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.

The Ground Beneath My Feet (2020)

Written for RAF News June 2020

An Austrian thriller that sees the downward spiral of a corporate consultant as she becomes paranoid to the point of delusion, keeping secrets that will eat away at her sanity and might just jeopardise the career and relationship into which she has invested everything.

The Ground Beneath My Feet tracks a world falling apart - Los ...

Lola Wegenstein is one of a small team of hatchet-men: though most are women in fact, including her boss with whom she is having an affair. An invasive job that can involve working 48 hours without sleep, living out of a suitcase in a hotel, she is pushed to breaking point when her sister is committed to an institution after another suicide attempt. For fear of bringing personal issues into an already fraught workplace, Lola discreetly flies between the ward and the job to spin these plates.

Valerie Pachner’s performance as the isolated Lola is riveting in its restraint, establishing a steely veneer that is quickly chipped away. Receiving calls from her sister who insists she is being abused, only to find out that she has no access to phones, Lola begins to question her own reality. With a shared history of paranoid schizophrenia, it dawns on Lola that she might be experiencing the same symptoms of her sister.

The horrification of mental illness is an antiquated idea that can be problematic but the film is able to sidestep these tropes by adding a degree of nuance and subtlety. The thriller elements of the film are grounded in a real sense of fear and urgency, and the quality of filmmaking prevents it from feeling exploitative.

The genre elements seeded in the beginning are dropped in the second half however, leaving a much more restrained and ordinary drama. Though it dodges the pitfalls of psychotic women in the workplace and mental illness as a source of horror, unfortunately the beats stay the same and it becomes blander as a result.

The Ascent (2020)

Written for RAF News June 2020

An elite squad known as ‘Hell’s Bastards’ are sent into a vaguely described civil conflict to retrieve intel, but make a decision that will come back to haunt them, over and over, until they can find a way back to change it.

U.K. Action Thriller 'The Ascent' Turns to VR for Lockdown ...

Ordered to clear a campsite, merciless leader Will Stanton (Shayne Ward) insists that they leave no survivors. Even when they discover a prisoner (Julia Szamalek), he demands that she be killed, forcing Kia Clarke (Samantha Schnitzler) to carry out the execution at gunpoint.

Upon their return to HQ the lifts aren’t working and so they begin to scale the concrete stairs, but after sometime it becomes clear that they are no closer to the top. The handy work of MC Escher these stairs form the perfect purgatorial metaphor. A never-ending climb punctuated by sirens and red light, and members of the team being picked off by an apparent evil presence following after them.

Through this shrewd and straight-forward effect, the filmmakers are able to make one location last infinitely, reminding of the simple ingenuity of high-concept cult horror Cube.

The squad will discover one exit along the stairway, but this leads them back in time to when they began the mission, a portal through which they can view their own sin perhaps, and maybe find a way out of the cycle.

An ambitious blend of science fiction, horror and action, the tone is set by the the interactions of the group. Initially there is some dark humour reminiscent of another cult classic featuring soldiers versus the supernatural in Dog Soldiers. Unfortunately this fades into self-serious monologues that drift towards the generic.

Cursed by design, set in a time-loop, the repetition becomes tiring and gets a little lost, but is brought around by the end of the film in some impressive and inventive ways. The Ascent is an ambitious project that takes chances and makes the most of its resources.

Camino Skies (2020)

Written for RAF News May 2020

Parkland Entertainment acquires doc 'Camino Skies' for UK ...

A group of six New Zealanders and Australians come together to make the famous pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago, united not only through the physical journey but the hardships that have led them here.

This documentary follows these individuals, delving into their often heartbreaking motivation, joining them as they come to know each other and find some form of reward in the trials ahead. For some this seems to be a personal challenge, for others an escape or quest for meaning.

For over a thousand years many people have made this journey across northwestern Spain to the shrine of Saint James in search of spiritual growth. The filmmakers here are gifted beautiful backdrops for conversations with these largely senior travellers, who talk very frankly about the tragedies they have suffered and continue to shoulder. Whilst it could feel exploitative, the subjects often seem to be taking great motivation or catharsis from their heartfelt interviews. Inserted throughout, we are given more insight and more reason to be impressed by their perseverance.

A large part of the group appear to be mourning the death of a loved one, in some cases their own children. Perhaps this journey to the other side of the world will afford them some sense of closure before they head back home. Sue Morris is an 80 year old who has recently separated from her husband and is determined to walk the 800km distance, despite having severe arthritis and suffering incredible pain.

In the same manner in which these strangers come to form bonds simply by treading the same path and sharing their stories, walking alongside them you can’t help but take inspiration.