Review

In Full Bloom (2021)

Written for RAF News September 2021

In the wake of WWII, an American prize fighter with a string of losses competes in Japan against an undefeated boxer.

The politics in the background remains just that, as In Full Bloom avoids the path of Rocky IV and instead focusses on the meaning of the fight itself. It becomes less of a show for an audience or the media, and instead dives into the philosophy of boxing through the headspace of these two fighters.

It does this by taking an expressive, poetic form – earning obvious comparisons to Terence Malik through its use of whispered narration over the top of natural landscapes and stirring string compositions. This style is sustained for the entirety of the film, as we follow American Clint Sullivan (Tyler Woods) and the struggle he has in the locker room before the fight when his honour is questioned, or as we jump back in time to see the preparation undertaken by Japanese fighter Masahiro (Yusuke Ogasawara).

At a press conference, Masahiro is asked about his connection to a legendary figure – a former champion living out in the woods in isolation. Avoiding a collapsed montage with upbeat music, we instead see the ways in which this recluse becomes Masahiro’s very own Mr. Miyagi, stealthily honing fighting technique through various tasks and challenges, such as catching fish in a stream barehanded, or hunting whilst blindfolded.

The tone of the film seems to work more naturally with the Japanese characters, whereas dialogue feels a bit simple in the mouths of the Americans, perhaps losing something in translation. By the time of the fight however, none of this matters. 

The dialogue falls away, the crowd are blacked out and the camera circles the ring as we watch the first round play out in real time. In a dizzying whir of visuals and sound, this final fight is an explosion of style that pays off all of the films earlier meditations.

The Djinn (2021)

Written for RAF News August 2021

A mute boy finds a dusty leather bound book with a pentagram on the cover that says it can fill his heart’s greatest desire – surely nothing could go wrong.

Set in the 80s (maybe just to include some 80s style synth in the score), Dylan (Ezra Dewey) has just moved into a small apartment with his radio DJ father now that his mother is no longer around. Even though the dialogue is signed, it is still exposition heavy. They unpack and try to settle down before dad Michael (Rob Brownstein) has to head out for his night shift broadcasting.

This gives Dylan enough time to continue exploring his new digs, returning to the cupboard where he spied the foreboding Book of Shadows. Gathering the bits needed to fulfil this dark ritual, he lights a candle and signs the text from the book into the mirror – unleashing the Djinn. And so all the young boy needs to do now for his wish to be granted, is survive an hour in this cramped three room flat with the satanic demon he just invoked.

The Djinn is a shapeshifter, and so takes on different forms whilst pursuing the boy from room to room, though the most scary would have to be its natural ghoulish appearance which, used sparingly, is pretty unsettling.

Setting the film in this small space is clever in as much as we learn the layout quickly, knowing that if the monster is in the kitchen, there is only one way past it. However it does stifle variety and the cat and mouse chase can’t help but become repetitive, kept alive with the constant jolt of jump scares.

Simple to the point of feeling like one protracted scene, this house invasion horror gets a little stuck for ideas and leaves itself with nowhere to go.

Riders of Justice (2021)

Written for RAF News August 2021

Depending on the poster you see for this film, it could look like an action revenge movie or a Danish oddball comedy – fortunately Riders of Justice lands perfectly in the middle.

Director Anders Thomas Jenson has made a number of films with this same band of collaborators, sometimes absurd or grotesque, but always darkly funny. In this case a vengeance story, complete with fist fights and shootouts, is dropped into the laps of a bunch of damaged nerds, whilst their anti-hero leader Markus is probably the most damaged of all.

Markus (Mads Mikkelson) is serving in the military when his wife and daughter are involved in a train crash. Losing his wife in the accident, he returns home to be with his traumatised child when he is visited by another passenger from the train who insists that it was no accident, that he has tracked down the people responsible: a notorious gang known as the Riders of Justice.

This other passenger Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) had offered his own seat to Markus’ wife before the crash and so appears to take responsibility. A statistician with a dark past himself, Otto keeps very strange company. There’s Emmanthaler (Nicolas Bro), the obese and aggressive surveillance pro; and Lennart (Lars Brygmann) the smug and socially inept superhacker. This group of weirdos become an unlikely gang themselves as they plot their revenge against the culprits, holed up in Markus’s gargantuan barn turned intel base. To remain incognito from Markus’ daughter (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), who worries about her father’s propensity for violence, they pretend to be a group of grief counsellors, and somehow, become more like a family.

A ridiculous premise that is played with the right balance of wackiness and heart. Dressed up as an action film, filled with oddities, but played straight down the line – Riders for Justice has its cake and blows it up/ is a symphony of nonsense.

Dirt Music (2021)

Written for RAF News July 2021

Trapped in a loveless relationship, Georgie takes a midnight dip in the ocean, only to find a mysterious, hunky man poaching lobsters from her fella’s business.

Kelly Macdonald stars as the Australian fishwife, living on the coast, apparently under the watchful eye of her boyfriend Jim Buckrich (David Wenham) and his lobster empire. Warning this sexy intruder to go quietly in the night, it’s not long before he steals her away too.

Theirs is a strange affair, motivated by a shared desire to escape, Georgie from her present situation but for broody lobster thief and ex-musician Lu Fox (Garett Hedlund) it is his tragic past. But for all of their common goals, there is no accounting for chemistry and so there interactions feel strained and confusing. What is clear is that lobster boss Buckrich is not the forgiving type and so aims to catch up to them both as they head Perthward.

Lu Fox is presented as rugged and mysterious, down to his dog with no name. His quietness alludes to a dark past that will be eked out in flashbacks over the course of its full runtime of 105 minutes. It is some feat that the romance feels rushed and forced, whilst the film itself drags along and outstays its welcome.

We’re over half way into the film before we hear any of the music promised in the title, a Mumford and Sons style country-singing trio comprised of Lu, his brother, and sister-in-law. What became of the band will all be revealed, but far too slowly, to the point that you might lose interest.

Even the eventual revelation and original songs can’t stop Dirt Music from being as dull as ditchwater.

Deerskin (2021)

Written for RAF News July 2021

The hilariously strange and simple story of one man so enchanted by a second-hand deerskin jacket, that he sets out on an impossible task of making it the only jacket in the world – by any means necessary.

It seems Georges is going through a breakup, perhaps because he spent the last of his money on this entrancing item of clothing, and now can’t even afford to stay at the little hotel where he now resides. He spends his time filming himself with a handheld digital camera in the mirror, through the illustrious fringe of his sleeve, admiring his ‘killer style’. He talks to the jacket, he talks back as the jacket, taunting and tempting himself to destroy all other jackets and anyone who gets in the way. 

It is the detail of Deerskin that sets the tone, from the particular sound design to the deadpan performances, managing to be both tense and absurdly funny. Jean Dujardin plays Georges with a perfect blend of egotism and naive stupidity, pretending to be a filmmaker despite having zero knowledge of the craft. Adèle Haenel plays the barmaid at the small hotel, who moonlights as an editor and so is sucked in to become a collaborator on what will ultimately become his masterwork.

Already wonky, the film takes another turn for the weird and our Georges becomes a crazed voyeur, a peeping Tom with an obsession for outerwear, stalking strangers with the propensity to wrap up of a snowy night and demanding they strip down on camera or face the blade of his ceiling fan, his homemade weapon of choice.

French writer, director Quentin Dupieux is no stranger to absurdity, having made Rubber, a film about a serial killer car tyre, but in Deerskin everything is played straight, which makes it that much funnier as it dives into slasher exploitation.

Out of Death (2021)

Written for RAF News July 2021

Titled like a 90s Steven Seagal movie, Out of Death actually stars Bruce Willis (albeit fleetingly) as a retired Philadelphia cop who is out on a spiritual stroll in the woods when he stumbles upon a young woman being held at gunpoint by police.

Shannon (Jamie King) had, moments before, overseen a drug deal turned violent whilst out on a soul cleansing ramble herself, and now finds herself the only witness to their crime. A loose end to be tied up, lest an ageing action star should drop by, channeling what’s left of his inner John Maclane.

On a tight shooting schedule, made tighter by Covid restrictions, Willis actually shot all of his scenes in one day. This is impressive but believable as he barely features in the film at all, appearing more as a spirit animal to guide Shannon along the way.

Split into chapters, with a couple of time jumps and other borrowed directorial signatures, you could think that the film is trying to emulate something by Tarantino, before it gives up and nosedives into the most mundane cat and mouse chase. Emotion is signposted and exposition is heaped on top, as corrupt Sheriff Hank Rivers (Michael Sirow) brings a Kevin Spacey energy to his villainy, trying to track down all of those involved, aiming to bury all leads that could threaten his run for Mayor.

As low budget and generic as its title might suggest, if you’ve come for Bruce you’re best off just looking at the poster, or watching any of his other direct-to-streaming productions of recent years.

A Perfect Enemy (2021)

Written for RAF News July 2021

Two perfect strangers find a dark psychological connection when forced together in this puzzle-box thriller.

After speaking at a conference in Paris, renowned architect Jeremiasz rushes to catch his flight home to Warsaw but is waylaid when he allows another passenger to join his cab-ride. Having to turn back for her luggage, they arrive too late and are stuck waiting until the next available flight. Here he is forced to endure this young woman’s stories, until she reveals a secret that piques his interest.

A Perfect Enemy takes place for the most part in an airport, except for the stories described to Jeremiasz by this insistent presence. The unlikely named Texel Textor is the driving force of their interactions, brash and repellent, but there is no escape from her – he would know: as one of the architects behind this airports design.

There is a small model that credits Jeremiasz in the lounge, plotting the layout of the terminal but impossibly including miniatures of our two conversationalists. An enigmatic diorama that reminds of the hedge maze in The Shining, but the bigger mystery here is why Jeremiasz entertains her at all in the first place.

Texel is established as a nuisance, rattling off childhood anecdotes much to the annoyance of her poor victim, when she confesses to murder however, he leans in. The flip-flop of their dynamic is hard to believe and stay invested in, but there are many unlikely details that become forgivable as the film plays out.

When the momentum of the revelations picks up, there is less time to get hung up on plausibility, and so it becomes more thrilling until the pay off. Or maybe just like Jeremiasz forced to listen until interested, it’s a matter of Stockholm syndrome.

Shed of the Dead (2019)

Written for RAF News May 2019

Trevor (Spencer Brown) spends his days in a shed on his allotment, painting miniature figurines for a fantasy role playing game, ignoring the reality of his unemployment by imagining himself a hero.

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Using this overgrown patch of land as a hideout from his nagging wife, distilling vodka from potatoes pilfered from his neighbours, Trevor isn’t popular. He is smug and condescending without a modicum of self awareness, refusing to get his allotment in order because gardening isn’t for him.

Cowardly and yet aggressively combative, his only friend Graham (Ewen MacIntosh) is an agoraphobe who shares his misplaced arrogance. But together they might be the only hope for humanity on the brink of a zombie apocalypse. It doesn’t get bogged down in explaining how or why, but the assumption is that we’ve all seen enough zombie films to get the gist; and we have.

The film has the most fun when it’s playing with special effects and make-up, but it does itself a disservice by creating a central character so loathsome that you end up routing for the undead. Although it is farcical, when Jeff accidentally kills a neighbouring gardener (Kane Hodder) in the opening of the film, and decides to chop him up to avoid suspicion, nothing supernatural has occurred. He is simply an unsympathetic and painfully unfunny sociopath.

As the title pretty much spells out, this English Zombie comedy is derivative, making references to films that are making references to other films, like a photocopy of a photocopy, losing trace of anything original or funny.

The bulk of the cast, including small parts for horror legends Michael Berryman and Bill Moseley, have seen there fair share of low budget horrors and zombie flicks – a sub-genre that has become so saturated that it is mentioned in the film itself, but that doesn’t mean it won’t keep coming back.

High Life (2019)

Written for RAF News May 2019

A lone prisoner aboard a spaceship takes care of a baby girl as his ship sets course for a black hole in this beautifully bleak but challenging film.

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Director Claire Denis has stressed that this is not science-fiction despite the setting. This is true in as much as it is focussed on the human story over special effects, but it is far from ordinary.

The opening features Monte (a tenderly detached Robert Pattinson) carrying out work on a rundown ship and tending to baby Willow (Scarlett Lindsey), sometimes at the same time. In this large vessel that has the isolation of Silent Running and the dirty futurism of Alien: they are alone. Single-fatherhood distilled to the elation of witnessing first steps to pleading for quiet in order to keep sane.

The initial meandering pace of High Life sets expectations for a slow meditation on the human condition, when in fact it will explore this territory but by means of a darkly tense prison drama that tips occasionally into horror and eroticism. Cutting back in time we learn about the purpose of this ship and what happened to the crew before catching up with Monte and Willow much later.

This was a penal colony for death-row inmates who had volunteered for a suicide mission to harness the power of black-holes for Earth. Along the way however they get tangled into twisted experiments of reproduction. This additional research is all under the command and control of Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) who brags of being the only criminal onboard worthy of the name. Combining scientific garb with a waist-long braid she is positively witchy, keeping the others sedated and giving them drugs in exchange for their participation.

A noteworthy scene sees Dr. Dibs strapping herself into the ‘fuckbox’, an isolated cubicle that appears to simulate and stimulate simultaneously, bringing out erotic visions and sensations. Shown within a vacuum, this bizarre sensuous experience is powerful and enveloping.

The film seldom leaves the confines of the ship, and when it does it’s to mysteriously vague memories washed out with 16mm grain, creating more questions than answers, which can frustrate or delight.

Awash with mystery and symbolism High Life climbs inside your head and challenges you to make sense of it, and I accept the challenge gladly.

 

Donbass (2019)

Written for RAF News May 2019

A series of short vignettes link together this satirical social commentary set in present day eastern Ukraine, depicting the chaos caused by propaganda and corruption.

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The Donbass region is shown pulled apart by civil war, Russian- backed separatists occupy territories with armed soldiers patrolling every street in the name of fighting fascism – though the term ‘facist’ is banded about quite freely and the sides aren’t too clear.

There is a farcical quality that feels nonetheless genuine in Sergei Loznitsa’s film, which makes it all the more frightening. It seems there is common understanding among the people to take any official announcement with a heap of salt. They have a prescribed scepticism that reads as hopeless confusion: no-one believes what they are told but they daren’t speak out.

The film opens in a make-up trailer full of actors being prepped to play innocent bystanders in what turns out to be a staged attack for a news crew. Instructed by belligerent producers with the heft of soldiers, it is revealed that these extras haven’t even been paid, they are practically prisoners of the state. And yet this is all delivered with a sly sense of humour.

There is a visit from a black leather jacketed official to a maternity clinic, reassuring the staff that there are in fact medical supplies, they’re just in the doctors office, in a fridge packed with sausages, beside many other such rations. The doctor must have taken them to sell on the side. This may be true but later he is seen rubbing shoulders with the official himself.

Other segments consist of politicians squabbling over bribes, journalists struggling to get answers from anyone, a tour of a bomb-shelter in the heart of the war-zone to a bizarre wedding ceremony that has the feel of a football game. The tone veers from darkly funny to plainly dark, especially in one brutal extended scene that shows a supposed defector tied to a post in order to receive beatings from the public.

With it’s contrasting chapters and intermittent humour, Donbass is fittingly confusing. There are shocking moments sprinkled among the more amusing absurdity, which might overwhelm or distance the viewer, but the message is unmistakeable.