Wednesday 15 May 2019

Highlights of Paracinema Festival, Derby, May 2019: Reviews of Zeroes (USA 2018), Fuck You All: the Uwe Boll Story (Canada/USA 2018), Knife + Heart (France/Mexico/Switzerland 2018), Diamantino (Portugal/France/Brazil 2018), Bearkittens (Germany 2018), Fornacis (Réunion/France 2019), Far from the Apple Tree (UK 2019) and VIPCO: The Untold Story (UK 2019)

Derby's Paracinema Festival is now in its second year (it was previously held under the 'Fantastiq' banner), although this is the first time it has cut anchor from the main Derby Film Festival, of which it used to be a part. Paracinema is, as the programming team describe it, "dedicated to films and genres outside the mainstream." Here are some of the new films that screened at the Festival this year.

Zeroes (USA 2018: Dir Charles Smith) The city of Philadelphia is no stranger to being utilised as a movie location, not least in the eponymous 1993 movie by Jonathan Demme. The latest film to use the US's sixth most populous city - and to capture some of its quirky feel - is Charles Smith's Zeroes, a frequently funny and sometimes hilarious send up of superhero movies, which feels like a less misanthropic version of James (Guardians of the Galaxy) Gunn's 2010 outing Super.

Friends Ray and Kenneth (John McKeever and Ryan Farrell) find themselves drunk in a convenience store after leaving a costume party, dressed identically as ninjas. Somehow they manage to foil a hold up in the shop, and their clumsy but effective disarming of the robber ends up on the local TV station, where local newsreader Kate (Katrina Law) mistakenly identifies the pair as Muslim women via CCTV footage. Deciding, with the aid of Kenneth's workmate Gary (Ely Henry) - who just happens to be loaded - to become crime fighters (aided by costumes put together from accessories half inched from the Sports shop where Ray works), they decide to track down the elusive Shuylkill Strangler who has been offing people across the city. But they cut their teeth dealing with more minor misdemeanors, including public urination and a supposed vehicle attack which turns out to be a couple enjoying noisy car sex. And all the while Kate, who has an on/off relationship with Kenneth, is trying to identify the identities of Philadelphia's masked crime fighters, not knowing how near to home she needs to look.

Zeroes hits the ground running and rarely pauses for breath; some sharp characterisation - McKeever, Farrell and Henry are a superb mix of silliness and charm, tempered by Law's careerist TV anchor - and rather wicked sideswipes at Philadelphia life complement a script that is as witty verbally as its frequent sight gags. Ok it's not exactly pushing the envelope concept wise (probably best not to mention the Kick-Ass movies) but it's more often than not laugh out loud funny and I can't wait to see it again; the good news is that Smith has put together financing for his next movie, also a comedy, and I'll be in line for that too.

Fuck You All: The Uwe Boll Story (Canada/USA 2018: Dir Sean Patrick Shaul) My mother told me that swearing wasn't big or clever; it seems that Mr Boll never received similar parental advice, and judging by the character that comes across in this documentary, about one of cinema's most loathed directors, even if he did he would have told his folks where to stick it.

For even the most die hard fans of exploitation film, the mention of Uwe Boll's name is likely to strike fear into the heart; his reputation is such that there was once an on line petition to get him to stop making movies. Shaul's documentary was the chance to present a different face of the director to an audience who perhaps want to believe he can't be all bad. Sadly I think he is, despite the protestations from his wife that he's a pussycat really. Well not bad exactly - there are plenty of testimonials from actors and crew that respected his no-nonsense ways - but there is an overriding frustration from those interviewed that he makes a better producer (ie dealmaker) than director. It's tempting to comment that the clips of his films are selected to look bad out of context of the whole movie, but having sat through more than my fair share of Boll-ocks that just isn't the case. I'd heard that his more recent output, to which I've not been exposed, is more competent, but the documentary clips of his 2011 film Auschwitz, which seems to make The Producers look like an exercise in good taste, left me unconvinced (I've since seen the film and it's putrid).

I'm not entirely sure why this documentary exists; it does nothing to improve Boll's image, and I may be getting old, but offensive is offensive. The inclusion of a section from the infamous 2006 'Boll Boxes His Critics' may be seen as funny (and what were they thinking, getting in the ring with a known pugilist?)  but by the end of Fuck You All, I just wanted him to fuck off.

Knife + Heart (France/Mexico/Switzerland 2018: Dir Yann Gonzalez) Vanessa Paradis has been landing some great roles in recent years, finally shrugging off the 'Joe Le Taxi' years with quirky performances in films like The Key (2007), Fading Gigolo (2013) and Frost (2017). Here Paradis plays Anne Parèze, a director of gay porn films in late 1970s (ie pre HIV) Paris. Anne is still reeling from a rejection by her ex lover Lois over her drinking, and forms a relationship of sorts with Nans, a construction worker who she wants to star in her films. However Lois is also her editor - awkward - and so Anne is still constantly in contact with her.

Meanwhile a masked, black gloved killer is despatching various of Anne's cast in porn-y ways (an enormous black dildo/flick knife for example), which gives her an idea for a new film, 'Homocidal' and a plan to track down the killer.

Gonzalez's film is, as the description above probably indicates, wholly in thrall to giallo movies. With a colour palette heavy on the reds and blues, and both the killer and their modus operandi coming straight from the cinematic pages of Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento, it wears its influences fairly publicly. Clearly the movie wants to be edgy, with its gay porn setting, but content wise it's less shocking than it thinks it is. Paradis' character is really something though; a lesbian maker of gay porn whose obsession with her ex lover taints everything that she does. Like some of the films from which it takes its influences, it's rather a case of style over substance, but its stunningly shot and its sinuous camera prowls the sets in true giallo style.

Diamantino (Portugal/France/Brazil 2018: Dir Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt) 'Astonishingly confident, funny and visually outrageous' were the first words I jotted down after leaving the screening of Abrantes and Schmidt's first collaborative directorial effort.

Carloto Cotta, in a stunning performance that will be hard to be beat this year, plays dim as ditchwater but uber talented football player Diamantino Matamouros, a Portuguese star striker who critically misses a penalty in a cup final and becomes a national whipping boy as a result. Things are no better at home either, as grasping Shakespearean evil twin sisters Sonia and Natasha (Anabela Moreira and Margarida Moreira) castigate him for cutting off their money supply, accidentally killing their father in a fit of pique while raging at their ill luck. Diamantino meanwhile looks mournfully to his future, the only bright points in life being his cat Mittens and his involvement in the rescue of a boat full of refugees while out on his yacht, which triggers a decision that he'd like to adopt a 'fugee' of his own.

A pair of Secret Service personnel who just happen to be lesbian lovers, Lucia and Aisha (Maria Leite and Cleo Tavares), are charged with looking into Diamantino's financial affairs. They concoct a plan to insert Aisha, who is black, into his home by posing as a (male) refugee up for adoption, although the relationship between the two looks set to be more than friendship. Meanwhile Sonia and Natasha have done a deal with a chem company, in exchange for hard cash, to offer up Diamantino in a cloning experiment with the hope that multiple versions of the football player will act as spokespersons for a 'leave the EU' campaign!

Diamantino is an explosion of genres and styles that appears camp and flimsy but betrays a more steely heart. It's both knowing and naive, its over-the-topness redolent of classic Almdovar. Visually the film is sumptuous and the quirks, from Diamantino's spirit dogs who run with him on the pitch in a pink fog, to the breasts that grow on the football player as a by-product of the cloning process (which corresponds with Aisha strapping herself in to pass herself off as male), the movie frequently threatens to fall apart but the directorial hands are steady; Diamantino is never less than a joy to watch, and if the ending isn't perhaps as polymorphously perverse as one might like, it's otherwise pretty close to genius.

Bearkittens (Germany 2018: Dir Lars Henriks) Henriks' (real surname Kokemüller) last movie, 2017's Leon Must Die, was a surprise hit of last year's Paracinema Festival, a sci-fiesque two hander (with co-writer and partner Nisan Arkan) which I described as The Terminator meets Before Sunrise. The pair are now back with the more ambitious Bearkittens, featuring an all female cast who are in reality mainly students of Kokemüller's film class.

Petra is a newbie team leader responsible for taking a group of young delinquent girls, all doing community service, on a big litter pick in the forest. As well as the 'Keep Germany Tidy' aim of the weekend, it's also a chance for the girls to bond with each other - they'll be camping out under the stars. Of course none of the troop want to be there and Petra's well meaning attempts to encourage the girls to get along fail dismally. It can only be a matter of time before disaster strikes.

Bearkittens aims for quite a bit in its slender 72 minute running time. The characters of the seven girls are developed carefully (including a backstory for each that tells us how they got to be doing community service), in addition to which is Bearkittens' own storyline, where the delinquents have to pull together to cover up an accidental death. The comedy is more character driven than pratfall derived, and Arkan's script does well to avoid the cast feeling a little, well, generic.

But the standout performance of the piece is Stefanie Borbe as Petra. She's a great comic creation, a team leader who we know from the beginning of the movie, via an interview with her employer, probably isn't tough enough to handle her charges and is most likely in the wrong job. But Petra remains optimistic, driven by self help books and a big dollop of niceness. Borbe captures the character perfectly, her mouth smiling constantly as her eyes narrow in panic, totally out of her depth as she tries to encourage everyone to get along. She is the best thing in this; Kokemüller and Arkan are definitely a partnership to watch, and Bearkittens is fun while it lasts.

Fornacis (Reunion/France 2019: Dir Aurélia Mengin) Whoa, this is a toughie. Inspired by the loss of a friend of the director, who is also the central character, Fornacis is overridingly the study of grief, and the state after the loss of a loved one where time stands still and the world takes on an unreal feeling.

Anya (Mengin) is a woman in the depths of grief, bereft at the loss of an unnamed woman (glimpsed throughout the film) who may have been a lover or a close friend. Anya hangs out in bars (the 'Fornacis' of the title), drives aimlessly around the countryside, and has meaningless sex while in her numbed state; her only companion on these journeys is an urn, presumably containing her friends' ashes. Scenes where little happens extend to breaking point; audience patience is severely tested. there's no conclusion as such, although Anya starts to grow what looks like a protective rock type covering on her skin. She ends up splayed on the side of a volcano where she finally seems to be at peace.

Mengin is best known for her short films - Fornacis is her first feature - and is certainly a challenging watch (it was the only film of the festival where I witnessed walkouts). Mengin is a visual artist and she uses her body as an extension of her grief; the film is largely silent. Fornacis has an eighties feel in its colour palette and use of neon, nodding to more modern giallo movies, but it's infinitely stranger than that. It's been a huge hit at many European film festivals and its undeniably a work of great passion. Perhaps it just sat a little too awkwardly with the rest of the Paracinema programme, but I found the whole thing a little too self consciously artistic and pompous, even though I didn't doubt the sincerity of the filmmaker.

Far From the Apple Tree (UK 2019: Dir Grant McPhee) McPhee's first features were his 2013 movie Sarah's Room and 2017's Night Kaleidoscope, both rather arty affairs with elliptical plots. His latest is a little more narratively coherent, old fashioned even, while still maintaining his trademark oddness. It's the story of  Judith (Sorcha Groundsell), a young artist just starting off in her career, who gets noticed at a gallery opening by the artist whose works are on display. The artist in question is Roberta Roslyn (Victoria Ridelle) and before we know it, Roberta has asked Judith to give it all up and come and work for her as a live in archivist.

Given free access to the house, it's not long after Judith begins documenting the enormous amount of film and media objects collected by Roslyn that she notices the image of a strange woman on some strips of celluloid. She finds out that this is the artist's daughter, missing presumed dead and who, oddly, looks uncannily like Judith. Despite Roslyn's protestations that it's merely coincidence, Judith comes to concludes that there is more to her employment than she first thinks.

There are hints of Rebecca and even Gaslight in From the Apple Tree's narrative; the ingenue artist, the controlling superficially polite houseowner; hell there's even a sinister housekeeper. The accumulation of media, offering a fractured account of Roslyn's real story, feels terribly on point (there's a Pixelvision camera offering a heavily distorted view of the world, a device I last saw 25 years ago in Michael Almereyda's 1994 movie Nadja) but this is really just window dressing to mask the rather overcooked story underneath. I never really bought the fact that Judith was seemingly unable to escape the house, making the ending, with its hints of inevitability and even circularity, a little hard to take. But Far from the Apple Tree is elegantly made, well acted if all rather polite. It's like a team time TV serial from the 1970s with a little added peril.

VIPCO The Untold Story (UK 2019: Dir Jason Impey). I know that this is a 2019 film because the director had only finished the (two hour) cut of the film two nights before it was due to be screened at the Festival.

Impey's documentary is arguably more interesting because of its context to it and the circumstances of its filming. Video Instant Picture Company (or VIPCO for short) were one of the first companies - along with Guild Home Video and Go Video, to exploit the incredible rise in popularity of the VHS recorder at the beginning of the 1980s. The head of the 'company' (originally just one young man and a couple of mates) was Michael Lee, a wheeler dealer who'd already had one or two brushes with the law over pirating issues, who set up VIPCO to feed public demand for video cassettes.

This period of home viewing history is popularly called the 'wild west' years, before the spectre of the 1984 Video Recordings Act, when companies would flood the market with a range of titles obtained from various borderline legal sources; ironically Lee was pursuing the entrepreneurial vision espoused by Margaret thatcher's Conservative party at the time - he'd just chosen the 'wrong' product.  Lee had happened upon a number of horror imports (including Abel Ferrara's Driller KillerPsychic Killer and The Slayer), in which he personally didn't have much interest. He converted them to VHS, added some lurid imagery to the box, and sold them on at inflated prices to video shops who were happy to pay the high purchase price because they could make their money back, and then some, on rental costs. Lee's empire grew inexorably to the point where in his third trading year he was driving round in a sports car, having bought sets of wheels for his growing sales force. The bottom fell out of the business during the 'video nasties' scandal, Lee avoiding a custodial sentence by the skin of his teeth, but he'd already made so much money that it was just a case of riding the storm. Sadly Lee didn't have a feel (or interest) in his product, so when he finally resurfaced in the early 2000s, reissuing his films on DVD, very often cut to comply with the BBFC rating now required on every release (but without cleaning up the prints), he was out of step with an increasing interest among collectors wanting better quality releases - the world had moved on.

Impey's slightly rough and ready documentary - he knows that more work is needed and at two hours includes a lot of repetition which could be excised - is nevertheless a fascinating story. Sadly its principal character now has Alzheimer's so recollections were patchy - a personal tragedy which led to the closedown of the business in 2007 has also taken its toll. The rest of the doc is fleshed out with various talking heads, mostly from academia, who were often too young to have been born or old enough to remember the golden days of video.

But it's a uniquely British rags to riches story of someone who was in the right place at the right time. Lee wasn't an expert but as a working class guy he was happy to deal in a media form that was very much frowned upon by the middle classes at the time but which netted him colossal profits and, as a 26 year old in business, gave him a life that he could never have expected. And the bigger story here is that Lee, and other companies like VIPCO, introduced Euro horror to a wider audience without perhaps really knowing what they were importing. Without Lee and his fellow entrepreneurs, who knows what the horror landscape would be like now?

Book of Monsters (UK 2018: Dir Stewart Sparke) Well they saved the best till last then. Sparke's UK update of Buffy the Vampire Slayer also plays like Hollyoaks meets Evil Dead II.

Young Sophie is turning 18 and wants to hold a small party for herself and a few mates. But her more socially adroit friends Mona and Beth have other ideas, and so after the whole school receives an invitation, her birthday party becomes Project X lite with Sophie's house creaking at the seams with guests she doesn't recognise; one of these is a sultry woman in a red dress who grabs the nearest virginal looking boy and takes him to one of the bedrooms.

You guessed it (or maybe you didn't); the lady in red is the latest bodily incarnation of a shape shifting demon who swaps bodies like other people change underwear, and she's about to sacrifice a virgin to unleash a deadly force. Up until now, Sophie's biggest problem is how to let her friend and classmate Jess know that she fancies her, but now she has to contend with a house full of monsters. But we know from a prologue that Sophie has been groomed for monster battler status, courtesy of 'The Book of Monsters,' an ancient tome owned and passed on by her mother (also a demon vanquisher) which contains details of what she'll have to face and how to smite her foes.

Book of Monsters moves at a breakneck pace and rarely lets up. It's funny in a broad way, the action is well choreographed and Sparke does well to keep up the tension while largely focusing the action on a Leeds semi detached. The creature battling sails very close to some of the set pieces in Gremlins, but there are some great bitchy put downs throughout which always brings the movie back to its cast of resourceful Northern teens (well teenish), and a bevy of great practical effects.

I'll not spoil the ending, but let's just say that a sequel is doable, but I'd go further than that and say 'essential' (and I'm generally not one for sequels). Lyndsey Craine, who was in Sparke's first feature The Creature Below back in 2016, is excellent as the resourceful Sophie, and there's admirable support from Michaela Longden and Lizzie Stanton as Mona and Beth. Great fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment