The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Some reviews from the Edinburgh Film Festival

Written by Tom Steward.

Photo from the article Kinky Boots

Kinky Boots is the latest offering from a surprisingly sustainable genre of social realist fantasies all of which seem to hinge on the discovery of egalitarianism through gay leisure. Here drag cabaret takes the role that ballet and stripping took in Billy Elliot (2000) and The Full Monty(1997). It’s a bit reductive to simply equate homosexuality with liberation but the concerns of this film are so limiting that issues of sexuality are hardly raised, never mind resolved.

The other continuity with internationally popular 90s British fluff is that you spend the entire film wondering where all the jokes are. Apart from the divine intervention of an elderly Welsh landlady who steals the film with effortless comic aplomb, there is nary a scripted gag or prepared skit. The whole thing relies on facial expressions, the drawing out of words and sudden bursts of enthusiasm.

Predictably it is tame, inoffensive and perfectly watchable. For a film that centres on boot fetishes, it is remarkable how it completely circumnavigates the world of S&M. It might be pushing alternative lifestyles but it won’t test the tolerance of old ladies. Even the film’s Jules et Jim (1963) threesome that seems to dare two gay men and a fag-hag as the happy ending might just be down to muddled plotting rather than a bold pushing of boundaries.

There are several areas where the film distinguishes itself. A high standard of acting and frame composition are evident throughout. There is a superb level of detail from the bric-a-brac pottery of a Northampton boarding house to the gaudy catholic tat of a drag queen’s dressing room. Moreover, the film refuses to demonise the fiancée who never gets cast off as the cold, heartless bitch she could so easily have been. Her worldview is pure gentrified property capitalism but the film makes clear she has her place and must not be punished.

Often however the film is disappointingly narrow-minded. Are we to believe there are no drag queens in the North? Are we supposed to simply forget about Canal Street and endorse Lola’s London-eye viewpoint? Above Watford it’s all bigotry and vests apparently. Furthermore there is no identity for the factory shop floor above the thin, generic worker banter of Coronation Street-style filler dialogue. The short-lived industrial strike is replaced by a dated and romantic ideal of the Victorian philanthropist boss. A tad insulting to anyone who’s ever taken an interest in labour politics over the last, you know, century.


Tonally we are caught between a musical utopianism and a naturalistic fairy tale. A big deal is made in pre-publicity about Guy Chambers’ songs but they are used sparingly, are largely forgettable and are performed as if overwritten pieces of faux-diva sass, which if you’ll excuse my prejudice towards a Robbie Williams co-conspirator, they could well be, with a bit of work. The musical sequences are strangely lacking the MGM flourishes they scream out for and are rather mediated through backstage perspectives, restricted view seats and blush in a hail of flash bulbs. We never lose context which is pretty admirable substance for an escapist treat like this but also borders on the dull.

The plot itself is delivered through romantic coincidences so that all revelations are intrinsically obvious and contrived, like tacks on a map. The elaborate crafting of these moments, however, suggests that the film is at ease with its artifice. In flushes of realism, the film seems determined to cut through people’s dreams and deconstruct the film’s mythology of idealised fathers. However, unconvincing outcomes are the lynchpins of this strangely significant genre and this film delivers in spades. Notes of authentic conflict and crises are facades but make for a less patronising film.

How far can we go with these newspaper clippings stretched to feature-length? Does this synthesis of regional news stories into sellable romantic comedies in anyway constitute subject matter? Somehow with the uncommonly fine performances on offer, the occasional comic spark and a defeatist tinge to this glorification of labour crisis makes this ebulliently commercial product decent enough to evade my wrath.

Tickets


First I must say how wonderful it is to see a portmanteau movie with episodes linked by literal motifs like ticket collection and sheer geographical convenience rather than a pious master scheme. Also I was so impressed to see a work of utter benevolence where a seemingly unconvincing optimism in human interaction is given credence by a strong, basic humanism. The class voyeurism of train journeys is sharply captured and its dissolution fantasised about in an extremely moving manner.

The first story, directed by Ermanno Olmi, follows an elderly Italian scientist on a train journey home to visit his grandson whilst dreaming of the beautiful young PA who gave him his tickets at the station. Immediately there are echoes of Wild Strawberries (1957) in this reconciliation with mortality through sex and sense. But this is more genteel and frankly less indulgent. It simply produces a warm, pleasurable tonic-like effect on the viewer. A clichéd Brief Encounter (1945) love story is so sultrily underplayed it is tantalisingly sexy and golden without effort to contrive. Such genuine emotion overflows from a diminutive cup of mild manner it is hard to sit cynically on the sidelines. With its acknowledgements to canonical road movies and trainbound romances, it more fervently stakes its claim to genre than at any other point in the film. But this is a smooth blend of influences, authentic and delicate, that enriches rather than reduces its impact.

In the second instalment our faith in goodwill and inherent human decency wobbles under the expertly shifty direction of Abbas Kiarostami. His cagey game of empathy cat-and-mouse with a military widow and her young escort both exposes our gullibility and prejudices whilst leaving us in no doubt that abandonment of one in need is simply horrific under any circumstances. Boasting the most dysfunctional and malevolent characters in the film, it feels more troubled and digs deeper into the sense of dislocation inhabiting these two distraught travellers. A pathetic little man is one who can shake off his life and not seek to re-visit it; his contentment is the real transient in this text.

The final segment is a perfect little morality play directed by Ken Loach and utilising his distinctive brand of disciplined improvisation to tell the story of three Celtic fans caught in an ethical dilemma with a ticket and a desperate poor stowaway family. Loach takes the hate figure of the travelling football fan in Europe and redeems their image as they expunge the instinctive violence of their baser feelings and suddenly become heroic catalysts for salvation. Comedy is allowed to flourish in brilliant non-sequiturs and amusingly offbeat behaviour, which just goes to show that when stripped of agenda the characters can breathe a little and offer something beyond the stonecast political icons typical of his most recent films. This is the Loach capable of the tragic slapstick and daring humour of Kes (1969) and Raining Stones (1993).

This is a film that holds its cards to its chest. It is actually not about any of the above but in fact tells the story of the reunion of an impoverished family with their patriarch. It is an immense emotional feat full of sorrow and joy, but the impeccable restraint of these filmmakers’ makes sure that it never weighs the gentle oscillation of these three narratives down.

Stylistically unstable, the film veers unpredictably between vivid elliptical editing to linear long takes and then a hand-held conversational style. The film lacks a fulcrum and often seems unsure how to cope with such a demanding structure, throwing in distracting notes of continuity and hints as to chronologies, which seem at odds with the studied nonchalance of the film’s form. The structure is not out there to trick or delude, as in the more poppy examples of this kind of film, like Pulp Fiction (1994) or Mystery Train (1989) but merely to provide a set of circumstances under which the military rigidity of social division can be tested. Concessions to the whims of a plot-driven, self-evident technical exercise are unwelcome in an otherwise admirable and enjoyable film.

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist


As Paul Shrader himself told us before the UK premiere of Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, “this is not a horror film, it’s not even a horror premise”. Does that explain why the film’s first half is so flat and monotone? Not exactly but it rather helpfully prepares the viewer to adjust their expectations. And when Shrader tells us he had “50 grand for post-production” the ropey special effects are no longer an issue. So without the story of the production context of this film, is it worth watching? What I would say is that this is an assured take on a well-worn franchise that stands alone and deserves an identity separate from Friedkin’s masochistic original.

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is the now finished version of a independently commissioned Exorcist (1973) prequel that was pulled after initial editing by its producer, James Robinson, and re-shot by Renny Harlin with a new script and cast (apart from lead actor Stellan Skarsgard) then released as Exorcist: The Beginning (2004). Only after convincing Robinson that money was to be made in completing the original version after the critical and commercial disappointment of the re-make (or “pre-make” if you will) did Shrader get to leave the experience with a final print.

Resemblances to Friedkin’s The Exorcist are superficial and passing. Shrader uses the prequel as a vehicle for further investigation into the lost humanity that lurks beneath men performing solely ideological functions. Pleasingly, Skensgard’s Father Merrion is not a given, but rather exists many layers underneath his robes. The character begins as a centre of benevolence and is subsumed in a reactionary mantra when trying to relieve the pain of a disabled boy. It is of course often the agenda of prequels to delve into the goal-orientation of its well-known protagonists but at least Shrader has aligned himself with the better examples of this process, as with Christopher Nolan’s unravelling of the psychological make-up and moral ambiguities of superheroes in Batman Begins (2005) rather than the one-dimensional re-tread of sellable icons in a Lucas franchise whose name I need not mention.

Here the complex position of faith and Christianity is related to post-World War 2 existential angst. The crucifixion of a priest and suicide of a British general evokes the end of missionary colonialism and collapse of faith in western structures. The demon itself is deliberately missing the nauseating repulsion of Linda Blair’s teenage witch and is instead an eerily beautiful thing, smooth, graceful and statuesque. Completely trans-gender and trans-race, its unholy “outdoor” voice lacks the guttural transgression of the 1970s bedroom monster. Shrader’s style is not to shock or exploit, but rather to glorify and visually iconisize the struggle between metaphysical introspection (the floating concept that inhibits the soul) and human vigour (verbal assault and physical intimidation).

Yes, this is a film that exists mainly in the realms of the intellect. Although there is plot continuity in the sense that Merrion and the demon will fight again, rather as Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi would, what we very clearly have here is the physical manifestation of Merrion’s doubt and conflict, forcing him to relive his part in wartime atrocities through hypotheses and tangential logic, and see, rightly or wrongly, that faith is his only sustenance in times where he is powerless to pro-actively do good. Skensgard’s staid and quiet performance succinctly harnesses the interiorised psychology of the piece, and brings a classy streak of underplaying to this contained melodrama. The demon is a necessary part of his catharsis and hardly derided as something ugly or less than fascinating.

Also interesting, if slightly fluffed in the rather desperate post-production process, is the retro design of the film. It seeks the 1940s through its filmic iconography; the omnipresent orchestral score, romantic liaisons performed through exchanged cigarettes, hats and mood lighting. Also the almost colourless wartime prologue espouses neo-realism, documentary and Z-grade film noir to signal time and place without missing a beat.

It is shocking that a film as arrestingly different and challenging as Dominion is in danger of being buried forever. Remember before you castigate the Hollywood studio system for this debacle that it is the ego of one man with bottomless pockets that subjected Shrader to this humiliation. This would never happen in a studio. That said it is a remarkably solid film in spite of being part of such a fragmented process and judged on its own merits and not those of a 1970s pulp horror manipulator, a host of uninteresting sequels and a frankly appalling companion piece it is something unique and treasurable.

George A. Romero's Land of the Dead


Despite a promising opening in which the zombies are entrenched in the impotent garb of 1950s small-town nostalgia, we are soon plucked from this powerfully satirical set-piece and thrust into a laborious action movie. Top-heavy with clichés, we are lead through the film by a clean-cut moral champion, an unfortunate sidekick and a tart with a heart fighting, guess what, a futuristic war presided over by an evil billionaire megalomaniac. The Summer action spectacular is the new vehicle for the franchise and their success depends upon the director’s management of clichés, which in Romero’s case is no more than perfunctory. I’m not being hypocritical and needlessly retro. The dialogue is as winsome as ever but, like the film’s reliance on formula, it is overwhelming, constant and grating.

Part of the problem nevertheless provides an intriguing twist in the Romero canon. The director’s pervading cynicism gives way to a wet naiveté, a weirdly bubbly optimism that recalls the sentimental Marxist propaganda of Battleship Potemkin (1925). The film can hardly withhold its tendency towards the emblematic, with a black, working class zombie leading an army of the underclass and a literalised Cathedral of capitalism. Sometimes, these symbols are sharp and provocative, like the “skyflowers”, fireworks used to distract the populace from atrocity and delay revolt. Having just been to the States over the Fourth of July weekend, I can only attest to the validity of this claim. A politically divided country suddenly spasms into allegiance at the instant gratification of this ceremonial eye-candy. At the other end of the scale, however, is the attempt to transform Dennis Hopper into Donald trump by means of a dodgy hairpiece, rendering satirical comment redundant.

I’m sorry, but I must try to somehow translate the unspeakable awfulness of Dennis Hopper’s performance into words. His laughably dated and defiantly limited range of stares and twitches are intermixed with gratuitous outbursts of his Frank Booth persona. His pathetic attempt at chilling restraint is about as convincing as his impression of a wealthy businessman. He can only play a mad, stoned, paranoid loser and these little verbal winks at a 1960s cult audience (“Zombies, man! They freak me out!” which is said more or less to the camera like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In) is like watching Mick Jagger slop his arthritic bones across Wembley Stadium, only with less hubris.

Continuing on the same thread, the things Romero could once do in the spirit of radicalism now simply don’t harness the same power. The once startling casting of roles for a multitude of races and equal standing for male and female protagonists now gives off a pat, tokenistic feeling and occasionally borders on callous caricature. It’s not that the industry has rectified these horrible oversights (God forbid I say anything like “things have moved on since the 60s”) but that I simply can’t get past mentally retarded Samoans, Irish bootleggers and evil midgets no matter how poignantly the death of civil rights is rendered in Night of the Living Dead (1968). Plus the women are tough not interesting. They are insufferable as victims turning to violence. This is the new Hollywood shorthand for being conscious of gender bias but doing the absolute minimum about solving it. Romero is not only better than that, he excelled at honest, varied portrayals of women in Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985) but once again buckles under the weight of convention here.

It’s a deliberate ploy I know but the absence of B-movie thrills of visceral cheapness is sorely felt. Isolated sets of momentary, fleeting scares feel very much like contemporary teen horror and work against Romero’s strengths. Suspense was never really key in Romero’s films, they were direct and extremely low maintenance works that drew their disgust from the strength of their concept and the grotesquery of human behaviour (the zombies were never monsters, they just lacked inhibitions). The shocks on offer you feel could be administered by just about anyone. The truly perplexing, challenging pieces of filmmaking we’re used to from this great director cannot breathe inside these close walls.

George A Romero’s original zombie trilogy features some of the tightest and most significant horror movies ever made. This is wasteful, lamely plotted with crosses and double crosses and a bizarre tank fetish that you can’t work out whether it’s trying to be satirical or is genuinely singing the praises of a terrain vehicle. It is intensely ideological and in fact you wonder whether the fact that we’ve fallen into a geo-political mire is really a poor excuse for Romero to add a disposable footnote to a pretty perfect canon of sociological mass-entertainment.

This article was published on September 12, 2005.

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