Saturday, 31 December 2016

MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2016

It's almost the end of another year and that means it's time for the blog post which literally none of you have been crying out for. Of all the films I watched in 2016 here are my favourite ten and, as before, they're in alphabetical order.

I've almost certainly missed films which are just as great as those listed below so I apologise for not catching those and I'm happy for all of you out there to suggest other gems released this year which I should see (for instance, American Honey is already on my list).

Please don't ask me to decide which one of these I liked the most - it was difficult enough to pick a final ten.


ARRIVAL




It took a while for a really good sci-fi film to, ahem, arrive on our screens this year but when it did it was something special. Denis Villeneuve's smart "first contact" movie doesn't skimp on the effects but they don't overwhelm the proceedings. The film isn't at all concerned with widescreen destruction of entire cities so if you're looking for a variation on Independence Day this isn't it.

Arrival is much more of a thriller, putting Amy Adams' language expert front and centre as she attempts to decipher why aliens have set up camp all over Earth and, more pressingly for the authorities, what they may be about to do. This generates its own tension but Villeneuve rarely goes for the obvious shocks or reveals, apart from the suggestion that the biggest danger to humankind may be humankind itself. Even so, that's deftly handled and as the movie heads towards its climax there's an increasing sense of fear that the destruction of the planet could be triggered by almost anyone or anything.

This also has a mindbending resolution to the plot which, chances are, you're going to either love or hate. For me, the realisation of what it all meant was a really magical moment of discovery. The information was all in front of me but when it was finally explained my first thoughts were "Yes, of course" followed by all of the emotional ramifications which of course I'm not going to spoil it. Adams is as dependably excellent as usual, Renner's performance is every bit as accomplished and Villeneuve extends his run of impressive movies.



THE BIG SHORT




The economics surrounding the collapse of the U.S. mortgage market don't immediately appear to be the basis for an especially riveting movie but The Big Short manages to spin all of the number-crunching and financial market trading shenanigans into a riveting and darkly comic yarn.

The devices for explaining the technical jargon may not be to everyone taste but personally I liked the whole concept of "yeah, this might be quite boring to you, would it better if Margot Robbie talked about it while sitting in a bubble bath?". At the same time, the film's hinting that you should be interested in this without the Margot Robbie visual aid. I enjoyed Margot Robbie explaining it to me. I'm a dumbass.

That aside, there's plenty of snappy dialogue, great performances abound (Christian Bale is almost unrecognisable from his Batman days as a hedge fund manager who dressed like a beach bum) and the story never loses sight of the fact that the real losers in the whole sorry affair were millions of people like you and me.



GREEN ROOM




Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to Blue Ruin may not quite have the distinctive vision and impact of that film (very few things do) but it still packs one hell of a punch as Anton Yelchin's punk band The Ain't Rights find themselves fighting for their lives against Patrick Stewart's band of neo-Nazis in a remote concert venue.

Green Room sets itself up nicely by giving the audience just enough time to get to know the band before plunging them into a nightmare where we feel the shocks more because very bad stuff is happening to people we like. The tension is almost unremitting, there's some startlingly gory violence and it has an entertaining way of dispatching its characters in an order you may not be expecting.

Patrick Stewart is excellent as a calm, cold and calculating villain and he looks like he had a great time making this. Imogen Poots' resourceful and spiky punk girl is a delight and Anton Yelchin shows just what a talent (not to mention a huge loss) he was.



HIGH-RISE




For a novel that was thought by many to be unfilmable, director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump managed to craft a coherent, sharp, amusing and vastly entertaining adaptation of JG Ballard's allegorical tale of haves and have-nots struggling to co-exist in a high-tech tower block.

Packed to the rafters with excellent performances, notably from Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans and Elizabeth Moss, this is a hedonistic mindfuck of a movie painted in vividly garish splashes. It's hilarious and unnerving, often at the same time, and cements Ben Wheatley's position as one of the most fascinating directors out there right now. Clint Mansell's score is terrific too.



MINDLESS




Initially I wasn't going to include short movies in the list but Katie Bonham's Mindless is so impressive that it would have been ridiculous of me not to. This focuses on Peter (Nicholas Vince), a middle-aged man suffering from dementia whose house is in fresh disarray each day when his carer Judy (Kate Danbury) arrives. Peter insists the damage was not caused by him but what other explanation could there be?

Mindless is a shining example of what can be achieved on a low, low budget, eschewing jump scares and gore in favour of characterisation and atmosphere. It's unhurried, perfectly-paced and thoughtful, boosted further by first-rate work from Vince who is able to elicit both sympathy and suspicion.

Not only did Katie Bonham direct but she also wrote the screenplay which deftly weaves social commentary into its horror trappings and leaves you with plenty of food for thought long after the final rewarding reveal. It's a fantastic achievement and demonstrates the wealth of film-making talent we have in the UK. I'm eagerly awaiting Mab, which is Katie's next short. And you should be eagerly awaiting it too.



THE NEON DEMON



Arguably the most divisive film of the year, Nicolas Winding Refn's take on the fashion industry upset some people, confused some people, bored some people and thrilled some people. I loved it, which should come as no surprise because it's here in a list of my top ten films.

NWR will probably enjoy the fact that, although The Neon Demon is firmly entrenched in my Top Ten of 2016, I can only recommend it with extreme caution. The final act launches into a series of button-pushing moments which will either amuse or offend and there's one particular sequence involving the amazing Jena Malone where the fight or flight response of the audience is cranked up to 11 (for two people at the screening I attended it was definitely "flight", accompanied by loud complaints all the way to the exit).

Hey, if people are walking out of a movie how could I not love it to bits? And yet, even with all of the depravity taking place on screen, I did get the feeling of being played by a director laughing up his sleeve at how far he's decided to push me. And I have no problem with that. Bring it on!


THE REVENANT




2016 got off to a somewhat ferocious start thanks to Alejandro González Iñárritu's immersive wilderness nightmare which sees frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, nothing short of incredible here) relentlessly pursue the man who murdered his son. Not even a terrifying - not to mention up close and graphic - bear attack will stop him.

From the opening sequence in which the hunting party tries desperately to reach the safety of their boats as they are attacked by Arikara Indians, The Revenant puts the viewer right in the middle of the action. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki captures a dizzying number of "how the hell did they do that?" set-pieces and at two and a half hours it's an exhausting experience but an unforgettable one.

Totally deserving of its Best Actor, Director and Cinematography Oscars, this is a film which, on the big screen, took my breath away. Like the landscape in which it's set, The Revenant is stark, brutal yet somehow beautiful. An astonishing achievement.



TRASH FIRE




After Excision and Suburban Gothic, Richard Bates Jr. makes it a hat-trick of must-see movies with this beyond pitch-black yarn about the somewhat abrasive Owen (Adrien Grenier) who decides to pull himself together, make his relationship with partner Isabel (Angela Trimbur) work and, reluctantly, build bridges with what remains of his estranged relatives.

Now I've made this sound like a fairly standard relationship drama let me stop you right there and say that the word "standard" is that last term you should attempt to apply to Trash Fire. It's a hugely enjoyable blend of drama, black comedy and horror which features the most excoriating, brutal yet laugh-out loud funny dialogue of the year. You'll be in situations where you'll want to use one of a dozen lines from this but you won't dare.

Grenier and Trimbur are thoroughly engaging as the central couple attempting to deal with the increasingly bizarre circumstances in which they find themselves, as well as also having to deal with Owen's daunting grandmother (superbly played by Fionnula Flanagan) who has a knack of casually tossing out stinging and jaw-droppingly offensive remarks to all and sundry. Funny, creepy and with an ending I didn't see coming (though you might), this is another glimpse into the brilliantly skewed world of Richard Bates Jr. I can not wait for his next movie.



THE UNSEEN




A real diamond in the rough and, for me at least, the standout film at this year's Abertoir Festival, this takes the idea of The Invisible Man and sends it in a number of intriguing directions, ultimately paying off in an incredibly satisfying way.

The Unseen touches upon many familiar themes (estranged parents, troubled teenagers, small town life) but gives them a fresh, interesting, lo-fi spin and the lack of histrionics throughout makes for an involving and effective story that, like its main character Bob Langmore (wonderfully played by Aden Young), has real heart and emotional depth under its grungy exterior.

The film doesn't descend into a Hollow Man-style effects extravaganza either and is all the better for it. We're given glimpses of Bob's condition along the way and this makes the eventual big reveal all the more startling and impressive. For those of you who wouldn't normally "do horror", give this one a whirl, I think you'll really enjoy it.



WE GO ON





Another standout movie from this year's Celluloid Screams festival in Sheffield, this is a cautionary tale about Miles Grissom, a man who's so scared of there being no prospect of life after death that he offers a reward for irrefutable proof there's something on the other side. Predictably he gets his fair share of wild claims but he narrows down the field to three people who may be able to provide an answer.

We Go On has the feel an old-fashioned, plot-driven chiller given a very modern slant and proves that cramming dozens of CGI monsters and jump scares into a film is never a match for great ideas and atmosphere. There's some genuinely marrow-freezing stuff in We Go On (and one genuinely awesome WTF? moment) but this kind of thing only works if you're invested in the characters and at the beating heart of it all is the winning double act of Clark Freeman and Annette O'Toole as Miles and his formidable mother.

I should also mention the performance of Jay Dunn as Nelson, who becomes more and more important to the story as it, er, goes on. I'm going to spoil this no further because fans of both horror films and movies in general should seek this out. It's a finely-crafted, brilliantly structured mix of chills, laughs and drama and for a movie which is so much about death the focus is ultimately on how amazing life is.



HONOURABLE MENTIONS

And here's another ten, all well worth tracking down and all in alphabetical order:

The Autopsy Of Jane Doe - André Øvredal's classy exercise in suspense sees the father and son team of Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch carry out a post mortem which starts off in creepy fashion and only gets more scary as it goes along. The leads are excellent, the mystery is intriguing and the tension is cranked up expertly.

Ghostbusters - Not only did this not ruin my childhood, I thought it was very good indeed, pointing up the comedy and banter between the ghoul chasing team while still containing a pleasing amount of supernatural action. So what if the Ghostbusters are women? Why would you fixate on that? Also, if you don't like Kate McKinnon in this you're just looking for things to complain about.

Hail, Caesar! - This is prime Coen Brothers material as a number of crazy plots unfold around a movie studio at which Josh Brolin's fixer cuts a constantly unflappable dash. With George Clooney having a blast playing an absolute dolt, Alden Ehrenreich warming up for young Han Solo as a charismatic singing cowboy and Ralph Fiennes as a hilariously exasperated director, what more could you ask? Well, I'm glad you asked, because it's also got Channing Tatum in the best song and dance number you'll have seen in a long time.

I, Daniel Blake - If you're not angry before you watch Ken Loach's unflinching, impassioned howl at the benefits system here in England, you may very well be afterwards. This isn't a feelgood movie by any means but it's one which deserves to be seen and shows how an utterly frustrating, bureaucratic and demeaning process can take its toll on those who are unfortunate enough to be caught up in it.

The Love Witch - Anna Biller's beautiful, bizarre take on Technicolour melodramas of previous decades with some big laughs, Wiccan practices aplenty and fine performances from the stunning Samantha Robinson as the title character and Gian Keys as the detective investigating the mysterious goings on. 

Nocturnal Animals - Amy Adams again, this time as a gallery owner in Tom Ford's "story within a story" which moves back and forth between Adams' personal life and the tale within the novel her ex-husband has just completed and has given her to read. The shocks here are resonant and the cast is top-notch, including Michael Shannon who, let's face it, is marvellous in everything.

The Stylist - Jill Gevargizian's fabulous, gorgeously-lensed short about a visit to the hairdresser's that takes a horrible and gruesome turn. An even more expansive, more thoughtful, more accomplished follow-up to previous short Call Girl, which was pretty damn good in its own right. 

Sing Street - A joyful, funny coming of age tale set in Dublin during the 1980s, this is the sort of movie a lot of people think someone like me doesn't like. Well, I really liked this. It's the classic "boy tries to impress girl" story only this one has an album's worth of great tunes and a convincingly clunky portrayal of awkward teen romance.

Swiss Army Man - Or, to put it another way, the "farting corpse movie". A very dead Daniel Radcliffe washes ashore to help Paul Dano's castaway find his way back to civilisation and learn about himself in the process. It's a strange, surreal, sweet journey which is definitely worth taking. And there's a Dano/Radcliffe cover version of the Jurassic Park theme. You've got to see it now I've told you that.

The Witch - I first saw this in 2015 but as I also saw it again in 2016 I'm allowed to include it. Robert Eggers' slow-burning period piece (complete with olde-worlde dialogue) drips with dread from start to finish and builds to a stunning climax which is likely to alienate as many as it delights. Outstanding performances too from Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and newcomer (at the time) Anya Taylor-Joy.



...AND THE REALLY TROUBLESOME ONE WHICH STILL IMPRESSED ME

Cat Sick Blues - People walking out of the cinema? Someone sobbing audibly through an entire sequence? Yes, all of this and more happened when I watched this movie and I'm not going to sugarcoat it, Cat Sick Blues is a challenging film. It's also incredibly well-made and although it's been a couple of months now since I saw it I still can't shake it. This should be a clue as to whether you want to see this or stay well away.

Friday, 30 December 2016

THE STYLIST (short)

Starring: Najarra Townsend, Jennifer Plas
Writer: Eric Havens
Director: Jill Gevargizian


Lonely hairstylist Claire (Townsend) has one more client she must attend to before closing the salon for the day. Mandy (Plas) is that client and her aim is to create a lasting impression at a work-related party so all she needs is to "look perfect". What Mandy isn't aware of is that Claire has a somewhat different look in mind...

A while back I reviewed Jill Gevargizian's previous short movie Call Girl and thoroughly enjoyed it, closing by saying how much I was looking forward to The Stylist. Was the wait worth it? Absolutely.

Everything about The Stylist feels like an evolution of the previous piece and that's saying something because Call Girl was pretty damn good. The visuals are even more gorgeous, with the distinctive colour scheme perfectly matching the mood of the piece. It's one of the most, ahem, stylish films - short or otherwise - you'll have seen in a while.

Also, whereas I found Call Girl to be a brash, full-on, wham-bam kind of short with an amusingly bloody exclamation point at the end, The Stylist allows itself to breathe a little more, to leave more questions unanswered, to leave clues as to what may be going on in Claire's head but not tell. It's a confident approach which left me wanting to see how her story continues.

That's not to say it's all suggestion, there's some overt horror too as things take a supremely gruesome turn. I won't actually say what happens but you might wince. As with the rest of the film it's attractively shot, it also happens to be pretty disgusting at the same time - a combination of which I fully approve.

In the lead role, Najarra Townsend is splendid, giving Claire just the right mix of strength and vulnerability as well as a slightly distant quality where I felt the character wasn't fully connected to her surroundings. This could have been overplayed but it isn't, Claire feels like someone real and without wishing to drown this review in spoilers it's the kind of part which could be taken to extremes in less careful hands.

In short (sorry about the pun), it's another winning Eric Havens script brought to vivid life by the exceptionally talented Jill Gevargizian and it's currently playing on the Shudder streaming service, which you can subscribe to for free on a trial basis - if nothing else you'll get to see this chilling and rather fine fifteen minutes of beauty and blood. The only thing that's left for me to say is: how long do I have to wait for Ms Gevargizian's next film?

Saturday, 24 December 2016

PASSENGERS

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen
Writer: Jon Spaihts
Director: Morten Tyldum

*** WARNING - THIS REVIEW CONTAINS A LOT OF SPOILERS ***

*** BECAUSE THE TRAILERS ARE POSSIBLY A BIT MISLEADING ***

*** I TALK ABOUT SOME STUFF THAT HAPPENS TOWARDS THE END TOO ***




Okay, I'm going to quote imdb's brief description of the plot of Passengers, which is as follows: A spacecraft travelling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

Spacecraft travelling to a distant colony planet? That's true. Transporting thousands of people? That's also true. Malfunction in its sleep chambers? Well, there's initially a malfunction in one of the sleep chambers and, as a result, mechanic Jim Preston wakes 90 years too early. And it's true that two passengers are awakened early but the sleep chamber of Aurora Lane (Lawrence) malfunctions because Preston faffs around with it.

So why does he faff around with it? Well, after a year of wandering the ship with only android barman Arthur (Sheen) for company he takes a shine to Aurora, reading up on her from the files on the ship and hanging around her sleep chamber. Not creepy at all. So, despite the fact that Preston knows that bringing Aurora out of her sleep will basically condemn her to spending the rest of her life on the ship, he goes ahead and does the deed.

Of course, there are sequences in which Preston agonises about whether or not it's the right thing to do but this film isn't going to have Jennifer Lawrence asleep for 116 minutes so Preston reads the manual on how sleep chambers work (or don't) and hey presto! There's Aurora, striking up a friendship with the only other person awake on the spacecraft, completely unaware of the stalkery behaviour we've had to sit through.

It's at this point Passengers attempts to sell itself as an unlikely romance between Lawrence and Pratt, which can't work on any level because of how Pratt engineered the whole thing in the first place. I didn't want to see him wooing her because he shouldn't have being wooing her to begin with. "Yeah, I'll condemn this woman to almost certain death on this ship because I'm a bit horny".

The dramatic ante is eventually upped when Aurora gets wind of how she came to be awake and understandably she doesn't want to see Jim again, not before she's physically attacked him in the only scene that comes close to being convincing. In my view she should have flushed him out of the airlock and got us home a lot earlier but that doesn't happen.

What does happen is that the spaceship begins to break down in a big way, throwing Jim and Aurora together as they desperately try to work out how to avert the disaster. This final act shall henceforth be known as the "ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?" section of the movie, abbreviated to AYFKM.

So there must be hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of systems and components on the ship. So it makes sense that they find out what's wrong within a ridiculously short space of time. AYFKM? Turns out the way to sort out everything - and I mean EVERYTHING - is to open a vent which has jammed shut. AYFKM? But hey, even if they do make it through alive, Aurora is still going to hate Jim, right? Right? No? AYFKM?

Okay, surely after all of this, there can't be any more AYFKM moments. What, there's one more? AYFKM?

And yet, with a few tweaks, all of the issues I have with this film could have gone away. The first 30 minutes, with Jim waking up, trying to find a way out of his predicament and coming to terms with being the only guy on a floating paradise, is interesting, intriguing and fun. It's the decision to have him "own" Aurora's existence that's thoroughly problematic and it's a plot turn from which the story can never fully recover.

It's a shame because Michael Sheen turns in a finely tuned performance as the bartender, the spaceship is beautifully realised and there are some nice jokes about the technology on board. However, I want to see Jennifer Lawrence kicking arse, not simpering over some bloke for the flimsiest of reasons. In short, Passengers should be entertaining and exciting but ends up just being vaguely unpleasant.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

ABERTOIR 2016: THE BEYOND - COMPOSER'S CUT

Starring: Catriona MacColl, David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale
Writers: Dardano Sacchetti, Giorgio Mariuzzo, Lucio Fulci
Director: Lucio Fulci

*** WITH LIVE SCORE BY FABIO FRIZZI AND THE F2F BAND ***


 
Liza Merril (MacColl, billed as Katherine MacColl) inherits a Louisiana hotel which has a great look and plenty of character but is also built upon one of the seven doorways to Hell. Well, there's always something wrong with any property. "Yeah, all the original beams are still in place but there was that thing about some artist being nailed to the wall in Room 36..."

Initially, neither Liza nor local doc John McCabe (Warbeck, billed as, er, David Warbeck) aren't initially convinced of the supernatural goings-on. Still, a spate of gory killings and visions plus the appearance of Emily (Monreale, billed as Sarah Keller), a blind girl who knows WAY more about the hotel than she should, make them think again...

Okay, that's enough flippancy about this film because The Beyond is flipping brilliant. In my opinion it's Lucio Fulci's best movie, it's one of the best horror movies ever made and hey, it could be one of the best movies ever made. Certain viewers may have problems with the general coherence of the story and its absolute refusal to explain certain events at key points but I think it's helpful to view the whole film as a waking nightmare, full of strangeness, distorted reality and otherworldly goings-on.

It's also beautifully shot and it contains some of the most baroque set-pieces ever committed to celluloid including a spectacularly bonkers spider attack and a delirious climax set in a hospital full of zombies. Fulci's penchant for ocular trauma is also present in all of its wince-inducing glory here as his penchant for casting Catriona MacColl in this sort of thing. Ms MacColl is reliably great here and so is Warbeck, both of them playing the material admirably straight.

If you haven't seen this I urge you to track it down, it's the antithesis of all that cookie-cutter multiplex fare out there. The Beyond has stuck with me through the years and if anything the extra viewings cement its reputation of one of the landmarks of Italian horror. How could this possibly be improved upon?

Well, how about getting composer Fabio Frizzi and his band to perform the score live as the movie screened? Because that's what happened at Abertoir 2016 and for me this elevated an already fabulous movie to a stunning experience which will stay with me forever. Making judicious amendments to his classic compositions, Frizzi managed to somehow pull off the seemingly impossible of making the soundtrack to this movie even better than it was before.

An event living up to the all of the anticipation and then some, the only problem I have is that now I'll be needing Fabio Frizzi and the F2F Band to play at my house every time I watch The Beyond from now on.

Oh, and the band played the theme tune from "Blastfighter" after the movie finished. That was the most delicious icing on one of the best cakes ever made.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

ABERTOIR 2016: I DRINK YOUR BLOOD

Starring: George Patteron, Ronda Fultz, Riley Mills
Writer: David Durston
Director: David Durston


From the moment Horace Bones and his band of hippie Satanists (yes, you read that right) roll into the small town of Valley Hills it's obvious there's going to be trouble. Well, there wouldn't be much of a movie if they decided to grab something to eat then move on. First, they attack and rape local girl Sylvia, which causes her veterinarian grandfather Doc Banner to pick up his shotgun and head for the abandoned house where the gang has taken up residence.

One thoroughly botched attempt at revenge later, the Doc has 1) has been relieved of his shotgun and 2) has been made to take LSD, leaving his grandson Pete to help the tripping pensioner home. Andy then decides to take on the revenge mantle on behalf of both his sister and grandfather but instead of using the shotgun on the hippies he uses it to kill a rabid dog and then injects the rabid dog's blood into a batch of meat pies which are then sold to the hippies. I'm not making this up.

Anyway, the hippies eat the pies, get sick and then go completely batshit, either killing or infecting anyone that gets in their way. Will granite-jawed, ignorant, sexist dam worker Roger save the day? Does anyone care?

Clunkily scripted, dodgily acted and wildly inappropriate at almost every turn, this is one of the most entertaining exploitation films I've seen in a while. When this was originally submitted for a rating in the US it was given the dreaded "X" and was the first film to receive this due to the level of violence (up to that point, the "X" was awarded exclusively to pornographic material). Watching this nowadays it may be difficult to see exactly what the fuss was about because the gore is totally unconvincing but back in the day this would probably have upset quite a lot of people.

Durston may not be the most skilled of writers or directors but he certainly makes a play of going straight for the jugular once the basic set-up has been established. What prevents it from being a landmark in queasy, grimy terror is the ramshackle nature of the enterprise, whether it's the hilariously awful dialogue, acting styles ranging from outright hysterical to total non-emoting (Roger, I'm looking at you) or plot points which will simply leave you scratching your head in disbelief. Trying to escape a rabid, psychotic maniac? Just stand in a couple of inches of water and flick some of the liquid at them.

And yet, in the midst of all the ludicrous story developments and laughably fake severed body parts there are some genuinely horrible sequences involving dead animals which sap a fair bit of fun from the proceedings. This is a bit of a shame because the rest of I Drink Your Blood is an absolute riot, chock full of unintentionally laugh out loud moments and culminating in a massacre which, bizarrely, happens off-screen. In any other movie I would have felt short changed at such an anticlimax but even this odd (possibly budget-related) decision seems to fit particularly well with the film's generally haphazard action and plotting.

Certainly the best movie ever made about a gang of rabid hippies terrorising a small American town, this has to be seen to be disbelieved. Memorable for almost all the wrong reasons (save for Lynn Lowry, who's effective in a supporting role as a mute member of the gang), this is so bad that it's very good indeed and definitely worth seeing if you can view the same cleaned-up, uncut print which was screened at Abertoir 2016.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

CELLULOID SCREAMS 2016: DAY THREE

Day Two of Celluloid Screams 2016 had given us Danish zombies, a guitar playing Satanic child killer, strange neighbours, Nazi bratwursts, Christopher Lloyd and a dead body with a terrifying secret. It's all gravy to the Celluloid Screamers. So what would there be to feast on during the final day? See below...


WE GO ON


Day Three opened with my favourite movie (by the tiniest smidge) of the whole weekend, a superbly written and executed tale of Miles Grissom (Clark Freeman), a guy who is so scared of death that he offers $30,000 for proof the afterlife exists. From all of the replies he receives he narrows his search down to three people, all of which have different methods to prove that, indeed, we go on. What Miles could never predict is where this is about to take him...

I loved this movie. The story is cleverly constructed, the horrific, comedic and emotional beats are all timed to perfection and at the heart of it all is the great on-screen chemistry between Freeman and Annette O'Toole, who plays Miles' mother Charlotte. This also makes for an interesting conflict within the main story because although Charlotte doesn't believe there's anything after death, she's more than willing to help her son who is totally driven by his faith that there must be.

Freeman and O'Toole are outstanding in the central roles but there are also noteworthy turns from Giovanna Zacarías as a medium and Jon Glover as an academic who attempts to bring a more scientific approach to ghost hunting. Also, without wanting to turn this into a spoiler-fest, I should mention Jay Dunn's performance as Nelson. He's just great in the role. I'll say no more other than SEE THIS MOVIE, RIGHT NOW.

TRASH FIRE


And now to my second favourite movie (just the tiniest smidge behind We Go On) of the whole weekend, Richard Bates Jr.'s blacker than black horror comedy featuring some of the most hilariously brutal dialogue you're likely to hear in a long while.

Owen (Adrian Grenier) and Isabel (Angela Trimbur) are somehow a couple despite Owen's issues with commitment and his generally vitriolic view of, well, everything and everybody. When Isabel announces she's pregnant, Owen decides to turn over a new leaf, which involves making peace with the remaining family members he hasn't seen since a tragedy many years previously.

I loved Excision, I loved Suburban Gothic and Trash Fire makes it three out of three in terms of Richard Bates Jr. hitting it out of the park. Deftly mixing laugh-out loud one-liners with unexpected jolts, this is a brilliant, unpredictable and vastly entertaining hour and a half which I really didn't want to end. Grenier and Trimbur are both terrific, as is a particular Excision alumnus (not saying who that is here) who makes a telling contribution to the plot.

The characters are well-drawn, the humour is excoriating, there's a vast supply of quotable dialogue, the tilts into horror territory are unsettling and brilliantly effective and I really wasn't expecting it to end the way it did. SEE THIS MOVIE TOO!


DEAREST SISTER


Village girl Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya) travels to Vientiane in order to help her much richer cousin Ana (Vilouna Phetmany) who has lost her sight. Although Nok is shunned by Ana's servants she is attracted to the material delights of the capital which complicates the relationship with her cousin. And although Ana may have lost her sight, she has gained the ability to communicate with the dead, resulting in a series of otherworldly encounters which have far reaching consequences...

Dearest Sister is only the 13th film ever to have been made in Laos and director Mattie Do is the country's only horror filmmaker. It would be a shame if this assured and measured piece of cinema is dismissed just because it's labelled a horror movie. Personally, I think it works just as well if viewed as a relationship drama with a supernatural element.

It also works as a fascinating insight into Laos itself and what makes its society tick so I felt transported into a world of which I knew little beforehand. It's some achievement that this movie was even made in the first place, I'm even happier to report that it's well worth your time and it's genuinely different from most genre flicks out there. It was also a pleasure to listen to the incredibly enthusiastic Mattie Do talking about the film afterwards - she's a force to be reckoned with and I'm looking forward to see what she does next.


PET


Seth (Dominic Monaghan) is a security guard at an animal shelter whose lonely existence receives a boost when he meets old high school acquaintance Holly (Ksenia Solo) on a bus. Finding out as much information as he can on Holly, Seth attempts to use his newly-found knowledge to begin a romantic relationship with her but things go very wrong, one thing leads to another and, wouldn't you know it, Seth's imprisoned Holly in a cage located in a disused room in the shelter's basement. Ah, you kids!

At this point, you're probably thinking it's another torture porn movie and, to be fair, that's where most movies would go. However, Pet immediately throws in a twist which changes the dynamic and the expectations completely, then continues to wrong foot the viewer as the battle of wills between captor and captive goes into overdrive.

Featuring two pleasing central performances from Monaghan and Solo - as people who are definitely not what they initially seem to be - plus a generous amount of gore, this should leave you with a smile, albeit a nervous one, on your face.


RAW 



Closing the festival was Julia Ducournau's tale of Justine (Garance Marillier), a confirmed vegetarian who follows her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) into vet school. Made to eat rabbit kidneys as part of the many rituals the new intake of students are put through during their first week, Justine suddenly finds she craves meat. And we're not just talking burgers here...

This movie appears to be marketed as an unrelenting feast of gore and although there are a few pretty disgusting moments in Raw they're nothing that most horror fans won't have experienced before. Stories of audience members passing out at TIFF just goes to show a) the Celluloid Screams crowd is made of sterner stuff and b) how wussy are the audiences at TIFF?

To be honest, the splashes of the splattery stuff actually serve the plot, which is a sharply observed, blackly comic portrayal of a young woman coming to terms with how her life - and how she herself - is transforming.

Marillier and Rumpf convince totally as sisters, bickering one moment, comforting each other the next and the movie never tips over into the festival of blood and guts it possibly could have been. As a matter of fact, it's the restraint shown over most of the running time which gives so much more impact and emotional clout to the gruesome moments. It's a mightily impressive full-length feature film debut for writer/director Ducournau.



And that was it for another Celluloid Screams. The 2016 edition brought us moments of outright weirdness, a smattering of controversy and a consistently absorbing and entertaining line-up of films. Personally, I'd venture that this was the strongest line-up yet and I have no idea how the bar is going to be raised even higher next year but if there's one festival that delivers again and again, this is the one.

It would be remiss of me not to thank the festival's Programme Director Rob Nevitt along with Polly, Sarah and the rest of the Celluloid Screams festival staff who do such a sterling job and put in ridiculous hours year after year. It's massively appreciated by the growing numbers of us who have no qualms about sitting in a darkened room for three days watching horror film upon horror film. To the outside it might sound like an endurance test but it's far from that. It's a joyous place where you'll meet some of the genuinely nicest people around and when you've been here once I guarantee you'll want to come back.

Here's to Celluloid Screams 2017!

CELLULOID SCREAMS 2016: DAY TWO

So, after the heady mix of all-out strangeness, controversy and walkouts that was Day One of Celluloid Screams 2016 what would Day Two hold in store for its festivalgoers? Read on...


WHAT WE BECOME


An ultra-virulent flu-like infection takes hold of a quiet Danish suburb and before long there are armed military units sealing off the roads and forcing people to stay in their homes. Of course, that does the trick and everything's just tickety boo.

Oh, of course that doesn't happen, it all goes properly tits up and the residents of the neighbourhood are plunged into an increasingly desperate fight for survival. Will anyone make it out? Do you think I'm going to give that away here?

Despite the fact that there's nothing much in here you won't have seen before this is still an effective take on all of those familiar zombie/infected tropes. It's well-written, it builds nicely and features a bunch of characters it's easy to care about.

There's also a pleasingly grounded sense of realism here to anchor the fantastical turns the story takes, no one suddenly becomes an expert zombie killer and the people here make the same mistakes most of us would when faced with such an extreme situation.


THE DEVIL'S CANDY


Caveat emptor is the message of Sean Byrne's follow-up to The Loved Ones. Or, to put it another way, don't buy properties that seem a bargain because weird and potentially lethal stuff will follow. In this case, struggling artist Jesse (Ethan Embry), wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and daughter Zooey (Kara Glasco) have to contend with demonic forces and a former resident whose hobbies are power chords and murdering children.

Apart from the odd moment in which the plot requires certain characters to act like a bit of a dumbass and therefore place either themselves or others in peril, this is a stylish flick with a genuine sense of menace and a fine performance from Pruitt Taylor Vince as the aforementioned former resident.

Naturally, the heavy rock soundtrack is excellent, Embry is as reliably accomplished as ever in the lead and Kara Glasco is the sort of teenager that doesn't make you want to run screaming from the cinema whenever she's around. It's a brash, bold shocker with more than enough diversions from the usual well-trodden ground on which your average possessed property piece is built.


CREEPY


After being seriously injured by a psychopath, experience detective Takakura quits the police force, takes a job lecturing at a University and moves away from the city with his wife, intent on making a fresh start. It's not long, however, before Takakura suspects that one of his neighbours is a killer responsible for a string of unsolved murders.

If you're looking for gallons of gore and multiple murders delivered at a breakneck pace, Creepy is going to frustrate the hell out of you. This is a film which takes its time to unfold (it's 130 minutes long) and its shocks are more or the subtle and unsettling variety. Possibly the pace is too glacial at times and there are some lapses in logic (the main one being of the "I'll go confront this nutter alone" variety) but overall it's quality entertainment for anyone looking for a change of pace.

You'll never look at something vacuum-packed in quite the same way again...


YOGA HOSERS


Eh-2-Zed store clerks - and yoga fanatics - Colleen and Colleen (Lily Rose Depp and Harley Quinn Smith - or Harley Quinn Smith and Lily Rose Depp, depending on which Colleen you referenced first) are set to go to the coolest party in town but instead find themselves minding the shop and having to battle against genetically engineered Nazi bratwursts. As you do on a Friday night.

The second movie of Kevin Smith's True North trilogy has been described as "Clueless meets Critters" and that's not a bad approximation even though it's not as consistent as either of those films. This really does throw all sorts of things into the mix - musical numbers, social media, teen chatter, Nazis, Satanists, constant use of the word "aboot" - and the scattergun approach doesn't always hit the mark.

Having said that, it would be churlish for me to say that it isn't fun, because it is. The story may be all over the place but there are enough laughs to carry it through, Lily Rose Depp is definitely one to watch and Stan Lee gets both a cameo and, for me, the funniest line in the film. Oh, and Natasha Lyonne made her second appearance of the weekend, getting infinitely less down and dirty here than she does in Antibirth.


I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER


John Cleaver (Max Records) is a sixteen-year-old sociopath who is obsessed with serial killers but keeps his murderous urges at bay with regular therapy sessions and a strict set of rules to which he carefully adheres. When his sleepy town is shaken by a series of grisly killings, John turns amateur sleuth whilst striking up a friendship with elderly neighbour Mr Crowley (Christopher Lloyd)...

Billy O'Brien's film perfectly captures life in a small town and cleverly makes John someone to both suspect and root for. The murders are startlingly bloody, the tone expertly shifts between black comedy and genuine horror and Christopher Lloyd's performance is close to, if not actually being, a career best. He's absolutely astonishing here and the last thing you'll be thinking of is Doc Brown.

It's to Max Records' credit that he makes his character just as interesting as Lloyd's and even if the final twist isn't to everyone taste (the reveal perhaps shows a little too much) the journey to that point is consistently excellent. Hopefully this will get the wider release it deserves because it's a little gem.


THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE (CELLULOID SCREAMS SECRET FILM)


Coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his medical technician son Austin (Emile Hirsch) are delivered the body of an unidentified woman and a deadline for discovering exactly how she met her fate. For starters, there isn't a mark on her and as they progress with the autopsy it suddenly becomes clear that something very strange is going on.

André Øvredal's classy exercise in suspense certainly delighted the Celluloid Screams crowd who only discovered its identity as 2016's Secret Film just before it screened.
Discovering the identity of Jane Doe in the movie turns out to be a much bigger challenge and the story grips from the moment the poor girl is wheeled in, carefully and slowly revealing a fascinating "howdunit" via some accurate procedural techniques (I've been reliably informed).

And if that wasn't enough, there are more than enough expertly-crafted thrills and shocks to leave the arms of your chair in need of repair as the suspense ratchets up with every twist and turn. And if that wasn't enough, the double act of Cox and Hirsch is great and newcomer Olwen Kelly leaves a lasting impression as Jane Doe. But doesn't she spend the film dead? Well, yes, but even so...

A smart, tense, intriguing crowd-pleaser which wrings the maximum suspense from its premise without dumbing down in the slightest, this was the perfect way to end the second day. It also went on to win the audience vote for the best film of the festival so congratulations go to Andre Øvredal, his cast and crew for leaving a lasting impression on such a discerning set of viewers.


CELLULOID SCREAMS 2016: DAY ONE

If it's October, it must be Celluloid Screams and Sheffield's horror festival began its eighth run with an evening of almost indescribable weirdness...


THE VOID

 
When a cop (Aaron Poole) brings in an injured man to a local hospital things rapidly take a turn for the worse as 40% of Astron-6 (Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie) serve up something rather different in tone to what we're used to seeing from this film making collective.
 
A rather long way from the zany antics of previous Astron-6 features such as Manborg, The Void is a much more serious and atmospheric piece altogether, instantly recalling early John Carpenter movies - specifically, for me, Assault On Precinct 13 - as a small group of people is trapped inside the hospital by an ever-growing menace outside.
 
My main issue with The Void isn't actually with the movie itself but with the amount of chatter I'd heard about it in the lead-up to the screening. There was so much buzz about it that no film could possibly live up to the hype and the movie I'd expected wasn't quite there. Even so, the performances are good, the plentiful practical special effects are truly excellent, it's resolutely downbeat and any movie that references The Beyond scores points in my book.
 
Now I need to watch it again with a clearer head - I think I'll enjoy it much more without that weight of expectation hanging over it.
 
 
ANTIBIRTH
 

It would be fair to say that Lou (Natasha Lyonne) parties hard. Most of the time she's either smoking pot or drinking booze or combining the two. However, after a particularly epic night on the drugs and sauce she awakes feeling very odd and with the feeling that something very odd happened to her. She could be pregnant, only there's no way that could be possible...could it?

Lyonne is on top form here, throwing herself with gusto into a role that many others wouldn't dare to take on. Whether or not you enjoy the majority of this film probably depends on your ability to tap into its merry-go-round of stoners, alcoholics, drug dealers and general misfits and at times the plot does seem as aimless and shambling as many of its characters.

However, the final ten minutes throws in a left turn so bizarre that the ensuing pay-off is head-scratching, horrible and hilarious. If you predicted where this was going, your mind works on a totally different level to mine. If you were fidgeting for the first eighty minutes, does the demented denouement make it worth sticking around for? Personally, I would say yes but I was already taken by its innate strangeness and experimental qualities to begin with.


CAT SICK BLUES


After his cat dies, Ted (Matthew C. Vaughan) suffers a mental breakdown which leads to him dressing as...well, see the picture above...and stalking the streets, convinced that he can bring his beloved feline back from the other side if he takes nine lives. Meanwhile, Claire (Shian Denovan) is wondering how to revitalise the popularity of her own moggy whose popularity on the Internet is starting to wane...

I've tried to be very careful about how much detail I give away because I feel you should go into this one knowing as little as possible about how the plot develops. I also feel I should warn you that this fully lives up to its "horror" tag and then some. Even as someone who's seen more than his fair share of the more extreme genre titles out there, Cat Sick Blues contains sequences which, to my mind, are jaw-droppingly disturbing and upsetting. There were walkouts at the screening and I don't blame those people one bit for getting out of there.

Make no mistake, this is a challenging movie which you're unlikely to forget in a hurry. It's been a while since I watched a film in a state of such constant unease and its a credit to everyone involved for producing such an uncompromising piece of work. Lead actress Shian Denovan was in attendance and although I could have wandered over to chat to her afterwards I was shocked at what I'd just viewed and genuinely didn't know what to say.

I'll say it now instead. You were great, Ms Denovan, and I spent most of the film feeling sick and anxious for your character. I still feel slightly queasy now thinking back to the movie. Will I ever watch it again? I'm not sure I want to put myself through it a second time. Perhaps Cat Sick Blues is a film to be experienced rather than enjoyed but for anyone who's ready for something that has no intention of letting its audience off the hook, prepare yourself...

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

MINDLESS (short)

Starring: Nicholas Vince, Kate Danbury
Writer: Katie Bonham
Director: Katie Bonham


Peter (Vince) is a middle-aged man suffering from a form of dementia and his carer Judy (Danbury) arrives at his house each day to find the place in disarray. Framed photographs have been knocked from the shelves and crockery has been smashed. Peter insists that the damage has not been wrought by him but what other explanation could there be? Is Peter a danger to himself or could someone - or something - else be responsible?

That's the intriguing premise of Katie Bonham's assured short film and with a terrific performance from Nicholas Vince you're never quite sure of what's going on behind Peter's eyes. Able to elicit both sympathy and suspicion, he's one of the many aces Mindless has up its sleeve.

Bonham also seems to be able to distort time because although Mindless runs for just eight minutes (including credits) this is an unhurried, atmospheric, involving piece of work. This isn't a thousand miles per hour charge through as many jump scares and gore effects that can be crammed in to the shortest amount of time possible. This is beautifully paced and thoughtful, going for a sense of deep psychological unease where other shorts would be waist deep in blood and entrails.

This approach pays off handsomely. I love it when I'm in the middle of a film and genuinely have no idea what's coming next and Mindless had me itching to find out exactly what the hell was going on. Without giving too much away, the resolution is immensely creepy and satisfying yet still leaves the viewer with plenty to think about long after the end titles have rolled.

Bonham's screenplay also points up the way in which people with dementia are viewed and treated by society but this is woven deftly into the proceedings and you won't feel you're being hit over the head with clumsy social commentary. Quite the opposite in fact - you'll have a lump in your throat as well as a chill down your spine.

The minimal budget is turned into a virtue, putting the focus squarely on the characters which makes us care all the more about them when the story takes an especially disturbing turn. It also makes the shocks that much more deeply felt and in its own subtle way the climax of Mindless is devastating. This isn't a throwaway scare ride, this is something that's going to stay with you.

Proof positive that a) there's a wealth of fabulous British horror movie talent out there and b) there are superb examples of the genre to be found in the short film format, Mindless is a triumph for writer/director Katie Bonham and its lead actor Nicholas Vince. It's already been picked up by a number of festivals and I urge you to catch it if you get the opportunity. I'll be seeing it again at the Celluloid Screams festival in Sheffield and I for one am really looking forward to viewing it with a big audience. I'm sure it's going to go down a storm.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

BLAIR WITCH

Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid
Writer: Simon Barrett
Director: Adam Wingard


After viewing footage which may show the events leading to his sister's disappearance, possibly at the hands of local Burkitsville legend the Blair Witch, James (McCune) and his friends head to those infamous woods in the hope of solving the mystery and locating his long lost sibling...

It would seem to be something of a gamble, artistically if not commercially, to take on another sequel to Blair Witch especially considering the high esteem in which the original is held and with the critical (and audience) mauling given to the second movie Book of Shadows. However, writer Barrett and director Wingard are no strangers to the genre and if anyone was going to make a decent stab at this it's these guys. Even with their previous pedigree (The Guest is a firm favourite of mine), having spent the weekend examining the reaction to this film on social media, it appears that there's not a huge amount of love out there for their latest collaboration.

Me? I'm going to be contrary (what's new?) by saying that I thought it was pretty decent.

Does it work? On the whole I think it does, taking the map of the original movie and using many of its main signposts but amping up the suspense and scares while throwing in a couple of plausible explanations about exactly what the hell was going on all the way back in Myrick and Sanchez's lo-fi, Heather Donahue snot-laced phenomenon. The film doesn't allow itself to get too bogged down in expository dialogue though. It's more concerned with putting its characters through the wringer, progressing from the initial eerie noises in the distance to...ah, but I'm risking giving too much away here.

So, is it scary? That, of course, is a subjective thing but Blair Witch attempts to give the audience both chills and jumps. There's A LOT of jump scares (several being of the "suddenly bumping into one of your camping buddies" variety) for which I don't especially care but I'll admit that these moments delivered the goods judging by the reaction of many of my fellow viewers. For people like me there's plenty of psychological horror going on too, playing on the fact that it's what you don't see which scares you the most.

Once the action really gets going the tension rarely lets up and the last twenty minutes is pretty unrelenting in terms of piling on the terror. Also, I should warn you that if you're claustrophobic there's a sequence about 75 minutes in that's probably going to make you want to leave the cinema. Unlike the original, I think this one benefits from seeing it on a big screen with a willing audience as its frights are more finely tuned to that environment. The Blair Witch Project's more intimate shudders, for me in any case, worked so much better watching it at home and that's probably why it took me a few screenings to appreciate what a fine piece of work it is

So, is Wingard and Barrett's take on Blair Witch "a new beginning for horror films" as is mentioned on the poster? That would be a bold claim to stake on behalf of any film in any genre and this certainly doesn't herald a blindingly original new direction for fright flicks but it does set out to scare and it often succeeds in doing so. Yes, the potential for deeper characterisation is jettisoned in favour of more spooky "things that go bump in the woods" action but would it have benefitted from more dialogue about how the four characters came to be together? Personally, I'm not sure it would have but it's just one of many things about this film that appears to be dividing the opinions of moviegoers everywhere.

At least Wingard isn't concerned with dialling down the shocks in order to make a horror movie with the broadest appeal possible. When Blair Witch is firing on all cylinders its clammy, grimy (literally), taut sequences are thoroughly enjoyable even though you're sinking into your seat. It may over-egg the pudding by giving its audience so little time to breathe, particularly in the last third, but the intent to terrify the living crap out of everyone is clearly there to see.

To recap: I enjoyed it, okay? I know a lot of you didn't. Things would all be so much duller if we were the same. That's my way of saying please don't send me abuse on Twitter...