It's a simple, animated story set in a complex place; Kabul under the Taliban. Mohsen (voiced by Swann Arlaud) is a teacher whose ability to teach honestly and openly is severely restricted by the laws of the Taliban. His young wife, Zunaira (voiced by Zita Hanrot), is an artist whose work is equally restricted. Yet, despite the oppressive regime they live under, the couple strives to fulfil their passions in a way that is true to their relationship but which places them at considerable risk. Their marriage is counterpointed by a very different relationship. Atiq (voiced by Simon Abkarian) is head jailer at the Taliban prison where women are held before being stoned or hanged to death. His wife, Mussarat (voiced by Hiam Abbass) is a housebound cancer sufferer living out her final days in a mixture of pain and a drug-induced haze. For all his brutality and unsympathetic dealings with his female prisoners, Atiq is confounded by the impending loss of his wife and unable to deal with her or her disease. To reveal how these two stories intersect would be unforgivable, but intersect they do and the results are unexpected, deeply moving and, ultimately, full of hope in a place where such a quality seems impossible.
Directed with an unexpectedly light but ultimately authentic touch by Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec, The Swallows of Kabul is told almost like a fable, its beautiful watercolour imagery (by animators Alix Arrault, Alice Guzzo, Danas Bereznickas and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec) belying the dark and horrifying world that these characters live in. But this is not so much a ‘good guys, bad guys’ tale. Certainly, the Taliban are portrayed unflinchingly as cruel and tyrannical but, in the opening scene when Mohsen witnesses the stoning of an adulterous woman, he is not without his own complicity to the barbarous act. Conversely, the filmmakers resist casting Atiq as a two- dimensional villain. Instead, his character offers a humanity to his portrayal of a Taliban fighter that isn’t what we expect. But make no mistake, the softness we see in Atiq’s character is by no means a suggestion that all Taliban followers might have this hidden side. In many ways, he is the exception that proves the rule.
As the story unfolds, the complexity of the situation in which these characters find themselves intensifies and for a while, the film becomes suspenseful and gripping, almost a thriller, before it resolves itself in an ending that is part fable, part romance and part tragedy.
The Swallows of Kabul sits in that unusual genre of the adult animation (this is definitely no children’s story) and, in doing so, proves that the power of visual art is something that can work on screen in a way that live-action sometimes can’t. You only need to take a look at Jon Favreau’s The Lion King (2019) to see an example of a movie that makes the mistake of thinking that all stories are better when the characters and action is ‘real’ (even virtually real) and pays the price of the loss of audience connection and the emotional believability of its characters. In The Lion King, it’s about personifying animals. In The Swallows of Kabul it’s about humanising terror. In both cases, the potency of the story is served well by the animated image in a way that ‘naturalism’ doesn’t quite capture. (did you hear that, Disney?). The animation studio behind The Swallows of Kabul, Les Armateurs, learned that lesson early on with beautiful, whimsical but deeply human and honest works like The Triplets of Belleville (2003) and continued to apply it with later animated masterpieces like Ernest & Celestine (2012). Their latest effort is an exquisite work; both exquisitely painful and exquisitely uplifting. It’s a credit to the filmmakers, the animators, the voice actors and (of course) to the author of the original work, that such a beautiful film has been wrought from such a terrible time and place.
Chris Hemsworth stars as Tyler Rake, a black ops mercenary tasked with rescuing a crime lord’s kidnapped son. The mission brings Rake to Bangladesh, where he is forced to fend off the seemingly infinite number of men working for the kidnapper, a rival crime lord. Before discussing anything else, let me highlight just how good Hemsworth is in this role. Despite his dumb, generic action hero name, Rake is surprisingly engaging. He’s believably tough and intimidating, leaping between buildings and taking down waves of enemy forces without flinching. Yet simultaneously, Hemsworth subtly conveys the idea that his stoicism comes from professional and personal trauma, even carrying a late scene where these hardships are specifically addressed.
Although the script doesn’t dedicate much time to characterisation beyond Rake, the supporting cast are largely impressive. As the character with the second most screen time, this is most true of Rudhraksh Jaiswal as the kidnapped boy, Ovi. Jaiswal rises to the challenge of conveying a wide range of emotions, from terror to despair to an eerie calmness towards his situation, and is consistently engaging to watch. However, the contrast in Ovi’s mood between scenes is jarring, as if the writers decided not to include most of the scenes of him bonding with Rake. Subsequently, I felt like I was watching a series of separate showcases for Jaiswal but couldn’t observe an overall emotional arc for the character.
I was also delighted by the brief appearance of David Harbour as Gaspar, an old teammate of Rake’s living in Dhaka. Given EXTRACTION is a Netflix film, I should note the possibility that including the star of one of the service’s most popular shows might just be an act of synergy. Indeed, Gaspar is a world-weary tough guy looking for some peace and quiet much like Stranger Things’ Jim Hopper. All of this might have been a problem if Harbour weren’t such a scene-stealer, turning on a dime from jovial reflection to bubbling rage. Similarly, his natural rapport with Hemsworth adds some welcome detail to Rake’s backstory.
Above all though, EXTRACTION deserves to be watched for the vivid action setpieces Hargrave creates. The most widely discussed of these will surely be the sequence shortly after Rake first rescues Ovi, a continuous shot which ultimately lasts just over ten minutes. As the mission falls apart and the pair are pursued by gang members and corrupt police officers (among others), the action evolves from a car chase to a game of hide and seek in a crowded apartment building. The camerawork here is incredible, moving through windows and circling around fistfights to heighten the tension; at several points I genuinely wondered what VFX trickery was used to pull it off. Similarly, Rake’s climactic crossing of a bridge crawling with enemies is intensified by rapid cuts from multiple perspectives, leaving me to wonder which character would be made aware of the other’s presence first.
Unfortunately, the impact of the bridge scene was somewhat diminished due to its use in an utterly pointless cold open that exemplifies the film’s insecurities. EXTRACTION employs the cliched ‘[insert amount of time] earlier’ stinger after showing Rake on the bridge, cutting back to Ovi’s life before his capture. Not only did the flashforward fail to offer any information which would become more meaningful throughout the runtime, by my count it actually breaks the film’s timeline. That is, Rake’s assault on the bridge apparently takes place two days after Ovi is kidnapped. Without boring you with my math, there is at least an extra day in between unaccounted for by the filmmakers by sheer virtue of which scenes take place at day and night respectively.
So why use the cold open? Probably out of fear that audiences wouldn’t be interested without Chris Hemsworth in the first scene. This same lack of faith in the film’s own ideas is likely also why the exterior Dhaka scenes have been colour corrected with an off-putting yellow filter. I, for one, found the setting was already memorable and distinct, so this decision in particular was baffling; the filter’s only effect was making the city look dirty. Notwithstanding this, it’s still easy to become engrossed in EXTRACTION’s more successful elements. If the outstanding action and committed performances are any indication, I’m sure this won’t be the last we see of Tyler Rake.
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.