The Dead Center 2019 ****

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Originality and horror films rarely go together; writer/director Billy Senese clearly has other ideas, and his indie thriller The Dead Centre transcends genre limitations to deliver a startling, arresting take on the idea of the dead coming back to life. If your idea of Halloween movies is masked killers and old-school clichés, don’t apply here; The Dead Center is disturbing, troubling fare that might fit alongside, say Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, as a low-budget movie that provides high-powered chills.

In quite a casting coup, at least in the world of indie film-making, Senese has cast Shane Carruth as a psychiatrist who discovers an other-worldly secret. Carruth is familiar as writer/director of Upstream Color, a weird and wonderful sci-fi movie that defied categorisation, and his name alone should be a selling point here. Carruth plays Daniel Forrester, a doctor in a city hospital who takes on board an unusual patient. Michael Clark (Jeremy Childs) is a father and family man who has died, yet comes back to life in the mortuary and escapes to a hospital ward. Forrester wants to ascertain what’s really happened; the dead surely can’t come back to life? But if they did, what exactly would that mean for the living? Running parallel to Forrester’s investigation is Edward Graham (Bill Feehely) who looks into the bloody mayhem that Clark has left in his path, with a spiral design left in a blood-stained bathtub a central clue as to what’s happening…

The Dead Center is a hard, tough, absorbing watch, which takes a few cues from J-Horror and from Upstream Color itself. What’s lacking, perhaps, is the sense of poetry and beauty that Carruth’s breakthrough film had in abundance, but Sense’s world is bleaker and more foreboding still. As an actor, Carruth is fine, and has a lot to do, as does Feehely, excellent in a procedural role. But it’s Childs who really breaks out here, his strong physique and Thanos-sized melon making something sympathetic and yet terrifying of his unpredictable character.

The Dead Center is a dark and worrying film that posits an unstoppable apocalypse much like the one in Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby. Such genuine, weapons-grade nihilism will put off those looking for a horror-themed drama; for those looking for the dark side, The Dead Center hits the bulls-eye.

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Connect 2019 ****

Still from the film 'Connect' showing at the Glasgow Film Festival 2019

With Joker on track for a billion dollar box-office take, it’s probably fair to say that, love it or hate it, the gamble of creating an origin story for a beloved comic-book character that specifically roots him in mental health issues has royally paid off. What’s frustrating is that the connection between mental health and loner violence is anything but the stigmatising slam-dunk that Joker makes it out to be. That makes the arrival of Connect, a Scottish film from writer/director Marilyn Edmond rather timely in that it tackles issues connected with suicide and depression without being exploitative, and that specific virtue is not the only thing that’s good about it.

Fresh from Dunkirk and Fantastic Beasts, Kevin Guthrie plays Brian, a young man in the coastal town of North Berwick, who is living in the shadow of a recent bereavement. Like many people who suffer depression, Brian has a lot going for him; he has a job, a loving family, a chance at romance with local single-mum Sam (Siobhan Reilly). But Brian is privately fighting a battle to keep the black dog at bay, and finds himself drawn to the cliffs where relief in the form of a quick death might await him. It’s on this borderline that Brian meets Jeff (Stephen McCole), who invites him to work in a local centre for the elderly. It’s a fresh new outlet for Brian, but he’s still carrying unresolved issues from the past, and fresh problems derail his efforts to move forward.

Suicide is a killer for young men, but Edmond’s well-shot feature manages to walk a fragile line between downbeat observation and uplift. Depression may be an unpalatable subject, yet it’s one that needs to be explored, and if a tiny percentage of people that saw Joker were interested in seeing the topic explored sensibly, Connect would be a box-office smash. Guthrie manages to suggest how a calm exterior can mask inner turmoil, while he gets great support from Stephen McCole. Since appearing as the school bully in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, McCole has turned up in everything from Beats to Outlaw King, and he brings a measured gravity to his role as a mentor to Brian.

It’s possible to demur that Brian’s journey is too schematic, that redemptions are too easily won, or that minor characters are too broadly sketched, and yet the film’s final coda artfully re-affirms that recovery is something fragile that can only be tackled one day at a time. Connect is a simple and effective drama that shines a light on a subject that most films avoid or exploit; hopefully it’ll gain a following by offering a fresh take on a universally mis-understood subject that needs tackled today.

Connect starts a UK day and date tour from Oct 25th 2019, details can be found at

http://www.angelfaceproductions.co.uk/

 

Non-Fiction 2019 ****

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Olivier Assayas made something of a dent in public perception of mobile phones in Personal Shopper; technology has been something of a theme for the French film-maker, and having Kristen Stewart’s character menaced by an other-worldly spirit through a mobile phone raised a few questions; what kind of payment plan would a ghost use? Would an exorcism require a PAC code?

Fortunately, Assayas is not a character to get bogged down in such trivialities, and his latest, Non-Fiction, is a wonderfully intelligent look at the impact of the internet on the publishing industry. We begin with an author and a publisher sitting down for lunch in a fashionable bistro. The author wants to know if the publisher will schedule his new book; the publisher has other ideas. As played by Guillaume Canet (Alain, the publisher) and Vincent Macaigne (Leonard, the author), there’s a battle of wits going on that doesn’t end when the check comes. Alain is no fuddy-duddy when it comes to publishing, and sees how twitter, blogging and other modern forms of expression might free ideas and intellect. Leonard has been cannibalising his private life as material for his books, and when writing about a film featuring French creatives, it’s no big spoiler to reveal that both men are having affairs.

Which leads us to Juliette Binoche, who previously played a character very much like herself in Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, and portrays Selena, a sought-after actress who stars in a binge-watchable police mini-series. At one point, she discusses a potential audio-book with her husband, with one Juliette Binoche considered as a star-name to pull in the punters. Such playful touches are very much in tune with Non-Fiction’s mood, which enjoys the double-dealing and false-friendships of publishing for what they are, the product of ingenious minds not quite smart enough to beat the system.

Non-Fiction swims very much against the current when it comes to film-making; Assayas allows the audience to sit back and listen to the conversation, making up our own minds about the people involved. It’s this dinner-party chat that makes Non-Fiction such a pleasure to participate in. The performances are perfectly pitched, the story is relevant and original, and the whole package should be firmly recommended to discerning cineastes.

Non-Fiction opens in the UK on October 18th and can be streamed here

https://www.curzonhomecinema.com/film/watch-non-fiction-film

Little Hands/ Les Petites Mains 2019 ****

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Another powder-keg element of 2019 has been the on-going unrest in France; the country associated with the idea of revolution seemed to be tearing itself apart in a series of riots and a growing awareness of social disparity. Writer/director Rémi Allier’ short film won a Cesar award in 2019, and capturing a mood before such fissures made headline news; nevertheless, Little Hands does an effective job of situating itself firmly in the hot-spot between the have’s and the have-not’s.

Specifically, it’s the story of an industrial dispute that goes out of hand; a chemical factory is being closed, and a desperate employee decides to escalate the struggle between workers and management. Bruno (Jan Hammenecker) impulsively grabs for the child of his boss, and takes little Leo (Émile Moulron) as hostage. As his phone rings, and the realisation of the hopelessness of his action hits him, Bruno finds an unexpected connection which motivates him to make a dramatic decision.

Little Hands is shot with a string sense of moment; we see things tightly from Leo’s point of view, the zip of Bruno’s jacket flailing as he runs with the child. And that tightness of angle is vital in understanding that Little Hands is not an irresponsible call to violence, as in film de jour Joker, but the opposite, a plea for understanding. How do we explain the extremity of our actions to young people, who don’t know or understand the sense of grievance that we carry? Little Hands is only 15 minutes long, but communicates a commendably to-the-point answer to the question.

Rémi Allier may only be a young film-maker, but there’s real skill and insight in this short; there’s a trailer below, and hopefully we’ll have a link to the whole film once the film’s race is run on the festival and awards circuit.

Official Secrets 2019 ****

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In 2019, controversy is a famous actor pretending to have a brain injury, dancing to the music of convicted paedophile Gary Glitter. A thriller accusing British and American governments of blackmailing small countries into supporting an illegal war in which million die barely creates a ripple. Times change; the kind of covert behaviour that a film like Official Secrets attempts to uncover is now shouted to the press from the White House lawn.

The man and his dog in the street now know that the Iraq war was instigated under false pretences; Gavin Hood’s film is, at least, a timely reminder of that unhappy truth. Based on the lugubriously titled book The Spy Who Tried to Stop A War; Katharine Gunn and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion, Official Secrets may be raking over material that is cold potatoes, but as a look at what the personal consequences might be for a whistle-blower, it’s prescient and timely. Gunn (Keira Knightley) works at GCHQ and happens on an email from the US attempting to blackmail small countries into supporting a war via their UN vote. She takes the story to an ex-employee who filters it to the press via The Observer’s Martin Bright (Matt Smith) and human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), but when her identity comes to light, it’s Gunn’s Muslim husband who faces deportation as a direct consequence of her actions.

Official Secrets has an important true story to tell, and Knightley is the ideal centre; after a couple of duds in the form of Colette and The Aftermath, Hood’s film makes good use of her national treasure quality; with lank hair, chunky knitwear and unflattering anoraks, she’s a dowdy figure ideal for these kind of down-beat shenanigans. There’s a decent support cast including the perennially underused Matthew Goode, but there’s also some shonky details that distracts; the newspaper office Bright works in doesn’t feel right at all, a cartoonish affair featuring shouty, sweary editors and sniping, pencil-pushing underlings.

Leaving such details aside, Official Secrets is a better-than-average spy story that never takes leave of its sense of outrage; watching the characters curse as Bush and Blair waltz across their tv screens, it’s a reminder of yesterday’s news, and how it might inform that radically different political problems of today. Gunn is lionised by this film; the point is that unless the public pay attention and act, the bad guys will always win the day.

Easy Money 1983 ***

easy money

It was a sign of the times that Rodney Dangerfield was rejected for inclusion by the American Academy; Caddyshack is one of the great comedies of the 80’s, or any era, and Dangerfield parlayed his bug-eyed class warfare shtick to several successful films including Back to School and Easy Money, both of which were number one box-office hits. There’s pretty much no outlet for this kind of film in 2019, yet Dangerfield’s routines, with a comedy personal firmly honed from decades of club and tv work, still work well today.

Easy Money, co-written by PJ O’Rourke and directed by James Signorelli, takes a long time to get to a familiar situation; Monty loves booze, spliffs, over-eating and over-indulging; when he discovers his mother-in-law has passed away, he’s thrilled at the prospect of increased freedom, but her passing comes with a catch; Monty has three months to reform his character, or he won’t get a share of the old bird’s loot. It takes about 40 minutes of establishing Monty’s vices before we cue predictable but effective gags about unattractive salads, with Joe Pesci on hand as Monty’s encouraging pal, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Monty’s daughter, and Jeffrey Jones as his rival. Tom Noonan turns up in a role clearly intended for Bill Murray, and there’s a fair roster of talent involved.

Dangerfield’s comedy largely came from a concerted attack on snobbery, which makes it ironic that his work wasn’t valued by an atrophied elite who failed to move with the times. Like Groucho Marx, Dangerfield didn’t fancy any club that would accept him as a member, and refused the Academy’s offer when they final came back to him. No matter; Dangerfield laughed all the way to the back, and his comic personal is shown in good form here; it’s reckless, irresponsible fun. Comes complete with a Billy Joel title song.

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/movie/easy-money-1983/id868880821

The Day Shall Come 2019 ****

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Chris Morris is Britain’s most scabrous working satirist, and is probably best known as the creator of The Day Today, a parody of both news and news reporting that’s yet to be bettered. For his first feature, Four Lions, Morris attempted to make comedic hay from the idea of an incompetent terrorist cell, and it’s to his credit that he managed to make something that was much more than just a few gags on a topical theme. His follow-up, arriving almost a decade later, has a similar notion at its centre; outsiders in their Miami community, Moses (Marchant Davis) and his wife Venus (Danielle Brooks)struggle to make ends meet until an opportunity comes their way; to hide some guns…

Of course, guns are just the starts of Moses’s absurd journey, which brings him to the attention of Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick), and her FBI team, who are keen to nab prospective terrorists in the act by feeding them bogus information and equipment, then sending in the SWAT teams after the misguided participants press the nuclear button. This is, Morris’s film makes clear, entrapment, and what‘s being entrapped is not ideological terrorists, but the poor. The Day Shall Come has good fun with Moses’s weird beliefs, and his understanding that blowing a small horn might just conjure dinosaurs out of the earth; the point is that Moses is just a misguided individual, and has no idea that his own brand of idiocy might make him vulnerable to being a political dupe.

There’s a certain brand of modern satire, via In The Loop, Veep and The Death of Stalin, that relies on absurd swearing tropes, convoluted insults and all characters speaking thinly disguised locker-room talk to fill in between the actual jokes; The Day Shall Come is admirable in that it rarely stoops to crude gags. Instead, Morris mines a ridiculous situation to great effect, with vibrant central performances and a fun, prissy support-turn from Kendrick.

“Next thing you’ll know, the Statue of Liberty will be wearing a burkha and we’ll be beheading Bruce Springsteen,’ one of Glack’s team observe, but the stakes are carefully defined in Morris’s intelligent, trenchant comedy. America is not under attack from outside, but from within, by those who seek to profit and further themselves by creating enemies from outside. It’s a laudable, modern sentiment, and fully articulated by the Ace In The Hole finale that Morris creates with genuine cinematic verve.