leads. Abbott and Riseborough are both fully committed to their roles/role, and as the story falls into what can only be described as an extended psychotic episode for the two of them. A success of their performances within what are increasingly blurred lines is that you want to heap praise on both of them, even when only one of them is on screen. There are some ideas that aren't developed or explored to their full potential, leaving some threads hanging. For example, Colin Tate's job sees him spying through people's webcams in order to document their lives and material belongings in as mundane a detail as choice of curtains. It's an intrusion that nicely mirrors Vos's own whilst also providing commentary on our own real world fears of privacy and personal data collection by multi-national conglomerates, but it's put to one side in order to focus on Vos's primary mission.

A mystery/sci-fi/horror that offers plenty of mind melting ideas that will stay with you long after, beyond the comparisons to its sci-fi, horror forebearers and the work of Brandon Cronenberg's father, Possessor is uncompromisingly it's own thing. Gloriously violent, shocking, visceral, tragic - it has to be seen by your own two eyes to truly be believed.

Verdict

4/5

Possessor is on digital HD 1 February and Blu-ray & DVD 8 February from Signature Entertainment



Monday, 18 January 2021

RELIC review

When her elderly mother is reported missing, Kay and her daughter Sam (Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote) go looking for her at the old family home, finding it empty and in a state of disarray. When Edna (Robyn Nevin) re-appears a couple of days later, seemingly fit, healthy and full of life, she can't recall where she's been or why she left home. Staying to care for her for a few days, Kay and Sam start to hear and see strange things around the house that may offer clues to what is really going on.

At the centre of Relic is three excellent performances from from the three central women. Emily Mortimer, with what to my ear sounds like a pretty spot on Aussie accent, really expresses Kay's resentment towards her mother and her condition, and her own guilt for feeling it. Bella Heathcote's Sam shows a more innocent, possibly naive belief that all will be well and how it used to be when she was younger, not understanding that her grandmother is not quite the same woman as she used to be. As Edna, a fragile, sometimes cantankerous ageing matriarch, Robyn Nevin taps into the character's confusion and despair at the changing of her life, her memory switching from hazy to sharp, almost like she's looking through the different coloured panes in the stained glass window that adorns her front door. The feature debut of Natalie Erika James, this Australian chiller has its fair share of unsettling sights to see, but is also surprising in how tender and moving it can be. The recent high benchmark for disturbing familial horrors is undoubtedly Ari Aster's Hereditary, and although Relic is a very different story at heart and without the overall shock/gore factor of that film, there's a similarly foreboding tone that builds throughout until it envelopes this family and their home.

As Edna increasingly loses her foothold on her life and memories and begins muttering to herself (or someone we can't see) as she carries out her favourite pastime of candle carving (creepy AND gothic), there's a generational divide between Kay and Sam as to what the best course of action is. Whereas Sam is readying herself to upend her life and move in with Edna, Kay is researching care homes, having already put her work life on hold to come look for her. It's here that the film digs into the real human drama that audiences may be able to relate to, having to reckon with that feeling of going into a place or seeing a person you once knew, albeit now in a different state, tapping into fears of our own mortality and of how we might be cared for in our old age.

Instead of loud jump scares and grisly shock tactics to gross you out (aside from the finale which does considerably up the ante in this respect), Relic opts to create its scariest moments by using the creepy, crowded corridors of the house to its advantage, showing glimpses of objects and people in the shadows that reward repeat viewings. Horror fans expecting a Hereditary or Insidious may feel disappointed in the relative lack of truly chilling set-pieces, but this is clearly something that Natalie Erika James and co-writer Christian White were never aiming for, instead crafting a story with a deeper emotional connection to its audience.


As the three generations of women delve deeper into the increasingly rotten core of the house in the final act, the film not only provides a climactic resolution to the horror side of the story, but also a surprisingly touching reflection on ageing, dementia, loss and grief. It's in this area that the film had the potential to be heavy handed or even manipulative of its audience, but thankfully is well handled by James and gives Relic an emotional, visually beautiful and extremely effective conclusion. 

Verdict

4/5

Signature Entertainment presents Relic on Digital HD now and Blu-ray & DVD 18 January 2021.


Blu-ray and iTunes Special Features include:

- London Film Festival 2020 Q&A with Natalie Erika James and Michael Blyth

- Interviews

- Relic shoot time-lapse

- Behind the scenes - "Lost" & "Stunts"