Some Beasts (2019)

aka Algunas Bestias

2020 #225
Jorge Riquelme Serrano | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Chile / Spanish

Some Beasts

Sometimes, one thing can ruin an entire movie. Depending on how harsh a critic you are, I’d say that’s quite rare. Unless it’s threaded throughout the entire film (like, say, a terrible lead performance, or a consistently poor cinematography decision), a small constituent part would have to be truly horrendous to take the entire rest of the movie down with it. Some Beasts is one of those films. The problem arrives in the final 20 minutes, which makes it a massive plot spoiler. Out of some lingering respect for storytellers, I provide this spoiler warning; others would argue content of this nature doesn’t deserve such courtesy.

Anyway, before I get to that: the film’s first hour-or-so. It’s about a family — mum, dad, teenage son and daughter, and their maternal grandparents — travelling to a small island near Chile that the mum & dad have just bought. They want to turn its ramshackle house into a luxury hotel, and they want her rich parents to stump up some money. They’re a snobby bunch — not horrendously so, but with that creeping sense that their grumpiness isn’t just a bad day, it’s a lifelong sense of entitlement. They’re accompanied by a guide, but after he’s accused of being inappropriate towards the daughter (which he wasn’t) and he’s groped (against his protestations) by the grandmother, the family wake up the next day to find he’s disappeared, stranding them on the island.

Some Beasts is labelled as a thriller, but there’s not much thrilling about it. By the halfway point, people are literally sat around staring into space… On the surface, it’s just a family on a bad holiday; but there are obvious interpersonal tensions, which combine with some occasionally ominous music and unusual shot choices (like a series of straight-down bird’s eye views that open the film) to lend a mildly unsettling atmosphere. As the film goes on, their behaviour gets worse, but it’s in small increments on a long sliding scale.

Abusers

Later, they all play a board game. And we watch. In real time. And we join it halfway through, so you’re not going to know what the game is or how it’s played. Then the tensions explode and everybody’s arguing. The whole of this unfolds in one long static take, which is either an impressive bit of staging and acting or just directorial showing off, depending how you want to take it. I tend towards the latter, given what happens next.

The final 20 minutes suddenly throw in a very sensitive and emotive subjective, presenting it in a deliberately provocative fashion. To be clear: the grandfather gets into bed with the teenage daughter and rapes her. Like the board game, this is presented in a couple of long static wide shots, meaning we witness more-or-less the whole thing. A raft of questions are posed. Is this the first time? The daughter seems awfully accepting of it. Not that she likes it, but is resigned; she barely protests. If not, when did it start? There’s only been the vaguest hints earlier in the film about the grandfather’s feelings. Who knows about it? Because there are some cutaways that suggest some of the other characters know what’s going on. And the next morning, it seems like they all know — so when did they find out? And what happens next? Because there’s no blazing row; no calm confrontation, either. They all sit around a bit more, looking shocked… then get in a boat and go home. The end. It’s like there’s not enough screen time to deal with the subject in sufficient detail, so the film doesn’t even try. Except, of course, that it’s the filmmaker who decides the running time and the pacing. There’s no “oops, I introduced a serious issue too late in the day and now I don’t have time to examine it properly!”

Because the film doesn’t actually explore with the topic it’s raised, that means we’re left primarily with the manner of its presentation. That seems consciously designed as an assault on our sensibilities via a brazen depiction of something morally abhorrent. Rather than any meaningful engagement with the multitude of questions and issues it raises, it pokes at us for a reaction, being about as provocative as a child saying a rude word at an inappropriate moment — the scene, and its explicit detail, exists only to say, “look how edgy I am! Look how I’m prepared to show things that shouldn’t be shown!” I’ll be the first to argue that depicting something is not necessarily to endorse it (cf. the endless stupid debates about Scorsese’s oeuvre), but when the Bad Thing goes as unexamined and unpunished as it does here, one starts to wonder about the real intent of the filmmaker.

Abused

The first hour or so of Some Beasts is mostly uneventful; the final 20 minutes are offensively ill-judged. I don’t think you get to throw something that serious into your film, and shoot it so provocatively, without also tackling what it means. You can’t take something that so profoundly affects people who’ve suffered it and treat it in such an off-hand manner. Taboo subjects can and should be tackled in films, but you have to engage with them in thoughtful and meaningful ways, not use them as something shocking for the sake of being shocking. The ending is so egregious, it kicks aside what value there was in the earlier portion of the film. It actually made me feel kind of angry, which is not the kind of reaction I normally feel towards a film.

Some Beasts is well made, in its way, but it’s a bad film.

1 out of 5

Some Beasts is screening on AMPLIFY! until Sunday.

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

2020 #239
Joe Lawlor & Christine Molloy | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | Ireland & UK / English

Rose Plays Julie

Long Lost Family meets rape revenge thriller in this Irish drama about a veterinary student, Rose (Ann Skelly), who was adopted as a baby and now decides to finally meet her birth mother, Ellen (Orla Brady), only to uncover a dark secret about their shared past. Well, I’ve kinda given away the ‘secret’ in my opening ten words, haven’t I? My apologies if you’re a total spoilerphobe, but here’s the thing: some blurbs and whatnot try to conceal that reveal (and when it comes in the film, it is played as a revelation; more on that in a bit), but, frankly, even if you haven’t already had it spelled out (and most reviews don’t try to hide it), it’s pretty easy to guess where things are going — perhaps even from reading one of those oh-so-oblique blurbs (that’s when I figured it out).

But this isn’t your standard rape revenge movie. The act itself is historical, with only its aftermath shown in a couple of fuzzy flashbacks — this isn’t one of those trashy flicks that has its cake and eats it by ickily revelling in the assault before also enjoying the violent vengeance. And instead of the avenger being a dismayed husband/partner, or the (attractive, young) wronged woman who’s suddenly an expert assassin, it’s the daughter who came of it. If you’re after the visceral thrills of the aforementioned kind of rape revenge movies, you won’t find them in this slow-burn, introspective drama; but if you’re open to that style, the mother-daughter angle of how it approaches its subject matter is a unique element.

This is where the Long Lost Family part remains relevant, because the tentative new relationship between Rose and the mother who gave her up two decades ago is almost a big a part of the film as her seeking out and confronting her biological father. This rides a lot on Skelly and Brady as actors, because writer-directors Joe Lawlor & Christine Molloy aren’t the sort of filmmakers who write big speeches where their characters explain their feelings — quite the opposite. Instead, we study their passive faces in extended closeups, trying to discern what’s going on as they think things over. One of the most outwardly expressive moments comes when Ellen reveals their shared past to Rose, in a blunt statement just hours after they’ve first met. It’s probably not the best way to go about telling someone that was how they were conceived, but it makes for a slap-in-the-face moment of drama, and Skelly’s reaction is powerful: she doesn’t ‘do’ anything, but her face changes entirely.

The secret comes out

The film’s quiet, subtle mode must be challenging for an actor — no grand emotive speeches to show off with — but this cast are up to the challenge. Skelly is obviously the standout, letting through just glimmers of reaction that allow us to understand how much she’s struggling with all this troubling new information. Brady is very good also, even though I feel like some of her character arc has been left offscreen, between scenes. Rose’s father, Peter, is played by Aidan Gillen, who always excels at embodying smarmy bastards, and that extra-textual awareness helps him to, again, keep his performance mostly subdued and realistic. He’s not some overt monster stomping across everyone’s lives, but an outwardly nice guy with an evil core.

The film’s biggest detriment is that it perhaps takes its serious subject matter a bit too seriously. It’s a very portentous film, in which the restrained performances, gloomy photography, slow-burn pace, and ominous music combine to create an intensely fateful atmosphere. Something is, inevitably, going to happen… eventually… On the one hand, it means that, as Rose gets in deeper, the tension steadily begins to grow. On the other, I’m aware some viewers think it’s so self-serious that it tips over into being laughable. There’s something to be said for varying your tone.

Conversely, I can see why Lawlor & Molloy weren’t in the mood for levity: this is a film about two women, damaged in different ways, who need to come to terms with what has happened to them; both searching for something, even if they don’t know it. You could argue, even, that applies to three people, because Gillen’s character also comes to realise he’s broken — though, in his case, how much sympathy we can feel for him is a whole other discussion. And mixed into all that are major ethical dilemmas: reaching out to birth parents who requested no contact; euthanising healthy animals (if you’re squeamish about injured and dying animals, do not apply); and, by extension, the question of what is appropriate restitution for transgressive behaviour by humans.

Peter the rapist

The latter leads to an ending that I’m not sure how I feel about (massive spoilers follow!) Peter is killed by Ellen, but only because he acquiesces — he accepts what’s happening and allows Ellen to finish it. It’s not exactly suicide (he wouldn’t have done it if Ellen hadn’t turned up and stabbed him with a syringe full of poison), but, by the end, he’s also not protesting. He accepts his guilt and punishment; almost seems to welcome the relief, in fact. If only all rapists were so helpful… and the fact they wouldn’t be is what makes this such a grey area. But then, maybe that’s the point: the film isn’t arguing that this is how things should be done, but asking the question: is this ok? If not, what would be? On another level, from a story structure perspective, it feels somewhat unsatisfying that Rose isn’t involved, after the rest of the film was primarily about her. That might be morally correct (it’s really Ellen’s trauma to deal with), but it feels wrong dramatically to end the film with resolution for Ellen more than for Rose.

Between its heavy issues and unwaveringly doom-laden tone, Rose Plays Julie is not a light viewing experience. If you like the idea of slow-burn dramatic thriller that spends a lot of time focused on people’s still faces as they process information silently and internally, and leaves you with a lot to chew over when it’s done, this is a film for you. If you think that sounds inscrutable or dull, steer clear.

4 out of 5

Rose Plays Julie is streaming on AMPLIFY! until Thursday 12th November. It includes a half-hour Q&A with the directors, actor Orla Brady, and composer Stephen McKeon.

Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

The 100-Week Roundup XIV

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

While I’ve been busy with FilmBath and AMPLIFY!, a lot of review dates I intended to hit have flown by, which naturally brought to mind the Douglas Adams quote above. All those reviews that would’ve tied in to something now won’t, but they’ll find a home here someday.

In the meantime, I’m far behind on my 100-week roundups, which is why I’ve put some energy into this little lot. They finish up my reviews from October 2018, as well as dipping a toe into the waters of November 2018. It’s a mixed bag in every sense: very different genres; very different styles; very different ratings…

The films in question are…

  • It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)
  • The Lives of Others (2006)
  • Jennifer’s Body (2009)
  • Going for Golden Eye (2017)


    It’s Such a Beautiful Day
    (2012)

    2018 #218
    Don Hertzfeldt | 62 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English

    It's Such a Beautiful Day

    In 2014, when Time Out New York ranked It’s Such a Beautiful Day 16th on their list of the 100 Best Animated Movies Ever Made, critic Tom Huddleston described it as “one of the great outsider artworks of the modern era, at once sympathetic and shocking, beautiful and horrifying, angry and hilarious, uplifting and almost unbearably sad.” That’s a description I’m about to singularly fail to better.

    Animator Don Hertzfeldt enjoys a cult following — you might never have heard of him (though chances you heard about his Simpsons couch gag, if nothing else), but if you have, well, you have. After releasing numerous shorts, It’s Such a Beautiful Day was his first feature — and, indeed, it was first released as a trilogy of short films between 2006 and 2011. Hence my notes break down into three parts, which I shall now share unedited…

    Part 1, Everything Will Be OK. Okay, so, this is weird. Interesting depiction of some kind of mental collapse (I guess we’re meant to infer it’s a brain tumour). Odd everyday events — what does it mean? Maybe that’s the point — Bill [the central character] is pondering what it all means too, after all.

    Part 2, I Am So Proud of You, is like, “you thought that was weird? Get a load of this!” A lot of it seems to be weird — what some people would describe as “disturbed — just for the sake of it. But at other times, it’s almost casually profound. There’s something interesting about its relationship to time and the order of events, or at least the presentation of the order of events.

    Part 3, It’s Such a Beautiful Day. See above. It’s interesting that it was three short films, made over a period of six years, because it really does feel of a piece. Maybe it was just easier to fund/produce shorts rather than a feature, and this was always the end goal.

    Well, there you go. This is not an animated movie for everyone (if you think “animated movie” means “Disney musical”… hahaha), but it’s certainly something unique and special.

    4 out of 5

    The Lives of Others
    (2006)

    aka Das Leben der Anderen

    2018 #220
    Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | 137 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Germany / German | 15 / R

    The Lives of Others

    In 1984 East Berlin, an agent of the secret police, conducting surveillance on a writer and his lover, finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by their lives.IMDb

    This German movie won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and BAFTA (as well as a host of other similar awards), and is currently ranked as the 59th best film of all time on IMDb. It lives up to its accolades. It’s tense and thrilling like a spy movie; emotionally and politically loaded like an art house drama.

    Of particular note is Ulrich Mühe, superb as the increasingly-conflicted Stasi agent. He conveys so much with so little — the character’s massive ideological change is all portrayed as inner conflict. I was wondering why we hadn’t seen a lot more of him since, but sadly he passed away the year after the film came out, aged just 54.

    As the film focuses so much on him, it might be easy to underrate the technical merits, especially because they’re unobtrusive; but it’s perfectly shot by Hagen Bogdanski, with crisp, cold, precise photography. As for writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, his followup was infamous Johnny Depp / Angelina Jolie vehicle The Tourst, a film so maligned it seems to have derailed his career. Shame.

    5 out of 5

    The Lives of Others placed 24th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018. It was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

    Jennifer’s Body
    (2009)

    2018 #222
    Karyn Kusama | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jennifer's Body

    Jennifer’s Body didn’t go down well on its original release, but the past few years have seen it develop a cult following, with people regularly recommending it on social media as an under-appreciated horror flick. I didn’t dislike it, but I’m not ready to join their ranks.

    You can see what they were going for, in some respects — it’s trying to be a very feminist horror movie, with the female friendship at the core and so on. And yet, despite the female writer and female director and female stars, chunks of it feel so very male fantasy. I mean, Megan Fox goes skinny dipping for no reason. We don’t see anything explicit, but I’d wager that has more to do with Fox’s contract than authorial intent. Later, there’s a lingering kiss between the two girls that looks like it’s trying its hardest to best the famous one from Cruel Intentions. And talking of references, the whole film sounds like it’s trying really, really hard to be Heathers, with an overload of slang ‘n’ shit. It’s a bit, well, try-hard.

    Megan Fox is surprisingly good though, and there are some neat bits of direction, like the intercut murder/virginity-losing scene. It’s just a shame the whole film doesn’t show that kind of consistency. It did grow on me as it went on (I’m not sure if it took me time to settle into its rhythm or if it just had a clunky start), though exactly how much is debatable: it ends up being a moderately entertaining comedy-horror, but one that’s never really scary and rarely that funny.

    3 out of 5

    Going for Golden Eye
    (2017)

    2018 #224
    Jim Miskell | 60 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English

    Going for Golden Eye

    According to IMDb trivia, this is “the first video game mockumentary”. Well, you’re not going to mistake it for a real documentary — the acting is uniformly amateurish, which is one of the film’s biggest hindrances (it certainly gets in the way of selling the documentary conceit).

    Making allowances for such amateur roots, the film does manage some decently amusing bits, although just as many that don’t land. Very little about it will surprise or delight, but more forgiving or nostalgic viewers may be tickled at times. Plus, you have to have a certain amount of admiration for zero-budget filmmakers who managed to produce and get distribution for their film. Even if there’s an occasional for-friends-and-family feel to parts of it, they’ve still completed something many wannabes only dream of.

    Outside of aforementioned relatives, this is only really going to appeal to people with nostalgia for playing GoldenEye on N64 back in the day. In a way, the best part of the whole film is the opening montage about how GoldenEye was unexpectedly great, bucking expectations of both movie tie-in games and first-person shooters. A genuine well-made documentary about the game — why it was so important; what made it so popular — would be interesting…

    2 out of 5

  • Safety Last! (1923)

    2020 #172
    Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor | 74 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / silent | U

    Safety Last!

    I’ve seen films by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, so it’s overdue that I acquaint myself with the so-called “Third Genius” of silent comedy, Harold Lloyd. I would say that, of those three, Lloyd is considered a distant third place today: Chaplin is a name that transcends cinema to be known in the general consciousness; Keaton has accrued fame down the years for his still-impressive stunts; but Lloyd, I feel, has faded from consciousness a bit. If everyone’s heard of Chaplin, and a lot of people have heard of Keaton, I feel like only those in the know even consider Lloyd. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, some would assert that, in their day, Lloyd was the most successful of them all — per Wikipedia, he made $15.7 million to Chaplin’s $10.5 million. (Nothing is ever as straightforward as all that, of course. Here’s a good article at Silentology all about the history of popularity of the silent comedians, which ultimately makes it quite clear that (a) Chaplin was the biggest; (b) Lloyd and Keaton were the runners-up; and (c) the pack of other comedians was far behind that trio.)

    The dwindling of his reputation seems to be at least partly his own fault: according to revered film historian Kevin Brownlow (paraphrased in this article), “Lloyd was so nervous about how audiences would react to his later movies that he withheld the films from distribution, so that only some very early pictures (made before his talent blossomed around 1920) were widely available for viewing. An effort to reintroduce his work after his death in the early ’70s was also botched, adding narrations and showy music scores to movies that don’t need extra gimmicks.” Nowadays, silents are re-released with more respect to their original presentations, but, for whatever reason, I think Lloyd still awaits the reappraisal that the other two have enjoyed and/or never even needed. Indeed, if we look at their current availability on disc in the UK, Chaplin has several extensive Blu-ray sets to his name; Masters of Cinema have made a fine fist of getting Keaton onto Blu-ray, with four box sets so far; and Lloyd… has a total of two films. And one of those (this one) is only out today. (I’ve focused on the UK because that’s where I am, but it’s not a whole lot better in his native US, where a total of four of his films are on Blu-ray.)

    What a way to make a living

    My opinion on the three is still forming — as I said, this is the first Lloyd film I’ve seen, so it wouldn’t be fair to base an entire comparison off it. But I have now seen the majority of Chaplin’s most-acclaimed features, and a couple of Keaton’s too, so a view is beginning to coalesce. And that is that, either I’m always in the wrong mood when I watch a Chaplin film, or I just completely prefer Keaton, and now Lloyd too. Aside from The Great Dictator, I’ve found every Chaplin I’ve seen to be a bit of a slog. That’s not to say I dislike them — I can see admirable stuff aplenty, and greatly enjoyed some of the exceptionally amusing sequences — but they always feel very long to me. That’s not a sensation I’ve yet experienced during a Keaton film, nor with Safety Last. But who knows, maybe Safety Last is Harold Lloyd’s Great Dictator in terms of how my opinion pans out. Only time, and more films, can tell.

    But, for now, Safety Last is why we’re here. It’s the story of a small-town boy (Lloyd) who travels to the city to find employment, planning to have his girl (Mildred Davis) follow him out just as soon as he makes his fortune. His letters home inform her of his increasing success, but in reality he works a lowly job at a department store, rushed off his feet to serve the baying mass of consumers. The ensuing century has conferred on that a degree of timelessness: working hard to appease others but getting nowhere yourself. It’s not the American Dream, but, for many low-level workers, it’s the American Reality. Replace working on the fabric counter of a department store with filling packages at an Amazon warehouse and, really, how much has changed?

    This is the milieu the film plays in for the first 50-or-so minutes, more or less. There are digressions outside the workplace, the best being a fateful morning commute that sees Lloyd accidentally bundled into a van heading further and further in the wrong direction, leading to an array of tricks and stunts to head back to work on time. Keaton may be the more famed daredevil, but here Lloyd appears every bit his equal.

    Climbing a building? Sounds like an impossible mission...

    And never more so than in the film’s final act. A series of events leads us to the point where Lloyd has to climb the sky-scraping outside of the department store building in order to earn the big payday he’s been needing. What follows is a 20-minute climb; a phenomenal extended sequence that is both funny and tense. It was shot on location, on fake buildings built atop real buildings — not as dangerous as fully doing it for real, but not exactly health-and-safety conscious (if Lloyd had fallen, he would’ve dropped only a storey or so onto a mattress; but if he bounced off that…) It has the same kind of thrill that Tom Cruise employs today when he climbs skyscrapers or dangles off the side of planes, only with more humour. You might think that would undercut the tension, but, if anything, it exacerbates it. You can push things closer to the edge when being funny, and, boy, does Lloyd get close to the edge…

    The first two-thirds of the film are a very solid 4-out-of-5 farce, but the final act mixes laughs with thrills in a perfectly executed, constantly escalating sequence that is a 6-out-of-5-level climax.

    5 out of 5

    The Criterion Collection edition of Safety Last! is released in the UK today.

    Memories of Murder (2003)

    aka Salinui chueok

    2019 #15
    Bong Joon Ho | 131 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

    Memories of Murder

    South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has gradually risen in prominence over the past few years, culminating in Parasite’s history-making success at this year’s Oscars (yes, that was only earlier this year). Memories of Murder wasn’t his debut work, but it was what initially garnered him some attention outside Korea. It’s been surprisingly hard to come by for a while now, but a new 4K restoration is released in the UK via Curzon today (it’s coming to US cinemas for a limited run in October, and new Blu-ray releases (including one from Criterion) will follow).

    In 1986, two women are raped and murdered in provincial South Korea. The local detective, Park Doo-man (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), has never dealt with a case of this magnitude and relies on old-fashioned methods — his main one being to have his partner, Cho (Kim Roi-ha), beat confessions out of suspects. After a modern-minded big-city ‘tec, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), volunteers to help, the old and the new clash. As more crimes are committed, more clues are gathered, and more suspects are apprehended, but then cleared. Can the police ever get close to their man?

    Loosely based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders, and taking a procedural approach to the crime thriller genre, Memories of Murder invites comparison to David Fincher’s Zodiac for its methodical, realistic narrative style and plot that follows obsessed investigators chasing unsolved murders in the past. Zodiac is one of my favourite films (it placed 3rd in 100 Favourites II), so it’s a tall order to be pitched against it. Fortunately, Memories of Murder is strong enough to withstand the comparison.

    Investigators

    A lot of praise that applies to Zodiac could be copy-and-pasted here. In addition to the facets I’ve already mentioned, there are several fine performances (not least from Song, who’s clearly become a Bong regular for a reason); several striking set piece crimes and/or discoveries without indulging in glorification of real crimes; and a commentary on the methods and obsessions of investigators that goes beyond ‘doing the job’. It does none of this in the same way as Fincher would a couple of years later, but it’s a different perspective within the same genre headspace.

    Memories of Murder is already a well-regarded film (on top of a 91% Tomatometer score, it’s on the IMDb Top 250 and in the top 100 of Letterboxd’s version ) but, having been out of widespread circulation for a few years, and with renewed interest in Bong’s back catalogue, it’s ripe for wider (re)discovery.

    5 out of 5

    Memories of Murder is available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema from today.

    It placed 5th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019, after being viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

    The 100-Week Roundup XI

    This week: an underrated crime thriller based on the same true-life story as a Hitchcock classic; an investigation of the trauma left by conflict in a film I’ve nicknamed “Gulf War Rashomon”; and a test of this “just post my notes already” roundup format with one of my favourite films I watched in 2018.

    They are…

  • Compulsion (1959)
  • Heathers (1988)
  • Courage Under Fire (1996)


    Compulsion
    (1959)

    2018 #194
    Richard Fleischer | 99 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12

    Compulsion

    Based on a novel that was based on the Leopold and Loeb case (which has also been the inspiration for various other films, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope), Compulsion is the story of two students who think their intellectual superiority will allow them to get away with the perfect murder.

    Playing the students, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman are both fantastic. They’re two different types of well-to-do prodigies: Dillman charming and cocksure; Stockwell both awkward and supremely confident of his own exceptionalness. Their performances keep things compelling, even as the events unfolding are a foregone conclusion. You should and will hate them — even if they weren’t murderers, they’d be insufferable pricks (they sound like any number of modern-day politicians, don’t they?); that they’re cold-blooded killers just makes them worse. But even though you’ll never root for them, they’re still addictively watchable. Also, bearing in mind when the film was made, there’s a strong undercurrent of their homosexuality. It disappears as the film goes on, becoming more concerned with the case than the relationship between the two guys, but it’s discernibly there at the start.

    And then Orson Welles turns up. Despite getting top billing, he has more of a third act cameo that turns into the film’s most grandstanding moment: his closing speech at the trial; a real tour de force against capital punishment. Apparently it was issued on vinyl, it’s that good. The three stars got and get all the recognition (they shared Best Actor at Cannes that year), but there are also fine supporting performances from Martin Milner and Diane Varsi as a couple of fellow students who get caught up in the case in different ways; and E.G. Marshall is very good as DA Horn, the man who eventually catches the guys and therefore becomes Welles’ courtroom nemesis. He’s particularly understated during Welles’ big speech, gradually shifting from annoyance and hatred to agreement, ultimately rising to his feet at the end as if in a silent standing ovation.

    Stillman, Stockwell and Welles

    Aside from that obvious Big Scene, there are several other memorable ones: Dillman calmly talking to his teddy bear while Stockwell frantically searches for misplaced glasses, for example; or the cat-and-mouse scenes where the DA interviews the lads separately. Much of it is fantastically shot, too. There’s an occasional showy bit (like focusing on glasses on a nightstand as it gets dark outside, then showing the culprit and investigator reflected one in each lens), but also a general level of quality that often helps emphasise the darkness in the lads’ souls.

    I don’t think Compulsion is widely discussed anymore (it has fewer ratings on IMDb than Love on a Leash!), but I thought it was a brilliant film; one that can withstand comparison to more-acclaimed versions of the same story. It’s definitely underrated today.

    5 out of 5

    Heathers
    (1988)

    2018 #196
    Michael Lehmann | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Heathers

    Heathers was one of my favourite films I watched in 2018 (it placed 5th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018), but I didn’t make any notes on it at the time, and (obviously) it’s now two years since I watched it. Oh dear.

    So, in the spirit of the point of these roundups (to clear old unreviewed films, regardless of how much or little I have to say about them), we’ll have to make do with repeating my brief summary from the aforementioned “best of” list. Though I’ll also add that I watched this on Arrow’s then-new Blu-ray edition, which comes from a 4K restoration and looks absolutely fantastic.

    The darkness that’s barely concealed beneath the pleasant veneer of American high schools is exposed in this pitch-black comedy, which mixes violent teen wish fulfilment with a certain degree of societal satire to boundary-pushing effect. It’s not as transgressively shocking 30 years on as it might’ve been back in the ’80s, but it’s still so very.

    5 out of 5

    Courage Under Fire
    (1996)

    2018 #197
    Edward Zwick | 108 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Courage Under Fire

    It’s “Gulf War Rashomon” when a traumatised tank commander (Denzel Washington) encounters conflicting accounts of what happened while he investigates whether a helicopter pilot (Meg Ryan) deserves to be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, which would make her the first woman to receive it. As higher-ups put pressure on him to just push the honour through, he remains committed to uncovering the truth…

    The mystery of what really went on is not as clever or engrossing as the film thinks it is, but it still works as a meditation on how we acknowledge wartime heroism and the place of truth in doing so. It’s also a consideration of how many people are affected, in different ways, by the sacrifices of war.

    There are some decent performances along the way: Washington is always good value, and a before-he-was-famous Matt Damon demonstrates his commitment to the profession by losing a ton of weight between filming the flashback and “present day” scenes (endangering his health in the process) to portray a medical specialist indelibly affected by what went on ‘over there’. Apparently Mark Kermode said the casting of Meg Ryan as a chopper pilot was “the benchmark for a casting decision so ludicrous that it takes the viewer out of the film,” but I suspect that says more about how she was regarded at the time (best known for romcoms) than her actual performance (she’s no standout, but she’s fine).

    3 out of 5

  • Ready or Not (2019)

    2020 #90
    Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    Ready or Not

    In my review of Get Out, I took issue with the fact that some people labelled it a “comedy horror”, because it wasn’t particularly funny. I mention that because Ready or Not takes a broadly similar premise to Get Out (albeit with white people and no commentary on racial issues) but does take things in a comedic direction.

    The similarity comes in that it’s about bride-to-be Grace (Samara Weaving) meeting her fiancé’s family for the first time at their wedding. On the wedding night, she’s introduced to an odd family ritual: she must select a card from a puzzle box and they play whatever game is on the card. Unfortunately for her, Grace gets “hide and seek”, which in this case is not just regular hide and seek: while she hides, the family arm themselves to hunt and kill her. Hilarity ensues.

    Badass bride

    Well, okay, maybe not hilarity per se, but this is definitely a comedy-horror, with more laughs than scares and an appropriate amount of gore. It obviously owes a debt to other movies, or at least has points of similarity (You’re Next particularly comes to mind), but it also has a few nice subversions and doesn’t always go the way you’d think — and when it subverts things that have already been subverted, like some kind of triple-cross of subversion, then you know it’s not as dumb a movie as some people think. Its biggest failing for me was the photography, too much of which is caked in over-graded green. The final shot is fab, though; indeed, the whole climax is an all-timer.

    There were times I wanted a bit more from Ready or Not to push it over into classic status, but even without that final extra something, if you enjoy your horror-thrillers laced with laughs, it’s an exceptionally fun time.

    4 out of 5

    Ready or Not is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    The Man Who Laughs (1928)

    2020 #189
    Paul Leni | 110 mins | Blu-ray | 1.20:1 | USA / silent | PG

    The Man Who Laughs

    Just over 90 years ago, in the final years of the silent era, The Man Who Laughs was a “super-production” — an expensive and major release, designed to follow in the footsteps of successes like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, with an acclaimed imported director (Paul Leni, Waxworks) and star (Conrad Veidt, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), a shared leading lady from Phantom (Mary Philbin), and adapted from another novel by the author of Hunchback (Victor Hugo). It did, I believe, live up to its pedigree and expectations. But today it’s primarily remembered for one thing: being the visual inspiration behind a certain comic book supervillain…

    Perhaps because of the connections to the aforementioned films, and because it inspired such a violent character, and because of the publicity stills that inspired that look, and because its production studio (Universal) would shortly become renowned for their iconic interpretations of the cornerstones of horror (Dracula, Frankenstein, et al), The Man Who Laughs has often been cited as a horror movie. It isn’t. Well, some of the first 15 minutes do play a bit like one — execution by iron maiden; mutilation and abandonment of a child; dangling corpses of hanged men — but then it jumps forward in time and becomes a romantic melodrama, with a bit of antiestablishment satire and a swashbuckling climax thrown in for good measure.

    I was only Jokering

    The story begins in 1690, with King James II punishing a rebellious lord by handing his son, Gwynplaine, to comprachicos (invented by Hugo for the novel; it means “child-buyers”) who mutilate the boy’s mouth into a permanent grin. And then he executes the lord in an iron maiden for good measure. When all the comprachicos are later exiled, they abandon the boy. Wandering through the snow, the kid finds a woman frozen to death, but her baby still alive in her arms. (Like I said, the first 15 minutes are pretty bleak.) He rescues the baby, who it’ll turn out is blind, and soon the pair are taken in by a wandering performer, Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Jump forward a couple of decades and Gwynplaine (Veidt) is now a popular attraction himself thanks to his laughing face, and the baby has grown into a beautiful young woman, Dea (Philbin), and the pair are in love. Let’s not think too much about the background to that relationship, eh? Gwynplaine feels unworthy of Dea’s love because he’s so hideous, but she doesn’t care because she’s literally blind.

    Meanwhile, Gwynplaine’s fame and unique facial features lead to it being discovered that he’s really a noble, kicking off a bunch of courtly intrigue — I could explain it, but then we’d just be getting into the plot of the entire movie. Suffice to say, it involves a scheming courtier, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), who was partly responsible for Gwynplaine’s dad’s death; a horny duchess, Josiana (Olga Baclanova), who we first meet while a peasant messenger spies on her having a bath (nothing explicit is actually seen — it cuts away just in time — but it was still too risqué for British censors, who cut away even sooner); and Queen Anne (Josphine Cromwell), best known today as “the one Olivia Colman played in The Favourite (there’s considerably less swearing, gout, lesbianism, and bunny rabbits in this version).

    With the “beauty and the beast” angle to the film’s central romance, the film does withstand comparison to other variations of that story — like, um, Beauty and the Beast, but also, again, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The difference here is in how people react to the ‘beast’. Only he himself seems to find him monstrous. The public find him inescapably hilarious, which isn’t nice for him to live with, but has made him popular and beloved rather than reviled. The love of his life is besotted with him unconditionally. Josiana comes to see his show and for some reason finds him instantly attractive (in fairness, I think she’s attracted to any man with a pulse).

    Tale as old as time...

    A more apt comparison is to a film made over 50 years later, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man — a parallel I spotted for myself, but also is mentioned in two essays in the booklet accompanying Eureka’s new Blu-ray release, so I’m certainly not alone in feeling this. Both concern a man who is physically disfigured and has fallen in with fairground sideshow folk, who despises himself but comes to find love and compassion from others. They even both climax with a grandstanding speech where the man in question declares his worth to the world, with the famous “I am a human being!” bit from The Elephant Man seeming like an echo of a scene here where Gwynplaine, forced to join the House of Lords by order of the Queen, eventually rejects her command, declaring his independence with the assertion that “God made me a man!” As Travis Crawford writes in the aforementioned booklet, “while sinister clowns would ultimately become an unlikely horror cliche, Gwynplaine’s gruesome disfigurement makes him a figure of pity, not menace… more Pierrot than Pennywise.” The Man Who Laughs is less concerned with examining and affirming the fundamental humanity underneath ‘freaks’ than Lynch’s film (this is a classical melodrama, after all), but it’s certainly an aspect of the story that, despite how he looks, Gwynplaine is still a human being; that, despite his fixed grin, he’s full of all the emotions of any human being.

    Before I go, a quick word on the film’s soundtrack. “But it’s a silent movie.” Yes, but as you surely know, silent movies aren’t meant to be watched actually silent. The Blu-ray release (both the new UK one and an earlier US one from Flicker Alley) comes with two audio options: a new 2018 score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, and the original 1928 Movietone sync track, which is not just general music backing but also includes some music clearly framed as diegetic, plus occasional sound effects, and even dialogue (in the form of background crowd noise, mostly). Now, the film was originally released as silent, then withdrawn and re-released with this accompanying soundtrack, so I guess the option of a new score isn’t wholly unmerited. Nonetheless, it still seems slightly off to me that you’d supplant an authentic original track with a modern creation. As if to underline this point, the booklet reveals that the new score is actually little more than a final-year project by a group of students! It’s lovely for them that they were able to present their work at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and it was well received, and that it’s now included as an option on the film’s official releases… but presenting it as the primary audio option? No thanks. I suggest you choose the 1928 soundtrack.

    I said it's NOT a horror movie!

    It’s probably unlikely that The Man Who Laughs can escape its status as a trivia footnote for the Joker at this point (heck, Flicker Alley’s release even plays up the connection on its cover, taking the film’s most Joker-esque photo and decorating it in the character’s colours of purple and green). Certainly, no one should watch it for that reason alone — the inspiration for the Joker begins and ends with the grinning-man imagery; there’s nothing in the film itself that contributes to the character. There’s also little here to support its reputation as an influential early horror movie — those seeking horror thrills shouldn’t watch for that reason either. But for all the things The Man Who Laughs is not, what it is is a well-made and performed drama; one that deserves to stand and be appreciated on its own merits, not those that others have mistakenly conferred on it.

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Laughs is released on Blu-ray in the UK today.

    Split Second (1992)

    2020 #135
    Tony Maylam | 91 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 18 / R

    Split Second

    I confess, I hadn’t even heard of Split Second before a remastered Blu-ray release was announced a couple of months ago (more details about that at the end). A sci-fi/action/horror hybrid starring Rutger Hauer is the kind of thing that sounds interesting to me, but the fact I’d never come across it before seemed like a red flag. Fortunately, it’s on Prime Video, so I didn’t have to make a blind buy, and this is a recommendable course of action for anyone similarly unacquainted with the film. I did go on to purchase the Blu-ray, but I can see why others would not. Split Second isn’t exactly in “so bad it’s good” territory, but it has a distinctive quality that will not be to everyone’s taste.

    Set in the future-year 2008, when London has been flooded thanks to global warming and pollution has turned day into night, Hauer chomps cigars, chocolate, and scenery as Harley Stone, a badass rogue cop on the hunt for the serial killer who murdered his partner three years ago. Assigned to keep him in check is rookie cop Dick Durkin (Alastair Duncan), and together the pair realise their quarry may not be altogether human…

    And if you’re wondering what the film’s title has to do with any of this… yeah, bugger all. One of the working titles was Black Tide, which suits the film so much better. I mean, it’s still not wholly fitting — the global warming/pollution stuff is dystopian-future scene-setting without any true bearing on the actual plot — but at least it evokes the tone and style of the film more than “Split Second”, which sounds like a Steven Segal movie.

    Stone Dick

    It’s almost hard to describe what that tone and style is, mind. It starts out almost like budget Blade Runner — it’s the future (so we’re told); it’s night; it’s raining; a hardbitten cop visits a seedy nightclub; etc. But then we get Stone’s first line of dialogue, which comes after a guard dog barks at him. He flashes his warrant card — at the dog — and says “police, dickhead.” To the dog. It’s hilariously terrible and awesome in one fell swoop. Hauer doesn’t give it an overtly comical delivery, and so you can’t quite tell if Stone is deadpanning or genuinely offering this information… to a dog.

    This kind of almost-a-comedy-but-not-actually tone pops up increasingly as the film goes on, as if it was shot in order and the cast gradually realised how ridiculous it all was. By the time you get to the point where a deranged Durkin is demanding bigger guns, you’ll be cackling. Or you’ll be thinking “what is this godawful crap?!”, which goes back to my initial point: some people will delight in it all, while others will feel they’ve wasted their time on a low-budget no-mark that should’ve been left forgotten in the early ’90s.

    I’m the former. You couldn’t reasonably call this a great movie — parts do border on “so bad it’s good”, and there’s much joy from the cast clearly realising it’s ludicrous. Plus, there’s a sense it’s not quite sure what it wants to be. It jumps from genre to genre as it goes on, and even the final monster (designed by Stephen Norrington, who’d go on to direct Blade and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) looks to be a mishmash born of uncertain direction, part hell-demon, part tech nightmare (is that a motorcycle helmet?!) But good golly does that crazy mix make for some barmy fun.

    Watery London

    I tell you what, though: the underlying concept isn’t bad. This is exactly the kind of movie I think someone should actually spend the money and effort to remake: something with decent ideas and intentions, but which didn’t come off on the first go. Iron out the plot (mixing genres is fine; jumping between them feels “made up as we went along”), smooth out the tone (keep the deadpan humour, up the thrills and scares), and give it a decent budget (this one has a rough-around-the-edges feel), and you could have something special. Especially if you retitle it Black Tide.

    3 out of 5

    Split Second is released on Blu-ray by 101 Films in the UK today. A matching edition will be released in the US on August 11th. It’s also currently available on Amazon Prime Video in both the UK and the US.

    Searching (2018)

    2019 #51
    Aneesh Chaganty | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Russia / English |
    12 / PG-13

    Searching

    When his 16-year-old daughter Margot goes missing, David Kim (John Cho) does the most logical thing in this day and age: he turns to her computer and social media to try to work out where she’s gone. What Searching does to really sell this concept is place us inside the tech: everything we see takes place on the screen of computers, be it searching the internet, chasing leads via video chat, or compiling evidence in spreadsheets.

    It’s a conceit that is clearly innovative, but also feels like it has the potential to grow old fast. After all, it’s inherently limiting, and if the filmmakers tried to coast on the novelty factor, you’d probably grow bored within the first half-hour. Fortunately, Searching has more to offer. Indeed, long before you’ve had a chance to become fed up with the unique storytelling method, you’re absorbed in the narrative.

    It works on two fronts. There’s a degree of commentary on modern society and parent/child relationships, as David begins to discover all the things Margot has been hiding from him, realising he didn’t know his daughter as well as he thought he did. In some respects this is nothing new — we’ve had decades of films and TV dramas where parents discover their perfect little darling isn’t who they thought — but here it’s cannily updated for the social media era.

    Searching the web

    Secondly, it’s an engrossing mystery. Director Aneesh Chaganty uses the visual concept perfectly to help craft a storyline with compelling characters that keeps us thoroughly engaged. Pleasingly, the film never breaks its own rules, instead finding new ways to use the limitations to tell the story. The only possible misstep comes in the final act, when some developments begin to succumb to Movie Logic and get a bit grandiose for the previously-grounded film. But the array of twists here actually had me on the edge of my seat, and, really, what more do you want from a thriller than that?

    Searching is the kind of film you come to thanks to its USP, your interest piqued by seeing how they can tell a story under such limitations; but what makes you stay, and want to come back, is how well it tells that story. It’s not unconventional for the sake of it, but a new and very timely way of viewing a narrative.

    5 out of 5

    Searching is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

    It placed 6th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.