Thursday, 22 November 2018


Mike Leigh, 2018, UK

With The evidence of ‘Mr Turner’ preceding this, it turns out that Mike Leigh has emerged as one of the premier artists of period cinema. 'Peterloo' follows the lineage of Bertolucci’s ‘1900’ or the work of the Taviani brothers. With almost every shot, it resembles classical portraits brought to life, people moving and living in those portraits on walls of national galleries. As with ‘Mr Turner’, occasionally there will be a vista of landscape to take the breath away, but it is never quite prolonged to give the jaw time to fall all the way ajar. In this way, the editing is fluid and never showy, never intruding on the acting or story or the impressive set design. And no matter how immersive the aesthetic, it is always secondary to the exemplary ensemble cast. But the opening is the notable exception. 

From the opening shot, Leigh seizes the attention with the long take of Joseph (David Moorst) in the middle of the Battle of Waterloo, bemused, looking around at the carnage and explosions, trying to do his job as bugler even as it’s a wonder he isn’t killed. It is the one time the camera feels deliberately aware and subjective, circling him as if closing off any escape route. Here is a man being traumatised. 

When he gets home to Manchester, it’s to vivid poverty and disenfranchisement. Indeed, the endless meetings seem like class war counsels. The locals are attending pro-democracy meetings and getting all fired up over trying to get the vote. This is an era where only 2% of the population had the vote and the new corn laws were causing starvation. And so cue the rich sitting at a banquet whilst the impoverished suffer and struggle to have agency. 

As Peter Bradshaw summarises:

On 16 August 1819, at what we would now call a pro-democracy demonstration in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, an excitable band of cavalry and yeomanry – whose commander had airily absented himself for a day at the races – charged with sabres drawn into a crowd of 100,000 unarmed people, many of whom were unable to escape the enclosed space. The troops killed 18 and injured hundreds more.

The dichotomy is distinctly between the cruel and paranoid authorities and the down-to-earth working class poor united by righteousness. The dissenting argument is that the authorities are coloured too broadly, as caricatures, but this is surely endemic in polemical commentary. In George Cruikshank’s satirical ‘The Massacre at St. Peters, or Britons Strike Home’ (1819) the yeomanry are all plump and rosy-cheeked, flush with outrage and righteousness as they cut down the unfortunate protesters. This is even a feature of Richard Carlile’s more austere painting representing the scene (1819). Indeed, the yeomanry were often freeholders and tenant farmers themselves (having funds to buy uniforms, etc.). 

On horseback, armed with sabres and clubs, many were familiar with, and had old scores to settle with, the leading protesters. (In one instance, spotting a reporter from the radical Manchester Observer, a Yeomanry officer called out "There's Saxton, damn him, run him through.")

This can be nothing else but anecdotal but is an illustration that broad and partisan have always defined the event. Since we know that the magistrates did indeed order the soldiers to let loose on the crowd, it is hard to imagine any portrayal that would not portray them as outright villains (well, not without going down a ‘Birth of a Nation’ route). Here, they act in arrogance, anger and chaos; conniving and sure of their superiority. The more moderate and mitigating magistrate voices are shouted down and side-lined for the rush to blustering authoritarianism. 

When so many of our contemporary political figures seem cartoonish or behave like caricatures – just look around – it is perhaps a little limited to just dismiss Leigh’s characters as caricatures: the massacre is historical fact and it is quite believable that the boorishness and callousness of the authoritarians were to blame. The villainy is in their actions, regardless of their portrayal. When the massacre happens, it is shown as much the result of chaos and shouting as brutality. But yes, there is no doubt there is a good and bad side, with the latter scheming and misconstruing for fear of the workers and selfishness. Whether politics and political action has progressed is for debate.

Peterloo’s  uniformly impressive ensemble cast populates this vast tapestry of period recreation and polemic. It’s cleanly and beautifully shot by Dick Pope and there is much detail to wallow in; but the constant talk and rhetoric may put some off and occasionally falls into exposition of history notes. Perhaps this is inevitable given the nature of the project, Leigh’s intent to give as much perspective as possible and how this has been a lesser known historical massacre. There are subplots of PTSD, disillusionment with one’s heroes, agent provocoteurs, the role of the media supplementing the bigger themes of the political scheming, infighting and class war, all funnelling into the final tragedy. 

Perhaps there is a little repetition and a meeting or two too many, but Leigh lays down as many ramifications as he can so that when the massacre begins – the joyous and open feeling of the protesters in contrast to the outraged and bickering magistrates – all the details culminate to produce the appropriate horror. This final sequence does not use the rapid editing utilised to induce the facsimile of excitement as typical of action sequences, but rather speeds up its straightforward observations to clearly show the confusion and awkwardness of the atrocity on all sides. Hoards of extras run around as the horses and sabres crash in and all the groundwork laid beforehand is rewarded and crucial as the ramifications and the small stories and, most importantly, the individuals are not lost in the grand scale of the terror. 

Such a film can be seen not only as a rendering of things gone by, but a direct warning of what is still possible in our current age where the political climate is so volatile and contentious, there’s an apparent ever-widening divide between the rich and poor and protest marches are regular and bigger than ever. As a film, it’s a brilliant piece of politicised drama where Leigh’s textured but unfussy vision offers a history lesson of outrage and empathy to those still struggling against inequality and oppression. 

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

Anthony & Joe Russo, 2018, USA

The most impressive aspect of ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is how Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script manages to juggle so many characters on such a massive scale without losing a sense of the small moments. Of course, this can be seen as a culmination of decades of experience and refining the Marvel film formula: for example the Ditko Dr. Strange interdimensional razzle-dazzle; the Black Pather Wakanda future tech; and there is no way this would work on so many levels if Marvel hadn’t been shown with ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ that light humour and wit should be a winning leading factor, a route they now pursue with much vigour and success (recently this has revitalised the Spider-Man and Thor franchises). Having established so many characters in many previous films, ‘Infinity War’ happily dispenses with much set-up and gets down to the business of Thanos (Josh Brolin) trying to obtain as much power as possible by collecting the Infinity Stones.

It’s just packed with stuff: Spider-man’s pop-culture familiarity providing him with the means of vanquishing an enemy, as well his ongoing father-figure relationship with a tetchy Tony Stark; the bickering of the Guardians; the Avengers conflict with the government; the women being equally kickass; Thor carrying over some of the goofiness from ‘Thor: Ragnorok’; Groot being a typical surly teenager; etc. A fight and a throw-down is never far away, but so are the many good one-liners that feel organic, rising from character interaction instead of shoehorned in to fill a laugh quota.

There’s sci-fi and spaceships, and the fantasy quest leanings of Thor and, back on Earth, the usual punching superpowered people through skyscrapers and devastation of urban streets. But it’s not a mess because the Marvel Universe has laid the groundwork over so many films that these divergent elements never seem in conflict. This is where long-running contracts ensuing the same actors play the same characters pays off: we know who they are immediately, never having to take a moment to realign recognition and acceptance. It’s probably best if you have some passing familiarity with some of the Marvel Universe for this to work, but perhaps the effects, fights, archetypes and wisecracking is enough even for the newcomer. 

More than anything that has preceded it, ‘Infinity War’ captures the scope and varied stories of the Marvel comics. The set-pieces flow into one to another and even if this is a long film, it never feels like it is pausing. Except, perhaps, for the ruminations of Thanos.

The film’s biggest success and surprise is that it’s guided by a soulful genocidal abomination which provides focus when so much of everything else CGI is going on. In the comics, Thanos is motivated by a love of Death but here, arguably, Thanos is a far more recognisable and relevant villain for our times when his genocide is motivated by delusion: he believes that he is doing a good, ultimately benevolent act; that only he is making the toughest of decisions. And although there is never a question that he will finally be vanquished (next film) there is even space in the film to wonder if one or two major characters are actually dead.

Perhaps if super-heroes bore you, even this won’t do the trick, but as an accumulation of all that’s gone before, it’s delirious on its own grandeur whilst keeping a lot of that there humanity. Maybe pushing the “save that one person and I’ll give you means to obliterate half the universe” thing a few times is meant to be part of this humanity, but in the circumstances it just seems the heroes can’t see past themselves, or is at least a flaw. But moreso, it’s one disappointment is that the good guys almost have the upper hand but are let down by a character’s lack of emotional control at the crucial point. But Marvel characters are nothing if not over-emotional.

Oh, and it also captures  a lot of the beauty of a comic strip panel come to life. When super-hero films first made their appearance, something on this cross-over scale was only in the fantasies of the fans. But here it is and most of all it’s fun with the pretence to life-and-death dramatics that hark back to cultural legends to give it some gravitas.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

FrightFest Halloween All-dayer 2018

I’ve never been to the FrightFest Halloween all-dayer before and I wondered to myself why-ever not? Of course, being a FrightFest veteran and in the age of binge-watching, an all-dayer isn’t much so much of a challenge. The weather stayed fine and Leicester Square itself is all closed up whilst they construct the Christmas fair, but that didn’t put off the street performers. 

Ian Ratnay (FrightFest organiser) told us that actually the Empire Leicester Square had forgotten to book the superscreen for the event earlier that week. 
Issa López – the delightful director if ‘Tigers are not Afraid’ was there to help with introductions - sat in front of me and I could see her nodding vigorously when Julia Ducournau’s ‘Raw’ was mentioned onstage as part of the recent golden of horror. 
Craig Conway’s young son was there and in the Q&A for ‘Mara’ asked “Why do you always make my dad kill himself?”
There was a robot in the foyer. 


Julian Richards, USA, 2018

I don’t think I can do better than the FrightFest synopsis: “A stillborn baby girl is abducted by a deranged morgue attendant and brought back to life by electro-kinetic power. On her sixteenth birthday, traumatized Tess escapes captivity and sets out to find her birth mother leaving a trail of horrifying violent destruction and chilling chaos behind her.” Well, first electro-kinetic power brings back the stillborn baby and then she’s abducted, but who’s quibbling? Despite the warmth and appeal of Barbara Crampton and Michael Paré – she’s the mother who hasn’t recovered from the stillbirth while he’s the detective that seems to be sent to every odd murder that’s going, but smart enough to work out what’s going on seemingly with a Google search – this is standard fare with negligible dialogue, chills and acting. Refer to Richards’ ‘Summer Scars’ instead.

Matt Harlock, 2018, UK

A short film about a troubled teen joining an estranged uncle – the always charismatic Paul Kaye - for work experience on a road crew only to find that this is cover for battling portal monsters. This is a prime example of how to deliver enough characterisation and ideas in the short format so that you can easily see it leading to a bigger project. An highly agreeable horror short.  

Isaac Ezban, 2018, Canada

A group of friends discover a portal to other dimensions in their basement and use its temporal shifts to gain the edge in their respective careers. With ‘The Similars’ Ezban showed that he was fascinated with and quite a dab hand at alternative realities, although this was written by Scott Blaszak. This starts with the premise that when faced with a time-bending advantage, a group of average friends will only use it for self-service. And there’s always one that will cause trouble and ruin it all. When the rules are established, it isn’t hard to see where it will go, but there are enough twists and turns to always keep it lively. Thoroughly enjoyable if undemanding, sci-fi concept drama.


Clive Tonge, 2018, UK

Criminal psychologist Kate (Olga Kurylenko), investigating a seemingly cut-and-dried case of a woman murdering her husband, doesn’t quite believe it and becomes convinced it’s all to do with the sleep demon called Mara. Then follows a series of frights with an obvious Asian horror influence, but earlier on many of these scares are edited so quickly or darkly lit that there’s a blare of music and you might be wondering what you’re meant to be jumping at. It’s all centred around sleep paralysis, but the truly terrifying nature of that condition isn’t really captured by this formulaic horror: all it does here is evoke a captive audience without any other insights or true inventiveness.

Craig Conway injects life into proceedings, being an actor who can play frightening hardmen whilst projecting their insecurity, fear and lost decency: it’s easy to image he’s stumbled in from a more genuinely pained horror. Kate seems to solve things by defying orders, going where she shouldn’t and generally carrying on in tired film-trope maverick style, suffering many warnings from the disapproving and gruff Detective (Lance E Nichols); luckily she doesn’t seem to have a caseload to distract her. 

By the time Mara appears in full, she’s memorable enough but nothing new to lift this from the routine.

The Predicament

Three people on a supply-run in a zombie apocalypse find themselves trapped in a car surrounded by the undead and with no keys. It’s the kind of drama that plays out all the time in a post-‘Walking Dead’ world but doesn’t really amount to much more than an aside that’s too long.


Paul Hyett, 2018, UK

Bobbi Johnson (Hannah Alterton) is the author of a zeitgeist-defining novel sitting down to write a second, but she has writer’s block. The passive-aggressive publisher strongarms her into using a super-PC to write, but as the deadline looms, things become more unreal. 

Bobbi is constantly set at snark and pissed off, so she quickly establishes herself as mostly one-note and irritating, although as things plunge into oddness more Alterton is able to show more range. Yet we never get a sense of what makes Bobbie tick, not really; we never leave the flat so who knows where she gets her inspiration? We don’t truly know what this book is, or what the first novel was. Not matter what else happens in the film, perhaps what is most fantastical is that her writing has caused defiant riots:* so the reality starts from the unlikely. She is stalked by an unstable fan that delivers self-harm videos through the letterbox – in Haneke ‘Caché’ style, by VHS. Which doesn’t really make sense, although it feeds into the fetishising old technology and forms. For example, Bobbi’s a fangirl of the classics because it seems those were pure where nothing else matches. She is harassed by the unfeeling publisher whose artificial nature is symbolised by her plastic surgery. Subtle it isn’t, but it does have a few decent gags: one of the best jokes is that the futuristic writing programme changes the gender of her protagonist from “she” to “he” without Bobbbi’s consent. 

It’s like a lower-key version of Aronovsky’s ‘mother!’ with its wide brush-marks of symbolism and claustrophobia, but not quite so successful in detail (an audience member in the Q&A asked what the meaning of the blackening of her fingers meant, perhaps not quite aware of its association with ink stains (I guess), which sits awkwardly with the neon high-tech keyboard imagery). This is a world where your favourite famous author pays a housecall (“Gilmore Trent!!”, Bobbie greets). But it's a piece that oddly looks back, thinking the past is the era of authenticity.

It’s critical of the industry and technology killing creativity but all it leaves us with is a typewriter and Bobbi’s history as an ex-squatter junkie as badges of authenticity (the fucked up are always more authentic). And what will she do with a typed manuscript? Does she intend to let it go unread, wallowing in the poetic tragedy of its unacknowledgement? But if she is going to publish, she is going to have to engage with the industry and/or technology eventually, with editors if not editing software. I mean, this absurd technology doesn’t actually stop her from writing something good, it seems. The film is dismissive of the huge unwieldly software without quite addressing the advantages of technology: more artists than ever are creating, present and out there with apps that help and with many self-publishing platforms (like Lulu for writing and SoundCloud for music, for example). More bedroom artists are being seen and heard than ever. (I prefer to be more positive than to gripe.)

But I liked it the more gonzo it went, following its polemic into the ridiculous. Peter Taylor’s cinematography and Peter Hyett successfully keep Bobbie’s flat colourful and interesting and it never falls into the dourness that would make this claustrophobic. But ultimately I couldn’t shake the feeling that it’s moaning in its bubble without fully addressing the full range of possibilities. In this way, it comes across like one of those unfulfilled unsigned artist rants on social media against the system that often lapses into ALL CAPS. 

* This reminds me of Ian McEwan’s ‘Saturday’ where a recital of a poem stops a home invasion, which made me laugh out loud.

– Den blomstertid nu kommer

Victor Danell/Crazy Pictures, 2018, Sweden

Here is one of those films where it is advisable to go in knowing nothing. I’ll just say this was the best film of the day and you should forsake this review now and try for yourself.

The first half is a slow build-up detailing hapless Alex (Christoffer Nordenrot) and his fraught homelife when growing up with a volatile and damaged father. His only reprieve is in his crush on Anna (Lisa Henni). There is the measured pace and slightly dreamy visuals to make this seem like a typical bildungsroman. Alex grows up into a pretty unlikeable and damaged guy himself and then, halfway through, it reveals itself as a disaster film where Sweden faces a mostly abstract attack. Indeed, if you are luckily enough not to know how things will be, when cars start crashing and piling up on the bridge, the gradual feeling of Holy shit! rewards all the patience of the sombre build-up. Of course, any trailer is going to give something away with the one I saw tried to be as coy as possible, but I also saw a poster that had “Disaster movie!” broadcast as loudly as possible; so this is another case where I am so glad I saw this at FrightFest when I had no idea what was coming so that I could experience the reveals and gradual realisation along with the characters. If you are primed to expect a disaster movie, the effect is likely to wondering when things are going to get going. Let’s just say there nothing earlier on to hint there will be exploding helicopters, or that the chainsaw gift will come into play later. If it all ties up a little to neatly on the sentimental side, there’s enough Swedish dourness and surprising action to make this a full course of entertainment. 


Carlos and Nicolás Onetti, 2018, Argentina-New Zealand

There’s a trend of 80s homages now (and as tiresome as this has become, there are many good evocations), but the Onetti brothers instead make a film that harks back to and feels like the second tier gialli of the 70s. The blaring colours and grainy edge, the continuous recourse to eye close-ups, a slightly choral and funky score, the detached dubbing always seemingly heard a yard in front of what’s seen: it’s all here. It’s a commendable mock-up and looks like the real thing. It’s the wackily rendered tale of a magician seemingly stalked by a murderer and a man that always smokes. Notably much of the twist plays out around the end credits. It’s bizarre and colourful enough to always be intriguing but never quite transcends its pastiche.

And so in retrospect: 
If I seem to be harsher of ‘Peripheral’ than others, that’s because there’s more there to argue with. 
It’s true that I felt much else was standard and noted the lazy writer’s technique of good people trespassing where they shouldn’t and stealing and breaking-in just to keep the plot points coming. 
I probably enjoyed ‘Abrakadabra’ more upon reflection as an aesthetic piece even if I have little nostalgia for what it pastiches. 
When I realised that ‘The Unthinkable’ was turning into WTF?! much of the second half went on my scenes-and-sequences-of-the year list. When the hairs on the back of my neck slowly started to rise as the pile-up piled on, I put it immediately on that list.

Friday, 2 November 2018


Panos Cosmatos, 2018, USA-Belgium-UK

Anyone who had seen Panos Cosmatos' ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ would have known to expect ‘Mandy’s primary colours and filters, stifling and measured immersive mood and hallucinogenic vibe. ‘Rainbow’ (2010) was faux-80s before that was even a trend, convincingly capturing the spirit of trippy 80s straight-to-video cult favourites, and – if judging from social media reactions – Cosmatos has certainly made an instant genre classic with the revenge excess of ‘Mandy’. Of course, he has Nicolas Cage to boast of here and Cage’s participation for sure means this will immediately have crossover appeal, reaching many that would not otherwise have known they would enjoy such an exploitation homage seemingly wrapped up in candyfloss, just as it’s being melted.

It starts off mellow enough with that just-coming-from-the-hippy-Seventies vibe that coloured early 80s genre. Red (Cage) is living an idealised away-from-corrupt-civilisation life with his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) in a nice secluded house in the horror trees and a Timotei commercial.  Even here, the rooms of the house seem to change and swim alive with colour and shadow changes. Then, as Mandy is asserting her feminine freedom with a roadside walk, she catches the eye of a deranged cult leader passing by in a van and disaster is then sure to happen. The cult pay the dreamy couple a deranged visit that intends to leave both of them dead. But Red survives and then embarks to a rampage of vengeance that incorporates porn, chainsaws and (alien? demon?) bondage bikers.

Those who come for the “Nicolas Cage: he so nuts!” will not be disappointed; not least of all when he goes bonkers in a bathroom that looks like a set from Anna Biller’s ‘The Love Witch’. But it’s Linus Roache as Jeremiah Sand who surely takes the biscuit and initially muddies the waters between outrageous hamming and fearless acting. The men gleefully overact and the women look beatific and dreamy. There’s certainly a theme of machismo and ego in here beneath the filters: Sands’ homicidal rage is triggered by having his power, supremacy and sexuality laughed at; there’s a spike-penis; oh look, his chainsaw is bigger than Red’s chainsaw (but it’s all down to how you use it); and, of course, all that pink and red. It’s a ridiculous parody of male potency in action films.

There perhaps seems a little calculation in the clunky dialogue seemingly deliberately aimed to trigger laughter (“That was my favourite shirt!”; “You’re a vicious… snowflake.”) or seemingly fanboy-pleasing moments like a chainsaw duel, but there is so much genuine oddity on display that it’s easy to just enjoy the excess. It’s certainly a riot. Also, the craziness dials up after Red’s escape, so that there could be a reading that this is all just the revenge dream of a dying man (the stab in the ribs is totally forgotten); but the trippiness and lunacy has long been established beforehand and seems to refute this. Each shot is designed to add to this otherworldliness, no matter if the scene is pretty scenery or chainsaw battles. And yet it’s all filtered through a melancholia that both grounds and accentuates the outrageousness. 

…And then Red is doing a spot of ironmongering, making an axe that looks like a ‘Flash Gordon’ prop. Well, of course.

It’s a somewhat tired trope now, but the 80s aesthetic is thoroughly convincing from the hammy dialogue and the question of how generous should you be to the acting, to the intertitles coming in type of fonts that used to grace the covers of bargain bin horror paperbacks; and every now and again, there are animated dreams, sci-fi interludes, a quick vision of cars buried in a wasteland like a detour from ‘Mad Max’, or a melting face (a nod to a excised effect from ‘Rainbow’?). And of course, with ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ Cosmatos can be said to have been doing this throwback agenda in earnest earlier than others, but the narrative and novelties of ‘Mandy’ will probably prove more accessible for those that found ‘Rainbow’ too thin and slow. 

Some films excel on aesthetic alone – Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ immediately comes to mind – and Cosmatos delivers such a heady phantasmagoria of homicidal hippydom and Heavy Metal revenge fantasy that a viewer can just sit back to be happily submerged. Benjamin Loeb’s cinematography and the editing by Brett W. Bachman and Paul Painter are joys in themselves, creating an overwhelming mood that seems at odds with the straightforward revenge narrative. Oh, and the soundtrack by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson is a treat, all retro-synths and prog-rock thickening the mood. Rarely does this kind of story get this kind of lavish visual treatment and that’s at the root of it’s fascinating kaleidoscopic appeal. It’s a riot in all kinds of ways.