Hermia & Helena Review

Hermia & Helena is a meandering, but rewarding, diasporic wander through the lives of two female friends, Carmen (María Villar) and Camila (Agustina Muñoz), as they spend time between Buenos Aires, their home, and New York, where they have both separately partaken in a literary fellowship. Carmen is soon to leave the Big Apple, with Camila set to take her place, to take time working on her translation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: hence the title.

The film plays very loose, with the director, Matías Piñeiro, sending his camera freely gliding between the two locations, while never fearing to pause for minutes on end as static conversations take place. The film comes across, at times, as being improvised. Both conversational poles – rat-a-tat-tat Spanish language get-togethers between friends, on the one hand, and awkward encounters between strangers, on the other – have a breezy, and well performed, naturalism to them and avoid conventional Hollywood signposting.

This is very much a case of reciprocal satisfaction and one must commit to start reaping the rewards. Piñeiro rarely lays it out for the viewer, and instead leaves us to work things out on our own. I feel I went with the film, in that regard, though I may have got more from it had I been more familiar “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. There was a recurring theme of gifts that I am yet to get my head around, and Shakespeare may hold some clues to that end.

There are echoes of Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philp) in the film’s awkward jazzy wanderings. Scott Joplin accompanies many of the film’s scenes and the New York-ness is captured in the busy sound design, which first plays outs in a reference to Coppola’s The Conversation. Piñeiro and his cinematographer, Fernando Lockett, place the camera far above their subject, steadily following them across the park from a nearby rooftop. Interestingly, the camera is just as confident to lead as it is to follow, and Piñeiro guides our eye very naturally when the drama requires it.

It’s an interesting blend of styles, and Piñeiro’s filmic references develop into full-blown formal experimentation. He superimposes images and annotated text from Camila’s notepad over scenes and has the play’s dialogue whispered in both Shakespeare’s English and Camila’s Spanish. The superimpositions become a really novel way of capturing the central duo’s thoughts and dreams. We even leave the main film for a couple of minutes as we watch a short directed by one of the film’s many interesting, and often unexplained, peripheral characters.

Despite the film’s New York-y feel, Piñeiro also never loses sight of his Argentinian pedigree. He captures a wonderful sense of people misplaced. In fact, he goes out of his way to misplace his audience as well. As the drama progresses, he begins to toy with the timeline, sending us back and forth across a busy 12-month period. It becomes somewhat difficult to keep track, to the point that I became unsure of which friend was which. But, that confusion seems intentional: we only see the final moments of Carmen’s time in NYC, but we get the feeling that Camila isn’t the only one who had a strange time there.

Hermia & Helena is an interesting beast. Piñeiro clearly has little time for conventional Hollywood filmmaking technique, and instead blends North American auteurship with European avant-garde-ism and his own blend of South American je ne sais quoi (or should I say no sé qué). While it doesn’t entirely hit the mark and rarely makes for the easiest of viewing experiences (even in a mere 87-minute portion), Piñeiro expresses himself with such fluid confidence that this seemingly unwieldy potion casts an intriguing spell.

★★★

Curtain Review – The kind of film FrightFest Presents was made for

Another week, and another win for FrightFest Presents’ latest batch of DVD releases. Curtain is weird, wonderful and a breezy 74-minutes long.

You know you’re in for something a bit different from the premise: a whale activist, Danni (Danni Smith), moves into a New York apartment with an invisible shower curtain-sucking portal in the bathroom. After losing a number of perfectly good drapes, she recruits fellow whale-saver, Tim (Tim Leuke), to investigate. But, a creepy recurring, and ever expanding, The Ring-like montage doesn’t exactly offer us peace of mind.

Director, co-writer (with Carys Edwards) and cinematographer, Jaron Henrie-McCrea, pins down the surface genre elements with some welcome world building. Despite the brisk running time, he takes his time to develop strong relationships between his characters, as well as offering rewarding hints at their backstories. The events of the film seem like just the latest obstacle in a long line of them for many of these characters and that’s an interesting, and gratifying, approach to the cult-y set-up. The emotion extends beyond the snapshot captured for our viewing pleasure.

It’s something that has impressed me about so many of these FrightFest Presents titles (especially given their minimal resources), but Henrie-McCrea once again displays real flare with the camera. Curtain’s visuals are more openly experimental than many of FFP’s other releases, however, and Henrie-McCrea use of space is particularly interesting. He finds visually dynamic angles in every corner of this tiny apartment and its cramped bathroom, giving us multiple variations of the central location to keep us on our toes.  

This visual flare extends beyond the interiors, to the point that it comes across as slightly uneven early on. Certain camera tricks and left-field shot choices seem included just for the hell of it, but it does become a more streamlined viewing experience as things progress. Adam Skerritt’s synthy score catches the ear, just as Henrie-McCrea’s visuals catch the eye. Again, it never settles into much of a groove, but it’s a fun 80s Cartpenter-esque throwback and its sheer strangeness sets it apart from any pre-existing soundtracks.

Curtain is the kind of film FrightFest Presents was made for. It’s a low-budget genre oddity that may never have found a home anywhere else, but Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy and co. embrace the strange and, more often than not, strike gold with their picks. And this one’s 24 Carat.

★★★★

Curtain is out now on DVD in the UK via FrightFest Presents.

For more reviews of the FrightFest Presents films, click here.

The Lesson Review – Is this what it takes?

After last week’s FrightFest Presents DVD release offered a character-focused twist on the slasher subgenre (Last Girl Standing), The Lesson takes a similarly thoughtful approach to the torture film.

 Flustered schoolteacher, Mr Gale (Robert Hands), has reached the end of his tether and kidnaps two of his students, Fin (Evan Bendall) and Joel (Rory Coltart), to give them a lesson they’ll never forget. Mr Gale is an English teacher, but his new methods are straight up Skinnerian: learn or face the nail gun.

Image courtesy of Fetch Publicity

 That’s a strong concept to work with, but you’ll soon forget it’s coming. The opening half an hour couldn’t feel further from the titular set piece. We see Fin roll out of bed only to be greeted by Jake, his thuggish older brother, and Jake’s mistreated girlfriend, Mia. His parents, glimpsed in artful black and white flashbacks, are nowhere to be seen. It’s no wonder, then, that Fin’s attention is rarely focused on his education and, instead, he spends his time screwing around with his friends.

This extended section is really well handled by Ruth Platt, the film’s writer-director (making her feature debut), and she and Bendall craft a genuinely sympathetic character stuck in a genuinely unfortunate situation. The same can’t be said for Joel, who is just a bit of a knob, but, fortunately, his character never threatens to draw the attention away from Fin.

The surprise of the kidnapping is further heightened by the fact that we barely get to meet Mr Gale before he’s brandishing a bloodied hammer and yammering on about Milton and Hobbes. It seems an unusual choice, as there’s little tension developed between Fin and Mr Gale before he’s chained him to a chair. But, thankfully, Hands plays Mr Gale with such ferocious three-dimensionality that any lack of character development is soon more than made up for.

He really is very, very good and he spouts off Platt’s authentic philosophical tirades with spittle-flying menace. It’s his twisted drive to educate, whatever the costs, that makes him such a terrifying antagonist and his threats frequently left me flinching. The shock of the situation does wear off somewhat, but Platt effectively escalates the stakes and makes sure you’re never sitting quite as comfortably as you’d like. The final crescendo of brutal gore effects and increasingly hazy visuals plays bigger than anything preceding it, but the insanity works. Although, I could’ve have done without the final scene and it’s weird subtext.

With The Lesson, Platt shows a real knack for sculpting well-rounded, truthful characters and, while she could have spread some of the depth around the ensemble, the lean structure still packs a real punch. She makes heavy use of mirrors throughout the film, as if toying with us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, and, I must admit, it becomes awfully difficult not to.

★★★★

The Lesson is out now on DVD in the UK via Frightfest Presents.

For more reviews of the FrightFest Presents films, click here.

Ip Man 3 Review – Action scenes with spectacle and soul

Donnie Yen once again returns to his iconic role as Wing Chun grandmaster (and Bruce Lee trainer) Yip Man. It’s 1959 Hong Kong, and Yip Man is struggling to balance his work and home life. The matter isn’t helped when his son’s school becomes the target of ruthless American property baron, Frank (Mike Tyson).

When, the headmaster refuses to leave, Frank and his goons turn to violence and Yip Man is forced to intervene. Meanwhile, a jealous Cheung Tin-chi, the father of one of Yip Man’s son’s schoolmates, sets his sights on Yip Man’s legendary title.

This multi-stranded plotting, while simple enough, has more depth of character than one might expect from the third film in a martial arts series. Yen’s hero is challenged – not only physically, but emotionally – and, as a result, the threat hits disarmingly close to home.

That’s not to say the fight scenes are in any way sidelined. Yen dances his way around huge makeshift arenas, taking on dozens of men at a time. This peaks in a second act fight scene across the wooden beams of a sprawling dockyard. The thoughtful production design present during that sequence extends to even the smallest details, a trait that results in a wonderfully realised rock and roll sense of time and place across the whole film.

Truth be told, the Yen vs. Tyson showdown pushed (understandably) by the marketing department is the least thrilling element of the film. Tyson only appears in the film fleetingly and their passingly entertaining mano a mano remains just that, and it feels unearned when compared with the sincerity on display elsewhere.

Ip Man 3 achieves a wonderful balance of spectacle and soul. The punches fly in brilliantly choreographed set pieces, but the driving force is always Yip Man’s love for his family and his community. A film as nimble as its titular hero.

★★★★

Screener and image courtesy of Fetch Publicity. Thank you!

Zootropolis Review – Thoughtful Neo-Noir from Disney Animation

I’m always surprised when a film seems to hit at just the right moment. That’s made even more impressive when animated films, with their multi-year production schedules, manage to anticipate the social environment three, four, five years down the line. But, Zootropolis (a.k.a. Zootopia, in other English-speaking markets), with its message of acceptance and multiculturalism, comes along at just the right time.

Ginnifer Goodwin voices Judy Hopps, who sets her sights on becoming the first bunny cop in this animal-only world’s big city, Zootropolis. Much to the surprise of her family and friends, Judy is handed her badge… and unceremoniously dumped with parking duty. However, a chance encounter with the fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) gives her a lead in the city’s biggest on-going mystery: that of the strange disappearance of fourteen mammals.

As Judy and Nick journey deeper into the city’s dark underbelly, the film takes an increasing number of cues from the film noir genre: think Chinatown, or Inherent Vice, to some extent. And, while the film doesn’t quite match those two films for their tricksy narratives, Zootropolis does get hindered somewhat by an overly elaborate crime narrative. It’s enjoyable, but seems like it would be rather hard work for younger audience members.

In keeping with the noir tales that inspired it, there aren’t all that many set pieces and the lack of action seems a risky proposition for a family film (not that it’s had any effect on the box office). There also aren’t really that many jokes. Yes, the DMV sloth scene is genius, but many will have seen that in the trailers, and beyond that, there’s a smattering of smiles, but few belly laughs.

Instead, the real shining light is the film’s vital social allegory. Just 10% of Zootropolis’ population are (non-meat eating) predators, yet a few cases of savagery leave the 90% fearing the minority. Ring any bells? Talk of biology and ancestry, of stereotypes and prejudice, of the repercussions of a society dominated by fear, is all handled with ease. Byron Howard and Rich Moore, the film’s two directors (alongside Jared Bush, in a co-directing role), take these huge, and desperately relevant, issues and present them in a way that is universally accessible and just so darn right.

On a surface level, the animation is suitably stunning. Not necessarily for the gorgeous landscapes of something like Kung Fu Panda, but more for the richness of the world-building: something Walt Disney Animation Studios are becoming increasingly adept at, what with this and last year’s Big Hero 6. That being said, I would have liked a bit more musical dynamism from the usually exceptional Michael Giacchino.

Narrative density aside, Zootropolisis a treat for the eyes and provides great fuel for the mind, both young and old.

★★★★

Room Review – Tremendous Tremblay

Robbie Collin recently wrote about the Academy’s lack of appreciation for child actors and he’s got a point, you know. While Brie Larson may have picked up most of the statuettes, Room is very much Jacob Tremblay’s film.

Nine-year-old Tremblay plays Jack, son to his loving mother Joy (or Ma) and their abusive captor, known simply as Old Nick. Lenny Abrahamson and his writer Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the novel, choose to tell this horrific abduction story from Jack’s five-year-old perspective. It makes for a thoroughly unique take on this kind of narrative, even if they never fully commit to this approach.

You see the sense of POV remains rather understated throughout. There’s a sense of child-like wonder to much of the film, but the camera only really assumes Jack’s viewpoint on a handful of occasions, with at least a couple of them making for really beautiful moments. It’s a shame, in the end, that we’re not given more of these flourishes.

The majority of the flourishes are instead left to the strong cast, as the visual qualities remain attractive but firmly distant. Larson is very good, as is Tom McCamus as her mother’s partner (especially in a couple of beautiful moments with Jack), but it’s Tremblay who steals the show. Jack is wonderfully written and Tremblay is undoubtedly very well directed, but there’s a mesmerising quality to his performance. Not wanting to count any eggs before they hatch, but this kid is going places.

As a result, even very solidly worked elements can seem lacking in comparison. In the end, the film suffers from having too much dramatic potential. It tries to cover a handful of different sections to this story, when it may have been a more rewarding experience focusing on just the one. I don’t wish to spoil anything for those of you who have managed to avoid the trailers but, if you have seen the ads (even in passing), little of the first hour or so will surprise you. Shock, quite possibly, but not surprise. Instead, it’s when the film moves into new territory that Room really comes into its own.

★★★★

Goosebumps Review – Amblin-esque Family Fun

The live action PG-rated family movie is a surprisingly rare occurrence in the current filmmaking climate. ‘Family friendly’ is too often taken to mean simply animated and, when we reach the live action realm, most comic book fantasy epics aim for an ‘inclusive’ 12A/PG-13 rating, while still dipping into violence and adult themes. Even movies that may have targeted that PG rating just a decade or so prior now often end up with the higher rating: eight years and a gritty reboot later and the Fantastic Four franchise is boosted up to a 12A, likewise the Tomorrowland’s and even the Star Wars’ of this world end up with a 12A more often than not. So, it gives me great joy to announce that Rob Letterman’s Goosebumpsis scary, exciting, action-packed and funny PG-rated family fun.

Based on the immensely successful and embarrassingly prolific series of children’s horror yarns, Goosebumpssees Dylan Minnette’s Zach and his mum, played by the ever-reliable Amy Ryan, moving from New York city to Madison, Delaware for her new teaching job. Depressed by small town life, Zach strikes up a friendship with his next-door neighbour, Hannah (Odeya Rush): the only problem, Hannah’s overbearing, and rather odd, father (Jack Black). It turns out Hannah and her dad have been living under a false name and that he is actually the legendary Goosebumps writer, himself, R.L. Stine. All hell breaks loose when Zach and his newfound partner in crime, Champ (Ryan Lee), inadvertently release an army of Stine’s creations that had been bound to locked pages by his mystical typewriter. Then, in true Amblin fashion, Zach, Hannah and Champ have to rescue their town from the rampaging beasties.

It’s a novel and intelligent use of Stine’s plentiful source and it provides our heroes with countless iconic foes to defeat. Each encounter is varied, fresh and inventive and, before any enemy has the chance to grow stale, we’re onto the next one. These monster set pieces are all really well-handled, but there’s one particular chase that, while not necessarily the most creative showdown, delivers real big screen thrills. The CGI from Sony Pictures Animation is consistently impressive and used sparingly, in keeping with the relatively modest $58m budget.

Not only are the monsters well designed, but also the way they are brought to life and destroyed again is a lovely touch. In keeping with the internal logic that all these creatures were created on Stine’s pages, when the books are cast open, mercurial black ink oozes and swells into life and, when they are banished again, they disintegrate back into that black goo. It makes for some really visually exciting moments.

Likewise, the FX department have a lot of fun with the horror imagery, and they pull admirably few punches. Barbarous teeth and fleshy mandibles snap and snarl at our heroes in pretty freaky fashion. I can see this being too much for certain young audience members, but those youngsters who enjoy a good jump scare are going to have a blast!

But, forget the CG thrills, it’s the three leads that really sell the adventure. Minnette and Rush are both highly accomplished and act particularly well together. An early shared moment, while being both touchingly shot and rousingly scored, is rooted beautifully by the two young leads. Lee does a solid job with his comic relief role, although the fact that the sharp script ensures pretty much every character is given a hearty sense of humour lessens his importance somewhat.

Black is also great, and gets close to hitting the kind of highs that made School of Rock and Kung Fu Panda so great. His rapport with the young leads is second to none and he gets a fair amount of dramatic weight to play with, taking him beyond the simple creepy father stereotype.

I’d also like to mention how refreshing it is to see a studio crowd-pleaser avoid shamelessly playing for a sequel. ‘Franchise potential’ is all the rage at the moment and Goosebumps has got bags of it. But, first and foremost, Letterman and his writer Darren Lemke (working from a story by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski) make sure to craft a standalone adventure that works a treat, whether ‘Goosebumps 2’ ends up happening or not*.

Overall, Goosebumpsis a top-notch adaptation of a promising source. It delivers all the thrills you could want from a family trip to the cinema, alongside a strong emotional core and some really touching character moments. Goosebumpsdoesn’t play for a sequel, but, on the basis, of this initial effort, I’d be shocked, and disappointed, if we didn’t see Zach and co. again.

★★★★

* a sequel is currently in development.

A big thank you to the FDA for hosting the screening!