Film Review: Room

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay star in "Room." (Ruth Hurl/Element Pictures)

Originally published on The Edge on 14/10/15 and The National Student on 19/10/15. 

5-stars

Lenny Abrahamson graduates from hipster rockers to emotionally torn kidnapping victims in this tense, thoughtful and overwhelmingly powerful celebration of the innocence and wonder of childhood. 

Five year-old Jack has never left the safety of the titular ‘room’ – where he lives with his mother Joy (Brie Larson), the victim of a brutal kidnapping many years before. Trapped in a single room packed with the basic necessities by her captor, Joy attempts to raise her son – a child of abuse – without the amenities of the outside world. But when young Jack begins to question the nature of their living situation, Joy realises that the time may have finally come to attempt an escape, and so she hatches a plan to free them both from captivity. The rest may well border on spoiler territory, but rest assured, this is far from a one-note picture. 

As dark and downtrodden as such a scenario may at first sound, it may be surprising to know that Room is in fact the direct opposite in terms of its overall tone. There are obviously nasty moments in the film’s introduction, and some upsetting morals which come into play as the narrative develops, but if anything, Abrahamson dances to a significantly more uplifting beat throughout. He doesn’t choose to dwell on suffering or misery but instead, survival; resurrection. Room is the story of a young boy’s undying spirit; that unbridled innocence of youth that refuses to give in to the pressures of the dark side of reality, and this makes for an infinitely more interesting watch. 

With such a tone then comes some tremendously emotional moments. In fact, so much of Room is so incredibly moving that over time, it actually becomes a little draining. By the time Abrahamson finds himself ready to tie everything up, it almost feels as if there are no tears left to shed – and yet they still keep on coming; every ounce of emotive depth is explored and rinsed clean. The fallout is tough, but ultimately is that not the sign of an incredible film, if it sticks with you in such a clear and present way? 

All of this is only possible though because of the film’s leading duo. Brie Larson, a festival-favourite in previous years thanks to her low-key work on the likes of Short Term 12, truly dazzles here as a panicked and volatile single mother. It’s a role with multiple sides and layers, all of which being handled with honest thought and care by Larson. 

But what really catapults her work here into Oscar territory is in fact her chemistry with the young Jacob Tremblay. Tremblay is, much like Larson, phenomenal in his own right, mastering the complex and multi-faceted emotions of the role with total precision – but when the two are combined, the results are frankly heartbreaking. There is no escaping the power of their natural connection; sold as a fierce and genuine bond between mother and son that anchors the entire film in a brutal sense of realism, making each event just as affecting as the last. 

With Room, Lenny Abrahamson has achieved a totally new level of drama; one that is both tense, but frequently joyous in its chronicling of the innately human desire to find happiness in even the darkest of places. A contemporary companion to the likes of Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, it is a profoundly moving experience that promises hope and honesty to all those who willingly invest in its morals. You can’t get more powerful than that. 

Room (2015), directed by Lenny Abrahamson, is being shown as part of the 2015 BFI London Film Festival. Further information about the film including screening times and ticket information can be found here.

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Film Review: High-Rise

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Originally published on The Edge on 13/10/15 and The National Student on 19/10/15. 

4-stars

Recent and prolific British talent Ben Wheatley, maestro of the delightfully dark Kill List andSightseers, returns to the big screen after his lengthiest absence yet, bringing a positively bonkers adaptation of a classic J.G. Ballard novel with him.

Named for the towering apartment block in which its entire narrative is set, High-Rise follows newly-anointed resident Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), as he navigates the fierce new social hierarchy of the building’s inner-society; one which is dictated by a gradually-escalating class conflict.

Clearly out of his depth, Laing finds safety keeping friends on both sides of the divide, but when the petty squabbles eventually amp up to all-out war, there is simply nowhere left to hide. As the tower becomes engulfed in a bloody haze of orgies and violence, a tribal state takes over, where each and every resident begins giving in to their innermost primal urges, and society itself crumbles into nothing. 

It’s a ballsy and complex premise, and one which Wheatley and his creative partner Amy Jump submerse themselves in 100%, right from the film’s very first frame. There are no breaks for exposition, no explanatory titles and absolutely no slowing down of any kind; everything there is to know about the sincerely screwed-up little parallel world that the film takes place in is fired directly at the viewer quickly and sharply. 

In fact, at times this abrasive quality to the film can be a little hard to swallow, but overall it becomes clear, particularly as the climax looms, that without it the film simply wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective. High-Rise is a loud, brash and incredibly dark attack on the senses. There may be a great deal of characters and social advancements to follow, but at its core it’s very simply dedicated to a single idea: human nature as innately destructive. 

Often at times Wheatley may dress this whole premise up a little too much – his insanely close adapting of the source material doesn’t necessarily always help proceedings – but on the whole he always keeps things not only intriguing, but also deftly entertaining. This is in part due to an incredibly well-rounded cast, namely its lead Hiddleston – a charming and equally bemused audience conduit – but also Wheatley’s own styling of the material. The film’s ethereal, 70s-style setting lays a lot of the ground work, but it’s actually the plethora of beautifully edited sequences and clever sound design which push High-Rise that little bit further. Abba will never quite be the same again. 

It’s these small but significant features, when paired with the film’s overarching themes, which mark Wheatley’s latest as somewhat adrift from usual encounters. There’s no real genre template here, nothing to compare it to. High-Rise is a mess of surreal imagery and bonkers ideals, but one which displays an innate bravery and dedication to its cause, that ultimately allows it to become one of the most exciting British films in recent memory. It may not quite find perfection in all its madness, butHigh-Rise does succeed in gifting its audience with an entirely unique experience, and a thrilling one at that.   

High-Rise (2015), directed by Ben Wheatley, is being shown as part of the 2015 BFI London Film Festival. Further information about the film including screening times and ticket information can be found here 

Film Review: Body

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Originally published on The Edge on 01/09/15 and The National Student on 02/09/15.

4-stars

Boasting a minuscule budget and a skeleton cast and crew, Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s debut is a beautifully-written thriller that remains gripping throughout, even if it is a little short-lived. 

Set almost entirely within the confines of an abandoned mansion, Body sets its sights on something almost criminally simple straight from the offset. And although it seems to execute this incredibly well, one can’t help but feel that the film’s directors are capable of something far more substantial, given the talent they show off here. 

The film finds three young women celebrating the arrival of Christmas with a low-key evening of drinks and scrabble. Things escalate dramatically however, when one encourages the others to take the party to her uncle’s empty mansion, where the trio soon find themselves wrapped up in something far more dark and complicated than they had ever anticipated.

To say any more would likely constitute as spoilers, but rest assured, there are plenty of twists in place as the night goes on, and nothing is ever quite as predictable as it may at first seem. 

In fact, it’s writer/director duo Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s knack for throwing in well-timed narrative curveballs that really keeps Body ticking along well. Although its bare-bones story can obviously only ever have a certain amount of outcomes, and the pair rarely ever flirt with anything outside of the realms of the sensible, the film still somehow remains politely refreshing in the way it unfolds its plotting. It may be straightforward and ultimately nothing new, but it’s still gripping enough to keep you enticed right until the very end. 

A large part of what keeps this in place is actually Body’s surprisingly incredible cast. The until-now, relatively unheard of trio of Helen Rogers, Alexandra Turshen and Lauren Molina deliver performances that are both funny and especially believable at every turn. The group’s chemistry is nearly unparalleled, making even just the early scenes of the girls hanging out relentlessly watchable, whilst their more sober, dramatic dealings are equally as effective. Horror legend Larry Fessenden even proves his emotional worth also, with a small but grounded role that tugs on the film’s inner morality tale beautifully. 

Overall, there’s not really an awful lot wrong with Body, but with such a basic central plot that clocks in at an insanely lean 75 minutes, one can’t help but feel that there was plenty more places for the film to go. By playing it safe, Berk and Olsen have crafted a solid thriller that shows off their great potential as filmmakers – but in doing so their film also lacks any real sense of pizzazz. 

Body (2015), directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, is released in the UK on DVD by Matchbox Films. Certificate 15. 

Film Review: Turbo Kid

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Originally published on The Edge on 30/08/15 and The National Student on 01/09/15.

4-stars

Bursting onto screens like a low-rent Mad Max for the cartoon generation, François Simard and Anouk and Yoann-Karl Whissell’s gloriously gory homage to the Road Warrior is a roaringly fun celebration of 80s nostalgia. 

Deep in the misty wastelands of an alternative, dystopian 1997, a young orphan boy (Munro Chambers) scavengers for any scrap he can sell for clean water. But when his newest and only friend Apple (Laurence Leboeuf) is snatched by a warring party working for the land’s power-hungry overlord Zeus (Michael Ironside), he is set on a path of redemption. Suiting up in his newly-found battle armour as the Turbo Kid, he joins forces with a similarly-wronged drifter to exact bloody revenge and save his one hope for a bearable existence.  

Based on that introduction alone, it’s clear that Turbo Kid is every bit as fantastical as the films and shows its creators so obviously adore. It’s the product of a generation brought up on Thundercats and hair-metal. The kids who enacted bloody battles in front of late-night TV with their broken He-Man dolls. Cheap, ridiculous and fiendishly funny; it’s a film that confirms its own bonafide cult-status from the very instant the first synth-soaked note of its soundtrack is played. 

More importantly however, Turbo Kid is a film with a very specific audience in mind. The violence is dished out in regular waves of cartoonish gore played entirely for laughs; there’s no room for questions of morality or righteousness here. This is a film that aims to do just one thing – entertain. And boy does it do so. 

Its characters are lovingly designed with a flair for both the brutal and the imaginative, leaning on a nothing-budget to create an entire world of low-rent spectacle, and one that is entirely unique. The wasteland is a quarry, high-speed chases take place on push-bikes and Gladiator-style face-offs go down in a relatively small abandoned swimming pool. There’s almost no-end to the creativity on display here, all of it chiming together with the film’s delightfully sarcastic tone perfectly. 

Occasionally, the film’s creators will take an uncharacteristically sensitive side-bar to try and deepen the plot, which often feels a little unnecessary and slows things down quite considerably, but for the most part, Turbo Kid is all go. It’s very easily at its best when it simply drops any sense of longing for something broader and just simply celebrates its original concept. 

Although unlikely to win over a particularly large audience, those that do find themselves entranced by Turbo Kid’s gleeful nostalgia trip are sure to be impressed. 

Turbo Kid (2015), directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK by Lionsgate Home Entertainment on 5th October. Certificate 18. 

Film Review: The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)

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Originally published on The National Student on 10/07/15 and The Edge on 12/07/15. 

1-star

Over-stretching his same, tired joke of a franchise for one more deluded outing, director Tom Six returns to the realms of body horror to end his make-shift trilogy in the most disgusting manner possible.

Arguably the first in the series to boast something of a meaningful plot, Six’s Final Sequence tests the limits of the American prison system, placing its focus on demented warden Bill Boss and his bumbling sidekick Dwight Butler (the returning Dieter Laser and Laurence R. Harvey – the antagonists of the two previous instalments). When the two are threatened with dismissal by visiting Governor Hughes (one-time cinematic legend Eric Roberts) they set about attempting to save their jobs through any means necessary, formulating a plan to reduce the number of reoffenders and cut prison costs in half, by putting into practise an idea they saw realised in a series of popular horror movies, directed by Tom Six. Because one meta joke is supposedly never enough.

For those uneducated in the apparent cult-phenomenon that is The Human Centipede, the basic premise and central plot motivation of all three films revolves around a psychotic individual (or in this case, a pair of them), deeply obsessed by the idea of joining one person’s face to another person’s anus, creating one, long digestive tract.

Why this exists, one will never know. Why there are now three versions of it, featuring different combinations of races, genders and numbers, is even more baffling. The fact is, apparently the idea has mileage for some people, despite the very fact that the films themselves – this third instalment included – are made with all the skill, humour and fervour of a lazy, immature child.

At their very core, all of the Human Centipede movies are reduced to nothing more than an extraordinarily lame poo joke. Thus, as much as Final Sequence is better lit, better shot and more extravagantly realised than its predecessors, it is still, at its very basic level, the juvenile ramblings of someone who wants to do nothing more than make that same poo joke again, and again, and again. Six may have tried to tart it up a tad this time, with a politically-motivated plot, a familiar face or two and another (now far too overused) meta send-up of his work but there’s no escaping the fact that even as arguably the best of the bunch, Final Sequence is subhuman trash.

Returning villains Laser and Harvey are watchable at best, though neither ever seen quite comfortable with their far campier personas. Harvey’s underspent sidekick suffers from a wandering accent and a lack of actual action, whilst Laser’s big-bad, as accidentally humorous as he so often is, ultimately remains nothing more than an overly-loud, barking annoyance. In fact, the most capable of the cast is oddly enough its only female force, ‘adult-actress’ Bree Olson who is obviously reduced to nothing more than a pair of breasts on legs by Six and his positively demoralising script. It says a lot about a film that boasts an expansive cast (including a former Oscar nominee) when its most convincing performance is delivered by a porn star.

To break down every single fault the film holds would only prove futile however, as it becomes quickly apparent that this is what Six himself seems to feed upon. As much as his first two instalments are powered by nothing more than bad taste and a genuinely psychotic eye for human suffering, Final Sequence is more concerned with just being as offensive as humanly possible. Packing in enough racism, sexism and general homophobia to just about offend every single minority group on planet Earth, it’s clear that ultimately – aside from his beloved poo jokes – Six wants one thing and one thing only: controversy. He doesn’t care how well his film is made, or how entertaining it will prove to be for audiences, he just wants to sell his film on controversy alone.

And to be fair to him, having successfully made and marketed an entire trilogy, he has. Nobody watches a Human Centipede movie because they are fun, or interesting, or because they say something about society; they watch them because they are just that, controversial. Six has got this far because people talk about his work. So I guess that makes the only solution to just stop. The joke’s over Tom, move on.

The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) (2015), directed by Tom Six, is distributed by Monster Pictures, Certificate 18.

Live Review: Taylor Swift at Hyde Park

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Originally published on The Edge on 29/06/15.

Following the huge, world-conquering success of her first fully-fledged pop album 1989, recently anointed global superstar Taylor Swift took centre stage on the Saturday slot for this year’s British Summertime.

Held once again in the heart of London’s Hyde Park, the week-long attraction culminated in Swift’s sell-out show, boasting one of the biggest crowds of her career – a daunting task for even the most celebrated of performers. Not that she would ever have you believe it though.

Exploding onto the main Great Oak stage amidst a horde of scantily-clad men, the affectionately titled ‘TayTay’ herself seemed initially almost completely un-phased by the sheer scale of the event, firing off note-perfect renditions of album favourites ‘Welcome to New York’ and ‘Blank Space’. Complete with props, dancers, and a frankly ridiculous amount of costume-changes, it becomes clear very quickly that Swift has stepped up her performance game to meet her new pop persona, as she ducks and dives over an extended stage through a crowd of screaming onlookers. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, the very epitome of musical spectacle. And yet, it somehow doesn’t feel quite right, at least at first.

As she reels off hit after hit from her latest record – each matched perfectly with a flawless dance routine over an artsy backdrop – one can’t help but feel that the hopeless romanticism that made that young starry-eyed country singer such a stand-out performer, is slowly leaking away. But then, as if out of nowhere, like such a thought has been neatly picked up through some bizarre telepathic link, something really quite magical happens.

Ditching her dancers and taking to a levitating platform, pushing her further into the growing crowd of onlookers, Swift begins to talk. No music, no agendas, she just chats – as if, in her own words she’s simply “hanging out” with 65,000 of her friends. Stood tall amidst hordes of her ever-loving fans, Swift moves through her ideas on love and identity and, as cheesy and preachy as the cynically-minded may find it, it’s really quite special.

Suddenly, it’s as if one of London’s largest music venues has been somehow morphed into Swift’s own front-room; this colossal crowd is united. Then, as the sun begins to slowly set over Hyde Park, the star mans a keyboard and crosses the emotional plain, breaking into her much-loved original chart-topper ‘Love Story’. The crowd – without exaggeration – lose their shit. Arm in arm, they chant every single word of the song’s lyrics with both hazy nostalgia and pure, unabashed romantic glee; there is nothing quite like it. The connection between Swift and her fans is unparalleled; somehow she has made one of the biggest gigs of the year also one of the most intimate.

The second that final note plays, Swift breaks into a dorky grin and it instantly becomes clear that that dreamy young American girl never left, she simply evolved. The ridiculous props and the over-egged choreography are but staples of the world she has broken into – a world that she is still stunned and proud to finally be a part of. It’s like watching the class nerd finally be accepted by the “cool kids”.

And so, even when she returns to that original sequinned get-up to belt out more album favourites, from the delectable ‘I Know Places’ to the positively joyful ‘How You Get the Girl’, the crowd never seems to forget that moment that the fully-fledged starlet shut off her pop princess persona and let the whole world in. Underneath all the glitz and the glamour, she’s still just Taylor.   

Feature: Lost In The Atlantic – Five Films We May Never See In The UK

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Originally published on The Edge on 10/02/15. 

It’s no surprise that Hollywood stands today as very much the centre of cinema. Home to the biggest studios with the biggest pockets, tinseltown is the place to be to see your cinematic dream realised no matter its size or subject.

Even the USA as a whole, in its huge fifty-state-spanning entirety, is host to the biggest market of movie consumers on the planet. So is it really that bewildering that not every film made actually makes it out of the country or even Hollywood itself alive?

From a British standpoint we may well get all of the big releases, and even our own fair share of the smaller ones, but there’s still that special little group of films that sit in purgatory, lost between domestic and international distribution. Most of the time it’s purely out of fear – studios not wanting to take a risk on distributing a film where it won’t make money (after all, why should a movie exist if it’s not going to rake in the cash?), but sometimes the odd few just happen to slip through the cracks, even in the face of a growing tide of VOD services (thank you Netflix, MUBI and the rest).

Join us now as we journey through the lost zone of cinema, to that hazy space where the best and brightest unreleased pictures live, dangling in limbo and begging to be seen. 

Snowpiercer (directed by Bong Joon-ho)

From the director of the much-loved Korean creature-feature The Host, this was (and to a certain extent, still is) one of the most highly-anticipated films of the last few years amongst aficionados and the like. Despite its oriental director and crew, Snowpiercer is in fact an English-language adaptation of a French graphic novel, that finds Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and John Hurt locked into a class-based revolt aboard a train hurtling through a frozen Earth in a not-too-distant dystopian future.

For a film that is, quite literally, a sci-fi actioner starring Captain America, it sounds like it should be gunning for a summer release, let alone finding itself floating around in purgatory. But alas, the powers that be have interjected. After rumours of big-shot producer Harvey Weinstein demanding a much-shorter and less-complex cut of the film for domestic release, negotiations broke down and although the full director’s-cut of Snowpiercer has since been shown in the US, it was initially only on a limited run in a very small number of theaters. Despite an overwhelmingly positive response from the public and critics alike, the film still hasn’t made it to the UK, even after receiving both cinematic and home-media releases in a number of other European countries. It’s out there if you look hard enough, but sadly not enough have.

Stretch (directed by Joe Carnahan)

Famed in Hollywood as the “almost-director” of hundreds of different projects, from a “punk-rock” take on Mission: Impossible III to a Fox-lead reboot of Daredevil, the few films that Joe Carnahan does actually manage to get off the ground are almost always distinct and, to a certain extent, unhinged. Stretch is most definitely no exception, following an ex-addict limo driver (Patrick Wilson) on the craziest night of his life as he attempts to get hold of a mysterious suitcase for a deranged billionaire (Chris Pine) in order to pay off his gambling debts.

Made on a shoe-string budget with Carnahan cashing in on quite possibly every favour he’s ever been owed, Stretch did initially have backing from Universal until of course they pulled their distribution deal at the eleventh hour. Refusing to re-edit his wacky little crime-flick (that boasts Ed Helms as the driver’s crazed imaginary friend and The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus as himself) Carnahan instead opted to self-distribute and the result is, of course, a very limited US-lead home-media release. Whether or not it’ll one day show up on our branch of Netflix is unclear, but when/if it eventually does, Stretch is certainly worth seeking out.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (directed by Panos Cosmatos)

The only listed work of little-known-about director Panos Cosmatos, Beyond the Black Rainbow may well prove to be the weirdest title on the list. Drawing on a whole cavalcade of influences, from Cronenberg and Lynch to the more stylish side of Kubrick, this Canadian sci-fi based psycho-thriller tracks Elena (Eva Allan), a possibly disturbed teenage girl held against her will in the mysterious Arboria institute. When the villainous Dr. Nyle begins to take a more active interest in her potentially-psychic abilities, Elena attempts to escape but as expected, things take a turn for the odd.

During its relatively small run in the US between 2010 and 2011, Beyond the Black Rainbow was largely praised for its striking visual style and brave descent into the surreal, whilst others remained a tad more divided on exactly what the film was trying to do. Either way, Cosmatos’s picture is certainly far from the standard mould and offers one of the most inspiring visual styles in recent years. For fans of cinematography, it’s a definite must but obviously this isn’t a particularly huge crowd, hence Rainbow’s distinct lack of any representation overseas. In fact, the film remains so firmly buried that the only way to see it is to basically live somewhere in North America or have incredibly deep pockets and a multi-region DVD player.

The Spectacular Now (directed by James Ponsoldt)

Despite boasting a cast of hip young up-and-comers consisting of Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley and Brie Larson (all of whom are, in Hollywood terms, “blowing up” right now) and a script by famed teen-fiction and (500) Days of Summer wonder-scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, this charming little indie romance never seemed to quite take off. Even a string of overwhelmingly positive reviews and a deserved (although sadly unsuccessful) awards-push couldn’t quite find the film international distribution, which seems in hindsight, almost completely preposterous.

Adapted from a mostly unknown novel of the same name, The Spectacular Now follows the high-school senior year of borderline-alcoholic teen Sutter (Teller) as he battles the demons of his past and embarks on a positively adorable romance with the sweet and unassuming Aimee (Woodley). That’s it: no risky ulterior motives or controversial nude scenes, just a seriously cute and delightful little tale of young love and the hurdles it builds, a perfectly marketable plot that comes complete with two stars who have since headed-up their own blockbuster franchises. Yet, here we are. Although the film premiered at the London Film Festival way back in 2013, it failed to find a proper distribution deal and has been basically invisible to the country ever-since. All we can do is hope and pray that at some stage, someone down the line remembers this endearing indie gem and fires it over to Netflix ASAP, before it becomes lost forever.

The Tracey Fragments (directed by Bruce McDonald)

Mostly known for his auditory-nightmare horror Pontypool amongst random forays into television (including a bizarre stint on ITV drama The Bill), Canadian director Bruce McDonald isn’t a name easily recognised by the masses. Unlikely then was a wide release for his ever-so-slightly experimental project The Tracey Fragments, which follows depressed teenager Tracey (Ellen Page) on her quest through the seedy underbelly of a unnamed Canadian city, desperately searching for her lost little brother Sonny, who thinks he’s a dog.

The kicker here is that the entire film is divided up into the Fragments of the title, with multiple images and shots appearing on screen simultaneously. True, this can be a little jarring, but it’s an effect that encourages multiple-viewings and with a fierce, vulnerable lead performance by Page and a tremendous score composed by indie-rockers Broken Social Scene, The Tracey Fragments is a seriously under-seen gem. Again this one is devoid of a full release but oddly enough, a small number of UK-released DVDs do exist in circulation and can be relatively easy to get hold of, for a price or if you’re lucky enough to have a subscription to MUBI, it occasionally does the rounds on there too.