‘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.

Twin Peaks: A Lynching Part One (Strange Skins Digital)

The return of Twin Peaks should not be underestimated. Other offerings from the Nineties are back in force, like faded pop stars cashing in with a reunion tour. Peaks was always different. It was network programming with an art house sensibility, cunningly clad in the wardrobe of a Fifties soap opera. Co-created by David Lynch, it brought cinematic production values to the small screen and set a benchmark for the future direction of showrunner-led drama. It certainly lost the plot during its second season, yet remained a different kettle of fish throughout. Or more appropriately a piscine-infused percolator.                                                                                                                                                                                                         I got into the series during my turbulent teens, where its angst-ridden weirdness and distinctive characters struck a deep chord. Many of us assumed we’d never see the “place both wonderful and strange” again. Our hero Special Agent Dale Cooper was trapped in the upholstered netherworld of the Black Lodge and he would seemingly be there forever. Lynch vetoed all attempts to revive the concept. His parting shot,  prequel film Fire Walk With Me, famously opened with a TV set being smashed to fragments. Then came the news no-one ever thought they’d hear: Lynch and writer Mark Frost had re-teamed and the show was opening its portals to viewers a quarter of a century later.

In 1990 I was ready for Twin Peaks, I just hadn’t realized it at that precise moment. The saga quickly gained an inexorable hold on my melting pot of a mind. One of the cleverest things about the show was its deceptive air of cosy familiarity, despite frequent punctuations of shocking content. I looked back fondly at that period and thought I knew what to expect from my favourite programme. Boy was I ever wrong!

To date I’ve watched the first four episodes, cannily released in as big a chunk as Lynch would allow. My reaction to the first hour or so of the double-length opener was one of vague disappointment. It appeared to be a new Lynch project with elements of Peaks in the background. However the deliberately slow pace, combined with a constant undercurrent of menace, kept me interested. If you’ve seen the director’s Lost Highway or Inland Empire then this belated third season gives viewers something similar. The icy and detached atmosphere felt far removed from the little town we know and love. Much of the action takes place elsewhere, in big, anonymous spaces like New York and Las Vegas.

What I and no doubt many others were waiting for was to welcome Agent Cooper back into our lives. Lynch and Frost wisely include him early on in a cryptic sequence featuring the Giant (Carel Struycken, who is a bit shrunken these days) but he disappears after this to be replaced by new characters. These additions – featuring in disparate, Mulholland Drive-style plot strands – are fine, albeit there to act as chess pieces in the grand scheme. Unlike the original series the acting is rather stilted in places. This works well in terms of unsettling the audience but makes it tough to get invested.

As it transpires a few of them are soon out of the picture, most notably Sam (Ben Rosenfield) and Tracey (Madeline Zima), who are pretty much there to strip off and make out in front of a mysterious glass box he’s supposed to be observing. What happens to them is the revival’s first big scare and it certainly delivers. It’s worth mentioning here that Twin Peaks: The Return is much grislier than its predecessor, a quality Lynch blends with the abstract to striking effect.

Episode two gives us a proper reunion with Cooper in the red-curtained realm and promptly aces our expectations, via an absolutely extraordinary chain of bizarre and eerie events. The most surprising thing about this resurrection for me so far is the way Lynch and Frost seek to explain early on aspects that have been the source of rampant speculation for twenty-five years. Peaks was never heavy on exposition, in fact there was virtually none. But I guess they’ve made fans wait long enough – bold moves indicate fresh and exciting directions for the mythology of the Black Lodge.

Put simply, the creators do not mess about. The arrival of a tree with what appears to be a talking brain for a head takes Lynchians firmly back to the days of Eraserhead and its rubberized ghouls. The story then begins to tie in with the journey of Cooper’s doppelgänger, who replaced his likeness in the real world and has been roaming the land causing mayhem since the previous run ended.

There’s a rewarding sense of the strands coming together, which becomes increasingly apparent across episodes three and four. The writers have taken the  intelligent decision to show how the strange goings-on in Twin Peaks affected the country as a whole, before slowly drawing us back to the town for what is presumably going to be a hell of a showdown between the two Coops.

We’ve never known quite what to expect with this show. It’s gotten broader and wilder since we last saw it. The curveballs really do curve. Hopefully the fuller emphasis on arthouse will reap the benefits and Showtime will be happy with their investment. They surely expected it to be challenging, but maybe not this challenging. Still, like the various people who’ve tried to access the Black Lodge over the years, they wanted to get in. And once you’re in, getting out is a whole other matter.

 

This article first appeared in Strange Skins Digital.

‘Neruda’ Review (The Hollywood News)

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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.

“An instant classic.” Arrival DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

Those who have given up on ever seeing an original film again may take comfort from the presence of director Denis Villeneuve, who has carved himself a niche somewhere between well-trodden territory and new ground. His next release is Blade Runner 2049, which sees him in the tricky position of following Ridley Scott‘s futuristic masterpiece. What presumably got him there was Arrival, an assured and powerful sci-fi epic that amazingly is Villeneuve’s first attempt at the genre.

Amy Adams plays grieving and disconnected linguist Louise Banks. Now if you think linguistics isn’t going to make the most compelling subject for a story think again. Her recruitment into a multi-government effort to communicate with the occupants of several large, monolithic objects which have appeared over skies across the globe forms the basis of an instant classic. As she and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) gradually begin to piece together the purpose of the octopus-like “Heptapods” visit, they feel the weight of world expectation behind them. Meanwhile US Army bigwig Weber (Forest Whitaker) is being leaned on by his superiors to obtain fast results.

This push and pull illustrates one of the film’s big questions – are the superpowers capable of understanding the mysteries of the universe when they can’t trust each other for five minutes? Crucial to the struggle at the heart of Eric Heisserer‘s screenplay (based on a short story by Ted Chiang) is Adams’ lead performance, another effortless example of her star quality. She was the filmmaker’s only choice for the role and you can see why. Renner, Whitaker and the under-used Michael Stuhlbarg are decent, but merely incidental in a narrative that Adams dominates from start to finish. Finally we have a major genre movie that does everything AND has a female perspective.

For an alien encounter story, the feel is surprisingly intimate. Much of the action takes place either within the network of tents where the military have set up shop, or the interior of the spacecraft, a design triumph that acknowledges the likes of HR Giger but which also has a stunning simplicity. This is a sparse and elegant production of looming shapes rather than slithering monsters. It’s intelligent and complex but also accessible and moving. The increasing public disquiet is only shown via screens, ramped up by a deluge of media speculation, reinforcing the idea of a bubble.

Aside from an actress in charge of proceedings, there’s nothing that new on display: like Interstellar, Arrival pays tribute to 2001, both in terms of the central character’s personal odyssey and the striking black shapes heralding the appearance of an alien civilization. However, while Christopher Nolan‘s film boggled your eyes and shattered your eardrums with its central concept, Villeneuve delivers something more nuanced and distinctive. His take brings us familar subject matter in a way that hasn’t quite been seen before, derivative yet challenging. The reveal of the Heptapods’ ship fuses extraterrestrial engineering with nature in an astonishing helicopter shot which marks him out as a visual stylist to match Blade Runner‘s Ridley Scott. On the audio side, composer Johann Jóhannsson‘s score is a stirring mix of deep, Inception-style tones and intricate, exotic composition.

Unusually for a DVD, the extras are quite meaty, befitting the weighty ideas behind the tale. The main featurette – Xenolinguistics: Understanding Arrival – is an absorbing overview. At one point Villeneuve tells the interviewer he felt he couldn’t make a sci-fi movie in Canada… the home of David Cronenberg! How times have changed. But then Arrival rewrites the laws of time altogether. Like the best entries of its type it is a strong comment on humanity and how being confronted with something truly other uncovers the best and worst in us all.

 

This review appeared on THN.

‘Jason Bourne’ DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

jb-1The last entry in the Bourne franchise was 2012’s The Bourne Legacy starring Jeremy Renner. While that became a one-off, it’s worth examining the character’s true legacy before diving in with this review. The original trilogy helped cement Matt Damon‘s position in Hollywood. Paul Greengrass‘s involvement from part two onwards gave the series an additional layer of quality. More than anything, the films had an impact on movie action in general. When Daniel Craig took the role of 007, it was no coincidence his adventures were “back to basics” in nature, a single shot saying more than a million bullets out of a machine gun ever could.

Identity through to Supremacy appeared to offer a complete journey for Jason Bourne. Despite this, Damon and Greengrass have got the band back together for their riskiest mission yet: an extra helping that tries not to tarnish what has gone before. Have they succeeded? Well, on the whole yes, though there are a few bumps on the road as they go.

Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse have developed their hero’s personal odyssey further by revealing hitherto-unknown information about Bourne’s involvement in Operation Blackbriar (the covert assassination league he blew wide open during his last outing). When former ally-turned-Snowden-esque-hacker Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) contacts a broken-down Bourne about this explosive development, the scene is set for him to return from his exile as a bare knuckle boxer and set the world to rights one more time. It’s a logical but well-worn approach, though in fairness the strength of the franchise was the way it put a new spin on hackneyed spy thriller clichés rather than innovate itself.

Drawn back into the fray like a chiselled moth to a flame, Damon’s Bourne runs up against an impressive trio of villains. Tommy Lee Jones‘s weathered CIA chief Robert Dewey wants the rogue operative permanently erased. Alicia Vikander‘s ambitious and fetching Heather Lee represents the changing face of intelligence, believing Bourne can be brought back into the fold. Meanwhile Vincent Cassel’s “The Asset” becomes the latest relentless Euro-henchman to be put on Damon’s tail, a man of steel with old scores to settle.

Inevitably it’s more of the same controlled chaos, with Greengrass’s handheld camera roving amongst the fist fights and destruction at breakneck speed. The unflinching pace doesn’t make up for repetition and an overall lack of meat. However some intriguing snippets of Bourne’s character are in evidence – most notably the way he distances himself from Nicky’s counter culture activities. He may be fighting the system, but at heart he’s an establishment man, a strand which gives credence to Vikander’s belief he secretly wants to return to duty.

She is the film’s strongest element, Lee possessing equal capacity to wear either the white hat or the black. Damon can do this sort of thing in his sleep and the same can be said of Jones, who is a welcome presence. Cassel’s ageing hard man is also highly watchable. Like a lot of these big action projects, it could have done with being a bit shorter and not all the fresh ingredients work. Riz Ahmed‘s social media mogul doesn’t add much to the narrative, aside from making the basic point that Dewey’s world is changing.

Ironically the climactic chase has all the extravagance of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond, a sign that maybe the series is running low on inspiration. The team have had a good run, and made a sizeable mark on the genre – as Moby’s excellent Extreme Ways kicks in over the end credits, it might be time to admit those ways are now the old ways.

 

This review first appeared on THN.

The Commitments 25th Anniversary DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

tcTime for people of a certain age to start feeling old. It’s been a quarter of a century since director Alan Parker introduced us to an unlikely soul combo whose legacy still lives on via a hit stage show and countless concerts. So while their onscreen fortunes turned out to be mixed, The Commitments‘ place in popular culture is assured.

Opening with a bustling Dublin street market with second hand goods, fiddle players and horses, this marks itself out from the blockbusters of the time as a gritty take on Roddy Doyle‘s source novel. Fast-talking wannabe music mogul Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) has a simple idea: reasoning that the oppressed Irish are “the blacks of Europe”, he wants to assemble a world class soul outfit from local talent. But like the best band stories the road to success is paved with false starts, egos and copious amounts of drink and swears. In fact the production may hold the record as the most expletive-laden popular movie of all time, if not the twentieth century.

Sitcom stalwarts Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were the perfect pairing to guide Doyle’s salty characters and quotable dialogue to the big screen (they even manage a cheeky reference to their defining show The Likely Lads along the way). Saxophone player Félim Gormley explains how he came by his instrument – “My uncle gave me it when his lung collapsed.” – and lead singer Andrew Strong gets the job after Arkins sees him giving an impromptu drunk performance at a wedding, one his star turn can’t even remember doing!

What contributes to the longevity of The Commitments is Parker’s decision to go with unknown actors. Some of them went on to greater things (notably Bronagh Gallagher, who appeared in The Phantom Menace) but on the whole this was their first and only shot at world domination. This means the film still has that layer of authenticity which could have been diminished if you spent two hours spotting the famous faces. The cast are likeable and clearly revelling in the easy going yet edgy atmosphere Parker creates. They’re all good, but special mention must be given to Gallagher and Johnny Murphy‘s Joey “The Lips” Fagan, who gets his pick of the women and who may or may not be a raging fantasist. Then there’s Strong, with his weathered vocals and extraordinary range of facial expressions.

The power behind the story is the filmmaker’s ability to deliver a convincing band, as well as conveying the rough and ready nature of creating musical fusion. Whether winging it through a chaotic set or flowing together like cream and coffee, you buy into their tale, and even hope they find the notoriety they crave. It’s a particularly inspirational movie for a generation all-encompassed by the Simon Cowell approach to talent nurturing and speaks to viewers on all levels.

For this milestone, a solid range of extras has been added for the release. Parker himself is on commentary duties and the way it all came together is chronicled via several documentaries from past and present. If you Try A Little Tenderness you’ll find yourself rooting for this Chain Of Fools, whose distinctive journey will keep you laughing through to The Midnight Hour. I’ll shut the f*** up now.

This review first appeared on THN.