BURNING KISS is set six years after a fatal car crash that took the life of Juliette Bloom (Nichola Renton-Weir) and left her Detective husband Edmond (Richard Mellick) in a wheelchair. Edmond is now an ex-cop living with his daughter Charlotte (Alyson Walker) in an ambiguous relationship that might just have a few unhealthy elements to it (a bit of self-harm and a few control and daddy issues to contend with). Hanging over their heads is a dangerous cocktail of grief, guilt and an inability to let go of the past. Edmond needs to know who was responsible for Juliette’s death (the driver of the other car drove away and was never found).
In the opening scene, a young man, Max Woods (Liam Graham) walks out of the desert and into the Bloom home to confess that he was the one behind the wheel. But Edmond doesn’t turn him in. Instead, he enlists Charlotte’s help to set in motion a series of actions that will partially recreate the events of the night of the crash in order to allow the case to be properly investigated and solved by Edmund’s former colleague Sophia Valmont (Christie Sistrunk).
This story is complex enough, but Studsor pushes it even further by interspersing the film with gaudy, colourful, hallucinogenic flashes of wild imagery drawn from the psychological states of the characters, in particular of Max and Charlotte who inevitably become entangled creating somewhat of a triangular tension with Edmond.
Graham is believable as the troubled Woods who goes along with this strange plan and Walker makes a good fist of a difficult role that requires her to walk a tightrope between dominance and vulnerability along with some deeply buried guilt that must eventually come out. Mellick works hard to overcome the limitations of playing a character stuck in a wheelchair; it’s a challenge that he sometimes gets the better of, but that sometimes gets the better of him.
This is a pretty good-looking film nicely shot by Cinematographer Ivan Davidov and underscored by a cool, quirky and effective soundtrack composed by Christopher de Groot. What’s most impressive, though, is that a film made on such a miniscule budget (much of raised through crowdsourcing) has maintained the integrity of Studsor’s vision for a wild, non-naturalistic parallel layer of visuals that underpin the narrative. At times they reminded me of both the 1977 and 2018 versions of Suspiria in their bold and audacious renderings of the interior worlds of these characters. This imagery may have, at times, been incomprehensible, but the confidence with which they are rendered encourages the audience to go with the things they might find indecipherable rather than penalise the film for them. It might not be a film that’s to everyone’s taste but, for me, it’s a film worth our consideration.
In VIVARIUM, the hero(es) are young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) who maybe want to settle down and maybe want to have a baby and so maybe they should buy a house. It’s a pretty normal set up, but the normality of this story ends when they walk into the sales office for a suburban housing estate called Yonder. Here they meet the marvellously strange Martin (Jonathan Aris) who takes them to a display home on the Yonder Estate that could easily be what Pete Seeger was referring to when he sang “Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of ticky-tacky, Little boxes on the hillside and they all look just the same” only instead of a ‘pink one and a blue one and yellow one, they’re all the same unsettling shade of avocado green.
At Number 9, Gemma and Tom start to imagine their lives in the suburban perfection of Yonder but when they go to ask Martin a question about the house, he’s nowhere to be found. What’s even more disturbing to them, though, is that when they attempt to drive away no matter where they go (like a scene out of Peter Weir’s The Truman Show) they always end up back at Number 9. Then, as they accept that they’ll be staying here for at least the night, they discover a box out the front that contains food. (someone’s in control of this situation!) And in the morning, there’s another box, only this one contains a baby (Côme Thiry) and a note that informs them that once they raise the child they can leave. And so, our heroes find themselves unwitting parents to a ‘deliveroo’ child in a genuine suburban nightmare.
It's at this point that the audience is probably starting to ask itself ‘what the hell is going on?’... but instead of answers, things just keep getting weirder. The child grows in quite unnatural spurts very quickly becoming an infant (Senan Jennings) and then a young man (Eanna Hardwicke) and in each incarnation, the unnamed adopted offspring is a demanding brat that emits a piercing inhuman shrill when he doesn’t get his way. He also maintains an insistence that Gemma is ‘mother’ and she maintains an equal insistence that she is not! Meanwhile, Tom seems to be disassociating himself from the whole idea by digging an escape tunnel in the front yard. And so their unhappy homelife continues on for what seems like years but could equally just be days. This world is one without a sense of time or logic or explanation and, for me at least, this is where the problems lie.
It’s difficult to watch a film like this and not look for clues as to what’s going on. Let’s start with the title; vivarium means ‘an enclosure prepared for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation or study as pets’ which makes it sound like we could be in for something like the final scene of George Roy Hill’s classic adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five where Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack live an observed existence in an alien dome for the pleasure of the Tralfamadorians. But, despite a few alien hints, that’s not where we end up. Nor does the fact that the boy sits glued to what could be messages coming from the Poltergeist-like white noise on the television take us to any conclusion. And there are other hints that I don’t want to give away, suffice it to say that all our efforts at trying to nut out the answer to the bizarre question posed by Gemma and Tom’s new existence never find a satisfactory answer. Instead we’re left with a slightly cliched punchline of a final scene that doesn’t seem worthy of the film’s impenetrable narrative.
This is not to say that VIVARIAN is bad. There are many engaging and fascinating aspects to the film. It’s smart and slick and its Production Design by Philip Murphy, Art Direction by Robert Barrett and Speical Effects by Sefian Benssalem are excellent. The performances are strong, especially Poots, but the standout role is Aris as Martin who we lose all too soon. In the end, the film goes nowhere. Perhaps it would have been more effective as a short film or even an episode of Jordan Peele’s new The Twilight Zone where it wouldn’t have the pressure of a feature film narrative to make us want a satisfying third act that rewards our investment in going down this rabbit hole. Unfortunately, the reward isn’t very satisfying and we just end up, like Gemma and Tom, driving around in circles in order to always end up at Number 9.
Is it the mark of a good horror-thriller that its twists and surprises are such that you can only really talk about that first twenty minutes without spoiling what lies in wait for the unsuspecting viewer? I think so. Consequently, I can’t tell you much more than the set up which has Elijah Wood (in outrageously bad hair that looks like some kind of ‘cool, hipster’ bowl cut) playing Norval Greenwood, a thirtysomething ‘celebrity’ DJ who gets off a bus in the middle of nowhere and follows a hand drawn map into the woods for what seems like an unreasonable amount of time, until he eventually hits the coastline and his destination; a quite amazing wooden beach house impossibly perched on a cliff above some dangerous looking rocks and a raging sea. Norval has come here at the behest of his estranged father who has written to his son thirty years after walking out on the family and requesting him to visit (presumably with map enclosed).
When Gordon (Stephen McHattie) answers Norval’s apprehensive knock at the front door, the reunion is about as far from affectionate as you can get. In fact, Gordon (a very serious drinker) seems to hold Norval (a recovering alcoholic) in contempt and, rather than explain the purpose of the letter inviting him to come, delights in baiting him at every opportunity. When Norval tries to impress his dad by showing him a limited edition, gold iPhone (only twenty in the world) Gordon lets it slip into the sea (now there’s only nineteen). When Norval tells him that it was Elton John who discovered him and set him on the path to DJ fame and fortune, Gordon pulls the rug out by revealing that he used to be a chauffer and that Elton was a regular client. In fact, why don’t they call up old Elton and see how he’s doing? Gordon has him on speed dial. With his bluff called, Norval admits that he’s not been entirely honest about himself. Turns out he’s not the only one deceiving.
The story runs quite happily like this, along with some strange noises in the night, Gordon’s unexplained late-night conversations on the phone and some other general weirdness. But just as it seems like this might be all its going to be about – an awkward, plodding, rekindled relationship with an undercurrent of darkness and a few secrets being kept on both sides – we hit the twenty-minute mark and I can’t say anything further...
..other than to acknowledge that first time New Zealand director Ant Timpson and second time feature screenwriter, Toby Harvard have taken Timson’s story idea and gone to town with it. Often when a film is billed with a triple genre (comedy-horror-thriller) you’re lucky if you end up satisfied with two out three but Timson and Harvard have, for the most part, navigated the tricky landscape between what’s funny, what’s scary and what makes you sit on the edge of your seat. It’s not one-hundred-percent successful. I’ve already noted that the protracted set up wears a bit thin and there’s a lovely relationship between Norval and Gladys (Madeleine Sami), an ambulance driver who finds her way into the story, but the spark and curiosity of their story gets abandoned in order to pursue the main game of the big twist. It’s a shame, especially when it’s one of only two female roles in an otherwise male-heavy cast. Similarly, there’s a hint of something untoward that involves Norval’s mother (an unseen character on the end of the phone) but whilst it seems that there will be a mystery to unfold in that little side-story, it never eventuates.
The comedy here is dark and well tempered by some good suspenseful scenes. The horror is suitably gory with some nice visual effects work. The ending, perhaps, gets a bit loose and convenient but the road that takes us there is full of some cleverly executed bumps and hairpin turns.
Wood is great as Norval and McHattie plays Gordon so tightly that you just know he’s going to explode at some point. The rest of the cast are strong and whilst I can’t reveal what characters Martin Donovan and Michael Smiley play, they do round out the assembly of characters to provide a well-balanced dynamic. Come To daddy is a great example of ingenuity, clever writing, well judged performances and sure direction that allows a low-budget movie to rise above the risk of becoming a schlocky mish-mash of ideas in order to create something far more entertaining than it might otherwise have been. Just down turn off before the twenty-minute mark.
2019 | DIR: TYLER CORNACK | STARRING: TYLER CORNACK, TYLER RICE, SHELBY DASH | REVIEW BY GLENN COCHRANE.
Please take a moment to comprehend all of that because what I am about to say might seem illogical. The movie is really good, and it seems entirely plausible.
By plausible I mean that director Tyler Cornack has taken this lowbrow and puerile concept and fashioned it into a cohesive and highly stylised police procedural thriller. The script is taut and the performances are impressive, and with the addition of a striking music score everything about BUTT BOY is better than it ought to be.
The characters take their lives seriously and the concept of rectal-insertion is never ridiculed. It is a simple fact within their world, and as viewers we are initially caught off guard by the concept, only to be conditioned to accept the situation for the sake of seeing the story through. And what a precarious position that is to experience. The joke is never lost on us, however the quality of craftsmanship is irresistible and all too consuming.
Cornack directs, co-writes and stars as Chip and his dedication to subverting one silly joke into an entire noir film is remarkable. He gives a great performance and plays it for keeps, while Tyler Rice steals the show as the generically-conceived (and cliché ridden) detective whose own life is in disrepair. He conjures an effective Sean Penn grade of performance – with a hint of De Niro – and singlehandedly gives the story merit.
And as if the premise couldn't be any more ludicrous, the final act takes things into some truly surreal and subversive territory. With a hint of Phantasm and a dash of Evil Dead informing the conclusion, BUTT BOY arrives at its final destination with a logical and satisfying outcome that will have you shaking your head and wondering how the Hell you actually invested your time into these characters and their story.
I tip my hat to Tyler Cornack because he subjected me to an experience that I can't imagine I will forget, and while I have no doubt BUTT BOY will be ridiculed for years to come, it actually deserves to be celebrated and held with regard. It is simply too outrageous to resist. And if you disagree with me... well..... then you can shove your opinion right up your clacker!
BUTT BOY is now available on DVD and VOD via Umbrella Entertainment.
2019 | DIR: JURGEN HANSEN and PIERRE-EMMANUEL LE GOFF | STARRING: THOMAS PESQUET, PEGGY WHITSON, OLEG NOVITSKIY, GUILLAUME NERY | REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
Pesquet’s time on the ISS was captured in Hansen and Le Goff’s earlier documentary, Thomas Pesquet: Spatial Envoy (2017), a one-hour doco in which the astronaut recorded his day to day life about the ISS. This second, slightly longer feature documentary (but only by 12 minutes), is a kind of prequel to that first film, taking us back to the beginnings of Pesquet’s training for the ISS mission and purporting to reveal to us (as the title suggests) how he became an astronaut.
Thomas Pesquet is an ideal subject for the screen; he’s charming, funny and has movie-star good looks (two years after returning from the ISS he’d make a cameo appearance in Alice Winocour’s movie Proxima with Eve Green). His athleticism seems to know no bounds as we see his prowess in sports, scuba diving, judo and more. He even plays the saxophone (and promises to take it on board his flight in order to serenade us with some sax jazz during his long stay on the ISS). But, despite the star’s charisma, the film itself is patchy in the way it traces his progress through the rigorous training. For most of the time there’s quite a laissez faire feeling to the film as we meander from one stress test to another without a clear sense of how close or how far away from completion we are at any one point. Many of these tests that expose the astronauts to the intense forces of gravity or the disorienting effects of weightlessness are ones that we’ve seen countless times before and so the fascination of the environment itself is short-lived. The film comes alive for a bit when the three astronauts (Russian, America and French) are together, but even then we always seem to be following Pesquet at a distance; always on the outside looking in on the process, rather than gaining any real insight to the ambitions, the emotions and the experiences of Pesquet and his colleagues. The biggest problem with this plodding journey (and I feel bad saying this) is that nothing really goes wrong. Obviously, that’s good for the astronauts in training, but not so good for keeping an audience engaged in the story.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this film is that it takes us into two very different space training programmes; the American NASA programme, of course, but also the Russian programme. Each ‘specialises’ in a different aspect of the training but even here in the 21st century, some of the 20th century hangover of what those of a ‘certain age’ might recall as the ’USA/USSR space race’ of the Sixties seems not to have entirely vanished. But again, these moments of interest are short-lived and don’t feel (to me at least) part of a cohesive whole. For me, this was all a bit disappointing. I love a good space doco (and with last year’s celebration of fifty years since Apollo 11 we’ve had a few) but this didn’t take me anywhere I didn’t feel I’d been before and, for a space doco, that has to be the cardinal sin.
Part of the disappointment is that (mild spoiler alert) we never actually get to go into space with Pesquet. Despite the focus of the film being about him training for this important and significant 2016 mission, the film stops short of his actual departure, ending instead with him watching the 2015 launch of an earlier mission that took Andreas Mogensen (for whom Pesquet was back-up astronaut) to the ISS. Pesquet grins as the rocket takes his colleague into space, turns to the camera and tells us he’s looking forward to that being him in the not-too-distant future. I have to say, I was actually looking forward to that being him right now as the climax of the movie. Sadly, the film ends on this unrequited note, completing my disappointment in it by not completing Pesquet’s mission. (to be honest, my biggest disappointment is that we never get to see him play sax in space). Perhaps the filmmakers felt that they’d covered that part of the journey in their previous film although that would seem to be a bit arse- about. Maybe I’ll have to look it up to find out what Thomas Pesquet actually did when he became an astronaut.
Although THE WILLOUGHBYS is adapted from a children’s book of the same name, the best reference for what to expert here is Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. After all, both stories focus on a group of siblings with a knack for inventing who are forced to fend for themselves due to hardship. The key difference for the Willoughby children: Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara) and the Barnaby twins (Sean Cullen), is that their parents are still alive. They simply hate children.
The characterisation of Mother (Jane Krakowski) and Father (Martin Short) is a highlight of the film’s first act, and is certain to dissuade any notions of THE WILLOUGHBYS being ‘just for kids’. Their exaggerated cruelty is entertaining enough (poor Tim spends every night in the coal bin as punishment for asking for food), but the writers continue adding absurd flourishes to the pair to keep them from becoming one-note. My personal favourite of these is Mother’s obsession with knitting; Krakowski sounds increasingly exasperated each time she screams at the children for interrupting her creative process. Before you know it, she’s trimming Father’s moustache for extra yarn.
However, this is first and foremost the younger Willoughbys’ story, with a simple yet poignant goal of finally being part of a loving family. I was largely impressed by how fleshed-out and distinct the children feel, even in the types of jokes the writers choose to tell with them. For instance, the overly serious Tim is prone to pratfalls and slapstick, while the wonderfully weird Barnabys are a constant source of one-liners and jokes about eerie twin connections. Speaking of weird, the theme of the loving family goes in a vastly different direction than what audiences will likely expect, almost serving as a parody of traditional family-centric tales.
The film’s willingness to play with tradition is clear from its visuals, giving a jerky edge to its computer- generated animation to mimic the feel of stop motion. There are even elements designed to appear hand-crafted: rainbows, clouds and the children’s hair resemble wool, while close-up shots of dirigible from towards the end of the film almost had me convinced it was a scanned model. The colour palette is beautiful as well, usually opting for as many bright primary colours in a frame as possible but knowing when to restrain itself. Seriously, this might be the best-looking animated feature on Netflix.
In my opinion, the only aspect occasionally holding THE WILLOUGHBYS back is Jane. Somewhat ironically given she’s the middle child, Jane simply isn’t given much to do from the second act onwards, as the kids’ nanny Linda (Maya Rudolph) is introduced to take over the role of fun-loving free spirit. Don’t get me wrong, the film wouldn’t work without Linda, and Rudolph is easily the most talented and expressive voice actor in the cast. Unfortunately though, Jane is left simply going along for the ride.
Jane is also the only main character without any memorable lines aside from an extremely annoying motif of singing what she’s thinking. My guess is that the writers were trying to utilise Alessia Cara’s voice as much as possible, but it makes her sound too old for the character. This melody also never changes, and eventually becomes a full song which is also played over the credits. It’s quite melodramatic and out of place, especially in a film with such an absurdist streak.
Aside from this admittedly minor issue, I thoroughly enjoyed the visually and tonally distinct world THE WILLOUGHBYS crafts for itself. I get the feeling it’s going to age well and be remembered as a classic twist on a family story. Or, at least, a reminder that your family might not be so crazy after all.
One of my favourite films at last year’s French Film Festival was Dominque Rocher’s and beautifully made, melancholy zombie flick, The Night Eats the World, so it was with some anticipation that I sat down to watch this year’s French Film Festival undead offering, ZOMBI CHILD. On the plus side, it resides in the former of my two categories. It’s most certainly a thought-provoking and well considered film that, in the zombie genre, is about as far away from brain eating as you can get. On the downside, though, it's a bit of a ramshackle story that leaps, chaotically, back and forth in time as it tries to draw us in to two or three different aspects of a more ‘authentic’ zombie story that spans three generations but ultimately struggles to properly or coherently tell any of those stories in a satisfying way.
I say ‘authentic’ because ZOMBI CHILD is based on the supposed true zombie story about Haitian man Clairvius Narcisse, who was reportedly poisoned and buried by white colonists in 1962 and then exhumed and given a voodoo toxin that brought him partially but not fully back to life and, in this zombie state, was indentured into labour on a sugar plantation, only to escape and reveal his living self to his village and his family eighteen years after his assumed death. If this story sounds familiar, it might be because Wes Craven told it in his 1988 film version of Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman’s screen adaptation of ethnobotanist Wade Davis’ book The Serpent and the Rainbow (It was Davis who discovered the Clairvius Narcisse story and brought it to the world).
In Bonello’s version of the story, we see the death, part-resurrection and enslavement of Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) before jumping forward to the present day where Narcisse’s granddaughter Melissa (Wislanda Louimat) has just enrolled in a strange kind of girls’ boarding school that exists only for the daughters of recipients of the Legion of Honour. Melissa befriends Fanny (Louise Labeque) who is lovesick for her estranged boyfriend Pedro (Sayyid Le Alami). Fanny invites Melissa to join her clique of fellow students and in the process of initiation, Melissa reveals the story of her grandfather and the prevalence of voodoo in her family. Fanny because obsessed with this idea especially as it relates to her relationship with Pedro. These three stories; the Narcisse Story, the Melissa story and the Fanny story play out for the remainder of the film but not in a way that coalesces into something that is more than the sum of its parts. Quite the opposite, in fact. And although each of these stories is quite fascinating in its own right, none of them ever feel (to me at least) like they are successfully resolved for the audience.
Nevertheless, the performances are uniformly strong, especially from the young women, and there’s a really clear style to each of the settings in which the stories are told. In particular, the style of the Clairvius Narcisse story is particularly effective in its sunbleached imagery and the shambling zombies cutting cane in the sugar fields have a visual and kinetic resonance with those original zombies in George Romero’s 1968 game changer Night of the Living Dead.
ZOMBI CHILD never really achieves a level of horror (and it’s not clear that this is its aim at all) but it does have a foreboding feel in the ritualistic school scenes, a frenzied hallucinogenic feel in the voodoo sequences with Fanny and a genuinely creepy almost doco feel in the ‘sixties’ footage of Narcisse and his fellow slave zombies. Perhaps it’s this; the strength of its style and performances that accentuate how much its storytelling falls short of its potential and makes this movie ultimately disappointing.
In the present, Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) is retired and struggling to connect with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). Through extensive flashbacks, he’s shown to have grown up poor in Taiwan, broadly dreaming of migrating to America for a better life but lacking the means to do so. The young Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee) ultimately chooses to marry Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li) so that her father will pay for their trip despite feeling no emotional connection with her, and having recently been reunited with his childhood sweetheart.
TIGERTAIL spends much of its runtime in the period immediately before and after Pin-Jui’s emigration, showing past actions to explain his epiphanies later in life. This approach leads to an unexpected but intriguing critique of single-mindedly pursuing one’s goals, particularly through the film’s portrayal of Zhenzhen’s aimlessness in America. While her husband goes to work every day, Zhenzhen visits the laundromat with increasingly smaller loads so that she’ll another reason to leave their apartment soon. The scene in which she admits this to the only friend she’s made in America is heartbreaking; Li laughs quietly when delivering the line but is seemingly on the verge of tears.
Casting the protagonist as oblivious and selfish is a risky choice, though Yang makes clever use of the alternating timelines to prevent Pin-Jui from becoming outright loathsome. Scenes of him coldly rejecting Zhenzhen’s dreams of going to school and becoming a teacher are followed by Angela calling him out for not knowing anything about her. These moments technically take place decades apart, but showing them together feels gratifying.
Tzi Ma and Hong-Chi Lee also make Pin-Jui a consistently engaging presence even when the viewer is no longer rooting for him. Lee expertly conveys the subtle shift in his feelings for Zhenzhen from awkwardness to resentment; he barely raises his voice during arguments and literally tries not to face her. Meanwhile, Ma’s stoicism is the perfect canvas for suggesting a man no longer as sure of himself, one willing to take advice from his now ex-wife. Once again, cutting between these contrasting versions of the character is smart, allowing Yang to both reveal the flaws in this conception of the American Dream and propose a solution (which I won’t spoil).
The only confusing aspect of TIGERTAIL is how much it rushes the present-day storyline. This leads to a number of issues, from clunky and expositional dialogue, to poor blocking and editing. For instance, one emotionally charged conversation between Pin-Jui and Angela is interrupted by him turning away from her and walking a few steps, pausing to deliver a few lines, and return to his original position in a matter of seconds. Simply put, I find it hard to believe that this was the most natural-looking take available. Furthermore, I don’t know why Yang devotes so much time to an extended opening sequence of Pin-Jui’s childhood at his grandparents’ rice field. It doesn’t connect to any other part of the story and would be disposable if it weren’t for its beautiful cinematography (a consistent quality of the scenes filmed in Taiwan).
Nevertheless, TIGERTAIL offers a nuanced, distinct and memorable view of immigrant family life and demonstrates Yang’s success should by no means be limited to TV. His thoughtful script, keen grasp of themes and gorgeous choice of setting undeniably outweigh the film’s flaws, and hopefully this is just the start of wider mainstream recognition.
This remarkable collection of imagery intercut with selected concert footage and other clips of Aznavour at work and play is much more than a documentary about the life of the internationally adored singer; it’s an opportunity to understand something of how significant his Armenian heritage was and to look at a key period of his life through his own eyes. There’s a kind of poetry or lyricism to these visuals, especially as presented with the laconic narration written by Domenico and spoken by Romain Duris, and the saturated colour of that sixties film stock is simply beautiful to watch.
Aznavour may have been celebrated all over the world as a popular singer, but he was also a songwriter, an actor, a diplomat, a political activist and, of course, a globe-trotter who hung out with what the Sixties liked to refer to as the Jet-Set. There’s plenty of screen time for Aznavour to visit exotic locations from Japan to Africa, from New York to Montmartre and to hang out with his friends, Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Charles Trenet, Brigitte Bardot and more, but there’s also great moments with French New Wave film director, Francois Truffaut on the set of their 1960 collaboration Shoot The Piano Player.
In approaching this project, di Domenico admitted that that it’s not at all common to begin working on a film where you have the footage but don’t have the story. One of the strengths of this doco is di Domenico’s ability to get out the way of Aznavour’s cinematography and let that imagery create the story for us. In selecting and assembling the material, it seems that di Domenico has taken a light touch in where he intrudes with other footage (concerts and the like) and, most importantly, how unobtrusive the voice-over narration is.
Of course, like any ‘amateur’ film (if one dare refer to Aznavour as an ‘amateur’) there is the added authentic feel that comes with the happenstance of hand-held camera work: no planned or pre-mediated framing or tracking shots here, but that only adds to the informality of the film that allows to feel like we’re ‘inside’ rather than on the outside looking in. And there’s an added bonus too; if you take the time to look past the famous faces to the backgrounds and the crowds that fill out the film, you’ll be rewarded with the fashions and vehicles and cityscapes of eras gone by. At only 75 minutes, this is a delight that’s over too quickly, but what we get in those fleeting moments of an icon’s ‘home movies’ is a rare and enjoyable insight like no other.
THE PLATFORM’s premise is rich with details. The film is set entirely within a vertical prison with one cell per floor, and two inmates per cell. Each pair of inmates is randomly assigned a new floor at the beginning of the month. Food is distributed via the titular platform, which stops for two minutes per day on each floor. If there’s no food left when the platform reaches your floor, too bad. Thankfully, it feels much less like an exposition dump in practice.
I was thoroughly impressed with the concise worldbuilding on display throughout THE PLATFORM, even within the opening minutes. The audience is thrown into the action and introduced to protagonist Goreng (Ivan Massagué) and his cellmate Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) on floor 48. This first meeting isn’t simply used to summarise how the prison operates, but establishes an eerie tone which never lets up. While the men discover their vastly different backgrounds (one of them is actually there voluntarily), the camera subtly raises questions and heightens the sense of dread. A wide shot reveals the claustrophobic, dank space the two men will share. Peering down the void in the centre of each cell provides a terrifying sense of scale as tiny figures slowly fade to black. That is, a traditionally creepy aesthetic paired with a looming fear of the unknown, which is as good as horror films get.
Given the sets are so confined, it’s unsurprising that the script focuses on filling the space with intriguing characters and scenarios. The contrast between Goreng and Trimagasi is particularly engaging; the former has just begun his sentence while the latter is approaching release, effectively assuming the role of an unwanted mentor. Massagué and Eguileor are each perfectly calibrated, allowing their early moments of camaraderie such as reading and exercising together to feel genuine. However, when things get desperate the actors turn on a dime. Eguileor channels the smiling, delusional menace of Norman Bates to transform his character into an unambiguous villain. Simultaneously, Massagué imbues Goreng with the ferocity of a wounded animal, leaving the audience primed for their impending showdown.
The secondary characters are similarly intense and mostly well-written, though not always fully utilised. For instance, fellow inmate Imoguiri (Antonia San Juan) originally worked for the administration behind the prison but chose to commit herself to change the system. Although this is admittedly the catalyst for most of THE PLATFORM’s second half, it’s mostly through Goreng’s reaction to her beliefs rather than her character changing. Yet not only is Imoguiri’s motivation wasted, her screen time is usurped by Goreng’s new cellmate Baharat (Emilio Buale Coka), the obnoxious exception to what I said before about this film’s characters being well-written. Buale plays him as a loud, easily manipulated zealot with no backstory who vaguely wants to escape and send a vague message to the administration. At their nadir, these qualities combine to give us a grown man obsessed with preserving a panna cotta from the platform to prove the inmates aren’t total gluttons, complete with an overacted catchphrase (“the panna cotta!”).
Baharat is indicative of THE PLATFORM’s greatest weakness: it’s unclear exactly what it’s trying to say. To be clear, there are plenty of ruminations on how ‘the system’ and humanity need to change, which certainly suggest the film wants to do more than simply tell a fun horror story. I don’t believe having a profound message is necessary, especially for genre films, so this normally wouldn’t be an issue. Unfortunately though, the second act is stuffed with overly long sequences depicting Goreng’s internal moral debates that are too vague to be insightful and slow the action to a crawl. While it’s a relatively small criticism, I couldn’t help but notice this section of the film felt like a letdown. Overall, THE PLATFORM is still remarkably well-executed horror that I feel any thrill seeker needs to check out. Just make sure any squeamish viewers have left the room first!
The film depicts the day-to-day operations of the Roubaix police department through the eyes of new recruit Louis (Antoine Reinartz) and his older, stoic commissaire Daoud (Roschdy Zem). Zem is pitch- perfect in what’s already a captivating and well-written role, managing to convey that Daoud has seen it all without coming across as smug or resting on his laurels. This is particularly clear during OH MERCY!’s interrogation scenes, where Zem keeps the pressure applied even as his hunches appear more and more likely to be true. Here, Daoud simmers with rage, revealing the cracks in his calm exterior, leaving the audience in anticipation to see whether the perp will give in before he erupts. He’s truly the archetypal crime genre protagonist, complete with a sombre yet ambiguous backstory about a broken family that’s practically begging to be explored in a follow-up.
From the second half onwards, director/co-writer Arnaud Desplechin dedicates an increasing amount of focus to Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier), two roommates who become suspects in a murder case Daoud investigates. Although it’s a somewhat jarring shift (more on that below), Seydoux and Forestier are more than up to the challenge, bringing serious emotional heft as the pair’s backstories and complex, symbiotic friendship are revealed. I found them to be equally captivating for different reasons: Forestier is certainly showier; the fear in her voice alone during questioning strikes a balance between relatable and suspicious, casting her as someone who knows more than they’re letting on. By contrast, Claude is icy and calculating, wanting to avoid the investigation for fear that her relationship with her young son could become further strained. Seydoux is wonderful opposite both Forestier and Zem, using long pauses and an unflinching gaze to punctuate her early scenes and subtly disarm her co-stars.
Despite its strong leads, I found OH MERCY!’s structure confusing and misguided, preventing it from leaving a stronger impression. Simply put, there is no discernible reason why the writers divided the story between cases in such a linear fashion. There are no overarching thematic threads, nor does it feel like a cinema verite-esque attempt to realistically portray the case by case nature of police work. Given the Claude and Marie case dominates the latter half and ending, I can’t imagine why it wasn’t the entire premise of the film, or at least foreshadowed from the beginning. Similarly, the first case shown (a burn victim supposedly attacked by jihadists) is interesting, but Daoud quickly solves it and it’s just as swiftly forgotten. Once again, these ideas could’ve stood out with more breathing room, and it’s a shame for them to go to waste.
OH MERCY! is above all an acting showcase, with a trio of dynamic performances sure to command the viewer’s attention. Even though its structure feels like a failed experiment, I suspect crime buffs might relish the opportunity to unravel several cases at once. I’m not sure I’ll come back to this film any time soon, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for what its leads do next.
As I hinted at above, whether or not Henri Pick wrote the book will ultimately affect very little. Sure, Rouche was fired from his job as a TV show host, but that’s also largely due to him offending Pick’s widow with his on-air behaviour. Consequently, the script subtly distinguishes itself from other detective fiction, focusing less on the who and why and more on the how, given the holes in Rouche’s argument. It’s a smart change that ensures the audience still constantly asks questions like you’d expect in this genre, just different ones, all the while building up the enigma of its titular character.
I love a good mystery, so I was delighted to see the film transform into an investigation in its second and third acts as Rouche teams up with Pick’s daughter Joséphine (Camille Cottin). Although their antagonistic relationship eventually turns to friendship, the pair’s constant back-and-forth quips are a highlight of the film. Luchini as Rouche is the standout among the cast, with comedic timing and expressions perfect for the absurd scenes the writers clearly love putting him in. For instance, Luchini’s wide-eyed, incredulous fear during an interview with a macabre-obsessed book club makes a discussion of dismembering corpses quietly hilarious. However, Cottin’s Joséphine keeps the film grounded, reminding the audience just how painful it can be to have your memory of a loved one challenged. Films have taught me that detectives always work best in pairs, from Holmes and Watson, to Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig, and THE MYSTERY OF HENRI PICK provides further proof.
Unfortunately, I found the first act slightly unfocused, even introducing Rouche then forgetting him for an extended period; as a result, his sudden transition into the protagonist role was initially jarring. It’s also not overly difficult to solve the film’s central mystery, though the writers do include some engaging red herrings which almost dissuaded me from my first (correct) theory. I suppose it depends on personal preference, but in my opinion, this genre is at its best when the audience is able to fit some or most of the pieces together, then have the characters or plot do the rest. Look no further than the gloriously dense conclusion of Knives Out for a great example of this. The answers given here are satisfying, but unsurprising.
At first glance, THE MYSTERY OF HENRI PICK reminds me of The Words, a seldom-discussed Bradley Cooper drama with a similar premise. Yet the former sets itself apart not only through its healthy doses of humour, and gorgeous shots of the peaceful French countryside, but by crafting a convincing mystery that keeps the audience curious and involved. It’s a film that reminds me of why I love classic whodunnits while managing to forge its own identity.
Writer/Director Miranda Nation’s first feature is a complex, psychological sometimes erotic thriller that worms its way into you without the aid of violence or bloodshed or obvious good guys and bad guys. Essentially, this is a four-hander where the focus on the relationships keeps shifting from Claire and Dan to Dan and Angie, to Angie and Brett, to Dan and Brett, to Claire and Brett but most importantly, to Clair and Angie. It’s a film where we are never quite certain that what we see is what we see. Sometimes that’s literal (when Claire sees small creatures crawling about that we’re pretty sure are not really there) and sometimes it’s obfuscation (when Claire sees Dan with Angie does she really see what we’re all thinking she sees?) Part of the power of this film is the uncertainty about what lies beneath the surface of the characters and the unexpectedness of how they interact with each other. When Clair orchestrates a meeting with Angie and discovers that the teenager is pregnant, she is less concerned with the possibility that Dan might be the father than she is with caring for this child that Angie seems not to want – with the unfairness of her own loss of a much wanted baby against an unborn child that seems unwanted by its young mother. It’s a tangled story where each character is vulnerable to the secrets they hold and where lines of trust and honesty are crossed in ways that might just be irreparable. But, above all, it’s a story that treats its audience with intelligence and asks us to consider how much responsibility we each take for our actions (or inactions) regardless of how much we might feel that there are explanations for the seemingly bad things we sometimes do.
The four key cast members are all terrific. Gordon, at the heart of the story, carries much of the movie with ease in a compelling and finely judged performance that, necessarily, relies more on what she communicates of the internal world of her character than it does on the externalised dialogue. But she’s not alone in the strength of the performances on the screen. DeJonge, in particular, finds the wild and dangerous edge of Angie laced with enough vulnerability to win us over to her cause. I do wonder whether the final image of Angie is a false note in an otherwise well-made film... but then again, it’s a moment that has a nice ring of truth about it, even if it does seem a little neat.
For those with local knowledge, you’ll be quick to recognise that the film is shot in and around the Victorian coastal city of Geelong and makes excellent use of both the beauty and the ugliness of its locations. In particular, the cinematography by Bonnie Elliott brings a strong, moody and at times foreboding visual sense to the film that perfectly captures the idea that Claire sees much of the world through the lens of her own camera. There’s also a great soundtrack to underscore the visuals featuring the work of the incomparable Lisa Gerard along with James Orr and Raul Sanchez.
Nation’s screenplay is a lean and elegant work that seems to provide the space within which the work of the cast and of the cinematographer do more than just bring the script to life. They are spaces that allow the actors and the crew to complete the way in which the story is told. Yes, it is sometimes slow and brooding in its telling and that might not be to everyone’s taste but, for me, the pace showed a confidence in the director knowing that this is a slow-burn of a story and deserves the right amount of time to ferment.
It's a shame that our film industry is still at a stage where it seems remiss not to point out that this is a film written and directed by a woman with many talented women in key crew roles and a powerful female-focused story. It would be nice to think that we might get to a point in the not-too-distant future where we can just focus on how good the film is, rather than the rarity of the means by which it got made.