Melinda (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) is a lonely gas station worker regularly feeling unnoticed and unappreciated. Early scenes provide the viewer with ample evidence for why Melinda has become so unhappy: her co-worker Sheila (Suki Waterhouse) coerces her into performing the most degrading, physically demanding jobs like cleaning toilets, while the customers refuse to thank her and lavish attention on Sheila instead. When the mysterious and troubled Billy (Josh Hutcherson) suddenly attempts to rob the station at gunpoint, Melinda finally begins to show other people how far she’s unravelled.
BURN is at its best when making inventive use of its claustrophobic setting to ramp up tension and back characters into often-literal corners. For instance, the cramped employee break room initially hosts awkward back and forths between Billy and Melinda, only for this to suddenly become a disturbing sexual assault, then a frantic game of hide and seek. Later on, as a police officer walks down a long corridor between the shop floor and the scene of a crime, the viewer feels Melinda’s heart beat faster with each step.
In the broadest possible sense though, Melinda is a weird and frustrating lead. The sheer specificity of her idiosyncrasies and obsessions make me sure that Gan had quite a specific vision in mind for her, but not enough of this ultimately ended up onscreen. As it stands, Cobham-Hervey delivers a suitably creepy performance to pique the viewers’ curiosity, but is too vague and icy for us to care what happens. Even if Gan didn’t want to show backstory, at least making passing references could’ve gone a long way to capturing a more precise characterisation. A key example of this is her long-standing obsession with Officer Liu (Harry Shum Jr.) which, while intriguing, isn’t explained in detail.
Furthermore, BURN struggles to come up with links between its more dynamic sequences, rendering the second half less satisfying. Hutcherson is absent for much of this stretch of the film (I won’t spoil why), a void which Gan fills by having Melinda largely resume her nightly work duties and try to keep cool about the preceding events. The result is surprisingly formulaic: a one-off character approaches Melinda with a query, a stray line of dialogue makes it seem as though all might inadvertently be revealed, but then it isn’t. It all simply feels like it doesn’t matter whether the audience is paying attention to these ‘scenes between scenes’, a problem exacerbated by the lifeless, smalltalk-esque dialogue.
Despite its shortcomings, BURN is a solid proof of concept for Mike Gan’s directorial style, showcasing his talent for both the genre, and coaxing unique performances from actors. I suspect that Tilda Cobham-Hervey is the main aspect of this film that viewers will remember, but I would also argue that the structure underneath her oddball turn is even better.
2021 | DIR: JOSH LAWSON | STARRING: RAFE SPALL, ZAHRA NEWMAN, RONNY CHIENG, DENA KAPLAN, NONI HAZLEHURST | REVIEW BY ALEX MAYNARD
Teddy (Rafe Spall) is constantly putting off plans and decision-making, a relatable and frustrating habit that’s left him only somewhat content. He’s got a very patient fiancé, Leanne (Zahra Newman), and a gorgeous beachside home, but hasn’t managed to balance his day job with his passion for photography. Shortly after a mysterious stranger (Noni Hazlehurst) warns him that he may regret not seizing the day more often, Teddy awakens to find that a year has passed and he can’t remember a single second of it. He soon begins jumping forward to the next year after mere minutes, watching as the people he loves grow and change in surprising ways.
Building on the fresh premise, LONG STORY SHORT delivers plenty of fun twists to shake up any guesses for what might happen in the next time jump. The ending will likely be predictable to most viewers (it is a rom-com, after all), but Lawson’s script impresses by seamlessly weaving characters and callbacks into each ‘year’. While it’s not as flashy as the large-scale, clockwork rhythm of Punxsutawney, I was surprised by how many and which details became important. Lawson has clearly done his homework on what gives this type of film an extra level of re-watch value, as if it being laugh-out-loud funny somehow weren’t enough.
Spall is funnier here than I’ve ever seen him, expertly balancing Teddy’s natural wit while playing up his constant confusion. He may have the perfect zinger to coolly tell the universe how little he cares about his situation, yet there’s no hiding the utter bewilderment on his face at finding out his infant daughter is named ‘Tallulah’. Likewise, Ronny Chieng is charming as usual as Teddy’s best friend Sam, often stealing scenes by prefacing all of his insight and helpfulness with sarcasm.
Meanwhile, Newman has perhaps the most challenging role and nails it, delivering plenty of her own one-liners in addition to serving as the film’s emotional anchor. The way her expression subtly changes at the start of an argument–as Teddy’s lack of memories from the past year turns from amusing to hurtful–is powerful; Lawson doesn’t linger on these moments, he doesn’t need to. Finally, Noni Hazlehurst plays The Stranger with just the right know-it-all attitude to persuade viewers to take in her fairly explicit summary of Lawson’s key themes, however, I wish her role had amounted to more than a cameo.
My one minor caveat with LONG STORY SHORT is that aside from jokes, the dialogue often consists of clumsy exposition (which is surprising given I’m usually a fan of Lawson’s writing). For instance, Leanne regularly chastises Teddy for spending so much time at his job during the years he can’t remember instead of pursuing photography, yet the viewer doesn’t find out what his job is, it’s always referred to as “that job”. Similarly, despite enjoying Hazlehurst’s performance, I felt that The Stranger’s lack of clarity surrounding Teddy’s situation was a slight cop-out. If there’s a(nother) lesson to be taken from Groundhog Day, it’s to take an all or nothing approach when it comes to explaining fantastical elements.
LONG STORY SHORT is an intimate film, both in its focus on one relationship and in its framing, rarely featuring more than two actors in a scene, and utilising only a handful of sets. With a high-concept premise, this simple approach is a clever choice, ensuring that the humour and heart of a rom-com always shine through for viewers to whom these were the main appeal. It’s another great feature from Josh Lawson, and something I’ll forward to rewatching year after year after year....
2020 | DIR: TAKASHI YAMAZAKI | STARRING: TONY OLIVER (KANICHI KURITA), LAURIE HYMES (SUZU HIROSE), DAVID BRIMMER (KŌTARŌ YOSHIDA), PAUL GUYET (TATSUYA FUJIWARA)| REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
Leblanc documented his hero’s exploits in seventeen novels and thirty-nine novellas (including two or three where Lupin meets an ageing Holmes – although Conan Doyle forced Leblanc to change the English detective’s name). Fast forward to 1967 and relocate yourself to Japan for the first appearance of Lupin’s grandson (hence Lupin the Third) courtesy of manga master Kazuhiko Katō (better known as Monkey Punch). For the next fifty years or more, Lupin the Third became a media juggernaut spawning, beyond his many manga adventures, half a dozen aminated television series, twenty-seven animated television specials, eleven animated feature films, two live action features, two musicals and much more (including CDs and video games). Phew! See what I mean about having been under a rock?
So now it’s 2021 and, even though it’s almost fifteen years since we saw the last Lupin the Third animated feature (Lupin the Third: Dead or Alive, 1996) the ‘Lupin on screen’ phenomenon seems to be getting a revival in both animated and live action worlds. For the live action side of things, the French have gone back to the source (via Netflix) and have enlisted the wonderful Omar Sy to play a contemporary version of the Gentleman Thief that spends it’s highly entertaining five-episode debut season (season two has already been announced) teasing us about whether he’s the grandson of Lupin or not (of course he is!!! Isn’t he???). But for the return of the animated incarnation, we find ourselves firmly in the world of anime and, although 2019 saw the sad passing of Kazuhiko Katō, highly respected award-winning Japanese screenwriter, director and visual effects whiz, Takashi Yamazaki has fashioned a new story that is not only dedicated to Monkey Punch, but is set in the sixties, the time when his Lupin the Third was first committed to the pages of manga.
So that’s the context. But what about the movie? Well, I’m a bit in two minds about it.
The story begins during the second world war in Nazi occupied France where Professor Bresson (Marc Thompson) entrusts his secret diary to the care of his infant daughter before dispatching her to a safer place. Unfortunately, before safety can be reached, the evil Professor Lambert (David Brimmer) in the employ of the Nazis, intercepts her and steals the diary. What he doesn’t realise is that there’s a key to open the diary’s complicated mechanical self-destructive case. Flash forward to the 1960s and the diary is somehow up for auction at an exhibition celebrating the late Professor Bresson. This, of course, is where we meet Lupin the Third (Tony Oliver) in one of his trademark disguises. We also meet Laetitia (Laurie Hymes) who is there posing as a security guard. She manages to abscond with the diary before Lupin the Third can secure it but, in turn, loses it to a third player; Fuiko Mine (Michelle Ruff) who, it seems, is a regular character from the manga series. There are other regular characters that form part of Lupin’s team and, of course, a hapless gendarme, Inspector Koichi Zenigata (Doug Erholtz). And let’s not forget the evil Lambert who, it seems, is still working with the Nazi’s fifteen years after they’ve lost the war. The rest of the film is a relentless tussle between all these interested parties as they try to possess and open the diary and, ultimately, benefit form the riches that it promises through something called the Eclipse. There are secrets, as well, and a connection back to Lupin’s grandfather (Lupin the First) who seems to have also had some connection to the mysterious diary.
The chase takes the players to various exotic locations and even raises the possibility that Adolf Hitler might still be alive in Brazil.
Visually, the film’s a knockout - highly stylised, vivid colours, characters rendered all sharp edged and angular feeling very much like they’ve been lifted straight off the pages of a Monkey Punch manga and let loose on the screen. In many ways, it took me back to the kinds of dubbed Japanese cartoons I used to watch after school in the sixties – Prince Planet, Astro Boy, Marine Boy, Gigantor, The Amazing Three and my favourite, Phantoma. (although, the quality of the animation here is infinitely superior, especially in its 3DCG format) For me, though, this echo of sixties cartoons is both the strength and the weakness of this film. On the plus side, there’s an energy, a hyped-up pace, a kind of corralled chaos that this kind of animation is imbued with which is a big part of its appeal. Music, of course, is another key element and here Yuji Ohno’s frenetic, brassy screeching soundtrack excels. What detracts (for me at least) is the American/English dubbing. It’s one of the things that I never thought about with those old cartoons, but it’s a strong part of what I remember about them. Here, though, the abrasive, urgent, heightened tone of those dubbed American accented lines kept undercutting the flow of the film by pulling me out of the visually rich world on screen. I felt as though I need to be immersed in Lupin’s world but the voices keep preventing me from getting there. I couldn’t help but feel that this would be better if I were somehow able to experience it in the original Japanese voices – but, sadly, I don’t speak Japanese.
The other element where, for me, the style lets the film down is in the screenplay. Now, I readily accept that true aficionados and rusted on fans of the manga versions of these stories may violently disagree with me (and they may well be right), but from an outside perspective, I find that the breakneck pace, highly expositional form and jump-cut storytelling that works so well in graphic novels, isn’t quite as effective on screen, especially in a complex story like this. The energy works but what its communicating doesn’t. Characters are often not very clearly introduced (perhaps relying on prior knowledge from the manga) and the convoluted plot is often more reliant on convenience and coincidence than on strongly constructed narrative. Perhaps that’s fine in the world of Monkey Punch but despite how much I went for the visual style and the impact of the music, for a newbie like me who was looking forward to the prospect of a heightened, colourful, stylistic, fast-paced, funny adventure, it ended up leaving me behind. But, at least, I now know about Lupin, and aside from looking forward to season two of the Netflix series, I might even hunt down some of the other films and a few of Leblanc’s books.
While it’s hard not to be reminded of Alien from the premise, BREACH manages to set itself apart through its worldbuilding. Firstly, the creature here is vastly different to the iconic xenomorph, instead being a shapeshifting parasite that can reanimate dead hosts. Subsequently, the composition of each scene also subtly changes. Rather than constantly obscuring a single threat in shadow, there are well-lit fight scenes with frequent cuts between multiple attackers more reminiscent of an action film than a thriller (make no mistake though, the zombie crew members are suitably evocative and imposing). The successful blend of both horror and action into a sci-fi setting is a testament to director John Suits’ experience with the genres, and shows that he’s the perfect helmer for this kind of film.
Much like Suits, Willis is exactly the right choice for Clay and shines in the role. At this point, watching him play an asskicker who’s smarter than he looks and full of one-liners is hardly a surprise, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? In fact, Clay builds on this classic Willis archetype by casting him as the calm, fun-loving, unofficial leader of the crew. He simply seems to be enjoying himself throughout, with his smirk and natural charisma easily drawing the viewers’ attention, especially in the second and third acts as the crew plots to defeat the zombies. The script even gives Noah a hologram projector on his wrist which is only ever used by Clay, purely to give Willis more time on screen.
However, the downside of focusing so much on Clay is that the other characters’ development suffers, which is the main area where I felt BREACH struggled. For instance, Cody Kearsley receives co-lead billing and early scenes hint at tension between Noah and the ship’s Admiral (Thomas Jane). When the Admiral is later awakened from stasis, this tension is largely sidelined in favour of explaining the backstory of his good friend Clay.
Thankfully, Kearsley still delivers a good performance, serving as an effective straight man early on before settling into the role of action hero in training. He’s also the only actor who shares scenes with Willis and isn’t completely overshadowed by him, but that may once again be because the script doesn’t build up the supporting cast. The result of this is slightly bizarre: I certainly enjoyed BREACH, but didn’t care what happened to most of the characters. It’s worth emphasising the first part of that statement though, as the film is consistently successful at blending genres and pulling off unexpected story beats. Perhaps because of its small scale, Suits, Willis and Kearsley have crafted some surprisingly solid sci-fi.
So, you’ll understand if I admit that I approached Muniz’s starring role in first-time Director and Co-Screenwriter Brian Hanson’s, THE BLACK STRING with some apprehension. Little Malcolm Wikerson in a horror movie? Really? Well, yes!
Muniz is both believable and engaging in the role of Jonathan. The film jumps right in and we meet him on the run, literally – racing through the street. But is he running away from something or towards something? It’s the latter. He’s late for work and in the next moment we see him stacking shelves in a crummy liquor-cum- convenience store in a nondescript Los Angeles suburb where his boss (and best friend) is the motor-mouthed, self-promoting Eric (Blake Wood) or as he likes to refer to himself, (generally in the third person) The ERC.
Right away, there’s an unsettled sense to Jonathan. He’s nervy and lacking in self-confidence, whilst willing to be ‘pumped up’ by the ERC. At home, he avoids phone messages from his mother and instead slumps on the couch with his sketch pad and tunes into some bad TV while he draws hyper real and over-sexualised comic characters, until one of those ‘call me, call me now’ ads comes onto the screen. Did he hear that right? Did the scantily clad woman in the ad call him by name? Surely he dreamt that. Nevertheless, he calls the number and the next thing we know, he’s on a date with Dena (Chelsea Edmundson) in a low-rent Diner (where the N and the R in its Neon sign have faded out so it says DIE – should we be worried? Yes!). Back at Jonathan’s apartment, the inevitable happens (not surprising, since we assume he’s paid for it) but when he wakes the next morning, Dena is gone and a nasty little pustule has appeared on his stomach with spiderwebbing tendrils spreading beneath his skin. He’s infected with the black string.
At this point, it would be easy for a film like this to follow a well-worn path as our unwitting victim tries desperately to work out what this infection is and how he can get rid of it. To a certain extent, that is what happens, but there’s another question that becomes important to this story – why is he infected? The answer to that question isn’t as simple as reaching the conclusion that this is a knock-off of the 2014 sexually-transmitted horror movie, It Follows. There are some echoes of that movie, for sure, but there’s something else really interesting going on here.
There are two possible explanations for why this is happening to Jonathan. I don’t want to give anything away here, suffice it to say that one explanation (the more straightforward one) is to do with the occult and sees Jonathan trying to track down Dena which leads him to a house where he encounters an odd little group including a strange man in a black hat (Cullen Douglas). What he discovers here prompts him to seek help from Melinda (Mary K DeVault) a kooky medium in a crystal and spells shop who provides Jonathan with a bit of archaic information about the black string and a way of ridding himself of it. But what elevates this movie from the run- of-the-mill is the second possibility. Again, no spoilers, but that unsettling sense we had about Jonathan at the start of the movie suddenly seems to be no accident, plus we now see there’s a reason that he’s been avoiding calls from his family. There’s something dark and quite possibly violent in Jonathan’s past and he might just be a tad unstable. Is it possible that the black string only exists in his mind?
It’s around this point that some of what seemed like odd editing and storytelling choices – disjointed exposition, unexplained moments, the unexpected lapses in the narrative that make it feel like bits might have been cut out or that it’s a haphazardly assembled movie - suddenly feel like they might actually be quite clever cinematic devices.
This isn’t to suggest that the film is without its faults or that it’s going to find its way into my top ten, but it is remarkably better than the average, low budget, direct-to-DVD fare. It has original characters, very good performances and resists the temptation to provide easy explanations or overly didactic exposition. In fact, one of things I really like about this movie (something that quite possibly will irritate many filmgoers) is that there’s little more than a hint at Jonathan’s dark past – we never actually find out what he did. We just know it was bad.
All this inexorably leads to some nicely gory body trauma and a very icky scene where the black string finally appears. There’s some good moments of tension and the frustration Jonathan feels at having his claims about Dena and the Man in the Black Hat and the black string called into question is palpable and carries the film through to a very satisfying ending. It’s a shame, then, that any ambiguity in that twisty final scene is pretty much undercut in a predictable and (in my view) unnecessary post credit coda. This last minute capitulation to more derivative storytelling aside, The Black String distinguishes itself as an above average horror/thriller and gives Frankie Muniz the opportunity to show us that he’s more than just Malcolm and that he still has some fairly decent acting chops.