Film Review: Falling

Read Time:2 Minute, 20 Second

★★★☆☆

The multi-hyphenate Viggo Mortensen can now add director to his list of creative endeavors with Falling, an austere familial drama which he also wrote, scored, co-produced and stars in.

Mortensen plays John Peterson, a pilot whose stable life in California with husband Eric (Terry Chen) and young daughter threatens to be upended when his combative – and increasingly befuddled – father Willis (Lance Henriksen) arrives from his ramshackle family farm back east, looking to relocate to sunnier climates.

Mortensen flits back and forth throughout the film from John’s bumpy childhood to present day. The director’s work in fine arts is apparent here, as the flashbacks often have a painterly quality to them. Falling is an intimate affair, the present-day action looking like it could have almost been adapted from two-hander stage play. Mortensen shows restraint behind the camera, also putting in a performance of quiet dignity, yet it’s Henriksen who is absolutely the domineering force in the film.

A hugely prolific actor who has been relegated to appearing in an endless list of cheap genre films since his earlier glory days as a James Cameron regular, Henriksen is an inspired choice for Willis – his craggy, etched-in features chiming perfectly with a man who has been unbearable for decades. Willis has zero filter and jumps at any opportunity to be antagonistic and cruel, much to the sadness of his eternally patient son.

The character’s incessant foul-mouthed, bigoted attitude might have been intolerable to endure with a lesser performer – and there are points in the film which feel like a trial for the audience – but Hendrickson lets the occasion flashes of humanity to bubble up amongst the unpleasantness, whether it be merely a flash of forgetfulness or a fleeting ponder of regret. The actor does wonders in finding those small moments amongst the malice.

But Willis is so demonstrably belligerent that it makes us wonder why his children haven’t severed all ties years ago. Save for one telling piece of dialogue in the film’s flashback prologue, we never get to see what has skewed Willis’ view of the world and turned him into a career curmudgeon, although his actions in the past certainly impact upon his unhappy wife and reserved young son, who is indifferent to his father’s macho pastimes. That ambiguity is undoubtedly Mortensen’s decision, but it does make some of the latter-day behavior a slog to sit through.

What we are ultimately left with is a well-made, consummately-performed drama – Laura Linney shines in a small role as John’s equally exasperated younger sister – which unfortunately falls a little short of the intended emotional catharsis Mortensen is reaching for.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

Film Review: Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy

Read Time:2 Minute, 18 Second

★★★★☆

At an age when, for most, a trip to the bathroom would count as the most strenuous task of the day, ex-pat champion of authentic Mexican cuisine Diana Kennedy is still excitedly on the hunt for that most elusive and unforgettable of tamales recipes.

Something of a national treasure in her adopted country, we first encounter Kennedy – a sprightly 95-year-old during the filming of this documentary – in the middle of her daily morning exercise routine. She then heads off on yet another gastronomic escapade – her small, frail frame dwarfed by the bulky truck she still bombs around Mexico in.

Elizabeth Carroll’s zippy and elegant documentary paints a romanticised portrait of a culinary adventurer, whom it still feels has so much to offer and explore. Truly a force of nature – at one point in the film she’s aptly described as an “Indiana Jones of food” – Kennedy comes across like a particularly intrepid and tenacious granny figure. Having emigrated from the UK almost 70 years back, that plucky British spirit clearly remains, her Transatlantic accent resulting from a prolonged stint living in New York with her late husband in the mid-sixties.

The bountiful pleasures and joy derived from the pursuit of food is undoubtedly Kennedy’s elixir, and it’s endearing to see her playfully busting the chops of Mexican food market stallholders, or her wry/no-bullshit attitude during cookery lessons for prominent US restaurants owners, who have travelled thousands of miles to seek her advice and expertise. To witness someone who has wholeheartedly embraced another culture and turned it into her life’s work is hugely inspirational, and despite Nothing Fancy’s relatively brisk 81 minutes running time, it feels like all the important components of Kennedy’s world and journey are addressed.

The archival footage of a younger Kennedy guesting on a variety of US cookery shows, and her feted appearances on the US food festival circuit, elevate her to almost rock star-like status, which Carroll is more than happy to amusingly embellish. But outside of her foodie pursuits, Kennedy is also a passionate advocate and practitioner of environmental sustainability, and the film’s addressing of this aspect of her life never feels tacked-on or an unnecessary sideways preachy digression.

It’s all part of the package of a person who has dedicated her life to self-betterment through those things which have ignited her interests. Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is an affectionate and reverential look at a remarkable figure and a testament to her achievements within the Mexican culinary landscape.

Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is available to watch on digital platforms from 1 May.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

Film Review: Mystify: Michael Hutchence

Read Time:2 Minute, 48 Second

★★★★☆

A delve into the relatively short life of charismatic INXS frontman Michael Hutchence somehow feels long overdue. Perhaps because he was foremost a fascinating figure in rock, whose mystique and allure was sadly upended with the constant press intrusions when he became prime tabloid fodder before his untimely demise, almost 22 years ago.

Thankfully for fans – or even those with a passing interest in the performer – Mystify: Michael Hutchence is a reverential and illuminating examination of a near-icon which refrains from being yet another cautionary look at the perils of hubris and overindulgence. Nor does it revel in the more salacious aspects of Hutchence’s life – particularly his ill-fated love affair with the late Paula Yates – instead offering up a portrayal of a sensitive artist as fallible as the next man.

Australian director Richard Lowenstein has a uniquely personal entry into the singer’s world – he directed Hutchence in Dogs in Space, his first and only starring film role – and has subsequently been able to amass a huge wealth of archival film and personal material, some of which was shot by Hutchence himself. Like Asif Kapadia’s similarly probing collage-like approach to the life of Amy Winehouse, Lowenstein’s film is stitched together exclusively with this footage, using a vast array of voiceovers to build an impression of his subject matter.

They’re comprised of his INXS band members, friends, family and old lovers, all of whom paint a picture of a performer who exuded raw magnetism. The myriad of exhilarating concert footage which sees Hutchence glide around on stage with a command and ease possessed by those touched with star quality, speaks for itself. The candidness of those contributing speaks volumes as to how well-loved Hutchence was and remains – Kylie Minogue’s intimate home video snippets and a heartfelt testament to their time together is particularly touching.

Lowenstein takes an almost forensic approach to his friend’s life. No stone is left unturned, bringing to the fore events which felt glided over back when he was still alive. For instance, a violent assault on the star whilst he was dating Helena Christensen resulted in a complete loss of the sense of smell and significant loss of taste – a cataclysmic incident which signalled the start of the singer’s downward spiral. An award show clip of an obnoxious Noel Gallagher’s unforgivable put-down of Hutchence right in front of his face – and at a time when INXS was struggling to stay relevant – is particularly upsetting to witness in hindsight, and was undoubtedly a contributor to Hutchence’s furthering depression.

In what is unavoidable in any portrait of the doomed artist, Lowenstein’s film is bereft of a happy ending, and the creeping feeling of tragedy looms large, particularly as the film slowly draws to a close. Yet the director refuses to dwell on the maudlin and instead strives to go out with a jubilant, celebratory tone as the credits roll, remembering a figure who brought light to many, despite the inherent darkness which hounded him out of the public eye. Mystify: Michael Hutchence is an impeccably assembled, comprehensive tribute to a rock legend and is entirely worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned Winehouse doc.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

Film Review: The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

Read Time:2 Minute, 30 Second

★★★★☆

For a film to announce itself with such a knowingly outlandish title, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot was deliberately baiting that midnight movie-type audience.

You only need to see the wistful gaze of the great Sam Elliott – sat propping up a bar in the film’s opening scene – to know that, while resolutely offbeat, this is a surprisingly muted and contemplative affair than the mouthful of a title suggests. It’s also the second film in a row (following last year’s A Star is Born) where we get to see the usually stoic Elliott reveal a more vulnerable side to his alpha cinematic persona – he openly weeps during one moment – and his performance is all the better for it.

Elliott plays Calvin Barr, a retired and unheralded American hero who now whiles away his time in retirement living a largely mundane existence, forever reminiscing about his titular assassination and heroic adventures in Germany during the Second World War (he’s played in flashback throughout by Poldark hunk Aidan Turner) and lamenting the girl who got away (Caitlin FitzGerald). He’s visited out of the blue one day by government agents who enlist him on a mission to hunt and kill the fabled Bigfoot, who is alive and well and happens to be the carrier of a devastating plague – which Barr is invulnerable to – that has the potential to wipe out all of humanity.

Director Robert D. Krzykowski (who also wrote the script) has crafted a compelling and largely original picture here, which trades in a little of that contemplative poignancy as seen in Harry Dean Stanton penultimate film Lucky, coupled with the absurdist flights of fancy found in The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. Something remotely resembling a plot occurs 40 minutes in when Barr is offered his fantastical assignment, and from there the film shifts into a brief but excitingly-staged survivalist thriller, before segueing back into a slice of small town whimsy (complete with a syrupy John Williams-esque score). This tonal leap certainly tests the elasticity of the medium, yet somehow not only does it all hold together, it never really jars.

Much of this has to be attributed to Elliott’s commanding and assured performance which sells every aspect, be it the quieter and grounded moments or those inherently fanciful interludes. The actor is full of grace, oozes gravitas and also plays it utterly straight throughout. It isn’t too much of a stretch to proclaim this, alongside Bradley Cooper’s aforementioned directorial debut, as a career highpoint. Allotted only the briefest of theatrical windows (it’s available to stream after the weekend), The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot is a thoroughly enjoyable and sneakily touching oddity which is entirely worthy of a big screen outing.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

Film Review: Minding the Gap

Read Time:2 Minute, 36 Second

★★★★☆

Documentary as self-therapy, the Oscar-nominated Minding the Gap arrives in the UK this week following a flurry of State-side plaudits – all of which are entirely justifiable. Chronicling the lives of himself and two friends from teenage years to young adulthood, director Bing Liu has crafted a rich coming-of-age odyssey which is, in turn, illuminating, sobering and ultimately uplifting.

The Chinese-born, US-raised filmmaker was quietly chipping away at his pet project for well over a decade, taking camera assistant gigs on industry features and TV whilst crafting his own feature on the side. His efforts have paid off magnificently, and like Jenny Gage’s similarly celebrated 2017 farewell to adolescence, All This Panic, Liu is able to engender much empathy from the key figures in his film, not least because he’s also one of them.

The carefree life of a skater glimpsed at in Minding the Gap’s graceful opening credits – which see’s Liu’s buddies glide effortlessly and skilfully around the fringes of the post-industrial city of Rockford, Illinois – gives way to the hardship all three young men have encountered and still wrestle with in their lives. Zack Mulligan – a guy barely into his twenties who seems to be perpetually chugging from a beer can – has been hit with a heavy dose of reality as his girlfriend is expecting their baby.

Following the birth, the couple’s relationship grows increasingly strained, and Zack’s violent tendencies begins to rear their ugly head. Keire Johnson is an unassuming and good-natured black teenager who is struggling a little to find his way in life, compounded in part by the death of his volatile father years before. Liu himself has endured domestic trauma by the hands of his domineering, now deceased, white step-father. His mother, also subjected to abuse from her husband, appears in the documentary fielding questions from her son.

Liu’s casually-placed camera and non-judgemental lens is able to gently probe the lives of his friends, and the results are often quietly compelling, and at times, unflinching raw. All three figures come across as likable, and both Johnson and Mulligan are refreshing self-aware when it comes to acknowledging the obstacles they’re encountered, despite the latter’s less desirable traits and his ongoing heavy-drinking. It’s a messy journey for all three at times, but Liu isn’t interested in ramping up the histrionics for the sake of injecting unnecessary conflict into the film.

Liu’s low-key approach – helped immeasurably by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero’s gorgeous, willowy score – means a welcome intimacy is forged between the viewer and the subjects. It’s a testament to Liu’s vision and adaptability that he’s been able to take a film which began life as a series of quirky skate promos – some of which lurch into a Jackass-style melee – and transform it into a fully rounded and fascinating depiction of males lives blighted by the spectre of violence.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

Film Review: Anna and the Apocalypse

Read Time:2 Minute, 30 Second

★★☆☆☆

When Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg created the zom-rom-com in 2004 with their beloved Shaun of the Dead, even they couldn’t have envisioned just how many genre mash-ups could have been spun from the walking dead.

Since then we’ve had further high-octane comedies (Zombieland), a heart-rending father and daughter yarn (Maggie), YA romance (Warm Bodies) and even a revisionist al-Qaeda-focused exploitation flick (Osombie) as well as many other variations. Into that mix now arrives the first zombie musical, Anna and the Apocalypse, which has already picked up a healthy amount of buzz on the festival circuit. It’s isn’t difficult to see why. It’s an amiable parody of that wholesome High School Musical template, which works hard to please the crowd. Unfortunately, while this fun approach initially raises a few smiles and well-earned titters, the film sadly fizzles once the zombie carnage begins.

Christmas is on the horizon in the small Scottish town of Little Haven – which seems to have more English inhabitants then it does actual countrymen – and Anna (Ella Hunt) is having to cope with the usual teen angst during school, but it’s nothing that a breezy song-and-dance routine down the corridors and in the classroom can’t solve. Exasperated by her loving widowed father (Mark Benton) and his insistence that she head off to university instead of taking a gap year, she seeks solace in her ragtag bunch of school friends, including best pal John (Malcolm Cumming), who has more than a touch of unrequited love for his fellow classmate. But before you can say “Fame, I’m gonna live forever”, Anna and John wander straight into that titular zombie destruction and are forced to defend themselves against a horde of festive flesh-eaters as they regroup with their surviving chums and head for refuge back at school.

That horror/musical juxtaposition makes for some undeniably fun moments, but ironically, the straight musical numbers before the zombie outbreak land much better than anything in the second half of the film. Hunt is an appealing heroine who is more than adequate at handling both the physical and dramatic aspects of the film, as is Cumming, but the film ambles along, full of missed opportunities where the makers could have gone full-throttle with the gore and choreography mix.

The final 30 minutes or so in particular are a bit of a slog, and the denouement which takes place in the zombie-riddled school auditorium and gives Paul Kaye (as the repressed head teacher) the opportunity to fully chomp at the scenery with a glam-like musical number, never reaches the satisfying level of carnage you’d expect. Ultimately, Anna and the Apocalypse ends up lacking the requisite bite to really make it fly as that quirky leftfield offering it so badly wants to be.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

DVD Review: Anchor and Hope

Read Time:2 Minute, 18 Second

★★★★☆

While Anchor and Hope’s subject matter will undoubtedly pique the interests of a LGBTQ audience, it’s clear that director Carlos Marques-Marcet isn’t interested in pigeonholing his work, and that the film’s themes of family and unity will strike a chord with all viewers, regardless of their sexual orientation.

The director has managed to craft a meditative and adroit character piece, but admittedly, it doesn’t take a lot to fall hard and fast for a film which features a drunken interpretive dance of Inner Circle’s Sweat (A La La La La Long) in the first ten minutes. Eva (Oona Chaplin) and her girlfriend Kat (Natalia Tena) live a weirdly bucolic existence in the middle of London on their bespoke, lived-in canal boat. The passing of her cherished cat brings out maternal instincts in the former, who persuades her lover that they should start a family with a little help from Kat’s womanising Spanish buddy Roger (David Verdaguer), over in London for a bit of overextended touristy fun and frolics.

As the pair put their plan feverishly into action, even if Eva’s liberal, ex-hippy mother Germaine (the actresses’ real-life mum Geraldine Chaplin) has initial difficulty getting on board, it becomes increasingly clear that one them may not be as enthused and committed to the idea of parenthood as the other. Like the canal boat which slowly chugs around some little-seen yet fetchingly picturesque areas of the city – beautifully shot by talented cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen – the film has a slow and unhurried pace, pushing the central characters and their predicament to the forefront. It’s a film which favours mood and performance over plot, and at times, Marques-Marcet’s film has a loose, semi-improv feel.

Of course, it’s always easier to let the cameras roll interrupted when you have such able performers up-front. The trio have great chemistry together, with Chaplin and Tena (both Game of Thrones veterans, incidentally) coming across as a completely believable and loving couple, who are ultimately stretched to breaking point. Verdaguer brings Roger – the film’s ostensive third wheel – to vivid life, and the Catalan actor possesses a winning and easy on-screen charm in a role which marks him as a performer to watch.

All those elements conspire to pitch Anchor and Hope somewhere up there amongst the best films of the year, and even if it does occasionally threaten to outstay its welcome with a 111-minute running time, the deeply engaging performances and that freeing and uninhibited Spanish flavour which Marques-Marcet brings to his English-language debut, means it’s the kind of world you really don’t mind lingering in.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

 

DVD Review: Jackie Chan’s Project A and Project A Part II

Read Time:2 Minute, 28 Second

★★★★★

Hong Kong megastar Jackie Chan is as prolific as they come – last year alone, the 64-year-old had eight acting credits to his name – but it was 1983’s Project A which not only solidified his reputation back home, but it also brought him a legion of fans in the west, after his aborted first attempts to crack the US market.

Revisiting the film, it’s easy to see why Chan’s brand of high-octane slapstick action – modelled on early silent-era cinema and with more than a touch of Chuck Jones-esque outrageous stunt displays – chimed so heavily with audiences around the world. He is a true showman, and the film remains the perfect vehicle to showcase his jaw-dropping, death-defying exploits.

A period flick set in 19th century Hong Kong, Chan is Sergeant Dragon Ma, part of a marine task force that has been assigned to deal with the spread of marauders who have been attacking and pillaging ships around the shores of Hong Kong for months. Clashing with the local police team – which results in an epic and hilarious barroom brawl to end all others – Dragan’s team of coastguards are essentially promoted to root out corruption within the law and bring down the nefarious pirates, with a little help from a rotund, yet nimble informer called Fei (fellow martial arts icon and the film’s action director, Sammo Hung).

Project A’s plot rattles along without making too much sense, but let’s be honest, the audience are here for one thing only – Chan’s consummate, larger-than-life stunt work, which remains utterly incredible. Yet none of the set-pieces here would work half as well if it’s wasn’t for the actor’s precise comic timing. As both writer and director, he knows how to get the most out of his deeply committed stunt team. The action scenes are beautifully choreographed and filled with wonderful little throwaway comedic moments which give the film its distinctive character, and offer moments of fallibility which set Chan apart from his other, more impassive and seemingly indestructible martial artist contemporaries.

Even handcuffed, Chan can craft an incredible fight scene, and to say the performer suffers for his art is a gross understatement, judging by the now notorious wince-inducing end credits outtakes which Chan first incorporated into his films with Project A. While not in the same league as its predecessor, the film’s sequel – the imaginatively named Project A Part II – is nevertheless another entertaining slice of Chan’s extraordinary physical chops, and both films are a great jumping-off point for a younger generation unfamiliar with the performer, and those older devotees steeped in his work since the video shop age. The transfer on both films is excellent, the highly saturated colours akin to those MGM musicals from the Technicolor era, perhaps a deliberate homage by Chan, who was undoubtedly a fan.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

DVD Review: Eye of the Needle

Read Time:2 Minute, 29 Second

★★★☆☆

A British war-time thriller with a difference, Eye of the Needle is played out as far removed from those war-torn battlefields as you could get. Instead, director Richard Marquand opts largely for more intimate surrounding and manages to squeeze out some memorable moments of Hitchcockian suspense and tension.

On the strength of his self-assured work here, Marquand subsequently landed the directing gig on a little-seen feature called Return of the Jedi. Donald Sutherland is Faber, a meek and affable British railway employee who is actually harbouring a dark secret. In reality, he is a German Nazi spy known as ‘The Needle’. Sending covert messages back to the home county, he chances upon sensitive information regarding the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Having dispatched of his nosy landlady, he’s then pursued by British intelligence and forced to seek refuge on a remote Scotland island while he awaits his rendezvous with a German sub. On the island lives Lucy (Kate Nelligan), her paraplegic husband David (Christopher Cazenove), and their young son. Lucy is stuck in a loveless marriage with the embittered ex-army officer David, and she soon strikes up a physical relationship with Faber, completely unaware of the danger she is opening herself up to.

Sutherland is on fine form here as the monstrous spy – a sociopathic, cold-eyed murderer who is still capable of melting the heart of the repressed Lucy. His efficient means of offing his victim by discreetly bludgeoning them with a concealed dagger – a chilling modus operandi from which his spy moniker has been derived – even tips the film into slasher territory. He is matched, performance-wise, by fellow Canadian Nelligan. Lucy’s abject horror upon realising whom she’s been sharing her bed with soon shifts into resilient battle mode, and the actress makes that switch with ease, particularly during the stormy denouement.

With a strong through-line of suspense – from Faber’s treacherous activities in London, to the final siege-like action in a craggy wind-swept hilltop cottage – Marquand still manages to work in a satisfying and convincing love triangle, where unlikely romance beckons for the cold killer. That’s not to say the film doesn’t occasionally trip itself up with the admittedly preposterous premise. The scenes of Sutherland speaking in his native tongue – clearly overdubbed by an actual German-speaking actor – verge on parody, and some of the action staging feels a little antiquated and silly in a modern context. Overall, however, Eye of the Needle remains a largely solid and well-executed espionage genre offering.

Remastered and impeccably presented by BFI’s home video label, while supplementary material on the actual film is a little sparse, included on the disc is a selection of intriguing short films from 1940, which were designed to warn cinemagoers at the time to be mindful of any enemy living amongst them. If only the film’s characters had actually been privy to these pro-war shorts.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

Film Review: The Man From Mo’Wax

Read Time:2 Minute, 23 Second

★★★★☆

The rise, fall and eventual rise again of James Lavelle, vinyl junkie turned trailblazing record label producer and creative figurehead of musical outfit UNKLE, may be an overly familiar tale of the young ingénue who succumbs to his own bloated ego and lifestyle excesses.

But what gives The Man From Mo’Wax character and depth, lifting it above and beyond that usual portrayal of talent gone awry, is the compelling central figure. No stone is left unturned by director Matthew Jones as the film tracks Lavelle from a gangly bespectacled hip hop-fixated teen, right though to a triumphant return via his gig as curator of London’s South Bank Meltdown festival back in 2014. Unexpectedly, even Lavelle’s own mum appears throughout to offer her own perspective of his life and career.

The majority of The Man From Mo’Wax is told through archival footage, with much of it supplied by Lavelle’s own video diaries he’s filmed over the years – presumably the ultimate boon for a documentary-maker. Throughout we see the bridges he’s burned – both profession and personal – new allegiances formed, alongside talent being fostered, all in the name of creating and maintaining his Mo’Wax empire.

As to be expected, his extremely fruitful working relationship with Josh Davies (aka DJ Shadow) – which yielded the genre-smashing, now classic hip hop album Endtroducing… – is given a sizable chunk of the film’s running time, and rightly so. Their fast friendship and love for the music is infectious and this period in Lavelle’s life is where the film truly comes alive, particularly those moments when we see the excitable duo, via hazy video camera footage, sifting through mammoth stacks of grubby discarded vinyl like a pair of geeky little Indiana Jones’.

Another frequent musical collaborator, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, paints the picture of Lavelle as a troubled maverick, and it’s the latter half of the doc where this becomes painfully apparent. It’s also unfortunately where the momentum drops a little and the film slides into self-indulgence (UNKLE’s torturous 2009 recording sessions are given too much screen time). Nevertheless, this is an engrossing portrait of an impresario and A&R man who dreamt big.

Ex-UNKLE member Rich File describes Lavelle best as “where an artist may use a paintbrush, James will use a person” and that really underscores both his strengths and limitations as an artist. While it’s obvious that fans of Lavelle and his many creative ventures will get the most out of The Man From Mo’Wax, this remains a fascinating insight into both the hubris and vulnerability of the music industry, which never shies away from casting it’s subject matter in a sometimes unfavourable light.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

Film Review: Heathers

Read Time:2 Minute, 9 Second

★★★☆☆

Another week, another anniversary celebration of a firm favourite from the decade that continues to be more influential across the modern pop culture landscape than any other time period.

In an era when Winona Ryder was the celebrated alternative American sweetheart, and Christian Slater could still get away with his junior Jack Nicholson routine, Heathers was the instant cult classic from the creative team of director Michael Lehmann and writer Daniel Waters, both of whom would seriously come a cropper with the Bruce Willis vehicle Hudson Hawk three years later.

An early precursor to the sharp high school social satire found in the likes of Mean Girls (incidentally, a film directed by Waters’ brother Mark) and more recently in a broader context with the 21 Jump Street reboot, the twist here is that popular student Veronica (Ryder) is already established at the top of the pecking order due to her obsequious pact with the three rich bitch archetypes, all named Heather (Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk and Kim Walker).

Increasingly appalled by the snobbish superior attitude of her friends, Veronica finds some release when the school’s new bad boy J.D. (Slater) saunters into her life. Together the two conspire to upset the student social structure, but what was initially meant as a harmless prank soon spirals into much darker territory. Heathers has endured largely because of Waters’ genuinely laugh out loud script, which is complete with endlessly quotable lines, many of which may even be familiar to those unacquainted with the film itself.

There’s an ironic detachment that permeates the dark fairy-tale atmosphere, and the performances are pitched to that heightened David Lynch-like caricature. Unfortunately, the film feels a little tame now compared to today’s cinematic standards. Despite some moments which would have undoubtedly been considered taboo back in 1988, it’s never quite shocking nor transgressive enough to really give it the jolt it needs.

Both Ryder and Slater remain fetching young anti-heroes – the latter exuding real menace behind his boyish looks – but even their strong chemistry together can’t quite overcompensate for the film’s plodding third act. Fans will undoubtedly be rejoicing at seeing this beloved film briefly back on the big screen before it hits Blu-ray, and while there’s still much to savour here – the three Heathers parading around in their bulbous shoulder-padded powersuits is peak eighties kitsch pomp – newcomers may struggle to see what the initial fuss was.d

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

Film Review: Generation Wealth

Read Time:2 Minute, 29 Second

★★★☆☆

“Greed isn’t good” remains the predominant message in Laura Greenfield’s sporadically engrossing and frequently overreaching look at the culture of capitalism. Generation Wealth feels like something of a thesis project for the director, who was behind 2012’s similarly-themed, multiple award-winning The Queen of Versailles.

That film was a brilliant expose of unbridled opulence and its clear, alongside the series of her well-received still photography collections, that it was the impetus behind Greenfield’s efforts here. Placing herself within the documentary, it’s immediately apparent that the filmmaker is both a passionate and qualified voice on the subject matter, having grown up in a wealthy district of LA, subsequently documenting that milieu a number of times since.

Unfortunately, amongst all those abilities which qualify her as the perfect figure to tackle such a potent subject matter, she fails to grasp what made Versailles work so well – namely focusing on one family and their lives to tell a bigger story. Using her older images as a jumping-off point in this film, Greenfield revisits some of those over-privileged teens she grew up with to explore how the desire to earn big bucks has impacted on their lives. She soon widens the net, bringing her probing lens to the wider ramifications in the quest for capitalism.

That toxic aspirational side looms large and is portrayed via the grotesque displays of extreme porn and the quest for celebrity. There’s the unrealistic pursuit of flawless beauty (the tearful testimony of one interviewee in the thralls of a plastic surgery obsession feels particularly insincere) and the contemporary Instagram-infatuated world comes under the spotlight. We’re also witness to a career-driven woman who is now in her late forties, and having spent untold thousands on IVF, has resorting to birth via surrogacy.

This is just skimming the surface in terms of the myriad of spiralling themes Greenfield explores (she even turns the camera on her own husband and children at one point) and while there’s certainly some thought-provoking and salient points being made, in trying to tackle this weighty topic in such a dedicated, all-encompassing way, the film continually loses focus. Just as one subject begins to pique our interest, we’re whipped away, irritatingly, to the next, rarely having the opportunity to get to the heart of anything.

At times the whole film threatens to turn into a visual stream of consciousness exercise which is a real shame, as Greenfield’s aims are entirely admirable and with merit. That Generation Wealth remains watchable is down to the filmmaker’s skills with the camera and her confidence around her participants, but what could have been the last word on the subject is instead merely a vague stab.

Generation Wealth is out now in UK cinemas and on demand. generationwealthmovie.co.uk

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

DVD Review: The Ice King

Read Time:2 Minute, 9 Second

★★★★☆

John Curry might not be a name immediately recognisable to younger sporting fans, but after a successful competitive career on the ice – topped off with a gold medal during the 1976 Winter Olympics – he blazed a trail in the world of ice-dancing. His innovations are still unparalleled and the cross-pollination of modern dance and ballet (a first love of his which is he was forbidden from participating in by his conservative father) are now the norm in figure skating.

A gay man relatively open about his sexuality in an era before that was accepted, Curry had travelled the globe and packed in a lifetime’s worth of exploits when he met his untimely, AIDS-related end, aged 44. It goes without saying there’s much ground to cover here and director James Erskine pulls it off with aplomb. Echoing that of the subject matter, The Ice King is a focused, elegantly made documentary, and at a relatively brisk 88 minutes, none of Curry’s achievements (or defeats) ever feel like they’re being skated over. Erskine constructs his film almost entirely out of archival footage, with support from a series of voice-overs from instrumental figures in Curry’s life.

All this helps to really tap into the skater’s persona, but it’s the inclusion of correspondence between Curry and those whom he was closest to (brought to vivid and sensitive life via narration from actor Freddie Fox) which really forge what is an absorbing, occasional first-person narrative. The results of all this means focus is never shifted away from the subject matter, whose personal struggles paint a very different picture to that of his unblemished professional output. Curry’s talent and artistry transcended the medium. This is gloriously highlighted in the rich array of footage featuring him in action, which Erskine is canny enough to let to play out as long as possible.

The skater’s crowning achievement at London’s Albert Hall is particularly jaw-dropping to witness, even when viewed via fuzzy analogue TV footage. Ultimately, the film manages to paint a reverential and unsentimental portrait of Curry (even including a brief glimpse of perhaps his greatest accolade a guess spot on Blue Peter) but his foibles are also up there to see. Easily one of the best documentary offerings so far this year, The Ice King is a fine testament to an artist who challenged preconceptions and prejudices, both on and off the ice.

James Erskine’s The Ice King is out now on DVD and on demand. theicekingmovie.com

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

DVD Review: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

Read Time:2 Minute, 28 Second

★★★★☆

The beautifully constructed opening credits to Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes are set fifty years after the character’s supposed death, where his personal artefacts are being reopened and methodically inspected. It suggests that what we’re about to witness is the ‘real’ story behind the fabled detective.

Even by 1970 – the year this film was made – the character’s mythology had taken a well-trodden cinematic path, the first screen adaptation stretching back over 50 years prior. But what Wilder and co-screenwriter I. A. L. Diamond do here isn’t so much a radical reimagining of the legend, more a witty and playful re-examination. A stormy night see’s the arrival of a cold, sodden Belgian woman (Geneviève Page) on the doorstep of 221B Baker Street, having been discovered floating in the River Thames. She instantly pleads with Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) to find her missing engineer husband.

Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) initially seems more sympathetic to her plight, while his colleague would rather saunter around playing his violin and studying the ash from the myriad of cigars he has hooked up to a piping system. Reluctantly agreeing to take on the case, Holmes first consults his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee) at the Diogenes Club, before embarking on a trip with Holmes and the woman to a castle in Inverness, Scotland, where a whole slew of weird occurrences are afoot, not least the sighting of the infamous Loch Ness monster.

Given the fanciful adventure, this film itself is a largely grounded affair, much more concerned with characters rather than spectacle. It’s often very amusing, sometime surreal, and the script is chock-full of some wonderful zingers, delivered with razor-sharp timing by the magnificent Stephens. He truly is the film’s key ingredient, playing the famous detective with a mix of mild camp and insouciance, and sparking off brilliantly against Blakely’s neurotic, slightly bumbling Watson. It’s the mismatched duo we’ve seen numerous times before, but the actors manage to bring something fresh and endearing to that familiar conceit.

For a film which was aggressively cut down in length by a nervous studio (much to Wilders’ chagrin), the missing vignettes don’t impact on what remains. It could be argued that the actual plot doesn’t kick in for a good half hour, but the prologue – a mini escapade where Holmes is forced to fight off the advances of a famous Russian ballerina – is so entertaining and shrewd in how it toys with the audiences’ preconceptions of the character’s sexuality, it never feels superfluous. Give or take the odd blemish, the transfer of the film by distributor Eureka Entertainment is largely excellent – the trio’s jaunts through the Scottish countryside looking particularly striking and painterly. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a delightful take on an iconic literary creation, deeply appealing to both those familiar with the character and neophytes.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

DVD Review: George A. Romero Between Night and Dawn

Read Time:3 Minute, 10 Second


★★★☆☆

Following the success of Night of the Living Dead, the late George A. Romero became something of a one-man movie studio in his adopted city of Pittsburgh. Romero didn’t opt for the obvious and took a much more unconventional, challenging route.

Given that reluctance to adhere to expectations, it’s a pity that his sophomoric effort There’s Always Vanilla is such a rambling, largely laborious affair. The film follows the romantic misadventures of an easy-going army vet drifter Chris Bradley (Raymond Laine) who returns to his home city of Pittsburgh. Save for the charismatic lead, it’s a rather staid drama, although it certainly captures the experimental cinematic mood of that era, with its loose, choppy editing and heavy-handed juxtapositions. It’s a sporadically interesting if laboured snapshot of the early 1970s counterculture, complete with a little of Romero’s social commentary. A curio for fans of the director, but little else. If There’s Always Vanilla had been a Graduate-size hit, it would have undoubtedly sent Romero on a very different career trajectory.

Season of the Witch has the director venturing back to the genre in which made his name, but the unsettling opening – which sees the central character in a Buñuelian-like dreamscape – hints at a stranger, more subversive film which never really materialises. Joan Mitchell (Jan White) is a bored and dissatisfied suburban housewife. Regularly seeing a shrink to try and rationale her nightmares, her malaise leads to experimentation in witchcraft when she’s encouraged by an older female neighbour who practises in the dark arts. It causes a liberation of sorts in Joan, who begins to shed her inhibitions which alienates her teenage daughter, but brings her into the orbit of said daughter’s casual lover (Laine, again).

Re-released in 1978 under the title Season of the Witch to capitalise on the success of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (it stills bares the original title of Jack’s Wife during the opening credits), it’s easy to see why the film didn’t make much of an impact, initially. It doesn’t really go anywhere as an occult thriller and aside from a couple of unnerving sequences – where Joan may or may not be dreaming of a masked assailant trying to break into her house – the exploitation aspect inherent in the material is never really cranked up to a satisfying level. There’s some fun to be gleamed from a chintzy exteriors and cheesy witchcraft iconography, but the provocative feminist subtext feels a little short-changed, too.

Romero is on much firmer ground in the final addition to this Arrow Video box set. Arguably the most familiar of his films outside of his work with the undead, The Crazies gets off to a grisly, harrowing start and rarely relents. Once again based in Pennsylvania, the film is split into two narratives, where we observe a group of civilians trying to stay alive during a virus outbreak which is causing their fellow townsfolk to go insane. At the same time, the political and military leaders tasked with trying to contain the epidemic are at a loss and struggling to stem the bloodshed and carnage.

This is a markedly better edited and much more tightly paced affair than the previous two films. It’s essentially a variation of the themes found in the Dead series, and like those, Romero captures the pandemonium and panic of an unstoppable force incredibly well, allowing for some dark humour to bubble up (the knitting slaughter scene really have to be seen to be believed). That deep distrust of authority is present and correct, and the troop’s inhuman massacre and destruction of the virus-engulfed bodies in the otherwise bucolic surroundings (all scored to a chilling military drumbeat) is a relentlessly sobering affair, mirroring that of Night of the Living Dead’s bleak epilogue.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

Film Review: Double Date

Read Time:1 Minute, 56 Second


★★★☆☆

There’s blood and banter in equal measure throughout Benjamin Barfoot’s dark, irreverent comedy horror Double Date. The thundering opening credits, accompanied by Swedish psych-rockers Goat, are indication that a unique spin on ‘lad culture’ lies ahead.

The well-meaning but wet Jim (played with comic aplomb and a sweet sincerity by the film’s writer (Danny Morgan) is facing the immediate prospect of hitting his 30s as a virgin. He lucks out when he and raucous BFF Alex (Michael Socha) manage to convince sisters Kitty and Lulu (Kelly Wenham and Georgia Groome, respectively) to join them on a night out, after an initially disastrous chat up attempt. Unbeknownst to the horny pair however, is that the girls have an ulterior motive to party the night away with the duo, and Jim’s virginity might not be the only thing he faces losing.

The biggest relief and surprise with Double Date is just how funny it is. Morgan really knows how to concoct and deliver on a series of comedic set pieces his characters are forced into. This is best illustrated in a scene where Lulu and Jim make a quick detour to celebrate his upcoming birthday at the home of his happy-clappy parents and younger sister. What could have amounted to a brief, self-indulgent comedy sketch, instead turns into one of the funniest moments in the film, thanks largely to the writing and game performances (Robert Glenister really is on top comedic form here
as Jim’s father).

Ultimately, the film rests on the chalk and cheese appeal of both Morgan and Socha and their chemistry together is very strong, as is their pairing off with the two femme fatales. A bloody confrontation later on and literal battle of the sexes between Alex and Kitty really has to be seen to be believed. It will have you both guffawing and wincing. There’s only a briefly sag with the introduction of Dexter Fletcher as Alex’s leering, past it dad. It’s a game performance, but the sequence feels superfluous and Fletcher’ casting, tokenistic. Thankfully, this doesn’t undo the otherwise fine work by everyone, and overall, Double Date is a riotous low-budget gem and everything that a lazy genre comedy offering like Lesbian Vampire Hunters should have been.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

DVD Review: My Beautiful Laundrette

Read Time:2 Minute, 21 Second


★★★★☆

An Asian gentleman boisterously raising a glass to “this damn country, which we love and hate” perfectly encapsulates the conflicted nature of the immigrant experience in Stephen Frears’ wry take on capitalist-era London through the prism of first generation British Pakistanis.

The third feature from the hugely prolific Frears (and the first of Working Title’s increasingly iconic production slate), My Beautiful Laundrette is often heralded, alongside the likes of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, as the quintessential glimpse into 1980s Thatcherism. Despite the sometimes rough around the edges nature of the film, it remains very much a fine and illuminating societal snapshot of that time. Referred to as ‘Omo’ by his friends in the know, Omar (Gordon Warnecke) is a young gay Pakistani who lives with his defeated, vodka-sodden father Hussein (Roshan Seth), whose own career success as a younger man in Bombay has eluded him over in the UK.

The same isn’t true of his brother, Nasser (the late, great Saeed Jaffrey) a prosperous business man who has assimilated much easier into British culture, lavishing his cash around and frequently hitting the high-end wine bars with his white mistress in tow. In an attempt to emulate his uncle’s success, Omar manages to get the funding together to turn a grotty laundrette into a sparkling coin op paradise. It’s around this time that an old school acquaintance Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) – with whom Omar was deeply infatuated with – reappears on the scene, having ditched his fascist past. The two instantly reignite their passion for each other and Johnny takes an active hand in helping Omar realise this dream of a washing utopia.

Perhaps inevitably, in the three-plus decades since the film first burst onto the scene, some elements haven’t aged particularly well. Frears’ sometimes ramshackle framing and compositions jar (although this may stem from the film being initially conceived and shot for TV), and Warnecke’s strengths as an actor are often limited, particularly when he’s performing with Day-Lewis. It’s a star-making turn from the young actor and the now celebrated chameleon-like ability he has in wholly assuming his character’s identity is also evident here.

It’s the committed turn from Day-Lewis and Hanif Kureishi’s socially-astute, Oscar-nominated screenplay that manages to compensate for the film’s technical shortcomings, alongside the (then) landmark casual representation of a gay relationship on screen – something which undoubtedly had the conservative masses up in arms over during the film’s initial release. It’s that warm, often messy, romance which casts an endearing, shimmering light across the otherwise grim South West London milieu of that era. It’s only a shame the disc’s flimsy supporting material – an unremarkable collection of archival Q&As and documentaries – falls short of the kind of worthy tribute deserving of the film.

Adam Lowes | @adlow76

DVD Review: Peppermint Soda

Read Time:2 Minute, 3 Second


★★★★☆

It’s rare to see a rites of passage film told exclusively from the female perspective. With this BFI-sanctioned re-release, we’re privy to not one but two young women as they awkwardly navigate their way through adolescence.

Diane Kurys’ 1977 autobiographical debut – known in its native country of France as the altogether more enticing Diabolo Menthe – is light on plot, and instead offers a series of wryly-observed snapshots of the often tumultuous transition to womanhood. Despite the far from sugar-coated world the protagonists face, the film has levity and heart, stemming largely from the engaging turns by the two young leads, from whom Kurys coaxes believable and entirely credible performances.
Paris in the early 1960’s and 13 year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) has returned to the harsh realities of another school year after idling the summer away on a beach holiday with her older sibling Frédérique (Odile Michel) and divorcee father. Both sisters attend the same all-girls school where they are forever in conflict with the tough, authoritarian teaching staff. Anne is flunking badly and appears completely apathetic to her education, despite pleas from her exasperated mother to behave and apply herself.
Frédérique, two years her sister’s senior, is the more academic and focused of the two, yet her own studies begin to drift as she slowly becomes politicised during the social upheavals that being to emerge. The film is shot by legendary cinematographer Philippe Rousselot who perfectly captures the girls’ stark landscape – their school with its drab, greying exterior evokes the feeling of a prison. This is further accentuated by the behaviour of their teachers, who are seemingly intent on keep the pupils in check through a series of humiliating and faintly dehumanising exercises. Indeed, the duo also seem to live something of a solitary existence in their mother’s cramped apartment, often being left there alone as she takes off for the weekend with her boyfriend.
Given the sometimes downbeat nature of the film, Kurys still allows for some warm humour to trickle through, particularly a very funny scene which sees Anne and her classmates innocently engage in the kind of confident yet hugely naïve sex talk of that inexperienced age. While only a French coming-of-age film could nonchalantly toss around a reference to eminent auteur Alain Resnais, Peppermint Soda is entirely accessible and offers a refreshing and worthy counterpart to the most recognised entries in this largely male-dominated subgenre.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76