The True History of the Kelly Gang 2020 ***

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Peter Carey’s writings have been turned into big-screen entertainment with intermittent success; his screenplay for Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World is something of a secret  triumph, even if the wonderfully quirky film itself didn’t reach the mainstream. Laura Jones had more success with her take on Oscar and Lucinda, and Gillian Armstrongs’s spare, austere visuals provides a sensitive gloss to the soul-searching individuals at the narrative’s core. One’s heart sinks, however at the notion of director Justin Kurzel having a go at Carey’s prose; the man behind the lamentable Assassins Creed adaptation and the even duller version of Macbeth would seem like the wrong man for a tricky job, and so it proves.

The Ned Kelly story has been told before, notably with Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, and this time around 1917 star George Mackay takes the lead, by dint of his Australian father. A caption, ‘None of what follows is true,’ recalls Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, but even the fictional elements here are strictly revisionist stuff, with character motivations generally ascribed to sex, impotence and randomness. A lengthy sequence establishing Kelly’s relationship with his father gives way to a striking introduction of Mackay, physically contorted in front of a Union Jack flag. Charlie Hunnam turns as a copper, while a bearded Russell Crowe seems to enjoy himself as a writer with a taste for obscene verse. But things often feel different when translated from page to screen, and Kurzel’s film suffers from adhering without much thought to the clichés of the Western genre, with a tough hero, struggling with inner demons and confused sexuality, leading a band of misfits to one last, misguided stand.

Mackay is probably about as good as he could be in the circumstances, and after a draggy mid-section, the final climax is reasonably compelling as white-hooded figures surround Kelly and his gang in their metallic strong-hold. But Carey’s interest in myth and reality does not survive the translation here; Kelly is just one more wronged maverick seeking oblivion outside of societal norms, and whatever made the book’s blend of reality and myth so potent just writes around in the dirt and filth here.

 

Holiday 2018 ****

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Some films are more challenging to viewers than others; Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday is one that has to be approached with real caution. It’s a film suffused with mood, and dread, and the oppressive quality makes it one to avoid for the delicate of disposition. Male sexual violence is the subject, and for some, just that choice of focus will be enough to dissuade; reaching past the obvious provisos, Eklöf’s film manages to justify the contentious images on-screen, but it’s a close run thing at times.

Holiday takes a familiar location; the high-life of low-life crims in the Mediterranean sunshine. We’ve been here before, in Sweeney 2 or Sexy Beast, and Holiday has a similarly dark feel to Jonathan Glazer’s celebrated Pinter-riff. But there’s little comfort here; Victoria Carmen Sonne plays Sascha, a young woman who is the voluntary plaything of the violent Michael (Lai Yde). Michael deals drugs, and his social events are ones to avoid. Thomas (Thjis Romer) unwisely gets involved with the couple, and things end violently, although not quite as might be expected.

Holiday deals with events which shock; there’s a lengthy sexual assault scene that’s absolutely pivotal to the story, but even knowing the director’s intent, is still almost impossible to sit through. To what extent should we accept this as shining a light of a real social problem, or does the explicit quality of the scene push too far? Certainly, the comments on the imdb reviews board (never a great gauge of anything) suggest that few viewers were able to read the scenes as un-simulated, and that’s part of the film’s hard edge. This isn’t the kind of vapid exploitation that made, say Donkey Punch so revolting; Holiday’s sleek photography and natural acting palate disguise something more in the vein of a Lars Von Trier movie, specifically The Idiots or Breaking the Waves.

Provocation has become a bad word of late, and Holiday didn’t get the kind of free publicity that tabloids use to dish out. This release, on the Anti-Worlds banner of extreme art-hour releases, should do something to secure it’s on-going reputation. There’s more than a touch of Brett Eason Ellis’s trademark nihilism here, probably more realised than in the American author’s own films. For those who have the stomach for it, and this critic really had to wrestle with the off switch at times, this is a rewardingly tough drama with a hard feminist edge.

Holiday is released by Anti-Worlds from Feb 2020, and links for disc and blu-ray releases are supplied below.

 

Color Out of Space 2020 ****

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Of course, in 2020, we drop the “The’ from the title, and the spelling is Americanised, and that’s not all that’s new; Lovecraft’s short story is really just a jumping off point in terms of narrative elements. A meteorite, a blasted heath (still named Arkham), mutated animals; Stanley remixes the ingredients and adds a strong family drama, with the aptly-named Gardners facing all kinds of weird distortions in nature. Nathan (Nicolas Cage) and his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) want to protect their kids, but she slices off a couple of fingers while cutting vegetables, and when she gets back from hospital, things have changed for the worse. There a strange purple hue on everything, the family dog is missing, and there’s all sorts of arcane creatures flying from the hole where the meteorite landed.

Stanley puts the wit back into the horror genre with his deft handling of the ideas here; Nathan’s deep horror at his tv interviews being tarnished by the on-screen description ‘UFO witness’ catches the right vibe of vain indignation; there’s tension about what will happen next, but despite their protests, the Gardners recognise are going to hell in a hand-basket, and there’s not much more they can do than struggle. Effects are carefully eked out, the visuals are unique and imaginative, and the whole package just works; horror films change over the decades, but Color Out of Space feels like the first real horror film of the 2020’s.

In the UK, COLOR OUT OF SPACE comes to Blu-ray, DVD & Digital on 6th April 2020 and is available to pre-order here – http://bit.ly/COOSAmzDB. The Blu-ray edition features exclusive UK artwork by Dude Designs. A limited Special Edition Blu-ray will also be available exclusively from HMV, as part of their First Editions range, featuring a fold-out poster and booklet and slipcase. Available to pre-order here – http://bit.ly/COOSHMVAll.

 

Dark Waters 2019 ***

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This film remains in a UK slot selected to take advantage of an Oscar campaign, a campaign which never actually materialised; that’s a big shock in that director Todd Haynes has been an awards darling via I’m Not There or Carol. Critics seem to have turned up their noses at Dark Waters because it doesn’t feature the director’s usual extravagances; the lush 1950’s period detail of Carol, the off-beat asides about Oscar Wilde and aliens in Velvet Goldmine. But Haynes has a pre-occupation with alienation and the environment that runs back to 1995’s Safe, and just because he’s fused these concerns with a tried and tested Erin Brockovich-type detective story doesn’t mean we should relegate Dark Waters to the status of a minor work.

The Spotlight producers are at work here, as is the same star, Mark Ruffalo, who plays Robert Bilott, a lawyer who gets wind that there’s something in the water in his West Virginia hometown. He travels back, and runs foul of various authority figures who don’t want word getting out that the something in the water is created by the manufacture of Teflon, and careless dumping procedures have affected a whole generation. Bill Pullman does a great job as the chemical-plant baddie, while Anne Hathaway doesn’t have much to do as Billott’s long-suffering wife.

As with Spotlight, much of the film is spent watching Ruffalo looking through large piles of paper, yet break-throughs are fewer and further between. But the star is good as always, and the point of the film, that criminal activities go on in plain sight until we make a point of investigating, is worth considering. It’s frustrating that when Haynes wants to depict literary or cultural figures, the world pays rapt attention, but when he has something to say about genuine issues ie the environment, pundits seem to think he’s treading water. He’s a big-name director, and even if this film is a little dry, it’s a modern, meaningful film about a genuinely concerning issue.

Martha Meet Frank,Daniel and Lawrence 1998 ****

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Peter Biskind’s book on the Miramax era, and specifically the reign of Harvey Weinstein, has lots of remarkable asides about the maverick producer’s behaviour, even if it skirts the issues that are central to the 2020 court-case. Down and Dirty Pictures is more concerned with the cultural vandalism that Weinstein did, but it’s probably worth balancing out with Miramax’s undeniable success in terms in acquiring and distributing low-budget film. Nick Hamm’s Martha Meet Frank Daniel and Lawrence was recently thrust into he news cycle when star Monica Potter claimed that her refusal of Weinstein’s advances damaged her career; with only two films in the last 15 years, the numbers would appear to bear her story out.

If such black-balling took place, it’s a real shame, because Potter was a personable female lead who might have had a different career if Weinstein had not agreed to pick up this British rom-com with an imported star, cut all the swearing and half-heartedly released it as The Very Thought of You. Potter plays Martha, a car-rental clerk from Minneapolis who travels to the UK with $35 in her pocket and promptly meets three men, Frank (Rufus Sewell) , Daniel (Tom Hallander) and Lawrence (Joseph Fiennes). These men are friends, but they’re unaware that each of them are romancing the same woman, and she’s equally unaware that the three men are rivals for her affection.

This convoluted story is told by Lawrence to Pedersen (Ray Winstone); Lawrence feels that the confidence of a psychiatrist will help him straighten out the issues, lthough the punch-line for this sub-plot is unexpectedly great. London circa 1998 looks green, lush and warm, and there’s a slather of indie music on the soundtrack.

And best of all is how woke Peter Morag’s script is; Daniel and Frank both adore Martha, but can’t stop talking about their own successes and failures for long enough to listen to her. Lawrence passes the test by listening and understanding; the grand gestures of many rom-coms are revealed as male vanity here. And unlike most rom-coms, the climax does not involve some grand and public gesture by a man, but rather Martha takes things into her own hands and sorts it out. ‘It’s the best rom-com ever…’ screeches the pull-quote of the poster, which might be overstating the case; it’s certainly one of the most under-rated. Every so often romantically-minded heterosexual men have to pull a rom-com out from somewhere for shared viewing; Martha Meets Frank, Daniel and Lawrence might be the best option in terms of springing a surprise.

Blue Story 2019 ****

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On the basis of Blue Story, Paramount awarded British writer/director Rapman a chance to remake a hot property, A Prophet. That’s quite a prospect, given that Jacques Audiard’s jail and gangsters tale has been one of the most notable entries in the cycle over the last decade. Blue Story has had a number of difficulties to overcome, notably release date changes in the US (March 20th 2020 is the latest) and a truncated release in the UK that muted a potentially strong box-office performance.

Blue Story is a considerably superior product to Noel Clarke’s lamentable wannabe Kidulthood trilogy, and also looks good in comparison with Saul Dibb’s benchmark Bulletboy; this is a modern gangland culture film without Scorsese’s nostalgic touch, based around the on-going postcode wars. Two friends Marco (Michael Ward) and Timmy (Stephen Odubola) find their friends and families have to take a side in the turf-wars, but their best efforts can’t preserve them from the on-going cycle of violence.

Showcase Cinemas in the UK pulled the film after 25 separate incidents were reported at 15 screenings, but that ban was later revoked; given that the film steps nimbly away from issues of glamorisation, it’s hard to see why the film-makers should pay a penalty. Those growing up in Peckham and Deptford, the areas described here, probably have enough problems to be going on with without being demonised in the media; perhaps the white-heat anger of Blue Story will be best appreciated as a home-entertainment event, but losing the opportunity to be a community event is detrimental to this kind of hearthelt production.

Rapman narrates the story here, and while his commentary removes much of the nuance from his film, it also makes sure the message lands. Britain, or at least the inner cities, faces a real challenge through the gentrification and ghetto-isation of their inhabitants, and Blue Story’s slick production marks a rare departure by the BBC into tricky real-world issues. Ward is a stand-out in a uniformly strong cast, and while such grim realities might put some viewers off, Blue Story is to be commended for standing up for the dispossessed and telling things as they are, circa 2020.

Horror Hospital 1973 NA (No Award)

horrorhospital25To cap off the busiest week to date on this blog, it’s customary to try and separate the sheep from the goats and weed out the fair-weather friends by reviewing something awful. And 1973’s Horror Hospital is truly awful, a grotty pot-boiler obsessed with crude medical procedures and resistible sexual scenes. And yet any film that features that emblem of Britishness, a Rolls Royce, kitted out with retractable decapitation blades can only have some kind of satirical nous, and so Horror Hospital is today’s film under review.

Once, viewing a HD print of Horror Hospital would be the preserve of millionaires or madmen; the internet, You Tube and specifically online library FlickVault are responsible for putting this obscure film within a click of your viewing pleasure. Confessions star Robin Asquith plays pop-star Jason Jones, who is so exhausted by his twin vices of music and cocaine that he signs up for a break with the Hairy Holidays company; ‘Maybe there’ll be some birds there,’ Jones muses distantly in a moment that displays a dismaying lack of wokeness. On the train to his vacation, Jones meets the attractive Judy (Vanessa Shaw), and the two of them quickly check into the one remaining room at the Horror Hospital, which looks more like a Horror Gymnasium, or possible Horror Country Estate, since it’s recognisably Knebworth House. Within these walls, Dr Christian Storm (Michael Gough) is conducting experiments, with his dictatorial role enforced by zombie motorcyclists Storm 1 and Storm 2, as well as the weaponised motor mentioned above.

Directed by Anthony Balch and produced by horror specialist Richard Gordon, Horror Hospital has never looked so sharp, with crisp, clean images replacing the murk that made it un-viewable. But now that the veil is lifted, there sights are hardly cherishable, including Dennis Price as a lavacious travel agent and an opening psychedelic wig-out from the band Mystic. There’s some vague sense of morality in that Horror Hospital rejects the Doctor’s obscene brand of human experimentation, although the endorsement of 1970’s youth culture seems like a less-than-palatable alternative.

A number of films in the FlickVault archive have been removed for copyright reasons, but Horror Hospital seems to be finding an audience, no doubt attracted by garish clothes, hideous attitudes and childish glee in horror. Those seeking non-PC entertainment may well find nuggets of interest, but those feeling nostalgia for such arcane entries in the horror canon may well find their enthusiasm misplaced. This film is also known as Computer Killers, but makes no more sense under that title.

Beowulf 2007 ***

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Let’s pity those who aim to push the boundaries of computer-generated technology; there’s ever chance they’ll end up with a film is weirdly misbegotten as Beowulf. One of two competing works based around the Old English epic poem, Robert Zemeckis’ expensive film didn’t bust many blocks on release, and has since vanished into relative obscurity for such a bally-hooed prospect. There’s a simple reason for this; time has not been kind of Beowulf. A year later, 2008 saw Iron Man generate a run of hit Marvel films and imitators that used CGI to create action scenes in the real world, making Beowulf’s motion-capture/animation hybrid look decidedly dated.

The oddball writing team of Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction, The Rules of Attraction) and Neil Gaiman gives some clue as to the wobbly tone here, but Beowulf feels like the result of some shonky creative meetings. A big cast including Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson and Robin Wright Penn allow their likenesses to be used for CGI characters that look as dead-eyed and inexpressive as PS2 game characters, while Ray Winstone lends his gravelly betting-shop-flogger voice to Beowulf, who looks like a Jesus-Christ super-saviour hero, often naked but with helmets, pillars and other items obscuring his genitals in Austin Powers-style. Beowulf aims to please the king (Hopkins) by defeating the monstrous Grendel but, in a twist that’s familiar from the 1998 Godzilla to Pacific Rim, discovers he’s killed off the child, not the mother…

And the mother is Angelina Jolie, also unclothed throughout; this Beowulf’s adventures looks like a Jim Steinman album cover and bears the unmistakable feel of a teenage boy’s fantasy. And yet a $150 million film based on an Old English poem can only be interesting, if only to see how the narrative is reshaped into a modern idiom. There are some really striking visual flourishes here, like a view from beneath the ground as a bloodstain spreads. In fact, the world of Beowulf is striking to behold, and the dialogue and restructuring isn’t bad, it’s just that technology hadn’t caught up with character design in 2007, and the resulting lack of involvement with these waxwork figures is fatal.

Beowulf is something of a noble failure here, and attempt to harness Hollywood to access classic texts rather than comic book archetypes. It doesn’t quite work, but in amongst the ruins, there’s the design of what might have been a game-changing dive into turning great literature into great art.

 

Communion 1989 ***

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Communion is a problematic film that’s hard to fit into any specific genre, and has consequently slipped into relative obscurity; popping up on Amazon Prime might encourage a cult following for Philippe Mora’s film. Whitley Strieber adapted the script from his own book, and horror/sci-fi fans will know that Strieber claims to know his subject well, because he controversially went public in describing his own abduction by aliens. Communion takes these claims seriously; based on Strieber’s position, Communion is not horror, or fiction at all, but a personal account of being assaulted by alien beings.

There’s plenty of reviews willing to make fun of this, but Strieber’s entitled to make his case, and he does so in a rather strange way. The Wolfen author enlisted Christopher Walken to play a version of himself in Communion that is decidedly uncomplimentary; Strieber’s writing routine is depicted as rather weird, and his penchant for strange outfits and voices makes you wonder what the audience is supposed to think of him, but there’s at least a veneer of extreme honesty here. Strieber (Walken) takes his family out of NYC and off to a remote cabin, only to be visited by aliens. And before you can say ‘anal probe’, that’s exactly where Mora’s film goes, and in some detail. Strieber struggles to admit to himself what’s happened, but meeting up with other survivors of alien kidnappings gives him the gumption to go public about his trauma.

Mora actually does a nice job here, taking time for atmosphere and to get inside Strieber’s head, as well as decent support from Lindsay Crouse as Strieber’s long-suffering wife. But hiring the director of Howling II: My Sister is a Werewolf may have been a mistake in terms of credibility, an own goal that makes it easy to carp. The alien designs (there are several species identified here) are a mixed bag, and Communion won’t please genre fans because it doesn’t use that first encounter as a jumping–off point; that’s the whole movie, and it takes Strieber two hours of semi-improvised scenes to catch up.

But there’s something going on here that’s worth a second look. Paul Schrader’s Kingdom Come was an account of alien visits that got revamped as Close Encounters; round about the time of Taxi Driver, Schrader equated male alienation and disillusionment with a lack of belief, and Communion addresses the same subject. Walken is an unpredictable presence, and he makes something remote and tricky of Strieber’s character; this might be a vanity project, but it’s also one that casually and perhaps unwisely exposes the author warts and all. Of course, seeing Christopher Walken deep probed by aliens has a real curiosity value for thrill-seekers, but Communion’s intermittent sense of quasi-religious conviction is unusual to say the least. Whether you believe it or not, the author seems genuinely keen to you to give his story a chance.

Inside Moves 1980 ****

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One of the better Hollywood movies on the subject of disability, Richard Donner’s Inside Moves doesn’t limit its scope to physical impairment; mental illness is taken seriously too, so don’t be surprised that you’ve not heard much about it. Coming off the back of Superman, Donner was a sought-after director, and with a script by Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin adapted from Todd Walton’s novel, Inside Moves feels like an attempt to break fresh ground in terms of challenging pubic perceptions of health issues.

Taking place against a rather dingy-looking Los Angeles, Inside Moves it as much about a place as a person; Max’s bar, a run-down bar where various types congregate. David Morse is Jerry, an athlete who requires an operation if he’s ever going to pursue his basketball dream. His occasional girlfriend Louise (Diana Scarwid) turns tricks to make some money, and is often in need for Jerry to rescue her. Wings (Harold Russell) has hooks for hands, but cheer-leads a group of card-sharps who provide an abrasive commentary on what’s going on. And Roary (John Savage) is recovering from a suicide attempt, having thrown himself out of a building. Roary is adopted by the denizens of the bar, and their friendship inspires Jerry to reach new heights which test their bonds.

Russell hadn’t made a film since his Oscar-winning turn in 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives, and casting the presidential advisor on issues to do with the ‘handicapped’ was a coup, yet it’s Scarwid’s Oscar-nominated turn which pulls most effectively at the heart-strings. Inside Moves doesn’t do enough to consider Louise’s plight, but the actress imbues the tired street-walker clichés with something genuine and heart-felt. Otherwise, Inside Moves does a good job in capturing a group of men who fear they’re put out to grass, and are trying to find their place in a world that ostracizes them. It’s interesting that in 1980, the place for this kind of interaction to happen was a commercial bar; there’s no self-help, drop-in centres or social work interventions here, just macho-banter and gruff philosophy.

Inside Moves is a melancholy, tough little drama that moves quickly beyond be-all-you-can-be platitudes and expands to consider the nature of alienation. Savage and Morse are both terrific here, giving the kind of powerhouse performances that the material needs; we feel that we’re watching good people battle real life crises, and while that’s not a promise that lured many to the theatres, it’s worth seeking out as a period piece that says a lot about US health-care circa 1980.