Tag Archives: American cinema

Starry Eyes

Starry Eyes
Starry Eyes

Format: DVD

Release date: 16 March 2015

Distributor: Metrodome

Directors: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer

Writers: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer

Cast: Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan

USA 2014

96 mins

The question is as old as cinema itself: what would you do for stardom? Sarah is an aspiring actress rotting in a two-bit job surrounded by dead-end pretentious hipster friends. But she is different – she knows she will make it no matter what. So when Astraeus Pictures offers her the lead in their latest production, ‘Silent Scream’, she grasps the opportunity with both hands. However, Astraeus Pictures is a strange company and Sarah will be plunged into uncharted depths of darkness before she can become the star she believes herself to be.

Like a head-on collision between Rosermary’s Baby and Day of the Locust, Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch’s brilliant Starry Eyes is a cautionary tale like no other: set among the dregs behind the glamour of LA, the film paints the portrait of a woman metamorphosing both literally and figuratively. Boasting eye-popping special effects and a killer synth score, Starry Eyes harks back to the Hollywood cinema of a bygone era: smart, frightening and terrifically acted, this is the sort of filmmaking that the genre deserves to see more often.

The directing duo handle the mood with aplomb: LA feels like a sun-drenched nightmare, and as Alex starts to lose her grip on reality, her surroundings change accordingly. The music plays an important role: evocative of Carpenter et al., its synth edges go some way towards creating a vision of LA in which things are askew – the sense that something is wrong not just with Sarah but everyone occupying the city is an idea that gets reiterated at every turn.

It is to the credit of the directors that in Astraeus Pictures they create a wholly believable organization that offers Sarah a Faustian pact: by keeping their presence largely confined to the shadows, only ever feeding enough information to keep the viewer intrigued, Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch ensure the threat that they present remains uncertain and terrifying throughout.

On a side note, it is a joy to see Pat Healy in the film, however small his role, and special mention must go to Sarah’s group of friends, who seem to combine the worst qualities of young filmmakers in a way that is never too over the top.

Starry Eyes builds to an eye-gouging, head-spinning climax without ever losing track of its aim and it is this singularity of vision that made it a favourite at Film4 FrightFest and one of the clear winners of this year’s genre offerings.

This review is part of our Film4 FrightFest 2014 coverage.

Evrim Ersoy

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It Follows

It Follows
It Follows

Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 February 2015

Distributor: Icon Film Distribution

Director: David Robert Mitchell

Writer: David Robert Mitchell

Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Daniel Zovatto, Olivia Luccardi

USA 2014

97 mins

One of the highlights of the 20th Etrange Festival, which took place in Paris in September, was undoubtedly David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to his well-received debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover. Impressively controlled and intelligently written, It Follows revolves around a simple, strong and horribly effective concept, which is neatly stated in a title that is both disarmingly concrete and rich in ramifications.

Following a sexual encounter with a boy she likes during the summer, 19-year-old Jay starts having nightmarish visions of ominous ghostly figures who follow her relentlessly. Warned not to let them touch her, Jay is continually forced to run from the incomprehensible menace, invisible to everyone else, or attempt to pass on the haunting by sleeping with someone. With the help of her sister Kelly and their friends, Jay desperately tries to find a way of ridding herself of the ghoulish infection.

Deliberately paced, the film weaves an atmosphere of inescapable dread around the characters, making unnerving use of 360-degree pans that almost casually reveal the slowly but inexorably approaching threat, brilliantly complemented by the Carpenter-style soundtrack. The locations are perfectly chosen, from the eerily empty, impeccably groomed suburban streets, only briefly troubled by a flimsily dressed girl running in fear, to a gloomy Gothic swimming pool where the friends will try to eliminate Jay’s ghost.

Normally out of bounds to the teens, the derelict swimming pool on the other side of the tracks stands in contrast to the sanitised suburbia of their homes: it is there that they will face the hideous consequences of sex. Like the best horror films, It Follows does not explicitly spell anything out, but instead plunges its audience into the prevailing mood of its time, creating an atmosphere of terror where having sex is never any fun, reduced to a fearful act performed solely with the aim of getting rid of the ghostly affliction. That pervading, consuming anxiety is economically planted in our minds in the opening sequence, the only gory scene in this masterfully restrained film. That the house number of the unfortunate first victim should be 1492 makes it clear from the start, in a similarly understated manner, that this is a film about America.

The world of It Follows is exclusively peopled by teenagers: adults play no role in fighting the threat and the youthful gang are left to their own devices in trying to understand what is happening. This adds to the sense of claustrophobia and tension, but the sense of adult disengagement may well also be part of Mitchell’s quietly damning observations. An unsettling horror tale and a chilling appraisal of contemporary American mores, It Follows is an accomplished modern gem of fantastical cinema.

This review is part of our Etrange Festival 2014 coverage.

Virginie Sélavy

The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter
The Deer Hunter

Format: Cinema

Release date: 1 August 2014

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Michael Cimino

Writers: Michael Cimino, Derik Washburn, Louis Garfinkle, Quinn K. Redeker

Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, John Savage

USA 1978

182 mins

One of the major films of 1970s New Hollywood, The Deer Hunter is an ambitious film in both style and content. It won Oscars and was much lauded on its initial release, and still regularly features in all-time greatest film lists. Director Michael Cimino was a former TV commercial director who had just had success with his debut feature, the knockabout buddy film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). For his follow-up he decided to hold out, turning down offer after offer, and go for something really special: a three-hour epic on the Vietnam War and its returning soldiers. It was the first major film about the conflict since John Wayne’s flag-waving The Green Berets (1968).

The first hour is set in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a small industrial city close to Pittsburgh. We meet a group of friends going for drinks after finishing their shift at the steel mill. We see Clairton’s blue-collar society with its clearly defined spaces for men and women as they prepare for Angela and Steve’s wedding. The men are in the bar shooting pool, dancing around and ironically singing love songs to each other. The women are carrying the cake to the reception hall, practising their lines in front of a mirror (‘I do’) or cooking for their abusive fathers. Eventually Steve’s mum breaks these barriers by dragging him out of the bar.

The Clairton scenes are filmed with an almost poetic realism. We get beautiful shots of heavy industry, trains, overhead wiring and neon signs. The flying sparks in the steel mill look like a fireworks display. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was the master of this gritty but oddly beautiful 1970s look – seen most perfectly in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971).

There follows an almost documentary depiction of a Russian Orthodox wedding followed by my favourite part of the film – the wedding reception. Filmed with minimal dialogue and wonderful naturalistic performances, the sequence shows people dancing, drinking, fighting and making up or simply exchanging meaningful looks; all to the accompaniment of the wedding band’s Russian folk songs. It is a brilliant piece of filmmaking and a wonderfully unsentimental vision.

The film then takes a weird shift from Pennsylvania to Vietnam, and from realist drama to high- concept action movie. Central to this part is the Russian roulette scene, an unconvincing piece of spectacle that seems tonally at odds with the rest of the film. Undoubtedly there were enough disturbing things about the Vietnam War that this fabrication (or metaphor – if you’re being kind) was not necessary. Historically there is no evidence of this occurring in Vietnam and it all seems very unlikely, although admittedly the scene might convey something of the emotional truth of the Vietnam experience. It is perhaps unfair to criticise a Hollywood film for taking licence with historical truth but the contrast with the honesty of the Clairton scenes jars a bit too much. Of course, when you discover the origins of the script, how it started as a film about Russian roulette in Las Vegas, you realise that what you have is added seriousness and gravitas to a schlocky movie idea, rather than the other way around.

Despite the schlockiness, there is no doubt that the scenes of prisoners pointing revolvers, loaded with one bullet, at their heads and pulling the trigger makes for pretty intense viewing. We watch close-ups of faces in agony as we wait for one of two sounds – a soft click or an explosive bang. It is suspense in its simplest form (I’m sure Hitchcock would approve) and great cinema. And not only do we have pure cinematic drama – as intense as the heroine tied to the railway lines – but some pretty exciting mathematics too – the mathematics of pure chance.

For the third part of the film we return to Clairton and see the traumatised Michael (De Niro) go back to Linda (Streep) and normal life. The scene where he makes his taxi drive past his welcome home party is heartbreaking. Another short hop back to Vietnam for the fall of Saigon and a final round of Russian roulette and the film ends with an ambiguous singing of every sports fan’s favourite patriotic song – ‘God Bless America’.

The Deer Hunter has been criticised as pretentious and self-indulgent and such charges are not unwarranted. The attempt to sum up the experience of war veterans with a deer hunt metaphor is a little clumsy and heavy-handed and dates the film somewhat (it seems very 1970s). Although, if The Deer Hunter is a flawed masterpiece, it is really because of that god-awful John Williams theme tune.

This is more than compensated for by the superb acting. Cimino has assembled one of the finest casts of the era: Meryl Streep and John Cazale (who died of cancer shortly after) are brilliant while Christopher Walken gives his usual strangely intense performance. But the film belongs to De Niro. If you have forgotten how great he is (after watching Meet the Fockers) and need reminding, this is the film to watch. De Niro is the king of the gesture – he can do more with a shrug than most with a 10-minute monologue. His character might be inarticulate (‘This is this’) but his intelligence and intensity of spirit are never in doubt. In this, one of his most remarkable performances, he shows why cinema is such a great medium for the inarticulate hero.

Ultimately, The Deer Hunter remains a powerful film made with impressive style, and one of the key films of the decade. It was a time when mainstream cinema looked like it was going somewhere really interesting. And Michael Cimino looked destined to be one of its leading lights. If only he hadn’t been constrained by the ideas of high-concept action movies, or budgets, or shooting schedules – then we could have seen what he could really do. Maybe I should try watching Heaven’s Gate one more time. Is it really so terrible?

Paul Huckerby

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The Lady from Shanghai

The Lady from Shanghai 2
The Lady from Shanghai

Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 July 2014

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Orson Welles

Writer: Orson Welles

Based on the novel: If I Die before I Wake by Sherwood King

Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane

USA 1947

87 mins

Orson Welles’s dazzling 1947 film noir has a plot so complex that Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn famously offered a cash reward to the lucky person who could explain to him what the hell was going on. But really the storyline is almost incidental to the disorientating inventiveness of The Lady from Shanghai.

Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a poetical lunk of a mariner, who has a truly atrocious Irish accent, literary ambitions, and a hefty punch when the chips are down. He provides the lyrical voice-over, explaining how he found himself all at sea, enmeshed in the machinations, double dealings and conspiracies of an amoral bunch of well-to-do whose idea of a good time is sniping at each other and thinking murderous thoughts, some of which are put into action.

‘It’s a bright, guilty world,’ says Michael O’Hara as he’s spellbound by the beautiful Elsa Bannister, wife of the country’s leading criminal barrister and played in enigmatic siren mode by Rita Hayworth, Welles’s soon to be ex-wife. O’Hara meets her in the park, saves her from thugs, sees her home and turns down her offer of a job crewing their yacht (tellingly called the Circe). It’s too late though, the staunch seafarer has already run aground – ‘I did not use my head, except to think of her’ – and he sets sail on the kind of voyage that could get a man killed, or at the very least, wrongly accused of murder.

Hayward sizzled and sashayed her way through Gilda; here her trademark red hair is cropped and bleached, (much to the chagrin of Cohn, who was hoping to cash in on her pinup status) as, wreathed in cigarette smoke, basking on rocks or softly singing, she sets about luring men to their doom. There’s Michael, who’s entranced by her white hot, ice cold approach to his approaches; her husband, Arthur Bannister, played by radio actor Everett Sloane, who knows far too much about her disreputable past (‘you need more than luck in Shanghai’); while Glen Anders, filled with maniacal glee, takes on the role of Bannister’s business partner. Smitten by Elsa, but keener on disappearing, he persuades O’Hara to pretend to kill him. It is, of course, a set-up, but not in any of the ways you expect.

Welles keeps everything beautifully off-kilter. There are vertiginous shots from a costal keep, strangely disorientating views from the top of the boat’s mast, a claustrophobic jungle picnic, where O’Hara compares the languorously deadly picnickers to frenzied sharks (a speech cribbed from Moby Dick) and a haunting aquarium scene where Elsa and Michael meet, with strange, shadowy sea creatures ominously lurking behind as the couple chart their duplicitous romantic course.

But there’s no escape, as an absconding O’Hara runs through a funfair, plummets through the open mouth of a painted shark and slides, pell mell, into another nightmare. It is a brilliantly expressionist homage to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which the director made the cast watch before they began filming The Lady from Shanghai. Welles spent the dark hours of the night hand-painting this scenery, intended as the eerie backdrop for an extended exercise in the unhinged, only for most of it to end up on the cutting room floor; but even in its shortened version it’s deliciously sinister. And then there’s the iconic grand finale – a breathtaking shoot-out in a hall of mirrors, with guns, bullets, dizzying reflections, life and death and the kind of dialogue that just demands to be quoted: ‘Killing you is like killing myself. But, you know, I’m pretty tired of the both of us….’

A new restoration of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari will be released in UK cinemas by Eureka Entertainment on 29 August 2014, followed by a Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray) edition on 29 September 2014.

Eithne Farry

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I Am Divine

I Am Divine 4
I Am Divine

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 July 2014

Distributor: Peccadillo Pictures

Director: Jeffrey Schwarz

USA 2013

90 mins

A tragic figure, a cult figure, a figure of fun with a full figure; in many ways Divine is the perfect subject for a documentary. Born Harris Glenn Milstead, the artist better known as Divine escaped a childhood of bullying and estrangement from his parents to become the archetypal drag queen, a film star and disco singer, dying of a heart attack on the eve of his first mainstream television commitment.

To die aged 42 is alone a tragedy, but as Jeffrey Schwarz’s film brings to light, Divine struggled throughout his career to separate Divine the person from Divine the character, and his eventual move from fringe to populist entertainment (playing a man on the long-running Fox series Married… with Children, no less) gave the timing of his sudden death a cruel irony.

The film confronts his complex identity full on, asking close friends and colleagues, notably long-time collaborator John Waters, if Divine ever wanted to be a woman. Talking heads respond with an adamant ‘no’, and go further to admit that Divine yearned to find fame beyond the persona, and often found the charade tiring, asking people to ‘get this shit off me’ as soon as he walked off set or stage.

But ‘this shit’ was what made him famous, and the film charts the careful construction of this image. As a teen, Divine enjoyed cross-dressing, fellow actor David Lochary encouraged it, and Waters christened him ‘Divine’ for their first amateur movies together. It was also Waters who instructed make-up artist Van Smith to ‘do something with his hairline’, thus creating that iconic look (the raised hairline, Smith reasoned rather gloriously, would leave more space on the face for make-up).

I Am Divine is released on DVD in the UK on 25 August 2014.

The result was nothing more than spectacular and, with his full girth and tight-fitting, trashy clothes, Divine rocked the surprisingly prim drag queen scene of the time. Twin this with his punk sensibility (‘I blow murderers…’ was the opening line for his first live performance) and he pretty much managed to break every taboo going.

Unsurprisingly, Divine’s partnership with Waters emerges as the key to his success, and I Am Divine was made with the filmmaker’s full blessing, affording crucial access to the vast archive of their work together. Theirs was a symbiotic working relationship, with John the wicked master to Divine’s willing puppet. Several contributors remark on how Divine placed blind faith in Waters, allowing himself to fall out of moving cars, swim through freezing rivers in full drag and eat dog shit (for the famed final scene of Pink Flamingos) in the name of making movies. In one of many excerpts from interviews with Divine (often presented, movingly, via his voice alone, set to a rolling slideshow of images), he mentions he never knew whether to hate Waters or thank him for setting him on this path.

But the film offers a fascinating insight into Divine’s life beyond Waters too.A key speaker is Divine’s mother, Frances Milstead, who died shortly after contributing to the film, and to whom I Am Divine is dedicated. She recounts ‘Glenny’s’ difficult childhood and cries as she recalls telling her young son that, despite a paediatrician telling her he would always be ‘more female than male’, she told him she would always love him. She admits, however, that when he revealed the full extent of his private life to them as a young adult (up to and including stripping and cross-dressing), she and her husband disowned him. They reconciled in later life, but the film prompts the question of whether the empty space inside Divine referred to by one of his great friends (and which caused him to spend wildly and unsustainably, and to eat uncontrollably) was that vacated by his parents.

Despite the sadness, we are reminded of what an influential figure Divine was, and how his very presence continues to bring comfort to others who identify as outsiders (the fact the film was funded by fans on Kickstarter is testament to their ongoing affection for him). Clips of his live performances, complete with colourful put-downs, are a treat, and the photographs, though in some cases slightly overused, provide a procession of glamour which most of us have no hope of emulating.

Lisa Williams

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Finding Vivian Maier

Finding Vivian Maier
Finding Vivian Maier © Vivian Maier/Maloof

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 July 2014

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

USA 2013

84 mins

By now, many people will have heard of nanny Vivian Meier, who was revealed to be one of the 20th century’s very best street photographers when her astonishing body of work – often shot while she wandered the city of Chicago with her young charges – was discovered posthumously. It’s a remarkable story: in 2007, the amateur collector John Maloof came across several boxes of her photographs at an auction; over time, he tracked down her remaining possessions: over 150,000 photographs and negatives, hours of Super 8 footage, as well as audio recordings, receipts, letters – everything.

Finding Vivian Maier documents the attempt of directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel to tell her fascinating story by tracking down people who knew Maier – her employers, their children, the odd friend and relative. But the film is also about Maloof, who is now the sole owner of her work; it’s understandable, but somewhat regrettable, that he has been so heavily injected into the film. Maloof deserves enormous credit for tirelessly promoting her to the public, and to the sometimes less-than-receptive art establishment, but the truly captivating element of this tale is not Maloof, or even Maier, but the incredible artistry of her photographs.

Finding Vivian Maier is released
in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on
10 November 2014 by Soda Pictures.

The woman was an enigma; she spoke with a French accent but was born and raised in New York; no one really seemed to know where she was from or what her background was. But she went everywhere with her camera, photographing the children she cared for, crime scenes, the destitute (think Weegee and Mary Ellen Mark), as well as creating incredible self-portraits using mirrors and glass – anything she could point her camera at.

The documentary is at its best when it reveals Maier’s photographs and films to the audience, and the narration at its strongest when we hear her own voice on the audio recordings. What is clearly evident is her ability to capture candid and beautiful moments on film; and while playing detective proved irresistible to the filmmakers, does it really matter if she was a hoarder, or, as she’s painted towards the end of the film, possibly mad and violent? There’s something uncomfortable and slightly sensationalist about a posthumous portrayal of a woman who can’t speak for herself.

Some of the very best documentaries are themselves works of art; skilfully written and shot, intricately pieced together. And while there’s little doubt about the value of Finding Vivian Maier in terms of revealing her work, it’s a shame that the documentary itself is a victim of conventional story-telling, with its over-reliance on talking heads, and insistence on a very concrete linear narrative, rather than something more abstract and innovative. But despite its flaws, the film should be seen, if only for the chance to experience Maier’s stunning photographs.

Sarah Cronin

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Format: Cinema

Release date: 13 February 2015

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: James Ward Byrkit

Writer: James Ward Byrkit

Cast: Emily Foxler, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Lorene Scafaria, Elizabeth Gracen

USA 2013

89 mins

Coherence begins like any number of US indie flicks: a group of affluent young professionals gather for a dinner party. The faux-improv dialogue and shaky camerawork are as you’d expect. The performances are completely convincing. But there are references to a comet passing overhead and the strange things that can happen as a result – a not too convincing pretext for a sci-fi twist.

However, when the twist comes, it bounces off the naturalistic style in a way that’s very entertaining. A power cut blacks out the neighbourhood except for one house up the hill. A couple of the guests go to investigate, and return with a crazy story: the house with lights is the same house, and the same people are inside, eating their dinner. A box has been retrieved, which contains numbered photographs of everyone at the party. And a table tennis paddle.

If you’re susceptible to this kind of plot hook, you are now hooked and must keep watching (the way you watched Lost) in hopes of a satisfactory explanation. A dramatically – not scientifically – satisfactory answer does actually come together with a snowballing set of peculiar consequences to what is apparently a breakdown in the barriers that normally keep us from mingling with the people in the universe next door, and the one next to that, and the one next to that…

As the situation develops into increasing craziness, perfectly logically given its loopy premise, relationships break down along with reality, and a mild form of Lynchian terror is unleashed. It’s also rather funny. ‘There are a million universes out there and I slept with your wife in all of them!’ I found it all rather irresistible. The one wrong step seemed to me the introduction of violence, the breakdown of civilisation, which misses the point of the particular anxiety the story concept trades on, which has to do with doppelgangers and being unable to trust your senses, and what is sometimes called jamais vu – ’I have never been here before,’ said as you walk into your own home and meet your loved ones without any sense of familiarity.

This review is part of our 2014 EIFF coverage. Coherence is released on DVD in the UK on 16 February 2015 by Metrodome.

David Cairns

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Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 28 April 2014

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Brian De Palma

Writers: Brian De Palma, Louisa Rose

Cast: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning

USA 1973

93 mins

My colleagues, they can make believe that Dominique is truly disturbed; I think that they will find that Danielle, who is so sweet, so responsive, so normal as opposed to her sister, can only be so because of her sister.

Present day, Staten Island, and actress Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) has been separated from her twin, Dominique Blanchion, for some years. She meets Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) a kind man who seems like he’d take care of Danielle; but when her spooky ex-husband shows up on their date, it becomes clear that she has a ‘past’. When sinister events unfold, columnist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) sees this as her big opportunity to write the story that will finally help her to bust through the glass ceiling, and starts her own investigation into Danielle’s life.

Central to De Palma’s films is the idea that the normal and the psychotic are symbiotic: they feed from each other, and one cannot exist without the other. It makes sense therefore that he would have been drawn to making a psychological thriller based on conjoined twins; Sisters (1973) is an early incarnation of the syrupy twisted with grotesque violence. What starts as a quasi-realist thriller takes a turn simply with the appearance of a huge birthday cake to celebrate the twins’ birthday; its pink frosting flowers, the twinkling candlelight, Bernard Herrmann’s score jangling in the background, and the enormous carving knife that has been placed next to it all bode ill, yet somehow they seem to be entirely appropriate. In Carrie (1976), three years later, De Palma would combine the saccharine normality of American high school pomp with pig’s blood and telekinetic delirium, and how blissful is that mix.

Sisters is like a fairy tale that evolves into a slasher thriller, with women doing some of the thinking – at last. De Palma is good at writing material where female characters are allowed to talk to each other, and about women. Grace Collier has scenes where she speaks about her frustrations with not being taken seriously; this happens at work, and when she confronts the police as a witness to a brutal crime, their levity is clearly based on her gender. She even gets to talk directly to Danielle Breton about something other than men or children, although Danielle’s capacity for murder is not much of an upgrade. Later, in a sense, Grace metaphorically changes places with Dominique, the disturbed twin. Grace is a character with guts and intelligence, but it’s as if these qualities can be easily made equivocal with the monstrous. Only heavy-handed hypnosis can manipulate her strong mind, and she is partly silenced for her agency and will. De Palma creates aberrant women, where psychosis merges with normality, even if the narratives shut them down at the end of the films. But consider Carrie’s hand thrusting out of the soil of her newly dug grave – this lasting image serves as a reminder that the monsters are not going to go away.

It’s good to see this cult classic re-released, and to remember it as one of the films that paved the way for other great films about twins, including Kim Jee-woon’s Tale of Two Sisters (2003).

Nicola Woodham

Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin

Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 May 2014

Distributor: Picturehouse Entertainment

Director: Jeremy Saulnier

Writer: Jeremy Saulnier

Cast: Macon Blair, Devin Rattray, Amy Hargreaves

USA 2013

90 mins

Director Jeremy Saulnier made waves in 2007 with his debut feature Murder Party, a well-constructed, perhaps a little over-ambitious horror-comedy that was head and shoulders above most of the mainstream releases coming out that year. His return to the big screen is nothing short of astonishing: Blue Ruin is a taut, tight, incredibly tense but also laugh-out-loud funny revenge thriller the likes of which only come out once in a blue moon.

Dwight (Macon Blair in a terrific turn) is an outsider who lives out of a car on the beach, avoiding contact with other people, save for breaking into their homes from time to time to use their bathrooms and steal small necessities. However, the arrival of friendly police officer Eddy (Sidné Anderson) with some unexpected news sets Dwight on a path of vengeance and destruction that will engulf him and all those he knows.

Blue Ruin is released in the UK on DVD + Blu-ray on 8 September 2014.

Blue Ruin is best appreciated blind because the joy of the film is as reliant on the journey of Dwight as it is on the narrative twists. With a palette reminiscent of the loved-but-forgotten neo-noir Westerns of the 90s such as Red Rock West and Kill me Again, he paints the story of a resourceful everyman who becomes an avenger who finds himself out of his depth. With a beautiful synth score and immaculate sound design, the film ratchets up the tension, keeping the audience engrossed through a number of unexpected key sequences.

Within a much-appreciated 90-minute runtime, Saulnier, writing and directing, manages to create an entire world populated with wholly believable characters who face the consequences of their actions in dark and remarkable ways. Saulnier is also a skilful cinematographer (as movie-lovers can see in films such as the wonderful I Used To Be Darker and You Hurt My Feelings) and his visual style is striking, capturing the inane banality of Dwight’s journey with stops on the way for arresting imagery.

Using Macon Blair’s expressive face to full effect, Saulnier drags the journey on the vengeance trail kicking and screaming. What’s the most impressive, however, is his ability to mine incredibly funny dark humour during scenes of unbearable tension – a trait which he had demonstrated before in Murder Party.

Saulnier claims that he made Blue Ruin to prove that he wasn’t just a horror genre filmmaker – in fact during one of his festival appearances he admitted that he had to distance himself from Murder Party because no one would finance anything that was outside of horror. While that state of affairs is an indication of the general attitude towards genre filmmakers, Saulnier’s stellar effort in Blue Ruin will serve as a reminder that he is a talent to watch with the ability to strike across multiple genres.

Evrim Ersoy

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Willow Creek

Willow Creek
Willow Creek

Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 May 2014

Distributor: Kaleidoscope Entertainment

Directors: Bobcat Goldthwait

Writer: Bobcat Goldthwait

Cast: Alexie Gilmore, Bryce Johnson

USA 2013

78 mins

In the wilderness, in the dark, it’s sound that plays tricks upon your eyes – not what you can’t see, but what your imagination conjures with every rustle, crack, crunch, moan and shriek. When something outdoors whacks the side of your tent, reality sinks in, the palpability of fear turns raw, numbing and virtually life-draining.

You’re fucked! Right royally fucked!

There were, of course, the happier times – when you and the woman you loved embarked on the fun-fuelled journey of retracing the steps of Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin who, in the fall of 1967 shot a little less than 1000 frames of motion picture footage of an entity they encountered striding through the isolated Bluff Creek in North-Western California.

Your gal was humouring you, of course. She was indulging you. She was not, however, mocking you – she was genuinely enjoying this time of togetherness in the wilderness as you lovebirds took turns with the camera and sound equipment to detail the whole experience. You both sauntered into every cheesy tourist trap in the area, chatted amiably with numerous believers and non-believers alike and, of course, you both dined on scrumptious Bigfoot burgers at a local greasy spoon.

Yup, Bigfoot – the legendary being sometimes known as Sasquatch or Yeti – a tall, broad, hairy, ape-like figure who captured the hearts, minds and imaginations of indigenous populations and beyond – especially when the Patterson-Gimlin footage took the world by storm. And now, here you both are in Willow Creek, California, following the footsteps of those long-dead amateur filmmakers.

All of us have been watching, with considerable pleasure, your romantic antics throughout the day. When night falls, we’ve joined you in your tent and soon, the happy times fade away and we’re all wishing we had some receptacle to avoid soiling our panties. You’re probably wishing the same thing, because in no time at all, you’re going to have the crap scared out of you.

Willow Creek is released on DVD in the UK on 26 May 2014 by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.

We have, of course, entered the world of Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek. Goldthwait is one of the funniest men alive – a standup comedian of the highest order and a terrific comic actor, oft-recognized for his appearances in numerous movies (including the Police Academy series). He’s voiced a myriad of cartoon characters and directed Jimmy Kimmel’s TV show and subsequent concert flick.

In addition to these achievements, Goldthwait has solidified himself as one of the most original, exciting and provocative contemporary American film directors working today. His darkly humoured, satirical and (some might contend) completely over-the-top films are infused with a unique voice that’s all his own. They’ve made me laugh longer and harder than almost anything I’ve seen during the past two decades or so.

Even more astounding is that his films – his first depicting the life of an alcoholic birthday party clown, one involving dog fellatio, another about an accidental teen strangulation during masturbation and yet another which delivered a violent revenge fantasy for Liberals – ALL have a deep current of humanity running through them. His movies are as deeply observational and genuinely moving as they are nastily funny and often jaw-droppingly shocking.

God Bless America, for example, is clearly the most perverse vigilante movie ever made. Goldthwait created a wonderful character in Frank, an average American white-collar worker who suffers noisy neighbours, endless hours of TV he hates but watches anyway, loses his job for sexually harassing a dumpy co-worker who’s been coming on to him, is estranged from a wife who left him for a hunky, thick-witted cop, only gets to see his daughter by promising to buy her things he can’t afford and has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. When this beleaguered schlub begins a spree of mass murder, doing what all Liberals must do when civilization is on the brink of collapse, we’re with him all the way. When he teams up with a like-minded 12-year-old girl, the two of them a veritable Bonnie and Clyde, blasting away at America’s most vile entities, Goldthwait’s movie goes ballistic and so do we, cheering on these very cool birds of a feather who kill people – not because they’re necessarily criminals, but because they are horrible human beings contributing to society’s downfall.

I actually thought Goldthwait was going to have a hard time following that one, but I was wrong, of course. Willow Creek is a corker! It forces you to emit cascades of urine from laughing so hard, then wrenches sausage chubs of steaming excrement out of your bowels as it scares you out of your wits.

It’s a ‘found footage’ film, but I hesitate to use the almost-dirty-word to describe it, because Goldthwait, unlike far too many boneheads, hardly resorts to the sloppy tropes of the now tiresome genre. He’s remained extremely true and consistent to the conceit and in so doing, uses it as an effective storytelling tool to generate an honest-to-goodness modern masterwork of horror.

His attractive leads are nothing less than engaging. Lead actor Bryce Johnson has a naturally comic and commanding presence. As a bonus, he reveals a scrumptious posterior that the ladies will admire (and, of course, gentlemen of the proper persuasion). Alexie Gilmore is so attractive, sharp, smart and funny that it would be a shame if stardom wasn’t in the cards for her.

Goldthwait’s clever mixture of real locals and actors is perfection and the movie barrels along with a perfect pace to allow you to get to know and love the protagonists, laugh with them, laugh with the locals (not at them) and finally to plunge you into the film’s shuddering, shocking and horrific final third. The movie both creeps you out and forces you to jump out of your seat more than once.

Goldthwait is the real thing. If you haven’t seen his movies up to this point, you must. As for Willow Creek, I’d urge everyone to see the film on a big screen with a real audience if they can. When things get super-terrifying, you can feel that wonderful electric buzz that can only happen when you’re at the movies. Sure, it will work fine at home in a dark room with your best girlie snuggled at your side on the comfy couch, but – WOW! – this is a genuine BIG SCREEN EVENT. Try to see it that way, first! The movie is so good that it holds up nicely on subsequent viewings, allowing you to appreciate the full nuance of Goldthwait’s direction, his expert use of sound, the delectable humour (black and otherwise shaded) and then, there’s the bravura with which Goldthwait gives you the willies before he delivers several moments of cinematic cold cocking roundhouse blows.

This review was first published on Klymkiw Film Corner.

Greg Klymkiw

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