“I Think I’ve Made A Terrible Mistake…”
Chosen as Russia’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony, director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (Leviathon) stark and overly moody latest, Loveless, may be a particularly difficult picture to try and seek out thanks to an incredibly limited release, and whilst icy cold Russian mysteries aren’t exactly the type of movies audiences tend to rush and out and catch as quickly as humanly possible, Zvyagintsev’s latest is an interesting tale of extreme familial breakdowns and a depressing vista of Russia society, one which is helmed together by a central narrative regarding the disappearance of a young, seemingly unloved child and a movie that definitely deserves to be sought out. With a staggering plot pace and a claustrophobic overarching sensibility which not only takes its’ time setting the pieces of the narrative chess board in place but may seem too tough to handle for wandering minds, Loveless is an uncompromisingly depressive tragedy which fails to enforce even the smallest amount of redemption, but for those who can withstand the harshness of its’ winds, Zvyagintsev’s latest is an impressive, overly mysterious achievement.
With the first hour detailing in harsh detail the toxic relationship between Maryana Spivak’s Zhenya and Aleksey Rozin’s Boris as they both attempt to conclude an ongoing divorce and build fresh lives away from one another with new partners, Matvey Novikov’s Alexey is the isolated child in the middle, whose decision to abandon both mother and father sets up a second hour in which the picture switches from an uncompromising domesticated drama to a Scandi-esque thriller of ambiguous and uncertain temperament, bringing to mind in more ways than one the brilliance of The Killing (The Swedish one, not the American re-hash) and the ice-cold atmosphere of Let The Right One In. Portraying a society in which the birth of a child is met with disdain in favour of flavoursome trips of winding romance with new lovers and uninterested public services in which authorities are forced to act through procedure rather than through willingness, Zvyagintsev’s portrayal of modern Russia is unflinchingly negative, and with a conclusion which only serves as a reminder of the stark reality of consequence, Loveless is a sucker punch of a movie, one which leaves you gasping for the cheery horizons and one that even with obvious pacing flaws, keeps you thinking about it for days afterwards.
Overall Score: 7/10
“Your Mum Was Tough At First. And Then We Had Our First Kiss, And I Understood…”
Whilst not the most delightful of subject matters, the notion of cannibalism has been rife within horror cinema ever since the exploitation days of the mid-to-late 20th century when films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust highlighted the cinematic pleasure of watching controversial subject matter erupt on the big screen and blow raspberries at many who believed such stories simply could not be classed as any form of legitimate entertainment. Whilst the days of video nasties have thankfully been and gone, the idea of cannibalism still remains to this day, and with the release of Raw, a French-Belgian production directed by Julia Ducournau, cannibalism has never been presented so ripe or ridiculously enjoyable, with the movie blending seamlessly elements of comedy, romance and shock-tastic body horror, culminating in an experience which is not only effective in its’ sheer willingness to exploit the squeamish nature of its’ audience but one which lives long in the memory or quite possibly, your nightmares.
Dropped off by her parents in order to start her education at veterinary school, dedicated vegetarian, Justine (Garance Marillier) is swiftly integrated into the dedicated rituals of the school’s “elders”, of which her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already an integral part of. After being forced to surrender her will and consume a raw rabbit kidney as part of the school’s initiation, Justine begins to experience a dramatic change in both body and mind, resulting in a realisation regarding not only herself but others around her. Whilst the shock-tactic set pieces within the movie are the elements which are bound to either disgust or delight the movie’s audience, the underlying black comedy within the both the narrative and direction place Raw in completely its’ own category, and whilst the film obviously owes a debt to the jet-black seriousness of We Are What We Are and its’ subsequent American remake, traits of the likes of The Neon Demon, Let the Right One In and even Black Swan are all visible in the movie’s genetic makeup even when it is undoubtedly an original release in its’ own right.
In the leading role, Garance Marillier is absolutely superb in attempting to portray a conflicted youth struggling to contain her inevitable and violent change, and with the aid of some juicy and flawless practical effects and brilliant sound design, particular set pieces including a nightmarish desire for scratching and a shaving incident gone terribly wrong, are as wonderful in their sheer execution as they are joyously terrible to observe. Not for a long time has a film been so outlandish in its’ sense of exploitation greatness that I have resorted to covering my eyes in fear of scaring my mind and although some may even regard such sequences as overtly stupid and seemingly searching for the cheapest of thrills, my response to such was one of utmost bliss even when admiring it through partially closed fingers. If exploitation horror is simply what you want from a particular movie, Raw is a much bigger and better beast than simply just that, and when contemplating the likes of The Handmaiden and Elle, Ducournau’s big-screen debut continues to prove that foreign language exploits are sometimes leagues above the likes of their English-speaking counterparts, particularly when it comes to horror.
Overall Score: 8/10
“It Would Have Been Better If I Was Never Born. To Have Never Taken A Breath And Live…”
Korean director Park Chan-wook is the type of gifted individual who simply doesn’t make a bad movie no matter how hard he tries or how strangely subversive the subject material at his disposal comes across. With perhaps one of the greatest trio of movies in Chan-wook’s back catalogue in the form of the Vengeance trilogy, consisting of Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, the immensely re-watchable and utterly twisted Oldboy, and of course, Lady Vengeance, the South Korean auteur returns to his language of birth after 2013’s English speaking Stoker in the form of The Handmaiden, a cinematic adaptation of the historical crime novel “Fingersmith”, penned by Welsh author Sarah Waters, albeit with the novel’s Victorian-era Britain setting changed to early 20th century Korea when the country was under Japanese rule. Whilst Chan-wook’s penchant for the surreal and the violent have somewhat calmed down with his latest release, the erotic undercurrent and captivating thrill of mystery regarding the narrative of The Handmaiden is another winning formula for a director who continues to impress with a beautifully designed love story which features the director’s best twists and turns since the release of Oldboy in 2003.
Tasked by Ha Jung-woo’s Count Fujiwara with infiltrating the life of the affluent Lady Izumi Hideko in order to sway her into marriage, young yet intelligent street hustler Sook-hee swiftly begins to feel a sense of conflicted devotion towards not only the Count but towards Lady Hideko’s sense of isolation and departure from the world outside the confines of her majestic household. With the plan set in motion in regards to the outcome of Lady Hideko, a chain of events take place which twist and turn at every available chance, resulting in a tale of lust, love and sexual desire which rank up there with the best that director Park Chan-wook has offered in his already highly distinguishable film career. Not only does The Handmaiden present itself as arguably the most stunningly presented film of the year so far, with everything from the set design to the imperious array of costumes a real sight to behold, each of the leading quartet of actors give it their absolute all in creating characters which not only are characterised within an each of their life, but are utterly compelling from beginning to end. With a narrative as winding as that which is witnessed on-screen, The Handmaiden zooms through its’ nearly 150 minute runtime with considerable ease whilst the dramatic turns which occur throughout are as jaw-dropping as the infamous twist within previous Chan-wook movies, resulting in a stunning piece of work which is as niche in terms of its’ targeted audience as it is fundamentally beautiful to behold in terms of film-making prowess. Seek it out.
Overall Score: 8/10
“Both Of Us, It’s Sickening. It’s Perverse. I Was In Denial But Now It’s All Very Clear…”
To say Paul Verhoeven is a man whose career is somewhat contrary in terms of both critical and financial success is on a similar vein when stating the current leader of the US of A isn’t exactly held in the highest esteem, and whilst the infamous Dutch director is best known for the likes of cult favourites such as RoboCop, Starship Troopers and the excellent Phillip K. Dick influenced, Schwarzenegger starring, Total Recall, other cinematic ventures including Hollow Man and the hotly panned, Razzie-winning Showgirls, show that excellence isn’t exactly the result every time the great Dane decides to release a new film. With Elle however, the highly publicised Oscar nomination for the film’s leading star Isabelle Huppert follows in the footsteps of a large amount of hype, a reputation which we all are well aware of doesn’t always result in an overly positive movie-going experience come release day. Thankfully for Verhoeven however, Elle is a gripping and wholly twisted depiction of sexual violence and subversive desires, whilst the portrayal of the most dysfunctional family in the past few years of so gives an air of black comedy to the film’s wide range of elements which all in all make it a riveting success.
Helmed together by a simply majestic performance from leading star Isabelle Huppert, who throughout the movie is effortless in portraying a rape victim who cautiously and calmly finds her way to exact revenge on the person who wronged her, Elle features quite extensively a narrative which reasserts Verhoeven’s knack for the genre-bending uncanny, taking all the sliminess and rough-toughness of previous movies such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls and forming them around a leading character who is both subversive in makeup yet undeniably interesting from start to finish. Whilst Elle is categorically not a film for the majority of audiences, the one-two duo of Verhoeven and Huppert have created a movie which stands head and shoulders above the limited amounts of erotic-based thrillers released in previous years (looking at you Fifty Shades) with its’ quirky jet black sensibility propelling the finished article into a existential thriller which verges on the edge of total B-Movie splatter come the final act but ultimately one which is cautiously enjoyable nonetheless.
Overall Score: 8/10
“You Have Forsaken The Living For The Dead…”
If anything, Son of Saul is one of those sad indicators of modern cinema. Sure, anyone can go and watch the latest blockbuster, the latest superhero movie, the latest sequel, prequel or remake, yet when it comes to independent, foreign hidden gems, regardless of critical praise across the globe, such films are particularly hard to find, unless, like me, you are one of those crazy cinephiles who would traverse the plains of England to try and find them. In the case of Son of Saul therefore, never before have I seen a film so visceral and utterly heartbreaking, a film that encourages you to witness the appalling acts of the Holocaust without exploiting them to a winding degree and ultimately, a film which indeed has a sense of independence and singularity, a film which rewards you fully in your attempts to seek it out, even if at times, events on-screen may indeed be too much for some to handle yet not through a sense of exploitative means, but rather through a sense of Son of Saul being perhaps the most accurate and horrific tale of recent histories’ most awful tragedy to have graced our screens since well, forever.
Following a day in the life of Hungarian-Jewish prisoner Saul, played in sheer majestic fashion by Géza Röhrig in his first on-screen role, Son of Saul attempts to show us the true horror of the events at Auschwitz with Saul’s role as a member of the Sonderkommando being fully embraced and materialised in a cinematic fashion that combines the stark horror of reality without attempting to dislodge and alienate the viewer by means of certain overkill and bad taste. This success is primarily captured by means of the film’s cinematography with the film’s choice of having an incredibly shallow depth of field and the camera being a constant companion of our titular hero both giving the impression of ambiguity regarding certain events that occur on-screen, suggesting Saul’s own blurred mentality, one that accepts events that are going on around him yet decides to not fully embrace them, whilst also showing enough to capture the essence of sheer madness that encapsulated the events that took place. The film is not one that attempts to dramatise, it simply portrays the horror of reality and the wrongfulness of the past, something of which reminded me of films like Apocalypse Now, with madness being at the root of the evil presented throughout.
As a piece of cinema which acts as a debut for both director László Nemes and actor Géza Röhrig, Son of Saul is a remarkable achievement, one which rightly deserved the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture and one that should not be forgotten any-time soon. Writing this review after watching the film more than a week ago, the thought of the movie leaves me with a rather weird feeling of this indeed being a film incredibly important and innovative whilst also being a incredibly hard film to sell to the majority. Son of Saul is a particularly hard watch, one that will ultimately leave the viewer with a down-hearted sense of either hatred or sadness, or perhaps both, yet the fact that such a film can lead to such emotions only enhances the many strengths throughout the course of the film. Yes indeed, it is a hard watch and that alone may distract the lay cinema goer, yet for cinematic purposes and from my personal point of view, Son of Saul is perhaps the greatest tale of the tragedy of World War II, one that will not be forgotten by all that attempt to seek it out and one that inevitably will be one of the best of the year so far.
Overall Score: 9/10
“She’s So Different…”
As you may have gathered from my review of The Forest last week, the horror genre, a genre in which I am a huge advocate of in general, I believe, is in danger of being split straight down the middle in terms of mass marketing with a rather bleak possibility of future horror releases simply consisting of both highly publicised and widely released movies, those that rely on cheap jump scares and completely rip off previous examples, and then minimal releases, those that aren’t afraid to convey societal conventions and bring something new to the genre, albeit being in danger of being left behind due to their lack of releases across the globe. Look at Bone Tomahawk a few weeks back, a film in which although had a rather star-studded cast, was ultimately impossible to locate within the major chains of cinemas even though I believe it can be regarded as arguably the best horror movie to be released in recent times. Unfortunately for Goodnight Mommy, this particular horror-chiller is a movie which falls undoubtedly into the latter category, a film which will not be widely seen or spoken about amongst the masses but serves a purpose in attempting to freak out those dedicated enough to search it out.
Being wary of not giving too much of the plot away, Goodnight Mommy, helmed by the directorial one-two of both Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, focuses on the lives of twin siblings Elias and Lukas who in the confines of their isolated lakeside house begin to wonder whether their mother after returning from facial cosmetic surgery is really who she says she is. Cue creepy bandaged-wrapped mother-dearest, taking cues from iconic horror movies such as the many incarnations of The Mummy and the undeniably creepy Eyes Without A Face, and unnerving imagery which had me covering my face for two scenes in particular, and you end up with a good old fashioned creep-fest, one which uses the understated notion of ambiguity to inject its’ scares rather than the irritable screeches that have encompassed most horrors over the course of the past few years or so. If you are a lover of the genre and want something that really, really isn’t The Forest, check out Goodnight Mommy and revel in its’ skin-crawling creepiness, ending with a twist so 1990’s, it can be seen as the love-child of both M. Night Shyamalan and David Fincher. Find it, see it, love it.
Overall Score: 8/10
From Dusk ‘Till Dawn
To be brutally honest, the first thing that always pops into my mind when the two words, “vampire” and “romance” are intertwined into a sentence is the abomination of a series that was Twilight. Okay, I may have secretly enjoyed the first one when it came out but the series itself has now been tarnished with the label of “keep away,” leading to an inevitable punishment of shame and regret if and when such rules are broken. What we have with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night however is a film at the complete opposite end of the cinematic spectrum to Twilight with its’ comparative story-line being the only sure thing in common. Think more Let The Right One In, except with added darkness, added detail and much a much more delicate take on the age-old tale of vampires; A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not for the faint-hearted.
Shot entirely in black and white and taking place in the Iranian town of Bad City, the film follows Arash, who aside from looking after his heroin-addicted father and settling debts for such with drug peddler/pimp Saeed, falls upon the hypnotic gaze of the vampiric beauty simply known as The Girl who has been patrolling the streets for prey deemed ill-worthy enough of being subject to death. In terms of plot, that is pretty much it; a straight-forward vampiric love story told on the backdrop of darkness, and boy is it dark. Not only is the film dark to look at, with the beautiful cinematography by Lyle Vincent effectively managing to contain the films’ sense of noir throughout its’ 100 minute runtime, but highly dark in tone also, with the violence not only contained into one format, but in many with disturbing scenes of drug abuse, sexual violence, capped off with a huge sense of impending doom for most that appear on screen.
Top marks goes to Sheila Vand for her portrayal of the vampiric presence, who although says very little, is highly effective in creating a sense of eeriness whenever she appears on screen, making her one of the more memorable characters that have appeared in horror movies released in the year so far. Much like Vand’s character, the film perfects the art of doing quite a lot whilst not really doing much at all, with its’ delicate approach to the dark matters within juxtaposing the generic horror tropes that are so usually readily expected in horror films of the 21st century, and for that I can only praise it. For once a horror film has swayed away from the “audience-favourite” approach of quiet, quiet, quiet, BANG and instead favoured a much more low-key notion of how to tell a story, which for some may be boring, but for me worked on every level and had me engaged from the outset where at times, the film reminded me of the works of David Lynch, and that is always a good thing.
Dark, delicate and delightful, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was a truly refreshing experience of modern horror attempting to tackle the endless tale of vampirism. It may not be for the Twilight fans, but that pretty much is the reason why the film works anyhow. Seek it out.
Overall Score: 8/10
A Dish Best Served Cold
Over the past few years there have been a fair few additions to the genre of anthology movies, with V/H/S and The ABC’s of Death both being examples of films that have been admirable but have ultimately fallen rather flat in the wider context of horror movies, particularly the latter, with ABC’s being painful (not in a good way) in some places to sit through. What a genuine surprise it was then to see that one of the nominated films for “Best Foreign Language Film” at this year’s Oscars was in fact an anthology movie, showcasing six segments based around the theme of revenge. Sounds awesome doesn’t it? And boy, Wild Tales really is.
With the tragic events of Germanwings happening over the past week or so, the uncanny nature of the first segment within the film was inevitably going to make headlines in the UK this week, yet this particular slice of strangeness shouldn’t put you off, with the film being released in countries across the globe since last summer anyhow, as well as it being being bloody brilliant from start to finish. Black comedy is fundamentally hard to perfect within cinema, but Wild Tales has barrels-full during its’ two-hour runtime, with scenes that are tense, violent, and completely bonkers, of which, encapsulated me entirely, something of which other anthology movies have failed to succeed at.
Wild Tales includes stories that will make you think twice about who you should piss off, who you should trust, and, most importantly, who you should marry. It’s comical take on the age-old theme of revenge is hilarious, if dark, making it one of the most interesting, yet enjoyable, films of the year so far. Muy Buena.
Overall Score: 9/10