Mommy (2014) DVD Review

mommyMOMMY (Canada, 2014)

Dir. Xavier Dolan

Starring. Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clemént, Antoine Olivier Pilon

Out now on UK DVD from Metrodome Distribution

Plot.
A straight talking, single mother is reunited with her hyperactive, criminal son after an act of vandalism sees him expelled from a youth correctional facility. Their relationship is pushed to the limits, until a shy, lonely neighbour walks into their lives and the three of them form an unconventional, makeshift family unit.

It’s hard to talk about the career of French-Canadian actor/writer/director/producer Xavier Dolan without mentioning age. An output of 5 films in 5 years-collecting major prizes at the Toronto, Venice and Cannes Film Festivals- would a remarkable feat for any filmmaker, let alone one that, at the time of writing has only recently turned 26. The fact that he is currently rolling cameras on his 6th feature with an ensemble that includes Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassell and Lea Seydoux really tells the tale of how far Dolan has come on since the raw promise of his début I KILLED MY MOTHER.

You don’t recruit such a cast unless you’ve earned the right to do so.

mommy1A measure of Dolan’s meteoric rise, was evident in the fact that his fifth feature MOMMY took the Jury Prize at Cannes 2014 -shared with a certain Jean Luc Godard in one of the Croisette’s all time great ‘full circle’ moments. A token gesture this was not, and was a testament to Dolan’s achievement that MOMMY was a genuine contender for the Palm D’Or.

Here, Dolan returns to the Mother and Son dynamic of his début, the difference being here, that there is a tonal conviction and stylistic confidence, both visually and narratively. Where I KILLED MY MOTHER was written very much from the perspective of the son, it is the vividly complex personalities of both Dorval’s Diane and Clement’s Kyla that seem to be more of interest to Dolan here. Both actresses shine in challenging roles. Widowed, free spirit Diane and emotionally starved former-schoolteacher Kyla form a totally believable nuclear family with the unpredictable Steve. Even at its most brash and hysterical, MOMMY is first and foremost an actors film and you would be hard pressed to find a better ensemble. Their chemistry is pivotal to preventing the story from falling into soap opera territory, something which, despite running close, thankfully stays on the right track.

Not to say that MOMMY isn’t without flaws. There are a few exchanges between Diane and Steve that border on contrivance, namely the violent exchange during the middle act (featured on the poster), and it’s a personal cinematic bugbear when popular songs seem shoehorned into a film soundtrack. The ‘Wonderwall’ sequence was a bit too 90’s teen movie for my taste. As was the use of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born To Die’ in the final reel.

mommy2That being said, the film is visually very self assured. There are minor Bressonian touches (overly intimate close ups) that really show the confidence that Dolan is directing with. The way he toys with the screen’s aspect ratio, beginning with a claustrophobically narrow, almost portrait/mobile phone framing to Steve pushing the frame wide, exuding freedom, is an audacious stylistic choice for even the most veteran of directors. There’s brilliant tension to the pacing of the film, shown in the stand out scene in the blue neon lit karaoke bar, as Steve’s melancholic performance is brilliantly edited to show him losing his cool, under pressure from hecklers and his mother’s distraction to his sadness. One of the year’s best musical sequences.

MOMMY is hands down one of the year’s best family dramas and you get the feeling that this is merely the tip of the iceberg for one of world cinema’s most talented young filmmakers.

9/10

Contamination (1980) Blu-Ray Review

contam1Contamination (ITA/US, 1980)

Dir. Luigi Cozzi

Starring. Ian McCulloch, Louise Marleau

Out on Dual Format DVD/Blu-Ray now from Arrow Video

Plot.
When an unmanned freighter drifts into the New York harbour carrying hundreds of crates filled with mysterious alien eggs and a dead crew, the attending police officer and a hardened Army Colonel enlist the help of a disgraced former astronaut to find the source of the cargo. Their investigation leads them to a tropical coffee plantation and a confrontation with a familiar enemy whose motivation is stranger and more deadly than they could’ve imagined.

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to presume that if you asked the average film fan what their memory of Ridley Scott’s SciFi/Horror masterpiece ALIEN was, chances are they will probably be refer to any one of alien eggs, exploding chests or slimy ‘one eyed’ creatures.

On this basis, you can’t accuse Luigi Cozzi’s Sci-Fi caper CONTAMINATION of being poorly researched, given that it was produced with the sole purpose of capitalising on its predecessors’ record-breaking box office return.

It would be hard to imagine something like this being made today without tongue firmly planted in cheek. But back in the late 70s/early 80s the Italian commercial film industry turned a profit on these knock offs of Hollywood blockbusters. Nothing was sacred- Cozzi’s “STAR WARS” rip-off STARCRASH, released in 1979 has to be seen to be believed. CONTAMINATION plays like a greatest hits package of genre film tropes.

contam2Producer Claudio Mancini (a noted collaborator of Sergio Leone, with an ethos that prioritised capital gains over any pretensions of artistry) compiled a shopping list of elements, from espionage & romance to an abundance of ‘midnight movie’ friendly gore, designed specifically to milk the film for every cent, from a minimum production cost.

The plot is more or less a straight up spy thriller, complete with the dubious gender politics you’d expect from a BOND film. Cozzi admirably manages to maintain a glimmer of intrigue throughout and truth be told it’s set pieces are well constructed, given the clear budgetary restraints and a script peppered with clichés and eye wateringly unsubtle exposition. It’s worth mentioning Luciano & Massimo Anzelotti’s brilliant foley work, specifically the eerie, low moan of the eggs. And unbelievably, CONTAMINATION was cut by Italian cinema’s greatest editor Nino Baragli (regular collaborator with Corbucci,Pasolini & Leone), whose understated, rhythmic nous provides an essential, solid foundation.

There are a few sequences of note, namely the night time exploration of the abandoned ship (riffing on ALIEN/NOSFERATU) and the final confrontation with the otherworldly mastermind responsible for all the gory mayhem. Both are atmospherically lit, with suitably timed shocks, ably assisted by a pounding synth score from regular Argento collaborators Goblin. The performances are suitably OTT, with a famously hysterical turn from British TV legend Ian McCulloch (Survivors, Zombie Flesh Eaters).

contam4The film’s signature gonzo visual effects (assumedly created on a three figure budget) range from the gloriously evocative to the ridiculous, with another ALIEN-esque sequence featuring a stunning matte painting of a cavernous interior, only to be followed by a scale miniature ‘birthing chamber’ using what seem to be frozen peas as substitute eggs.

While there are moments during CONTAMINATION that are so daft, they will have you reassessing PIRANHA 2’s Oscar credentials, there is enough entertainment value to make it an interesting artefact of pre-VHS/Video Nasty excess, an era long passed.

THE EXTRAS.

This is what Arrow Video do better than anyone else in the home video market, with hours of illuminating special features.

Highlights include an insightful, entertaining commentary by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, and interviews with director, star and composer.

contam3The jewel in this crown has to be a fantastic documentary charting the rise of Commercial Italian genre cinema and its relationship with the Hollywood blockbuster.

A lovingly crafted package, essential for cult horror fans.

Film – 6/10

Extras- 9/10

Hyena (2014) DVD Review

hyenaHyena (UK, 2014)

Dir. Gerard Johnson

Starring. Peter Ferdinando, Stephen Graham, Elisa Lasowski, Myanna Buring, Neil Maskell

UK DVD release July 6th 2015 from Metrodome Distribution.

Synopsis. For years, a corrupt ‘task force’ has been making a living out of pocketed drugs and deals with local gangs in London. But the walls are closing in, with an embittered Internal Investigator watching their every move. To make things worse, long standing allies in the Turkish mob are being picked off by a brutal Albanian people trafficking gang with no inclination to cooperate with anyone, forcing their leader Michael into a arrangement that could have deadly repercussions for those close to him.

Inspired by a chance meeting with a hard partying, off duty CID officer, Writer/Director Gerard Johnson had allegedly been developing a story about corrupt policemen for around 10 years. The film bears the fruits of such long development process, from it’s fully developed ensemble to evocative location work. Johnson goes to painstaking effort to portray the “real” London, or the one many choose not to see. The almost intrusive tracking shots following Ferdinando’s Michael as he navigates the city’s underbelly recall Alan Clarke’s seminal ‘Elephant’. The unsentimental, subjective camera is rarely more than a couple of ft away from him. Trouble is never far away either…

His city is barely visible, drenched in artificial light, from a balcony view lit by London’s night-time ambience to the deep red of a backstreet strip club. There are few scenes of broad daylight. Rarely in recent British cinema has the visual style of a film reflected the character’s state of mind more evocatively than it does here- the compromise between light and dark is at the centre of Michael’s internal conflict. Even the film’s credits are a barely visible dark blue on black..

hyena2It would be hard to talk about the success of ‘Hyena’ without acknowledging the film’s central tour de force performance. Ferdinando brilliantly channels both Harvey Keitel’s crumbling hubris in ‘Bad Lieutenant’ & the jaded resignation of Ben Gazzara’s doomed club owner in Cassavetes’s ‘Killing Of A Chinese Bookie’- both films Johnson claimed were in his mind during production in a recent interview with Trevor Johnston in Sight & Sound (Mar 2015). But Ferdinando’s muscular, vulnerable turn has its own unique energy. In a brutal, disorientating early scene, Michael hides in a furniture shop as his Turkish informer/associate is brutalised by two Albanian heavies. The fear and panic in his eyes are hardly typical of the calm & collected persona you’d expect from a film heavily influenced by the French crime films of Jean Pierre Melville. There’s an expression on his face, which will surely be coined ‘The Ferdinando’, of self-assured hubris, trying and failing to stop his lip from wobbling. He knows he’s met his match with this “new breed of criminal”. Michael’s is a fractured masculinity, a bad man who expects redemption but understands how far away it lies. He’s the titular ‘hyena’, who’s greatest talent is survival. The unconventional final scene plays with this idea to brilliant effect.

The richly realised array of characters that fill out Johnson’s world are strongly reminiscent of a Melville ensemble. Stephen Graham & Richard Dormer are suitably vile counterpoints as vengeful Police Force insiders with Michael in their sights, whilst non-professionals playing the Albanian Kabashi Brothers are a jointly terrifying screen presence. Buring and Maskell are solid also, as Michael’s trusted accomplices. But, arguably the most essential piece of the jigsaw is Elisa Lasowski’s tragic prostitute-turned secretary Ariana.

A key idea in ‘Hyena’ is that despite it’s status as a sprawling modern metropolis , London is also an intricate network of prisons, metaphorically and in one major plot strand, literally- involving a harrowing people trafficking sub-plot. The cruel sadism of the Albanian brothers is shown at its worst in their dehumanising treatment of Ariana. Johnson often holds back from the most stomach churning violence, only long enough to punctuate it with a sickening punchline. Her ordeal is unbearable to watch, but as the screenplay reminds us “…according to Home Office records, more than 4,000 trafficked girls are in the UK at any one time.”.

hyena1Johnson wanted to craft a classic crime drama, yet also a film about London as it is today, claiming that despite being a deliberate exercise in genre, he wanted the audience to consider what’s happening around them. Like the Copenhagen of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Pusher’ or Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’, the London of ‘Hyena’ is a place where the underbelly is far darker, and closer than we imagine.

8/10

Killing Zoe (1994) DVD Review

killingzoeKilling Zoe (US/FRA, 1994)

Dir. Roger Avary

Starring. Eric Stoltz, Julie Delpy, Jean-Hughes Anglade

UK DVD/Blu-Ray Release August 3rd from Fabulous Films

Only a few weeks after ‘Pulp Fiction’ took the Cannes Film Festival by storm in May 94 -making a household name of director Quentin Tarantino- it’s co-writer Roger Avary would release another relatively low-budget crime picture as his directorial debut.

‘Killing Zoe’ is a French set, heist thriller that- for better or worse- brought the genre kicking and screaming into the 90’s. The late, great film critic Roger Ebert described it as “Generation X’s first bank caper movie”. Assuming by this, he was referring more to the ‘Ecstasy Generation’, as there are more drugs consumed in this film than Keith Richards has had hot dinners.

If Tarantino’s unabashed assimilation of cinema history made him his generation’s Scorsese, Avary was it’s uncompromising Schrader, crafting a new breed of ultra-violent crime movie…. Film Nihilisme.

‘Killing Zoe’ succeeds on one primary front. It makes us believe that anything can and probably will happen… From the minute Zed (Eric Stoltz) answers the door to old childhood pal Eric (Jean Hughes Anglade) we know that whatever the job is, it isn’t going to end well.

killingzoe1As far as cinematic sociopaths go, this guy makes Heath Ledger’s dangerous & unpredictable Joker from ‘The Dark Knight’ look like The Archbishop Of Canterbury in comparison. His assertion that ” …the night before a job, we live life!” is followed by a sequence in a Jazz Club that is so debauched, Caligula would be calling for an early night. As far as unhinged performances go, I can think of few more ‘off the wall’ than the sight of bank robber shooting heroin in the middle of a heist. As you can imagine, it all goes downhill from there. Stoltz’s mercenary safe cracker works as a counterpoint for Anglade’s lunacy, recalling the steely professionalism of heist movie anti-heroes Alain Delon & Jean Servais, with the boyish vulnerability on which he made his name working for the likes of Hughes & Bogdanovich in Hollywood.

The Parisian setting is also key for grounding ‘Killing Zoe’ in the great tradition of French crime/heist movies. From Dassin’s iconic, meticulous ‘Rififi’ and Melville’s ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ to the modernist “Cinema Du Look” films of Besson & Beineix. This felt a little like an overhang from that popular French cinema of the 1980’s -aesthetically at least- with a pounding techno soundtrack and wild, kinetic hand-held camerawork. That being said, Avary makes a few inspired editorial decisions. The shoot-out scenes are cut with a frenzy and violence, in the vein of Tsui Hark/John Woo (‘The Killer’/’A Better Tomorrow’), whilst the infamous ‘Jazz Club’ scene- in which Avary claimed he wanted the film itself to look like it was on drugs- feels like a nightmarish blend of Fellini-esque anarchism and a hallucination straight from the mind of Irvine Welsh.

killingzoe2There’s an element of masculine wish fulfilment about the whole thing, especially in the sex scene right at the top of the film, which sees Julie Delpy’s exotic call-girl fall instantly in love with Stoltz’s Zed. No questions asked. Also, Eric’s academic backstory and over protectiveness for his Billie Holiday records fall on the side of contrivance, more than idiosyncrasy. That being said, it’s a compliment to the conviction with which Avary builds his drug addled limbo, that these details don’t derail the story too much.

The attention to detail- the use of the colour red in the bank sequence, adding a hyper-real quality and one quite brilliant Tom Savini make up effect- suggests that, at the very least ‘Killing Zoe’ may all be about ultra-violence and cheap thrills but, at least it was made with love.

7/10

Spring (2014) DVD Review

spring1Spring (US/ITA 2014)

Dir. Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead

Starring – Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker

UK release – Out Now from Metrodome Distribution

Synopsis – Following the death of his mother and a fateful bar room brawl which leaves him in hot water with the police, a young American flees to keep a low-profile in Italy.

There, he meets what seems to be the woman of his dreams but, as the days pass he starts to realise that she may not be quite as perfect as she first seemed.

The idea of evolution, of accepting change -both physical and spiritual is the key motif in Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead’s second film. An intriguing premise for a horror – where it’s the spectre of life, not death that permeates through the story.

It belongs to a wave of excellent genre entries released in 2014 that sought to approach horror cinema in a different way – along with ‘The Babadook’, ‘Starry Eyes’ and ‘It Follows’. The key to their appeal seems to have been a visible paradigm shift from rigid conformity to convention and prioritising cheap scares to concerns of story & character. Where Jennifer Kent’s & David Robert Mitchell’s films really succeeded in penetrating the wider public consciousness, was in heightening the emotional, focusing more on the human stories and in the process, creating individualistic, psychologically complex modern fables.

spring2Whilst it may not boast their crescendo of hysteria or a palpable sense of primordial dread- the warmth and charm in ‘Spring’ lays the foundation for even the wildest premise to gain traction (and this is really something else).

At it’s best, ‘Spring’ is a fantastically engaging love story. By the time the big reveal hits and we’re being bombarded with exposition on self replicating stem cells & evolution, we’re so invested in the relationship between these two people that the “horror” element has become quite matter-of-fact, even with one sequence that would have Stan Winston & Carlo Rambaldi doffing their respective caps.

There’s definitely a shared DNA with the ‘Before’ Trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset & Midnight) here, with echoes of Linklater’s grounded, irresistible charm and a knack for totally believable dialogue scenes. A great early exchange between two friends dancing around another’s bereavement, unable to find the right words, is a wonderfully articulated scene of inarticulacy between a group of men – all delivered not only as plausible, but authentic.

But it’s the intimate moments – over home made soup, a shared bottle of wine and a low-lit boat ride between Taylor-Pucci and Hilker that make ‘Spring’ so enthralling to watch. Their undeniable chemistry, without which the jump scares and eye-watering body horror effects would have considerably less impact, is a vital component of the film’s success. The surprising final reel even finds space for a couple of quite brilliant sight gags, again made totally plausible by their excellent performances.

spring3There will be some that will accuse ‘Spring’ of failing as a “horror” film. But, to tell a story about life, love and learning to move on, from within the confines of the horror genre shows a talent and ambition that should be celebrated.

Maybe…the beginning of something truly great.

It was all in the title.

9/10

Gone (2006) DVD Review

goneGone – (UK/AUS 2006)

Dir. Ringan Ledwidge

Starring – Shaun Evans, Amelia Warner, Scott Mechlowicz

UK DVD Release – 8th June 2015 from Fabulous Films

Set against the searing skies of Australia’s brutally beautiful outback, Gone is the chilling story of a young couple on the trip of a lifetime with a friendly stranger.

When young Brit couple Sophie (Amelia Warner) and Alex (Shaun Evans) arrive in Australia and hook up with the enigmatic Taylor (Scott Mechlowicz),they decide to abandon the usual tourist trail of white sandy beaches and head off inland to the real outback. As the sun beats down and the roads turn from tarmac to red dirt, Alex begins to doubt whether travelling with Taylor was such a good idea.

There’s something about the Australian outback that has always provided fertile ground for film stylists, from narrative cinema’s earliest steps (Tait’s ‘Story Of The Kelly Gang’) to stark, genre visions (Kotcheff’s ‘Wake In Fright’ or Mclean’s ‘Wolf Creek’).

gonedvd1Nic Roeg used the outback’s blank canvas to create kaleidoscopic fever dream in ‘Walkabout’, while Russell Mulchay infused awe for it’s stunning vistas with mad-eyed kinetic fury, characteristic of his work of a reputed Pop video pioneer in Ozploitation standard ‘Razorback’.

Ringan Ledwidge’s vision of Australia in his début feature ‘Gone’ is pretty much what you’d expect from an award winning commercials director who has made a name producing sentimental, confectionery promos for the likes of John Lewis & Sainsbury’s. At times it does feel like you’re watching an ad for a STA Travel ‘gap year’ holiday but, like Scott Mechlowicz’s charming, dangerous sociopath, it’s all too perfect. And in this respect ‘Gone’ works it’s magic.

The screenplay by Australian theatre luminary Andrew Upton and British writer/director James Watkins apes the whole backpacker culture, whilst deriving a sense of dread from the unhealthy ménage á trois that develops between the young wide-eyed couple (Shaun Evans & Amelia Warner) and their mysterious, Ripley-lite American companion. Idyllic nights spent sleeping under the stars and trailer park hoe-downs are tinged with menace.

The performances are solid, with a believable chemistry between the three leads managing to save the film from a meandering middle act that threatened to derail it’s early promise. The story establishes quite early on that the companions’ motivations are probably sinister, it takes most of the film for the couple’s suspicions to bear fruit..lessening the impact a little when they do.

gonedvd2However, the claustrophobic final scenes are constructed masterfully by director Ledwidge, nullifying the vastness & freedom of the open country by setting the film’s key set piece in the antagonists cramped, clunking van. The pay off justified the scenic route…just. The open-air, unrelenting tension of Watkins’ next film ‘Eden Lake’, suggesting a lesson learned.

Overall, an effective psychological thriller with just enough in the tank to navigate the hostile terrain.

7/10

Extras – The Making of Gone, Deleted Scenes