Friday 26 March 2021

AIDS DIVA: THE LEGEND OF CONNIE NORMAN - BFI Flare Film Festival 2021 review

Telling the story of Connie Norman, the HIV-positive, transgender former sex-worker who became a leading voice in ACT UP's political activism to fight the AIDS epidemic in the late 80s, director Dante Alencastre's AIDS Diva hopes to acknowledge the contribution this forgotten figurehead had to the movement and establish her legacy for a new generation.

Connie lead quite the remarkable life, having once worked as a drag queen in San Francisco before turning tricks and doing time in prison, then transitioning and becoming one of the most visible (and vocal) transgender people of the era through her work with the direct action group ACT UP/LA upon the outbreak of AIDS. Leading marches and making powerful statements from the podium about the "genocidal neglect of Reagan and Bush", she gained a level of notoriety that lead to appearances on radio and TV as a reliably opinionated firebrand. As a transgender woman, this step into the forefront of political activism was something Connie was hesitant to do at first, having faced negativity towards her trans status from some areas of the gay community and within AIDS activism, but following her own diagnosis of HIV-positive in 1987 she felt she needed to be a part of the fight.

A natural leader who people listened to, the way Connie is portrayed in the wealth of archive video footage that's in AIDS Diva - of week long vigils outside hospitals demanding more beds for patients and marching on the streets - could be used as a guide on how to become an activist. At a time where we have hoards of people campaigning across the world over social, racial and healthcare issues, AIDS Diva is incredibly timely in its portrayal of how to make change through the power of making your collective voice heard. Although Norman passed away many years ago, there's plenty of her contemporaries eager to offer anecdotes of the ferocious nature of Connie, and help tell her story in the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis, along with more personal expressions from her "Tribal Writes" newspaper column.

Within the footage of Connie is her appearances on right-wing "moral panic" lead talk shows like Wally George, knowing her presence would push a few buttons in the audience but also hopefully nudge a few people in the right direction. There's a great term Connie uses during an interview, talking about "GOB-ism", referring to the small minded "Good Ol' Boys" she had to deal with growing up as a queer kid in Texas, who she now saw as the same people running the country and neglecting some of its citizens. Although some things might have changed recently in the leadership of America, it's hard not to wonder how Connie would have reacted to the upheaval of the Trump era and the health crisis brought on by the pandemic.

What will also resonate for a modern audience is Connie's evolving definition of gender, describing it in 1993 as a "fluid spectrum". This film serves as a snapshot of a less sympathetic time for the trans community (talking heads using terms like nelly and sissy), when transgender women were forced to come off medication and either present as their assigned at birth gender in order to receive treatment for AIDS or hide themselves from the public. That's why having Connie's voice was such an important one to include in the fight against AIDS, and this film should allow a new generation to appreciate her contribution to the cause.

With an acknowledgement that they weren't just fighting for themselves but for future generations, AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman is a document of a time of fear and change, and a compelling, powerful account of political activism at work.



AIDS DIVA: The Legend of Connie Norman is screening as part of the BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. The full line-up can be found on the BFI Player here.

Thursday 25 March 2021

JUMP, DARLING - BFI Flare Film Festival 2021 review

Starring the legendary Cloris Leachman in her final role, Jump, Darling follows drag queen Russell, AKA Fishy Falters (Thomas Duplessie), who after splitting up with his boyfriend, decides to go and stay with his ageing grandmother, Margaret (Leachman). As Russell adapts to the pace of small town life and finds a possible new love connection at a local bar, it becomes increasingly obvious that his elderly grandmother, suffering from memory issues and unable to bathe herself, may need him to stick around for a while longer.

Originally planning on just stopping by to collect his deceased grandfather's car that Margaret has promised to her grandson, upon seeing how frail she is and also in need of some recovery time for himself, Russell moves in with Margaret whilst he plans his next move. Finding a local gay bar that he can inject some of his glamour into, Russell introduces the locals to his drag alter ego, Fishy Falters, drawing the attention of barman Zach (Kwaku Adu-Poku) and the possibility of a new romance. As Russell focuses on his career prospects, his mother Ene (Linda Kash) arrives on the scene, surprised to find that her son has moved his wigs, make-up and mirrors into his grandmother's attic and is selling some of her belongings to finance himself.

A mixture of traditional family drama with the vibrant possibilities of the world of drag, the absolute gem that Jump, Darling has is the presence of Cloris Leachman. Leachman, who won an Oscar 50 years ago for her role in The Last Picture Show but then sadly passed away this January at the age of 94, is noticeably frail but still on fine form here, and the interactions she has with Duplessie - of which more would have been welcome - are the understated beating heart of the film. Russell's re-integration into Margaret's life lies somewhere between him caring for and taking advantage of her, and the narrative works to find the wavering balance between his self-serving nature and sense of familial duty. This is something Margaret is seemingly aware of, but as long as she gets to stay in her house, she's happy. An expansion of this conflict could have lead to a stronger dramatic arc, particularly after the introduction of Russell's mother who cannot devote herself to caring for her mother and sees putting her into a care home as the only option.

Instead, the main narrative drive of Jump, Darling is Russell's reckoning with his status as a performer. Once with high hopes to be a successful dramatic actor (he bumps into an old school friend who recalls the expectation he was going to become "the next Andrew Garfield"), his career has instead lead him to drag, something his businessman ex-boyfriend snobbishly dismisses as"gay, variety show shit". But despite their jibes, Russell (and Duplessie) is clearly having fun performing as Fishy Falters, and some of the stand-out scenes are those where he performs lip-syncs at the local bar, including a fantastic 'kiss off' to a once potential suitor who reveals things Russell wasn't expecting.

Although certainly not a deep dive into the art of drag - that has, barring a couple of book-ending nightclub scenes Fishy as the only performer we follow - Jump, Darling convincingly sells us on why Russell has chosen this method of self-expression, within it finding a stronger connection to his grandmother who once had dreams in her youth of being an elegant ice skater. Some plot threads and characters are underdeveloped - the love story with barman Zach promises more than it delivers - but when Jump, Darling puts its focus on the cross-generational connection between Russell and Margaret, it works as a subtle, thoughtful drama, and as a tender farewell to the talents of Cloris Leachman.



Jump, Darling is screening as part of the BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. The full line-up can be found on the BFI Player here.

Tuesday 23 March 2021

SWEETHEART - BFI Flare Film Festival 2021 review

Dragged on a seaside family holiday against her will, mardy 17 year old AJ (Nell Barlow) is determined to have a terrible time until she meets Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), a beautiful lifeguard at the park and the girl of her dreams. Seeing her burgeoning friendship with Isla as an opportunity to re-invent herself and spend as much time away from her family as possible, AJ parties with the young staff of the holiday park, starts to have fun and just maybe falls in love.

Much like the understated humour of last year's Days of the Bagnold Summer, coupled with AJ's dry voice-over that brings to mind Richard Ayoade's Submarine, Sweetheart, writer/director Marley Morrison's debut feature, is a well-observed teen drama with so many lovely family details that make it seem oh so relatable to anyone who's holidayed with family under protest. AJ's mother Tina (This is England's Jo Hartley, on fantastic form) is the kind of woman who point blank refuses to call her daughter anything but the name she gave her, April (in fact, the whole family do apart from her pregnant sister's supportive partner, Steve); who says "ooh, cows" when passing a field in the vain attempt to muster some enthusiasm from her teenage daughter, and who takes her washing on holiday because the machine at home has stopped working. Despite her constant battles with AJ/April, Tina never feels like the villain, and as the story progresses and we learn more about why AJ's father wasn't asked to join them, she becomes an increasingly likeable character.

But it's completely Nell Barlow's film from start to finish. Dressed like Liam Gallagher in a bucket hat and tinted shades (Sweetheart feels so much like a throwback to the 90s that it could well have been set then), her AJ is an introvert who's exploring her sexual identity - and possibly her gender identity too - almost afraid to reveal how smart she is to the kids at the caravan park, worried - a la Lisa Simpson in the Summer of 4 ft 2 - that signs of her intelligence will be a turn off. Instead it draws in the ray of summer sunshine that is Isla, a free-spirited young woman who's able to guide the sullen AJ into realising how cool they actually are and encourage her to be herself. Their scenes together have the desired flush of teen holiday romance, albeit with the backdrop of a drab, mundane English caravan park to them.

With a fun, sprightly teen pop soundtrack and a couple of knowing nods to Dirty Dancing (inevitable, really), Sweetheart is a fun holiday romance that anyone who was ever an awkward teenager will find cringingly familiar. 



Sweetheart is screening as part of the BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. The full line-up can be found on the BFI Player here.

Monday 22 March 2021

REUNION review

Returning to her family home after separating from her abusive partner, pregnant author Ellie (Emma Draper) must contend with the presence of her overbearing mother, Ivy (Julia Ormond), who's clearing the house out in preparation of selling it. Hoping to complete her latest academic book - a study of the links between modern medicine and the dark arts of the middle ages - whilst also dealing with the pains of pregnancy, Ellie starts to have visions of her half-sister Cara (Ava Keane), whose death as a child Ellie still carries feelings of guilt over.

Set in a fantasically grand old house in New Zealand, writer/director Jake Mahaffy's gothic thriller sets up a litany of ideas across its runtime, borrowing elements from ghost stories, Lynchian body horror and even J-Horror to varying degrees of effectiveness. If any one of these elements had been focused on this might be a reunion that would be easier to accept the invitation to, but unfortunately Reunion has packed in too many concepts for its own good, numbing the moments it gets right. The most effective sequences occur early on, with Ellie seeing strange, ghostly goings on in the house like twisting doorknobs and pale limbs reaching out for her from a spectral image of Cara, but it continues to pile on more and more on until whatever tension it builds is buried under a pile of moving boxes and bizarre plot turns. There's a mystery at its core that Ellie literally holds the last piece of the puzzle to over the death of Cara, but boy there's a lot to process before we get there.

The artefacts and iconography of horror are all present, with flashbacks (or are they dreams?) showing the younger Ellie peering through the keyhole to her father's office, a mysterious ornate glass vase she hopes to find in amongst the boxed up debris of the house, black goop coming out of the taps, and an oddly edited VHS tape of Ellie and Cara playing together as children. These are all deployed to creep us out, and whilst the effect is more unsettling than scary, they're nothing compared to an extended dream sequence Ellie has about her impending motherhood that involves breastfeeding a child the likes of which haven't been seen since Eraserhead. It's a disturbing addition, and one that fans of certain sub-genres of horror will enjoy, but is it in keeping with the rest of the film? I'll leave that to you to decide.

Ormond is undoubtedly the big draw for the film, but it's Draper who impresses most as a grounding influence on some of the more outlandish moments. The best scenes involve both of them as bickering mother and daughter - Ormond's oddball Ivy nonchalantly wandering around the house carrying an axe by her feet, locking doors behind her as she goes - and their fractured bond is played well from both sides, slowly revealing the trauma that has caused their emotional distance. It's a positive that they share so many scenes together, but this does render the other key cast members (John Bach as Ellie's elderly bedridden father, and Taika Waititi regular Cohen Holloway as her ex-boyfriend/handyman) largely redundant until they're needed to bring the story to a close.

Despite Reunion throwing too many things at the screen in the hope that some of them will stick, I can't fault the performances of the two leads. With its single interior location and mother/daughter dynamic, Reunion is bound to draw comparisons to last year's Australian horror Relic, but it is very much its own beast, as evidenced by a finale that is so confounding (and confusing), it genuinely defies categorisation.



Reunion is now available on digital platforms from 101 films.

Sunday 21 March 2021

MY FIRST SUMMER - BFI Flare Film Festival 2021 review

Raised in isolation away from the world, when 16 year old Claudia's mother unexpectedly passes away, she must rely on the help of local teen Grace to remain a secret. Hiding from the authorities at her idyllic, remote house, the innocent Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) and savvy Grace (Maiah Stewardson) form a close bond as they enjoy a summer filled with sunshine and feelings of first love.

Written and directed by Katie Found, My First Summer is an unashamedly bright and delightfully whimsical Aussie teen romance between two girls who find safety and calm in the presence of the other. With Claudia shielded from the horrors and delights the outside world has to offer, it falls to Grace to school her on her own experience of life as a teenage girl, longing to escape from her family home. Together at Claudia's house, they can indulge all of their dreams of a never-ending summer as they tentatively explore their feelings for each other.

With some gorgeous cinematography by Matthew Chuang, it's a delightful world to inhabit for the film's 80 minute runtime - all Australian sunsets and magic hour sunlight breaking through the trees. There's an element of fantasy in the set up (this dream house in the middle of nowhere is almost too perfect), like a long-loved memory of youth, but the film avoids the pitfall of overplaying the connection between Claudia and Grace, which feels genuine and heartfelt, even when the film goes heavy on cutesy iconography like charm bracelets, candy necklaces and lollipop rings. Kavenagh impresses as the (gradually less) insular Claudia, but it's Stewardson who steals the show in a role that could have appeared smart-alecky in the wrong hands, outfoxing the local police in order to protect Claudia. The interplay between the two leads seems natural and honest, and they share a number of tender, sweetly romantic scenes that make you wish nothing will arrive to disturb their world together.

Like a bedsheet drying on a clothes line in a summer breeze, My First Summer sweeps you up and carries you away to their world of youthful innocence, exploration, and naivety about how long their time together can actually last. It's the stuff of teen romance dreams, like a warm, sunny picnic filled with pure summertime love. Utterly captivating.


My First Summer is screening as part of the BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. The full line-up can be found on the BFI Player here.

NO ORDINARY MAN - BFI Flare Film Festival 2021 review

Through interviews with his son and members of today's trans community, this new documentary tells the remarkable story of Billy Tipton, a successful jazz musician in the 1930s who released a number of albums, raised a family and was then revealed to the world to be a trans man after his death.

The story of Billy Tipton is so incredible that he has become a trans icon, namely for his ability to forge a successful music career that spanned decades without anyone knowing of his trans status until his death in 1989. In a tale of revelation that has now become the stuff of legend - and that also served as tabloid fodder in the years after - when Billy died at the age of 74 in his adopted son Billy Jr's arms, it was the attending EMT who alerted the family to the truth whilst trying to resuscitate him. With no footage and only a handful of photos available of Billy's early days on the jazz club circuit, in order to fill in moments from his life directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt and co-writer Amos Mac incorporate a series of auditions from trans actors to play the part of Billy Tipton for the film.

Working from what information is available and with the involvement of Billy Jr, No Ordinary Man is a respectful telling of Billy Snr's story that acknowledges that due to the great efforts he went to to keep his "secret", the story of his gender identity is one that he most likely never wanted revealing. However, as is shown via the shock tabloid headlines, clips from 90s talk shows (with hard to watch, horrifically outdated opinions and weaponised misgendering on them) and excerpts from the biography sanctioned by ex-wife Kitty that couldn't believe she was unaware of the truth and that hung on the idea Billy was only posing as a man to further his music career, once the story was out, there was no way of putting the genie back in the bottle. It's not the intention of No Ordinary Man to mimic this salacious, shock factor style of storytelling, but instead to use Billy's story as a jumping off point to tell the wider story of transgender/trans-masculine people, with numerous well-educated talking heads from members of the trans community that confront the general public's fascination with trans stories and the notion that trans-people are "liars", trying to trick them.
Analysing the misguided presumption that trans-people are putting on a performance, the inclusion of the auditions is fascinating, allowing a group of male trans actors (there is no limitations put on age or race) to embody Billy whilst also dissecting the scenes from their own point of view. It's these different voices that bring Billy to life on screen, linked by their own experiences of life as trans men to offer a possible glimpse of why Billy chose to never reveal that side of their life to those closest to him. With no historical record, it's a bold inclusion to use dramatic scenes based on interactions Billy might have had, but in the context of the film it works in giving Billy more of a dialogue in his own story, albeit scripted.

In the assembled interviews there's a huge amount of important contributions from voices such as actor Marquise Vilson (who also appeared in last year's Flare favourite, Disclosure), Stephan Pennington, Susan Stryker and Zackary Drucker, but in order to tell Billy's story the film knows that its key interviewee is Billy Jr, who is visited in his home to tell recollections of his father and how his life has been impacted since. Notably, Billy's two other adopted sons do not appear, going as far as having their faces blurred out of old photographs, having reacted negatively to the notoriety their father inadvertently brought them in his death. But Billy Jr is an engaging presence, largely unaware of how important his father is to the trans community.
The details of Billy Tipton's life shouldn't need to be told but also shouldn't be erased, and the educational and entertaining No Ordinary Man provides its audience with a way to engage with his legend and be respectful of the privacy of a group of often maligned and misjudged people. Despite the unavoidable shock value of his death, Chin-Yee and Joynt's film goes some way to tell why Billy's story is so important to the trans community, and make sure his legacy is a positive one.


No Ordinary Man is screening as part of the BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. The full line-up can be found on the BFI Player here.

Saturday 20 March 2021

DRAMARAMA - BFI Flare Film Festival 2021 review

In a typical middle-American town in 1994, a group of drama group friends unite for one last time to throw a costumed murder mystery party before they all leave for college. They each have their own fears about what the future might hold for them, but Gene (Nick Pugliese) is also wrestling with telling his life-long friends about his sexuality, afraid of how they will react. As the night progresses and loyalties among the group are tested, they all start to realise that in one way or another, they're all putting on a show.

As the characters all arrive at the parent-free house of Rose (Anna Grace Barlow) before she flies off for college the next day, they enter a safe space, a world of their creation where they are able to be vivacious show-offs who sing, dance and perform skits with one another, and where they can flex their theatrical muscles. Each in costume as a Victorian literary great (Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, Ms Havisham, Mina Harker and Dr. Jekyll - or as close an approximation as they can get), there's no judgement from outside of their group of friends, allowing them to be as dorky as they want to be. This changes on the arrival of JD (Zak Henri), the whipsmart pizza delivery boy who encroaches on their space long enough to critique their costume choices and shake up the mood of the party by inviting Gene to a cooler gathering later on that evening.

At the outset of Jonathan Wysocki's coming of age comedy, I'll admit to worrying that I was going to find some - if not all - of the main characters insufferable in the way overly-earnest actor types can be, but to the credit of the core ensemble cast (Pugliese, Barlow, Nico Greetham, Megan Suri, Danielle Kay), as the film progressed and their "act" started to slip away, I warmed to each character as they revealed personal truths about themselves via the playful dares and challenges they set for each other. I have to say, I wasn't familiar with the game "Flashlight Homosexual" before, but it feels accurately like something a group of sexually repressed teenagers would have played at a house party in the 90s. Even for non-theatre types, there's a lot in the film to find relatable on a teen movie level. We've all been at that age where the future is a great unknown, and I'm sure can freely admit that as you're trying to work out who you really are there's an act that is put on to protect the stability of those friendships you've held for a long time.

This is revealed most accurately in Gene's story. Realising he is gay, but without the confidence or knowledge of how to say this to his best friends, he talks around the subject in code during their conversations, telling the religious Claire (Suri) he is now "agnostic" but without stating what has tested his faith; and having a heart to heart with closest friend Oscar about how he's been counselling a "colleague at work" who is gay, to gauge his opinion on it. Looking at it with 2021 eyes, it might seem a bit of a stretch that Gene's friends wouldn't put two and two together or entertain the possibility that one of their theatre group friends might be homosexual (with the possible exception of Ally, the cool, street smart girl of the group in a role that you could see Natasha Lyonne occupying two decades ago) but Dramarama succeeds in selling a real, non-pastiche version of 1994 to us with retro fashion & hairstyles and by having not one, but two They Might Be Giants songs on the soundtrack. It's a sweeter, more innocent time, albeit with conservative religious rhetoric ringing in the ears of young people. 

As Gene questions and tests his loyalty to those around him, Dramarama ticks a number of teen movie cliches on the way towards its satisfying finale, but it's a sincere, warmly nostalgic comedy-drama about the value of friendships, and having people you can truly be yourself with.



Dramarama is screening as part of the BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. The full line-up can be found on the BFI Player here.

Friday 19 March 2021

BOY MEETS BOY - BFI Flare Film Festival 2021 review

Boy Meets Boy centres around junior doctor Harry (Matthew James Morrison), in Berlin for a weekend break, and Johannes (Alexis Koutsoulis), a dancer that Harry meets in a club, just as his weekend of dancing and casual sexual encounters is coming to an end. With hours left before his flight home, Johannes agrees to show Harry the sights of Berlin as the two men open up to each other about their lives, loves and relationships.

Owing a huge debt to Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, Boy Meets Boy follows the two young potential lovers as they breathe in the atmosphere of the city, debating everything from the benefits of finding sex on Grindr and Tinder to whether Eurovision is "gay revenge for the World Cup" as they bicker and build a real connection that neither are used to experiencing. Harry, an aimless doctor looking for his calling in life, has become accustomed to finding brief fulfilment via casual sex he has through dating apps, conditioning himself so far into the lifestyle that he never wants to have sex with the same person more than once, whereas Johannes believes in the power of forming a bond with another in a traditional relationship, albeit one that may come with caveats to a partner's behaviour.

I'm a sucker for a decent film set over the course of one day in a beautiful city, and this vibrant, talky, unabashedly frank romance doesn't disappoint. The topics they cover are at once insignificant and hugely important, allowing both of the lead characters to get the measure of the man opposite them whilst contemplating whether this connection could lead to more than their limited time together might allow. Directed and co-written (along with Hannah Renton) by Daniel Sanchez Lopez, the two, often opposing, viewpoints of the young men adds a real spark to their day together, with their cynicism and prejudices laid bare to reveal how they both think they should be navigating their way through this world of modern queer relationships. Both Morrison and Koutsoulis impress in their roles and have fantastic, exhilarating chemistry with each other throughout in a Berlin that positively glows, leading to some gorgeously romantic, cliche-defying scenes as they enjoy a brief dance by the river and give in to their impulses.

A film that is hopeful in its outlook but that doesn't ignore the harsh realities of modern love, sex and relationships, Boy Meets Boy is a frank, often emotionally raw film that also bathes in the unavoidable romantic splendour of its sunny locale. The Linklater comparisons may be inevitable and justified, but equally, this is a brief encounter I'd be happy to see more of in the future.



Boy Meets Boy screened as part of the BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. The full line-up can be found on the BFI Player here.

SLAXX review

The night before the launch of the new eco-conscious Super Shaper jeans, the staff of the Canadian Cotton Clothiers store are locked in overnight to stock the shelves ready for the Monday Madness sales. Designed to make everyone who wears them look fantastic, the temptation to try them on proves too much for many of the workers; but when a pair of the new jeans turns out to have murderous intent and starts knocking them off one by one, new girl Libby (Romane Denis) must find a way to defeat the deadly denim before dawn arrives.

It's rare that a film asks you to question "I wonder what the motivation of that pair of jeans is?", but Slaxx does just that. As the staff members meet their untimely demise at the hands feet legs of the new clothing line, Slaxx veers from a tame workplace comedy into a delightfully silly splatter-fest. And of course, this is on Shudder, so the level of gore is beyond anything in Quentin Dupieux's Deerskin, or Peter Strickland's In Fabric - the other two notable recent entries into the 'killer clothing' horror sub-genre - and when it gets bloody, it gets real bloody, real quickly, chomping limbs off the unsuspecting fashion victims who were just hoping to try on the latest must have item.

From the same producers as the 80's throwback Turbo Kid, they've not strayed too far from their wheelhouse, delivering an often broad, exaggerated comedy that's never laugh out loud hilarious but knows the appeal of seeing obnoxious characters meet their doom in comically overblown set-ups. They're  for the most part all expendable, barring Denis's admirable go-getter Libby, Sehar Bhojani's nonchalant Shruti and Brett Donahue's increasingly exasperated store manager, Craig - truly a magnificently self-centred, career-minded yuppie in the vein of Paul Reiser in Aliens - who's so focused on saving the launch and landing a big promotion that he starts to dispose of the bodies rather than call the police.

Arriving hot on the heels of Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man and with audiences accustomed to seeing everyday objects move around the screen without explanation, with Slaxx being a Canadian production (on a wildly different budget scale) the VFX has had to be more ingeniously used, varying from ominous shots on the jeans on the shop floor to CCTV footage of them creeping along a corridor to simply some gung ho acting from the cast as they find themselves facing off against the sentient slacks. The highlight of these scenes is the puppetry used to give the trousers life (stick through the end credits for a revealing behind the scenes look at how this was achieved), including, bizarrely, a brief Bollywood dance routine that is hmmm... questionable in its inclusion, to say the least.

Efforts to give the film a deeper satirical edge don't always deliver the impact they're hoping for, with the eco-friendly, socially conscious consumerism of brands like the Gap and Apple appropriately low-hanging fruit; and the fair-trade, sweatshop-free 'know what you're buying' message that's covered in the pants' origins plot strand could have been handled with more subtlety than what's on show here, which at best is poor taste and at worst puts the (literal) ass in crass. But hey, horror is here to push boundaries, and I won't fault them for giving it a shot.

Will Slaxx be the trend-setting 'must have' horror film of the season? Well... it's unlikely, but as a wonderfully, willingly stupid jean-ocidal horror with some gloriously gruesome set-pieces, Slaxx has got legs.



SLAXX will stream exclusively on Shudder from March 18th in the US, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as via the Shudder offering within the AMC+ bundle where available.

Friday 12 March 2021


Relocated from Leeds to a farmhouse in rural Ireland, troubled teen Tom (Anson Boon) uncovers something disturbing in the lake at the border of his property, hiding what he finds in a box under his bed. Befriended by his neighbour Holly (Emma Mackey), it soon becomes clear that she and her controlling father, Ward (Michael McElhatton), may be involved in what he's found, putting Tom's and his mother's lives in jeopardy when the truth is in danger of being revealed.

Scripted by David Turpin and directed by Phil Sheerin, this Irish thriller sees Anson Boon's Tom and his single mother Elaine (Charlie Murphy) forced to uproot their lives when Tom gets in trouble with the law (in an incident that isn't fully explained, but involved Tom using a blade as a weapon), and Elaine's grandfather's empty house in Sligo presents itself as the best option for them to gain some distance and hopefully have a fresh start. As Elaine sets up the house for their new way of life, she relies on the kindness of neighbour Ward for rides into town, and his daughter Holly to keep Tom out of trouble, unaware that Holly's no stranger to trouble herself.

I don't think it's unkind or presumptuous to suggest that a large section of this film's audience will be drawn in by the appearance of Sex Education's Emma Mackey. Best known for her role as Maeve in Netflix's hit teen sex-comedy (and for everyone on the internet pointing out that she bears a passing resemblance to Margot Robbie), this is Mackey's first big screen role - before she appears in Kenneth Branagh's Poirot sequel, Death on the Nile, whenever that is eventually released - and she impresses in a part that allows her to showcase her dramatic capabilities, and - what is to my ear, at least - some decent accent work. Ruled by her father's watchful eye who's fearful of the local boys's teenage libidos in a town where there's little to do, her character Holly isn't as innocent as she appears and is well aware of how to manipulate the men around her for her own ends. It's a solid dramatic performance from Mackey who shares some meaty confrontational scenes with the excellent McElhatton, and is a promising indication for what's to come in her career.

In fact, The Winter Lake is a film of four strong performances in the key roles that arguably outstrip the material they have to work with. As the brooding Tom, Boon may not have an awful lot of dialogue, but he does well to make Tom more appealing than a petulant wannabe thug, even if some of his teenage character's motivations (do what the pretty neighbour girl tells you to) may be a little bit obvious. The figure who elicits the most sympathy in the film is Tom's despairing mother Elaine. Clearly frustrated by her son's refusal to communicate with her, she's simply a woman at her wits end hoping to change her life in order to protect her son's. Thanks to Charlie Murphy's performance, this is shown in what's possibly the stand out moment of the whole film, as Elaine lets all of her feelings boil over into an emotional monologue as she shares her feelings of hopelessness at her son's bedroom door.

Shot in a way that accentuates the gloom of the location - the winter lake of the title is a particularly unwelcoming place to be - the lingering dread that starts from Tom's discovery at the lake builds into palpable tension as the story progresses to its finale, and Ward suddenly doesn't seem like the welcoming neighbour he once was. For the most part there's a nice mix of the cold, open landscapes and the drab, colour-bleached interiors, although as the film enters its final act, it's so laden with shadowy dread that it requires a real effort to make out what's actually happening on screen. The revelations at the heart of this 'family secrets' thriller will surprise no-one, but there's enough weight to the performances in The Winter Lake to make it an enjoyable watch.



The Winter Lake will be available on Digital Download from 15th March

Monday 1 March 2021

POLY STYRENE: I AM A CLICHÉ - Glasgow Film Festival review

As the legendary frontwoman for punk band X-ray Spex, lead singer Poly Styrene was known for her bold sense of fashion as well as being one of the most prominent people of colour within the punk scene. Leaving behind boxes of photos and newspaper clippings after her death in 2011, her daughter Celeste Bell uses this archive along with excerpts from Poly's diaries to try and understand more about her mother and their often fraught relationship, and the issues that caused her to kill off her band at the height of their success.

Written and co-directed by Celeste (alongside Paul Sng), I Am A Cliché follows Poly's journey from Brixton teenager to performing on Top of the Pops and at New York's iconic CBGB's, as she confronted cruel jibes about her appearance, racist mindsets and her own mental health issues that saw her admitted to a psychiatric ward. Born Marianne Elliott-Said in 1957 to a white British mother and black Somalian father, Poly placed an ad in Melody Maker to form X-Ray Spex after seeing Sex Pistols on her 19th birthday in 1976, adopting her "plastic, synthetic" pseudonym by looking through the Yellow Pages. This was also a time when the racist attitudes of the National Front were prevalent (as well as certain factions of the punk crowd), and the film looks at Poly's identity issues as a mixed race woman - using the lyrics for her songs Identity and Half Caste - along with taunts her about her curly hair, the braces on her teeth, and her unique fashion sense that involved brightly coloured plastic and vintage materials clashing together.

The film uses new audio interviews with performers influenced by Poly's work, such as Kathleen Hanna and Neneh Cherry, and admirers and contemporaries such as Vivienne Westwood, John Robb, Don Letts, Jonathan Ross (whose first ever gig was X-Ray Spex at The Roxy) and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore (who saw them perform at CBGB's). Also included are some of her former bandmates, Lora Logic and Paul Dean, who talk about the band's musical journey and Poly's lyrics, and how they were unaware of the extent of the psychological problems she was facing at the time, downplaying the hallucinations she was having. These effects of these ongoing mental health problems - misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, she was eventually found to be bipolar -  is something Celeste speaks about firsthand, waking up to find her mother stood at the foot of her bed.

With Celeste as our guide walking in her mother's footsteps, due to her resemblance to her mother it's almost like we're seeing a ghost re-enact scenes from a former life. The film's masterstroke is using actor Ruth Negga to narrate pages from Poly's diaries, allowing us to build a far deeper connection than would be possible through just the use of old clips and photos. At the core of this film is that connection between mother and daughter (Celeste states at the start of the film that "People often ask me if she was a good mum"), and the narration from both women feels like we are hearing from both sides. Whereas Celeste can now look back on her life with her mother and the embarrassment she felt at her DIY fashion sense when out shopping with her "what an ungrateful brat I was" , Poly can also talk about how she felt being criticised by audiences for her looks (with the record label slimming down her image on their album cover) and then suddenly called a sex symbol, a label she rebelled against by shaving all of her hair off in Johnny Rotten's bathroom.

There's a sombre tone to the film that makes it extremely moving as Celeste continues on her journey through her mother's life, from finding religion in the Hare Krishna movement to custody problems to efforts to reconcile before she passed with a shared love of music. It's an extraordinarily revealing documentary that paints Poly/Marianne as a troubled woman, not given the support she needed in an unforgiving music scene. It's a powerful film that could only be made by someone close to her, allowing Celeste to deal with a lot of her own trauma from her relationship with her mother, whilst also showing her to be the trailblazing punk icon she really was.



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.

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché is on general release from 5th March, and can be pre-ordered via the Modern Films website where you can help support your local independent cinema.