Beast

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UK | 2017 | Directed by Michael Pearce

Logline: A troubled woman living in an isolated community finds herself pulled between the control of her oppressive family and the allure of a secretive outsider suspected of a series of brutal murders.

Moll (Jessie Buckley) is a young woman in her 20s who is still living at home, a prisoner of sorts, held captive by her family’s moral rigour, in particular her mother Hilary (Geraldine James). Her sister, Polly (Shannon Tarbet), is the daughter done good, very pretty and engaged, while Moll struggles with insecurity, haunting memories, and the unwanted affection of the local policeman, Harrison (Oliver Maltman). 

Frustrated at her own birthday garden party Moll slips away into the island night, and spends the wee hours dancing with a stranger at a local shindig. In the cold crisp light of dawn the stranger’s intent turns sour, but thankfully Moll is rescued by the intervention of Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a lone huntsman, scarred, but ruggedly good looking. There is an immediate attraction, Moll and he are drawn to each other like moths to the flame. Meanwhile, there are terrible murders taking place in the community and the law is closing in. 

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Operating like a kind of dark fable with horror elements peeking and probing from the darker corners of the narrative, the ambiguity of its two leads become entwined, as protagonist and antagonist seemingly begin to merge, the central pathway becomes unreliable, unpredictable, dangerous. The grasp of forbidden desires becomes clammy and slippery, the pursuant clouds darken, as Moll and Pascal’s relationship becomes inexorably entangled, and confusion rears its ugly head, whose truth is real? 

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This is a highly accomplished debut feature from writer/director Pearce, who weaves the machinations of a macabre psychological thriller with the poignant, delicate elements of an illicit romance, ultimately creating a hybrid creature that slinks and slithers slyly, then bites savagely. Its slow burn technique belies its truly dark heart. “Be careful what you unleash” warns the movie’s tagline, while another could be “The heart is a lonely hunter”. Beast plays with familiar tropes and conventions, whilst it gently tugs the rug from under your muddy feet. 

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On much of the surface Beast plays like a regular serial killer thriller, and it isn’t until the very end that you realise how immensely satisfying the movie has been. A production where all the department boxes can be given big ticks; gorgeously shot by Benjamin Kracun, a bristling, captivating score from Jim Williams, terrific performances from the entire cast, especially newbie Buckley and Maltman, but also the ever-reliable James, in a small, but pivotal role as the overbearing mother, plus some really nifty editing from Maya Maffioli in certain crucial scenes.

Beast is a one of those delicious nightmare thrillers that I hunger for each year, and now I’m feeling sated. 

 

Beast screens as part of Revelation - Perth International Film Festival, Sunday 8 July, 2.15pm (Luna), Tuesday 10 July, 6.30pm (Luna), Monday 16 July, 6.15pm (Luna), Tuesday 17 July, 8.45pm (SX).

For more information please visit the festival site here.

 

You Were Never Really Here

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France/UK | 2017 | Directed by Lynne Ramsay

Logline: A man hired to rescue trafficked girls struggles with his inner demons on his toughest job yet.

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is an extractor, a hired gun (hammer, to be precise) who infiltrates sex trafficking rings and rescues the young girls who have been abducted. It’s a messy job, as Joe is known for his brutal methods, and he has the horrendous scars to prove his mettle. He is also plagued by nightmarish flashbacks from his damaged youth and tours of duty as an adult in the military and within internal affairs.

Joe uses auto-asphyxiation to alleviate his PTSD, which in turn exacerbates his psychological condition, with the dark abyss of suicide never far from his precarious perch. He self-medicates with self-harm. It’s the only avenue he understands and trusts. The rescuing provides him with slight relief, as it allows him to believe he is saving a sliver of himself each time, or the memory of himself. 

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Joe visits his frail mother (Judith Roberts), who still lives in his childhood home. He cares for her, but the household memories are like a demonic shroud. His job supervisor, McCleary (John Doman), has a new and lucrative assignment, to rescue Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the troubled, adolescent daughter of New York State Senator Votto (Alex Manette).

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With Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood providing a brilliant, nerve-shredding electronic and orchestral score as the spine, we follow Joe’s path into the bowels of darkness. Shards of his harrowing young domesticity and chaotic and violent career pepper the mise-en-scene like stabs from a nasty migraine. Joe is simultaneously jaded and resilient, soldiering on, at all cost, and this job will take him to the very edge of the precipice.

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A powerhouse performance from Phoenix (and though I am forever reminded of his late, older brother whenever I see Joaquin on screen I believe the younger brother has absorbed his tragic brother’s animal spirit), he commands the screen with his hulking form, like a kind of black angel, searching for a deliverance, aching for release, desperate for oblivion to take his hand.

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Just as Ramsay has done with previous adaptations, Morvern Callar and We Need To Talk About Kevin, she has possessed a novel and made it her own, tackling the implosion of the psyche due to external forces, framing trauma as catharsis. It’s a disturbing, but stunning portrait. The violence seethes, both implicit and explicit (though the graphic element tends to be the aftermath), the tone grim as nails. The title, You Were Never Really Here, seemingly refers to psychological removal for self-protection, further hammering (if you’ll pardon the pun) the point home with past tense and in third person.

Like a new millennial mutation of Taxi Driver this searing, blistering study of violence and fractured retribution is, quite simply, a masterclass in cinematic technique, and one of my very favourites of the year.

 

You Were Never Really Here screens as part of the Revelation - Perth International Film Festival, Friday 6 July, 9pm (Luna), Wednesday 11 July, 4.30pm (Luna), Friday 13 July, 8.45pm (SX), and Sunday 15 July, 8.50pm (Luna). 

For more information please visit the festival site here.

Pet Names

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US | 2018 | Directed Carol Brandt

Logline: A young woman, trying to cope with her sick mother and her own fragility, finds herself on a weekend camping trip with her recent ex-boyfriend.

Call me hipster, I don’t care, but I love a dysfunctional indie romance. My darling is Evan Glodell’s Bellflower from 2011, a benchmark in terms of capturing the listlessness of summer, the fresh scent of desire, the sour odour of heartbreak, but especially those moments between the moments, the elusive awkward poignancy that so many filmmakers strive and fail to harness. 

For her third feature young director Carol Brandt has fashioned a beautifully understated observation on the search for closure and acceptance that charms effortlessly with wonderful performances from her two leads, Meredith Johnston as Leigh, and Rene Cruz as Cam. The screenplay is by Johnston, autobiographical perhaps, but either way it resonates with an authenticity that gives the movie a truly endearing edge. The kind of sideways glance you get from someone who’s caught your eye. You’ve had a taste of something, and you want more and more.

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Leigh has been forced to drop out of grad school and has been living at home nursing her sick, bedbound mother. Her life has been put on the backburner. A girlfriend, Dre (Chelsea Norment), offers temporary time out, via a house party, and Leigh returns the favour by inviting her on a camping trip, a break her mother is insisting she take. But Dre pulls out, and when Leigh inadvertently finds herself in the company of her neighbour and ex-boyfriend Cam she knee-jerk extends an invitation for Cam to fill the space.

Most of Pet Names takes place on the camping ground, just out of town, as Leigh and Cam navigate each other. There isn’t tension, only unresolved issues, old wounds. Cam, with his huge Anglo-Afro, and his pet pug Chato, is happy to spend time with Leigh, as they both share a similar sense of humour and quiet sense of adventure, but Leigh is wary of Cam. Leigh’s girlfriend slipped her some Burning Man leftover fungi, so there’s that to be had, along with a few bottles of whisky, and some of Cam’s pot. There’ll probably be tears before dawn.

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Like Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey) Brandt shoots in 4:3 (standard) aspect ratio, shoots quickly, is adept at capturing the beauty of available light, and also favours a naturalistic style of performance that does wonders for subtlety of character. Pet Names – yes, they do reveal them – is a terrific vehicle for Meredith Johnston, and will certainly be the feature that gives Brandt the exposure and acclaim she deserves.

Pet Names isn’t as experimental or as dark and unpredictable as Bellflower, but there is something akin in its language, its wanderings, its sense of the absurd, its melancholy, its yearning. It rewards in similar ways. Definitely one of my favourite movies of the year.

 

Pet Names screens as part of the Revelation – Perth International Film Festival, Wednesday 11 July, 2.45pm (Luna), Friday 13 July, 12pm (Luna), Saturday 14 July, 9.15pm (Luna), and Monday 16 July, 8.30pm (Six).

For more information please visit the festival site here

 

 

That Summer/Grey Gardens

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Sweden/Denmark/US and US | 2017 and 1975 | Directed by Göran Hugo Olsson and Albert & David Maysles

Logline: Two documentaries that feature the eccentric mother and daughter relatives of former US First Lady Jackie Onassis. 

One of the great direct cinema technique documentaries of the past fifty years, Grey Gardens is one of those strangely fascinating fly-on-the-wall portraits of eccentric people trapped in time and space. Crumb, the doco on artist Robert Crumb and his brothers is another that comes to mind. The Maysles brothers documentary about Big Edie and Little Edie holed-up in their decrepit East Hamptons mansion is the stuff of musty legend. Now, after more than forty years several reels of film have emerged that provide Grey Gardens with a wonderful prequel, a companion piece, just as endlessly watchable, in another documentary, titled That Summer, about what took place a few years earlier, that would lead to the Maysles making Grey Gardens

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That Summer begins in 2016 with renowned photographer and collage artist Peter Beard, now an old man, discussing his life's work, as he leafs through one of his elaborate coffee table books. He reminisces about the attempt in 1972 to make a documentary with his close friend Lee Radziwill, the younger sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who had spent their childhood amidst the dunes and bramble of Montauk, East Hampton, NY, chiefly at the residence of two socialites Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie), the aunt and first cousin of the former US First Lady.

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Big Edie was in her late 70s, Little Edie in her mid-50s. They had been living a reclusive existence in the Grey Gardens estate for decades. By the time Radziwill and Beard arrived, the mansion was infested with fleas, cats and raccoons, had no running water, and with garbage bags piling up in the cellar. It was filthy, and the Healthy Department were called in. But Radziwill and Jackie Onassis stepped in with funds to repair and stabilise the home, enough for the eccentric mother and even more eccentric daughter to continue to live there.

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When Radziwill and Beard’s intended documentary was shelved, the Maysles brothers, who had been hired to camera operate, were given permission to come back and make their own documentary, focusing directly on the two Edies.

That Summer is a broader portrait, bringing into view such luminaries as Andy Warhol, who joined Beard and Radziwill on the vacation, surely one of the very rare occasions of the shy artist outside of Manhattan. Paul Morrisey, the legendary Factory director, is also glimpsed on the beach. But the 16mm footage, just four reels, is as revealing and personal and captivating as the observations in Grey Gardens. Little Edie is such a character, wrapped in her bizarre fashion, a scarf always over her head, as she dances here and there, a lost soul of sorts, once a striking teenage model who paraded the Grey Gardens lawn, who took it upon herself to become caretaker to her mother, burying any hope of romance and adventure.

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There is an inherent melancholy, a floating sadness, which permeates both films. The mother and daughter seem happy in their domestic routine, the lack of contact with the outside world has somehow shielded them from despair. Big Edie lapses into song, as she was once a gifted singer, with 78s to prove it, whilst Little Edie ruminates in the possibility of returning to the city cabaret scene. They live in a bubble, overgrown with bramble, the furniture riddled with decay.

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These films are beautiful date stamps, the quality of light, the fashion and decor, the recollections, the memories. Somehow the stranger the people the closer we feel. Like moths drawn to a flame, we can't help but watch these pathetic, tragic figures as they flap and flounder, as they strut and pout. Beard's own diarist inclination, his penchant for collage, is a curious reflection of the haphazard lifestyle of the once glorious Edie duo. 

Hopefully one day these two exquisite documentaries will be combined in a special edition release, as they compliment each other perfectly. That Summer also highlights Beard's exceptional artistry, which is a good thing too, as I hadn’t been aware of his safari and glamour photography.

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That Summer and Grey Gardens are as essential as iced tea on a hot summer lawn. 

 

 

Good Manners

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As Boas Maneiras | Brazil/France | 2018 | Directed by Marco Dutra & Juliana Rojas

Logline: A lonely nurse, hired as a nanny by a wealthy pregnant woman, becomes involved in the fate of the woman and her unborn child.

Zombies, vampires, and ghosts are a dime a dozen in horror cinema, but for some reason there aren’t many werewolf flicks, and even fewer ones with a good bite. I have a soft furry spot for a decent lycanthropy tale, and at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, in my favourite "Freak Me Out" section is a co-production, co-directed and co-written by a pair who have been collaborating for many years, that tells the bristling, shaggy tale of an unlikely romance, the birth of a particularly bitey baby, and the tenuous motherhood that followed.

It’s a hairy tail, er, I mean a fairy tale, but it is filled with much darkness and heartbreak, sadness and despair, and ends on a sharp note. 

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Ana (Marjorie Estiano) is pregnant and on her own. But she is affluent. She lives in a large plush apartment. She is looking for a nanny, and ends up hiring Clara (Isabél Zuaa), who is obviously desperate, but possesses a soothing touch. The two women are worlds apart, but a bond is ignited, and love is made. But there is something in the flow of the night that is troubling Ana. The doctor orders she abstain from eating meat. Each month when Luna is full and her glow is ripe, Ana sleepwalks and lowers the stray cat population. Clara is very worried.

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Fabricated like a children’s dark storybook (even with a beautifully illustrated sequence), with striking faces, sumptuous, stylized cityscape shots that suggest they’ve been painted rather than filmed, Good Manners is a fable about unconditional love, about human and animal nature, and about acceptance and resilience in the face of menace and danger. It’s a tale of fate’s cruel hunger, but it’s a little long in the tooth.

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But this movie definitely needs a haircut. At least twenty minutes shorn would give it more growl to its snarl. Still, it’s a captivating story, and even surprised me to where it was going. I was sure the local priest was going to make an appearance and a long-lost connection, but I digress …

Fangtastic performances (okay, okay, I’ll stop with the terrible puns) from the key cast, especially Marjorie Estiano, who provides the movie with much sensuality and humour, while Isabél Zuaa’s poker face through most of the craziness must be noted. The cinematography is excellent, as is the special effects, in particular the clever meld of practical and CGI for Joel (Miguel Lobo – yes, Lobo) in werewolf form, a truly original and endearing look, if lycanthropes can dare to be cute, yet dangerous.

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Good Manners falls short of being a werewolf cult classic (let’s face it, they’ve only ever had cult followings) mostly due to the second half taking too long (we didn’t need the full-blown ballad performance late in the piece), and for not actually showing a proper transformation (de rigour), but Dutra and Rojas have cultivated a very decent entry into the sub-genre's lore with its own distinct, bittersweet lupine scent.

It’s the certainly the most unusual family drama of the year, I'll give it that. 

 

 

Piercing

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US | 2017 | Directed by Nicolas Pesce

Logline: A rookie serial killer sets up in a hotel room with his next murder rehearsed only to find himself in over his head after his intended victim upsets his plans. 

Based on the novel of the same name by Japanese author and filmmaker Ryū Murakami, Nicolas Pesce takes the guts of the book, the sadomasochistic proclivities, sexual anguish, intense neurosis, acute anxiety, and exquisite agony, and fashions an utterly gorgeous and deliberately frustrating paean to the giallo movies of the late 70s/early 80s, especially the work of Dario Argento. It’s hard candy for cinephiles, and for anyone else, it’s likely to leave a sour taste in the mouth. 

Reed (Christopher Abbott) is a man on the edge of the abyss. Married to lovely Mona (Laia Costa), they have an infant child, and live in an apartment in what feels like a vaguely alternate universe New York (or maybe it’s Nu-TokYo-rk). Reed is struggling with the diabolical urge to stab his baby boy with an ice pick. His wife seems none the wiser to her husband’s inner turmoil. Reed leaves on a “business trip” and sets up murder shop in a hotel, meticulously rehearsing his obsessive homicidal desires. His little red book is full of notes. But the first glitch arrives, as his arranged hooker is not available. Reed accepts the substitute, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), who arrives, demands a stiff drink, briefly masturbates, and then excuses herself to take a long shower.

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Reed’s perfectly planned murder set piece is not going quite to plan. But it’s going to get a lot more askew - and fuck more painful - before the night is through.

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One could view Piercing as a kind of psychosexual chamber piece. Essentially a two-hander, and almost entirely set in just three rooms; the Reed apartment, Reed’s hotel room, and Jackie’s apartment, with the single exterior scene outside a hospital looking more like a set, and the cityscape montage that bookends the movie utilizing miniatures, Piercing is a blackly comic (oh, so dark) study of deviance and duplicity that could easily have fallen into the trappings and limitations of filmed theatre, but with Pesce’s precise command of mise-en-scene (including split-screen), profondo rosso cinematography, and heavily stylised production design, the inherent claustrophobia is hardly apparent.

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Superb performances from Abbott and Wasikowska (easily my fave of hers) as protagonist/antagonist/nemesis intertwined. Costa (who was terrific as the lead in Victoria, but in a small role here) plays perfect soft warm counterpart to the cold façades of Reed and Jackie, and a nod must be made to Maria Dizzia as Reed’s first victim. Also excellent is the special effects makeup from Michael Marino and Michael Fontaine (even if we didn’t get the final money shot we were expecting!)

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The entirely retro-sourced soundtrack is a curious one, with its dubious inclusion of several well-known cult classic cues from Argento’s Deep Red (during Jackie’s initial cab ride) and Tenebre (over the end credits), whilst several Bruno Nicolai pieces are used throughout. Of course these pieces of music sound fabulous, but in the new context, for those familiar with them, they become distracting. I’m reminded of Tarantino’s use of Moroder & Bowie’s Cat People in Inglorious Basterds, which rubbed me up the wrong way. But I’m nitpicking, as Piercing definitely delivers – and teases wickedly – in macabre delight, it’s likely to be one of my year’s favourites. 

Holiday

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Denmark/Netherlands/Sweden | 2018 | Directed by Isabella Eklöf

Logline: Whilst vacationing with a group of drug dealing criminals a young woman finds herself attracted to a holidaying stranger and creates dangerous turmoil.  

Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) is the girlfriend of Michael (Lai Yde), a handsome and extremely arrogant wannabe drug lord. With his criminal cohorts they are Danes on holiday in Turkey, on the Riveria coastline, soaking up the rays by the villa pool and on the beach, patronising the bars and restaurants, and acting like they own the place. There is still business to be attended to, jewellery to be bought, and samples of high grade MDMA to be tried and tested. 

Sascha has already been reprimanded by one of Michael’s associates. Violence, both the threat of it, and the enforcing of underworld etiquette, is part and parcel with this lifestyle. It becomes quickly apparent that Sascha is numb to the abuse. Her place in the hierarchy is set in stone, and she must simply endure, if she wishes to continue to enjoy the lifestyle luxuries the criminal realm includes. But behind her eyes lies a yearning for more power.

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Dutch Thomas (Thijs Römer) and his buddy are also on vacation on the Riveria, their yacht moored at the marina. The two men cross paths with Sascha at an ice cream parlour, and she and Thomas immediately strike up a flirtatious rapport. Later, Sascha spots the men dining at the same restaurant and chats with them, away from Michael and his clan. Michael has taken note of his trophy girlfriend’s discretions.

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In a highly controversial scene halfway through the movie, and seemingly out of nowhere, Michael turns a relaxed affectionate moment with Sascha into a brutal display of power, violating and humiliating her. It is very explicit and graphic, as disturbing in its realism as it is shocking in its candidness. Even more confronting is how Sascha internalises the incident. A quiet rage coils inside her. It is an incredibly brave and delicate performance from Sonne, as well as a superbly menacing one from Yde.

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But Holiday doesn’t become a revenge movie, though is it a study of violence. It is ultimately an observation, and a harrowing one at that, of the ghastly glamour bruising of the gangster underworld. How naïveté can lead to co-dependence, a kind of Stockholm Syndrome at play, how corruption can operate on an insular level.

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Sascha’s passivity eventually gives way in the most horrendous, appalling way. It frustrates, and yet, provides the narrative with a darkly satisfying resolve. It’s not what you want, it’s not what you expect, but it makes terrible sense. Sascha’s moral arc has an inexorable beauty as desolate as the ocean view, as wretched as her submission to Michael.

Holiday is not for everyone, it has the uncompromising, savage, and realistic edge of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, with the cold precise vibe of Ulrich Seidl and Michael Haneke, and the beautifully sustained tension and release of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy. Eklöf, with her debut feature, has delivered one of the year’s most resonant and remarkable films indeed, and one guaranteed to polarise.  

 

Holiday is screening as part of the 65th Sydney Film Festival, Friday 8th June, 8:30pm at Dendy Newtown, and Sunday 10th June, 6:45pm at Event Cinema 9 George St.

Holiday is screening as part of 21st Revelation Perth International Film Festival, Sunday 8th July, 8:45pm, Saturday 14th July, 2:30pm, and Sunday 15th July, 7:15pm, all at Luna Leederville.

 

 

 

 

 

Hereditary

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US | 2018 | Directed by Ari Aster

Logline: When the grandmother dies, the daughter’s family begins to experience increasingly bizarre and alarming secrets about their ancestry.

Employing a narrative slow burn, drenched in foreboding, dripping with dread, this supernatural tale of the disintegration of a scarred and vulnerable family is the most genuinely nightmarish horror movie in ages. Conjuring the atmospheric intensity from the best of the 70s, and, more importantly, armed with the tenebrous resolve that makes other acclaimed contemporary films, such as The Conjuring and The Babadook, far less the kind of horror movies that True Believers herald, this horror movie projects a darkness that sears holes. 

The Graham family is gripped with solemnity. The matriarchal grandmother has passed away and left all kinds of trouble brewing. Her daughter Annie (Toni Colette) is struggling with her career art in miniatures, whilst keeping her demons locked away. Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) does his best to keep the family harmonious, but the cracks are showing. Peter (Alex Wolff), the elder offspring, wants only to live like a normal teenager, while his oddball younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is harbouring an even deeper resentment.

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What begins as a domestic drama riddled with dysfunctional behaviour soon unravels into a full-blown phantasm of hellish ancestral vice. Burnt offerings aren’t the half of it, this has third degree witchery blistering in its intent. Hereditary lays out a two-hour master class (or close to it) in horror suspense and execution. Colette delivers a central career best performance, while Wolff, newcomer Shapiro, and Ann Dowd as a spiritualist, offer excellent support. Byrne is solid also. Both Colette and Byrne serve as executive producers.

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I take my hat off to composer Colin Stetson (who co-scored the excellent Blue Caprice from a few years back) who delivers an absolutely terrific soundtrack utilising classic style cues and contemporary minimalist sound design technique. Writer/director Aster also knows when to keep the scene quiet, and it works a darkly oneiric treat.

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This is Aster’s debut feature after a run of short films, and he showcases a superb understanding of how the best horror movies unfold, operate, and manipulate. Without once pandering to the conventional jump scare tactics or red herrings so frequently used in popular cinema, Aster opts for the creeping unknown, laying down subtleties, slyly twisting the narrative screws, providing the audience with characters who are very convincing and empathetic. There’s a particularly shocking and disturbing death in the movie’s first act, the harrowing circumstances of which continues to linger long after the end credits have left the screen.

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By cleverly molding a mainstream approach to esoteric material Aster takes the key element that made Paranormal Activity 3 the best of that series and presents a disturbing instant classic. Horror movies of this calibre don’t come around very often. One must savour the strange and macabre ingredients  and relish them as a witch would stirring and tasting her own spooky brew. If you loved Oz Perkins' February, you'll definitely get a black magic kick from Hereditary

It’s hard in this day and age for movies to survive the hype machine. Hereditary has been riding on a massive crest of acclaim, being compared to such seminal fare as The Exorcist. I went into the screening with expectations in check, having not even seen the teaser trailer. The movie deserves all the praise it gets. For me Hereditary ticks almost all the boxes, much more so than other recent horror darlings A Quiet Place and The Witch, and as a horrorphile I have a lot of boxes. Apparently Aster doesn't consider himself a horror director, is even turning down the big bucks from Hollywood, but I surely hope he makes another. And another.

 

 

A Quiet Place

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US | 2018 | Directed by John Krasinski

Logline: In a decimated near-future a lone family must try to survive ferocious alien creatures who hunt using acute hearing. 

Another in the recent trend of what are referred to as “elevated horror” movies, where social metaphor or a social-political context is used as a subtextual commentary to lift what is considered to be a base genre. Generally I don’t have time for this kind of pseudo-soapbox rationale, just deliver us a great horror movie that either terrifies its audience, or horrifies its audience, or, even better, does both. In the case of this spare and concise tale of extraordinary parenthood, the bar has been raised to a decent height, even if I do have a few issues with the writing.

The Abbott family; Lee (John Krasinski), wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), deaf teenager Regan (Millicent Simmonds), sickly son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and youngest, Beau (Cade Woodward) travel, barefoot, and in silent conversation, from township to township, each one derelict. They pick up supplies, and make their way to an abandoned farmhouse where they plan to set up camp for awhile. The world has been invaded by huge, crustacean-like extra-terrestrial beasts that are blind, but hunt relentlessly by using massive, acute earholes, and sport mouths full of razor-sharp teeth. To describe these creatures as frightening is an understatement. 

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Tragedy strikes, and the family are burdened with grief. But Evelyn is pregnant, and Lee is determined to develop a hearing device for his daughter that works. They are survivalists, pragmatic and smart. But the alien menace are a formidable and constant threat. Lee has determined that there are three of the creatures roaming in their immediate vicinity, and in order for the family to stay alive, they must follow strict rules, and adhere to the survival tactic of making no noise louder than that which nature makes. 

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But there’s always room for human error. 

The rather gimmicky premise is by screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, with additional scripting by Krasinski, directing his third feature, with his wife of eight years, Blunt, playing opposite him for the first time. The screenplay is taut, with almost no spoken dialogue - the narrative is facilitated by the use of American Sign Language, but there are a few glaring inconsistencies that threatened to derail the movie; such as the alien beasts’ ability to move at lightning speed out of seemingly nowhere following a loud sound, yet with their highly developed ears, they can’t detect smaller, quieter sounds? I didn’t buy into that. 

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There is a crucial scene, and arguably the movie’s most tense and frightening sequence, when Evelyn, about to give birth, and with a badly injured foot, is desperately trying to hide from one of the creatures, which is steadily closing in. The outcome of this scene illicited a few unintentional guffaws in the audience I was in - including me - as it was fairly absurd. What aggravated it was that Krasinski has directed a high-concept movie with as much plausibility as possible that it becomes gratingly earnest, and the ending of this scene almost scuttles the movie. 

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A Quiet Place is, essentially, a take on the plight of parenthood, the underlying intent to teach and protect, and the inherent dilemma of what would it take to ensure your children’s safety. The production values are very high, with excellent special effects, superb performances, especially Blunt and newcomer Simmonds (who is actually deaf). I’m not sure about the score, as good as it is in isolation, the use of it felt heavy-handed, especially in such a movie, where silence is imperative. The now de rigour use of deep, brooding drones has become part-and-parcel for eliciting dread. Yes, it sounds impressive on a sonic level, but its use as narrative ploy has become corny.

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Quibbles aside A Quiet Place is a riveting science fiction horror-thriller with several excellent set-pieces, and a pretty cool - Get Out-style - ending. The movie will certainly appeal to audiences who normally wouldn’t watch science fiction horror. But I'm still aching for a new horror movie to really raise the bar. 

Despite The Gods

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Australia | 2012 | Directed by Penny Vosniak

Logline: A documentary following the difficult journey of an American filmmaker trying to make an arthouse thriller with Bollywood financing. 

Australian filmmaker Penny Vosniak’s casual observation of Jennifer Lynch directing a creature feature in India is innately fascinating, and quietly entertaining, revealing a very down-to-Earth, emotionally fragile, yet genuinely passionate filmmaker, who just happens to have a world-renowned, cult-classic director for a father.

Jennifer Lynch wrote her first feature, Boxing Helena, at the tender age of 19. She was encouraged to direct it, but the movie was ridiculed by harsh critics, and an even crueller public. The movie, a modern fairy tale that Lynch had intended as a blackly comic, dark romantic fantasy, but which many audiences and critics took seriously, tanked at the box office, and ended up on more Worst Movie lists than you shake a severed arm at. 

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After a fifteen year hiatus, her second feature, Surveillance (2008) earned her a Best Movie award at a European film festival, the encouraging news of which she got whilst on the set of her third movie, Nagin: The Snake Goddess (released in 2010 as Hisss), in the sweltering heat and chaos of India, alongside her adolescent daughter, Sydney. 

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Lynch has described the experience of directing the movie as like a clusterfuck of cooks in the kitchen, or thereabouts. Funded almost entirely with Bollywood finances (the production had to be filmed using dual English and Hindi language takes), with two many fingers in the pie, her father’s maverick traits came back to bite her on the arse when the frustrated Indian executive producers, unhappy with her artistic deliverance, pushed their weight around and wrenched the movie from her control in the editing suite. It was re-cut to try and make it more of a conventional horror movie, and subsequently Jennifer publicly distanced herself from the movie.

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For a movie supposedly costing $6 million, the day-to-day filming on location appeared to be more like a guerrilla set-up. No doubt the buxom Bollywood star, Mallika Sherawat, would have come with a tidy fee, and no doubt special effects whiz Robert Kurtzman wouldn’t have come cheaply either, but the CGI looks dodgy, and no doubt Jennifer’s subtleties of mood and tone all ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s a real shame, as I doubt we’ll ever get the opportunity of seeing a director’s cut. 

Where the documentary becomes especially interesting is the close attention it pays to the relationship between the frustrated 40-year-old single mother, who yearns for a partner, and her precocious 12-year-old daughter, who is endearing, but is driving the line producer barmy. Jennifer leans on her daughter for emotional support, and one of the crew jibes that he can’t tell who is the daughter and who is the mother. Jennifer rolls her eyes. 

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Despite the Gods covers the entire eight-month Indian shoot, from the dry season to the wet season, with all the dust, bugs, monsoons, exotic customs and rituals, union strikes, language barriers, and scheduling delays in-between. Jennifer was endeavouring to make a movie that empowered women, that juggled humanity and inhumanity, that championed female sensuality, carnal ferocity, and embraced Far Eastern mythology, and the serpentine grip of the supernatural. What she got for her troubles was a seemingly never-ending headache, and the heart aching toll of having your art stolen from you. But, inadvertently, she got to conquer some inner demons as well.

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At doco’s end, four years after production ended, a pink-dreadlocked Jennifer sits with her now 17-year-old daughter (who still looks the same!) and Jim, the man who saved her from going insane during the tail end of her exotic rollercoaster ride. Yet Jennifer has long accepted the emotional and psychological bruising of that experience and she wouldn’t trade it for anything. She’d even go back and do it again, and while she’d change a few of her decisions, she’d also make many of the same mistakes again. 

And therein lies the coil of The Creative Rub.

Possession

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France/West Germany | 1981 | Directed by Andrezj Zulawski

Logline: A man returns home to find his wife acting strangely, demanding divorce, and driving the husband to discover what is causing her bizarre behaviour.

“We have nothing to fear, except God, whatever that means to you.”

“For me, God is a disease.”

“That’s why through disease we can reach God.”

Cold Berlin. Mark (Sam Neill) is a spy returning from an assignment. He is debriefed and arrives home to find that all is not well on the domestic front. His wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), is no longer the woman he once knew. Infidelity is the culprit, and a distraught Sam searches out his wife’s lover. He finds Heinrich (Heinz Bennett), a sensual neo-hippie spouting intellectual diatribes. But Heinrich insists Anna has moved on from him to someone else.

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This is true, she has progressed (regressed?) to another tryst - but no ordinary lover, something otherworldly; a slimy squid-like creature that writhes with silent intent, inexplicably born from her anguish, which she now copulates with at regular intervals in a derelict apartment building. Anna is driven to protect and feed her hideous lover at all costs.

Mark tries in vain to save the marriage, for their young son, Bob (Michael Hogben), if nothing else. But Anna is distant, impulsive, and volatile. In turn Mark becomes desperate, obsessed, reckless. He hires a private investigator, which only complicates matters, and becomes involved with Bob’s schoolteacher, Helen (Adjani also), who looks the spitting image of his wife, except for violet eyes, bangs, and temperament. Soon Mark will be confronted with Anna’s deadly secret, her tenebrous agenda, and it will be his worst nightmare, where sanity, reality, and inhumanity will collide.

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Director Andrzej Zulawski pitched Possession to Hollywood as “The story of a woman who fucks an octopus.” After watching the movie, with all its horror symbolism, relationship allegory, sexual ambiguity, identity confusion, and supernatural, science fiction mysticism, you’ll agree with Zulawski’s obtuse and ironic sense of humour as presented to the Tinseltown conservatives.

Zulawski, who is Polish, made the movie as a French/West German co-production. The American financiers would never understand his abstract, artistic intent. In fact the US distributor ended up radically re-editing the original cut, excising between thirty and forty minutes, re-scoring it with another composer, and adding a solarising filter effect over some of the movie’s climactic scenes, in order to try and market it to a broader American horror audience. It was even re-released in the States under the grindhousey title The Night the Screaming Stops.

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Primarily, Possession is about the breakdown of a marriage, about manipulation and self-control (or lack, thereof). But embroiled with this deconstruction of a once loving, now destructive relationship, are the insidious tendrils of betrayal and corruption; emotional, physiological, even theological. There’s the psychotherapeutic thread of releasing one’s inner Id, the black dog of male physical inadequacy, the wrath of female emotional instability, and the cruel trial of separation and abandonment.

And then there’s the apocalyptic, ultimate nightmarish fear of children – that your parents are not really your parents.

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The pitch and tone of the movie veers from intense anxiety to outright hysteria, with little room to breathe in between. Adjani won the Palm D’Or for Best Actress, and it is an undeniably mercurial and memorable performance (Adjani admitted it took years for her to recover from the role). Sam Neill was not the most convincing actor as a younger man, but he throws himself into the role with wild gusto, and is supported (eclipsed) by Adjani’s dual high-calibre deliverance, and offset by the flamboyant histrionics of German actor Heinz Bennett.

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But it’s not just the unusual and original subject matter coupled with the ripe, overtly theatrical performances that gives Possession its je ne sais quoi, it’s the clean fluidity of the camerawork, the serene blue – melancholy – and green – jealousy – cinematography (an influence on Dario Argento’s Tenebre), the desolate West Berlin setting, and, of course, Carlo Rambaldi’s repulsive, ingenious animatronic creature effects, which stick in the mind long after the movie has finished. Indeed, utterly distinct, and utterly unique.

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Just as David Lynch has made enigmatic movies that seem impenetrable on first watch, but after multiple viewings became endlessly fascinating, serving up ideas and questions in different guises, with no straight, easy answers - or even answers at all, Zulawski’s Possession is a beast unto itself, a mutant depiction of domestic upheaval, creature horror, loss of faith, and frightening doppelgängers, all wrapped up in an escalating/spiraling frenzy of pursuit and cosmic revelation… with pink-socked espionage to boot.

Flawed like a diamond cut from dark space, borne from bitterness, misery, lust and madness, it seethes and lurches, and makes huge demands of the viewer, but Possession rewards in ways only a truly philosophical, yet powerfully visceral, movie can.

“Almost… Almost…”

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Trouble Every Day

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2001 | France | Directed by Claire Denis

Logline: A newlywed couple honeymooning in Paris becomes embroiled in the dangerous studies of a doctor and his affected wife. 

One of the most original and disturbing takes on cannibalism/vampirism ever made, Trouble Every Day is like a mutant-strain that floats like a butterfly and stings like a scorpion, a dark and confounding tale of sexual dysfunction and obsession from a cinema poet, who delivers cinema as frustrating as it is rewarding. 

Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) and his wife June (Tricia Vessey) are arriving in the City of Light on their honeymoon. During the plane journey Shane experiences a moment of intense anxiety whilst in bathroom, his mind swimming with thoughts of himself and his wife amidst blood-soaked carnality; it’s a frightening image. Back in his seat he cuddles with June, but it’s obvious Shane is a deeply troubled man.

Several other characters and their perspectives are introduced, a dazed drifter, Coré (Beatrice Dalle), on the outskirts of Paris. A doctor, Léo Semeneau (Alex Descas), with a criminal agenda, a young and curious hotel chambermaid, Christelle (Florence Loiret), and a couple of opportunist cat burglars with their own twisted goal. There are strange attractors at work in this interweaving tale of hunger and desire, with all four narrative arcs eventually colliding, one after another like a chain reaction, the tone becoming more and more tenebrous, until the devastating denouement.

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Performances are strong, especially Tricia Vessey and Florence Loiret, with Vincent Gallo delivering yet another lugubrious performance, reciting his lines like he’s a bored student. He has screen charisma, yet his petulance fuels malaise in a difficult movie. This element is present in all Denis’ movies, right from her 1988 debut, Chocolat, a deeply evocative and languidly sensual tale of sexual ennui amidst African 50s colonialism, which remains a personal favourite.

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Trouble Every Day (the title is taken from the lilting song which bookends the movie) is beautiful, erotic, morose and horrific in equal measures. Its carnality is first arousing, then grotesque. A graphic scene has Coré devour a lover - literally, while a love scene between Shane and June ends with him storming off and furiously masturbating, and another where the “eating” act of cunnilingus is taken to its most appalling extreme.

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Humanity’s unease and the dark corners of the soul have always fascinated Denis, and she embraces subtlety, suggestion and diversion, frequently into indulgence, the elements of which, in the context of conventional horror movies, would frustrate most audiences. But it is these quieter, often lingering, more reflective moments, which give her films such a raw, poetic edge.

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But make no mistake, Trouble Every Day, is no wistful play on love’s sweet boundaries, it bites hard and tears chunks, a precarious mélange of sensuality and depravity. Like a dream it undulates, but like a nightmare it whiplashes, an existential, psychosexual thriller in the most base, elusive, but undeniably provocative sense. 

 

 

White of the Eye

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UK | 1987 | Directed by Donald Cammell

Logline: The wife of a hi-fi expert finds herself, and their young daughter, caught up in the deadly game of a serial killer in an isolated desert community. 

Paul White (David Keith) is an audio expert who installs high-end stereo equipment into the surrounding Arizona desert homes. He has the ability to produce an om-like resonance that echoes through his cranial cavities, thus providing him with the knowledge of exactly where to place the stereo speakers for optimum acoustics. He is married to Joan (Cathy Moriarty) and they have a young girl named Danielle (Danielle Smith).

A serial killer is on the loose, entering wealthy homes and brutally murdering the glamorous women who live there. Detective Mendoza (Art Evans) is on the case. He has his suspicions, but no concrete evidence. He questions Paul, but to no avail. He probes Joan, about Paul, and gets nowhere quickly. Something’s got to give. 

In flashbacks to the late 70s Joan is with another guy, Mike (Alan Rosenberg), on the road. They befriend Paul at a garage, and Paul and Mike go on a deer-hunting trip into the mountains. Paul channels his inner Native American and takes it to extremes, effectively frightening the shit out of Mike. But Paul wants more than just the antlers. He wants all the flesh, deer and woman too. “I am the one,” he tells Mike, as he fucks Joan, declaring himself the alpha male. 

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Keith and Moriarty give stellar performances, and these two physical elements, jarring against, folding into each other, and around the very young person trapped in between, provide the movie with its dysfunctional humanity. Also of note is Alberta Watson as toey Ann Mason, one of Paul White’s wealthy, alluring clients. There is a slight mysticism at work. It’s as if the desert has its own laws of nature, and those that dwell there, human and animal, are affected deeply by its wayward character and torrid climate. 

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Cammell co-wrote White of the Eye with his young wife China (she has a tiny part in the movie), based on an early novel, Mrs. White, by brothers Laurence and Andrew Glavan, writing under the pseudonym Margaret Tracy. It’s a haphazard, uneven screenplay, but the movie, much like Cammell’s other films, is less about the story, and more about the moments, the cinema narrative - the mise-en-scene. The score, especially the opening piece, by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and Rick Fenn, effortlessly captures a floating, drifting sense of abandon, a cool mountain breeze above the thick desert heat, an eagle soaring, eyeing its prey, scanning the horizon. 

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Cammell hired two cinematographers, Larry McConkey and Alan Jones, seemingly to fuel his desire for conflict on set, as he was notorious for his perverse methods creative drive. According to camera operator Larry McConkey, the shoot was chaotic. Special note must be made to legendary editor Terry Rawlings, who makes great effect of the opening sequence, and also the use of the bleached-out flashbacks. 

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The title, White of the Eye, is a reference to the Apache belief that if a person looks too closely into the eye of violence it will leave a mark upon the viewer. Cammell once described the movie as an artistic study of man’s need to destroy. He was vigilant over the dialogue he’d written with China, and refused his actors any room for improvisation. In a way, White of the Eye feels like the director’s most personal film.  

NB: Cammell was a tortured artist. He only made four feature films before committing suicide in the mid-90s following years of despair over not being able to complete the movies the way he wanted. After years as a painter he turned to making films and wrote the brilliant identity crisis Performance, which he co-directed with Nicolas Roeg. Seven years after it was finally released in 1970 he made the trashy science fiction horror The Demon Seed (a movie that demands a re-imagining!), then ten years after came White of the Eye, and finally, after almost another decade made the fractured Wild Side, based on a short story his wife wrote, which was snatched from his control in post by concerned executives, but by that stage Cammell was beyond the pale. His editor Frank Mazzola delivered a “director’s cut” based on Cammell’s original notes, but it is the sociopathic intensities of Performance and White of the Eye he will be remembered best for. 

 Arrow Video's brilliant cover art to the Blu-ray release. 

Arrow Video's brilliant cover art to the Blu-ray release. 

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

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Japan | 2011 | Directed by David Gelb

Logline: A documentary about an octogenarian sushi master, his two sons, and the tiny restaurant in which they tirelessly work. 

Sukiyabashi Jiro, in the basement of a Tokyo office building, is the world’s smallest three-star Michelin restaurant (the intimidating Michelin guide felt three stars was the only adequate rating they could give the intimate establishment that doesn’t even have a toilet on the premises). It is owned and run by 85-year-old Jiro Ono, a sushi master who left home at the tender age of nine, and began making sushi at ten. Seventy-five years later he continues to strive for perfection.

He serves sushi at his restaurant, and sushi only. Nothing more, nothing less, just the tastiest, most succulent sushi the world has to offer. He never takes a day off work, unless to attend a funeral, or perhaps a rare as hen’s teeth visit to see some very old friends. Apart from his two sons he employs only three other men.

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Jiro’s eldest son Yoshikazu is in his 50s and plans one day to step into his father’s shoes. Who knows when that day will come? The other son left to open his own place, and in respect he had his interior designed as a mirror reflection of his father’s. In the meantime Jiro dreams of sushi, and the smiles on the thousands of customers who have graced one of the ten stools that sits around his sushi bar over the years.

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For Jiro the perfect sushi is an exquisite union between fish and rice. He serves a degustation of sushi. At $300 a head and with the average dining time of around half an hour, it makes his sushi joint one of the most expensive restaurants in the world. But as anyone who has dined on his delicate oceanic flavours and moist warm grain says, the experience is not only worth it, but it is worth a return visit, and another, and probably another. But keep in mind you need to book a month in advance.

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Jiro is regarded as a shokunin, a master of his talent. But Jiro still feels there is a higher level of perfection to reach, and so he plods along tirelessly, day after day, night after night, carefully, meticulously producing his world-renowned dishes. He rates French chef Joel Robochun as his primary source of inspiration, as he feels the Gallic cook has the most extraordinary sense of smell and taste.

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David Gelb’s simple unfussy documentary celebrates the art of sushi without ostentation or pretension. There is humour, there is poetry, but both are handled with the subtlety of a lean tuna sashimi. There is the lament of the disappearing fish of the ocean. Over-fishing, especially the net fishing and bottom trawling, has meant one that the massive tuna that used to be marketed in the 40s and 50s no longer has the chance to grow to that size. Conveyor belts have created consumer sushi-heads without any elegance.

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But Jiro doesn’t let that bother him too much. He continues to dream of making sushi, the simple meditative joy it brings, and the delicious morsels on his degustation menu: halibut, squid, horse mackerel, lean tuna, medium tuna, fatty tuna, gizzard shad, clam, striped mackerel, “car” shrimp, half beak, octopus, mackerel, bay scallop, salmon roe, salt water eel, dried gourd eel, and grilled egg. 

 

 

Marley

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USA/UK | 2012 | Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Logline: A documentary that traces the life and career of reggae legend Bob Marley.

It’s a long documentary, clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, but then Robert Nestor Marley’s career spanned twenty years and his music, culture, and legacy has affected and influenced millions of people worldwide, and will do so for many decades to come. Bob Marley is without a doubt the most recognised and successful reggae artist that has ever lived. At the height of his career he was playing stadiums in America, and bringing rival politicians in his homeland together on stage to shake hands. 

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Marley had a profound effect on people, and it wasn’t just the Rastafarianism speaking, although this ancient culture is a very important element of Marley’s soulful tribe. Kevin Macdonald’s engaging portrait paints a picture of a family man (albeit an adulterer) and a dedicated artist, a political activist, and a man of sport and leisure (soccer and ganja occupied a large part of his recreational activities, although it should be noted that the association of marijuana and Rastafarianism is closely linked to spirituality and not escapism).

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Marley grew up in a very poor part of Jamaica, in the hills surrounding Trenchtown. The son of a black mother and a white father (who left the family soon after Bob was born), Bob discovered music at an early age, and despite being a half-caste, with all its social hurdles, he soon formed a trio and had his first 45 record released on a local label in 1962. By the end of the decade the Wailers (now a full band) were making a name for themselves. Their now legendary concert at the Lyceum in London in 1974 (where the seminal live release of No Woman, No Cry was recorded) cemented Bob Marley and the Wailers as a roots, rock, reggae outfit par excellence.

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Marley, the documentary, spends much of its time delving into the social politics of Bob Marley’s life and career, and not nearly as much time into the actual music and key albums, but that’s not saying his music doesn’t drive the film; there is music behind almost every scene and sequence. His son Ziggy and Island Records head Chris Blackwell spearheaded the production, and as such it’s a remarkably honest account, warts and all. Originally to be directed by Martin Scorsese back in 2008, then Jonathon Demme took over the reigns, only to leave citing creative differences with executive producer Steve Bing in the editing suite.

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Kevin Macdonald is no stranger to documentary filmmaking, having made two of the very best in the field with One Day in September and Touching the Void. With Marley he is using almost entirely stock footage (Marley died of cancer in 1981), intercut with various members of his extended family and original band members, including Bunny Wailer, Rita Marley (his long-standing wife), Cindy Breaksphere (one of his many mistresses - Marley fathered eleven children to seven different relationships), Lee Perry, Jimmy Cliff, Chris Blackwell, and his two eldest children Cedella and Ziggy Marley. They all have colourful stories to tell.

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Regardless of whether reggae music is your cup of brew, Marley is a powerful, embracing, and ultimately, uplifting celebration of one of popular music’s most spiritual leaders, may he rest in peace, Jah Rastafari. 

 

 

Teeth

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US | 2007 | Directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein

Logline: A teenage girl discovers, much to her horror, she is cursed with vagina dentata, and must seek a hero.

Dawn (Jess Weixler) belongs to The Promise, her high school’s chastity group, and she is the most active non-active member. She gives empowerment speeches to the other students about how cool and right it is to remain a virgin until after marriage. The group members wear t-shirts with “I’m waiting”, and though she is teased relentlessly by the non-Christian students, Dawn doesn’t care, she knows she is right. 

That is until she meets tall, charismatic Tobey (Hale Appleton). A mutual attraction is immediate, and a yearning begins to itch. Now Dawn is confused. She lies in bed and fights the primal urge to rub one out, repeating the word “purity” over and over. It doesn’t help having a creepy sleazoid as an older stepbrother; Brad (the suitably hirsute John Hensley), and a very ill mother.

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In the movie’s prologue we see a very young Dawn and Brad playing in a paddling pool on the front lawn. Dawn’s mama and Brad’s papa are lounging nearby. Brad shows Dawn his pee-pee and demands to see hers. Brad decides he wants to do more than just have a squizz. Cut to the respective parents and we hear Brad cry out in pain. “What happened?” enquire the parents, “Dawn bit me,” sulks Brad holding up his bloody, gashed fingertip, while young Dawn gives a little baby-toothed grin.

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This opening sequence sets the blackly comic tone for the rest of the movie. Yes, the tongue is firmly in cheek with Teeth, when it bites it does so with sharp, yet playful incisors, like a tigress cub. The movie toys with the themes of sexual awakening, feminism, sexism, adolescence, and, of course, the enduring myth of the vagina dentata, (which is Latin for toothed vagina, in case you were in the dark there), in which a hero must conquer the woman with the sex that chomps. In itself this myth says more about masculine fear than female power.

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There’s a strong hint as to the reason for Dawn’s anatomical mutation (or is it simply evolution, with Dawn being the first of her kind, Nature finally answering to man’s multi-millennial dominance over the female kind); the ominous image of two giant nuclear power plant cooling towers belching out thick black smoke in the background to Dawn’s home is repeated several times. Apparently there may be a medical origin to the vagina dentata myth, as the outer layers of embryonic skin cells form dermoid cysts, and in rare instances these cells are able to mature into bone, hair and even teeth, and the cysts are able to form anywhere the skin folds inwards, such as the vagina! But I digress! 

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A revenge fantasy flick cloaked as a high school coming-of-age story, but with horror overtones and satirical undertones. Lichtenstein (son of the legendary pop artist Roy Lichtenstein) has penned a deliciously simple, yet astute screenplay, but what actually gives this small, but very memorable movie the real edge is the terrific performance from Jess Weixler in her debut. The nuances in her facial expressions are better than many young actors’ entire resumes! Also very good is John Hensley, as the repressed and anally fixated stepsibling, who embodies an almost diabolical presence, further aggravated by his Rottweiler - named Mother - kept in a cage in his bedroom. The mutt, most satisfyingly, devours a scene of her own at film’s end!

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Squeamish men, beware, as director Lichtenstein doesn’t hold back on showing us the aftermath of Dawn’s angry femme-jaws upon her victims, in what must have been a bold move for a semi-mainstream American movie. Ten years on, Teeth still has a firm bite.

 

 

 

Prince - Sign o' the Times

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US | 1987 | Directed by Prince

Logline: A concert film based around Prince’s titular album.

Concert films are a dime a dozen, but few capture the pure essence of the artist as richly, atmospherically, or as passionately as the movie that followed the release of Prince's ninth studio album, 1987’s Sign o’ the Times. The movie that focused on the stage show based on his European tour was as singular and powerful as Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Talking Heads’ Stop Makin’ Sense, or Neil Young’s Year of the Horse. It has become a cult phenomenon as colourful and dynamic as Woodstock or Monterey Pop, and as memorable and emotionally affecting as The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter or U2's Under a Blood Red Sky. It is Prince captured at the zenith of his creative, flamboyant influence, with an extraordinary band to boot.

Prince’s following in Europe had been building steadily since 1980’s Dirty Mind, the album that heralded the arrival of the Prince most recognize, the agent provocateur with more funk in his bounce than the average street cat. Prince toured extensively across Europe with his Sign o’ the Times Tour where sales were very strong, yet on his home turf the sales weren’t as impressive, and a concert film, to be distributed extensively in America, was devised to help bolster sales in the US. Live footage from concerts in the Netherlands and Beligum were intended to be used, but Prince was not happy with the results, and as such, around 80% of the concert film was re-staged and shot at Paisley Park, including an intro and series of vignettes that link the songs with a loose narrative about love, sex, and religion (the usual Prince fuel).

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Although the director credit is given to Prince, Albert Magnoli, who directed Purple Rain, did a substantial amount of uncredited work. Considering Prince’s previous directorial effort, Under the Cherry Moon, was so lambasted, it’s surprising that Prince would insist on helming the live project, but as the results show, Prince on stage as a showman outshines his hammy performance as a playboy on the Riveria. Prince delivers a career performance in Sign o’ the Times.

After a street hustle and bustle between Cat, Prince’s dancer and back-up singer, and Wally Safford, one of Prince’s sidekicks, Prince grabs Cat by the hand and steals her away, to a crystal ball, firing purple bolts of electricity …

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Alone on a stage designed to look like a cross between the dirty neon of old 42nd Street and the streetwise grime of Harlem or The Bronx, and opening with the album’s title track Prince in which laments the state of the world. Suddenly marching band drumming cuts through the song and the rest of the band enter stage right, single file, each one armed with a snare; Cat, Wally, Greg Brooks (backup vocals), Boni Boyer (keys), Miko Weaver (guitar), Levi Seacer Jr. (bass), Dr. Fink (synths), Atlanta Bliss (trumpet), Eric Leeds (sax), and Sheila E. (drums). They end in unison, and the crowd erupts. This is a pure celebration of Prince 's musical genius, unfettered, indulgent, uplifting, mesmerising. 

Indeed, prepare to be wowed, as the band kick proverbial ass through a roughly 80-minute set of searing funk jams and power ballads from the titular album, plus a dash of Charlie Parker ("Now’s the Time") thrown in for good jazzy measure, and not forgetting a blistering, awe-inspiring drum solo courtesy of percussionist extraordinaire Sheila E (even Prince gets behind the kit at one point!) The only other non-album song played is a tease of "Little Red Corvette" early on.

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If I had one gripe, it’s that the inclusion of the promotional video for the single "U Got the Look", which was filmed well in advance of the concert footage, and as such features a different set, and the performers with altered haircuts, not to mention the grain and harsh quality of the video itself, looks and feels out of place. Time has not been kind to that creative decision, whether it was Prince’s or his management, and it would’ve been an judiciously smart choice to have released a 30th anniversary HD edition with that four minute promo clip insert removed, and instead, provided as a separate extra.

But gripe aside, because it’s a small one really, Sign o’ the Times is a truly magnificent experience. It’s hard to pick favourites. Each time I watch the movie I change my mind. Sometimes it’s the epic "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man", with that soaring, heart-wrenching guitar solo, cleverly segueing into a coda that incorporates the brass section lifted from “Rockhard in a Funky Place”. On other viewings it’s the goosebumpin’ organ intro to “Hot Thing”, or the breezy gouster strut of “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, or maybe the marathon soul chant of “Forever in My Life”.

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Or perhaps it’s the stripped back rock pledge of “The Cross” that brings the movie to an end. Any which way, it’s loose and brilliant, and there will never be another maestro like His Royal Badness, so thank Christ we have Sign o’ the Times to help ease the mind, heart, and soul.

Watch for the first time, watch for the umpteenth. Just watch it, because it's always gonna be a beautiful night. Always, every time. 

Crash

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Canada/UK | 1996 | Directed by David Cronenberg

Logline: The victim of a car crash, and his wife, discover a sub-culture of damaged people who are sexually obsessed with automobile crashes and the libidinous energy surrounding them.

J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel about a form of symphorophilia – sexual arousal from accidents or catastrophe – was long considered one of the great unfilmmable books. Then Cronenberg came along and, just as he had successfully tackled William Burroughs' seemingly unfilmmable novel The Naked Lunch, grabbed the car by its horns and wrestled it into a compelling tale of dysfunctional desperation and sexual misadventure. 

The novel could be read as a moody case study of sexual perversion and obsession, oozing dangerous fetishistic allure and fueling the most nihilistic of desires. Cronenberg strips the core elements from the book and customises his own vehicle, and it’s aged like a vintage performance automobile, all sleek body and raw engine power, with very little having dated in twenty years.

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Screen producer James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), have an open relationship, each indulging their sexual whims, but striving for more within their own. They relate their extramarital encounters and find small joy in the discussion. After Ballard is involved in a serious car-crash and in recovery he becomes involved with the car’s crash survivor, now widow, Helen Remington (Holly Hunter). He also meets Vaughn (Elias Koteas), who expresses great interest in Ballard’s injuries, “The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event.”

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Ballard and Remington begin an affair. Vaughn befriends Ballard and introduces him and Catherine to his extracurricular project: recreating celebrity car-crashes for a small audience, such as the one that killed James Dean. Next he plans on staging Jane Mansfield's infamous accident (in the novel Vaughn’s ultimate fantasy is to have a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor), but in the meantime Vaughn has his eye on Catherine, whilst Ballard meets one of Vaughn’s entourage, Gabrielle (Rosanna Arguette), whose long legs are clad in fishnets and medical steel braces, providing Ballard with an erotic itch he yearns to scratch. 

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The reshaping of the human body by modern technology is a concept that has been part of Cronenberg’s blueprint since the beginning of his career. Crash takes his penchant for body horror and fuses it with a kind of urban apocalyptic urgency. Ballard says to his wife, both at the start and end, “Maybe the next one,” implying that the inevitable purge from his – and the others – sexual aberration will be a release from this mortal coil.

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The performances across the entire cast are superb, with many of the actors in roles and scenarios unlike anything else in their career, and pulling it off with somber aplomb, while Howard Shore’s grinding electric guitar-vibed score is perfectly in tune with the movie’s metal edge. We haven't seen this kind of sleekness and aloofness in a Cronenberg movie since Stereo and Crimes of the Future

It’s curious to note the omni-sexual presence that permeates the novel isn’t entirely diluted for the movie, in order to give it more mainstream appeal. A scene where Vaughn picks up and screws a hooker in the backseat of his Lincoln Convertible whilst Ballard drives with a whiplash smile, the woman is notably androgynous. In another scene Remington becomes extremely turned on whilst watching test-crash dummies on the television, and she fondles both Ballard and Gabrielle’s crotches, suggesting a desired threesome.

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The production design’s clean lines and the chromeo palette illuminate Crash’s vehicular chill, with emotionally desolate characters stranded on the islands of the highways, yet, peculiarly, the movie still manages to be erotic, especially in the uncut version of the film. Three urgent mechanical sex scenes punctuating the movie’s opening sequence, but it’s the two extravagant crashes, and the semi-deliberate final cut-off that just might repair the Ballard marriage – “Maybe the next time, darling, maybe the next time” – that linger longest and hardest, searing a sensual afterburn on the retina, and reminding us this is one of the most disturbing and powerful in Cronenberg’s oeuvre. 

 

 

Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare

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Australia | 2017 | Directed by Gary Doust

Logline: A light-hearted documentary that follows the complete production process of a low-budget horror movie with all the obstacles and pitfalls that come with it. 

Some of the most memorable documentaries set out to tell one story, but end up telling another, or court ambitions of capturing all that is crucial, and yet something more intrinsic and fascinating emerges. Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse about Francis Ford Coppola making Apocalypse Now is one such documentary, so is American Movie about Mark Borchardt making his short film Coven. Now we have the making of Craig Anderson’s Red Christmas, and all that is nightmarish is good in the world. 

Anderson was a frustrated bit player, an actor reduced to playing those small thankless roles on Australian TV. He harboured a passionate interest in cult-flavoured horror movies, especially the lesser known curios, those lost gems that never got a proper release on DVD, which he added to his monstrous VHS collection. But Anderson had a very big itch that needed scratching; to make his own weird cult horror movie, something that could fit snugly on his shelves alongside other treasures like Basket Case and It’s Alive!

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So he set about making his own movie, at all cost, and the result is one of the funniest, most heart-warming stories of tenacity, fool-hardiness, desperation, and perverse joy within the often cruel, relentless, and unforgiving realm of DIY, independent, low-budget filmmaking. The horror genre is full of these endeavours, but few, if any, have been captured from go to woe to hey-ho with such grotesque charm, cringe-inducing outrageousness, and sheer championship, as Gary Doust’s fly-on-the-wall, take-no-prisoners, warts-and-all account - and case study - of Anderson’s feature debut as writer and director. 

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After spending several years on a script - about an aborted foetus, now adult grown, that seeks retribution on its mother and her family - Anderson finds himself sleeping on a mattress on the floor of of his warehouse office with eighty grand of his own savings set aside, and an Ace up his sleeve: Dee Wallace (The Howling, Cujo, E.T.) has agreed to take the lead role as the mother. But Anderson still needs to get her to Australia. Somehow he manages to convince his reticent brother to loan him $60,000. Okay, that’s encouraging. So now he coerces his good friend Bryan Moses to take the role of 1st AD and informs him they have just sixteen days to shoot 330 scenes.

It can only go pear-shaped from there. And, of course, it does, magnificently. Moses has a nosebleed from stress on the first day of shooting. Brilliant. 

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Laden with scene after scene of deliciously oh-my-god moments (both in shock and mirth), Horror Movie ticks all the boxes about what NOT to do, and yet, the production continues to stumble along, getting results. From Anderson’s early shock revelation about his upcoming circumcision, to his insistence on using a real placenta in one of the movie’s gore gags, to the brave move of using Down Syndrome actor Gerard Dwyer in a pivotal role, to the utter fearlessness in hoping Dee Wallace won’t just walk off set the moment she arrives on location and sees what a shonky farrago the production actually is. Oh, and the test screenings on the ocean liner, we can’t forget those. It’s a smorgasbord of production hell moments, punctuated by Anderson’s nervous, but infectious giggle. 

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Big props to both Anderson and Doust in allowing a potentially humiliating project transform into something genuinely inspiring, surprisingly moving, and unashamedly entertaining. You don’t need to have seen Red Christmas to enjoy Horror Movie. There are two versions, a 99-minute cinema cut, and an extended two-hour two-parter screening in Australia on ABC, the first part on Halloween, 9:30pm. 

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Yes, do yourself a favour and watch this superb little documentary. It’s all the silly troubles, simple pleasures, and heartbreaking falls of life rolled into one twisted tale of a crazy "family" of creatives doing what they love, and rolling with the pinches and punches. If there’s one moral to conjure: throw caution to the wind, because life ain’t a breeze, it's a damn gust.