Screenplay by: Harry Bromley Davenport, Michel Perry, Iain Cassie, Robert Smith
Story by: Harry Bromley Davenport, Michel Perry
Produced by: Mark Forstater
Cast: Bernice Stegers, Philip Sayer, Simon Nash, Maryam d’Abo, Danny Brainin etc.
Cinematography: John Metcalfe
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Being a fan of the horror genre never fails to spring surprises, especially if you also love trashy-B-movie-exploitation-video-nasties too. Because what often occurs is a hidden or buried or previously banned film will reanimate and be located on one of the many streaming platforms we have today. I am both surprised and even more joyous if I find I have never even seen the said film. This is certainly the case with low-budget alien monster film, XTRO (1982).
There I was pressing play via Amazon Prime, thinking it was another schlocky American indie I had missed from yesteryear, only to discover Xtro (1982) is actually a bizarre British film which twists and riffs on the box office hit that was ET: Extra Terrestrial (1982). Xtro (1982), directed by Harry Bromley Davenport, is not a comforting family science fiction drama like its more famous counterpart though. Instead, it is a gory sci-fi shocker with many outrageously violent set-pieces and a budget lower than E.T.’s lunch bill.
Critically damned at the time, Xtro (1982), when released on home video in 1983, was subject to a prosecution case in relation to British obscenity laws and labelled a “video-nasty”. Watching it now I have to admit it is quite shocking still, but the practical effects are so gloriously over-the-top they are more humorous than sickening. Having said that there are some memorably gruesome moments involving alien births, crazy clowns, a live “Action Man” doll, weird space eggs, and transformative man-into-monster effects.
The film doesn’t hang about establishing character but propels, from the opening scene of a father playing in the garden with his son, straight into the disappearing parent plot. The father (Philip Sayers) vanishes without a trace and three years later his wife (Bernice Stegers) and son are attempting to repair their lives. Yet, the boy is suffering horrific nightmares when suddenly his father reappears attempting to reconcile. The familial drama within the script itself could have been further developed to some emotional impact. However, while Bernice Stegers gives a decent dramatic performance, the film soon descends into a mix of surreal and insane set-pieces, combined with the father’s metamorphosis into something from another world.
There’s much to like and much to loathe about, Xtro (1982), notably the gratuitous nudity sprinkled throughout. Yet, if you are drawn to exploitational B-movies there is much sick entertainment to be found in the blend of impressive practical effects and creature moments. Philip Sayer and Bernice Stegers keep the shlocky elements of the plot in check with sane acting performances and despite some eccentric writing throughout Harry Bromley Davenport and his team have delivered an out-of-this-world bona fide B-movie cult classic.
Produced by: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christina Oh
Cast: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton, etc.
Cinematography: Lachlan Milne
Music by: Emile Messeri
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
I missed Minari (2020) at the cinema. Which is a shame because out of all the Oscar-nominated films from earlier in the year it is now my favourite. Further, it should certainly have won the best film award. (Note: I have yet to see The Father (2020).) It has the heart and warmth and realistic hope that eventual winner, Nomadland (2020) lacked. Chloe Zhao’s powerful character study was arguably too meditative and glacially paced, without any real diversion from the plodding repetition of monotonous existence. I love slice-of-life and character-driven work, but I want some drama too. While Minari (2020) has certain meditative qualities, writer-director Lee Isaac Chung has crafted a supeb cinematic memoir of tender power and emotion.
Set in 1983, Minari (2020), centres around the Yi family. They had been working in California, but have moved to Arkansas to farm the land. The father, Jacob (Steven Yuen) dreams of growing produce to sell to fellow Korean businesses. However, the farm and static caravan he has purchased is remote with no guarantee of water to ripen the fruits and vegetables. Jacob must either pay exorbitant prices from the water company or find a natural spring underground. Alas, rain rarely threatens the Arkansas plains.
Jacob’s wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri) hates the caravan and does not share his farming dream. This marital conflict drives the much of the narrative as the two argue constantly. Monica is especially angry that her young son, David (Alan Kim) is so far from a hospital. The boy has a heart condition and like any good mother she consistently worries. Their teenage daughter, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) is too young to be a full-time caregiver to David while Jacob and Monica support themselves working at a local chicken factory. To placate Monica, Jacob brings grandmother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to the farm for support. Here a beautiful and funny parallel plot begins as David and his grandmother’s relationship comes to the fore.
I watched Minari (2020) on a Sunday morning at home, relaxed and cosy, filled with breakfast and coffee. I loved experiencing the film. The music wondrously supports the beautiful photography that illuminates the green and wheats that fill the lens’ gorgeous palette. Like the masterpiece, Parasite (2019), Minari (2020) represents a working-class family striving to stay together and survive in difficult times. The main difference though is the Yi family were doing it with honest hard graft rather that grifting, ducking and diving. The Yi’s connect with nature and the land rather than skimming the city and the rich. I really rooted for the Yi’s. Jacob’s desires and battles to find water reminded me of the equally moving French classic,Jean De Florette (1986).
Minari (2020) doesn’t take the obvious route of making the Arkansas locals racists who rail against the Yi’s. While there are some scenes involving cultural clashes, much of the drama and humour derives from the families interactions with each other. Indeed, the scenes where David antagonises his unconventional grandmother are hilarious. Youn Yuh-jung as the elderly matriarch is fantastic, deservedly winning a best supporting actress role at the Oscars. Moreover, Lee Isaac Chung gets a miraculous performance from child actor, Alan Kim. Special mention for a busy, but nuanced portrayal of a troubled but helpful worker, Paul, by Will Patton. His deeply pious character could have easily been made an antagonist, but Chung ensures he is another relatable human being in a film full of them.
Halloween is slowly creeping out of the fog and shadows. It’s a time of the year where horror films come to the fore. Personally, I watch horror all the year round, but it’s always fun when the genre pulls focus on the cultural calendar.
Rather than concentrate on current horror film releases, I thought it would be interesting to seek out chillers that are a tad less known. So, I had a scan through Amazon and Shudder screening platforms and unearthed several cult horror gems worth catching.
Some of these films come from the 1980’s period which encompassed the “video-nasty” era in the United Kingdom. With the advent of home video technology, the government suddenly got frightened about bloody and exploitational films and desired control. Censoring seventy-two titles and banning a flurry of films actually made people want to watch them more. This caused the government’s policy to backfire as people clamoured to watch “pirate” video versions of such films. In fact, it was in the living room watching forbidden films and the old Universal black-and-white classics where my true love of horror cinema began.
The following films may not have been banned at the time, but I was intrigued by how many of the titles I missed seeing on first release. Aside from Ben (1972), When A Stranger Calls (1979) and Phantasm (1979), I hadn’t seen the other titles. Therefore, if you’re looking for obscure horror films to watch then delve deep into the Amazon library. They have a fine feast of 1970’s and 1980’s fear inducing fare, many of them which were on the infamous “video-nasty” list. Dare you watch them!?
THE CAT OF NINE TAILS (1971)
An early Dario Argento giallo finds a blind puzzle-maker (Karl Malden) and dogged reporter (James Franciscus) investigating murders at a genetics lab. Aside from a couple of scary set-pieces, notably in a graveyard, it neither works as a detective nor horror story. It is however beautifully filmed with a vibrant restoration. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission track down missing toxic waste the New York homeless population are becoming victims to something monstrous in the sewers. An energetic sci-fi-horror hybrid combining a schlocky plot with socio-environmental themes. It’s not bad and actually quite funny, with early roles for John Heard and Daniel Stern whose acting raises the overall quality. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
CLASS OF 1984 (1982)
I remember school kids raving about this film when I was twelve. I really wanted to see it, but could never find it in the video shop or from the “pirate” video guy. The plot merges The Blackboard Jungle (1955) with Death Wish (1974), as Perry King’s music teacher attempts to soothe the savage beast of a gang of nasty punk students. He fails and the final act revenge-driven rampage is fantastically inventive and gory. Latterly famous director, a young Tim Van Patten, portrays the psychotic, Peter Stegman, with vicious zeal. A true exploitational classic. (Mark: 8 out of 11).
HELL NIGHT (1981)
This is one of those films I had never even heard of. With a sizeable budget of $1.4 million dollars for a slasher film, it concerns four college students, including a grown-up Linda Blair, spending the night in a creepy house as part of an initiation ritual. Unfortunately, there’s a psychotic killer about hellbent on hunting them down. We’ve seen it all before, but it was nicely filmed and had decent humour. Overlong but way better than I thought it would be. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
PHANTASM II (1988)
I reviewed the remastered version of Don Coscarelli’s low-budget masterpiece here, but only just got round to watching the sequel. Phantasm II (1988) had a bigger budget and suffers from some stodgy plotting. The re-casting of Mike with James Le Gros in the role throws you. Yet, once Mike and Reggie fight with the Tall Man (inimitable Angus Scrimm), the razor-sharp spheres and the hooded monsters, the film finds real pace. Coscarelli blows-up a lot of stuff and ramps up the weaponry, but the sequel lacks the twisted magic of the original must-watch horror fantasy, Phantasm (1979). (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
TERROR TRAIN (1980)
Another unknown mini-gem I found on Amazon. This Canadian slasher film is, you guessed it, set on a train and finds, yes you guessed it again, college students getting picked off one-by-one by a vengeful psycho. Notable for a really good plot which gives the killer empathy and understandable motivation, it also stars everyone’s favourite final girl, Jamie Lee Curtis. With disguise and magic prevalent in the themes, David Copperfield also appears in a neat role. Highly entertaining with a killer twist. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979)
Inspired by a famous urban legend, Fred Walton’s chilling suspense thriller has one of the most nail-biting opening twenty minutes in horror cinema. Carol Kane is the babysitter terrorized by a series of tense phone calls from a mystery ringer. From that terrifying start the story falters slightly as it focusses on Charles Durning’s obsessive search for the unhinged man. Only when Kane rejoins the film some years later does the horror rise up again in a truly frightening denouement. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
WILLARD (1971) / BEN (1972)
This was an odd one because I knew and seen the sequelBen (1972) when I was a younger. Little did I realise the original Willard (1971) had been released the year before and became a sleeper box-office hit. Bruce Davison is excellent as the introvert, Willard, who is bullied at work by his aggressive boss, Ernest Borgnine. Only when, and take a deep breath here, Willard trains an army of rats does he gain confidence to take on the world. It’s a weird film that actually works because of Willard’s fascinating character arc and Davison’s nuanced performance. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
The follow-up Ben (1972) focusses on Willard’s alpha rat, Ben, and his friendship with lonely kid, Danny. The sequel really raises the rat count and there appears to be thousands of them in their dirty lair. Danny is a likeable kid who suffers from a serious illness that prevents him from going out. Why he would make friends with a killer rat though is still frankly nuts! A lack of thrills and goofy premise make it difficult to recommend, and is more famous for the classic Michael Jackson hit called, surprisingly enough, Ben.(Mark: 6 out of 11)
Produced by: Arnold H. Bruck, Edgar Ievins, Tom Kaye
Cast: Kevin Van Hentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner
Cinematography: Bruce Torbet
Edited by: Frank Henenlotter
*** REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
Being a massive fan of horror and cult movies, it is quite incredible that I had never seen Frank Henenlotter’s low-budget exploitation film, Basket Case (1982). So, when I saw it available via my Shudder subscription I dived straight into the basket, and found the insane premise, bad acting, zero-cash lighting style, lo-fi stop motion and monster effects, all combining to deliriously horrific and hilarious effect. Because, what it lacks in polished performances and filming style, it makes up for in riotous bad taste and shocking entertainment.
Henenlotter’s debut film was shot on grainy 16mm film and for a budget of around $35,000. The story finds the enthusiastic Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck), visiting New York and staying at the low-rent fleapit called the Hotel Broslin. What makes Kevin so intriguing is he carries around a basket. What’s in the basket I hear you ask? Well, you soon find out that it is something quite disgusting and despicable. A grotesque freak which, when you learn it and Duane’s backstory, takes on a bizarre kind of empathy. As Duane begins to make friends, both with a prostitute neighbour and Doctor’s receptionist, his grisly telepathic and physical connection with the monster pushes him to the brink of insanity. Because the demon is driving Duane to assist him on a vengeful journey of bloodlust and murder.
While the story is certainly nuts and much of the acting is woeful, Kevin Van Hentenryck’s energetic performance makes Duane a likeable protagonist. You really root for him when he begins to fall in love, but the monster becomes jealous, wreaking havoc on Duane’s romance. Further, Henenlotter deserves so much credit for making the insanity on the screen work. I think he does this because he gives us a tragic lead character, moves the story along at a whip-crack pace, has a fantastic monster and devises many memorably gruesome deaths. All throughout I was both laughing and feeling sick at the same time. Lastly, I also just love that Henenlotter made up many of the names in the credits because only a handful of people were in the crew. Indeed, Basket Case (1982) is a true independently made gonzo-horror classic, which makes the most of the dirty-porno-sleazy New York streets it is set on. Dare YOU open the basket?
INCENDIES (2010) is the probably the best film you haven’t seen. If you have seen it then tell more people to see it. Spread the word on this incredible film. I watched Incendies (2010) for the first time a few years ago and it has stayed with me ever since. Given the lack of recent cinema releases, I felt compelled to watch it again and once more was blown away by the power of the characters and their stories. Not quite old enough to review as a classic movie, and as it stands as at No. 111 on the IMDB 250, it doesn’t qualify as an under-rated classic, I have therefore filed this contemporary classic under films that got away.
Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies (2010) was developed by Denis Villeneuve, who took five years developing and writing the screenplay. Villeneuve was attracted to the play because it was a modern story with Greek tragedy at its heart. It is set in both Canada and in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, with events in the narrative traversing between the these countries and different time periods. While the country where most of the action takes place is unnamed, given Mouawad is Lebanese, it is safe to say that this complex tale unfolds during the Lebanese Civil War. However, it is a masterstroke not to be specific about setting, as this ensures it is not place and politics one focusses on, but the thought-provoking human drama. And what drama it is!
After starting with a haunting scene from the past showing bedraggled children herded into an orphanage, the story quickly moves to the present. Twins, (Jeanne Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette) meet Jean (Remy Girard), a notary handling their deceased mother’s will. Their mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), has left two letters – one for the twin’s brother, and another for their father. If they can locate them and give them the letters, Nawal will allow her children to bury her with a casket and headstone. Jeanne, the calmer of the two siblings, agrees to the request. However, Simon is angry that secrets were kept and is against taking it any further.
Incendies (2010) then becomes two powerful narratives intertwined to structural perfection by Villeneuve and Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne’s exceptional screenplay. Firstly, we follow Jeanne as she travels to Daresh, in the Middle East, attempting to follow in Nawal’s footsteps. Here the film becomes a compelling detective story as Jeanne (and later in the film, Simon) slowly discovers her mother’s tragic life history before she moved to Canada. Running parallel to this the narrative flashes back to show Nawal’s life as she escapes village life to go to University, only for religious civil war to tear the fabric of the country apart. Villeneuve, who has subsequently directed many visually stunning big budget films, makes the most of the sun-scorched and battle-scarred landscapes. Moreover, he also delivers a stunning and suspenseful sequence when Nawal finds herself trapped on a bus surrounded by soldiers.
I genuinely do not want to say anymore about the plot of Incendies (2010), for fear of spoiling what is such a complex and well designed story. It drives me mad when I watch films or television shows and they gratuitously use flashbacks or fractured temporal structures to create mystery. Because what many ultimately do is confuse the audience and create emotional distance from the characters. Villeneuve directs in an intelligent way, retaining empathy and emotion for both protagonists and antagonists devoured by war. Nawal Marwan’s story is especially heart-breaking and she is given a moving portrayal by Lubna Azabal. Nawal’s story is one of astounding power as the character experiences the hell of loss, war, torture and death. Her final attempt at redemption from beyond the grave gives us a searing human drama. One which will shake you to the core for days and weeks and maybe even years!
Produced by: Iain Canning, Anne Carey, Emile Sherman
Written by: Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong
Cast: Marchánt Davis, Anna Kendrick, Danielle Brooks, Kayvan Novak, Denis O’Hare, Jim Gaffigan etc.
Chris Morris is a bona fide genius. A natural prankster, a fearless satirist, writer, actor, producer, director and enfant terrible of radio, television and more recently cinema. He has been suspended by Greater London Radio and by the BBC and described by the Daily Mail as “the most loathed man on TV.” Which to me is a highly positive thing. Moreover, Morris is genuinely one of my cultural heroes and certainly one of the funniest artists to have graced the planet.
Morris’ latest cinema release is called The Day Shall Come (2019), and given I am such a fan of his work it did not make any sense why I have only just seen the film. Perhaps I had seen some negative reviews or maybe it was released at the same time as the London Film Festival in 2019? Thus, it meant I could not find time to watch it. Anyway, the story is somewhat of a mixed bag and definitely not as focussed or blisteringly funny as Morris’ prior directorial masterwork, Four Lions (2010). Centring on the idiotic efforts of the F.B.I’s terrorist taskforce to bring down targets that threaten United States security, operative Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) and her boss, Andy Mudd (Denis O’Hare) pull focus on Marchánt Davis as Moses Al Shabaz, an impoverished preacher, running the hapless ‘Star of Six’ commune. Moses, who is possibly bi-polar, is a likeable fool with delusions of grandeur, however, the FBI decide he is a threat and try to fit him up in many farcical scenes of entrapment.
There are funny moments and some delightfully bizarre dialogue exchanges. Furthermore, Davis excels in his role as the eccentric Moses and the under-used Danielle Brooks brings much needed humanity to her role as his wife. However, the film is full of mostly unlikeable and unlikely characters, meaning Morris’ satirical bullets rarely hit their target. Kendrick is miscast and while there are a few laugh-out-loud moments throughout, I just felt like the script was continually trying to squeeze square blocks into round holes. I even watched it twice to see if maybe I had missed something first time round. Goes to show even for a creative magician such as Chris Morris, certain tricks don’t always come off.
Mark: 7.5 out of 11
SIX OF THE BEST #29 – CHRIS MORRIS THINGS YOU MUST WATCH!
NEWSREADER: The main stories so far: Jimmy Savile drops dead at the Stoke Mandeville Boxing Day bash—but the patients are far from mourning.
CORRESPONDENT: The majority, if not all of them, are extremely relieved that he’s now dead, although I suspect that some of them will be sorry that he didn’t suffer a great deal more.
— The Chris Morris Music Show, 16 December 1994
While The Day Shall Come (2019) does not reach the dizzy heights of Chris Morris’ best output, it is still a highly thought-provoking critique of American law enforcement practices. Arguably though it misses more marks than it hits. Here are six of the best things that Chris Morris has been involved in and I urge you to try and find them on a streaming platform or on DVD or online somewhere. If you love obsidian black and controversial comedy then Chris Morris is your man!
CHRIS MORRIS RADIO SHOWS!
Morris’ creative career really formed on radio. He worked at Radio Bristol, Greater London Radio and made the The Chris Morris Radio Show on BBC Radio 1. He gained notoriety and was suspended from the BBC for announcing Conservative politician Michael Heseltine was dead. In fact, fake obituaries were one of his early favourite pranks. Later, Morris joined forces with another comedy legend, Armando Iannucci, to help create the seminal spoof news show called, On the Hour. The rest they say is history.
THE DAY TODAY (1994)
The Day Today was a TV comedy show that parodied current affairs programmes. Broadcast in 1994 on BBC2, it was created by Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris and an adaptation of the radio programme On the Hour. The genius and surreal satire The Day Today found Morris winning the 1994 British Comedy Award for Best Newcomer. The rest of the cast includingSteve Coogan, Rebecca Front, Doon Mackichan, Patrick Marber and David Schneider were incredibly good too. I wonder what happened to them?!
BRASS EYE (1997)
Chris Morris took the ferocious journalistic character he created on The Day Today (1994) into Brass Eye (1997), with one of the most scurrilous and controversial works of television ever. Once again, Morris was lampooning current affairs shows and the often hysterical way the media sensationalise issues such as drugs, sex and crime. Morris fooled many celebrities and politicians during the filming of Brass Eye (1997), getting them to commit to absurd, but fake media campaigns. A 2001 special was planned but cancelled due to fear of further controversy and litigation against Channel 4.
Ever pushing the boundaries of radio and television genre form and style, Morris’ cult sketch show Jam (2000), is a truly dark and twisted experience. Unsettling and bleak it presented unconnected and surreal sketches, unfolding over an ambient soundtrack. Buried late at night on the Channel 4 schedule it was incredibly striking in style and content with a superb cast including: Amelia Bullimore, Julia Davis, Mark Heap and Kevin Eldon.
NATHAN BARLEY (2005)
This absurdist comedy found Morris working with another comedy genius in Charlie Brooker. Here they took inspiration from Brooker’s TVGoHome – a 2001 E4 TV show parodying television – as the focus of a fly-on-the-wall documentary called Cunt. With energetic fool and influencer Nathan Barley as the lead idiot, the sitcom delivered six delicious episodes which skewered hipster characters and pretentious Shoreditch-based culture. The cast included: Julian Barratt, Ben Whishaw, Richard Ayoade, Nicholas Burns, Claire Keelan etc. and Nathan Barley is a highly recommended comedy that seems as vital now as it did in 2005.
FOUR LIONS (2010)
Oh my word! How the hell this film did NOT get banned is something that still shocks me. It is one of the the funniest and controversial films ever about the darkest subjects, namely terrorism and radicalised Jihadis. How Morris and his co-writers, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, managed to successfully satirise, demonise and humanise Muslim fundamentalists is beyond belief. The wicked script and unbelievably good performances by Riz Ahmed, Nigel Lindsay and Kayvan Novak help make Four Lions (2010) one of the finest socio-political comedies of all time. It’s hilarious and actually moving at the end as I pitied, recoiled and felt for these poor misguided fools. Deservedly, Chris Morris won the award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer at the BAFTAS in 2011.
Produced by: Kevin Turen, Jessica Row, Trey Edward Shults
Written by: Trey Edward Shults
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown, Alexa Demie, Clifton Collins Jr., Vivi Pineda, etc.
Music by: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Cinematography: Drew Daniels
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
“First your parents, they give you your life, but then they try to give you their life.”
― Chuck Palahniuk
Being a parent is an extremely difficult job and mostly impossible to get right. It is a rewarding and joyous experience, but can also be a frustrating one. Raising another human being in this world is a fluid and ever-shifting set of tasks. Once you have got past a certain age and seemingly resolved the issues of that time, their next period of growth provides a whole different set of puzzles. Whatever books you read or advice you take, or help you get, you will never be prepared enough to meet the challenge of being a parent. Even those who have had more than one child can attest that what occurred with the first child will not be the same for the next or the next after that. Every individual being is different and will have a varied set of intricacies.
In the majestic family drama, Waves (2019), for example, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and Catherine Williams (Renee Elise Goldsbery), are middle-class parents with successful jobs who provide a fabulous Florida home and upbringing to their teenage children. Their son, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jnr.), is smart, athletic and a popular student, while their younger daughter, Emily, is quieter but equally bright. Ronald pushes Tyler to excel in every way, in study, work and on the wrestling team. He’s doing it with best intentions, but it creates incredible pressure for the lad. So much so, when Tyler suffers a serious injury and a problematic romantic situation he mentally and emotionally breaks.
This is a tale of two children and their parents attempts to raise, guide and control them. Not control in a negative fashion, but out of love and desire to see they are on the correct path in life. But what the narrative illustrates is that even the most loving and comfortable families can have tragedy bestowed upon them via a mixture of spontaneously poor life choices, youthful emotional imbalance and the fickle finger of fate. Thus, some could argue that with subjects such as unwanted pregnancy, pushy parents and rebellious teenagers, the film is over-familiar and melodramatic in places. However, the acting, direction and cinematography render the film wholly cinematic. Special mention to the extremely talented cinematographer Drew Daniels, who also lit HBO’s stylish mini-series Euphoria (2019). The production’s choice of colour, lighting, lens differentiation and aspect ratio switches are another reason this fabulous film impacted me so much.
No disrespect intended to the films nominated for Best Picture at the last Academy Awards, but how Waves (2019) did not get on that list is beyond me. Maybe it didn’t qualify due to some technicality, but it was definitely one of the best films of last year. It’s a shame I missed it as Trey Edward Schults proves he is a formidable young director. Sterling K. Hayden is impressive as the father who thinks he knows best, but is ultimately as emotionally lost as his son. Taylor Russell as Emily is an absolute shining star in the role and Kelvin Harrison Jnr. is, following his mesmerising performance in Luce (2019), destined for great things. Lastly, I’m not sure how Waves (2019) got away from me on release, but I’m glad I finally caught up with this searing and complex drama.
Cast: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey
Music by: Björk
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Edited by: François Gédigier, Molly Marlene Stensgård
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Rather incredibly, until very recently, I had never seen DANCER IN THE DARK (2000). However, it has quickly gone up the ranks in my mind as one of the best musical films I have ever seen. Having given it a lot of thought, it was difficult to place my review of Lars Von Trier’s eccentric, magical and moving tragedy. I could have reviewed it as a cult or under-rated classic film, but it was too high profile really; AND it won the Palm D’Or at Cannes. Thus, I decided, because it is such a compelling story and told in a magnetically creative style it definitely qualifies as a classic film.
Set in Washington State, circa 1964, the story centres on the life of Selena Ježková (Bjork), a Czech immigrant, who works in a factory supporting herself and her teenage son, Jean. She is good friends with co-worker Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), and has a good relationship with her landlord, a police officer called Bill (David Morse), and his wife, Linda (Cara Seymour). Selena is also romantically pursued by Jeff (Peter Stormare). Yet despite him being a pleasant and easy-going guy she prefers to be just friends. Selena is an admirable character because she works round-the-clock with at least two jobs, striving to make ends meet. But she also hides a secret. She is, in fact, going blind. Kathy helps cover for her where she can at the factory, however, the condition is irreversible. Selena is extraordinarily brave, but foolhardy too. Her condition puts herself and factory productivity at risk. Yet, this is merely a suggestion of the drama and tragedy which later befalls her. Because someone close to her will betray a trust, setting in motion a series of extremely depressing eventualities.
In order to escape the trials of her everyday existence, Selena often daydreams in song and dance form. These fantasies are further contextualised by Selena and Kathy taking part in a town production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, plus their visits to the cinema to watch Hollywood musicals. Von Trier is careful though to establish verisimilitude and plausible reality prior to the first musical number. Even so, it is initially extremely jarring when the song begins. Nonetheless, the power of surprise provides an electrical surge to the narrative and Selena’s characterisation. The first number set in the factory finds the mechanical sounds of the machinery providing a metronomic rhythm to the song and dance routine. Furthermore, songs such as, I’ve Seen It All (with the sequence set on a locomotive), and Smith and Wesson link Selena’s character to metal, machines and American industrialisation. Essentially, Selena’s experiences as a working class immigrant find her attempting to escape via song, but being trapped by American machines and later on in the film, their justice system too.
Filmed on digital cameras the presentation is arguably inspired somewhat by Von Trier’s established Dogme 95 style. In terms of content, DANCER IN THE DARK (2000), combines elements of melodrama and film noir reminiscent of films by Douglas Sirk. Such thematic and visual cues are then filtered through a meta-textual inversion of the Hollywood musical. While the classical musical is all about joy, love, family, companionship, song and performance, Von Trier effectively represents these genre tropes, but twists them into calamitous trials and tribulations for Selena. I for one felt such pain, regret and sympathy for her character. Indeed, Bjork, who had never acted before and has rarely acted since, gives an incredibly moving and soulful performance as the dedicated mother only trying to do her best for her son. Similarly, the songs she co-wrote with Mark Bell, Sjón Sigurdsson and Lars von Trier, sparkle and spike and tug at the heartstrings passionately.
Lars Von Trier is a divisive filmmaker and personality. He has always sailed close to the wind in regard to his challenging filmmaking style and content, as well as causing dissension over the years with his perceived outrageous comments. Moreover, Bjork herself spoke openly about a “Danish filmmaker” who oppressed and harassed her persistently on set. One must deduce that this indeed was Von Trier, thus I must respect and sympathise with the anguish she felt while filming, DANCER IN THE DARK (2000). Lastly, reviews of the film at the time were equally dichotomous. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian dubbed it the: “most shallow and crudely manipulative film of 2000. . . and one of the worst films, one of the worst artworks and perhaps one of the worst things in the history of the world.” Yet, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times stated: “It smashes down the walls of habit that surround so many movies. It returns to the wellsprings. It is a bold, reckless gesture.” Personally, I am with Roger Ebert, as I found the film to be one of Lars Von Trier’s most emotionally moving, stylistically daring and human dramas.
Cast: Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry, Harris Gilbertson, Susie Porter, Damian De Montemas, etc.
Music by: Dan Luscombe
Cinematography: Michael McDermott
Edited by: Merlin Eden
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Where narratives relating to rape, abduction, and serial killers are concerned, a filmmaker can tread a fine line between lurid exploitation and absorbing suspense and drama. Low budget B-movies are replete with stories of death, sexual assault and crazed murderers. Some overstep the mark becoming notorious beacons of bad taste. Many horror fans love the exploitational nature of “video nasties”, seeking out films like: Cannibal Holocaust (1980), A Serbian Film (2010), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Driller Killer (1979), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Last House on the Left (1972), to name but a few. The latter two films directed by horror maestros Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven are arguably exceptional visions of terror which transcend their horror genre subject matter. Similarly, Ben Young’s The Hounds of Love (2016), in my view, represents the evil of human beings without exploiting the actors or audience.
While it may not be as gory on-screen as the films mentioned above, The Hounds of Love (2016), does offer a shattering and sickening set of images and sounds within these savage set of events. Set in Perth, Australia during 1987, this is a disturbing and all too realistic horror story. It opens with a majestic set of slow-motion shots from the point-of-view of suburban couple, Evelyn White (Emma Booth) and John White (Stephen Curry). They sit in their vehicle as the sun hazes and watch teenage girls playing netball in the school yard. They are stalking their next victim; patiently waiting to lure another unsuspecting soul into their nefariously sadistic crimes. Stylistically impressive, but at the same time incredibly unnerving, Ben Young skilfully establishes the canvas on which he will paint further horrors.
Having fed their violent and sexual lust with the opening victim, we are then introduced to their next. Vicki Moloney (Ashleigh Cummings) is a rebellious teenager who is smarting from her parents recent split. Acting with both charisma and defiance, Vicki is slightly annoying, yet empathetic. Obviously, she does not deserve the ordeal she is about to experience at the hands of the Whites. The sequence which finds them cajoling her into their clutches is so tense and had me screaming at the screen, “No!!!! Get out!!!” What follows then, as Vicki becomes a prisoner, is a series of heart-pounding and distressing scenes which raise the stakes to unbearable tension. Ashleigh Cummings performance is absolutely compelling as “final girl”, Vicki. She takes a potentially one-dimensional casualty and imbues her with fight, guile, pain, distress, intelligence and determination. No surprise therefore that she won a Best acting debut award at the Venice Film Festival.
Cummings performance is not the only one which impacts the story greatly. Emma Booth’s complex portrayal of Evelyn is quite startling. This is a character who is permanently on-the-edge and desperate to please her evil partner, John. Systematically controlled and bullied, there is no excuse for Evelyn’s part in the kidnappings and torture of these young girls. But, it is clear to see that toxic masculinity has, over the years contributed to her mental and emotional collapse. Booth’s persistently fraught acting is all bag-of-bones and shredded nerves. It is via Evelyn’s imploding emotional state that Vicki is able to attempt to turn her against John’s venal influence.
Ultimately, one could say this is an exploitation film in terms of theme and story. However, it feels different than the many B-movie serial killer films I have seen. I felt like I was in the hands of a filmmaker who was determined to explore the nature of sadistic relationships in a risky, but intelligent manner. The acting, cinematography, direction and haunting soundtrack all contribute to make this a highly effective psychological thriller. Of course, there are many which may feel differently and that the film has its cake and eats it in term of violence and sexual perversion. Yet, we never actually see much of the cake. Unlike many of the films I mention in the opening paragraph, the audience only see the build-up and aftermath of the crimes. Indeed, what we don’t see on screen is more frightening than what we do. That, overall, is what sets The Hounds of Love (2016) apart from many other films dealing with these unpalatable themes and subjects.
FILMS THAT GOT AWAY #10 – CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)
Written and directed by Matt Ross
Produced by: Nimitt Mankad, Monica Levinson, Jamie Patricof, Shivani Rawat, Lynette Howell Taylor
Cinematography: Stephen Fontaine
Music: Alex Somers
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller, Elijah Stevenson, Teddy Van Ee, Erin Moriarty, Missi Pyle, Ann Dowd,
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Have you ever thought about living “off the grid?” Maybe you already do. It’s something I have considered from time to time. Get out of the rat race and stop punching the clock. I don’t think I have the abilities or desire to do so though ultimately. Moreover, I would probably miss my television and home comforts like baths and central heating. Having said that, it’s always fascinating to watch films or TV programmes about characters or people who have tried to live outside conventional societal rules. Films like: Together (2000), The Commune (2016), Leave No Trace (2018) and Into the Wild (2007) are all excellent narratives which represent characters who, to varying degrees of failure and success, have eschewed civilization. Matt Ross’ excellent recent release, Captain Fantastic (2016), is another darkly humorous and poignant movie to add to that list.
I’m not sure why I missed seeing Captain Fantastic (2016) first time round at the cinema, but I am so glad I caught up with it on Netflix. It stars the ever-brilliant Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash, the father-of-six children, ages ranging from seven to late teens. Their mother, Leslie, alas, has suffered long bouts of depression linked to bipolar disorder and is currently in a mental health facility. Having established Ben and the children’s unorthodox living arrangements in a forest dwelling, the script throws them the tragic curveball of Leslie’s suicide. The family leave behind their strict hunting, education and exercise routine, as well as their self-built huts, shacks and wooden dens, to drive cross-country on their transformed mobile home, a bus called Steve, to attend Leslie’s funeral.
While grief and sadness hang heavy over the family unit, Matt Ross’ brilliant screenplay structures the film around that great American film genre — the road movie. As the bus, Steve, carries them away from the wilderness into civilisation, the clashing of the Cash’s alternative lifestyle and socially eccentric behaviour with society, provides a rich vein of comedic and dramatic moments. For example, Viggo Mortensen eating breakfast naked at a campsite while people pass by, and oldest son, Bodevan (George Mackay), romantically declaring his love to Claire (Erin Moriarty), who was just expecting a random hook-up, are both hilarious scenes. Similarly, Ben and Leslie, having tutored their kids at home quite impressively, have not factored in their apparent lack of socialisation in the outside world. Lastly, Ben’s candidness in matters of sex is shocking too and he conflicts with his sister, portrayed by Kathryn Hahn, who believes the children should have a more “normal” life.
Amidst the humour and hilarious culture clash punchlines, the director, Matt Ross, expertly weaves some heartfelt drama in their too. Ben fights with his father-in-law, Jack (Frank Langella) over Leslie’s funeral arrangements. Jack then attempts to take the children off him via legal means. Throughout all this Viggo Mortensen’s majestic acting performance anchors the film with searing emotional depth. His character must deal with the death of his wife and whether he has made the right decisions for his family. I mean, the kids have cuts and bruises from hunting exploits, possess strange invented names, wear unconventional clothes and do not celebrate Christmas at all. Furthermore, they eschew all organised religion in favour of celebrating academic philosopher, Noam Chomsky’s birthday. With the death of his wife and pressure from her family, it’s no surprise Ben feels cornered. However, Matt Ross’ film, Captain Fantastic (2016), lives up to the positive title and overall gives us a sense of warmth, community and love, proving that family unity is often an impossible bond to break.