Thursday, 19 July 2018

Terminal- Vaughn Stein’s implausible but enjoyable neo-noir

UK, Hong Kong, Hungary, USA, Ireland/ 95 mins/ Cert.15
Director: Vaughn Stein
Cast: Margot Robbie, Mike Myers, Simon Pegg, Dexter Fletcher, Max Irons

Vaughn Stein’s lightweight but enjoyable Terminal, which opened Hull’s 2018 Film Festival, is a preposterous but stylish neo-noir comedy thriller. Featuring an imaginatively assembled ensemble cast whose characters inhabit the shadowy underworld of an anonymous city which is controlled by Mr Franklyn, a mysterious and omniscient criminal mastermind, the performances and the look of the film just about make up for the implausibility of the plot. Margot Robbie is tremendous as Annie, the sassy waitress moonlighting as an assassin who is duplicitously trying to muscle her way into Franklyn’s nefarious activities by pitting two hired killers Vince (Dexter Fletcher) and Alfred (Max Irons) against each other. Simon Pegg is in fine form as Bill, a suicidal, terminally-ill schoolteacher who Annie befriends at the station café where she works, and Mike Myers gives another of his entertaining comic turns as the station janitor.

The set design and cinematography are impressive, and the hyper-real city has a distinctive graphic novel look to it. Seeped in lurid neon and saturated with colour, the film’s imagery is a major success and every frame captures the attention. Terminal also features some snappy dialogue and has its moments of comedy, especially in the relationship between the two assassins which borrows heavily from the Guy Richie gangster vernacular. Similarly, the scenes between Bill and Annie where the waitress attempts to help the schoolteacher choose a suitable method for killing himself has some neat darkly comic touches There are nods to Hitchcock- especially Vertigo- and the plot arc is reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, especially in its portrayal of Franklyn who comes across as a Keyser Söze ubermensch figure. Terminal is well paced, has its tongue firmly in its cheek in a slyly intertextual knowing postmodern manner and is good fun, in a Lewis Carroll meets Quentin Tarantino kind of way. But for all its Chandleresque, pulpy, hard-boiled edginess and visual brilliance, the influences are all derivative and ultimately the film doesn’t bring anything especially original to the genre.

Also my review on Prosecco Socialist- Songs From Behind Bars, David Rotheray's new music project is here

And here's my latest piece in Tenfootcity on classic albums. #MarvinGaye #ThePixies #SexPistols #TalkingHeads #PattiSmith.

My latest piece on classic British comedy films is in Hull's street mag- Tenfootcity. Out on the streets now or available here:

Friday, 6 July 2018

The Endless: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s weird sci-fi/ horror hybrid is an indie triumph.

US: 2017/ 111 mins/ Cert 15
Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Cast: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Callie Hernandez, Tate Ellington

The Endless is the third low budget feature from filmmaking partners Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Following on from their acclaimed 2014 body-horror, Spring, which Guillermo del Toro described as “one of the best horror films of this decade”, Benson and Moorhead’s latest collaboration inhabits the same mystical universe as Resolution, revisiting many of the themes and  containing similar narrative motifs which were introduced in their 2012 debut. The film was also scripted by Benson with Moorhead taking the director of photography duties.

In addition to their responsibilities behind the camera, Benson and Moorhead also take the leading roles in the film, playing Justin and Aaron Smith, two brothers who escaped the clutches of Camp Arcadia, a southern Californian UFO cult on which they were raised. Scraping by on low paid cleaning jobs, the brothers eke out a meagre existence and there is an underlying hostility between the two siblings which is exacerbated by their dull lives. The older brother, Justin, had reported the activities of the camp to the press claiming it to be a “death cult” whereas Aaron is developing feelings of nostalgia towards the idyllic life of the commune and resentment towards his brother for taking him away. When a strange video arrives from the cult, the brothers return to Arcadia, aiming to seek closure on what had been a traumatic period of their young lives. They plan to stay for one night only but their visit is lengthened as they rekindle their relationships with the commune members and are drawn into the mystery surrounding the camp. Witnessing a series of unexplainable phenomena which begins to threaten their grip on reality, the brothers begin to believe that there may be some truth in the cult’s beliefs that there is some supernatural force out there in the Californian landscape which is controlling their destinies.

The Endless is a generic mash-up which is so brilliantly imaginative that it defies categorisation. Part sci-fi/horror hybrid, part family sibling drama, its fantasy elements are grounded in an almost documentary style mode of filmmaking with the use of handheld camera combined with wide-lens panoramic shots of the Californian landscape complementing the naturalism of the performances. The CGI effects which come more to the fore towards the end of the film are for the most part unobtrusive and the avoidance of standard horror clichés and reliance upon atmosphere and mood, rather than imagery, to inject fear invoke a genuine sense of unease. It is an enigmatic, weirdly intoxicating and unsettling film which instilled in me a sense of existential anxiety that I have rarely felt at the cinema.

With this film, Benson and Moorhead prove that an original concept, well executed, is worth far more than lavish special effects and a huge budget. A twist on the Nietzschean eternal return as imagined by H.P. Lovecraft and David Lynch, The Endless is a genre-bending, time-warping, head-tripping triumph which deserves to reach a large audience.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Hereditary review: Ari Aster’s flawed yet still powerful debut horror

US: 2018/ 127 mins/ Cert. 15
Director: Ari Aster
Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd

Hereditary, described by Time Out as “a new generation’s The Exorcist” is one of the most-talked about new releases of recent months and has received considerable praise from critics. Overall the film is worthy of its acclaim, although the frequent comparison to The Exorcist arguably says more about the longevity and power of William Friedkin’s masterpiece than Ari Aster’s film itself. It is doubtful whether people will treat Hereditary with the same reverence as The Exorcist in 40 years’ time although this is not to say that the film will not be considered a minor classic in years to come. Hereditary contains some genuinely heart-stopping moments and from its opening seizes you with a sense of dread that barely lets you go for its duration.

Annie Graham (Toni Collette) lives in a secluded house on the edge of woodland with her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and thirteen-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie is an artist, specialising in building miniature models and figurines of the family, their home and environment, creating stunningly realistic tableaux vivants of the events which have impacted upon their lives. The film opens with a camera pan around Annie’s studio, settling on the miniature of Peter’s bedroom before a slow zoom into the room allows the “real” action to take over. The miniature models become an integral part of Hereditary’s mise en scène and an ingenious device for reflecting the film’s atmosphere and narrative themes. As the film progresses, the models create a defamiliarization effect which asks whether what we are seeing is real or merely a construct of Annie’s imagination? Or is there an external supernatural force exerting a malevolent control over the family?

The story begins after the death of Annie’s mother. During her funeral eulogy we discover that Ellen was a difficult and secretive woman and that the mother and daughter were estranged for much of their lives. Owing to the strained relationship with the grandmother, the entire family are struggling to grieve and only it is only Charlie who seems affected by the death. Charlie is a morbidly obsessed and lonely child who snips the head off dead pigeons to assemble bizarre toys, asking her mother after the funeral “who will look after me when you die?” Shapiro captures the weirdly-creepy young child horror trope perfectly.

The first act of Hereditary builds a foreboding atmosphere which is genuinely disquieting, revealing the family’s troubles and hinting that something dreadful is lurking in its past. We discover that Annie’s family has a history of mental illness and that her brother suffered from schizophrenia and committed suicide as a teenager, blaming Ellen for “trying to put people inside him.” Later we discover Annie has a history of sleepwalking and during one episode narrowly escaped burning Peter and herself alive with paint thinner and matches. Both Annie and Charlie are haunted by sightings of the dead grandmother.

About a third of the way into the film, a brutal and tragic event occurs which is so brilliantly executed and unexpectedly shocking that it violently jolts you from your seat. Frustratingly, there follows a shift in tone with the film increasingly coming to rely upon more familiar horror generic devices which make the latter part of Hereditary suffer in comparison to the earlier section. However, even though Hereditary doesn’t quite recapture its early momentum, there are still enough memorable images towards the end which linger horribly in the mind and, despite its flaws, there is still a lot to be admired in the film. Aster’s preference for long takes and slow camera movement helps to ratchet up an unbearable feeling of anxiety and the leading players are all excellent, especially Collette, who surely ought to receive recognition for her outstanding performance when awards season rolls around.

In its depiction of the destructive nature of grief, Hereditary thematically and visually echoes Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, with nods to Roeg’s masterpiece in the red smock which is worn by Charlie and the introduction of a spiritualist-dabbling, Joan (Ann Dowd), who befriends Annie at the bereavement therapy class. There is also an image of spilled paint, a subtle reference to similar images reprised throughout Don’t Look Now. In addition, Hereditary’s themes are comparable to the modern horror classic The Babadook but without the sustained psychological intensity of Jennifer Kent’s superior film and Robert Eggers’ The Witch, made by A24, the same company that produced Hereditary. For all the lazy comparisons to The Exorcist, the film Hereditary has most in common with is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby perhaps with a dash of Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out and even The Wicker Man added to the mix.

Aster has claimed that whilst the film can be read as a metaphor for madness and a comment upon the destructiveness of guilt, the film’s ending should be taken literally. The problem is that if you read a horror genre text like Hereditary too literally, there is always the danger that the narrative will fall apart and the plot-holes become as wide and cavernous as the portal into Hell itself. The final act of the film abandons the nuanced psychological approach and loses some of its impact although the fact that it doesn’t completely revert to standard horror jump-scare clichés is commendable. Overall, the film could have been improved with a little more editing (Aster has revealed that the first cut ran at a total of three hours), cutting out some unnecessary exposition to allow for more ambiguity as Hereditary is at its best, and most terrifying, when operating in the hinterlands of the unconscious; the nightmarish territory between reality and fantasy.

Perhaps not quite the classic, nor as scary, that some have claimed, Hereditary is still an unsettling and effective horror which shows a great deal of promise for its first-time director.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

My Tenfootcity music article on classic albums is also out now. Available from the usual outlets or to download here: