Category Archives: BFI

THE HORROR OF IDENTITY: DOUBLE BILL FILM REVIEWS – DEERSKIN (2019) & POSSESSOR (2020)

THE HORROR OF IDENTITY: DOUBLE BILL FILM REVIEWS – DEERSKIN (2019) & POSSESSOR (2020)

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde


We’ve all wanted to exist outside our own skin. Or perhaps inhabit someone else’s? Or, maybe even change our own identity, both literally and psychologically. Or is that just me? At the least we have all thought about it. Even losing weight and going down the gym or giving up alcohol or changing our hairstyle is a means of basic transformation. We may make a more defiant change and leave that job we hate or break out from a negative relationship. Arguably though, personality, attitude and mental changes in one’s life are the most difficult. After all, it is incredibly difficult to change the very fabric of one’s personality or character.

We can find an alternative source of transformation in a vicarious sense through storytelling mediums such as literature, television and cinema. The horror genre especially is replete with monstrous visions of identity switches, psychotic breakdowns and physical transmogrification. I personally take great pleasure in seeing altered identities occur on the screen and am especially drawn to characters who experience mental and corporeal metamorphosis. That simply isn’t because I cannot change who I am or what I do on a daily basis, but it’s quite scary to attempt to reshape one’s existence and identity. It’s bloody hard work without much guarantee of success. Horror films, while also frightening when done well, are far more satisfying and give a more immediate hit than the grind of reality.

Two films I have seen recently both relate to mid-life crises and exhibit themes that illustrate two characters changing their appearance to bring about a shift in identity, behaviour and personality. They also show characters spiralling out of control in incredibly violent, bizarre and entertaining ways. Those films are Deerskin (2019) and Possessor (2020) and here are my reviews.

*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***



DEERSKIN (2019)

Directed and written by Quentin Dupieux

Main Cast: Jean Dujardin, Adele Haenel

Have you ever seen the film Rubber (2010)? It is a gonzo horror-comedy about a murderous-tyre called Robert killing birds and people with telekinetic powers. Beneath the insanity of the pitch there is in fact a subtextual satire on the nature of Hollywood filmmaking and an audience starved of originality; I think! It came from the mind of Quentin Dupieux, so I was intrigued that he had nabbed for a subsequent production the grand talents of Jean Dujardin and Adele Haenel for the obsidian killer comedy, Deerskin (2019).

Dujardin is Georges, a middle-aged loner, recently dumped by his wife whose only aim now it appears is to purchase a deerskin jacket. Buoyed by the confidence the jacket has given him, and armed with a video camera thrown in with the deal, George plots up at a rural hotel and befriends Adele Haenel’s bar server and enthusiastic film editor. Their budding friendship threatens to turn this into a relatively conventional love story, however, a series of twisted turns tip the story into a hilarious series of murderous set-pieces, with Georges determined to get money to make a movie, but most importantly buy deerskin trousers, hat and gloves.

The story of a middle-aged man altering his outer look in order to transform his life and fortune is a staple of Hollywood comedies and romance films. Deerskin (2019) is that kind of film on the surface. Yet when filtered through Dupieux’s iconoclastic imagination the premise is an altogether different kind of demented animal. Ultimately, it is a low-budget gem of a black comedy with some fantastic ideas and fascinating character study of a man attempting to shift skin, but falling deeper and deeper into psychopathy. It’s a wacky journey with committed performances, yet, it felt like the ending was just too sudden, as if the filmmaker either ran our of money or just wanted to screw with audience expectations right up until the final sudden frame.

MARK: 7.5 out of 11


POSSESSOR (2020)

Directed and written by Brandon Cronenberg

Main Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton etc.

Whereas Deerskin (2019) finds a literal and figurative metamorphosis when a character buys a jacket, Brandon Cronenberg’s vicious horror film, Possessor (2020), is an altogether more cerebral, violent and psychologically stunning journey. Andrea Riseborough is as intense as ever portraying an assassin named, Tasya Vox, who through some incredible technology is able to inhabit the mind and body of another individual and use them as a human puppet to commit murder. It’s a perfect set-up for the assassination agency led by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s handler, Girder. Yet such murder by scientific proxy comes at a cost to Vox’s family life and mental stability.

After a glorious opening scene featuring an astoundingly brutal stabbing, Vox attempts to reconnect with her partner and son, but finds herself becoming ever more disconnected. The pressure of taking over another individual’s identity is causing Vox to discombobulate as her mind begins to fracture. Despite this she takes the next job, a contract to kill John Parse (Sean Bean), using Christopher Abbott’s Colin Tate as a conduit. As Vox struggles with her splitting psyche, Tate himself is having personal issues also and this leads to some mind-bending and psychedelic montage scenes as the two battle within Tate’s brain. If this all sounds a bit weird, it is and it isn’t because the filmmaking is of such a high quality one believes the process. Further, the director never loses his grip on the narrative and Cronenberg gets a compelling performance from Abbott as his character confronts the invasion into his soul.

Overall, Possessor (2020) has a stunning concept at its heart but I just kept wondering how a genre filmmaker like Leigh Whannell may have handled the idea. He certainly would have made the characters more empathetic because it is so tough to warm to either Vox or Tate. Indeed, Tate’s character should have been developed more at the beginning in my view as he would have made an ideal “innocent/wrong man” type character so often used by Hitchcock. Nonetheless, Brandon Cronenberg has crafted one of the most visually impressive and shocking psychological horror films I have seen in a long time. Like Whannell’s Upgrade (2018), it contains some memorable gore and violence. It is also very intelligent as the fantastic ideas explore what it means to not only inhabit another person’s skin, but rip through their very soul.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11


CULT FILM REVIEW: DJANGO (1966)

CULT FILM REVIEW: DJANGO (1966)

Directed by: Sergio Corbucci

Produced by: Sergio Corbucci, Manolo Bolognini

Screenplay by: Sergio Corbucci, Bruno Corbucci, Franco Rossetti, José Gutiérrez Maesso, Piero Vivarelli, Fernando Di Leo [Uncredited]

Story by: Sergio Corbucci, Bruno Corbucci

Based on: Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa, Ryūzō Kikushima [both uncredited]

Cast: Franco Nero, Loredana Nusciak, José Bódalo, Ángel Álvarez, Eduardo Fajardo

Music by: Luis BacalovTheme song sung: by Rocky Roberts

***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***



As the crooning voice of Rocky Roberts soars on the soundtrack, a lone figure adorned in dark clothes appears, saddle on his back, dragging a coffin across thick sand. Is he a hero or a criminal or a personification of death? Well, he is all three and his name is Django – the ‘D’ is silent. The opening credits and imagery of Sergio Corbucci’s cult Western, DJANGO (1966), is morbidly iconic, perfectly introducing us to the darkness, intensity and sardonic humour of what is to come.

The narrative of Django (1966) takes the tropes of a singular, tough, uncompromising anti-heroic ex-soldier, who has returned from the American Civil War, moving from town to town searching for the next payday. In the process he plots and wreaks havoc and death to all who stands against him. In his breakthrough role, the cool, handsome and blue-eyed, Franco Nero, is brilliantly cast in a similar part that would make a star of Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The similarities do not stop there as Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western was, like Django (1966), heavily influenced by Akiro Kurosawa’s famous Samurai film, Yojimbo (1961). Yet while the stories owe much to Kurosawa’s seminal classic — as the Ronin character sets two opposing gangs against each other — both Leone and Corbucci instil their own distinctive style into their respective films.



Corbucci’s vision is even more cynical and violent than Leone. While Nero’s striking good looks glow like a silent matinee idol, he seemingly kills more soldiers, bandits and assorted bad guys than the Civil war itself. Django is a one-man killing machine and he never flinches at the sight of vermillion carnage. In fact, as a hollow and bitter man who has tasted the tragedy of senseless war, one can assume that killing is the only thing Django is good at now. It’s a barren muddy wasteland Django, and such adversaries as Major Jackson and General Hugo Rodriguez, exist within and nobody comes out of it clean. Mud and bullets and blood and burning crosses stain the land as the body count goes up and up as the film progresses. Redemption and hope are rarely even suggested in the hearts of the characters.

Corbucci presents chaos with style. There are a number of fantastic shoot-outs and set-pieces all directed with vibrant energy; all zooms, whip-pans and rapid cross cutting. You want to immediately know what is in THAT coffin at the start. You WILL find out and revel in the mayhem which ensues. Indeed, Django (1966) is not for the faint-hearted. Of course, when watching it now, it is nowhere near as shocking as many contemporary films, however, at the time of release the British Board of Censors saw fit to ban Django (1966). It did not get an official release until 1993. That’s a shame as Bacalov’s score alone provides glorious support to the brutal visuals. Finally, Django (1966), Corbucci and Nero’s cult legacy was secured when Quentin Tarantino delivered the incredible, Django Unchained (2012), an altogether different, but equally violent and memorable Western classic.


BFI FILM REVIEW: BAIT (2019)

BFI FILM REVIEW: BAIT (2019)

Directed, written, shot and edited by: Mark Jenkin

Produced by: Kate Byers, Linn Waite

Cast: Edward Rowe, Mary Woodvine, Simon Shepherd, Giles King etc.

Production company: Early Day Films

Distributed by: BFI (UK)


**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**



Not to be confused with the B-Movie shark movie, Bait (2015), Mark Jenkin’s tour-de-force arthouse classic, Bait (2019), is a whole together different kettle of fish. The story is set in Cornwall and centres around local fisherman, Martin Ward (Edward Rowe), and his various day-to-day struggles. Having had to sell the family cottage to middle-class city types, the Leigh family, Martin is fiercely determined to save up for a boat. In the meantime, he fishes with nets on the beach, as his brother, Steven (Giles King), uses their deceased father’s vessel for tourist cruises. Martin is resentful toward Steven and clashes with his brother and the Leigh’s throughout the film.

Bait (2019) is a low-budget and independent passion project. Mark Jenkin used a vintage hand-cranked Bolex camera, using 16mm monochrome film that he hand processed. He wrote, directed, lit, filmed and edited the film, but also used an army of local people to assist with the production. The story and themes of gentrification and city versus coastal types are explored very effectively in Bait (2019). Wherever you stand on the point of traditionalism versus upward mobility and financial appropriation, via the character of Martin and Edward Rowe’s bruising and hulking performance there are very powerful emotions of grief, loss and cultural absorption represented. The writing is initially quite simple in that the Leigh family are a negative force within the Cornish village. The son, Hugo, creates a lot of conflict by destroying Martin’s lobster traps and clashing with local hothead youth, Wenna (Chloe Endean). However, the Leigh’s are not mere stereotypes, but rather just shown as a family unit, like the Wards, who are trying to make a living.

Bait (2019) won’t be for everyone though as it is very experimental in nature. While the story and themes are clear, the editing, black-and-white-scratchy photography, dubbed dialogue and sound creates a self-consciously arty experience. Indeed, while some may proclaim the style as original, it is obviously influenced by cinematic formalists including Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman and Sergei Eisenstein. The elliptical montage editing style, direct address (actors stare either at or just off camera) and overlapping dialogue will certainly appeal to film students and scholars alike. Overall, Bait (2019) treads a fine line between genius cinema and what could be classed as plain bad filmmaking. Thankfully, we have wonderful film critics, like Mark Kermode, to tell us it is one of the best and most important British films released in the last decade.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

BFI FILM REVIEW: DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991)

BFI FILM REVIEW: DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991)

Directed by: Julie Dash

Produced by: Lindsay Law, Julie Dash, Arthur Jafa, Steven Jones

Written by: Julie Dash

Cast: Cora Lee Day, Barbara O, Alva Rogers, Trula Hoosier, Umar Abdurrahamn, Adisa Anderson, Kaycee Moore etc.

Music by: John Barnes

Cinematography: Arthur Jafa

***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***



“I didn’t want to tell a historical drama about African-American women in the same way that I had seen other dramas. I decided to work with a different type of narrative structure…[and] that the typical male-oriented western-narrative structure was not appropriate for this particular film. So I let the story unravel and reveal itself in a way in which an African Gullah would tell the story, because that’s part of our tradition. The story unfolds throughout this day-and-a-half in various vignettes. It unfolds and comes back. It’s a different way of telling a story. It’s totally different, new.” — Julie Dash

If you didn’t know the British Film Institute (or BFI) is the UK’s lead organisation for film, television and the moving image. It is a cultural charity that: presents world cinema for audiences in cinemas, at festivals and online; cares for the BFI National Archive, the most significant film and television archive in the world; is a registered charity that actively seeks out and supports the next generation of filmmakers; organises and runs the annual London Film Festival; and works with the government and industry to make the UK the most creatively exciting place to make film internationally. As my wife and I are members we get sent films on Blu-Ray/DVD as part of the membership. These can be re-released classics or remastered arthouse masterpieces such as Daughters of the Dust (1991).

Daughters of the Dust (1991) was a labour of love for writer and director Julie Dash. Originally inspired, way back in 1975, by her father’s experiences, she strived to create a short, poetic and cinematic account of a Gullah family’s migration from idyllic island life to New York at the turn of the century. Eventually, and after many year’s of development and struggle, PBS’ American Playhouse would grant the low budget for a feature film. The film is set in 1902. It tells the story of three generations of Gullah women in the Peazant family and their varying viewpoints, thoughts and philosophies in regard to the move from Helena Island.


Daughters of the Dust review – the dreamlike film that inspired Beyoncé's  Lemonade | Film | The Guardian

Daughters of the Dust (1991) was made for a reported $800,000, but it looks worth far more in terms of cinematography, costumes and settings. Arthur Jafa’s camera placement and use of the natural light, on the beach and swamp land especially, conjures up some magical imagery. The iconic images of the women on the beaches in their bright white dresses are stunningly memorable. While watching I felt like I was viewing a gallery of moving paintings, such was the exceptional nature of the composition. Again, despite a low budget and use of actors from independent cinema, Julie Dash, gets some incredibly natural and compelling performances from her cast. It’s all the more amazing as most of the cast had to learn the Gullah language employed from scratch.

Thematically the film is very powerful too. Conflict derives from dialectics such as the clashing of elder versus younger people, ancient beliefs versus Christian religion, African heritage versus Neo-American capitalism and nature versus technology. Julie Dash structures these themes and the character’s desires in a non-linear fashion over a period of a long weekend. There are poetic flashbacks and flashforwards too as the imagery is supported by a voiceover from a yet to be born child of parents, Eli and Eula. Ultimately, this film is a very immersive experience. There are no subtitles, so the language can be tricky to understand, but for me that enhanced the desire to feel the narrative. Indeed, the lyrical beauty of Daughters of the Dust (1991), combined with the humming percussion-driven music, stunning landscapes and inventive cinematic language mean you are swept out to sea by the powerful emotions of Julie Dash’s spectacular vision.

Mark: 9 out of 11