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.

Fright 1971 ****

The perennially knowledgeable Kim Newman makes a great point in the DVD extras for Fright; that British critics have been quick to seek out examples of Italian horror movie, specifically giallo, and yet the reputations of strong British films of the period have been allowed to fall into disrepair.  This week’s release of restored Blu-ray versions of Fight and And Soon The Darkness should help restore the position of both films in British film history.

Fright is quite a trip; a pre-Straw Dogs Susan George plays Amanda, a young girl who takes a baby-sitting job that’s weird from the get-go; the child’s parents (Honor Blackman and George Cole) seem strangely on edge, and after they depart, Amanda flirts with being a bad babysitter when an old flame Chris (Dennis Waterman) turns up in the hope of a quick fumble.  Chris is something of a pest, and Amanda throws him out, but when she detects a presence loitering outside, she wrongly assumes that Chris has returned.

Fright seems to be modelled somewhat on Psycho; there’s a Hitchcockian feel to the parlour games here with John Gregson and Ian Bannen amongst those under suspicion. The menaced baby-sitter wasn’t yet a trope in 1971, and there’s a neat splintering of the focus between Amanda’s fortified position and the activities of the parents in a busy dance-club. A dance club in 1971 British cinema really is something to behold, with gyrating figures amongst those enjoying an evening meal. In such an odd world, it’s hardly a surprise when it turns out that there’s a maniac on the loose…

With a script by horror specialist Tudor Gates (Lust for a Vampire) and direction by the underrated Peter Collinson (The Italian Job), there’s plenty to engage horror and British movie fans here. A new interview with Susan George, looking pretty fantastic, reminds how young she was at the time; probably still best known for Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, she’s a classic 70’s star, and gives a big, empathetic performance here that drives the film.

Fright is a neat, effective shocker that went down well at the time; with a spanking new restoration, Fright should set the shivers down the spines of new viewers and nostalgia freaks alike; as a bonus, Clements and Fuest have a commentary track here, and UK viewers will be amused to see Cole and Waterman in the same film, albeit briefly, before they became housefold names as Arthur and Terry in tv institution Minder.

FRIGHT is released on DVD and Blu Ray courtesy of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics Collection on 14TH October 2019 and can be streamed below.

 

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.

Zombi Child 2019 ****

 

If you’re only going to see one film about black magic in a girls’ school, then you’d probably be best to skip the Suspiria remake and head straight for Zombi Child, a remarkably poetic yet properly horrific film from Bertrand Borello, whose Nocturama has become a cult item; he’s likely to increase his considerable reputation with this hard-to-categorise, highly original film.

The presence of real-life historian Patrick Boucheron, seen delivering a lecture on French history and specifically on the meaning of the revolution, is an early tip-off that Zombi Child is not one for the casual viewer. The history lesson is at a posh girls school, where the pupils include Fanny (Louise Labeque), who strikes up a friendship with and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) over a mutual love of Stephen King’s writing. Mélissa has a story to tell, shared with the audience in a counter-narrative about the death of her uncle Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou) who died in Haiti circa 1962 only to be reanimated as a zombie. Mélissa has a certain discomfort mixed with respect in terms of her own family history, but Fanny is keen to explore, leading to a climax that revitalises familiar horror tropes due to the careful work that’s led to that point.

Jump-scares, cap-doffing, in-jokes and such conventional horror-movie moves are entirely absent here; Zombi Child plays so hard and straight with the material that it’ll work for the art-house crowd in particular. But there’s enough frisson in the activities of Fanny’s aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort) to draw a sophisticated crowd; the modish pop-culture references to Rhianna help keep Borello’s vision fresh.

The weight of the past, and of French colonialism in particular, loom large over Zombi Child, a horror film of rare intelligence and wit; the final scenes are frightening, but also satisfying, and the long wait for the pay-off is more than worthwhile. Screened at Cannes in 2019, it’s a smart pick-up for MUBI, who have this exculsively on their books from the 18th of Oct 2019.

https://mubi.com/films/zombi-child