Apples (2021)

Written for RAF News March 2021

Aris (Aris Servetalis) rides the bus to its final destination having forgotten his stop, along with his name, and so is carted off to hospital with the many others being diagnosed with sudden amnesia.

Apples review – splendidly poignant and creepy pandemic drama | Film | The  Guardian

Set in a skewered version of Athens, this world has a playfully surrealist touch, and so when no-one comes to collect Aris, he begins an odd process that will somehow make him a productive member of society. The ‘New Identity Program’ provides patients with a place to live, where they will regularly be set objectives that need to be completed and documented with Polaroid pictures. These recreational tasks are bizarre in their specificity, from riding a bike and catching a perch to getting a lap-dance or having a one-night stand. Drifting further away from reality, Apples is able to humorously deconstruct everyday life and relationships through its circus-mirror reflection.

The vacant determination of Aris as he completes increasingly peculiar tasks is strangely funny, and though it becomes more familiar over the course of the film, it is never predictable and so there is always an uneasy tension behind the laugh. It takes an M Night Shamalan concept and plants it in the Yorgos Lanthimos universe (somewhere between The Happening and The Lobster), creating a high concept black comedy, mired in tragedy and trauma. It feels like it was written by AI imagining what it means to be human, to experience lust, empathy or even grief.

Made prior to 2020, Apples has a prophetic resonance: a pandemic forcing many people to live the same lives – proving their existence by taking photos of their activities. The absurdity of the situations draw attention away from the seriousness, though it can be called into play in an instant. In fact, the final act creates real pathos in having Aris interact with terminally ill patients of a hospital, having his humanity remain intact as though it were a universal condition that cannot be forgotten.

If you can adjust to its tone, Apples manages to be both poignant, and gleefully ridiculous.

Dragon Rider (2021)

Written for RAF News Feb 2021

Owing an obvious debt to the How to Train Your Dragon series, Dragon Rider follows young Firedrake’s courageous attempt to find a utopian paradise safe from humans.

Image result for dragon rider

The surface difference is that Dragon Rider allows its fire-breathing beasts to talk for themselves, and introduces a larger world of mythical creatures including dwarves, elves and pixies. It also has a contemporary setting, bringing with it jokes about the internet, Skype and online dating. There seems to be plenty of opportunity then to explore new ideas, but unfortunately it ends up a poor imitation.

In a meta-textual stroke of sheer audacity, the ‘dragon rider’ takes the form of orphan Ben (Freddie Highmore) who throws on a costume and impersonates the lead character of a film-within-the-film titled ‘How to Tame Your Dragon’. This would be a funny joke if the film were able to separate itself, avoid comparison or at the very least come out from under its looming shadow – this it fails to do, despite looking the part. The accomplished level of animation with beautifully naturalistic lighting is surprisingly upheld, but it is the storytelling and characterisation that suffers.

Ben is introduced as a thief on the run, and though a backstory is planted that will explain away his faults, it shapes his character for a large part of the film as deceptive, untrustworthy and simply unlikeable. This would be fine if the slack were taken up by Firedrake (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) or Forrest Brownie sidekick Sorrel (Felicity Jones) but sadly, as the title implies, Ben steals the spotlight.

The simple mission to find the so-called Rim of Heaven is complicated by hurdles and side-quests taking place in various exotic locations, introducing more and more characters. Added to this there is an arch-villain, a metal dragon-eating creature named Nettlebrand (an excellently cast Patrick Stewart), who has eyed Firedrake as a meal.

There is too much happening in Dragon Rider for it to be coherent. Individual scenes look well put together, but zoom out and it just becomes messy. Though lacking in substance, there is enough momentum and Patrick Stewart to keep it entertaining.

The Wacky Hen (2019)

Written for Raf News Jan 2021

An eye-sore compared to the other hens, it is by some strange stroke of luck that Turu, the titular oddity, is bought for an elderly woman’s farm. Stranger still, that in lieu of laying eggs, she has taken to speaking the language and is prone to bang out the odd tune.

Watch La Gallina Turuleca (Turu, The Wacky Hen) ESP | Prime Video

Stranger things have happened in children’s animated films, and you can see elements of them propping up this simply plotted romp. When elderly saviour and vocal coach Isabel falls from her roof and is carted off to hospital (a Disney film would have surely seen her offed), Turu chases her to the big city by way of a travelling circus.

Dubbed from the original Spanish, The Wacky Hen incorporates contemporary pop songs to keep the energy high, with montages and car chases to the keep the little one’s attentive. The sense of mild peril is constant, what with the circus being threatened with foreclosure if they can’t get a decent audience, and Isabel seeming to suffer a bout of concussion induced amnesia. But it never feels too serious and it’s clear how it will play out: Turu packing the tent to the rafters with a thankfully reworked version of The Macarena (the translation of the original school disco number I had only discovered in later life).

Though the message and moral is that it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside, the implication is that so long as you’re talented. For Turu it’s a matter of having one-eye in the land of the blind as no other animal can talk; fortunate for our feathered hero as she wouldn’t have survived the first round elimination of Sing.

Away (2020)

Written for RAF News Jan 2021

Created in its entirety by one person, Away is an animated feature that follows a young boy as he crash lands on an exotic island, chased through a dreamlike oasis by a giant creature.

Away review – Latvian animation reaches Ghibli heights

Gints Zilbalodis has the sole credit on the film, a 26 year old Latvian prodigy with no formal training in animation, working with little to no budget. Writing and directing as well as providing the score, which is pivotal in imparting the tone and sense of unfolding wonder, he put together this minimal but dazzling film over the course of three years.

The story is simple, and unfolds more as a series of obstacles, as the young boy finds ways to evade this ominous dark spirit and push onward. The pace is gentle, working with the score to put you in a sort of trance, allowing you to experience the scale and spectacle despite the style of animation. Made without dialogue, it is the combination of music and sound design that plunges you into the world, finding moments of reflection in the boys’ interactions with different animals.

The visuals can be quite crude, like a video game from decades past, notable particularly in rigid, unnatural movement. In some places though, the ripple of a waterfall, or licking flames from a fire, there is an elegance to be found in its abstract simplicity. For the most part though it’s hard to look past the style, even whilst appreciating it, I felt unable to forget about its presentation.

It is some feat then, that with this reminder at the forefront of the experience, you are still able to be transported and care about the boy or the the small bird that he befriends along the way. Considering its humble beginnings, this is a remarkable achievement.

Muscle (2019)

Written for RAF News November 2020

Ground down by a job he hates, in a loveless relationship, Simon seeks a change in lifestyle from a local gym – instead finding Terry.

Muscle review: how not to build a man | Sight & Sound | BFI

A schlubby wet lettuce working in telesales, Simon (Cavan Clerkin) is left bitterly lethargic, not keen to just ‘get some coke’ as a colleague suggests. That’s when he walks into Atlantics Gym and pays for 6 months up front despite the intimidating jeers of the beefy clientele. Shot in black and white, with a droning synth score by The The, there is an artistic edge to this testosterone soaked thriller. The focus on the overly ripped men and their bulging physique creates a church of masculinity for Simon to refocus his ideals, if he fixes this everything else might just fall into place.

Ex-military Terry sniffs out his desperation and in a cruel twist of fate imparts his own sales technique, becoming Simon’s personal trainer. Seeming to be both scared of, and enamoured by, his new training partner, their relationship becomes increasingly more entangled as Terry’s grip over him tightens; so when his girlfriend leaves, of course Terry moves in.

Craig Fairbrass’ menace as Terry is obvious, but the manner in which he ingratiates himself, the levels of manipulation and contradiction (hilariously labelled ‘Terry Logic’) make him uncomfortably entrancing. A person for whom prison was a place with a good gym, good friends and good routine, he has machismo bravado and yet shows moments of vulnerability – and there’s nothing more frightening than being unpredictable.

The transformation of Simon, shown in a collapsed stylised montage, allows writer/ director Gerard Johnson to really use the cinematic form to mark a change, not only physical but cemented by his physicality. The scenes that replace sound with the isolating score effectively elevate the performances and dial up the paranoia.

Although it fails to pay off the tension in the end, Muscle is able to dig into a parasitic psychology that reminds us that the scariest home invasion films follow an invitation.

The Ringmaster (2018)

Written for RAF News November 2020

Two women working a night shift at a deathly quiet petrol station become the unwitting participants of a gruesome dark-web gameshow.

THE RINGMASTER aka FINALE (2018) Reviews and UK release news - MOVIES and  MANIA

The Ringmaster opens with a warning: a riff on the original Frankenstein, but with the burlesque dialled up, as a stout bow-tied host emerges from behind red curtains, speaking through a face of make-up, telling us to proceed with caution.

Out of the gate it appears derivative but with a playful spin. It goes further to tell us the deeper themes of morbid curiosity and boundaries of entertainment, needless perhaps, but a sign that it holds itself with high regard for a ‘torture porn’ film.

Agnes (Anne Bergfeld) arrives for her last shift to find directionless employee Belinda (Karin Michelsen) bored, spending most of her time on the phone to her boyfriend Kenny. This is hardly her fault as customers are few and far between in this desolate location (Denmark close to the German Border) and the people that do drift in appear rather unhinged – including Kenny.

The film cuts between strange occurrences in the gas station, to Agnes in the near future, tied to a chair in a basement: the star of a cramped underground circus. Jumping between these two timelines makes us certain that the paranoia felt by Agnes earlier in the night is most definitely warranted.

Their abduction becomes inevitable as the night goes on and outside threats resurface. Meanwhile we are introduced to the host of this perverse game, a sadistic clown with a taste for the theatrical, talking with proper enunciation, projecting to an unseen audience. Watching through cameras, they send instructions as to how this Ringmaster should torture his subjects.

Exploring the sadistic nature of human beings, evidenced by a painting of a Roman gladiator in the bunker, this isn’t a particularly new idea but it has fun with its style of presentation and provocation, especially through the Ringmaster himself. Like a Rob Zombie character dropped into the Hostel universe, Damon Younger has a lot of fun with this performance.

Including some low-fi gore involving staples, and some obligatory exploitation involving piercings, Bergfeld and Michelson commit to showing realistic levels of agony.

Impressively both locations are used to bring out different kinds of horror – from the claustrophobic intensity of the circus, to the cold isolation of the petrol station, which keeps the film varied from scene to scene. But by jumping ahead and rushing to the showcase, it ultimately steals tension from the final act and prevents a grand reveal, which it feels like it deserves.

Finding Steve McQueen (2019)

Written for RAF News November 2020

A team of unpracticed criminals catch wind of where President Nixon might be stashing some illegal funds and plan a bank heist to seize what they believe deserves to be stolen.

Finding Steve McQueen Trailer Pulls Off a Presidential Bank Heist | Collider

This comedy caper is inoffensive and unremarkable, which is some feat considering it’s based on the United California Bank Robbery and set around the Watergate scandal. The choice to be light and frothy was intentional but it’s weightlessness and lack of story leave it without character, relying on it’s cast to keep us involved.

Unfortunately there lies another disappointment – Travis Fimmel’s Harry Barber is apparently infatuated with Steve McQueen, Bullitt poster on his wall and Mustang in his driveway. A few references are made now and again, some directly to camera, but they are a confusing distraction. With his blond coiffed hair, Harry does bare some physical semblance to the cinematic icon, though he is painted a dim-wit. This is a funny idea half executed: his idiocy is played as a punchline, but he often provides the ‘smarts’ that keep the story going. Fimmel lands in this limbo where he’s not fully able to commit to the slapstick required to pull attention from the underwhelming script.

Told in the form of flashbacks, Harry sits with girlfriend Molly Murphy (Rachael Taylor) in a diner confessing to his exploits – giving us a run down of the job, though we also see the side of the FBI detectives in pursuit, played by Forest Whitaker and Lily Rabe. The police procedural element is another wasted effort, seemingly included for the sake of it: never really adding threat or even comedy, padding out the story so that it looks, on the surface, to be a cat-and-mouse heist film.

By no means awful, Finding Steve McQueen ends up a pretty simple and shallow story, short of gags and imitating something like nostalgia but without the emotion.

Rialto (2019)

Written for RAF News October 2020

Dublin’s portside town provides no escape for a middle-aged man in the thick of an existential crisis.

Review of Irish Film @ DIFF 2020: Rialto - Film Ireland Magazine

From the first moment that we see Colm (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), he looks pained, carrying the weight of an unseen burden. Against the scale of the freight cargo that surrounds him at work, and the sea beyond, he looks insignificant – and perhaps this is why he keeps his troubles to himself and suffers in silence.

Emasculated as a father and emotionally detached from his wife (Monica Dolan), we learn that he has recently lost his own father and is soon to lose his job of 30 years. Too young to retire, but too settled to start anew, 46 year old Colm’s only escape is in the brief meetings that he has with teenager Jay (Tom Glynn-Carney) whom he pays for sex.

Set in the titular port town of Dublin, Rialto is shot with a focus on realism. The exchanges between characters are minimal, with Colm so cagey and closed off from those around him that his words are often grumbled – in a dialect that is hard enough to discern when he’s sober. Closeted for so long that he sees no other way, Colm ponders aloud at one point: ‘if we told people what was really in our heads, if we admitted to ourselves even, what would happen?’

There is no joy or respite to be found in the film, moments of pleasure are fraught and serve to highlight the misery that has enveloped Colm’s compromised life. Awash in a grey setting that could well have been 10 or 20 years in the past, it is haunting in it’s existential bleakness. Repressed in almost every way, Colm takes abuse from his son and his young lover (whose meet-cute takes the form of a mugging) only to later lash out at his grieving mother. The abuse is cyclical and misery inescapable.

Adapted for the screen from Mark O’Halloran’s own play Trade, the intimacy remains, and the smaller idiosyncrasies of the phenomenal cast fill the screen with authenticity, but one could hardly call the experience of watching Rialto enjoyable.

A Perfectly Normal Family (2020)

Written for RAF News September 2020

Set in 90s Denmark, we watch the titular idyllic family through a shaky hand-held videocamera – mum, dad and two young girls – as they complete the picture and bring home a puppy. Of course this happiness can’t last and there is the sudden announcement of divorce, set in motion by the father wanting to change gender.


From this point the films jumps forward in time to various intervals of Thomas (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) during his transition but from the point of view of the children, and in particular his tomboyish daughter Emma (Kaya Toft Loholt).

At first we view a group therapy session in which everyone appears to be in denial except Thomas, for the first time perhaps, as he asks to be called Agnete. This scene is the most telling in the way that it frames it’s characters. Obscuring Agnete from view and focussing on Emma who has a scarf wrapped around her head in protest, we hear the rise in emotion as people storm in and out of the room, all whilst watching this faceless solitary figure, clearly struggling to process any of this.

Each segment in time is chaptered by the same VHS-grain home video of the perfect family from the beginning, when the advent of recording meant capturing moments of joy and celebration. We see Emma and Thomas playing football in the garden, and then jump back to her unwrapping her first football at Christmas, giving us some sense of the bond that is at stake.

Aside from these vignettes the style is naturalistic, and though it never loses sight of the conflict driving the film, it is the direct but gentle approach to the drama that makes it effective and feel less contrived. Based on the filmmakers’ experience of her own father transitioning when she was young, it is the contained drama that grounds the film and makes it feel personal.

The Painted Bird (2019)

Written for RAF News September 2020

Life is suffering – never has this adage been truer than in Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird. A young boy is left without a guardian in war-torn Eastern Europe and so finds himself falling through the care and clutches of various people – most harbouring such a cruel sadism that it makes the occupying Nazi’s look simply more orderly in their approach to torture.

The Painted Bird' Review - Beautiful and Uncompromising | DiscussingFilm

Passed from an old crone, who believes him to be a vampire, to a jealous miller (Udo Kier), from an elderly priest (Harvey Keitel) sold to a lecherous loner (Julian Sands), from a Nazi soldier (Stellan Skarsgård) to a twisted kind of milk-maiden. The film weaves a tapestry of malevolence that is so ubiquitous that it’s crossover with the second world war appears incidental.

Shot in crisp black and white, there is a stunning beauty to the horror on screen, which makes it that much stranger to endure. It reminded me of the phantasmagoric Russian film Hard to Be A God, but rather than a sprawling Boschian hellscape, this one is more pointed and concise, and without the respite of humour.

It’s a gruelling watch, and as you stay longer in the company of the tortured and tormented young boy, played phenomenally by Petr Kotlar, you become cynical of any offered kindness. You watch as he interacts with different animals, each carrying symbolic significance, none moreso than the titular bird, which is painted by an elderly man who demonstrates the plight of this young boy and indeed the Jewish people: we watch the now segregated bird return to it’s flock unrecognised, pecked to death in a flurried murmuration before it falls from the sky.

The Painted Bird is unrelenting, and you might wonder why the film was even made, adapted from Jerzy Kosiński’s controversial 1965 novel of the same name. I have found few answers, but the images and ideas live long in the memory, though there are many you’d much rather forget.