Friday, 29 October 2021

THE GUEST - LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY review

Released just in time for Halloween (trust me, it makes sense), the latest film to get the boxset treatment from Second Sight, Adam Wingard's The Guest is out now in a limited edition 4K UHD format.

When soldier David (Dan Stevens) turns up at their door claiming to be an army buddy of their deceased son Caleb, the Petersons invite him into their home to stay. As David ingratiates himself with the family through his old-fashioned charm, politeness and willingness to help out around the house, Anna (Maika Monroe) starts to become suspicious of his motivations for being there, but when David puts his military training to use by protecting Luke (Brendan Myers) from school bullies, it's clear the family has no idea what kind of person they've allowed into their home.

On paper there were no sure signs that The Guest would turn out to be a success. Director Adam Wingard had made some ultra low budget horrors, like the excellent single location thriller You're Next and contributions to the V/H/S short film collections; and sure, Dan Stevens had gained a devoted following by way of his role in TV's Downton Abbey, but a quick leap to action movie star would be seen as unlikely by even the most optimistic of his fans. Which makes it all the more of an achievement that The Guest is as compelling and as fun as it is, mixing genre tropes, subverting expectations and serving a healthy dose of John Carpenter infused nostalgia into its winning mix.

When the mysterious David meets the Petersons, they're all struggling to deal with the loss of Caleb, bottling up their emotions and not sharing their grief with other members of their family, instead living their own separate lives as four people in the same house. This changes on David's arrival, who at first charms matriarch Laura (Sheila Kelley), seeing in him the damaged soldier she wishes she still had in son Caleb, unlike father Spencer (Leland Orser), who sees David as a potentially dangerous intrusion on his life, before eventually finding some level of camaraderie with him. But it's the lives of Caleb's younger brother and sister who David has the most impact on, stepping in to confront a group of Luke's bullies like a guardian angel, and socialising with Anna and her friends, much to her immediate disapproval.

A stronger, more confident person than the meek Luke, David is comfortable in being the protector/surrogate big brother, who, not unlike Arnie in Terminator 2, has violent methods to get his point across, as evidenced in the film's stand out bar fight scene. Likewise for some of the undesirable characters Anna associates with, David has no qualms in showing them what he's capable of, whether it's carrying kegs into a house party or stripping a handgun down to its component parts in seconds and then putting it back together again to make sure it has the power he wants and will shortly need.

It's at these moments where David offers true glimpses of who he is (and what he's capable of), that The Guest really comes alive. To reveal too much of his backstory would be to spoil too much of the mystery the film cultivates for him, however it's fair to say that this film does not end up where you think it might after the opening scenes. Written by frequent Adam Wingard collaborator Simon Barrett, The Guest openly riffs on John Carpenter's back catalogue (not just via the synth based score), cherry picking ideas and twisting them into something new, all the while maintaining the same tension building exercises Carpenter perfected in films like Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13. What if, instead of a blank faced William Shatner masked killer, it was a charming, handsome, polite young gentlemen who came home that night? And what if he also had the capacity to unflinchingly do away with those in the way of his goal - in this case preserving the well-being of the Peterson family?

The Guest is a film that openly skates close to the edge of ludicrousness, but does so with a knowing wink and a charming smile. The Carpenter riffs are plain to see for any fans of his late '70s and early '80s output (look out for Halloween masks at the school dance), with some Terminator vibes to boot, but newcomers can also appreciate the conspiracy thriller aspects of the story, and the top performances from Maika Monroe (who followed this with It Follows, which is one hell of a one-two punch to get yourself instant Scream Queen hall of fame status) and Dan Stevens, delivering an unexpectedly cool and seductive performance that must have left many a Downton fan scratching their heads. Come the finale, the film doesn't quite stick its landing (in part due to the lack of a sequel it clearly sets up, but that sadly never materialised) and leaves us wanting more time spent with these characters. But, seven years after the original release, The Guest deserves a re-introduction, and with this super collectable edition, he's dressed to impress.

Verdict

4/5

SPECIAL FEATURES

 - New commentary by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett

 - Archive commentary by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett

 - The Uninvited Guest: A great new interview with Dan Stevens

 - A Perfect Stranger: A new interview with Maika Monroe

 - By Invitation Only: A new interview with Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett

 - Producing The Guest: A new interview with producers Keith Calder & Jess Wu Calder

 - Light & Fog: A new interview with director of photography Robby Baumgartner

 - Lighting Strikes: A new interview with production designer Tom Hammock

 - The Sounds of The Guest: A new interview with composer Steve Moore

 - Deleted/Alternate scenes & Outtakes with optional director commentary

LIMITED EDITION:

 - Rigid slipcase

 - Soundtrack CD

 - 160 page book with new essays by Tim Coleman, Zena Dixon, Craig Ian Mann and Zoe Rose Smith. Script to screen with storyboards and script extracts, behind the scenes photos and Adam Wingard soundtrack notes.

 - 6 collectable art cards


Wednesday, 20 October 2021

HALLOWEEN KILLS review

Picking up directly after the conclusion of 2018s relaunch of the franchise, Halloween Kills continues the efforts of Michael Myers to haunt the people of Haddonfield on Halloween night.

2018's Halloween - a sequel to 1978's Halloween that relaunched the franchise and the timeline, in doing so wiping out the existence of all previous installments, good or bad - saw Jamie Lee Curtis return to the role of Laurie Strode, now caught in a permanent survival mode and haunted by the memories of the events of Halloween night, 1978. An alcoholic loner whose supposed paranoid fears have cost her her family, the end of the first film saw her worst fears come true when Michael attacked her home, but reunited with her daughter and granddaughter (Judy Greer and Andi Matichak) as Michael stood trapped in a burning building.

It's fair to say that the Halloween series has had many ups and downs over its 40+ years of existence, with poorly judged plot machinations, mediocre remakes and no real explanation as to why Michael chooses to kill on October 31st when he could be out trick or treating. Avoiding contrived explanations altogether, this sequel makes the good choice to continue the action of the previous film into the late hours of October 31st, 2018, bringing in a slew of new characters to face off against Michael whilst Laurie - badly injured by Michael at the end of the last film - receives medical attention at Haddonfield Memorial Hospital.

Well, when I say new characters, what Halloween Kills actually does is re-introduce legacy characters to further their stories in this new timeline. Okay, so there may not be many fans of the franchise (Halloweeners, maybe?) who are curious about how nurse Marion (Nancy Stephens from Halloween's 1, 2 & H20) has been holding up,  but the boy Laurie was babysitting 40 year ago, Tommy Doyle, is an important character within the lore of the films. Now played by Anthony Michael Hall (after Paul Rudd last occupied the role in the widely hated Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers), Tommy spends his Halloweens bringing together survivors of Myers's first killing spree to commemorate the lives of those lost, and along with childhood friend and fellow survivor Lindsey (played by original actress Kyle Richards) is ready to round up the townspeople to take down Myers when they hear of his latest crimes.

Given that the marketing for these most recent entries in the franchise has been focused on the face off between Michael and Laurie, it's surprising to see how little screen time they share in Halloween Kills. Instead co-writers David Gordon Green and Danny McBride have dug deeper into John Carpenter's toy chest to play with different characters and create a story that draws from the now non-canon original series, in particular the Haddonfield Memorial Hospital set Halloween II from 1981. There's a heavy dose of fan service and plot contrivance at play with the use of Tommy Doyle, whose survivors club seems an unlikely group of damaged misfits, still coming together 40 years later to remember that fateful night in 1978. However, when word gets out of Michael's ongoing rampage and mob mentality takes over, it's nice to see the franchise dig into one of the most timeless tropes of the slasher franchise - watching stupid people get killed for making stupid decisions in a variety of violent ways.

One of the biggest criticisms of Green's first instalment was that it didn't deliver enough blood and guts to satiate the appetite of modern horror audiences. Well, it seems that Green's taken that criticism on board, as Halloween Kills is one of the most violent films I've seen in some time. From the off, as Michael tears through a group of firefighters attending the burning house he's trapped in, this is a more visceral, nastier, deadlier Myers than before. In that respect, Halloween Kills delivers in spades, and as Michael works his way from house to house (now no longer bothered about babysitters and their boyfriends. Anyone with a pulse will do), we fear for what's coming next.

Given Jamie Lee Curtis is the marquee name for this franchise, it was a bold move to restrict her role to the extent this film does. Some of the tactics this film uses to distract us from that do work, including an extended flashback sequence to the night of 1978 that focuses on Will Patton's Officer Hawkins interaction with Michael (played in flashback by Thomas Mann, opposite Jim Cummings in a great cameo), but Halloween Kills struggles to find relevance in being the middle part of a planned trilogy that will come to a close next year with Halloween Ends. It's definitely a leap forward for Green as a horror director, creating some tense moments and bloody set-pieces, but the mob mentality storyline, with its "evil dies tonight" chant, sits uneasily in a post-Trump world, making you want to side with Michael who, lest we forget, is on a killing spree.

There's some interesting ideas set up about Michael's motivations (or lack thereof) to be explored in next year's grand finale of the Halloween franchise (or at least until it gets rebooted again), and despite fears that this is a placeholder instalment, as the film's final moments raise a number of questions about Michael's seemingly supernatural survival ability that can't go unanswered, Halloween Kills makes itself necessary viewing before we get to next year's ultimate face off between the franchise's most enduring characters.

Verdict

3.5/5


Tuesday, 19 October 2021

THE BETA TEST review

Weeks away from marrying his long time fiancee, Hollywood agent Jordan (Jim Cummings) receives a mysterious purple envelope, inviting him to a no strings attached sexual encounter that will fulfil all of his deepest desires. Jordan gives in to the temptation to explore a darker side of himself, but when he's contacted by blackmailers he starts to question everything and everyone around him, including the loyalty of his best friend and business parter PJ (co-director PJ McCabe) and fiancee Caroline (Virginia Newcomb).

Jim Cummings made a big impact back in 2018 with his first feature film, the tragi-comic and heartwarming Thunder Road, putting in the effort to make sure he was generating plenty of positive buzz on Film Twitter by turning on his natural charm at Q&A's, and touring his film around as many cinemas in the UK that would have him. Thankfully Cummings is no shyster and Thunder Road was one of the very best films of that year, and with his one man movie studio attitude he became an easy figure to root for in a manner that mirrored his role as a down on his luck cop in Thunder Road. Since then he's delved into genre fare with last year's The Wolf of Snow Hollow (where Cummings again played a cop), and now is back with The Beta Test; a much darker, scuzzier, sexier film, taking on the role of a Hollywood agent who lets the temptation to dive into the underbelly of Tinseltown get the better of him.

On the verge of landing a career defining deal with some executives from China, Jordan is suddenly coming to the realisation that he's part of a dying breed, and that his contribution to the filmmaking process is becoming increasingly redundant. Although he'd like to fool himself into thinking he's not like the old school of toxic wannabe moguls that came before him (Jordan claims things have changed "since Harvey"), it doesn't take much for him to allow his darker impulses to take over and then to become a lying, manipulative maniac when he becomes increasingly desperate and paranoid. When he thinks he hears his assistant Jaclyn (Jacqueline Doke who also appeared in Thunder Road) repeat something lewd he'd specified on the check box form that came in his purple envelope (top, sub, dom, face-sitting, etc), he cruelly admonishes her, much to her befuddlement.

As modern paranoia thrillers go, The Beta Test might not quite rival the mindfuck nature of David Fincher's The Game and Jordan mercifully stops short of going full Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, but the DNA of those films is definitely here, and there's tremendous rewatch value as Cummings's nervous comic energy shines through as Jordan can no longer hide the truth that he's something of a desperate fool. A proponent of the "fake it til you make it" school of thought, there's an exchange the film repeats with varying results, as Jordan tries to manipulate people into providing him with the information he needs by bluffing his way through, and then claiming he's an undercover cop when all as fails. It's played for all its comic absurdity by Cummings, who can do flustered incompetence like no-one else. Jordan is King of the bullshitters, and by far the most damaged and toxic man he's played so far (he barely wavers in deciding to cheat on his fiancee), but there's enough moments of comedy in his performance that you can't help but root for him, albeit with us asking ourselves why in a post-Harvey world.

Occupying the roles of lead actor, editor, co-screenwriter and co-director of The Beta Test (sharing some responsibilities with collaborator PJ McCabe, who also stars in as supporting role), it's quite possible that Cummings has encountered some men like Jordan in his career on the outskirts of Hollywood, although he's one of the new school of independently minded producers who's calling that entire method of filmmaking into question. With a wider scope than Thunder Road but still produced on a small budget with a skeleton crew, non name actors, and multi-tasking polymaths making the creative decisions, The Beta Test further expands on Cummings's message to Hollywood that filmmaking can be done differently, but also serves as a sly 'fuck you' to the people who engineered it to serve themselves.

It's not without fault, opening with a jarring scene of grisly violence that will have you thinking the pendulum has swung too far away from the heartwarming charm of Thunder Road in an effort to show scriptwriting range (not that that film didn't also include moments of unhinged mania - in fact, they're undoubtedly the most talked about scenes), but it's an outlier that isn't indicative of the rest of the film and therefore doesn't completely gel with it. The Beta Test is a colder, more emotionally detached film than his previous work, but when there's a camera on Cummings and he's letting his character's neuroses spill out, he's doing what he does best, and it's a lot of fun to watch.

Verdict

4/5

The Beta Test is in cinemas now.

Friday, 15 October 2021

CANNON ARM AND THE ARCADE QUEST - London Film Festival 2021

One of the highlights among the documentaries at this year's London Film Festival was Mads Hedegaard's joyful Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest, fresh from its debut at CPH:DOX and Hot Docs. Following in the footsteps of the almighty retro arcade doc King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest charts another plucky contender hoping to make gaming history by playing his favourite arcade game for 100 hours straight.

The gamer is question is the brilliantly named Kim "Kanonarm" K√∂bke - a nickname he's had since he first starting playing games in Danish diners in the 1980s - a mulleted Danish grandfather who loves listening to Iron Maiden and playing the classic arcade game Gyruss surrounded by his friends at Copenhagen's Bip Bip Bar. Already the holder of the impressive record of playing Gyruss (an outer space set shooter that sees you manouvre a space craft around the screen as you blast away patterns of stars) for 49 hours on one coin, his aim is to beat that record in honour of Thomas, a friend of the Bip Bip Bar who they lost to suicide.

The record attempt is not without its health risks, and although Kim is in decent shape for a man his age, people have died attempting similar endurance records, so his team of supporters have tailored a complicated score tracking system to make sure the game - much like the famed Donkey Kong kill screen - doesn't crap out on him and bring his record attempt to an abrupt halt. Starting off with 5 lives, the problem is he can technically accrue around 250 extra before the game errors, so he must keep track of how many he wins so he doesn't hit the top limit, but also, building up those extra lives so he can grab some much needed sleep for ten minutes or so is a crucial part of the plan. With his team monitoring the ever changing cache of lives, all Kim has to concentrate on is his scoring, keeping his eyes open, and hastily run to the garden whenever he needs to take a leak.

The comparisons to Seth Gordon's King of Kong are unavoidable, with its use of flash graphics and retro 8-bit sounds a major part of the fabric of both films, but director Mads Hedegaard doesn't shy away from acknowledging the existence of the former, even going as far as featuring a couple of the big names from that film and the world of arcade gaming. Both Walter Day from official video game scorekeepers Twin Galaxies, and the self-proclaimed "greatest arcade machine player" Billy Mitchell (who talks to Kim and his friends via telephone ahead of their record attempt, and before a cheating scandal sees him fall from grace in the eyes of his fans) appear briefly. But prior viewing of King of Kong isn't necessary to enjoy Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest's own underdog story, with Hedegaard going some way to show why the quiet, unassuming Kim is such an unlikely but perfect subject for a documentary, and how his mind works when he's playing the game. If you do know your arcade gamers, needless to say that Kim is definitely more of a Steve Wiebe than a Billy Mitchell, and gains more of our support for it. As for Kim's team, they're a similarly unique group of gamers, more vocal and outgoing than Kim, doubling up as experts in the fields of music theory, physics and poetry in their every day lives.

The documentary spends its first hour detailing the prep and training needed for Kim's big record attempt, before switching into its final act as Kim settles down in front of the Gyruss machine and gives us the kind of one man against the odds battle not seen since the finale of Rocky. It could be easy to dismiss the film and his record attempt as frivolous or unimportant, but as we hear the game play on and Kim's accumulation of lives fall away as he attempts to rest his brain for a few precious minutes, it's one of the tensest moments in cinema I can recall. Without spoiling the outcome of his record attempt, what I will say is that if you've ever had your own life-engulfing obsession that seems completely alien to most people, you'll find so much to relate to in Kim and his friends. Touching on mental health and finding the support you need from your friends, ultimately all these guys want is for their efforts to have a lasting impact in the world they call their own.

A gloriously fun journey into this outsider lifestyle anchored by a loveable group of misfits you can't help but root for, Cannon Arm and The Arcade Quest is undoubtedly the best snapshot of this subculture since King of Kong and a truly captivating underdog story. A strong recommend.

Verdict

4/5