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The Redwood Massacre – A Review.

The city of Aberdeen is not immediately recognisable for having any kind of film scene, but if you look closely enough, you may come across a small group of enthusiastic and determined film nerds who have already made horror features and shorts with little to no budget. The dark minds behind the locally made, low budget phenomenon’s are Clear Focus Productions, consisting of husband and wife team David and Lorraine Keith. David is the writer, Director, DOP and Editor while Lorraine is producer and general organiser. The crew consists of various friends willing to help out in their spare time. Their horror shorts have garnered awards in various horror film festivals and their last feature ‘Attack of the Herbals’ managed to acquire a distribution deal. Herbals was impressive with what they managed to achieve with a group of willing participants giving up their weekends to stand in the rain for hours to make a feature film. The latest feature ‘Redwood Massacre’ takes a more bare bones approach, making this ultimately a more focused and better film.

The premise is a very familiar one.  A group of friends go for a camping trip deep in the woods en route to an apparently abandoned house where a bloody massacre took place 20 years previous. The characters seem to have a pathological need to put themselves in danger and there is tension in the group as one of them has bought his girlfriend and invited his ex along. While they spend much of their time bickering and complaining, we see a menacing, seemingly indestructible figure dressed as a scarecrow moving with a machine like prowess slaughtering everyone who comes across him in the most brutal procedures. The main characters start to get picked off in a myriad of blood soaked deaths. They are stabbed, gouged, bludgeoned, beaten, slashed, sliced and diced with no purpose or motive. The ‘Evil Highlander’ as he is referred to keeps body parts in jars, why? It is not explained, and nor does it matter. This, along with the iconic horror aesthetic reminiscent to classic slasher characters like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, makes this mute but murderous character all the more intense and terrifying.

The films main strengths lie in the cinematography and filming locations. Keith really makes excellent use of the scenery rural Scotland has to offer, mainly in the forests and the hills. He efficiently presents a gruesome, morbid underworld co-existing with the natural beauty. The abandoned barns are also excellently utilised. They look suitably grisly and there are some classic horror visuals applied effectively, most notably the extreme use of shadows. There is of course the extreme bloodletting which the camera gleefully films close up and never looks away from. The physical gore effects are brilliantly implemented considering the budget, and it still makes Friday the 13th look like The Walton’s!

There is no depth both in the characters and in the story, but it is not a film that alludes to any kind of message or care for the characters. Instead, I felt the audience would instead have some kind of obscure, compulsive enjoyment in watching each whiny, annoying character being killed off. There is a character that we root for named Pamela (Lisa Cameron), who is the only character with her head screwed on and has an uncanny ability to escape death.  She was enough to make me engaged with the film. The real star is Benjamin Selway who plays ‘The Evil Highlander’. His performance is all about the imposing and threatening countenance combined with the aggressive body language constantly intending violence and malice in every action. Who knows what evil grimaces and smiles of sadistic glee might lurk underneath that mask?

The film can be accurately described as a micro budget homage to 80’s horror movies, most notably the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises. The music by Leah Kardos has a John Carpenter quality to it with the minimalist and moody piano compositions. This along with the setting and the iconic monster really gives The Redwood Massacre that nostalgic, 80’s feel made by people who have an understanding and love for that particular period of horror.  I will be waiting with abated breath for what this Indie production company will be coming up with next. Keep them coming!

Top 20 Films of 2014

Since this has bee an impressive year for films, I decided a top 10 would not do any justice, so here is my top 20!

20/ All This Mayhem - Eddie Martin

A harrowing and profoundly sad rise and fall story of Skateboarding legends, the Pappas brothers.

19/ Pride - Matthew Warchus

An amusing, as well as emotionally passionate portrayal of a very unlikely alliance during Thatcher era Britain.

18/ Ida –  Pawel Pawlikowski

Beautifully shot in black and white, this is a subtly disturbing portrait of a nun discovering her origins.

17/ Interstellar Christopher Nolan

A grandiose Sci Fi spectacle taking on lofty themes like scientific rationalism vs the concept of love and evolution of consciousness, but routed with the father and daughter relationship.

16/ Nightcrawler Dan Gilroy

Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of his most memorable performances as Louis Bloom, a psychopath who will stop at nothing to get the footage he needs to conform to the standard narrative of urban violence creeping into white affluent suburbs pushed by mainstream news channels. Thrilling and darkly funny.

15/ Blue Ruin – Jeremy Saulnier

A stylish Indie thriller which is thrilling as well as atmospheric and intelligent.

14/ Boyhood – Richard Linklater

A long running experiment which paid off nicely. What we get is a largely heart-warming and unique perspective of a boy actually growing up.

13/  Leviathan – Andrey Zvyagintsev

An indictment of church and state in Russia. It is full of heavy symbolism which puts a wider perspective on the small group of characters it portrays and how powerless they are against the tyrannical state.

12/ Moebius – Kim Ki-Duk

Uncompromisingly shocking and strangely memorable Buddhist parable with Freudian underpinnings!

11/ Gone Girl – David Fincher

A combination of trashy thriller and a satirical indictment of the media which works surprisingly well.

10/ Maps to the Stars – David Cronnenberg

Cronnenberg back on form with a twisted satire on the nature of celebrity.

9/ We Are The Best – Lukas Moodysson

A joyful social realist film about a of group of young teenagers keeping the punk vibe alive!

8/ The Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese

Scorsese doing what he does best, making epic stories of unlikable characters. It is entertaining, hilarious, dramatic and makes a point of how bad people are made into media celebrities.

7/ Her – Spike Jonze

A beautifully crafted, dystopian world depicting mans possible relationship with machine. Scarily plausible.

6/ The Babadook – Jennifer Kent

A horror that is genuinely chilling and profoundly disturbing because, unlike most horror films, you care for the characters.

5/ The Past  – Asghar Farhadi

Heart-breaking drama about a family attempting to move on after a tragic event. A solid script, believable characters and wonderful performances.

4/ The Golden Dream – Diego Quemeda-Diez

A beautifully made but unfortunately forgotten film abut a group of kids who flee their impoverished lives in Guatemala to live better lives in America. What they encounter along the way is harrowing and highlights the problems caused by irresponsible capitalism.

3/ Stations of the Cross – Dietrich Bruggemann

A coming of age drama of a young girl whose life is tragically affected by an extremist Catholic upbringing told in fourteen chapters of dialogue driven, static camera set ups. Very moving.

2/ Frank – Lenny Abrahamson

This is one of my surprise favourites. A weird and wonderful comedy about the tortured musical genius and the myths surrounding them.

1/ Inside Llewyn Davis – Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

The Coen Brothers most nuanced film about a musician caught in a state of transition musically and in general. There is so much character depth, wit and a charmingly nostalgic take on folk music at a time when solo artists are about to take over. One to watch repeatedly, and it gets better with every viewing.

The Babadook – 26/10/2014 @ Showcase Cinema, Bristol.

Horror is a genre I have a love/hate relationship with. Many aspects of the genre are what got me interested in cinema in the first place. The music, the low angle shots, the sense of dread and unease and the memorable and tense scenes. However, I feel especially with modern horror, you really have to dig deep to find something of an alternative to the formulaic so called ‘cattle prod’ cinema which is churned out at such an unduly excessive rate. If you were to dig so deep and end up ‘down under’, you will find quite possibly a new saviour of this stagnant genre named Jennifer Kent who wrote and Directed this excellent film ‘The Babadook’.

The film focuses on a family consisting of a struggling single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her wayward 7 year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The background of the family is revealed to us in Amelia’s dream sequence showing her husband dying in a drowning accident on the way to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. Now that his birthday is coming up, Amelia is haunted by this memory and prefers to celebrate Samuel’s birthday a week or two after the actual date. With Samuel’s over-active imagination, his obsession with making weapons and his fear of monsters under the bed and in the closet, Amelia becomes increasingly concerned. Her concern increasingly turns to anxiety and madness when his behaviour harms his young cousin when he pushes her off a tree house. When Amelia reads a story to Samuel at night when he gets scared, he picks out this mysterious book on the shelf called ‘The Babadook’. The book has morbid, gothic illustrations depicting a demon who comes into the house. When the narrative gets too scary, Amelia stops reading, but what she starts noticing is that more illustrations and narration appears, completing a horrific story of a women possessed murdering her dog and child. The Demon starts to appear in a cloaked, menacing, shadow like figure, turning Amelia’s world into something frightening with a constant sense of foreboding. With her son’s  behaviour becoming more difficult, Amelia finds herself becoming like the character in the book.

For me, the film works brilliantly on a symbolic level. The book and the demon itself represents Amelia’s darkest thoughts and what she is capable of if she keeps her tragic past buried. It is a film about the plight of a single mother and the terrifying thought that beneath the compassionate maternal motherly instincts of protecting her child, there may be dark thoughts of freeing herself from what can sometimes be a hopeless situation, particularly if you are dealing with behavioural problems. The story unfolds itself at a perfect pace and the scare’s are more subtle and rooted in the characters. It is not only a film to scare, but a film which really connects in an emotional level making you feel sad at Amelia’s situation, and you have much sympathy for Samuel too. Instead of concentrating on individual frights, I feel Jennifer Kent was going for a darkly atmospheric tone which remains consistent throughout the whole movie. There is constantly an unnerving sense of trepidation as you feel the narrative revealed to Amelia in the book is going to manifest itself in reality. You really don’t want it to go that way as you care for the characters so much, but because ‘you can’t get rid if the Babadook’ it feels like it might just happen.

There are a wide range of influences Kent utilises from both classic and modern horror respectively. We see Amelia watching old silent horror movies with a monster looking similar to the Babadook and there were parts that reminded me of ‘The Grudge’. I feel that Kent really understands the genre, which is why I feel this is a step up from the majority of horror films which rely solely on fright and shock.

Essie Davis gives a very strong performance as the single mother who has an underlying fear and resentment of her child and Noah Wiseman gives an equally stunning performance as the boy who is in fear of his mother. I feel this kind of taboo subject matter works brilliantly in horror films as we are all afraid of our deep, underlying feelings which we choose to bury and ignore. Kent has made a fantastic debut here. Not only could it easily be best horror film this year, but one of the best films!

Serena – 25/10/2014 @ The Watershed, Bristol.

Susanne Bier has gained a lot of critical and mainstream success, especially with ‘In a Better World’ which won the Oscar for Best International Film. Her first film set in USA stars Hollywoods hottest stars, and she didn’t even know it yet as it was shot before ‘Silver Linings Playbook’. For some reason, even with a major star billing like Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, the film still did not gain much commercial success. I think it was because it was a forgettable, bland and more of a difficult watch than many would think.

Bradley Cooper plays George Pemberton, owner of a once successful timber business. Due to some dodgy dealings and the depression, things are going wrong for George. He meets the enigmatic and sultry Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) who he instantly falls in love with. When they get married, Serena becomes part of the timber business. It turns out she can do everything better than George can and she helps him ward off threats from people within the business and improves things in general. When it becomes apparent that Serena cannot have children, things take a darker turn, revealing Serena’s more sinister and obsessive side as she becomes obsessed with George’s son from a previous relationship.

While the performances are decent, especially the usual strong performance from Jennifer Lawrence, the film is still very bland and rather dull and depressing. It does take on interesting themes like masculinity, love and obsession with a Greek tragedy element to it, but it all reveals itself ever so slowly. Many of the characters are not very interesting. The unrecognisable Rhys Ifans plays a weird, dark character who believes in some strange kind of destiny which justifies killing innocent people. Toby Jones does make a good Sheriff though, and we could have seen more of him. Unfortunately this is a slight miss-step from Susanne Bier, but I’m sure there are a few good films left from her.

Jimi: All Is By My Side – 25/10/2014 @ The Watershed, Bristol.

There seems to be a growing demand to have iconic musicians on the big screen to have their life fictionalised, sugar coated and exploited for the masses. The life of an iconic star is usually so complex, eventful and full of conflicting accounts from various people involved that it is near impossible to make something that is a true reflection of the character and his/her life, music and legacy. Jimi Hendrix is one of those people who had a short lived career which was abruptly ended in a tragic overdose. During this time, he recorded and toured so much and has become over time one of the most influential musicians. Basically in my mind, no silver screen documentation of his life is going to do his life and legacy any justice. Writer and Director John Ridley has a well meaning attempt at presenting to us a personal account of Hendrix played by Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000 from Outkast) and his involvement with Linda Kieth (Imogen Poots) and his long term girlfriend Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), but ends up making a messy and largely uninteresting interpretation of such an interesting and enigmatic musician.

I would like to draw your attention to the real life Kathy Etchingham’s review on this film http://www.kathyetchingham.com/. Here she claims that much of the events which unfold in this film did not happen. The most notable example being the scene where Hendrix beats up Kathy with a phone in a pub in front of many witnesses. It seems that the researchers did not even bother to contact Kathy Etchingham for any kind of research and instead defamed her character, portraying her as the mad, jealous girlfriend who takes a fictional overdose for dramatic purposes. I know full well that  stories like this are largely fictionalised for dramatic purposes, but in this case, the truth would have sufficed. Must a film have to include domestic abuse to keep viewers entertained? Also, there are characters which Hendrix meets for a philosophical discussion about race and equality. A character named Ida (who is a fictional person) leads Hendrix to Michael X, a civil rights activist, to try and get Hendrix involved in this scene. I think this never happened and was  part of a narrative contrivance to illustrate Hendrix’ views of absolute equality which transcends race. Also to slip in his well known quote ‘Once the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace’ (Although it is paraphrased in the film).

Hendrix is portrayed as a softly spoken and shy person with a rare gift he initially never new he possessed. It takes Linda Keith to point this out to him when she sees him perform in empty clubs as part of a backing band. It turns out she is in love with Hendrix, but it is a love that never happens as he chooses Kathy instead. I think that Kathy Etchingham rightly points out in her review that we never see Hendrix tour the UK or Europe, instead we just see him as a ‘mumbling mystic’.

The music rights were not obtained for this movie, so when we see Hendrix perform, we just get random blues jams instead of the familiar and influential songs which defined a generation. I think without the inclusion of his music, they were trying to make a film about Hendrix as a person, but for a man who was defined by his influential music, it was such a let down that non of it was included. It was more or less just a rise to fame account of Hendrix which ends at his trip to Monterey Festival, a performance which apparently sealed his fame.

Andre Benjamin gives a good performance as he does get the mannerisms and the stage performance right, but I think the whole project is largely pointless. I think there should have been a documentary made instead with archive footage and interviews with people who new him. I find they generally work better than film dramatizations.

Northern Soul – 23/10/2014 @ The Watershed, Bristol.

With what seems like more people than ever becoming nostalgic these days, this will be perfect for anyone who was in their teens in the early seventies who might have been aware of or involved in the Northern Soul scene. The scene in question was the reasonably short lived nightclub based movement when DJ’s were returning from America with rare black soul music. It has that similar narrative to other youth culture movements in terms of young people getting into something that is relatable and which gives them some kind of identity and brings them together. Of course what goes up, must come down. Usually a certain drug is introduced to the scene which heightens the music experience, but it also becomes a problem due to the police getting involved or over excess or both which eventually brings the scene to an end.
The main character John Clarke (Elliott James Langridge) finds himself embroiled in the Northern Soul scene when he meets Matt (Josh Whitehouse), a passionate young man trying to bring Northern Soul to the small town in which they dwell. They become very close friends who try and expose small town people to this music and go to Northern Soul nights in the city any chance they get around their repetitive factory jobs. Here, a small group of friends are established and eventful good times are had, complete with drugs, fighting and a unique disco dance along with the music to boot. John and Matt have dreams of going to America to become part of the scene over there and discover more music, but as the film goes on, Matt becomes increasingly strung out on drugs and his behaviour is doing him no favours in his progression as a DJ. It causes problems between the two. Of course there is a girl Matt is after named Angela (Antonia Thomas). Their developing romance is typical of these youth culture films.

The narrative throughout this film is very predictable. I did care for the main characters John and Matt, but I knew at some point there would be problems and they would fall out at some point because this always happens in these films. Also, I did not care for the other characters, even when they died as I felt they were there as purely functional characters to flesh out the friendship group. It was not as funny, dramatic or as fun as it could have been. The performances by the two main lead actors did the best they could, but there was no denying I had seen it all before. However, I think people who were part of the scene might take an element of nostalgia from the film. It depicts a time when music was not as accessible in comparison to todays internet age where discovering music through streaming software is taken for granted. People would go to their local record store and listen to records in order to discover new music or go to a nightclub. This, along with the excellent soundtrack were the best elements of the film. Personally, I prefer to watch a well made documentary of a music scene rather than a dramatization.

’71 – 18/10/2014 @ The Watershed, Bristol.

After a magnetic and ferocious performance in the film ‘Starred Up’, Jack O’Connel plays yet another macho character, but this time we see a near silent performance. He plays Gary Hook, a young man with a seemingly non-existent family background who joins the army and is deployed to Belfast at a time where the sectarian conflict is reaching violent extremes. One can sense the disappointment in Gary’s mind as he was expecting to be deployed to an exotic country to see some real action instead of staying in the country. Little did he know what he was in for.

The first assignment for Gary’s platoon was a possible crowd control in a Catholic neighbourhood where the police are conducting a weapons raid. The naively idealistic Lt Armitage (Sam Reid) attempts to make the presence of the army a friendly one, but as the police raid turns needlessly violent, so does the whole neighbourhood as everyone kicks off. We are put in the centre of the action as we see the army struggling to cope with the riot that they have to disperse. In doing so, they accidently leave two soldiers, one of them being Gary. As Gary witnesses his fellow soldier being brutally shot by a fringe Nationalist group (probably the IRA), Gary finds himself in an alien and deadly situation where he has to hide in the streets and try to escape in one piece. This proves difficult as there seems to be danger in every corner and everyone he meets, he cannot fully trust. He learns that the situation is overtly complex and there are people working for both sides. As he takes refuge in a kind hearted Catholics house, this turns into a potentially dangerous situation as the family figure out who to call and sort this out. This leads to a rather complex and tense showdown with all the parties involved.

’71 film maintains a high level of tension starting from the riot. Seeing Gary navigate what is hostile and divided terrain full of antagonistic slogans inscribed on walls, trying to avoid danger while at the same time, making sense of a complex situation is thrilling. We also see the situation from the point of view of both sides as well as the manipulator who is secretly working against the army Captain Sandy Browning (Sean Harris). We see that within the battleground of Belfast, the individuals of these violent groups have difficulty trusting their own as many people have their own agenda. Also, it brings to our attention the dangers of recruiting the young into a life of violence. Director Yann Demange does well to portray a complex situation with great performances across the board, especially Jack O’Connell, and some well handled scenes of brutality  to boot.

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