Month: November 2020

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.