UnAppealingly App-athetic -‘Apparition’ – Film Review

As the word ‘Apparition’ fades from the screen after the opening scene, the word ‘App’ is left hanging, inviting the audience to phonetically think of the title as ‘App-arition’. This implies that there will be some sort of smartphone technology involved, and the plot does indeed depend on the use of an app that connects people to their dead relatives. It’s a conceit that definitely has potential. The paranormal possibilities of 21st century technology have been explored in a slew of films in the 2010s, including Unfriended (Gabriadze, 2014) and Friend Request (Verhoeven, 2016), stretching all the way back to Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call in 2003.

Unfortunately, the app itself doesn’t appear until 30 minutes into the film, after a lot of laborious exposition deflates all tension and interest. The narrative set-up involves a boy who is sent to a reformatory ‘school’ after his drug-addled mother accidentally kills herself while trying to attack him with a knife. Disastrously for the boy and luckily for the plot, the school is ran by a group of sadistic guards under the governance of a sociopathic warden who is apathetic about killing the children in his care. The film then speeds 20 years into the future, on the night before the warden’s son is to be married to the daughter of one of the school’s guards.

Institutional neglect is used here as a convenient plot device, an easy way to provoke an audience’s anger at characters who are otherwise criminally underwritten and mostly off-screen until the final underwhelming denouement. Kevin Pollak deserves better than roles like Warden White. He tries to be unsettling and deplorable but is given so little to do as an archetypal despot that it is difficult to even care about the retribution he theoretically deserves. As the other star name of the film, Mena Suvari has an equally futile job to imbue her victimhood as a murdered school housekeeper with any pathos or credible vengefulness.

This is Waymon Boone’s first foray into horror cinema, and his lack of passion for it shows. Rather than approaching the genre from an original perspective, his direction is bland and uninspired. The posters of his last two films ‘Sunrise in Heaven’ and ‘My Daddy’s in Heaven’ are nausea-inducing enough to presume that they are far more horrifying than anything in this film. Cobbled together by four writers, including Boone, it has all the marks of a film made by committee, where compromises are constantly made as no individual is committed enough to the project.  

Lots of apps are either useful, informative, fun, or a combination of all three, but most are just attention sinkholes, a way to waste time when doing something dull, like commuting or spending time with loved ones. Sadly, Apparition fits perfectly into the latter category, a fair concept thoughtlessly developed into a terrible film that is barely worth watching on a bus in a rush-hour traffic jam.

APPARITION will be available on Digital Download from 10th February 

No-one To Hear Their ‘Prey-ers’ -‘The Prey’ – Film Review

In The Most Dangerous Game (Pichel/Schoedsack, 1932), Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) arranges for a ship to be wrecked on his isolated private island so that he can hunt and kill the passengers that survive. Since then, there have been several adaptations of the same O. Henry short story, also known as “The Hounds of Zaroff”. While writers Jimmy Henderson, Michael Hodgson and Kai Miller might not credit the story itself for their new Cambodian action film The Prey, it is definitely of the same species, although the extent to which it has evolved in the 88 years since is debatable.

Gu Shangwei plays Xin, a Chinese detective working undercover in Cambodia who is arrested and taken to a jungle prison. Unfortunately for him, ultra-rich thrill-seekers pay to hunt down and kill the inmates of their choice. After being chosen as a wild-card by the prison’s warden, he is forced into a fight for survival against three heavily-armed Nimrods with varying degrees of sanity.

Director and co-writer Jimmy Henderson has been working in Cambodia since 2011 and from the success of his Netflix-distributed martial arts thriller Jailbreak (2017), he has managed to develop The Prey, touted as the first $1 million Cambodian action film. His direction here is solid if a little utilitarian, but the key difference in the two films is the move by Jean-Paul Ly from star of Jailbreak to being the action director and fight choreographer on this new release. While Ly clearly has the talent to make his own stunt work look extremely impressive, the choreography in The Prey is respectable but not breathtaking.

The main issue is that the film is neither fish nor fowl. It isn’t outrageous and over-the-top enough to be an all-out action film or realistic enough to be dramatically credible. It doesn’t have enough political nous to be a statement on modern Cambodia either, in fact we learn almost nothing about the country except as a vague Southeast Asian setting that could conceivably (to a Western audience) have a jail where this could happen.

Most of the characters are severely underwritten, and although it does stop them from being completely predictable clichés, it doesn’t make them particularly interesting to an audience. You would expect nameless victims to have non-existent back-stories, but not even the main protagonists are developed beyond the bare minimum needed to keep the narrative moving. Mony (Rous Mony), a prisoner who Xin ends up as quarry with is at first presented as a weaselly chancer, using his knowledge of Cambodian and Cantonese to enhance his status at the prison. Shortly after, a brawl breaks out and he climbs a tree to avoid the violence and confrontation. The traits of coward and weasel might not seem too difficult to assimilate, but nothing is built from either incident. Although slightly whinge-y while being pursued by armed hunters, when the time comes to resist them, he does so without too much difficulty or momentous triumph of personality.

Vithaya Pansringarm as the Warden is the nearest the film comes to creating an effective action-move stereotype. Recognisable from his role as the corrupt policeman Lieutenant Chang in Only God Forgives, (Refn 2013), he also played a warm-up prison warden role in the unwanted Statham sequel Mechanic: Resurrection (2016). Disappointingly he doesn’t have enough to do here, and although he seems to be enjoying his heinous behaviour, he doesn’t reach such peak loathsomeness that only his death could quench an audience’s bloodlust for revenge against him. Even a Reservoir Dogs-esque scene of torture in which he jauntily shimmies around to music while telling Xin how much he loves breaking men until they become like animals isn’t enough to make him reprehensible enough to truly hate him.

The ridiculous Ozploitation knock-off Turkey Shoot (Trenchard-Smith, 1982) is closer to The Prey plot-wise than The Most Dangerous Game, setting the same narrative in a remote fortress with a group of deviants that have been cast out of a future dystopian society. Although undoubtedly bad, where it succeeds is in making the story even more ridiculous with its gratuitous gore and bizarre cast. By attempting to ground The Prey in something closer to a plausible reality, Henderson and his co-writers have downplayed the story’s strengths and created something that although enjoyable on a fundamental level doesn’t really warrant extensive analysis. With the lack of Cambodian films reaching a wider audience, this is a missed opportunity to present a view of a country that most Western audiences know very little about, all packaged in an exciting 90-minute action film. As it is, it’s just a fairly entertaining lower-budget Hollywood film in an vague Southeast Asian location.

For Whom Isabelle Tolls – ‘Isabelle’ – Film Review

The name ‘Isabelle’ means ‘Devoted to God’, or ‘God is my oath’ in Spanish, which may be the ironic reason why the makers of this film chose it for the godless Isabelle, a wheelchair-bound woman with spina bifida who terrorises her new neighbours after they have a miscarriage. More cynically, though, it could have been chosen for its semantic similarity to Annabelle, the name of the creepy doll in a popular series of films that were a spin-off from The Conjuring (Wan, 2013). Whether hoping for subconscious name association or not, Isabelle is a ‘real’ person in this film, and her character should therefore be treated with the requisite respect. Isabelle is not an evil spirit trapped in a doll that can be used uncritically as a malevolent presence, she needs to have subtleties and a fully-realised character.

Even as they are moving in, Matt (Adam Brody) and Larissa Kane (Amanda Crew), notice someone staring at them from a window next-door. They wave, make an off-hand comment about the neighbours not being too friendly, and then laugh it off. However, Larissa begins to suspect that the neighbours might be a little more sinister when she startles Isabelle’s mother Ann (Sheila McCarthy) when she is staring into space at her mailbox. Larissa starts bleeding profusely and Ann is bizarrely slow to react. When she gets back from the hospital after her son is stillborn, Larissa is plagued by Isabelle’s unrelenting gaze and things swiftly degenerate from there.

Additional details are added. In two separate internet research scenes, both Larissa and Matt find the same news website that details how Isabelle’s father tortured her because of her condition and tried to offer her up to Satan. After Larissa falls from a second-floor window, Matt jumps to the conclusion that she might be possessed, apropos of almost nothing, and despite the Kanes having no obvious religious fervour he goes off to get Father Lopez, the chaplain from the hospital Larissa was taken to.

Many of the film’s issues stem from the characters being severely underwritten. A God-fearing neighbour who vows to pray for Larissa after finding out that she has had a miscarriage turns out to be nothing more interesting than a kindly well-wisher. Larissa’s sister comes to visit to try and comfort her, although why she didn’t come immediately after finding out about the death of her nephew is never addressed or acknowledged. Matt’s cop father Clifford also pops round for some hand-wringing, and conveniently stands in when the police are called so that no other law enforcement characters are needed. Writer Donald Martin has a wild selection of TV movie credits to his name, from The Craigslist Killer (2011) to Murder, She Baked: A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery (2015), and Isabelle has the same perfunctory plot development and limp characterisation as a Hallmark Channel early afternoon thriller.

These paper-thin cyphers could be overlooked if Larissa and Matt were a solid, believable couple. Their relationship is the crux of the film’s tension and the way they deal with the loss of their son would be enough to sustain an entire narrative. Unfortunately, they are just as indistinguishable as the secondary characters. Larissa is a piano teacher who plays the piano just once, and Matt is a lawyer who is seen shuffling paper at his office a couple of times. Other than that, they have no interests and no friends. The only thing we learn about Matt over 80 minutes is that he really likes chocolate cake with cream icing. All they do is talk about their relationship and whether Larissa is really being haunted by the girl next-door or if she is just having serious grief issues.

Sadly, Isabelle is stylistically flat too. It feels like it was hacked down to get it to 80 minutes, as the scenes in the first act all run into one another, speeding by in quick succession to get to the supernatural elements that are the film’s primary hook. The restrictive location of the Kanes’ new home could be used effectively, but it never looks like it has recently been moved into and seeing Larissa lying in bed with a full face of make-up becomes repetitious quite quickly. Director Robert Heydon is a veteran Canadian film-maker but horror is clearly not his forte or his passion. The jump scares are unoriginal and uninspired. Malevolent spirits glimpsed in the reflections of mirrors and towering at the end of beds have been seen uncountable times in far more interesting circumstances. Easily the worst decision, however, was to give Isabelle glowing red CGI eyes. They look comically cheap and seem to have been used only to signify a plot point towards the end of the film.

Essentially, Isabelle is presented as a disabled person whose only dream is to be inside Larissa’s able body and take over her life. Aside from its weakness as a plot generally, because the film is so thoughtlessly written, this idea comes across as offensive and merely a device to sustain the threat of possession throughout. If the concept was engaged with and analysed, it could be provocative and challenging, questioning generalisations of disabled people and the tragedy of wanting something which you can never have. Using a person with spina bifida, even one with a Satanist father as an unambiguously insidious being isn’t really acceptable and Isabelle needs a properly developed back story to be a character or even remotely frightening. It doesn’t work as a portrayal of grief, either, and even setting aside all of the underlying and worrying implications of the plot, as a horror film, it doesn’t scare, surprise or entertain.

Isabelle will be available on digital platforms from September 30th.

Faceless murderers – ‘Killers Anonymous’ – Review

The concept of the talkative hitman certainly wasn’t invented by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, but he definitely popularised a certain type of affable murderer in mainstream American cinema. Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield talk nonchalantly about fast food in France and foot massages like they are off to pick up flat-pack furniture from IKEA, even when they are actually revealed to be on their way to threaten (and potentially kill) people. Their almost banal conversations are what makes their characters so fascinating. The dialogue between them is narratively inconsequential and yet utterly compelling.

25 years later and we have Tarantino partly to blame for Martin Owen’s Killers Anonymous. In this British action film, an underground support group for murderers attracts the most garrulous group of killers ever assembled. Unfortunately, rather than revelling in the mundanity of everyday life, they are all obsessed with murder and never stop going on about it. When they aren’t dragging out stories about their first kills, they are indulging in cod philosophy about why they like murdering so much, or threatening to murder each other. The rest of the dialogue is taken up with needlessly complicated exposition that tries to create an Agatha Christie-esque mystery out of a room of painfully obvious (and usual) suspects.

For a film centred on a gathering of homicide addicts, their justifications for killing are disappointingly uninspired, too. Sexual abuse, morbid fascination and gangster peer pressure are pretexts for a few, but the script (co-written by Martin Owen with Seth Johnson and Elizabeth Morris) never shocks or surprises in its choices, even though the safety blanket of its satirical tone and its ridiculous narrative set-up would grant the film creative licence to be as outrageous as it dared to be.  

In a sub-Pulp Fiction early scene, The Man (Gary Oldman) gets mad as a lorry with Jade (Jessica Alba) for her insipid and long-winded excuse as to why she was unable to finish off a US Senator she was contracted to kill. In what are essentially cameo appearances, the lack of interest and artistic value is evident in the simultaneous overacting and indifference of both actors. Jessica Alba, last seen on the big screen playing herself in the disastrously received Entourage spin-off film and pole-dancing for what felt like two hours in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, clearly knows this isn’t a job to kill for as a bandanna-wearing lesbian hitwoman and looks desperate to be killed off as soon as possible. After a fantastic 35-year career, Oldman now seems unable to speak in any believable accent and spends the rest of the film in a deckchair on top of a building watching action that is taking place almost exclusively indoors through binoculars.

The rest of the ensemble cast do the best they can with their paper-thin characters to varying degrees of success. Rhyon Nicole Brown is sufficiently moody and mysterious as Alice, and solid character actor Tim McInnerny is dependably creepy as a deadly doctor in the Harold Shipman mould, but Elliot James Langridge and Michael Socha suffer with the cardboard cutout characters they have to play and are unable to provide any depth to Ben and Leandro. Amusingly, Tommy Flanagan’s Markus occasionally sounds like ex-junkie Jacqueline McCafferty from The Limmy Show. If he had started talking about how he’d turned his life around after spending three years on heroin, it would have at least provoked an unintentional laugh, but unfortunately his character is relentlessly angry and humourless.

Sadly, the film’s mediocrity extinguishes any potential joy that could come from it being disastrously offensive or inept. The climatic action sequence, through a combination of hackneyed deaths and awful CGI blood is devoid of any excitement, and the final scene’s attempt at implying that history is set to repeat itself is as tired as Oldman’s agent must feel. Fundamentally, the central conceit at the heart of Killers Anonymous just doesn’t work, aiming for comic-book irreverence, it just ends up seeming confused and ultimately a little pointless.

Digital Download Release Date:  26th August
Theatrical Release Date: 28th August
Director: Martin Owen
Cast: Gary Oldman, Jessica Alba, Suki Waterhouse, Tommy Flanagan, Tim McInnerny,  Rhyon Nicole Brown, Michael Socha, MyAnna Buring, Elliot James Langridge & Sadie Frost
Distributor: Bird Box Distribution (Theatrical) & The Movie Partnership (Digital Release)
Digital Platforms: iTunes, Sky Store, Amazon Video, Google Play, Xbox Video Store, The Playstation Store, Rakuten TV, BT TV, Vubiquity & Talk Talk
Rating: TBC
Runtime: 95 mins

Hell Hath No ‘Furie’ – Film Review

After Liam Neeson gets his daughter back when she’s taken in Taken (Morel, 2008), and Nicolas Cage gets his daughter home after she’s stolen in Stolen (West, 2012), you might wonder why mothers don’t do anything to save their children. Women just seem to leave it all up to their jaded male counterparts to threaten and beat up anyone who stands between them and their kidnapped progeny. The middle-aged dads get to re-establish their fading virility while reconnecting with their family, who they’ve always neglected, usually through working or drinking too much, or sometimes both. It’s a lazy narrative for an easily digestible action movie, where there are clearly marked lines and the violence is justifiable to even the most faint-hearted of audiences. Anyone who might be on the fence, or even actively against eye-gouging, neck breaking or genital mutilation, can usually be convinced of its reasonable inclusion as soon as anyone under the age of 18 is in any physical danger. And especially if the victim is a defenceless girl.

On the back of all these redemption-through-getting-back-kidnapped-children films comes Furie, a 2019 Vietnamese production for Netflix directed by Le-Van Kiet. The only major difference here is that the parent involved is a mother on a mission, rather than the archetypal man. Veronica Ngo, riding the wave of tokenistic attempts to appeal to Chinese and Korean markets in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017) and the universally slated Bright (Ayer, 2017) stars as Hai Phuong, a former gangster-turned-debt collector whose daughter is abducted by organ-harvesting criminals. She has to kick, punch and chase a boat on a motorbike to get her back in the tight requirements of a standard Hollywood action movie, with little time for any deviation.

Superficially, this is a positive twist on an age-old tale. Fictional parents have been proving the unstoppable lengths they will go to for their children since Ancient Greece, but with 2,000 years to work on the theme, it would be exciting to see something with a little more depth and moral ambiguity. The ‘Furie’ of the film’s title presumably refers to the ‘infernal goddesses’ of Greek myth, and Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone would definitely see a potential candidate for a fourth sister in Hai Phuong. The Furies punished crimes of men by relentlessly hounding their victims until they were killed in absolute agony. Hai Phuong shows her credentials here, initially in the violents ways in which she approaches debt collecting and in unleashing her fury with a ‘y’ once her daughter is taken/stolen. Unfortunately, although Veronica Ngo’s martial-arts skills are up to scratch, she isn’t truly able to evoke the true parental devastation of potentially losing her child through her negligence.

Looking for moral perplexity and exceptional acting in a Vietnamese action film created for the most popular video-streaming service in the world might appear to be a fool’s errand, but it would be nice to see some deviation from the standard American cinematic model we’re all accustomed to and emotionally numb from. The Vietnamese film industry has struggled ever since moving to a market economy in 1986, and its relationship with American culture is a double-edged sword from the Resistance War Against America. Early on, the view of the country portrayed here is indistinguishable from the American-focussed Vietnam war films of the late 1970s and ‘80s. We see bustling rural life, market stalls and fishing, like we’re hanging out of a Iroquois helicopter in 1959, amazed at the quaintness of their simple ways. It isn’t until Hai Phuong chases the kidnappers to Ho Chi Minh City that we get to see a more urban side to the country, and even then nothing really challenges the Western preconceptions of Vietnam.  

Judging it purely on its action sequences, the fighting scenes are well choreographed, and technically, it’s on a par with most big-budget Hollywood action films, if not quite achieving the virtuosity of The Raid (Evans, 2011), the benchmark now for any film where people end up punching each other. It seems a missed opportunity to have not challenged the standard model of this type of story, either with a more overt feminist subtext, or a more nuanced ethical examination of how far is too far when it comes to protecting your children. But judging a donkey for not being a horse is unfair, and on its own terms, this is an entertaining thriller that touches on a topical subject and is a solid showcase for a burgeoning film industry. With any amount of success on Netflix, hopefully they will fund more Vietnamese films so that they can start to rival other Southeast Asian countries’ productions.

Look Away

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When you look in the mirror, you don’t really ever see yourself as other people see you, you see the image reversed, a reflection. Despite “mirror image” being a synonym for a replica or a doppelgänger, a real mirror image isn’t quite the same as the reality. Now imagine if the person you saw in the mirror was more confident and assertive than yourself. And what if the “mirror” you swapped places with the “real” you and took over your life? Assaf Bernstein’s new horror film ‘Look Away’ asks that very question, with mixed results.

Maria (India Eisley) is the teenager who trades places with her mirror image through a narcissistic kiss on the lips. She goes from an awkward, alienated loner to a sassy, vindictive über bitch and soon starts talking about hard-ons and being snide about her dad’s infidelities. Which is all fine, until things get far more sinister and the full weight of Airam’s (see what they did there?) vengeance is unleashed.

The bullying of Maria is hardly on ‘Carrie’ levels, and there doesn’t seem to be any concrete reason why she is treated with apathy at best and absolute contempt at worst. Her dad Dan (Jason Isaacs) seems to be the main source of her issues. An arrogant plastic surgeon, adulterer and rampant misogynist, he sends Maria away to put on make-up when she comes down to breakfast looking tired and believes that giving her the benefit of his expertise with some generous surgical enhancements will solve all her problems. The injustice of reason-less dislike from the people around her could have been an interesting twist, but this unfortunately comes across as a lack of characterisation.

Oscar-winning actress Mira Sorvino is underused as Maria’s depressive mother Amy, a husk of a person, slowly losing her identity and self-esteem from Dan’s impassivity and blatant disloyalty. The scenes between mother and daughter are the film’s most emotionally fecund, with a willingness to empathise on Amy’s part being met with total indifference from Maria. Amy is a different kind of mirror image for Maria, a pathetic future self with only banal self-help aphorisms too offer in the way of advice.

This is Israeli writer and director Bernstein’s first feature-length English film, and the dialogue perhaps suffers for this. Maria’s first few conversations with Airam in the mirror don’t get much more exciting than the standard horror interrogatives of “Who are you?” and “What do you want from me?” The nastiness and verbal abuse is never really inventive, while visually the film is very shiny and flat, dulling the film emotionally and psychologically.

The doppelgänger is making a mini comeback in horror at the moment. Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ has a family terrorised by their doubles, while ‘Cam’ follows a webcam girl whose replica replaces her online and steals her following. ‘Cam’ also asks questions about feminine self-image and the unreasonable expectations society still has concerning young women, but does it in a more claustrophobic, internalised way. ‘Look Away’ takes more glee in the revenge it metes out on the people who have bullied and harassed Maria, and this is where it is at its best. The ‘Final Destination’-style ‘accidental’ death of one character is a highlight in a film that could have been a satirical dissection of unfair societal standards in the vein of ‘Raw’, but unfortunately it’s just not quite well-done enough.

Watch the Look Away official trailer here.

Release Date: 15th April
Director: Assaf Bernstein
Cast: India Eisley, Jason Isaacs
Distributor: The Movie Partnership
Platforms: iTunes, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Sky Store, Vubiquity, Rakuten

Rating: 15
Runtime: 103 mins