TENET (spoiler-free review)


2020

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Fiona Dourif, Himesh Patel

Words – Daniel McMonagle

2020 has been one of the cruellest years for cinema on record. Unlike many films rescheduled, shelved and sold off to streaming services, the latest feature from Christopher Nolan is too big and expensive to go straight into the digital land of video on demand. With the ongoing pandemic, Tenet has been seen as the film to save the reopening of cinemas…

Fortunately, Tenet exceeds expectations and delivers everything audiences could want from a film of this magnitude. Returning collaborators such as cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley have crafted what looks and sounds like the most “Nolan” film experience yet. With bombastic scenes running back and forth, we follow the unnamed protagonist played very charismatically by John David Washington, accompanied by Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, as they try to prevent the start of World War 3 by a Russian Oligarch played with absolute venom by Kenneth Brannagh.

Time has always been one of the principle themes of Nolan’s films. With Tenet, he explores the concept of time running back and forth on itself as the protagonist is thrust into a world where the future can communicate with the past. Like a lot of key time travel plots, the characters get to explore past events they previously experienced. Reverse footage never looked so exciting than it does here as explosions invert and bullets fly back whilst character motivations and plot twists are unveiled in a non-linear fashion due to the nature of time travel.

Nolan’s films have often been criticised for their heavy reliance on exposition. However, Tenet is actually less exposition-heavy than its closest relative film Inception. We are thrust into events along with the characters and are forced to pick things up as the plot charges along. Razor sharp editing and a propulsive score by Ludwig Goransson ensure a relentlessly up-tempo pace.

Nolan has always expressed an interest in the Bond movies, and we have previously seen hints of this with Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy. Tenet is as close to a Nolan ‘Bond movie’ as we’re ever likely to get, he has taken everything that’s great about James Bond such as globetrotting exotic locations, high stakes plotting and action scenes and given them a science fiction twist. The film is set against the backdrop of some truly outstanding scenery that IMAX takes maximum advantage of. As far as the action scenes play out, this is Nolan’s best work yet. Tenet is full of shoot outs, chases and espionage, all helped by a complete reliance on practical effects.

On first viewing, the plot may seem convoluted and, at times, difficult to follow. However, Tenet is undoubtedly the best movie-going experience of the year that demands multiple viewings.

 

 

 


 

 

Cinema Paradiso


1988

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

Starring: Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Enzo Cannavale, Isa Danieli, Leo Gullotta, Agnese Nano, Leopoldo Trieste

Words – Christian Abbott

“The old movie business is just a memory”, a line which summates so much feeling through nostalgia, perfectly capturing the essence of this film. The old movie business may indeed just be a memory now, but it is here that its power lives on, and its legacy and impact will never be forgotten.

Released over three decades ago, cinema has changed profoundly since this time, but the power of the cinematic remains true.
A story following the life of a now renowned filmmaker, Toto, as a message to return to his hometown sparks the memories of his upbringing both in and around his beloved Cinema Paradiso. It’s a timeless tale of childish naivete and young love, between him and cinema. It’s a perfect foundation to explore cinema’s glittering lure.

There is something uniquely wonderful about films that capture this unique love of cinema. Perhaps, this is because it is a rare display of genuine appreciation for the art form of the cinema itself, or, more likely, it is because those that appreciate film with the same youthful infatuation that Toto has for the projection room, sometimes need nothing more than two hours of cinematic self-indulgence.

From writer and director Giuseppe Tornatore, it is clear this was crafted by a loving hand; there is scene after scene of people gathering, laughing, cheering, and celebrating the sheer potential of the big screen. People brought together into a dark room to share in its emotions, cinema is a truly unique experience and this champions it like no other.

There are consistent low-angle shots of Toto, as he is transfixed by the screen; the projectors beam of light above him, Tornatore creates a mythic feeling. In conjunction, Ennio Morricone provided an angelic score, a soundtrack to cinema itself, and one of his absolute finest pieces in a career of consistent greats.

There is a lesson Toto learns in his young life, that sometimes you need to step away from something to truly appreciate it, as hard as that may be. We may all take the cinema for granted, after all, it has always been there and through works like this, it always will be. But like Toto, when you take a step back things become clear, and through his eyes, through the lens of Tornatore, we see that cinema should never be taken for granted, because its effects both on the personal and on the public can never be fully understood, though Cinema Paradiso is the best understanding of why we will always go to the cinema.

★★★★★

See details of a forthcoming 4K restoration and cinema re-release here:

https://arrowfilms.com/news/cinema-paradiso-returns-to-uk-cinemas-this-month/


Seven Samurai

1954

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukiko Shimazaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Daisuke Katô, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yoshio Inaba

Words – Christian Abbott

All great films can be traced back to other works of art from decades past. The cynical would say that nothing is original anymore, but what it truly shows is that art, and especially cinema, is a never ending cycle of inspiration and reinterpretation. Often, this comes at the detriment to the previous work, as it slowly becomes overshadowed by the piece that exists because of it.
Arguably, one of the most obvious examples of this is when it comes to The Magnificent Seven (1960). Almost everybody knows of this film and understands its cultural impact, but some may not realise what inspired it. To take nothing away from John Sturges’ classic re-imagining, one shouldn’t forget the original, as its impact reaches far beyond its Hollywood remake – it defined and helped create genre-fiction as we know it today.

Released in 1954 by legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai was the result of years of research and heavyweight talent coming together. The result was one of cinema’s most impressive and enduring ensemble casts, and a cinematic eye that is still sharper than most.

An old samurai in need of work is hired by a town to protect them against a series of bandits. To do this, he enlists 6 more samurai’s to protect and supply the town with aid. The sequence of events is a familiar one to modern audiences, but it is told so expertly, with genuine ingenuity and cinematic innovation that it still can hold its own against any modern action blockbuster.
From the initial hire, through building a team, holding the bandits back piece by piece and ultimately leading to a massive battle still excites now. Sometimes you need nothing more than a classic tale of redemption and honour; and this is that film.

Kurosawa’s editing and Asakazu Nakai’s cinematography have been written about at length and their impact can be felt across cinema. But understanding it is one thing, to see it yourself is another. The sweeping shots, silhouetted framing and persistent, gilding changes from wide and close-up captivate in a way only cinema achieves.

Seven Samurai has good company in Kurosawa’s canon for reinterpretation. The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961) were both famously re-worked into Star Wars (1977) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964), respectively. Great work inspires future great artists, which in turn inspire more.
Today, the words remake and reboot feel tainted by consistent failure – the mere mention of a remake can turn audiences away and actively annoy others for perceived disrespect to the original work.
Yet, the legacy and history of Seven Samurai stands as a testament to its merits. Without it, so much of cinema we enjoy and define ourselves by wouldn’t exist. So many great filmmakers wouldn’t have seen 7 samurai warriors protect a small village, inspiring them to create stories that will inspire us.

This is truly a milestone in cinema and should never be side-lined or forgotten. Kurosawa’s filmography is a catalogue of greats, but Seven Samurai stands alone. For a reminder of why cinema is great – watch Seven Samurai.

 

 

 


 

 

Parasite

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Starring: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, Park So-dam, Jeong-eun Lee, Hye-jin Jang, Ji-so Jung

Words – Rhiannon Topham

Rarely does a film defy all cinematic conventions and pull it off flawlessly. Even more rare is for a film to please so many different genres, yet seem almost completely genre-less.
There is so much to say about Parasite, none of which should be discussed openly in a one-way format such as this: it is highly recommended going into this film without any prior knowledge of what it is or where it will go. So how to go about describing this artistic feat, aside from the obvious statements that it is undeniably Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece, and easily one of the best films in decades?

Let’s start with painting as simple a picture as possible. Whereas Bong’s previous films, the irreverent Okja and dystopian future incision Snowpiercer, focussed on alternative realities, the social skewering in Parasite is distinctly tangible.
The Kim family live in a small semi-basement and all struggle to hold down employment. They rush around their squalid home trying to connect to free WiFi and leave their windows open when the fumigators spray the streets to try and clear the stink-bugs moving in.

One day, the Kims are visited by son Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk, who gifts them a mysterious rock which is said to bring wealth to those who possess it. When Min-hyuk suggests Kim-woo pretend to be a university student and take over his job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family, what follows is an opportunistic snowballing plot devised by the Kims which is equal parts genius and dangerous, rational and absurd.
By exploiting the credulous Park matriarch, using a creative variety of props from underpants to peaches, the Kims find a way for each of them to secure work within the concrete walls of the Park’s modernist mansion, a risky endeavour which involves usurping the family’s loyal housekeeper.

After all of the Kim clan have secured their posts in the Park home, the latter depart for a camping trip to celebrate their son’s birthday. While they’re away, the Kim’s spend the night in the luxury of their employers’ home, enjoying the kind of food and beverages they would seldom have access to back in their semi-basement. This marks the transition into the film’s second act; the Kim’s gestation period has been successful, remarkably so, and the rug is about to get violently pulled from under them.

Bong’s commitment to the nuances of social reality allows Parasite to not only traverse the audience’s constantly changing expectations (are the rich going to use their wealth and resources to outsmart the poor? Are the Kims going to overthrow the house?) but also shift gears from jaunty comedy to a white-knuckle thriller as faultlessly as Ki-taek turning corners on a busy road, smooth and confident as the ignorant but judgemental Mr Park looks on haughtily from the backseat.

As the story unravels and your jaw gradually makes its way to the floor, you quickly come to realise that it’s hard to distinguish who the ‘bad guys’ are here—an intentional move which speaks to the title of the film. There are the haves, basking in their fortune in the comfort of their sun-lit houses in the hills, and the have nots, confined to chthonic basements and subservience to the thankless demands of their employers.
Everything here is ‘metaphorical’, to steal a frequently recurring term from the film, but it is also everything you could ever want from a film: suspenseful, beautiful, at times hilarious, and always compelling.

 

 

 


 

 

Godzilla (1954)

1954

Director: Ishiro Honda

Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai

Words – Rebecca Kirby.

It took fifty years for the original, uncut version of Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla” (or Gojira) to receive an official release for western audiences. In that time the films powerful message has not diminished.

Godzilla” may be the first Kaiju (literally translated as strange creature) movie and it might feature a man in a rubber suit crushing a miniature version of Tokyo, but this is so much more than the standard B movie creature feature western audiences were accustomed to. Made less than a decade after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the USA, Godzilla explores a very complex set of emotions.

With an air of dread and a bleak theme, “Godzilla” embodies the destructive atomic realisations of the Japanese nation, the worlds first post apocalyptic society. It’s a window into the soul of a nation that had its psyche crushed in unimaginable horror, rebuilding under US occupation and trying to come to terms with its past and future.
Director Ishiro Honda, who had been drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army during wartime, not only witnessed the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 but also saw first hand the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It’s clear to see how this influenced Godzilla‘s scenes of devastation in Tokyo, full of haunting visions of a city on fire.
The film was considered so bleak, particularly for American audiences, that the version released to western audiences in 1956, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” was re-edited to remove around forty minutes of footage, including some key plot points and to incorporate twenty minutes of new footage featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter. This version was dubbed into English and featured a more uplifting final statement from Burr.

Originally conceived under the working title of “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea“, the initial creature designs were very different from the Godzilla we now know and love. The original outline featured a giant octopus, while later a gorilla or whale inspired creature was considered, with the monster to be christened Gojira – a combination of the Japanese words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira) before settling on the now iconic dinosaur inspired design.
The Godzilla suit was constructed from latex and molten rubber over a frame built from bamboo, wire and metal mesh. Weighing over 200 pounds, the suit was so heavy that performer Haruo Nakajima would pass out after only three minutes inside and lost 20 pounds during filming. Godzilla’s distinctive cry was created by composer Akira Ifukube by running a leather glove along a stringed instrument after recordings of various animals were dismissed.

Opening with the destruction of a small fishing boat by a unknown force off Odo Island, itself a reference to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident in 1954, where a Japanese trawler was caught in the radioactive fallout from a US nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, “Godzilla” spells out it’s intentions from the start.
When a further incident causes destruction on Odo Island, killing nine people and dozens of farm animals in the process, the Government sends paleontologist Dr Yamane to investigate. Dr Yamane discovers giant radioactive footprints along with a long extinct trilobite, before he has the opportunity to glimpse the terrifying Godzilla himself. He concludes that Godzilla is an ancient sea creature whose habitat has been disrupted by the hydrogen bomb tests conducted in the area.
After a plan to destroy Godzilla by using depth charges fails, the government seeks advice from Dr Yamane on how to kill the monster. Dr Yamane insists that having survived the H-bombs, Godzilla cannot be killed and the only course of action is to study him to understand how he has survived the nuclear blasts and even grown stronger as a result.
Emiko, Dr Yamane’s daughter seeks to break off her engagement to Dr Serizawa, a colleague of her father, in order to marry Hideto Ogata, a salvage ship captain that she is in love with. When Emiko visits Dr Serizawa he reveals to her the secret project that he has been working on. This demonstration causes Emiko to flee in horror without breaking off her engagement.

After Godzilla emerges in Tokyo Bay and devastates Shinagawa Ward, a further plan to kill him is put into action involving electrified fences and military force but this too fails. Tokyo suffers further destruction and hospitals are filled with casualties.

A distraught Emiko reveals the existence of Dr Serizawa’s research, a superweapon named the Oxygen Destroyer, to Ogata. Together they approach Serizawa to persuade him to use this against Godzilla. Serizawa is reluctant to use the Oxygen Destroyer as he fears it falling into the wrong hands but after seeing the aftermath of the devastation of Tokyo he finally agrees to it’s use.

Before boarding a Navy vessel to plant the Oxygen Destroyer in Tokyo Bay, Serizawa burns his notes so the weapon cannot be replicated. Once the ship has reached it’s destination, Serizawa insists on deploying his creation alone, deliberately cutting off his own oxygen supply in the process.
The Oxygen Destroyer succeeds in killing Godzilla and the film ends with a sober and grim warning from Dr Yamane that the continuation of nuclear testing would risk the emergence of more Godzilla’s.

It’s perhaps worth noting here the contrast between Dr Serizawa, who would rather sacrifice himself than allow his invention to be used for war, with the initial celebration in the US of the “father of the atomic bomb” J Robert Oppenheimer, who would appear on the cover of Time magazine in 1948. Ironically, Oppenheimer would appear on the cover of Time once again in 1954, the same year Godzilla was released, when he was stripped of his security clearances after suggesting that controls should be placed on the development of nuclear power.

Ultimately, the death of Godzilla is not seen as something to celebrate, the film never shying away from the fact that man is responsible for creating this monster. While his path of destruction must be stopped, Dr Yamane serves to remind us that Godzilla is also a victim of mankind’s nuclear ambitions, an unintended but inevitable consequence of the human disregard for the natural world.
Considering the current state of the planet’s climate and the continued stock piling of nuclear weapons by the world’s superpowers, it seems that in the 66 years since Godzilla was first unleashed we have still yet to learn those lessons.


Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Director: Céline Sciamma

Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Words – Rhiannon Topham

Describing a film as a ‘historical drama’ conjures particularly priggish dress, dialogue and narrative, none of which is typically original or disruptive to the staid all ways of the genre.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, however, is not one of those historical dramas. There is still a plentiful of corsets and petticoats, and there’s at least one character who’s a countess, but there is also something else: a genuine, recognisable sense of human desire, embroiled with obsession, fear, and of course, lots of sexual tension.

Set in Brittany in 1760, Portrait recounts a tale of forbidden love. When we first meet Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter now posing for her class of female students, it would almost be befitting for her to turn, look down the lens of the camera, and do a Fleabag: “This is a love story.”
We then go back in time to unravel the slow burning and passionate romance that flourished during Marianne’s brief stay on the northern coast of France. It was here where she was drafted by an Italian noblewoman to paint a portrait of her elusive and reclusive daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which will then be shipped off for approval from her betrothed, an unknown but wealthy man based in Milan.

Marianne’s stay is under the guise of companionship to Héloïse, who has just returned from a convent following the death of her sister. Not only is she mourning the loss of her sibling, but she also vehemently opposes this engagement and has sabotaged the attempts of previous portraitists by refusing to sit for them. Marianne is to accompany Héloïse on her walks to the seafront by day, and then privately paint her from memory by night.
Sciamma establishes the essence of forbidness from the outset, keeping Héloïse’s face hidden from both Marianne and the viewer until a pivotal moment when suddenly her physiognomy is brought to the fore for all to see, like the rediscovery of a masterpiece thought lost or destroyed.

Initially there seems to be a relative froideur between the two women, who are, beneath the pretence of amity, basically strangers. Marianne is both perplexed and transfixed by Héloïse’s mysteriousness, and on the surface one could mistake the latter’s distance as mere pretentiousness or formality. But the truth is all in the sly, yet often obvious, stolen glances; the slow-burning infatuation of discovering something new about someone every time you look at them, and the sheer pleasure and confusion of savouring those moments to yourself and then, in this case, eventually having to share those memories with an unknown other elsewhere on the continent.

There have been plenty of obvious comparisons between Portrait and Blue is the Warmest Colour. What’s distinct and profound about this story is that there’s no immediate attraction or lust; an easy narrative device that male directors so readily employ in retelling relationships between women. Rather, this is about seeing and being seen, the corporeal as much as the spiritual and emotional, and this goes beyond the romance.
This notion speaks directly to the central theme of repressed womanhood: Héloïse is to be married to someone she has never met, and is to sit for a portrait which successfully sells her as a suitable wife; her doting maid, Sophie, is forced to make a historically significant choice about an unwanted pregnancy, a momentous decision which Marianne later depicts on canvas; and Marianne’s very profession is a display of defiance, during a time when women were either heavily restricted in their access to creativity and art or were shut out completely.

Reversing the male gaze has never been done with quite the grace and poignancy as shown in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and every element works in harmony to create something so subjectively accessible and objectively beguiling, from the chemistry between the all-female cast to the masterful direction and prophetic script, and the opening scene in Marianne’s studio to the climactic grand finale in the opera house.

★★★★★

 

 


 

 

Babyteeth

Director: Shannon Murphy

Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis

Words – Rhiannon Topham

Our first flame is usually a clumsy affair, defined more by how awkward everything is than any real or lasting affection. The majority of these ‘relationships’ end swiftly with the heartbreaking realisation that things seldom last forever; but for Babyteeth’s 16-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen), this has particular poignancy as she knows that her first love is probably going to be her last.

Milla has an unnamed form of terminal cancer, for which her doting parents, the gifted pianist Anna (Essie Davis) and psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), bestow a great deal of anguish that Milla does not share. When 23-year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) charges into Milla on a train platform, nearly tossing her onto the tracks, a tempestuous and often dangerous romance ensues. In addition to the age gap, and rather predictably, these two darlings are completely different in almost every possible way; Moses is a drug taker and dealer who has been exiled from the family home, whereas Milla lives in a leafy middle class suburb, attends a girls only school and plays the violin.

Scanlen strikes a subtle balance in negotiating Milla’s amorphous emotions, moving from fury to acceptance to vulnerability and back again. Mendelsohn and Davis are also on fine form, each bringing a different quality of helplessness to their parenting responsibilities as well as nuances in how they distract themselves from the reality that their baby will probably never get better and the kindest thing to do would be to let her savour what life she has left, no matter how questionable those choices may be.

Despite Milla’s displays of defiance, the good days are woven in with the bad and we are reminded of her frailty at several key stages of the film, marked out by chapter titles such as “It didn’t feel like a love story that day” and “What the dead said to Milla”, an especially delicate scene of introspection where Milla is allowed some space to breath outside of Moses’ raucous nature and the deafening clamour of her parents walking on eggshells.

As a debut, Babyteeth is a compelling tragicomedy of family, love and acceptance. It is by no means the first teenage cancer indie film, yet this consummate cast keep this one from crossing into cliche on the well-trodden ground of coming of age romcoms, interjected by overtly concerned and covertly struggling parents.

★★★★

 

 

 


 

 

Saint Maud


Director: Rose Glass

Starring: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle

Words – Rhiannon Topham

It takes a very rare beast of a directorial debut to make you wince, laugh and question the capacity of the human mind in less than 90 minutes.
Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, a sinuous saga of madness and torment respects the many religion-inspired films in the horror genre, but suggests a surprising range of stylistic and narrative inspirations, from Lynn Ramsay’s grit to Edward Hopper’s loners in diners.

Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a palliative nurse in a dilapidated seaside town who we first see crouched in a corner covered in blood. As far as first impressions go, it’s about as menacing as it can get. When she’s drafted to care for Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer and choreographer now rendered housebound by illness and disability, the initial apprehension between the two eases into admiration and intrigue before regressing to outright repulsion; Maud for Amanda’s decadent lifestyle and coterie of hedonistic creatives, Amanda for Maud’s myopic opinion of how life should be lived.

Maud is a character of extremes; self-destructive in one ‘life’ and ascetic in another. Her obsequious quest to strive in her newfound piousness is juxtaposed with Amanda’s lucid, albeit anaesthetized, compos mentis. Maud’s religious conversion has granted her a moxie seemingly absent in her past, when, it transpires, she wasn’t a Maud at all. The fresh Maud persona is one she has crafted to support her search for the ‘greater purpose’ God has planned for her, an unassailable transcendental goal which swallows her whole and greedily possesses her in mind, body and spirit.

Maud’s nascent life of righteousness comes to an abrupt end when she is removed from her post as Amanda’s carer. Where to go when you are stripped of your purpose in life? All of her feelings of jealousy, confusion, virulence and an almost psychedelic bodily experience of spirituality reach fever pitch as she succumbs to the darker forces chipping away at her sanity and she becomes mimetic of the hellish creatures depicted by William Blake in a book gifted to her by Amanda.

As an addition to the horror-Renaissance of recent years, Saint Maud is an alarmingly accomplished debut by a talented and — dare I say it — innovative director to get excited about. Glass has clearly wasted no time on narrative trumpery with this, and at a tidy 84 minutes, all the key proponents harmonise perfectly to create an unnerving atmosphere in which neither Maud nor the audience are sure what our Saint will do next.
This is no average God-fearing horror; it is the fragility of the human mind that is the most frightening.

★★★★★

 

 

 


 

 

The Power of the Dog

2021

Director: Jane Campion

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Frances Conroy, Keith Carradine, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

Jane Campion is a master of atmospheric melodrama. Her latest, The Power of the Dog, is an incredibly textural wild west based on Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name. It follows prosperous cattle ranch owners Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) in 1925 Montana, a hyper-masculine environment where anything remotely effeminate is performatively derided by Phil while George looks the other way.

The equipoise between the brothers, who at first sleep in single beds beside each other in the same room, is disrupted when they meet Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widowed restaurant/hotel owner who George marries after a short courtship. The brothers are polar opposites in almost every way; Phil is the quintessentially ornery and reticent cowboy, striding across the plains in his stirrups, bathing only in a nearby creek when nobody’s looking, whereas George is clinically clean, well-presented and timid in nature. Theirs is a combative kind of harmony, ripe for sociological analysis. So, when Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who represents just about everything Phil despises, move into the Burbank family home, the paradigm shift is colossal for all involved. Phil took pleasure in upbraiding George’s anti-rancher disposition but appreciated the status quo of their collaboration; Peter’s unabashed interest in the intricacies of flora and fauna seems to physically unsettle him.

Unless you’re familiar with the source material, it’s extremely difficult to predict how the simmering tension and capriciousness will culminate. Campion doesn’t give anything away about the origins of Phil’s hostility, the Burbank family secrets bubbling just beneath the surface or when, how and to whom the manipulation coming from all directions is going to aim its final deadly shot. We’re always expecting a situation to erupt into a hideous brawl, or for something or someone to make an ominous entrance over the mountains Phil spends so much time looking longingly towards. The performances are subtle and finely-tuned, grounded by moments which temporarily displace you from the escalating agitation on the Burbank ranch.

Campion suspends us between apprehension, expectation and an almost celestial sense of some invisible force pushing, pulling and wringing the nascent unhappy family. There are elegant reflections on chosen and given family, the roles we play in our everyday lives and the intricate face-saving involved in seemingly meaningless interactions–all among a harsh but beautiful frontier with a main character energy of its own. We hear a lot about ‘slow-burners’, but don’t let the pace of The Power of the Dog put you off. Everything suddenly clicks in the final scene, and it is so worth the wait.


Lamb

2021

Director: Valdimar Jóhannsson

Cast: Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

Valdimar Jóhannsson’s feature-length debut Lamb continues the great A24 tradition of menacing animals messing with the human state of mind. The film centres around María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), a young childless couple who own a sheep farm in pastoral Iceland. Among the sprawling landscape, they spend all day, every day harvesting crops, tending to their flock and hardly exchanging so much as a glance at one another. There is great sincerity and dolour involved in every moment; a Christmas dinner is had without any kind of festive cheer or visible satisfaction.

Things change when one of their ewes births a supernatural calf, though we don’t see anything of her form past her perfectly-formed lamb head for about 20 minutes after she arrives. We know something is up though. The instant she is born, María’s face reads disbelief, terror and something akin to adoration. The scene cuts to her carrying the child away—what will she do with her? It cuts again to María watching over the lamb-baby as she sleeps soundly in a small metal tub, swaddled in blankets.
The couple affectionately name the baby Ada and tend to her as she rests in a crib dragged from the barn next to their own bed. When we do finally see the child’s body, it’s when María scoops her up from the ground in a misty field after the ewe who birthed Ada has seemingly kidnapped her and attempted to flee. María’s rage directed at the ewe, paired with the ready-made but untouched crib brought out of storage, implies that her maternal affections have been previously thwarted in some way, and Ada offers the potential of a new beginning.

Stylistically the film includes a lot of handsome frames-within-frames, often from the outside looking in when capturing the sheep (ponderously gazing out of a window, ‘when will my husband return from war’ style) and vice versa for the humans. This is a clever choice to establish power, boundaries and perspective, and suits the richness of the bucolic colour palette. However, intentionally or not, a frustration can be found with María and Ingvar never once acknowledging Ada’s form and the mystery surrounding her sudden entrance into their lives. The only person to acknowledge it is Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), and even then it is only fleeting before he too becomes entranced by Ada. Pétur is inserted purely to disrupt the happy family facade, and it doesn’t work—the character is a needless addition to the plot and his ‘listen to me, I’m the voice of reason’ nonchalance feels shallow. Lamb sets out to do too much while asserting to do very little, the result is a film that barely amounts to anything, even with an ostensibly absurd twist in the vein of Robert Eggers’ The Witch and similarly bleak examples of monstrous modern surrealism.


Passing

2021

Director: Rebecca Hall

Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

It’s always interesting when an actor turns their hand to directing. Passing is Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut and is an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. Set in 1920s Harlem, it follows two mixed-race childhood friends when they meet by chance in a white-dominated Manhattan area after many years apart. They both now live fairly comfortable middle-class lives in adulthood, but Irene (Tessa Thompson) still identifies as African-American while Clare (Ruth Negga) is ‘passing’ as white.

Clare is delighted by this unexpected reunion whereas Irene is ambivalent. Irene’s disquiet is anchored when she meets Clare’s wealthy white husband (Alexander Skarsgård, who else could there be to play a truly despicable man and husband?) who wastes no time in demonstrating his hideous racist opinions. He doesn’t just dislike Black people, he hates them. He expresses these views casually, because Irene herself can passively pass as white. Remember, this is Manhattan, and Irene wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the lavish tearoom where she bumps into Clare. It’s obvious that if this gathering had included Irene’s Black husband (André Holland) and children, the show of civility would be rather different.

With a 4:3 aspect ratio, sharp black and white colour palette and objectively stunning costumes, Passing certainly looks the part of a Harlem Renaissance adaptation. Thompson and Negga also put in sterling performances as the two protagonists, skirting around the emotional awkwardness of a friendship fraught with moral ambiguity. However, besides the stilted script and vagueness surrounding Irene’s sexuality (a fundamental feature in the source material), a glaring issue with this film is the pacing. Clare is drawn back to Irene through loneliness and desperation to reclaim a part of herself she chose to leave behind to pursue wealth and social standing.
The progression from their first meeting through to their increased interaction in Irene’s townhouse and then final act plods along without addressing any of the glaring questions about who Clare is to Irene and vice versa, or how their husbands play pivotal roles in their identities. The closing scene is incredibly rushed and you are left wondering why things came to pass in such a way, given the sparse context and emotional involvement.

The script does little to provide substance to how any of the characters are feeling at any point throughout the film. Silence can often be a powerful method to demonstrating discontent and Thompson subtly shows how the growing unease of Irene’s internal monologue starts to afflict her physically and mentally. However, the moments of quietness are generally not complemented by any kind of narrative progression or development. For example, there isn’t enough polarity between the friends’ domestic deference, particularly the contrast between Irene’s sense of duty to her family and Clare’s eagerness to be away from her husband at any given opportunity.
The subject matter is brave and interesting, and in writing, directing and producing Passing, Hall has shown great promise as a filmmaker. It’s just a shame it doesn’t offer much more than superficial tension and elegance.


Sundown

2021

Director: Michel Franco

Cast: Tim Roth, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Samuel Bottomley, Albertine Kotting McMillan, Iazua Larios

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

A group of four British people (two adults, two teenagers) are vacationing in a plush villa that overlooks the sea somewhere sunny. They clearly live a very comfortable life as they have servants bringing them cocktails as they lounge by their infinity pool. Suddenly, the woman receives a phone call from back home with some upsetting news about her mother. She is distraught and orders everyone to pack their bags so they can get on the first flight home. At the airport, the man, Neil (Tim Roth) says he can’t find his passport and has to return to the resort to find it, that he will get the next flight back to London once he’s retrieved it.

That’s about all we know of Michel Franco’s Sundown for the first 10 minutes or so. It takes a substantial amount of time to even learn anyone’s name (the mother, Alice, is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the teenagers are her children), or to find out where this is all taking place (Acapulco).
The film follows Neil not as he returns to the resort for his passport, but as he relaxes into a more modest hotel by the beach, his passport safely in the inside pocket of his carry-on case where it’s been the whole time.

The narrative unravels so slowly, it’s like a crack in a wall slowly splintering. Tim Roth plays Neil with a contagious serenity, his quiet introspection anchored by very minimal dialogue that takes a ‘tell, don’t show’ approach to storytelling over the course of the 83-minute run. It’s only through Neil’s casual conversations with his new love interest, a bodega assistant called Berenice (Iazua Larios), that we find out that Alice is his sister, not his wife, the teens his niece and nephew. Neil spends his days drinking beer slumped in a chair on the seafront, his nights dining out with Berenice, his phone switched off and shut in a drawer. Oh, and the siblings are absolutely stinking rich heirs to a meatpacking business.

Because of this brevity, we never really find out why Neil decided to stay in Acapulco, or why he refused to go home to England for his mother’s funeral, or why he signed over his half of the family business to his sister. There is a revelation at the end that serves as some explanation, but the viewer is mostly encouraged to piece the story together themselves and come to their own conclusions.
The sparseness and lack of affectation allows for a meditation on the frailty of human existence and all that torments us: love, loss, family, health, having too much time, not having enough time. It upends your expectations of the privileged-middle-aged-man-in-a-crisis trope Franco could quite easily have slipped into, and Roth plays it to perfection. Neil’s in nirvana sitting in his plastic chair, staring out into the horizon with an existential half-smile on his face and the tide lapping his bare feet, entirely detached from the baser urges, at peace with his own hollowness.


The French Dispatch

2021

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Stephen Park, Léa Seydoux, Timothée Chalamet, Christoph Waltz, Owen Wilson, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Elisabeth Moss, Liev Schreiber, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Benicio Del Toro, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston, Henry Winkler

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

I feel the same about sitting down for a new Wes Anderson movie as I do about watching Frasier reruns every weekday morning—a sense of comfort in the familiarity, knowing exactly what you’re going to get because everything that follows is pretty much the same as what’s come before. It’s safe, predictable. For Anderson’s latest The French Dispatch, this manifests in the director’s trademark formula of regular collaborators (Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Adrien Brody), his dollhouse approach to dissecting architectural structures and his wry, deadpan glimmers of humour delivered through rapid verbosity.

The French Dispatch is an anthology of crazy accounts from the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé and the eponymous publication, headed by American editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) who journeyed to France for a holiday and never left. The Dispatch is a supplement to a newspaper in Howitzer’s hometown of Liberty, Kansas, and is Anderson’s homage to The New Yorker magazine. Its roster of American expatriate writers and illustrators report on Ennui-sur-Blasé’s community of intellectuals and nonconformists through sophisticated long-reads and the occasional accompanying comic strip.

The three main stories told throughout the film are narrated by the journalists who wrote them and are to be printed in the latest and last issue of The French Dispatch, owing to the recent death of Howitzer whose will decreed the publication be shut down upon his demise. J.K.L. Berensen (Swinton, in another pair of comical false teeth) is an art critic and lecturer who recounts the tale of convicted murderer and painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Politics writer Lucinda Krementz (McDormand) struggles to uphold her journalistic neutrality as she covers reports on the town’s impending revolution heralded by some spirited students. Finally, the food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) relates his experience of trying to interview police chef Lieutenant Nescafier (Stephen Park), only to become embroiled in the kidnapping of the comissaire’s son.

This is Anderson’s “love letter to journalists”, and it evidently takes a lot of inspiration from the real people who’ve driven The New Yorker to its great success. It’s hard to predict what past and present New Yorker staff may make of this depiction, but the film was obviously created with the warmest intentions and admiration so you would guess its reception is mostly positive.
It’s possibly his most visually creative live-action feature, and his most self-congratulatory. Yes, we know to expect the usual directory of stars by now, but The French Dispatch is so incredibly stuffed with characters that it’s impossible to feel any sort of attachment with any of them. There’s little to no emotional depth provided at all, and I still haven’t decided whether it blends multiple genres or shirks genre completely. Romance? Hardly. Drama? Too twee. Comedy? Depends who you ask.

Much like some of Anderson’s earlier work such as Moonrise Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums, there are the occasional glimmers of melancholy and introspection, bordering on despair. This is treated with the usual languor, befitting of the fictional town name where the Dispatch is based. It’s watchable and largely enjoyable, but by the time the end credits roll it’s hard to pinpoint a particular emotion or opinion about the film at all, either positive or negative.
If you’ve followed Anderson’s filmography and count yourself as a fan, The French Dispatch has everything you want. Just make sure you watch it in a cinema with decent screens, or at least with no one sitting in front of you—because of the director’s proclivity for central framing and symmetry, there are plenty of frames where your focus is brought to the middle of the lower portion of the screen that you might have to crane your head to see.


Last Night in Soho

2021

Director: Edgar Wright

Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Diana Rigg

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

Listen, we all feel a bit of nostalgia for bygone eras from time to time. Judging by the current mode of dress and cultural zeitgeist, for many this manifests as a love of all things 90s, a not-too-distant past when ‘things’ were just ‘better’. For Eloise ‘Ellie’ Turner (Thomasin McKenzie), the protagonist of Edgar Wright’s latest Last Night in Soho, everything about London in the 1960s—the music, the fashion, and presumably the romanticisation of living in relative squalor—is a tonic for the overwhelming nature of modern life.

When she moves to London to study fashion just like her late mother and pursue her dreams of becoming a designer, Ellie is still wide-eyed and naive, despite repeated warnings about how London can be, frankly, a bit much. Given her gift (or curse) for seeing and feeling the emotions of the dead, her grandmother rightly worries that living in a city with a seedy story attached to nearly every street might be a struggle. Nevertheless, she moves into her university halls, only to encounter instant friction with her roommate and fellow students, instantly becoming the subject of ridicule from a stereotypically-Mean Girl tribe of her peers. So, with her heart still in the past and her head in some grey area on the space-time continuum, London fails to meet her fairytale expectations and after being there for less than a week she looks for a new place to live.

This brings her to the doorstep of Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), and the cosy little bedsit on the top floor of her terraced home. It’s like a time capsule of 60s residential modesty, and of course Ellie is hooked. Every night when she goes to sleep, she transports to the swinging 60s and slips into the spirit of Sandy, a young singer and dancer with dreams of becoming the next Cilla Black. The magic of her nocturnal expeditions soon wears off when Sandy’s new beau (Matt Smith), like London itself, turns out to be something that his handsome facade does not suggest. The initial promise of basking in the glamour of Soho nightclubs and making it as a singer crumbles pretty quickly when Sandy is pimped out, revealing the hidden seediness between the walls seeped in cigarette smoke and slick with old man sweat.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. What I will highlight as a particular triumph is the demonstration of how spaces are intrinsic to memories and can become characters within themselves. Wright shows that what happens in finite spaces such as underground drinking holes where Ellie encounters the tormented ghosts of London’s past, or way above ground in her bedsit, may not be as prominent as the landmarks and flashy billboards lining Leicester Square but are just as claustrophobic. The only difference is that outside is the heaving body count of the living, but inside are the trapped souls of a horde of apparitions.

However, a fundamental flaw is that it ruins the big plot twist through its repetitiveness. Certain scenes seem almost smug in the way they try to drop hints about how the story will end by repeating the same kind of action we’ve just seen but in a different place, and with a new set of people either not believing what Ellie is saying or treating her with kid gloves or just generally giving her the ‘ick’, lingering slightly too long on specific props or details in a way that says “REMEMBER THIS, IT’S IMPORTANT”. By the time we reach the big reveal, not enough has been said about the ill treatment of women, toxic men, the sex industry and who ‘deserves’ what in life to save the narrative from feeling pretty tonally flat. It’s not enough to look pretty and sound cool if your handling of such heavy subjects as grief, sexism and mental illness gets lost in the doting homage and is veiled with a goofy humour that is particularly mocking of young people today.


The Harder They Fall

2021

Director: Jeymes Samuel

Cast: Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Idris Elba, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, LaKeith Stanfield

Words: Rhiannon Topham.

The Harder They Fall opens with a clear message: “While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Existed.” This serves as a dual-action missive for director Jeymes Samuel’s high-action feature debut for Netflix. Not only does this demonstrate how this propulsive revenge Western seeks to reclaim the historic absence or derision of African American people in the genre, but it also encourages the viewer to learn more about these characters outside of the cultural mythology and detached from their associations with the canonised White cowboys we’ve all come to recognise.

The casting couldn’t be much better for the story. Nat Love (played by action-star-in-the-making Jonathan Majors) and his loyal gang featuring the local marshall (Delroy Lindo) and sweetheart Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) are out for blood. As a child, Nat had a cross sliced into his forehead by Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who murdered his parents in front of him. After years in prison, Buck’s gang have just intercepted the train transporting him to a new location and freed him so he can be reinstated as the autocrat of the town Redwood. Via bank robberies, ambushes and inevitable confrontations over entitlements to this filthy lucre, Love and Buck are reunited in excellently chaotic, garishly violent fashion.

Buck’s gang includes the calm and collected Cherokee Bill (played by LaKeith Stanfield) and Treacherous Trudy (the immense Regina King). Both of these characters, like any good villain, evidently have very deep-seated secrets from harsh histories and a period of running the gang while Buck was imprisoned. King plays Trudy with such a menace that during a tête-à-tête with Stagecoach Mary involving the peeling of an apple, you half expect said fruit to become a creative murder weapon and not the knife used to peel it.

Other reviewers may be quick to tell you how violent The Harder They Fall is. They’re not wrong, but I also think that’s what the age rating and classification message is for, and it would be more surprising if a 21st century Western was completely void of any violence. All I will say about the bust ups, beatings and blood in this film is that it is done in a way that pays homage to the genre while also showing us something we have seldom if ever seen before – a proper punch up between two women, no silly slapping or moments of hesitation. Just Regina King and Zazie Beetz at each other’s throats. Marvellous.

Via scheming misfires, a bank robbery in an eerie ‘white town’ and some generally slick action soundtracked by a score written by Samuels himself, Love and Buck have their face-to-face in the end, with a reasonably unsurprising twist which nevertheless caps off the drama quite fittingly. Though it seems clear cut at the start, by the end of the film the distinctions between good and bad, morality and immorality aren’t so obvious – what more can you ask of a modern revenge thriller?


Demons (1985)

1985

Director: Lamberto Bava

Starring: Urbano Barberini, Natasha Hovey, Karl Zinny, Fiore Argento, Paola Cozzo, Fabiola Toledo, Nicoletta Elmi, Stelio Candelli, Nicole Tessier, Geretta Geretta, Bobby Rhodes, Guido Baldi, Bettina Ciampolini

Words – Oliver Innocent.

By the time Demons was unleashed in 1985 Italian horror cinema was well-established, boasting some of the most unique, innovative, and extreme films the genre had to offer. Italian horror films were typified by a heady mix of stylish arthouse, gory exploitation, and surreal, dreamlike imagery. They even spawned their own sub-genres, the Giallo (murder mysteries featuring black-gloved killers; a precursor to the American slasher), and cannibal jungle films, as well as taking George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead zombie formula and making it their own.

Just as the new wave of American horror of the late 1960s and early 1970s helped established genre auteurs like Wes Craven and John Carpenter, so too did the Italian horror scene that ran parallel to it. Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento were Italy’s answer to the likes of Craven and Carpenter; filmmakers who innovated new styles and took the genre in different, hitherto unexplored, directions. Argento became the face of Italian horror with his 1977 aural and visual assault on the senses Suspiria, perhaps the quintessential Italian horror film.

Following a succession of high quality Giallo and supernatural horrors, in 1985 Argento turned his attention to producing. The project was Demons, a variation on the zombie formula in which a horror film screening turns to real horror, as the gloriously menacing looking Metropol movie theatre is overrun by audience members transformed into bloodthirsty demons.

Unlike Argento’s own films, the Lamberto Bava directed Demons feels much more like a conscious attempt at an American style effects-driven horror influenced by the likes of An American Werewolf in London and The Thing. Indeed, Demons more than holds its own with the US competition, delivering bursting ‘bladder’ effects, gallons of gore, and a couple of bravura transformation sequences courtesy of special effects wizard Sergio Stivaletti. The titular demons themselves also impress with their suitably disgusting green skin, long nails, toothy, drooling jaws, and glowing eyes.

Despite this desire to emulate the effects heavy horrors coming out of the States at the time, Demons is still very much an Italian horror film at heart. The minimal plot, lack of explanation, and succession of absurd and gory imagery more than attest to its Italian heritage. There is also that staple of Italian horror, the eye gouging scene, as well as references to Lamberto Bava’s father Mario Bava’s films; the mask in the theatre lobby resembles the one famously nailed to the witch’s face in the opening of Mario Bava’s 1960 gothic classic Black Sunday.

Another characteristically Italian element is the film’s raucous soundtrack. The synth score courtesy of frequent Argento collaborator Claudio Simonetti (keyboard player for progressive rock band Goblin who scored Suspiria) stands out with its insanely catchy yet menacing dance-like beats. Then there’s the pounding heavy metal tracks. Further adding to the film’s cult appeal, these tracks from the likes of Motley Crue and Saxon (plus more mainstream pop hits from Go West and Billy Idol) are the perfect accompaniment to the onscreen carnage.
The best example of this is German heavy metal band Accept’s anthem Fast as a Shark blaring out of the speakers as the hero speeds through the movie theatre on a motorbike, chopping demons to pieces with a katana sword. If there’s a single scene in Demons that perfectly encapsulates the essence of the film, then this is it. Loud, gory, and insane, Demons ranks as one of the most fun, endlessly rewatchable horror films of the 1980s.



Drive

2011

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Albert Brooks, Ron Pearlman

Words: J. Senior

 

It seems surreal to be talking about Drive, now a decade on from its original release, as it still feels utterly contemporary and relevant. Nicolas Winding Refn’s first successful picture stateside went on to have a transformative effect for all involved, through the director himself to its stars as well. This ultra-stylish and hyper-cool thriller about a stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver laid down a serious benchmark in independent cinema, and its influence is still felt today.

The true appeal of Drive is two fold; first of all it’s a stylistic delight and any cinematography enthusiast’s dream, with its neon bold colours and canny use of film noir effects. The film is instantly recognisable and individual. This is all capped off with a luscious score by composer Cliff Martinez with a few choice tracks by additional artists such as M83, Chromatics, Kavinsky and Electric Youth. The coming together of lighting and sound creates such a distinct pallet and an almost dreamlike canvas for events to unfold over.
Secondly, the narrative keeps you on tenterhooks throughout. What begins as a tense and mellow affair soon shifts gears into an ultra-violent and break neck story which transitions from observation to survival via a robbery gone wrong and one pretty grizzly sequence in an elevator. This differs greatly from the novel on which it was based, where the “Driver” is pretty aggressive and violent from the outset, but here we watch the darker side of Gosling’s character slowly seep out as the danger confronting him escalates.

Drive has acted as a launch pad for all involved, Nicolas Winding Refn went on to continue to produce modest budget but stunning films with his two follow-ups Only God Forgives, again with Gosling in the lead role and The Neon Demon, which caused walkouts at Cannes but went on to receive rave reviews.
Gosling himself has become a global megastar and cultural icon, which is fairly impressive to say his most famous performance prior to this was The Notebook. He has also transitioned over into the director’s chair and his first film Lost River debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. Carey Mulligan, hot off of twee British coming-of-age tale An Education in 2011, also felt the springboard effect after appearing in Drive and has gone onto huge roles in The Great Gatsby, Inside Llewyn Davis, Suffragette and Promising Young Woman. Oscar Isaac has similarly gone onto great heights appearing in Ex Machina, Star Wars and the forthcoming Dune.

All of this has built up a strong cult following around the film. It’s an insanely impressive visual masterpiece, a narrative delight and has such an aura of mystique around it, it has become one of the most impressive independent films of the last decade. To “do a Drive” and become so well reviewed and beloved is what a lot of similar budgeted films aim for upon release, in that aspect however it is truly unique. Close runners Nightcrawler by Dan Gilroy and The Guest from Adam Wingard both have that appeal in terms of their visuals and score and they both deal with similar levels of darkness in their narratives.
Drive still edges out the competition, and although the team involved all may have gone onto untold successes since, this film is still really the barometer that their careers inevitably fluctuate towards when retrospect is applied. I’m certain as well that in years to come, just as we look back a decade on, it will still be just as relevant and will not have lost any of the creative impact from its original release. It’s proving a tough one to beat, even still to this day. 

 

 


 

Wrong Turn – A Trilogy of Backwoods Terror

2003 – 2021

Words: Oliver Innocent.

In 1996 Wes Craven’s hip teen meta slasher Scream became a box office smash. Following in its wake came a slew of films seeking to capitalise on Craven’s winning formula. Entries like I Know What You Did Last Summer’s modus operandi was to be as teen friendly as possible. A by-product of this was a tendency to jettison the more unsavoury, adult-oriented aspects of the genre. In other words, there was little to no sex, nudity, or graphic bloody violence making it onscreen.

In the early 2000s filmmakers like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie who had been raised on the violent exploitation horrors of the ‘70s and ‘80s crusaded to bring this more dangerous side of the genre back to the forefront. A response to what they saw as the overtly slick and bloodless dilution of the genre, their debut features Cabin Fever and House of 1000 Corpses, were throwbacks to the extreme backwoods horrors of The Evil Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The rural slasher resurgence quickly became a trend itself, even spreading outside the USA to countries like Australia (Wolf Creek) and France (High Tension). One of the most successful entries to emerge from this resurgence was Wrong Turn, a tale of mutant cannibals preying on young adults lost in the woods of West Virginia. Spawning five sequels and a newly released reboot, the Wrong Turn series has become one of modern horror’s biggest, longest running franchises.

Kicking off in 2003 with Wrong Turn, the series gets off to a solid if unexceptional start. It’s an entertaining, fast-paced slasher that benefits from beautiful woodland locations (Canada doubling for West Virginia) and great makeup effects courtesy of Stan Winston Studios (The Terminator, Jurassic Park).
Like many rural slasher films, it’s very derivative, taking much of its inspiration from the classics of the genre, namely The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. There’s the old gas station complete with creepy attendant; a cannibalistic inbred family; bone and body parts set decoration; a car crash that leaves the would-be victims stranded in the middle of nowhere; no phone signal. The list goes on.
The main issue with the first Wrong Turn, however, is that it’s a bit too slick of a production for its own good. Well-made but a bit soulless and by the numbers. It just doesn’t have that same down and dirty gonzo bizarreness or trashy shock value that permeates precursors like Mother’s Day or, indeed, contemporaries like Cabin Fever. It almost feels like one of the teen friendly Scream type slashers masquerading as a Texas Chain Saw clone.

The same cannot be said of direct to DVD sequel Wrong Turn 2: Dead End. This time gore and grossness are pushed to the limits as the cast and crew of a new reality TV show fall foul of the cannibal clan. It makes for an interesting dichotomy as the film simultaneously critiques the exploitative nature of reality TV, while wholeheartedly revelling in the excesses of exploitation horror.
Indeed, Wrong Turn 2’s main concern is how far it can push the grotesque over the top violence and sick humour. Images of mutant cannibals pleasuring themselves and a baby using a severed finger as a dummy makes clear the film’s intention to hearken back to the glory days of exploitation horror.

Aside from its exaggerated grotesqueness, the highlight here is hardcore punk legend Henry Rollins’ turn as a retired Marine who takes the law into his own hands. Like something straight out of an ‘80s action film, Rollins goes full on Rambo as he steals the show, blowing up cannibals with explosive arrows.

Once again, the shadow of Texas Chain Saw looms large with references to small town economic collapse and the closure of the local sawmill. Like the mechanization of the local slaughterhouse in Texas Chain Saw, the inference is that unemployment and the subsequent desertion of a once thriving community has led to the ensuing horror. With no jobs or income, the last remaining members of the community must kill to put food on the table.

Continuing in a similar vein to its predecessor, Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead wastes no time getting to the sex and violence in an opening sequence reminiscent of an ‘80s slasher as a group of teens are brutally slaughtered while fooling around in the woods.

The cannibal behind the slaughter, Three Finger, finally takes centre stage in this entry. Although he appeared in the first two films, this is where he truly becomes the series’ main villain. Like Leatherface and Jason before him, he is the iconic face of Wrong Turn.
This entry’s high concept escaped convicts vs cannibals premise ensures Three Finger has some competition in the villain department. It helps create a different dynamic as Three Finger isn’t just killing innocent teens anymore. In fact, some of the convicts are as bad, if not worse, than him. In a scene reminiscent of controversial Italian video nasty Cannibal Holocaust – another film that posits the question as to who the real villains are – one of them even kills Three Finger’s child and puts his head on a stake.
A refreshing change to the usual teens in peril set up, it’s entertaining, mindless fun seeing Three Finger pitted against a coachload of convicts. Creative kills and a big body count make this a solid conclusion to the original trilogy.

After the third entry, the Wrong Turn franchise followed in the footsteps of Star Wars with the 4th, 5th and 6th entries serving as prequels to the original trilogy. The franchise was then rebooted in 2021.
With their predilection for over the top gore, fast-paced action, and dark comedy, the Wrong Turn films are pure cheeseburger horror; basic and unrefined but incredibly enjoyable.