Friday, 22 July 2016

Labyrinth Review

"it would have been one of 8-year-old Benedict’s ‘best films ever’"

My ★★ review of Labyrinth is now live over at New On Netflix UK:

Curtain Review – The kind of film FrightFest Presents was made for

Another week, and another win for FrightFest Presents' latest batch of DVD releases. Curtain is weird, wonderful and a breezy 74-minutes long.

You know you’re in for something a bit different from the premise: a whale activist, Danni (Danni Smith), moves into a New York apartment with an invisible shower curtain-sucking portal in the bathroom. After losing a number of perfectly good drapes, she recruits fellow whale-saver, Tim (Tim Leuke), to investigate. But, a creepy recurring, and ever expanding, The Ring-like montage doesn’t exactly offer us peace of mind.

Director, co-writer (with Carys Edwards) and cinematographer, Jaron Henrie-McCrea, pins down the surface genre elements with some welcome world building. Despite the brisk running time, he takes his time to develop strong relationships between his characters, as well as offering rewarding hints at their backstories. The events of the film seem like just the latest obstacle in a long line of them for many of these characters and that’s an interesting, and gratifying, approach to the cult-y set-up. The emotion extends beyond the snapshot captured for our viewing pleasure.

It’s something that has impressed me about so many of these FrightFest Presents titles (especially given their minimal resources), but Henrie-McCrea once again displays real flare with the camera. Curtain’s visuals are more openly experimental than many of FFP’s other releases, however, and Henrie-McCrea use of space is particularly interesting. He finds visually dynamic angles in every corner of this tiny apartment and its cramped bathroom, giving us multiple variations of the central location to keep us on our toes.

This visual flare extends beyond the interiors, to the point that it comes across as slightly uneven early on. Certain camera tricks and left-field shot choices seem included just for the hell of it, but it does become a more streamlined viewing experience as things progress. Adam Skerritt’s synthy score catches the ear, just as Henrie-McCrea’s visuals catch the eye. Again, it never settles into much of a groove, but it’s a fun 80s Cartpenter-esque throwback and its sheer strangeness sets it apart from any pre-existing soundtracks.

Curtain is the kind of film FrightFest Presents was made for. It’s a low-budget genre oddity that may never have found a home anywhere else, but Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy and co. embrace the strange and, more often than not, strike gold with their picks. And this one’s 24 Carat.


Curtain is out now on DVD in the UK via FrightFest Presents.

For more reviews of the FrightFest Presents films, click here.

Image courtesy of Fetch Publicity.

Monday, 18 July 2016

The Trust Review – Spooky Nic

Nicolas Cage is an absolute treat in The Trust, the heist movie two-hander from first-time directors Alex and Ben Brewer. Cage plays David Stone, a senior cop on the Las Vegas PD who smells something fishy when he finds out about the high stakes bail of a local drug dealer. Suspecting that there might be something in it for him, he recruits the help of fellow cop David (Elijah Wood). Together they uncover a mysterious high security safe hidden beneath an apartment building and decide to keep whatever treasure they may find for themselves.

Image courtesy of Fetch Publicity.

For every creaky narrative development in the script (co-written by Ben, and Adam Hirsch), there are a number of really interesting ideas at play. Firstly, there’s the surface sheen. While much of the middle section takes place in a single location, the Brewers manage to shine a light on the oft-forgotten areas of urban deprivation beneath Las Vegas’ unique glitzy veneer: a side of Sin City that’s rarely seen on film.

That’s not to say they don’t indulge in the neon funk on occasion, and Sean Porter (cinematographer of Green Room) shoots it well. The Brewers also orchestrate a handful of Paul Thomas Anderson-esque long takes, often impressively achieved within really tight spaces. Another PTA-like feature is the use of music. Some may draw sonic comparisons with Tarantino, but I was reminded more of Anderson, particularly by the use of The Knights’ song Tipping Strings. The witty jukebox soundtrack is held together well by Reza Safina’s effective original score.

But, all this ultimately becomes secondary to the Cage factor. Whether you enjoy Nicolas Cage’s whack job shtick, or find it infuriating, is the million-dollar question. I’m far from a devotee, but I do enjoy him more often than not, even in his bargain bin roles, so this was a treat for me. Cage is an unhinged delight. With a constant feed of quirky lines, he totally owns this character and delivers one of his best performances this side of Kick-Ass

Wood rounds out the twofer, and they make for a fun pairing. Wood is undoubtedly the straight man, and he instils a real sincerity to the role, as David drifts between empathy, confusion and paranoia. It’s that paranoia that drives the third act and introduces an interesting American Dream pirates’ lust element.

However, for all the thoughtful depth the Brewers inject into the third act and the effectively ratcheted tension, The Trust plays best as a stylishly made oddball comedy… but only if you can handle the Cage.


The Trust is out now on DVD and VOD in the UK.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Lesson Review – Is this what it takes?

After last week’s FrightFest Presents DVD release offered a character-focused twist on the slasher subgenre (Last Girl Standing), The Lesson takes a similarly thoughtful approach to the torture film.

Flustered schoolteacher, Mr Gale (Robert Hands), has reached the end of his tether and kidnaps two of his students, Fin (Evan Bendall) and Joel (Rory Coltart), to give them a lesson they’ll never forget. Mr Gale is an English teacher, but his new methods are straight up Skinnerian: learn or face the nail gun.

That’s a strong concept to work with, but you’ll soon forget it’s coming. The opening half an hour couldn’t feel further from the titular set piece. We see Fin roll out of bed only to be greeted by Jake, his thuggish older brother, and Jake’s mistreated girlfriend, Mia. His parents, glimpsed in artful black and white flashbacks, are nowhere to be seen. It’s no wonder, then, that Fin’s attention is rarely focused on his education and, instead, he spends his time screwing around with his friends.

This extended section is really well handled by Ruth Platt, the film’s writer-director (making her feature debut), and she and Bendall craft a genuinely sympathetic character stuck in a genuinely unfortunate situation. The same can’t be said for Joel, who is just a bit of a knob, but, fortunately, his character never threatens to draw the attention away from Fin.

The surprise of the kidnapping is further heightened by the fact that we barely get to meet Mr Gale before he’s brandishing a bloodied hammer and yammering on about Milton and Hobbes. It seems an unusual choice, as there’s little tension developed between Fin and Mr Gale before he’s chained him to a chair. But, thankfully, Hands plays Mr Gale with such ferocious three-dimensionality that any lack of character development is soon more than made up for.

He really is very, very good and he spouts off Platt’s authentic philosophical tirades with spittle-flying menace. It’s his twisted drive to educate, whatever the costs, that makes him such a terrifying antagonist and his threats frequently left me flinching. The shock of the situation does wear off somewhat, but Platt effectively escalates the stakes and makes sure you’re never sitting quite as comfortably as you’d like. The final crescendo of brutal gore effects and increasingly hazy visuals plays bigger than anything preceding it, but the insanity works. Although, I could’ve have done without the final scene and it’s weird subtext.

With The Lesson, Platt shows a real knack for sculpting well-rounded, truthful characters and, while she could have spread some of the depth around the ensemble, the lean structure still packs a real punch. She makes heavy use of mirrors throughout the film, as if toying with us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, and, I must admit, it becomes awfully difficult not to.


The Lesson is out now on DVD in the UK via Frightfest Presents.

For more reviews of the FrightFest Presents films, click here.

Image courtesy of Fetch Publicity.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Last Girl Standing Review – Post-traumatic slasher disorder

Benjamin R. Moody’s Last Girl Standing opens where any normal slasher movie would end. Camryn (Akasha Villalobos), the so-called “Final Girl”, is stumbling around a wood pursued by a masked killer. Her friends are all dead and she must finally face her terroriser. She manages to slay her foe and makes it out to the nearest road to find help, only to see an apparition of the killer in the seat of the pickup truck that comes to her rescue.

These visions never really leave Camryn and “The Hunter” still torments her nightmares, but the spectre of the killer seems to be drawing ever closer. Meanwhile, Nick (Brian Villalobos) starts a new job at the laundrette Camryn’s been working at for the last four years. Nick takes a liking to Camryn and introduces her to his friendship group, when her latest vision leaves her really spooked.

After the unmistakable slasher movie opening, Last Girl Standing settles into more of a social realism groove, a far cry from the film’s “horror” label. The distinctly unglamorous workplace and Camryn’s struggling central character reminded me (bizarrely) of the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night, and much of Moody’s film plays in a similarly reserved, and well observed, sand pit.

Likewise, Moody writes his characters with far more depth than one usually finds in this subgenre. Even Nick’s friends, who could have simply been written off as hipster side characters, are well drawn. Danielle (Danielle Evon Ploeger), in particular, gets a lovely moment with Camryn in which she shares her own personal trauma.

It’s a shame then that the requisite slasher movie finale, which for so long felt like Moody might dare avoid, sidelines the complexity displayed up until that point. It satisfies the genre requirements, but diminishes some of the good work that came before it and, as is so often the case, the threat of impending horror is more disturbing than its ultimate manifestation. That being said, and without wanting to spoil anything, the finale does complete the victim cycle in a satisfying manner. So, in the end, the bloodletting is used to say something interesting about the very nature of the genre.

Elsewhere, I did like the booby trap element, but I would have still appreciated a more distinctive killer, although that’s a problem with so many current slasher offerings. Something that really does stand out, however, is Espectrostatic’s pulsing musical work. His tracks are Carpenter-esque, but never slavish, and provide a purposeful driving force somewhat lacking from Linus Lau’s original score.

Last Girl Standing offers a welcome new perspective on the slasher film. If only it had offered a finale in keeping with the thoughtful build-up.


Last Girl Standing is out now on DVD in the UK via Frightfest Presents.

For more reviews of the FrightFest Presents films, click here.

Image courtesy of Fetch Publicity.

Friday, 1 July 2016

2016 – My favourites so far

We’re now halfway through 2016, so join me, if you will, in a look back over my ten favourite films released in the UK between 1st January and 31st June.

I can’t help but be slightly disappointed with this cinematic year. Yes, I’ve watched loads of great films but, seeing as though I’ve seen more films at this stage than ever before, I’m somewhat surprised that there haven’t been more to truly take my breath away.

Then again a year that gifts the world with a film as brilliant as my #1 is worth savouring…

10. Son of Saul (Full Review)

At ten we have a film that I imagine will feature on a good many lists such as this. László Nemes’ Son of Saul is an overwhelming Holocaust drama. I’ve still only seen it the once – at Cannes last year – and it may have ended up higher had I managed to squeeze in a rewatch.

Image courtesy of AMC Theatres.

9. Ip Man 3 (Full Review)

This was a real surprise. I enjoyed Ip Man enough when I saw it a few years ago on Film4, but this second sequel is an absolute joy. An invigorating tonic to this year’s penchant for mindless smash-em-ups, Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 3 is a glorious blend of touching melodrama and deft action scenes.

Image courtesy of of Fetch Publicity.

8. 10 Cloverfield Lane

Cloverfield grew on me with repeat viewings, and so did Dan Trachtenberg’s contained character-driven thriller “blood relative” to that original film. It plays better when you’re not trying to anticipate every twist and turn and just go along for the ride.

Image courtesy of HeyUGuys.

7. Spotlight (Full Review)

It took me two viewing to truly appreciate Tom McCarthy’s deserving Best Picture winner. First time out, the reviews I’d read had left me with questions – Was the seeming absence of style an issue? Was the film too restrained? Etc. – and I spent much of that initial viewing asking those exact same questions. They were answered – no and no – but my focus on them distracted from the quiet brilliance of this devastating film.

Image courtesy of Recent Movie Posters.

6. Bone Tomahawk

Watch a man cleaved in two with the titular weapon and feel every thudding blow. Bone Tomahawk is one of the most visceral cinematic experiences I’ve had this year, but the alarming final act is made all the more satisfying by the long, measured journey that precedes it.

Image courtesy of IMP Awards.

5. Nina Forever (Full Review)

I’d heard good things out of FrightFest, but Nina Forever still managed to catch me totally off-guard. Equal parts kinky, darkly funny and truly touching, Nina Forever is brilliantly directed by the Blaine Brothers and a real British treat.

Image courtesy of Fetch Publicity.

4. Sing Street

A John Carney coming-of-age musical? I was always going to love this one, and it didn’t disappoint. It may not soar to quite the same heights as Once, but the songs are good, the characters charming and the soul tangible. Great work by Jack Reynor, too.

Image courtesy of IndieWire.

3. Creed (Full Review)

With the help of his stellar leading man, Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler has reinvigorated the Rocky franchise and delivered one of the most triumphant movies of the year. A crowd-pleaser with a social conscience: if only that were more common…

Image courtesy of Final Feel.

2. The Conjuring 2

I only caught up on the first Conjuring film days prior to seeing this sequel. But, I had a blast at home in front of the TV. So, the opportunity to see The Conjuring 2 in a darkened cinema, even at a midday screening with just a handful of people in the audience, was an absolute treat. Not many people have ever directed scares as well as James Wan.

Image courtesy of

1. Evolution

This is the one. It’ll take a lot to top this beguiling sci-fi inflected portrait of a young boys sexual awakening. Lucile Hadžihalilovic’s chilling ideas and masterful use of imagery and symbolism made me squirm, as her film wormed its way into my psyche. It’s stayed with me more than any other 2016 release and I expect it’ll stay that way.

Image courtesy of The Film Stage.

So, there we have it: Agree with my picks? Think I’m way off the mark? Let me know in the comments and share your own top 10s!