Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Natasa Stork as Martá

A hell of title and a hell of a film, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is the remarkable second feature by writer/director Lili Horvát, who’s otherwise oddjobbed about the film biz in Hungary for some time – a casting director here, an actor there (you might have seen her in Kornél Mundruczó’s 2014 movie White God, a bizarre amalgam of the Disney kids movie with the post-apocalyptic wasteland drama).

With an influence of Claire Denis, Horvát conjures, also in “how is she doing that?” fashion, a complete dramatic universe set in a world of feeling and gesture, where facts as such are not as important as the emotions triggered by those facts. Whether feelings themselves are reliable is another consideration. When have feelings ever been reliable?

Not everything is certain, but what seems more or less agreed is that this film is all about a doctor called Márta, a Hungarian émigré who met a fellow Hungarian specialist at a conference in the US, fell instantly in love with him (and he with her, she thinks), and has now followed him back to Budapest, having thrown in her job and taken one several rungs lower back in the old country. As the film opens Márta is on the Szabadság híd, the Freedom Bridge, to keep her end of the bargain that they’d meet at the Pest end of the bridge one month after their first hook-up.

Janós (Viktor Bodó) doesn’t show. She tracks him down and confronts him. He denies that the two of them have ever met and goes on his way. Overwhelmed, Márta faints, and is helped back to her feet by handsome young medical student, Alex (Benett Vilmányi).

That’s what we know. Things we don’t know include Márta’s state of mind. She’s a woman approaching 40, she tells the shrink she’s seeing, and that means something. She works in a very high pressure job and has given it her all. She’s viewed with suspicion by her new colleagues, noses put out of joint by this incomer who worked in shiny techy hospitals in New Jersey. Maybe the patriarchy is getting her down too. “Oh god, women are so stupid, even the smart ones,” twinkles her old mentor, after working out that Márta is back in Budapest on account of a man.

Janós: half seen, but is he real?

Márta’s state of mind remains opaque. On the one hand we see her going to increasingly despairing lengths to track Janós – online and in the flesh. On the other Márta is a coolly skilled and competent surgeon and brilliant diagnostician (when it comes to medical problems, at least, a touch of physician heal thyself?) whose work is beyond reproach. She’s almost never seen out in full light, Horvát and DP Róbert Maly shooting her in shadows and murk, at night, in corners of underlit rooms, through doorways, reflected in windows. You get the feeling that if the camera could shoot around the corner, or through half-closed lids, it would.

Natasa Stork’s piercing blue eyes provide a cool counterpoint to all that half-light. They’re intelligent, flickering with thought, the single vivid point in a performance built on emotions withheld, everything tamped down and cut off.

Big emotions, small reactions, it’s what this film is all about. Stop go, yes no, advance retreat, Horvát paints a brilliant picture of a woman goaded mercilessly by her own emotions, while not reacting externally to them at all, and when medical student Alex starts to become interested in Márta, and Janós himself starts to respond and moves towards perhaps eventually explaining himself, she is nudged even further towards an emotional crisis.

What is the real story behind Janós’s declaration of love in the US? Is Alex a real guy or a fantasy too? Márta herself wonders if she’s made it all up, and careful editing (by Károly Szalai) reinforces the suggestion that Márta might be having a breakdown and is essentially playing the lead role in a one-handed love drama.

Preparations is not a love story, though it looks a bit like one (albeit a twisted one), it’s a film about a mood, the hazy line between obsessive love and madness. Towards the end Hórvat does a neat thing with the timeline, folding one part of it back on itself, to introduce an insecurity in the viewer similar to the one that Márta is experiencing, just in case we were getting cosy. Not being a “story”, it doesn’t quite know how to end, and its abruptness won’t satisfy everyone, as if Horvát has thrown her hands in the air to say “there you go, job done”.

It is very much done. What a fabulous film.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Fear Street: Part One – 1994

Pre-credits death scene

A homage to slasher films of yore, of the Friday 13th/Halloween/I Know What You Did Last Summer (70s, 80s and 90s respectively) sort, Fear Street: Part One – 1994 is the first of a trilogy based on the books by RL Stine, directed by Leigh Janiak and retaining some cast members across all three. Divulging which cast members stay the course would be entirely spoilerish but it isn’t too hard to guess.

In traditional slasher style there is a gruesome death before the opening credits, in a shopping mall (natch), where we also learn that the unlucky town of Shadyside has suffered at the hands of weird slasher killers before. Not only is this a case of “it’s happening again” (tick another box) but further reinforcement of the lowly social status of Shadyside when compared to its wealthier, happier and murder-free neighbour Sunnyvale, where, we’re told, their shopping mall has managed 30 straight years without carnage.

Thirty years have also passed out in our world since this sort of film was yanking bloodthirsty teenage audiences off the streets and into cinemas, keen to see what Freddy Kruger or Ghost Face or that guy with the hook was up to now. Maybe “it’s happening again” again in Fear Street, but it’s also happening a little differently. For starters, our gang of luckless teenagers are a less white sliced, more ethnically and sexually diverse crew, though this being 1994 (in the film at least), female lead Deena (Kiana Madeira) is still referred to as a “bull dyke lesbian” at one point, on account of her relationship with Samantha (Olivia Scott Welch), a girl who swings whichever way it’s going. Another thing that’s changed in the intervening decades is that the director is a woman, Leigh Janiak. A noticeable lack of stacked babes in white T shirts may be a consequence of that fact.

Man in skull mask
The killer? Might be…

All the plot you need is that there is a killer wearing a mask, wielding a knife and seemingly able to disappear at will, so possibly supernatural, some local lore about a 17th-century witch whose unquiet spirit may still be lurking and a sibling duo, Deena and brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr), who find themselves at the centre of it all after a prank involving their Sunnyvale rivals goes wrong. And people dying, one after the other, skewered from stem to stern, aft to fore, whichever way is easiest. Much blood spilled.

In Honeymoon – starring Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway – Janiak demonstrated that already in her debut feature she knew her way around a horror movie and she’s equally assured here. The big, insistent soundtrack, the sound effect of a knife being unsheathed (zhiiing!) and the gristly, glurping sound it makes as it connects with sinew, bone and vital organs all feature prominently, but this is more than mere homage. Janiak’s camera lurks with intent and the pools of shadows conjured by DP Caleb Heymann, along with editing (by Rachel Goodlett Katz) that repeatedly switches point of view creates an unsettling mood. We’re never quite at ease in this film, except perhaps when Janiak gives us a makeout scene as a bit of light relief.

The cast are largely unknown (depending on how much Disney Channel you watch) but they’re all good, committed actors and the lack of baggage counts in the film’s favour. Jamie Lee Curtis had also done barely anything before 1978’s Halloween made her scream queen supreme.

Unlike John Carpenter, Janiak does not write her own soundtrack, but there is plenty of 90s atmosphere delivered by Garbage, Portishead, Cypress Hill, and (nice touch) The Prodigy, whose Firestarter was inspired by the 1984 horror movie (or 1980 Stephen King novel).

Most importantly of all, this film plays it straight, which you couldn’t always say about Wes Craven, and is determined to be its own thing, a slasher/horror first and a homage to the genre second. Mission accomplished.

Fear Street – get the RL Stine books at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Black Widow

Black Widow and Yelena on a bike

“Three’s a trend,” as the saying goes, and with the success of Black Widow, after Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, it looks like the jinx on female superhero movies (Supergirl, Elektra, Catwoman) can finally be declared broken.

It was about time that Black Widow got her own standalone movie in any case, the character having been a bit neglected by the Marvel Cinematic Universe in one Avengers film after another, to the point where it was looking like there was a sexism/patriarchy thing going on.

Smartly heading that sort of criticism off at the pass, that’s the plot too, pretty much, with Black Widow swinging into action to neutralise a drug that turns feisty women into docile automata, a dastardly cocktail dreamt up by Russian mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone), boss of the same Red Room where Black Widow years before learned her tricks.

The action takes place while the Avengers are on one of their periodic “breaks” – between the Civil War and Infinity War movies in terms of timeline – allowing Natasha Romanofff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to track down her wayward sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), before the pair of them team up to locate Russians Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), the agents who raised Natasha and Yelena and who they’d assumed were their parents… but weren’t.

In keeping with Marvel’s “female directors for female superheroes” rule, Cate Shortland takes the helm. She knows a thing or two about female-centred drama, having directed Lore (starring Saskia Rosendahl), Berlin Syndrome (Teresa Palmer) and Somersault (Abbie Cornish). If you’ve seen any of those decidely non-superhero, non-CGI movies, you’ll know that Shortland is no action director but even so she gets things off to an urgent start with a frantic chase opener. Between her, and with Marvel old hand Gabriel Beristain as her DP and the gigantic Marvel technical team behind her, the frequent action sequences are solid enough. That said, notably the biggest dramatic payloads in this film are emotional rather than physical and the best action sequence of the lot – on the Budapest underground – is rooted in actual footage rather than CG trickery.

Rachel Weisz with a high powered rifle
Mother knows best: Rachel Weisz

After the slick opener demonstrating how well oiled that Marvel machine is, the action cuts back to the present day and then proceeds knowingly along the lines of a James Bond movie (look out for a clip of Moonraker on a TV at one point). This means action with quippy interludes to allow everyone to catch their breath. The first one gives Pugh and Johansson a chance to display their funny man/straight man double-act skills as the two sisters get re-acquainted and Yelena rips the piss out of her older sister for one thing or another, like Natasha’s love of the superhero landing pose and the fact that Black Widow is not one of the “big ones” of the Avengers, unlike, as Yelena puts it, “the god from space”.

True, Black Widow doesn’t really have a superpower, just super skills, unless hotness is a superpower.

Later, the second quippy interlude allows the “family” to get re-acquainted, before everyone heads into a showdown with despicable villain Dreykov, the world’s first Cockney Russian. So, a bit origin story, a bit family drama, some fun, some action, all very much standard Marvel fare all in all.

If it sounds rote it never feels it, and that’s probably down to the Yelena/Natasha relationship, with the fierce Florence Pugh particularly well cast as the fearless and caustic little sister. Rachel Weisz is slightly underused as the superspy mother, David Harbour, Russian accent wandering as badly as Winstone’s, is largely a comic character, the big tough superannuated Iron Curtain superhero Red Guardian, who can just about get back into his old costume if he sucks his gut in.

It’s nice to see the Cold War back firmly centre stage as an arena where big dramas can be played out, just as it was in Moonraker’s day, though in Black Widow’s eventual showdown with Dreykov there’s also a critique of the shadowy megarich oligarchs who aim to control the world through fair means or foul. Insert your own Bezos/Gates/Koch narrative here.

Black Widow isn’t alone among superheroes in having family issues (Superman, Spider Man, Tony Stark), but it does look like nervousness on Marvel’s part that Scarlett Johansson’s first “solo” outing for the MCU sees her bolstered by mum, dad and little sis. But then if you’re a widow you’re already defined by a relationship to another person. Next time out, Black Widow’s Dead Husband?

Black Widow – The Official Marvel Movie Special Book at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Jeanne riding on Jumbo

The opening shot of the skewed romantic drama Jumbo is of a naked Noémie Merlant putting on her clothes in her bedroom. She’s an attractive young woman with a fine body, as the camera makes clear. An edit later and we’re with Jeanne (Merlant) as she bowls out the door and heads off to work. There’s a noticeable difference in her that goes beyond the clothes. Her indoor, naked, persona was bright and bubbly; outdoors Jeanne is mousy, lacking in self-confidence, withdrawn and nowhere near as attractive. But all this is about to change, when Jeanne falls in love with a ride called Jumbo at her local amusement park.

A carousel, to be precise. And yes, it sounds like a joke. And yet the odd thing about Belgian writer/director Zoé Wittock’s feature debut is how absolutely down-the-line straight it is. A woman falls in love with a machine, what of it?

Partly this is because Jeanne has been simply yet boldly drawn as a young woman whose new job at a funfair is clearly the culmination of an earnest lifelong desire. She loves machinery, as shots of Jeanne working once the crowds have gone home make clear, the wiping down the paintwork, the cleaning of the banks of extinguished light bulbs.

Also it’s because the relationship with Jeanne’s mother is an interesting one and is well drawn. Jeanne the withdrawn, the prim; mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) the outgoing, the outrageous, forever urging Jeanne to get laid, even going so far as to try and recruit Jeanne’s new boss, Marc (Bastien Bouillon) into helping the daughter join the mother in the world of the libido.

Marc is also interesting. A version of the lairy fairground lad who probably smells of Swarfega, he’s more sensitive than the usual stereotype and he and Jeanne do indeed strike up a friendship shading into a romantic relationship, especially once, in a moment of shared confidences, he agrees with her that, yes, a machine could have a soul. Put this in the “things men say to get what they want” box if you like, but he says it.

Jeanne singing in the car with her mother
Good times with her mother

But whatever it is that Marc says, it’s Jumbo who has the words (gurgles, growls) that Jeanne wants to hear and in the film’s climactic scene, a fantasy playing out in Jeanne’s head, probably, she gives herself to the spinning, whirling mass of metal and flashing lights with an abandon that Marc could only wish for. Again, this sounds amusing but it isn’t meant to be, though there might be tittering at the back when Jeanne face starts getting speckled with engine oil in a money shot for the ages.

I was steered towards this unusual film by the French Film Festival UK mailer, often a source of good things. And I was glad I was. It’s particularly odd watching Steven Spielberg’s playbook being deployed in a sexualised way but that’s what Wittock is doing with her mix of the magical and the adult. The bright winking lights of the Move It (Jumbo’s official name), the sense of being transported into another realm, the capturing of awe and wonder, the “is he going to communicate?” moments, all seem pulled from the Close Encounters, ET, AI end of Spielberg’s resumé, and Wittock consciously echoes the shooting style of those Spielberg fantasies, too.

We’re all used to blinking, thinking metal machines (think R2-D2) but this is something else in terms of transgressive relationships. And yet, in some senses, it’s not so far from the role Merlant had in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, where the boundary crossed was merely gendered.

Take it all as a big metaphor, if you like, and Jeanne’s mother is clearly the angry, disgusted parent met in many a coming-out drama of yore – “if you get really wet, he might get rusty” she spitfires at one point, before throwing her daughter out. Or take it as a portrait of a young woman’s sentimental education, or of the battle for command of the sexual terrain between a dominant mother and her controlled but rebelling child.

Or even as a trans-racial analogue. It’s a bit too early for a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner remake about a serious young woman bringing home a cyborg to meet ma and pa, but you’d put Zoé Wittock down as a name to have a go at it.

Jumbo – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

No Sudden Move

Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro at a phone box

On the principle that second-rate Soderbergh is better than no Soderbergh at all, a warm hello to No Sudden Move, a pastiche 1950s crime drama with a Maguffin that insists it’s more than a Maguffin.

Don Cheadle, Kieran Culkin and Benicio Del Toro play three prickly guys hired to “babysit” a family (ie hold them hostage) while one of them takes Dad Matt (David Harbour) off to pick up something from a safe. That “something” becomes increasingly important as the story progresses, eventually bathing everything in a Chinatown-style glow as it becomes apparent that behind these no-marks is a vast scheme based on corporate corruption of a sort that makes day-to-day Mob activity look silly.

Talking of mobsters, early on we meet Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser), the face who’s hired Curt Goynes (Cheadle), Russo (Del Toro) and Charley (Culkin), but behind him, so the whisper goes, might be Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta) or possibly Aldrick Watkins (Bill Duke), a pair of local mobsters, though there’s also talk of teams moving in from out of town, from Detroit, Chicago or Illinois, or possibly all three. This thing is big, which should make small-fry Curt and crew nervous but doesn’t, because all three of them are hoping for a quick in and out and also because they’re all a bit dim.

Anyhow, what looks like it’s going to be a straight-up family-hostage drama, reinforced by the fact that it’s excellent Amy Seimetz playing the concerned matriarch, becomes something far less straightforward once – big breath – a) it’s established husband/dad Matt has been having an affair with his secretary, b) they were planning on running off to California together, c) the “something” at the husband’s workplace isn’t in the safe, d) one of the gang unexpectedly dies, e) the police arrive, f) the surviving two set about playing one big gangster off against another, hoping to somehow wriggle through the gaps and come out of this morass as wealthier men.

There are more plot turns, a lot more, involving Matt’s shifty boss Mel Forbert (Hugh Maguire), four-square cop Joe Finney (Jon Hamm) and corporate big wheel Mike Lowen (Matt Damon). And as the actual nature of what was meant to have been stolen becomes clear, it’s as if, somewhere in the screenwriter afterlife, Raymond Chandler (the increasingly unfathomable plot) and Robert Towne (the LA-corruption angle) are duking it out for possession of the film’s soul.

Frankie Shaw and David Harbour
Matt gets no comfort from Paula

Here the screenwriter is Ed Solomon, best known for light-hearted larks really, having written Men in Black, Charlie’s Angels and the Bill and Ted movies, but he’s got his pastiche hat firmly screwed on in No Sudden Move, having clearly binge-watched a lot of movies featuring men in hats talking out of the side of their mouths. Some snappy one-liners occasionally move things towards a comedy precipice, especially as it becomes more obvious that our smalltime criminal heroes are incompetent and/or drunk most of the time.

The dead weight of pastiche extends to Steven Soderbergh, who alternates his usual sparkling shooting style with scenes done very dark, often in impressively big interiors full of wood and with ornate ceilings, plus the odd Edward Hopper-inspired exterior shot to emphasise America at its most American, while David Arnold’s score hums along with drums, bongos and double bass picking out a downbeat jazzy vibe.

The best pastiches (like, say, Michel Hazanavicius’s OSS movies starring Jean Dujardin) aren’t just technically accomplished, they re-orient our attitudes to the original material – they have a political agenda.

There’s no such thing going on here. Instead, Soderbergh gives us an accomplished and very cool exercise in style. If you’re in the mood to roll around in one of those, you’ll probably enjoy No Sudden Move more than I did. On top of that, for all the joys of seeing this first-rate cast and laying a small bet on how underused Ray Liotta is going to be (again), there’s a fatal indecision about how comedic things are actually meant to be. It’s like the Three Stooges without jokes.

As for the postscript insisting that the movie has been about a real-life conspiracy driven by a cartel of US car manufacturers, it’s as good as an admission by Soderbergh and Solomon that they’ve failed. Sumptuously.

No Sudden Move – Get David Arnold’s original soundtrack at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

First Date

Kelsey and Mike

First Date is an appropriate title for a movie made by a team of newbies, most of whom are on their first time out in features. It’s a mad, gonzo comedy thriller, a redneck farce full of swagger and attitude and made in a familiar American style you could call guns ’n poses.

Its writer/directors are Manuel Crosby (this is his debut feature) and Darren Knapp (his second, so a veteran) and its two stars – Tyson Brown and Shelby Duclos – are also new kids on the block. You can’t tell. This feels like a seasoned cast and crew who know what they’re doing.

You could call it the “bad night out” plot, a series of situations escalating in seriousness and absurdity, starting at the point where Mike (Brown) decides to buy a car so he can take out Kelsey (Duclos), the girl he’s been wanting to ask out for the longest time and now this is his chance.

The car, a 1965 Chrysler, is a wreck and it’s also hot. Unbeknown to Mike, there’s something in it that makes it very desirable, both to a gang prepared to kill for possession of it, and the cops, who turn out to be almost as bad as the criminals. Familiar?

Everyone talks a lot. A lot. And a lot of it is funny. Early on it feels like it’s got Tarantino-itis, with a bit of Superbad coming round the edges, on account of the relative youth of Duclos and Brown and their deadbeat teenage screen friends. Later it dives off up a road you’ll have been up before if you’ve seen Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths (the one he made before Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) or the Patrick Lussier film Drive Angry, or Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire.

If you haven’t seen any of those, the formula is chat + guns + villains in bad shiricolas Cage turned up at any point he’d slot right in.

The bad guys
These’ll be the bad guys

People tend to divide two ways on this sort of thing. Some bridle at the cliche of it all, others succumb to the joy of genre and wallow in the warm bath of the recognisable. The incredibly dumb and superstoked henchman Vince, for instance, played to the hilt by Ryan Quinn Adams, who shouts all of his lines. Gang boss The Captain (Jesse Janzen), the slow-speaking and eloquent sort always keen to give his underlings the wealth of his experience.

The gang, when not discussing drugs or guns or killing teenagers, talk about the book club they’re all in, which is a nice touch recalling that Takashi Miike film Yakuza Apocalypse, where in their down time all the gnarly old gang guys would sit around in a knitting circle.

It’s this mix of the everyday and the absurd that makes First Date entertaining. There’s a fascination with an 8-track tape player that comes with the Chrysler, for instance, and at one point Mike, trying to avoid being shot, finds himself being tripped up by a robot vacuum cleaner that’s gone rogue.

This is a film that knows what it wants and – technically, as well as in terms of acting – isn’t bothering with nuance. Its straightahead meat-and-potatoes shooting style is sufficient unto the story. It’s made for nothing, and the end credits are a remarkable list of the same handful of names coming up again and again, and other names who are obviously family members.

Tyson Brown is a find as the lead. Handsome, wide-eyed enough to be plausible, likeable, versatile, he’ll go as far as he wants to, with a bit of luck.

At any point in the last 20 minutes or so it could have ended and there would have been no loss. It isn’t much of a story and it’s obvious it’s got to finale with a bullets-blazing crescendo in which most people die. In sexual stereotype terms, then, a guys movie. Imagine it’s the 1990s and enjoy.

First Date – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Till Death

Emma shackled to her husband's corpse

Till Death isn’t much of a film for irony but the title, recalling the “till death us do part” line from the wedding vows, is rich in it. Megan Fox plays the straying wife whose husband decides to take an exquisite form of revenge, one which winds up with her shackled to a dead corpse in a remote holiday home that’s been cleaned of every utensil, tool or scrap of anything that might serve as a key. There’s no parting here.

And that’s the setup – Emma (Fox) in her ivory silk underwear and covered in blood and bits of the dead man’s brain, with no working phone line, her mobile phone dunked in a vase of water, the car drained of fuel, dragging a corpse around a house without heating, doomed to die miles from help, in a snowed-in winter landscape that’s more or less ensured that no one will be arriving out of the blue just by the by.

It’s a good, smart, simple idea, one that pits human wit (hers) against almost certain death and asks us to stand back and watch as ingenuity goes to work, trying first this and then that, in much the same way as the hero of The Martian did, or Robinson Crusoe even.

Megan Fox covered in blood
Blood is the least of Emma’s problems

Fighting the handicap of a face that’s been rendered almost featureless by one procedure or another, Fox, perhaps by a sheer force of talent, cuts through as Emma, with rage and frustration tangoing together as the woman searches high and low, in outbuildings and cellars, dragging the dead man, using a white wedding dress as a kind of sled to make moving him more easily. Yes, that is irony too, I’ll give you that.

It feels like this is a comeback film for Fox, though a quick look at the imdb reveals she made two features last year (2020) and three the year before. Even so, it’s a long time since the Transformers movies propelled her instantly, it seemed, onto everyone’s radar. Jennifer’s Body, Jonah Hex and Friends with Kids followed swiftly on, and helped put her at or near the top of all those FHM/GQ etc “hottest women in the universe” type polls. But I’ve not seen her in anything since 2012’s This Is 40.

Poor Eoin Macken, who plays the dead body she’s shackled too. He’s effective enough while still alive, and grimly so also as a corpse, being flollopped up and down the stairs repeatedly, with half his face missing and spongey grey stuff everywhere. I could swear I saw him flinch once, though it’s got to be a dummy taking the brunt of most of it. I hope they paid him well (he also writes and directs his own films, so the money’s probably going to a good home).

It is an effective film all round, with debuting feature director SK Dale proving he’s got what it takes when it comes first to establishing a creepy atmosphere of impending dread and then, later, to building an escalating sense of panic, even though he’s fighting against a story that decides to junk its main premise – one person’s fight against her situation – and introduces a new one, as two burglars turn up (Callan Mulvey, Jack Roth), one of them with murderous intent.

This switching of horses midstream robs the film of its mythic purity. Emma’s fighting people now, not just her circumstances, and there’s an increasing use of sheer blind luck, rather than smarts, to get Emma out of scrapes. Less “ooh, that was clever” and more “ooh, that was lucky.”

It’s a bit of a con, in other words, a film that sells you one thing only for it to turn out when you unpack at home that you’ve got another thing, but it’s fun, and fast and everyone knows what they’re meant to be doing and gets on and does it. An entertaining goodtime thriller with brains (splattered everywhere).

Till Death – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Filmmaker’s House

Mikel has a bath, with face mask

The Filmmaker’s House is a remarkable documentary that might not be a documentary at all. It looks like one – there’s a handheld camera and it’s full of “ordinary people doing ordinary things” in the words of Marc Isaacs, the filmmaker who has up till now specialised in very intimate documentaries about subjects most directors wouldn’t go near.

His film film, 2001’s Lift, was shot entirely in a lift/elevator, and his technique was very similar to what we see here – turn camera on a person, ask them if they mind being filmed, start asking questions. The results are often almost unbearable, though almost always gripping. In his last full-length documentary, 2012’s The Road: A Story of Life and Death, we got glimpses of the lives of people who lived on an arterial road out of London. They were all lonely, hopeless, sick or old. Isaacs’s technique is 50 per cent empathy and 50 per cent passive-aggressive bullying – he gets what he wants.

Sort of. His career, we learn at the beginning of The Filmmaker’s House, is hitting a wall of indifference. The money men are only interested in documentaries on serial killers and celebrities, his producer says via videocall, subjects Isaacs isn’t interested in at all. And so, as an act of defiance perhaps, Isaacs turns on the camera in his own house and starts filming what’s going on there in, we imagine, an ordinary day.

In come a pair of builders – big, sweaty Keith and a sidekick who clearly doesn’t want to be filmed. They’re replacing some fence panels in the garden. Isaacs asks Keith if he’ll drop his price. Keith, flatly, says no. In comes Nery, the cleaner. Her mother has just died and, though reluctant at first to talk about it, within minutes she is showing Marc pictures of her mother on her deathbed. In comes Mikel, a homeless Slovakian guy who lives in a cardboard box around the corner. A flurry of excitement – the cat has somehow got hold of a pigeon and is pouncing all over it while it flaps its last in the living room. And in comes Zara, a Muslim woman from next door, head to toe in black clothes and only her eyes visible. Again, within minutes Marc seems to have her in a very personal interchange – she should leave her husband, he says, and what does she think of the fact that she’s a Muslim and he’s a Jew and yet they’re friends?

Zara arrives with lunch
Zara from next door, with lunch

This is our cast of characters, with Marc off camera asking the odd question but largely leaving the dynamic open. It looks like a documentary attempting a “London in microcosm” thing, with all the risks that might involve. Some of it clearly is documentary – Mikel probably is asleep on the sofa, and that does look like real ingrained dirt all over his skin when he has a bath. And when they all have lunch together, this motley gang, the look on Keith’s face when presented with food cooked by Zara (“curry”, he sniffs) looks genuine enough.

All through, of course, as with all documentaries, from wildlife to war zone, the question needs to asked: how much of this is rigged for the camera? Later, in a weird, revealing moment when Isaacs pulls his camera back to give a bit more context, the answer would appear to be “quite a lot of it”. It’s a discombobulating moment because, if this is all a setup, then Isaacs has clearly yanked the most natural performances out of these people, who aren’t actors, and yet also managed to retain a level of documentary “truth”. Mikel is a homeless man, Nery is Marc’s cleaner, Zara is his Muslim neighbour and Keith and sidekick are Arsenal-supporting builders. If there is a message it’s a very humanist one: that the cultural differences we take to be huge are not, in fact, that big at all. “You should ring your mother,” Keith advises Mikel at one point. He hasn’t spoken to her in years. And Mikel does. “We all have mothers”.

At one, highly amusing, moment, Marc’s wife returns home on her bicycle. She’s clearly very used to Marc’s ways and is unimpressed by the scene that greets her. “Can you just put the camera down,” she hisses, trying to hustle Marc into the garden where she can bollock him off the record. “The kids are coming back in 15 minutes… they have piano lessons… enough is enough.” There, as neatly realised as you’ll ever see it, is a visual manifestation of the critic Cyril Connolly’s dread pronouncement, “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

I’m not sure what The Filmmaker’s House is, but it’s fantastic to watch.

The Filmmaker’s House – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Good on Paper

Dennis and Andrea

With Good on Paper, a film about a comedian, written by and starring a comedian who’s done a handful of specials for Netflix, Ilisa Shlesinger appears to be walking in Amy Schumer’s shoes. She’s about the same age, blonde, Jewish and deploys a scalpel wit in comedy that veers between self-deprecation and attack. The “yeh, what of it?” style. She’s also likeable, which isn’t the main difference between successful and unsuccessful comedians – that’s good material – but it helps.

Like a lot of comedians moving into new territory, Shlesinger goes down the Jerry Seinfeld route, of a fictional story with cutaways to Shlesinger doing her stand-up routine, which acts as a commentary on what we’ve just seen, a progress report on how it’s going so far, where mistakes have been made, how the fictional Iliza (called Andrea, just in case we get confused) compares to the real Iliza, and so on.

This is a transition, in other words, perhaps out of nervousness of being able to pull off a fully fictional set-up in one fell swoop, or perhaps out of a worry that the audience won’t make the leap with her (which is the sort of thing TV execs worry about more than comedians). The material, too, plays safe by making relationships, Shlesinger’s stock in trade, its subject.

Andrea, a standup comedian and endlessly auditioning actor, meets a guy called Dennis (Ryan Hansen) on the flight back from her latest disastrous try-out for a TV series. He’s a hedge fund manager, nice, chatty, smart and they hit it off instantly. He’s a bit preppy and nerdy but he’s fun and – big plus – he likes a drink. He becomes a fixture in her life, but there’s nothing romantic going on – she finds him physically unattractive, one of her standup interludes makes clear.

But Dennis would like there to be something romantic going on – he even pitches their relationship to her the way a money man might, as if a Powerpoint presentation were coming any second. But as another standup interlude points out, often the difference between romance and no romance is a few glasses of hooch. In the case of Andrea and Dennis, psychoactive mushrooms are what breaches the dam.

Dennis is not quite who he seems, though. He probably isn’t a hedge fund manager, he probably doesn’t have a house in Beverly Hills, his mother probably isn’t dying of cancer. He’s obviously spinning Andrea a line, in the way all men spin all women a line when they’re out to impress them, except Dennis doesn’t seem to know when to stop.

Ilisa Shlesinger, Rebecca Rittenhouse and Margaret Cho
Sleuths Andrea, Serrena and Margot

That’s the situation in the situation comedy side of things – we watch as she works it out. The problem being that we’ve all worked it out a lot faster than this supposedly very smart woman manages to. From the get-go Dennis is obviously a creep. His clothes, his unshaven features, his bad hair, everything about him says “this guy is not managing a hedge fund” and it ruins the enjoyment a touch that Andrea isn’t working that out. At one point the story threatens to become a thriller, with Shlesinger as a kind of Hitchcock blonde, and then it pulls back into safer comedic territory again.

It’s fun, funny, smart and never quite as dangerous or satisfying as it feels like it ought to be. Margaret Cho adds spikey attitude as Andrea’s bar-owning (handy) outspoken confidante, Rebecca Rittenhouse is the airhead acting rival she is fixated on – in the best bit of the film these three form a kind of wonky sleuthing team – and on the fringes, as two women who know Dennis better than most, are Beth Dover and Kimia Behpoornia, both of them very welcome squeezes of citrusy sharpness.

The women in this tend to be smart and unconventional; the men who aren’t Dennis tend towards the baying jock, from hecklers at the comedy club, to guys on the street, to the Yale graduate (“Bow wow wow”, he barks) Dennis should really know but doesn’t (because he never really went to Yale).

Men are oikish lying scumbags; woman are sweet-natured and thoughtful. One’s from Mars, the other from Venus. Puppy-dogs tails; sugar and spice.

Does Good on Paper sound good on paper? Regardless, it is a good comedy. It’s likeable and funny. But it feels like it’s holding back its best ideas and wants to be more – more adventurous, more daring. Maybe next time.

© Steve Morrissey 2021

An Unquiet Grave

Ava and Jamie

An Unquiet Grave is a remarkably simple but remarkably effective horror film. Two people, one camera, a handful of sets, kicking off with a scene at a graveside where grieving husband Jamie (Jacob Ware) meets Ava (Christine Nyland), the twin sister of his dead wife, Julia, and together they set off to resurrect the dead woman. What Ava doesn’t know is that the procedure is going to cost her a lot more than it’s going to cost him, which raises all sorts of questions about male privilege on the way.

None of those questions are raised in the English folk song on which the film is based. The Unquiet Grave goes back to at least the 14th century and has most of the elements we see on screen – a dead woman and a grieving husband by her graveside unable to let the dead woman go, and wishing for one more kiss from his beloved. She speaks to him from the grave – “You crave one kiss from my clay cold lips/But my breath is earthy strong”. Don’t, in other words. What the song doesn’t feature is a literal resurrection, though clearly a corpse speaking from the grave is alive, if only in a poetic sense.

The two stars, Ware and co-writer Nyland, and director (and co-writer) Terence Krey all worked together on the horror tinged comedy series Graves, which was made for the internet and came in at about six to eight minutes an episode. There’s no comedy here, and the running time is hardly marathon length, at 75 minutes, but it’s long haul in comparison, all have adapted to the shift in length. This film is long enough to make its point and not so long that you start to get impatient for the ending. Leave them wanting more.

Jamie at the graveside
Jamie at the graveside

It is artful, bare-bones film-making. Him and her and a small crew, at a graveside, in the woods, in a car, back at his place, in the garden, just a handful of locations, no attention-seeking stuff from the cameraman, sound recordist, make-up or costume crew – like a folk song sung a cappella, maybe, if you’re being fanciful – which throws all the emphasis on the story itself. When it’s necessary for a loremeister to become involved (you know, the cobwebby old dude who has a creaking medieval tome full of woodcuts of horned creatures), it’s done via a phone call. We don’t hear him/her speak. Economical, sufficient.

Because it’s so stark, so lacking in special effects, in the central section, where Jamie has conjured his wife back to life, using a blindfold, some wine, a bundle of smoking twigs and a knife, the question raises itself – is it really her, Julia, or is Ava pretending to be her own dead sister, to satisfy Jamie, or to preserve herself? Are we watching a supernatural horror film or a story about grief and delusion and a man coercing a woman into doing things she doesn’t want to do?

And assuming Jamie has actually brought Julia back to life, did anyone ask Julia if that’s what she wanted?

As in the folk song, where the corpse essentially chides the silly lover, pointing out that death comes soon enough and life is for the living, a critique of self-pity is what’s really in play, with Ware particularly effective as the slightly nerdy and very needy Jamie, while Nyland gets two roles, as the cool, attitudinal Ava and as Julia, Jamie’s warmer, more domesticated dead wife.

As horror films go it isn’t very horror-full, and in fact once it’s got its supernatural moment out of the way early on, it more or less works through the consequences using a plausible, realistic logic. What it is, though, and surely this was the intention, is very, very creepy.

An Unquiet Grave – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021