Frightfest 2018 ‘Crystal Eyes’ (Mirada de Cristal) Review (THN)

Recreating bygone eras is a tricky business. Most attempts suffer one major drawback – try as they might, they just aren’t the genuine article. A way round this is to nail every little detail, from the font of the opening titles right down to the special effects. This gives people the impression they really are watching something from the time of grainy VHS and good old-fashioned slasher antics.

Crystal Eyes (Mirada de Cristal) pulls off that trick, but goes one better and creates something entertaining and inspired in its own right. Writer/directors Ezequiel Endelman and Leandro Montejano have crafted a fiendishly simple homage that stays absurd throughout without veering into spoof territory.

When drug-addled supermodel Alexis Carpenter (Camila Pizzo) dies during a fashion show, the emptiest of industries in mid-80s Buenos Aires tries to fill the void. To this end a tribute is planned, which in effect is a clambering exercise for models looking to take the top spot. But there’s a crazed killer at large offing the glitterati in various and visceral ways. It could be any number of the shallow, vindictive and memorable “personalities” on display. Or it could be Alexis herself, risen from the grave with a Giallo-fuelled grudge.

Despite the genre trappings (which the filmmakers revel in) the action has some unusual touches worthy of David Lynch, though in a league of their own. The title track alone is barmier than a box of frogs with lipstick on, part of Pablo Fuu’s synth wave soundtrack which exists on permanent overdrive.

Everyone is acting like they’re in a telenovela, spouting a raft of exposition-heavy dialogue so judging the performances is pointless. Endelman and Leandro Montejano have a real eye for vivid characters and the small touches they introduce are fantastic. At one point a character walks around in heels having just got out of the shower, and a strategically-placed stone backside also raises a chuckle amongst the chills. The malevolent protagonist (played by the brilliantly-named Issis Trash) is creepy yet ludicrous and the action plays out against the backdrop of stylized sets, grimy basements and old architecture.

Every so often you can see the film is shot on digital but given the Eighties pop video vibe that’s a quibble. You could also argue this is more an overextended sketch than anything, but I was truly taken with it.

For casual viewers the nature of the film will be irrelevant, but hopefully they’ll be drawn into what for me was quite a unique mix of elements. Crystal Eyes is a blast and one of the best evocations of the era I’ve seen. A minor triumph and an instant cult classic.

 

This review first appeared on THN.

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“Packs enough stupidity to test anyone’s WTF-ometer…” ‘The Meg’ Review

TM

Sharknado spawned a brood of bad killer fish pictures, so maybe it was time for Hollywood to redress the balance with a deluxe version.

The Meg is certainly in a bigger league than that knowingly absurd franchise. It tips its hat (or swimming cap) in the direction of Jaws, though the movie also packs enough stupidity to test anyone’s WTF-ometer.

The first half is promising. When underwater science hub Mana One discovers a hidden realm of exotic marine life in the Mariana Trench, it isn’t long before a sub is stricken and its crew trapped by a mysterious yet large aggressor.

Among their number is the ex-wife of chiselled cartoon cockney Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), a rescue diver who’s still smarting from an incident where he sort of drowned his mates.  Naturally Jonas is the best in the business, so is persuaded out of alcoholic exile to retrieve the crew.

But there’s more to it than that. Because whatever crippled the sub is something he’s encountered before. As the team of photogenic boffins start fishing around they find themselves face to face with terrifying prehistoric predator, the Megalodon.

For a while it seems like director Jon Turteltaub and co are crafting a fairly traditional ocean-bound creature feature. Then once the Meg is unleashed, the plot starts swerving around too much. Instead of focusing on a man v shark grudge match, which is perhaps what people were expecting, the movie wastes energy being tricksy and wrongfooting the audience.

Whereas Jaws‘ protagonists started off on land before winding up isolated and under attack at sea, The Meg goes the other way. The cramped and murky environment of Mana One is left behind so the title monster can make for a brightly-lit resort full of Chinese shark fodder.

Turteltaub treats this third act as kind of a joke, where tension is obliterated by sight gags and multiple references to Spielberg’s classic. The film was more frightening in the build up and the flat characters just can’t sustain the narrative.

Of the main cast Ruby Rose and Page Kennedy have the most presence, and Rainn Wilson is called upon to be sarcastic and slippery as the base’s billionaire investor. But then this isn’t a film about acting so much as a bloody great shark.

The Meg itself is entirely CGI and though it’s a dead-eyed behemoth it doesn’t have a distinctive look or personality. Its size was a problem for me, in that shark movies are about people having chunks taken out of them and being picked off from below. In this everyone is gulped down in one unsatisfying bite.

I’d take this over something like Empire Of The Sharks any day of the week. Granted that’s not saying much. Despite it all I enjoyed The Meg. Lower your expectations into a deep, dark trench and you’ll come back up for air without feeling short-changed.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Pacific Rim Uprising’ Blu-Ray Review (THN)

Pacific Rim Uprising faces a double whammy of expectation. First, it has to fill the shoes of director Guillermo del Toro and be a worthy sequel to boot. Second, with five years between movies it’s slightly belated, a situation that rarely ends well.

Director Steven S. DeKnight and producer/star John Boyega join forces here to move the story on and inject new elements, while at the same time giving fans and general audiences what they want, i.e. Jaegers and Kaijus bashing the hell out of each other with lots of buildings collapsing along the way.

The balancing act starts promisingly enough. Boyega plays Jake, son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba’s character from part one). A decade since the devastation of the last film he’s turned his back on piloting Jaegers and is now partying and scavenging to make his way in this drastically-altered world. When he runs into young Amara (Cailee Spaeny), who’s managed to knock up her own Jaeger, it takes him on a path back to his father’s stamping ground of the PPDC and a reunion with former buddy Nate (Scott Eastwood).

At that point, DeKnight has to start bringing in former characters such as Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), Dr.Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), who’ve all gone their separate ways into the various plot strands. If you remember these people, and I kind of do, then fine. If you don’t then you have to keep up a bit. Some things are recapped but other aspects, such as the piloting of the Jaegers, are just thrown in and maybe needed more explanation for first-timers.

Kikuchi isn’t given that much to do, while Day and Gorman resume their snappy wisecracker/cartoon boffin double act from before. The pair roam around like ex-Ghostbusters looking for a spook and spark well off one another. Meanwhile Jake and Nate have to train Amara and a team of international newbies how to “move like Jaeger” (sorry) and take on a resurgent batch of Kaijus, who are back for some reason.

The film doesn’t gel much and floats around in chunks before everything comes together for a final battle. In my view, DeKnight improves on his predecessor by setting the Jaeger/Kaiju faceoffs in broad daylight. There the shiny robots and weird creatures can be done justice, whereas in Pacific Rim everything was murky and indistinct.

Another plus is the light atmosphere, which for me was preferable to the first movie with its daft concept taken a little too seriously. Boyega is clearly having fun and is his usual cocky yet likeable self. However, Uprising could have done with ditching a couple of characters just to give things breathing space. If you want more, the home release is happy to oblige, with deleted scenes and a few featurettes.

Despite the last half hour or so being incoherent I enjoyed the film and was happy to leave my brain at the door as the carnage commenced. I’m not sure it’s done enough to warrant a third instalment, something that’s suggested at the end as these things often do. But there’s enough electricity and indeed eccentricity to make Pacific Rim a more watchable mega-franchise than most.

 

This review first appeared on THN

“None of us knew quite how crazy the tides were.” Simon Rumley Interview, ‘Crowhurst’ (THN)

Out to own on DVD/Blu-ray is Crowhurst, the true life story of British sailor Donald Crowhurst. His decision to take part in a round-the-world yacht race in 1968 had catastrophic consequences, as Donald found himself quite literally out of his depth. His boat was found but its occupant was never seen again.

Justin Salinger plays the title role in this unusual and powerful drama, which found itself competing against another Crowhurst picture, The Mercy with Colin Firth.

Simon Rumley is the acclaimed and innovative director who battled strong currents to tell Crowhurst’s tale in his own unique way. Producing the film was Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look NowPerformance), a trailblazer in his own right who had attempted his own version years before.

We caught up with Simon to talk about depicting this sea-bound mystery…

THN: What brought you to the project?

Simon Rumley: I was offered the project. At that point, I hadn’t heard of Donald Crowhurst, but I did some research and read the script and it was one of those things where you think “Is this really true?” It really was one of those stranger than fiction moments. And the story I felt had a lot of themes I’d dealt with in the past.

As much as anything I liked the idea of the guy being British and having what I suppose you would call arrogance in one respect and confidence in another. I thought there was a way of investigating national characteristics and our national traits.

And also the subject of isolation and loneliness. He was essentially a good guy but he makes all these terrible mistakes which have an impact on him and his family. I thought it would make a fascinating film investigating someone’s psyche.

Water is famously difficult to shoot on. How did you find working with it?

Yeah! Pretty much what everyone said it was going to be, to be honest. Initially, we were going to do 2 days at sea, and I said: “Look we should at least try 3.” Then that somehow went up to 4. We shot for 4 days and at the end, we didn’t have an opening scene or a closing scene. So we had to do 2 more days and then the motorboat we had to have for insurance purposes broke down on the final day.

We were also shooting in the Bristol Channel… none of us knew quite how crazy the tides were. It turned out it has the second strongest tides of anywhere in the world. We could only sail at certain times or we’d be f***ed. We would set up a shot, get ready to shoot it and then the captain would be like “We’ve got to turn around or we’ll crash!” And we’d just spent the last half hour setting everything up.

The other thing with the Bristol Channel is there’s land on either side, so the first morning was pretty much useless. We tried to film it so there was no land in the background but 99% of the time there was land. It proved quite challenging! While it’s not true to say the script went out the window, we tried to get as much of it as we could, but some scenes were lost.

Interestingly that gave the film an intensity because we had lots of cutaways and mini-sequences of Donald looking into the distance. We shot as much footage as we could, so even if we didn’t have the script we had enough to replace what we missed with something else. It was an enjoyable experience oddly. As a director, it was the time I had to think most on my feet really.

Nicolas Roeg is the executive producer, and he wanted to film the story himself years ago. How much of a creative influence did he have, or did he let you go your own way with it?

Mike (Michael Riley, producer) already knew him. He’s one of my favourite directors, if not my favourite, and we thought he should come aboard. We went out to a pub a couple of times, he read the script. We had some fairly lengthy discussions, which would kind of go in and out of the script and sometimes he would bring up one of his own films.

Having him certainly changed the film to a degree, because the film was written linearly, and the combination of having him on board and what I was talking about before, shooting more than what we had in the script… when we were in the edit Mike said “I want to make this as Roegian as possible. Try and do what Nic would do.” Certainly having someone encouraging me to go in non-linear fashion, to go a bit crazy and all that stuff, definitely shaped the film and obviously having Nic in the background was the main reason behind that. All of that encouraged me in the edit.

I hadn’t seen any of his films for a while and was thinking “What if he asks me about them?”. Before we met I watched some of his films and then the one he did mention was one I hadn’t rewatched, Castaway (1986). As he pointed out, it’s different of course, but had the same theme of self-imposed exile and was about a man losing his marbles.

There’s an unexpected amount of singing in the film! Where did that come from?

I’m a big music fan, films aside, and I suppose going back to what I was saying about it being a film with a quintessentially British character to it… I wanted to have a shorthand about a sense of British pride and duty. For Queen and Country. I thought it was a way of getting that emotion across.

We knew that The Mercy was in production at the same time. There was no way we were going to match the glossiness of their film, so we went the opposite way. I thought it would give it a unique character and make it different.

There was also something in Magnolia, where three-quarters of the way through all the characters sing. I guess that’s something that stayed with me. The songs are a manifestation of Donald’s isolation and loneliness.

This interview first appeared on THN.

‘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.

 

‘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.