‘Verónica’ Review (Frightfest, THN)

A psychologist (Arcelia Ramírez) lives in a secluded mountain location, having sworn off treating patients for good. However when a call comes in asking her to see Verónica (Olga Segura), she decides to try and crack the mystery surrounding this confrontational yet sensitive figure. The professional thinks this is a getting to know you exercise. Verónica believes that as walking stereotypes they know each other already. From there a battle of wits unfolds, rapidly developing into something more intimate and unnerving.

Shot digitally with stark black and white cinematography and showcasing a chilly, fog-strewn landscape, it’s clear we’re in safe albeit sinister hands with directors Carlos Algara and Alejandro Martinez-Beltran. Together with writer Tomas Nepomuceno they’ve conjured a classic thriller scenario. The psychologist’s house with its exposed brick walls contrasts with the great outdoors and its connection to primal instinct and rebirth. Segura is quite hypnotic as she and Ramírez test each others’ boundaries. There’s a chemistry between them that keeps the tension simmering, alongside Daniel Wohl’s pulsating score.

The helmers build the intense atmosphere gradually and when things get erotic it makes sense rather than feeling exploitative. “Chaos makes for better honey,” Verónica remarks as she describes the habits of insects in a sequence so sweltering you could probably fry an egg on it. The filmmakers keep the visual trickery to a minimum, letting the action do the talking, but there’s one extended take that delivers in spades on the “weird yet sexy” front. Horror-wise the movie doesn’t get in your face but a scene involving bloodied splinters in a glass of water sticks in the memory.

You could argue the conclusion doesn’t tie together as well as it should but I was by no means disappointed. This is the directing team’s debut feature and I’d be more than satisfied if it was coming from an established name. The production company call themselves The Visualistas. “That sounds like a boast,” I thought. Well they weren’t kidding. Verónica could be the start of something special.

 

This review first appeared on THN.

 

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‘Top Knot Detective’ Review (Frightfest, THN)

Believe it or not, as the twentieth century was drawing to a close, there emerged a show so unique, so ground-breaking and above all so violent that it almost changed the face of the small screen forever. Ronin Suiri Tentai (or Top Knot Detective as it’s become known) showcased the unadulterated genius of Takashi Takamoto (above). A former pop star, he was unexpectedly asked by corporate employer Sutaffu to create a TV show.

The result took Japan by storm – Takamoto played Sheimasu Tantai, a samurai driven by bloody vengeance after the brutal “suicide” of his father at the hands of nemesis Haruto Kioke. Sheimasu used his dangerous and sexy skill-set to battle enemies both great and small. Not even children were safe from the surreal antics, with some of the content genuinely shocking.

That’s what was going on in front of the camera. But what about behind the scenes? The making of Top Knot Detective is even more of an eye-opener. Directors Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce have exhaustively drained the swamp of this bizarre production to bring unsuspecting viewers the truth behind the anarchic legend. The rivalries! Kioke was the son of Sutaffu’s founder and its main star before Takamoto stuck his iron in the fire. When he was rejected as the title character his bitterness ran deeper than a hippopotamus trying to sprint out of some quicksand. The romance! The addition of Mia Matsumoto to the cast as brave warrior Saku led to sparks flying between her and Takamoto. This tender relationship was savagely nipped in the bud when the big cheeses at Sutaffu learned of their clandestine meetings. The appalling crime! Tensions on the show went beyond creative differences, resulting in a gruesome discovery that will chill you to the core.

How could this fascinating and compelling tale possibly get any stranger? Read on to find out…

***SPOILER ALERT: Do not read on if you intend fully appreciating the warped artistry of Top Knot Detective***

They made it up. I’ll hold my hands up, they got me.

McCann and Pearce are to be applauded for creating something that looks and feels 100% real. They’ve captured the crappiness of bad TV and the authenticity of a documentary in a way I’ve never seen before. It’s quite an achievement to invent something from Japanese entertainment culture, which is notoriously outrageous anyway, and still make it convincing.

However once I discovered Top Knot Detective had led me up the garden path, I felt I’d been kicked in the cultural nuts. Now I know it’s a gag the power of the story is diminished. A narrative I was really invested in turned out to be an in-joke. A really well-executed one but an elaborate prank nonetheless. There’s plenty to admire here and I’d watch out for what the helmers do next. But with so much that’s enjoyably insane about the material they’re spoofing, is it really worth going to such lengths to satirise the extreme? To paraphrase the great Sheimasu himself, deductive reasoning must be applied to get the bottom of that mystery…

 

This review first appeared on THN.

“I love watching old movies…” Stephen Woolley Interview, ‘Their Finest’ (THN)

Their Finest is out to buy this week. Starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy, it tells the story of British propaganda during the Second World War and the strong bond developed between people from all walks of life in the face of conflict.

This warm-hearted and intelligent film is co-produced by the legendary Stephen Woolley (A Company Of Wolves and The Crying Game amongst others), who with Amanda Posey and Elizabeth Karlsen delved into the archives and uncovered the fascinating truth behind the celluloid war effort. We caught up with Stephen for an in-depth chat about the production…

THN: How did the project come to your attention?

Stephen Woolley: I was given the book (Their Finest Hour And A Half by Lissa Evans) and I loved it. The humour of it was exactly on my level. People were saying “You’d love it because it’s about old movies”, which is true. The BBC came on board, we’d produced Made In Dagenham and Great Expectations with them, and it really just blossomed from there.

We took a long time trying to get to the heart of the script because it was the story of a few characters, like a tapestry. It was a question of trying to find the right scenes for them. And the important thing as well was a lot of research went into it. I started to get quite fascinated myself! I realized that despite my enthusiasm I hadn’t seen these many of the films. So I set off…there were around 250-300 made during this period and I tried to watch every one of them, going into the archives. A lot of them were taped off the TV in the Eighties and Nineties, they were really hard to find. I was having collectors send them in… comedies and action pictures. Material about the Home Guard. It was a great process – I had a brilliant time to be honest, I love watching old movies.

So this was a combination of theatrical movies made at the time and propaganda pieces?

Well everything made at that time had to go across the desk of the Ministry of Information, which had to be approved. And they set up this company of filmmakers and producers… for example they made a film in 1943 called The Demi-Paradise with Laurence Olivier as a lovely Russian! Because Russia had just joined the war and they needed some propaganda to endorse them, everything before had been very anti-Russian. It’s very funny. Actually one of my favourites is Millions Like Us (also 1943), which was made to encourage women to go and work in factories, that’s a fantastic film.

They made all these short films which were pure propaganda, informational films. And they didn’t work. People thought they were boring. They didn’t want to be told what to do by people who were stars or who talked in very posh accents. The filmmakers had to realign what they were doing, and all these people like Michael Powell and Anthony Asquith, Sidney Gilliat jumped on board to create these films that would entertain and at the same time put out a message.

It was so different from propaganda in that sense, as we know it now. In those days it wasn’t really a dirty word. It became a dirty word during and after the war because of the way Germans used propaganda, it used to be an honest word. In fact, regarding the use of Dunkirk in the film, Churchill actually didn’t want anything made about that at the time. They were worried it was viewed as a retreat. Our film took the premise that they did decide to make a film about Dunkirk.

Was Millions Like Us, with its pro-female message, an inspiration for your film?

There is a short film that inspired The Nancy Starling (the fictional movie within Their Finest), which is a short film about a woman played by Peggy Ashcroft, who goes to help rescue her husband from Dunkirk (Channel Incident, 1940). It was interesting when Christopher Nolan’s movie opened because there are strong similarities, not that… our beach is less ambitious than his beach! But the idea of how Dunkirk became propagandized, to say it was a victory.

In the publicity the film looks bright and breezy but I found it quite subtle and intelligent. Is that down to the director Lone Scherfig?

Yeah. Lone did an amazing job, I think the fact she’s from Denmark and not the UK meant she was trying to make it from her perspective and pay tribute to those old movies she loved. Our great inspiration, apart from the script, was the cinema of that time, and that idea that no matter how bad things got you had to dig yourself out. The final act of the film – which I won’t talk too much about! – of what Gemma (Arterton)’s character had to go through, captures what was happening to people at the time.

We were trying to make a film that audiences today would like, but also one that might have been made at that time as well. There’s a parallel thing going on, the film within the film, and then our film. We got away with a lot of humour with the character of Ambrose (Bill Nighy) in that situation. A lot of those scenes look like they were made in 1943…

The footage from The Nancy Starling looks very authentic. Did you have fun recreating that era of moviemaking and those methods of production?

I enjoyed it very much. I read a lot of books about filmmaking during that period. We embraced the closeness of strangers, a group of people making something while there was a bloody war going on. They were away from the conflict but there was a spirit of camaraderie that was going through the country at the time. What people maybe don’t understand is that the war was terrible but it brought together all classes, all sexes. Everyone was saying things like “I don’t care if you’re a woman and you drive a truck”.

The film is an ensemble but it has three big names at the top – Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy. How did you come to cast the lead characters?

Well I’d worked with Gemma before on Made In Dagenham The Musical and also Byzantium. I’ve always been a fan of hers. Lone had wanted to cast Gemma in a few movies but it had never worked out. I knew Bill a bit socially and I love Bill, I was desperate to work with him so he was my number one choice for Ambrose. I was thrilled he loved the script. And Sam… I really liked The Riot Club, the film Lone had made and I suggested him to her. She thought he was maybe too young but even though he’s a young guy Sam has one of those faces. He’s got this weight in his eyes… he’s a bit of a bloke. He’s not like Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s a different type of actor, more in that Forties mould. We lucked out, we got all the people we wanted. And of course we had a great supporting cast: Jeremy Irons, Helen McCrory, Richard E. Grant, Paul Ritter…

How has your view of the industry, particularly the UK film industry, changed over the decades…?

We’re still making films, which is good news! People are still going to the cinema. But television is being watched more than ever, it’s come of age. Many movie directors are now working for Netflix, Amazon… there’s not the same delineation that there was. I think a lot of the films that I’ve made, like A Company Of Wolves and The Crying Game, would probably be made for TV now. In those days you had the ‘X’ certificate. Imagine A Company Of Wolves now… you could show it to a twelve year-old, without them even blinking! So there’s been a big sea change and we’ve got to fight really hard to really preserve cinematic drama, like with The Limehouse Golem, which I’ve got coming up with Bill Nighy again. You have to remember that you’re making cinema and not television. You need money for period film and to make it work in the cinema. I’m always conscious of that medium. You’ve got to make your mark. There’s still a big audience for it.

 

This interview first appeared on THN.

‘Their Finest’ Home Entertainment Review (THN)

Director: Lone Scherfig

Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Helen McCrory, Eddie Marsan, Jake Lacy, Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant

Special Features: Director’s commentary, Flickers of Hope: Making of Their Finest

Going by the publicity Their Finest (based on the novel Their Finest Hour And A Half by Lissa Evans) looks like another bright and breezy prestige project for British film. However, while it concerns the apparently light-hearted subject matter of making “morally clean, romantically satisfying” propaganda for the war effort, it also manages to evoke the fear and cruelty present in this dark period. The way it pulls off such a subtle balancing act is both surprising and very moving.

Gemma Arteron plays Catrin Cole, a Welsh writer summoned to the Ministry of Information’s Film Division in order to inject some oomph into their short film scripts. She then meets twin sisters who were supposedly involved in the rescue operation at Dunkirk. When it transpires their tale isn’t quite as heroic as expected, she decides to tailor events in a more dramatic fashion. From there she finds herself co-writing a screenplay for a morale-boosting movie alongside mercurial Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Meanwhile Arterton struggles with a half-baked marriage to artist Ellis (Jack Huston) and fading actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) sees the film – The Nancy Starling, named after a boat – as an opportunity to resurrect his career.

There are interesting parallels between Catrin and Ambrose. Being female and old respectively, they find new opportunities whilst young men are away fighting the Nazis. And as their words become reality under the studio lights, Catrin and Tom are drawn closer together in an understated romance. Arterton is terrific and her and Claflin spark off each other nicely. Nighy seems to be having a whale of a time in a part which suits him to a tee, playing to his arch qualities whilst allowing him to subvert his genial image.

The film is populated by diverse and strong characters, from Rachael Stirling’s tough lesbian Ministry exec to Jeremy Irons’ toothsome civil servant. Despite the star power on display, the piece is ensemble-driven, presenting the cast and crew as a microcosm of society. In one sense they exist in a bubble. In another bombs fall several feet away and walls shake as Claflin and Arterton hammer away at their scripts. The movie is also a pleasure to watch and contains numerous warm, funny moments.

The closing scenes, while bleak, are also tinged with hope. Their Finest laughs at the absurdity of the propaganda machine, yet reminds us it was as much a part of the war as the rifles and bullets. Scherfig has brought audiences that rare thing – a story that tugs at the heart with intelligence and which possesses a genuine understanding of what was going on with people at the time.

 

This review first appeared on THN.

“Marilyn Manson would love to be the villain in a Marvel movie…” Tyler Bates ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2’ Interview (THN)

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 has rocked up on disc this week, taking you back to writer/director James Gunn’s wild dimension of space opera fused with an array of jukebox classics. Music plays a bigger role in this movie than most – composer Tyler Bates had to boldly go above and beyond for Marvel’s unique comic book franchise, as this revealing interview explains…

THN: As with the first film, the soundtrack for GOTG Vol. 2 was composed before the shoot, which is an approach I’ve never heard of before. Where did the inspiration for this come from?

Tyler Bates: Well there was plenty of music in post production but over the years James Gunn and I have known each other. Our working relationship began on Slither and we’d discussed working in this fashion, more like Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. By the time we got to Super there was time for us to conceptualize the music before he shot the film and after we had that experience on Guardians 1 he wanted to go deeper in that direction.

What was the atmosphere like on set with the music… I presume you were there watching?

The funny thing was I wasn’t there till he had me visit the set on the first Guardians. They’d already been shooting to the score. So he put me in the movie for fun as a Ravager, I was in make up and all that. I was walking with the actors into a scene and they were cranking Cherry Bomb over the PA… and I really felt how the music contextualized the moment and the sentiment of the moment. Chris Pratt elaborated on how much the score centred him and his character, therefore on the second one they gave the actors ear buds to listen to the music while they filmed. They digitally removed the buds. For instance, the Celestial Catch scenes with Kurt Russell and Chris… several scenes like that were composed in advance.

How does working with James Gunn compare to playing with Marilyn Manson?

They’re very different people but also both are highly intelligent. I’ve always known that James was brilliant and would go on to make a significant movie in Hollywood. I think what each of them do is bring out the best in me as an artist. That’s what I’m seeking mostly with my collaborators. With Manson I have a great deal of creative freedom. With James, because we develop ideas for the script as opposed to a literal picture, initially the language of the movie as far as Guardians is concerned is really a conversation between us, as opposed to referencing something that already exists.

Have you spoken to Marilyn Manson about appearing in Guardians…?

(Laughs) I don’t think that James or Disney would be 100% comfortable with it. I’m sure Manson would love to be the villain in a Marvel movie. He told me he’s very interested in doing more acting.

Is it easier scoring a sequel because the music is already established or harder because it has to sound fresh?

I think it’s more difficult. Going into it I thought: “We got through that first one, that was tough!” Working with James is tough, his standards are very high because he needs to make the best possible movie he can. He’s making movies that are performing historically high at the box office, so the expectation for a second film is even greater. It’s about raising the bar and seeing what we can do to deliver a greater story, deeper emotion, more fun and more entertainment value to the audience. Obviously you have to take a look at what has been established and feel good that the basic language of this world is created, but we’re going to have to expand upon it and delve into new territory. Hopefully if we do another one together we’ll come up with some surprises for ourselves and the fans.

Is there a character you especially enjoy writing music for, from Guardians or other films?

Regarding GOTG, Peter Quill is a character I identify with a lot. Not because I think I’m like him but he relates to emotions in his life through the music his mother passed onto him. I share a very similar history with my mother, who died when I was young. Her passion for music definitely inspired me and thankfully she really opened my mind to many different styles and genres. Long before I knew it, she was probably preparing me for life as a collaborator and producer.

Speaking of collaborations I notice on your CV that you’ve worked with William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist, among others). What was it like scoring Killer Joe?

(Laughs) I love Billy. We had a very interesting onset to our relationship because the producers actually brought me into that movie. I was not his choice initially and so he beta-tested me quite a bit. I think he appreciated the fact that I was not flappable and I maintained a sense of humour about our working together and at some point we gave into each other and connected. I had a terrific time on Killer Joe. It was daunting, you know the first meeting I had with him he explained the history of The Exorcist music and that he threw out Bernard Herrmann’s score and then threw out Lalo Schifrin’s before he found Tubular Bells. So it was a tall order but I felt really good about it because it was always interesting and he’s such an intelligent person. It was like being in film school. It was pretty extraordinary actually.

What can you tell me about Atomic Blonde…?

That movie is one of the very best I have ever worked on. It’s so good. David Leitch is just gonna have a monster career. The film is set in the 1980s and it really was open to creating an impressionistic style of music that might live in that era but also be contemporary. It’s fun, it’s not the most bold or forward score that I’ve ever done but I really do like it and I was happy to be able to produce songs with Manson for the soundtrack.

 

This interview first appeared on THN.

‘Neruda’ Review (The Hollywood News)

N LG

With non-centrist politics and concepts of left and right starting to gain a foothold in the mainstream media after a long period away, it’s timely that Pablo Larraín (director of Jackie) has made Neruda. Based on true events, it gives an account of Chilean Communist politician Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), whose opposition to the American-influenced regime of President Videla led to him going on the run in 1948, with ambitious fascist detective Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) in hot pursuit.

Neruda isn’t just a man of the people but a revered poet, so has a hold on the oppressed populace that the authorities can’t match. Despite not being able to leave the country, he manages to hide in plain sight thanks to his extensive support network – a source of frustration to Peluchonneau, who feels the weight of his illustrious father behind him and is determined to make his mark on history by apprehending the rogue senator. At the core of the drama is the interaction between these two men, who barely meet, yet constantly speculate about one another via narration. It should be said this is one of the few cases I’ve experienced where a film is best enjoyed if you speak the language. The subtitles and similarity in the actors’ voices made it confusing for me to work out who was speaking at times, though this is a minor quibble.

The creation of art plays an increasingly significant role in the action, the chase being depicted as an epic narrative with Neruda wielding the pen. Though Peluchonneau also has his artistic side, grappling with the conventional crime novels Neruda leaves him by way of a tease at each location where he inevitably eludes his pursuer. With his short stature and sniffer dog features, Bernal is a dynamic but doomed figure. He starts off thinking he’s got his prey sussed out – “Communists don’t like to work, they’d rather burn churches,” he remarks at one point. However after a while he gradually begins to understand his role in Neruda’s story, leading towards an unexpected destiny. This idea is given free rein in an abstract last third, which will either be emotionally satisfying or a baffling curveball depending on your view.

Gnecco projects an understated charisma as Neruda, in a portrayal that appears to be very much warts and all. He is a great artist but is also shown as a frequenter of prostitutes and a stubborn friend and husband, giving his protectors the slip to go wandering and turning his anger on those who love him. He is caught in that strange place between man and legend, at one with the people whilst associating with the elite. A particularly interesting scene is when he’s challenged in a restaurant by a member of the public who asks in the event of his taking charge: “Will we be equal to him or equal to me?” These aspects of his character are ably brought to life by the actor. You can’t help but be reminded of Jeremy Corbyn, who’s fond of quoting Shelley to inspire voters and perceived as part of an upper echelon that apparently contradicts his populist stance.

Larraín ensures the world of freedom and imagination is never far away, from his use of deliberately retro back projection during car scenes to the jump cuts which create a jarring yet dreamlike effect during some of the exchanges.

This is a film of delicate twists and turns and it doesn’t arrive at the brutal conclusion you might think it would. At the same time it gives you a fascinating portrait of someone who believed that one day love and hope would ultimately triumph over fear.

 

This review first appeared on THN.

Logan: Comic Books Characters Transformed By The Movies (BRWC)

Those anticipating Hugh Jackman’s last roll of the dice as Wolverine will have noticed something different about the clawed crusader. Publicity for the film depicts Logan as he’s never been seen on the big screen before. With this fresh visual take on an MCU stalwart about to slash its way into cinemas, now is a good time to look back at other classic comic book characters who got a major makeover, courtesy of those handed the keys to their respective franchises.

Sometimes a visionary director will dictate a new style. Sometimes a new element will be brought in from the printed page, as yet unknown to a casual audience. And every so often sheer lunacy rules the day! Either way, the business of bringing these illustrated icons to life in a movie is one fraught with peril, as the beady eyes of comic book fans prepare to deliver their all-important verdict. Who got it right and who burned in the fires of online forum hell forever…?

Read on…