A Fantastic Woman (2017)

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★★★★

After a romantic night out, a woman’s boyfriend collapses in their apartment. Worried, she rushes him to hospital. Within an hour, she’s told he has died. Unable to process the information, she runs, and is dragged back to the hospital by security. They’re not only suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the man’s death, but also who the woman was to him, and what she might be hiding, because the woman doesn’t look exactly like other women, and when they look at her ID card, it has a man’s name on it.

It’s with a slow and steady hand that Chilean director Sebastián Lelio guides us into the world of Marina Vidal. A transgender woman, Marina lives in a time when LGBTQ+ rights have never been more talked about but, as we quickly discover, that doesn’t mean the fight’s over. In her first lead role, transgender actress Daniela Vega affords Marina a quiet dignity that belies her daily struggle as she’s ritually humiliated by bigots and businesswomen alike.

The tragedy of her tale is expertly handled by both Vega and Lelio, who never overplay their hand, and frequently look for the hope hidden in the horror. Flashes of surrealism leaven the mood, including a glittering dancefloor segment and a telling moment in which Marina struggles to walk down the street as she battles a gale that keeps pushing her back. These surreal flourishes aside, A Fantastic Woman forgoes a traditional narrative (its McGuffin leads nowhere; there’s no grand victory for Marina) which might flummox some viewers, but as a portrait of a woman fighting bigotry and prejudice with quiet self-belief, it’s gripping stuff.

My Friend Dahmer (2017)

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★★★

“I like to pick up roadkill but I’m trying to quit,” says teenager Jeff (Ross Lynch) early on in My Friend Dahmer. It’s a knowingly dark line in a film that frequently flirts with the extreme darkness of its subject matter without ever indulging in shock and gore. Because, yes, this is Jeffrey Dahmer we’re talking about, the infamous serial killer who murdered 17 men between 1978 and 1991 before he was jailed in the Columbia Correctional Institute, and then beaten to death by his cellmate.

This isn’t Making A Murderer: Teen Edition, though. ‘Becoming Dahmer’ would have been a more apt title, as none of the Wisconsin native’s unsettling crimes are portrayed here. Instead, director Marc Meyers adapts John ‘Derf’ Backderf’s same-named graphic novel. As one of Dahmer’s high-school friends, Backderf was there for Dahmer’s formative years, and they’re played out here in slow-burn detail as Dahmer struggles with his fractured home life, with school, and with his own burgeoning homosexuality.

The disturbing moments are often beautifully underplayed, from Dahmer leading a happy dog into the woods, to the teen’s casual questioning of a black classmate’s skin colour. Meyers forgoes slasher movie cliche to perfectly capture an understated ’70s mood, and his star – former Disney kid Lynch – is equally mesmerising; his often expressionless, dead-eyed but hugely physical performance is a revelation.

Why did Dahmer become obsessed with dead things? Would it have turned out differently if his parents (played with grotesque glee by Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts) hadn’t abandoned him? Meyers refrains from offering easy answers, perhaps because there aren’t any, instead watching Dahmer as he careens towards the inevitable. The result is quiet and lingering, blowing apart the Hollywood notion of what constitutes a psychopath to reveal the troubling, unsettling reality.

This review originally published in Crack magazine.

120 BPM (2017)

120

★★★★

In 1992, Robin Campillo joined a militant group of activists called Act Up Paris. Dedicated to battling government apathy towards the AIDS epidemic, Act Up Paris did everything it could to grab headlines and make its cause visible, no matter what the cost, in an era when the supposedly ‘gay disease’ wasn’t taken seriously.

The group’s spitfire spirit crackles through Campillo’s third feature film, 120 BPM, which is partially inspired by the French director’s time with Act Up, and sheds new light on gay militance in a time when LGBTQ+ people are enjoying more freedom than ever. The film’s plot follows a number of the group’s members, cleaving particularly closely to HIV-positive extrovert Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), and his growing closeness to new member Nathan (Arnaud Valois). Among the many other activists, all of whom get their moment, there’s a mother and her 16-year-old son Marco (Theophile Ray), who’s a haemophiliac and contracted the AIDS virus from an infected blood transfusion.

At two and a half hours long, Campillo’s film could have used a little judicious editing, but the freewheeling style and realistic delves into the group’s rowdy lecture-hall meetings are hugely seductive. As its title suggests, 120 BPM pulses with passion and anger on numerous levels. At times, it feels like an exorcism for Campillo, who lived this, and has lived with it for over 30 years. There’s hope, though, too. The sparse musical segments are euphoric, while the sense of community is warm and invigorating. For those who have watched How To Survive A Plague, 120 BPM offers a nourishing and rousing insight into gay activism outside of the US, and won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

This review originally published in Crack magazine.

Beach Rats (2017)

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★★★★

“I don’t know what I like,” admits Frankie (Harris Dickinson) towards the start of this dark and dreamy drama. A Brooklyn teenager spending a summer avoiding his father’s sickbed, Frankie escapes his depressing home life by smoking spliffs with his buddies and hitting the boardwalk to raise hell.

He’s also on a brooding journey of self-discovery. What /does/ Frankie like and why is it so hard for him to accept? It’s a rare film that addresses such vast questions in so uncompromising a way, but director Eliza Hittman accomplishes exactly that with Beach Rats.

We quickly learn that Frankie’s real passions lie with members of the same sex. He surfs gay webcam sites at night before agreeing to meet up with an older man. After a passionate woodsy encounter, he goes back to hanging with his surfer bros and even acquires a girlfriend in shop-worker Simone (Madeline Weinstein).

But it’s clear Frankie’s just treading water, uncertain how to process these new desires. “Two girls can make out and it’s hot,” says Simone. “Two guys make out and it’s gay.”

Though shrewd, exchanges like these are infrequent. With the bare minimum in dialogue, Hittman instead focusses on every part of Frankie’s body in a study that’s refreshingly, even brutally honest.

Brit up-and-comer Dickinson is magnetic as the young tearaway, his sea-blue eyes both curious and troubled, and the role’s exposing in every way possible, from a glimpse of a flaccid cock when Frankie fools around with Simone, to a final confrontation that fizzes with fusillade emotion. This isn’t necessarily a coming-out drama destined for a happy ending, but it’s captivating nonetheless.

This review originally appeared in Crack magazine.

God’s Own Country (2017)

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★★★★

You’d be forgiven for thinking that windswept Yorkshire planes aren’t the most obvious setting for a steamy love story, but there’s nothing obvious about God’s Own Country.

A remarkably restrained debut from director Francis Lee, it centres on young farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor), who toils alone on the family farm under the watch of his sickly father (Ian Hart) and stern grandmother (Gemma Jones). At night, he has meat, potatoes and a tinny for dinner, then drinks himself unconscious. There’s a shot of a caged magpie.

Within minutes, it’s clear this is a man suffocated by duty and desolation, and newcomer O’Connor etches an extraordinary portrait of an individual in emotional arrest. Seven minutes in, he’s rutting another guy in the back of a trailer. He doesn’t smile for nearly an hour, brooding and antagonising and pushing every button he can find.

“We?” he grunts when his rutting partner suggests a date. “No.” Recalling the novels of Harper Fox, particularly Scrap Metal, Lee’s film excels at exposing the cracks in life at this remote farmstead.

Even before the arrival of Alec Secareanu’s chiselled farm hand, Gheorghe – a quiet Romanian who strikes up a clumsy romance with Johnny – God’s Own Country rivets as a study of human frailty and family tension.

In a landmark year for LGBTQ+ rights, God’s Own Country shuns ‘gay movie’ cliches – there’s no ‘coming out’ melodrama here – as, in the harsh wilds of Yorkshire, Lee uncovers affecting tenderness in the unspoken and the understated.

This review originally appeared in Crack magazine.

Ginger & Rosa (2012)

Ginger & RosaEvery teenager has felt like the world’s going to end at some point. The trick in Ginger & Rosa is that the end of the world is a very real possibility – it’s 1962, and as the Cold War clamps its icy grip around the world, a nuclear holocaust seems to be edging over the horizon.

Scared and confused, teens Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) attend anti-bomb rallies; which is nothing compared to the bomb that’s dropped when Rosa reveals she’s started sleeping with Ginger’s dad (Alessandro Nivola).

Metaphors run rampant in Ginger & Rosa, threatening to tip the film into all-out absurdity on numerous occasions. An intriguing, hit-and-miss, coming-of-age period drama, director Sally Potter’s film isn’t big on subtlety where the script’s concerned.

Luckily, it’s evident in spades in G&R’s spectacular collection of performances, with Fanning and Mad Men star Christina Hendricks (as her mother) delivering commendably tremulous turns. Both are American, but both wrap their tongues around a decent middle-English accent, and it’s through their wrought mother-daughter relationship that G&R really lives and breathes.

The same can’t be said of the teenage angst that G&R frequently falls back on. It’s been done better a hundred times over in other films, and it’s only Fanning’s formidable talent that keeps her character interesting despite the recurrent strop-throwing and fall-outs.

Sporting an eye-catching crop of red hair, Fanning’s the main reason you should seek out what is essentially a flimsy teen drama lifted by a fantastic cast. See it for Fanning, marvel at what a fantastic young actress she’s turning into, then hope she finds better material in the future. 3/5

Movie 43 (2013)

movie 43Quite why A-listers Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman and Emma Stone (among others) aligned themselves with this excruciatingly moronic compilation of shorts is anybody’s guess.

Dealing in piss, poo and period gags that your little brother outgrew by 15, Movie 43 follows three kids as they scour the internet for the elusive (and very possibly made-up) flick of the title.

As their search vomits up one cringe-worthy skit after another, Movie 43 amounts to little more than filmic self-flagellation for all involved.

Winslet’s on a date with Jackman, only there’s something wrong with his neck. Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber home tutor their teenager, but get it all wrong. Anna Faris proposes to Chris Pratt, but not how he expected.

And in Movie 43’s maddest offering, Johnny Knoxville gives Seann William Scott a leprechaun (played by Gerard Butler) for his birthday.

As the fake tits, genitalia jokes and (literal) excrement pile up, the most shocking thing is that not once during Movie 43’s four year production did producer/director Peter Farrelly stop to consider that, just maybe, his film was about as funny as losing your virginity to your own mum. (Yes, this actually happens in Movie 43.)

Worst of all, Farrelly’s film just never knows when to give up, subjecting audiences not only to a never-ending credits sequence gag reel, but yet another post-credits short starring Elizabeth Banks. She gets pissed on by a cartoon cat.

Expect Movie 43’s only genuinely funny moments – two faux ads for Tampax and children enslaved to a life working inside cash machines – to end up on YouTube in the near future.

For everybody else, though, this is a great, huge stinker of an embarrassment on their CV. “It makes you shit out your intestines,” warns JJ (Adam Cagley) right at the beginning. He’s not far off.

Verdict:

Ladies and gentlemen, we have our first turkey of 2013. Squandering a gold-star cast and as tasteless as a foam dog poo, Movie 43 deserves not one of your hard-earned pennies. Expect it to sweep next year’s Golden Raspberry awards – it deserves every single one of them. 1/5

Via Total Film

The Last Stand (2013)

The Last StandArnold Schwarzenegger’s just hurtled through a café door and landed in a heap. “How are you, sheriff?” asks the owner, peering over the counter. “Old,” huffs Arnie as he creaks into frame. No kidding. Nigh on a decade after his last lead role (in Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines), the Austrian Oak’s finally lumbered back into cinemas. He’s older. He’s bigger. His hair’s somewhat thinner. But, really, it’s like he’s never been away.

Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) is whiling out his twilight years in sleepy farm town Sommerton Junction. As we meet him, sock-free and noticeably scruffy, he’s about to take a much-needed few days off. “Should be a quiet weekend,” Arnie muses, somehow unaware that he’s in a movie starring himself, which means quiet is the last thing on the menu.

Sure enough, Sommerton Junction turns out to be the meeting place of escaped con Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) and his gun-loving gang, which is headed by slithering mercenary Burrell (Peter Stormare). Cortez is roaring towards the Mexican border in a swish Corvette ZR1, and his gang are preparing safe passage for him through Owens’ town into Mexico. Meanwhile, FBI Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) is on Cortez’s trail – but can he reach him in time?

This first hour of The Last Stand is easily its weakest. Short on laughs, low on Arnie, it’s too busy introducing characters we have no interest in to give us what we really want – Schwarzenegger. Any Schwarzenegger will do, especially after the teasing likes of the Expendables movies, which only featured him as a supporting player. But despite mildly diverting thrills in an impressive (if implausible) jail bust and numerous car-related action kicks, director Kim Jee-woon’s first English-language film feels as weary as Arnie often looks.

Thankfully, that all changes once our favourite Austrian is let off the leash, and around the hour mark, The Last Stand transforms on a dime into something unexpectedly, uproariously entertaining. When Burrell and his men storm Sommerton Junction, they’re surprised to find it’s not only ready for them, but armed to the hilt. The ensuing orgy of mayhem delivers hilariously gory deaths, bloodshed aplenty and just a few of those patented Arnie one-liners.

We’re not kidding ourselves, though. Arnie’s heyday came and went with the 1980s, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever reach the thrilling heights of that muscle-busting run again. After seven years playing California Governor, though, Arnie still knows how to deliver a good time (there’s even a moment of shiver-inducing acting from the guy as he mourns a dead colleague), and he looks thoroughly comfortable back up there on the big screen. “This is my home,” he says near The Last Stand’s close. Welcome home, Arnie. 3/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

I Give It A Year (2013)

I Give It A YearWeddings in movies often surface as portents of doom, whether it’s mobster carnage (The Godfather), personal meltdown (Bridesmaids) or brain-bludgeoning banality (Bride Wars).

Brave, then, for Borat writer Dan Mazer to open his directorial debut with a nuptial ceremony. As you’d expect from the man who helped Sacha Baron Cohen concoct naked-wrestling gags, it’s a grimly funny affair (buoyed by un-PC best man Stephen Merchant), signalling that couple Nat (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Rafe Spall) could be destined for a very unhappy ever after.

It’s clear that these two aren’t exactly made for each other, anyway. She’s a high-strung PR. He’s a housebound writer. While attending sessions with a mad-hatter marriage counsellor (enter a scene-snaffling Olivia Colman), Nat’s eye is drawn by  dashing American client Guy (Simon Baker), while Josh finds old feelings fanned by ex-beau Chloe (Anna Faris). Agreeing to, yep, give it a year, the newlyweds could have quite a challenge on their hands.

Set after the point where most romcoms wrap up, the irreverent IGIAY wants to mess with the genre. On the downside, Byrne is stuck playing the straight gal to Spall’s klutz, meaning the latter ends up with the lion’s share of laughs. Not that the ladies miss out – Minnie Driver is hysterical as Nat’s husband-hating big sis, and Faris’ bedroom set-piece is brilliantly bonkers.

In a film with obvious ambition, though, it’s a shame that it resorts to formula so quickly.With everything tied up in a bow by the end, chances are you’ll be left feeling like the DJ’s packed up and gone home early.

Verdict: Not quite the romcom revolution it wants to be – (500) Days Of Summer teased humour from heartbreak more effectively – but still a gag-filled chuckler with talent to spare. 3/5

Via Total Film

Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

Zombi-2-Zombie-Flesh-EatersIt was always going to be an oddity. Released as an unofficial (Italian) sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. Directed by a dumped-from-grace Lucio Fulci. Book-ended with New York scenes shot specifically for the overseas market. Zombie Flesh Eaters should have been DOA. The oddest thing by far about this singularly gruesome zombie saga, though, is the considerable artistry in its gore-and-grit-churning tale of the ravenous undead.

A pre-credits sequence hints at what we’re in for. A bound man slowly rises from a bed. A gun is fired. The man’s head implodes with a shock of red that the camera guzzles up as greedily as any flesh-muncher. It’s just the first of many artery-spurting kills, the most famous of which has a young woman impaled through the eyeball (a scene restored when ZFE was finally released uncut in 2005) as zombies overrun the remote community of Matul Island.

If the plentiful gore still shocks, Fulci impresses most with admirable command over his material. Both blood-thirsty and eccentric, ZFE is a curious blend of Giallo and Hammer (check out Richard Johnson’s death-obsessed physician) that’s all hysteria-level thrills – zombies fight sharks, worms writhe in rotting skulls and women scuba-dive topless.

So what if the dubbing’s dreadful, the acting grotty? As it builds to a blazing inferno of a climax, replete with foreboding Big Apple epilogue, Zombie Flesh Eaters’ appetite for destruction is nothing short of exhilarating. 4/5