Friday, 29 January 2016

BACKTRACK



Directed by Michael Petroni, Starring: Adrien Brody, Sam Neill, Robin McLeavy. Supernatural thriller. Aus, 2015, 87mins. Cert 15.

Out in cinemas from 29th January 2016 from Arrow Film Distributors Ltd.
The SIXTH SENSE for trainspotters. Still coming to terms with the tragic loss of his daughter, psychiatrist Peter Bower (Brody) and his wife Carol move out of Sydney back to his old university town. Accepting referrals for assessment from his former mentor Duncan Stewart (Sam Neil), Peter is firstly disturbed by a young girl whose initials correspond with that of his deceased daughter, and then by the realisation that all his patients are ghosts. As he delves deeper into their past histories, he begins to realise that his own past is inextricably linked with theirs – and a suppressed memory must be confronted in order to achieve resolution and redemption. 

Trains figure heavily in writer/director Michael Petroni’s stylish yet satisfyingly old-fashioned spooky mystery. From Peter’s daily commute from the suburbs to the constant thunderous flashes of the railway line right by his office window (hardly conducive for psychiatric analysis you’d have thought). And while the ghostly plot branches off into some well-worn plot points and tropes (some of which are clearly signalled) the consummate storytelling ensures it never comes off the rails even as it rattles and (occasionally) clunks towards its final destination. 

The (quite literally) haunted psychiatrist is finely encapsulated by Adrien Brody’s assured performance – even pulling off a convincing Australian accent into the bargain! I know Brody has a best-actor Oscar to his credit, but I’m still traumatised by his work in the truly squirm-inducing awfulness that was Dario Argento’s GIALLO. At least I was until now: he’s terrific in this. Sly old fox Sam Neill provides smoothly reliable support as Brody’s mentor/confidant/conscience and it’s delightful to see Robin (THE LOVED ONES) McLeavy turning up in a small but pivotal role. And, as an added treat, director Petroni even throws in a decidedly creepy turn by MAD MAX 2’s ‘Gyro Captain’ himself; Bruce Spence (is he the Australian Dick Miller?)

Admittedly the plot hinges on a coincidental series of events of gargantuan proportion (even by genre standards), and an inevitable plot hole or two, but the pleasure here is of a tale well-told, complete with all the requisite incremental clues and reveals which aren’t all immediately obvious. The ghostly manifestations are largely generic J-Horror type fare with the occasional ominous throat gargling present and correct. But the supernatural is a means to an end – and the real horror is firmly rooted in the material world. 

BACKTRACK doesn’t break new ground. But it’s well-paced, well-crafted and well-performed. It employs jump scares judiciously which reference the story being told rather than merely a means by which to elicit a nervous multiplex titter or two. In short, I found this train-focused yarn was just my ticket.
****(out of 5*)         

Paul Worts
 This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

AAAAAAAAH!



Directed by Steve Oram, Starring: Toyah Wilcox,  Steve Oram, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Tom Meeten, Julian Barratt, Lucy Honigman, Noel Fielding.  Comedy, Horror. UK, 2015, Cert 18

Out now on Digital Download and on DVD & Blu-ray on 18th January 2016 from FrightFest Presents and Icon Home Entertainment.
If John Waters re-made PLANET OF THE APES and set it in South London, the result might be something not too dissimilar from writer/director Steve Oram’s debut feature.

Oram (who also co-stars as alpha male ‘Smith’), instructed his brave cast to firstly learn their dialogue before throwing the script out of the window and asking the actors to perform as primates, translating their lines into guttural grunts and whoops, and transforming their character’s actions and gestures into simian behaviour. The result of which is a truly bizarre, often uncomfortably hilarious, avant-garde satire of the human condition. 
Filmed in a handheld 4:3 frame to give a documentary footage vibe, we firstly see alpha ‘Smith’and his beta ‘Keith’ (Tom Meeten) shuffling through the undergrowth of deepest darkest South London parkland. So far so slightly surreal (but safe) TV comedy sketch-show territory. Then Smith proceeds to piss on a framed photo of his ex-‘mate’ (wife in wedding dress) before his companion Keith gently dabs dry the end of his dripping penis and suddenly we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto...

The ‘plot’ as such involves a primate-like struggle for supremacy between outsider Smith who launches a primal bid to overthrow Julian Rhind-Tutt’s boorish alpha who presides over a household with alpha mother Barbara (Wilcox) and daughter Denise (Honigman) - having himself usurped the former patriarch (Julian Barratt). 
After the initial snigger inducing moments when you are still adjusting to the fact that the actors really are going to spend the entire film in ‘character’ as apes and that no instinctive primal urge is considered taboo, e.g. marking one’s territory (the fridge) with urine, taking a dump in the kitchen whilst preparing supper, using a tree for sexual gratification (and even a small rodent at one point), the experience of watching the film gradually takes on a surprisingly engrossing nature.

For this the entire cast must be given tremendous plaudits. What could have ended up as an embarrassing pile of puerile schlock is instead transformed into a blackly funny, often poignant, and genuinely disturbing commentary illustrating just how thin the veneer of our ‘civilised society’ really is. There’s a scene where daughter Denise surreptitiously hands a piece of Battenberg cake to her banished father that is played so beautifully by both Lucy Honigman and Julian Barratt that it evokes bona fide pathos. And then there are the physical indignities visited upon the cast – notably Toyah Wilcox’s alpha female Barbara – quite why she agreed to the role is a mystery, oh, it’s a mystery (sorry), but fair play to her and the entire ensemble for throwing themselves wholeheartedly into their roles.

For a first feature film, I think it’s fair to say that AAAAAAAAH! is not obvious ‘calling card’ material designed to make major studios sit up and take note (unless 20th Century Fox wish to take their rebooted ‘Ape’ franchise in an entirely different direction). But what Steve Oram and his splendid troop of fellow Homo sapiens have delivered is an inspired dollop of jaw-dropping satire, jolting gross-outness, and a measure of guttural profundity.      


Extras: ‘Carolla Cooks’ the 10min version of the cooking show seen briefly in the film. ‘PUB!’ the full 5min version of the sitcom the characters are watching at the end of the film. Cast interviews (in English thankfully), and an audio commentary by Steve Oram.
****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was orginally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Friday, 8 January 2016

THE WOLFPACK



Directed by Crystal Moselle, Starring: Bhagavan, Mukunda, Narayana and Govinda Angulo, Glen Hughes and Eddie Vaughan Reisenbichler. Documentary, US, 2015, 90mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK digitally from 14th December and on DVD & Blu-ray from 28th December 2015 by Spectrum.

This multi-award winning documentary explores the true story of a family of six brothers who were effectively quarantined from the outside world in a high-rise apartment on the Lower East Side of New York throughout their formative years. Homeschooled by their mother, the boys, (together with a seventh sibling, a sister who is largely ignored in the film), were essentially kept under a kind of social/religious house arrest by their father. “Our dad was the only one that had the keys to the front door”.

So fearful was their father of the outside world - mum appears to have only been allowed out for essential medical appointments - the boys themselves rarely got to leave the confines of their cramped living quarters: “Sometimes we’d go out once a year...and one particular year we never got out at all.”

Their ‘escape’ from this imprisonment came in the form of films, VHS and DVD’s which they watched voraciously, and then staged elaborate enactments (à la BE KIND REWIND) in their apartment using handmade props from their domestic resources such as cereal boxes. They were so meticulous in their preparations that the scripts were hand typed on a traditional manual typewriter. We see footage from various stagings, notably their interpretation of RESERVOIR DOGS – played out line-perfect in black and white suits (but minus the blood). Their attention to detail with their cardboard guns and weapons on one occasion resulted in a SWAT team storming the home to search for what was reported to be genuine fire-arms. How’s that for a backhanded compliment for their efforts at authenticity! 

Some of the background details are sketchy, the timeline is never made clear for example, and often the ingrained timecodings on the snatches of degraded home VHS footage provide the only clues in amongst the miss-tracking and visual snow. There is a suggestion of domestic violence when one of the brothers (it’s never made clear who is who on camera) recalls that arguments between his parents often resulted in his mother being slapped behind a closed door. Oscar, the father, obviously reluctant to appear on camera, doesn’t show up on screen for over half the running time (at one point I wondered whether he’d actually left). The boy’s mother Susanne, whilst more forthcoming, is obviously wary of the father’s presence during the filming and appears (understandably) reticent about revealing too much about her own experiences.
It’s ironic therefore that considering the father’s pathological fear of the outside world’s influence on his off-spring he doesn’t appear to have censured in anyway their viewing habits and the films that they were watching so avidly. The trigger for rebellion appears to have been a viewing of THE DARK KNIGHT which seemed to jolt the oldest sibling into escaping from his own erm, bat cave (?) in January 2010 by putting on a cardboard ‘Michael Myers’ mask and going for a stroll down to the local stores. This eventually resulted in him being arrested and referred for counselling.

But despite this temporary setback, as adolescence loomed, the ‘wolfpack’ seemed to hear their own individual calls of the wild. Footage of the boys on the beach at Coney Island hesitantly dipping their toes in the seawater before taking the plunge reminded me of YouTube footage of caged animals being released from laboratory testing and seeing grass and sunshine for the first time. In fact this analogy is not that far from the truth.

The film is a testament both to the internal capacity for emotional resilience and also to the power of movie escapism. It’s an intriguing glimpse into a scenario that seems barely conceivable in this day and age, and one that could have had potentially tragic consequences had it not been for Batman.
     
Paul Worts
***(out of 5*)