2019 | DIR: BRETT & DREW PIERCE | STARRING: JOHN-PAUL HOWARD, PIPER CURDA, BIANE CROCKARELL, JAMISON JONES, ZARAH MAHLER, KEFIN BIGLEY, MADELYNN STUENKEL| REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
The prologue in The Wretched is an example of the latter: it’s 1985 and hapless babysitter Megan (Sydne Mikelle) arrives to a seemingly empty house until she realises that the ‘Wretch’ is in the basement feeding on the kid. Say goodnight, Megan. There’s no origin story here and no information that will improve the telling of the main narrative. It might deliver a good fright and introduce a nicely designed creature but, really, it’s just a dress rehearsal for what we’ll see happen later in the movie when we jump forward to the present day. It also introduces us to a symbol carved on the door jamb – something that looks a bit like an upside down ‘A’ or anarchy symbol. It tells us that there’s some spooky woodlands pagan stuff going on here, but despite its reappearance at various points throughout the film (presumably carved by one of the Wretch’s nasty looking claws), it never really amounts to anything more than texture.
The present-day story sees Ben (John-Paul Howard) arriving at a seaside town to spend a bit of time with his divorced dad Liam (Jamison Jones). Turns out that Liam lives in the same house we saw in the prologue - a house with a lovely weirdness to it, dwarfed by the big house next door and with the impression that it's hiding behind a huge tree. But this isn’t a haunted house story, so the connection to the prologue has no real purpose. That big house next door, however, is where Abbie (Zarah Mahler) and Ty (Kevin Bigley) live with their son Dillon (Biane Crockarell) and baby Sam (Owen Thomas Pierce). When Abbie arrives home with a road-kill deer strapped to the hood of her car and proceeds to gut it in the driveway, we discover that the Wretch (Madelynn Stuenkel) has been hibernating inside the poor creature. Released into the world it possesses Abbie and bad things follow.
Meanwhile, Liam gives Ben a job at the boat franchise he runs on the local harbour and it’s here that Ben meets Mallory (Piper Curda), a wise-cracking, no-nonsense, older-than-her-years kinda gal who gives Ben a run for his money. There’s also the obligatory rich-kids-on-daddy’s-boat who humiliate Ben and, of course, the discovery that Liam has moved on since the divorce and has taken up with Sara (Azie Tesfai) all of which contribute to tensions between Liam and Ben who increasingly comes to depend on his growing friendship (relationship?) with Mallory.
I realise that all this sounds pretty negative and probably gives the impression that I didn’t much care for the movie. Not true. Once I set aside my predisposition to not being a fan of the prologue, this film really grew on me but maybe not for the reasons that a horror film should. For me, it’s in the relationship between Ben and Mallory where the film comes alive; it’s fresh and lively and, whilst the film isn’t a teen romance, their story certainly has elements of that. Howard is really endearing as Ben but it’s Curda’s performance as Mallory that drives things. It didn’t even bother me that the film isn’t really that scary. Admittedly, that’s a problem if it’s a straight up horror film you’re looking for. In that respect, it tends to travel along a pretty well-worn trope-ish path and I never feel like we get a handle on this woodland Wretch. Where has it come from? Why has it reappeared now? What’s its relationship with the human world? Are people just food, or is there something more malevolent, more evil at its heart? Why does it seem to possess adults but steal away children? These ideas are never really explored in any depth. However, there is one very effective idea associated with this creature: when the children are taken by it, they cease to exist in memory. This all adds to Ben’s frustration as he comes to realise that there’s a dark force visiting the town. After Abbie is possessed, the Wretch steals baby Sam and when Ben tries to make Ty understand that something terrible has happened to his infant son, Ty denies that the child ever existed. It’s the strongest element of the film and sets us up for a nice little twist at the end.
The irony of this film, for me, is that it has a really strong retro feel to it – touches of Richard Donner’s Goonies (1985) or Steven Spielberg’s ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) where the kids must deal with the strange or otherworldly occurrences with little or no help from the grown-ups – and if it had stayed in the 1980s setting of the prologue, everything about this film would have resonated so much more. That being said, there’s an enjoyable time to be had with The Wretched as long as you’re prepared to focus on the human stories it has to tell and let the supernatural world stay largely unexplained and in the background.
2020 | DIR. JONATHAN JAKUBOWICZ | STARRING, JESSE EISENBERG, CLEMANCE POSEY, MATTHIAS SCHWEIGHOFER, ED HARRIS | REVIEW BY NADINE WHITNEY
RESISTANCE presents a story that could in the right hands have carried the gravity of Spielberg’s film, but is sadly lacking despite having a fascinating premise and being based on the remarkable true story of the war time Resistance activities of world-famous mime artist and actor Marcel Marceau.
Beginning in 1938 the film shows a Jewish family in Germany discussing the rise of fascism in the country. The audience is introduced to one of the strongest emotional linchpins in the piece Bella Ramsey’s (from Game of Thrones) Elsbeth. Elsbeth is one of the hundreds of Jewish orphans that Marceau with other members of his family including his brother Alain (Félix Moati) and cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig) as well as the sisters Emma (Clémence Poésy) and Mila (Vica Kerekes) will attempt to shelter and shepherd to safety away from the ethnic cleansing of the Nazis. As Elsbeth is put to bed by her parents she asks them why the Nazis hate the Jews; this allows for at least one of four pieces of exposition in the film trying to explain why the Jewish people are considered an outsider threat to dominant forces. After her father reassures her that things will be settled once employment is better and post war reparations paid, the Jewish people will once again be valued as workers. In a stroke that is somewhat typical of how heavy handed the film can be, Elsbeth’s family are at that moment dragged outside and shot by the Nazis. Elsbeth is the orphan that the audience will identify with throughout the film.
Using the technique of framing Marceau’s exploits via General Patton (Ed Harris) addressing his troops at the liberation of Paris, writer and director Jonathan Jakubowicz, who is Argentinian and of Polish Jewish background, attempts to encapsulate the period starting just pre-war in 1938 with Marceau acting in the local cabaret in the border town of Strasbourg in France doing Charlie Chaplin impersonations and finishes with Marceau’s first major public performance which is for the American soldiers.
Putting aside the fact that the real Marceau (born Marcel Mangel) was sixteen at the outbreak of the war, and not a man in his mid-thirties as Jesse Eisenberg is, the film’s major flaw seems to be that Eisenberg doesn’t ever fully dissolve enough into Marceau to be believable. At all times the audience is aware they are watching Eisenberg whose tic and tricks seems to be pale imitations of what one would imagine the young actor would have been like. Marcel’s story begins in a somewhat confusing manner as we are introduced to him being a selfish “artist” who only works at his family’s charcuterie to please his father. His younger brother Alain, who looks like he’s at least in his late 20s, spends most of his time philosophising about the spread of fascism and resents his brother for not doing more to stand up against the oncoming tide.
However, it takes only one conversation with his cousin Georges for him to become established in the movement to help the German and other refugee Jewish children via a scouting troop and later, when Strasbourg was evacuated and he moves with his family to Limoges, he quickly became part of the Organisation Juive de Combat- OJC – which worked with the French Resistance to move Jewish children to safety. Much of Marceau’s abrupt change of heart seems to come from the fact the children find him a charming presence, but also because his love interest Emma is heavily involved in the organisation. A key cell is put together containing Marcel, his brother Alain, Emma and her sister Mila. Along with Georges they find funding to care for the orphans, feed them, train them in how to avoid Nazi detection and find as many safe spaces as possible for them to hide. If Jakubowicz had limited his vision to the acts of bravery that were involved with the young men and women doing just that much he would perhaps have made a successful film – however he extended himself to try to include so much more, including the introduction of The Butcher of Lyon, the infamous Nazi Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer).
It seems unnecessary ground to consistently reiterate that someone like Barbie was a monster. Yet the film lingers in giving him a role that is over the top in its violence and menace. Matthias Schweighöfer truly is chilling as Barbie, and the scenes he is in are incredibly tense, but for the most part they are also narratively unlikely. As much as he was known as the man who crushed the French Resistance in the south of France, how much of that would have been done with him personally brandishing razors and guns is questionable.
So much of the film is sadly filler that tries to create a dramatic tension that should already be implicit in the story itself. The fact one of the world’s greatest mimes and actors was a part of a Jewish network of resistance is grist enough for a great story; but Jakubowicz also wants to throw in comedic scenes, fast paced action scenes, a doomed romance, an ineluctable and seemingly inescapable enemy and the personal and artistic growth of Marceau into the mix. Because Eisenberg doesn’t really carry the film via his performance, the narrative shortcomings are all to obvious. Powerful performances by Bella Ramsey and especially Clémence Poésy can’t compensate for the lack of subtlety in the writing and direction. The only moment that one can believe that Eisenberg is Marceau is in the final scene where he is in make-up for the first time and plays the tragedy of losing a loved one to the killing machine of war. Although Marceau did indeed perform for the troops and was awarded recognition from the Allies for his work in the Resistance, even that ultimate expression of Marceau’s journey seems somewhat contrived. The audience through the familiar white face of the mime sees Marceau but because Eisenberg has given the us little to connect with up until that point there is an emptiness to the performance.
RESISTANCE is ultimately a frustratingly insipid piece. It has all the markers of a film that should be competent even if it isn’t great, but it doesn’t really even reach that mark. There are moments that work and are shocking, tense or sometimes surprisingly touching, but they are few and far between in what is a mostly ineffectual production that could have wrought something more poignant and unforgettable to the screen.
The story is pretty straight forward. Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) is a mercenary with a death wish who can’t get over the death of his son from lymphoma. In the midst of a drinking binge not unlike the one Martin Sheen went on at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, Tyler’s partner, Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani) helicopters in to offer him the job he desperately needs. The teenage son of an imprisoned Bangladeshi drug lord (Pankaj Tripathi) has been kidnapped by rival drug lord, Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli) and his father wants him back. The boy in question is Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) and was meant to be in the care of Saju Rav (Randeep Hooda) but something went wrong. Next thing you know, Tyler is in Bagladesh and the body count starts to climb as he rescues Ovi and sets out for the extraction point. But, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a double-cross and things go south and suddenly Tyler and Ovi are ducking bullets as they desperately try to make it to the alternative extraction point and safety.
When every man and his dog is out to kill John Wick while he’s trying to get from point A to point B, Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski’s tongues are so firmly in their cheeks that we’re pretty happy to go along for the ultraviolent ride. But here, first time director Sam Hargrave, backed up by Hollywood heavyweights, the Russo Brothers (it’s written by Joe from Ande Parks’ graphic novel Ciuldad and produced by Joe and Anthony) seem to want us to take it all very seriously and that makes the violence quite a different thing. There’s no parody and no edge to it which makes Tyler a ruthless and indiscriminate killer for fortune rather than an otherwise good guy having a bad day.
Don’t get me wrong... I don’t have an aversion to violence in films. I love a good action-thriller, and I don’t mind a big body count if it’s a consequence of a good story rather than the story itself. Plus, I prefer it when the story’s originality and surprises means I’m playing catch up with the screenplay; but here, it’s the other way around.
On the positive side, the chaos of the streets of Bangladesh is breathtakingly and claustrophobically recreated on screen but the fights themselves seem stagey and overly choreographed. Hemsworth makes a good fist (literally) of trying to make Tyler a well-rounded character but it’s just not there in the writing. Jaiswal comes out better in his portrayal of a protected child who finds himself unexpectedly in the maelstrom of the reality of his father’s world but the ‘surrogate father and son’ tropes of his relationship with Tyler are predictable and ham fisted. Even David Harbour who pops up (in the nick of time) as Gaspar, Tyler’s old black-ops buddy, gets tarred with the same cliched brush.
It feels like Extraction aspires to share the company of superior hostage movies like Taylor Hackford’s Proof of Life (2000) or its even closer cousin Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (2004), but its much more akin to movies like Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet (1977) and Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks (2006) both of which underpin their ‘impossible odds’, ‘armed to the teeth’ obstacles with more compelling characters and stories.
But it’s the end of this movie that feels most cynical. I don’t want to give anything away, other than to say there’s a logical ending to this story which, by all reports, was what Joe Russo originally wrote. But this is Hollywood and Netflix, so endings are the province of test audiences and producer’s investments, rather than the sole responsibility of the storytellers. In this case, the final image of the film seems a complete contrivance and, to me, makes very little sense. But what do I know? The number of eyeballs glued to this movie and glazed over in anticipation of its sequel would tend to disagree.
2020 | DIR: ANDREW PATTERSON | STARS: SIERRA MCCORMICK, JAKE HOAROWITZ, GAIL CRONAUER | REVIEW BY NADINE WHITNEY
The film begins with Fay and Everett fast talking about their lives and dreams as they finish their high school day. Fay has bought herself a tape recorder and is practicing her radio voice as the more experienced and awkwardly charming Everett guides her through the process that she will need to undergo to become a professional disc jockey. The bespectacled pair are charmingly nerdy outsiders who both want to move on to something bigger and better after high school. For Everett it’s a large scale job in a bigger radio station, but for Fay who is responsible for both housekeeping and earning money in her single parent family a life plan isn’t so straight forward with even college being something that is out of the realm of affordability for her.
Whilst most of the town prepares to attend the big high school basketball game Fay and Everett go to their respective jobs which afford them a seat on the front lines when the weird events of the night begin to take shape. As Fay takes over the switchboard she notices a weird sound that begins to interrupt calls cutting people off. The townsfolk not at the game are calling each other discussing strange lights and there being something in the sky. Sensing a story Fay calls Everett whilst he is on air and plays him the sound. He makes a call out to listeners if they can identify the sound and perhaps explain the strange phenomena that is gripping the town.
Patterson leans in to a million genre clichés in his film, from episodes of The Twilight Zone, which at times the cinematography matches to documentary voice overs from so called Roswell and other close encounters stories, yet his work never falls completely into the trap of being anything but fresh. Cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz and screen writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger create an ingenious framing technique by placing the film in a fictional television show called The Paradox Hour. As the action ramps up the film swaps between shot within the television show to being a full colour action packed race against time to find the source of the bizarre lights in the sky and to follow the stories of ex-military man Billy (voiced by Bruce Davis) and local shut in Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer) whose stories of alien intervention and abductions lead Fay and Everett to chase the thrilling story. A chase that will lead them to escaping their town in a manner completely unexpected to them, if a little bit predictable for the audience.
The dialogue is neatly snappy peppered with era specific buzzwords. Both Sierra McCormack and Jake Horowitz are charming and frenetic in their performances. It would have been all to easy for them to rely on a certain level of schmaltz to carry the characterisation, but both actors are engaging and the audience is invested in their journey and eventual fates.
The music is a great mix of a 50s like rock and roll score mixed with works by the composer Gustav Holst and a genuinely creepy original soundtrack by Jared Bulmer and Erick Alexander.
The Vast of Night premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival and is an excellent example of what the festival is about in giving low budget and emerging filmmakers the opportunity to showcase at the beginning of their careers. It was later picked up by Amazon Studios for general release. It is not a perfect work but it is a strong piece considering the relative inexperience of the crew. I doubt that this is the last we hear of Andrew Patterson whose career has been given an excellent kickstart by this title.
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.
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.