“Sumptuous, elegant cinematography, performances brimming with intent, and a plot that’s as clever as it is wicked…”
The Handmaiden is a deeply-sensual adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel, Fingersmith.
But unlike Fingersmith, director Chan-wook Park’s version is staged not in Victorian Britain, but in 1930’s Korea, where a seemingly impressionable young girl, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim), takes on the role of handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Hideko lives with her uncle on a huge estate in the country, and Sook-Hee will be at her beck and call, both morning and night.
Sook-Hee arrives highly recommended and with glowing references; seemingly the perfect fit for the job. A more than satisfactory scenario for all concerned.
But, as sweet and obedient as Sook-Hee may well appear on the surface, there’s foul-play afoot, for Sook-Hee’s ‘master,’ – posing as Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and a prospective suitor for Lady Hideko’s attentions – has a special set of instructions for the young handmaiden to abide by. She is to sing the Count’s praises at every opportunity whilst in Lady Hideko’s company, so as to convince her that she should be with him.
For The Count is a confidence trickster, intent only on getting his hands on Lady Hideko’s considerable impending wealth. Sook-Hee, fearful of the consequences should she disobey him, is just one of a number of young, impressionable girls that The Count holds under his considerable, wicked, dictatorial influence.
This in itself lays the foundations for a straight forward, but nevertheless intriguing tale. The Handmaiden, however, is anything but straight forward. This is in fact a story of subterfuge, whose plot twists and turns, deceives and frequently wrong-foots its viewer, as the distinction between hero and villain become blurred and confused, and any initial assumptions are turned on their head.
Chan-wook Park certainly doesn’t shy away from the gratuitous. Indeed, there are any number of moments when you may choose to avert your eyes, recoil or wince in equal measure. Added to this are the surprisingly long, drawn-out erotic scenes that unfold as the sexual tension builds relentlessly throughout the piece, making The Handmaiden a film to rival even the steamiest of mainstream cinematic offerings. The likes of Mulholland Drive, and more recently, Blue is the Warmest Colour, immediately spring to mind.
Far from being a mere vehicle for generous titillation, however, The Handmaiden is every bit a fully-captivating thriller in its own right, occasionally bringing to my mind at least, Peter Greenaway’s excellent The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & Her Lover – but as I say, that could just be me, in fairness.
It’s a film that has that certain something about it. Sumptuous, elegant cinematography, performances brimming with intent, and a plot that’s as clever as it is wicked, all combining to elevate The Handmaiden high above the many lesser offerings within this genre.
One can only hope that quality Korean thrillers that are unleashed in the Spring, are not long-forgotten come Oscar time.
“…Garance Marillier’s on-screen transformation from doe-eyed virginal innocent, into an almost demonic lustful deviant is both powerful and highly convincing.”
“It’s a family affair” enthused Sly & The Family Stone in their 1971 soulful classic, though I’m not entirely convinced that any such genealogical affirmations were pertaining to a generational compulsion to nibble on human flesh!
But I could be wrong.
All contrived cultural references aside for a moment, Raw is director Julia Ducournau’s splendidly squirm-inducing cannibalistic shocker, trumpeting the merits of the deceased as a feast. A film which by all accounts has caused all manner of repulsion and outrage at screenings since its launch.
Good. More of this please.
To be honest, if you boil the film’s plot and key components down into its simplest form, it will probably raise an eyebrow or two of the sceptics amongst us, but so well is Ducournau’s warped vision realised, and so convincingly is it portrayed by all concerned, you can’t help but be drawn into this most peculiar of tales.
There is a scene early on in Raw when a mother almost loses her mind over the fact that a roadside cafe’s lackadaisical approach to food serving technique results in a meatball being inadvertently secreted within a big pile of mashed potatoes and then served to the woman’s daughter. No big deal you may surmise, but so puritanical is this particular family in its dogged devotion to vegetarianism, you’d assume something far more sinister had occurred given the song and dance that she proceeds to make of it all.
But such a hullabaloo is not without good reason, as will ultimately be revealed.
Her daughter, Justine (Garance Marillier), is being driven to veterinary school. There, she will hook up once again with her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf) – also pursuing a career in veterinary science – who is a year or two ahead of her, in her studies. This is no ordinary vet school, however – or perhaps it is? I never studied veterinary science, after all – and in a fashion that we’d sooner probably associate with the likes of an Eton or Oxbridge, all manner of bizarre inductions and initiation rituals are thrust upon the first year students.
One such trial involves the scoffing down of raw rabbit kidneys. This would be insane enough for a non-questioning omnivore, let alone a devout vegetarian such as Justine, for whom the entire notion is preposterous. But against her will, and shall we say ‘encouraged’ by her older sister, despite much protestation and considerable gagging, she sees the ordeal through.
For most, this could probably be chalked off as extreme high jinx, but for Justine, it proves to be the catalyst for something altogether more disturbing as she awakens a deep-seated, almost compulsive craving for flesh.
More taboo-busting art house picture than horror flick, though bordering on vampirical at times, Raw is unashamedly graphic and ghoulish in its presentation, closely tracking Justine’s rapid and seemingly unalterable descent from innocent beetroot-biter into what is gradually revealed to be both her genetic disposition and destiny, a full-on flesh-feeder – human flesh, at that. Indeed, Garance Marillier’s on-screen transformation from doe-eyed virginal innocent, into an almost demonic lustful deviant is both powerful and highly convincing; an inspired piece of casting from Director Ducournau.
Greatly enhanced by a pulsing and persuasive soundtrack – anchored by Jim Williams’ wonderful recurring, swirling, stately Baroque-tinged and menacing main theme – Raw is a macabre, frequently uncomfortable but darkly humorous film that successfully marries substantial helpings of toe-curling gore with beautifully vivid and seductive colour; an at times almost ethereal experience.
A highly original piece that certainly won’t be forgotten in a hurry, Raw can quite rightly claim its place in the ‘must-see’ list of 2017.
“…a film that tries far too hard to be everything for everyone, and consequently, on balance, falls short in all departments.”
Oh how I long for simplicity.
There are a handful of set pieces within Alien: Covenant that hint at what a decent film it could have been, but so buried are they within an over-cooked, rambling backstory, that any impact they may lend the film is fleeting, to say the least.
It was Ridley Scott who took charge of the much-hyped, but ultimately quite frankly poor, Prometheus, and in Alien: Covenant, he once again looks to rediscover a bit of that old Alien magic in the latest chapter of this most patchy of franchises.
Sadly, long gone it seems are the days when we cowered in horror and bit our nails down to the bone in fearful awe of the most excellent Alien, not to mention it’s excellent James Cameron-directed sequel, Aliens. Whilst Alien: Covenant does have its moments, it’s a very pale imitation of what’s preceded it.
Another 2017 release, Life, made no pretence to be anything other than something of a homage to some of the great science fiction films of the last half century, yet despite its relatively unoriginal concept(s), it delivered a tight, neatly packaged and thoroughly entertaining finished product with both considerable impact and laser-sharp precision.
Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, in contrast, struggles somewhat for identity. There’s clearly an ‘epic’ vision at play behind the scenes here. The director tries manfully to engage his audience on far more of an expansive scale and cerebral level than simply throwing rampaging aliens in numbers at unsuspecting space travellers (although there’s plenty of that to be getting on with), but the general impression is that this is a film that tries far too hard to be everything for everyone, and consequently, on balance, falls short in all departments.
Part thriller, part thought-provoking science fiction piece, part action-packed white knuckle ride, part philosophical lament, you name it, this is a film that struggles gamely yet ultimately fails to weave these and other disparate threads together into something resembling a coherent whole.
Alien: Covenant is not helped by both momentum-sapping, drawn-out scenes of unnecessary ponderous self-reflection, and by fairly weak characterisation.
Although Michael Fassbender (playing both David & Walter) and Katherine Waterston (Daniels) turn in strong performances, and as whole-heartedly as all other parts are played, there’s something of a disconnect here between viewer and character, and I doubt that there will have been too many tears shed by the viewing public as the cast are predictably whittled down in number via various grisly means, leaving the remaining few to battle it all out in overly exaggerated bloated fight sequences.
Where Alien: Covenant does however score highly, is in the ‘memorable, hard-hitting set pieces’ department. Indeed, never let it be said that Ridley Scott doesn’t know how to shock, or to sear disturbing imagery into our collective grey matter.
There are certain franchises that tend to garner a generous tidal wave of goodwill regardless of the true quality of their output, attracting something of a blinkered, head-in-the-sand devotion by the masses. The Alien franchise is one such example. But the truth is that there have been just two truly excellent Alien films in the series, and the rest, no matter how much you dress them up, or who’s been pulling the strings, have largely been regurgitated re-hashes of the original, admittedly excellent concept.
There’s no doubt that there were good and very grand intentions behind Alien: Covenant – this is a film not without its positives, rest assured – but it’s probably all best summed up by the rather sign-posted ‘twist’ at the film’s conclusion. Well executed, but rather predictable and ultimately all a bit unnecessary.
“…Clive Parnevik – a semi-naked man so laid-back Dutch, he’s visually virtually orange.”
The all too often ‘hiding to nothing’ that is stretching a simple comedy concept into a full-blown feature film continues unabated here with Sean Foley’s, Mindhorn.
Based upon Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby’s screenplay – both of whom have key roles in it – this is the story of Richard Thornton, a washed up has-been actor who briefly in the 1980’s had a taste of the high-life, portraying slick, on-screen, no-nonsense maverick Isle-of-Man detective, Mindhorn. A sort of naff Magnum P.I – light.
Resplendent in brown leather jacket, roll-neck sweater and grey brogues, our ‘action’ hero is also the proud wearer of a special eye patch through which his artificial eyeball can literally see the truth.
All faltering one-liners, thick head of hair and generous moustache, our bionic Bergerac (thank you Julian Barratt), goes about the task of solving the island’s assorted crimes and misdemeanours along with his glamorous sidekick and all-round ‘bit of totty,’ Patricia Deville (Essie Davis).
Fast forward twenty-five years and Richard Thornton, a now tubby, bald jobbing actor for corporate videos and adverts, receives a call out of the blue from the Isle of Man police. His presence is ‘urgently’ requested on the island to aid in solving an actual case of murder.
Delusional oddball ‘The Kestrel’ (Russell Tovey), is the chief suspect in the case. Refusing to give himself up to the police, he insists that he’ll only talk to detective Mindhorn, oblivious to the fact that the Isle of Man’s favourite corruption-correcter is of course nothing but a fictional character. Nevertheless, step forward Richard Thornton, a.k.a Mindhorn. Not quite the man he once was, but in reprising his semi-famous alter ego of yesteryear, Thornton is now duty bound to perform the role of his life…
Mindhorn follows that not so original, rather well-worn path of mixing comedy with farcical crime caper. Done to death? Sure, but when done well it always seems to provide a solidly reliable platform upon which decent comedians and actors can strut their stuff.
And strut, they do…
With Julian Barratt on board, Mindhorn is a film that need not worry too much about employing any tired concepts, nor concern itself with the struggle to adapt comedy for the big screen; Barratt absolutely steals the show from start to finish portraying a man of massive delusions and a toe-curling lack of self-awareness. Crucially though, Thornton, whilst being a fairly tragic character, is also one with whom one can’t help but empathise. This man was once Mindhorn, so just where did it all go wrong?
Simon Farnaby, on the other hand, plays Thornton’s one time stunt double and hugely smug love rival, Clive Parnevik – a semi-naked man so laid-back Dutch, he’s visually virtually orange. Both in the 80’s and still to the present day, the pair of them are unable to set aside an ongoing petty spat, as they continually spar in a game of one-upmanship for the lovely Patricia’s attentions.
In fairness, she’d probably be quite happy without either of them.
With Baby Cow Films on board, it’s no surprise that aspects of both The Mighty Boosh and various Alan Partridge-esque elements are very much in evidence. Shades of Alan Partridge’s mega-fan and stalker, Ged, in particular spring to mind. Indeed, Steve Coogan himself portrays successful, all-round pompous git, Peter Eastman, a sort of more glamorous Tony Hayers – type character, with the power to commission (or not) the Mindhorn box set re-issue that Thornton covets so greatly.
It’s all great fun, and consistently delivers the goods with a generous helping of genuinely funny, actual laugh-inducing spoken and visual gags. Yes, there are one or two lulls in it, and occasional moments when it all appears to be running out of puff, yet it always successfully manages to stay on course and hauls itself back from the brink.
By all accounts, Mindhorn – with frequent comedic references to Bergerac’s John Nettles, throughout – was devised to be as much a heartfelt homage to 1980’s detective shows as it was to be a merciless send-up of the much-loved genre (something that it executes splendidly, I should add), and on balance it achieves both goals. It even goes so far as to incorporate that most mandatory of appendages to 80’s TV stardom, the hit record – all perms, guitar solos and rolled-up suit jacket sleeves on big-spectacled keyboard players.
“You can’t handcuff the wind” – indeed.
Absolutely destined for cult status amongst students, comedy aficionados and anoraks the length and breadth of this country, Mindhorn is by some distance the funniest film of both this and the last few years.
“…a wonderfully poignant, thought-provoking piece, guilty only of perhaps being a little too subtle at times in divulging the key components of Julian Barnes’ intricate narrative.”
Considering The Sense of an Ending is a film that contemplates past memories – and taking into account the often considerable amounts of time lapsed, our often rather muddled, incorrect recollection of them – it probably hasn’t been the wisest of ideas for me to have waited quite so many weeks to finally get around to reviewing it.
Additionally, if truth be told, there had been a few loose ends that I’d failed to connect within director Ritesh Batra’s excellent vision of Nick Payne’s adaptation of the Julian Barnes novel of the same name. Suffice it to say, the passing of time has not helped in this regard, rendering even more inadequate my already ropey grip on the film’s finer points of debate and uncertainty.
Nevertheless, fading memories or not, what I can quite confidently pronounce is that The Sense of an Ending is a superbly realised piece of work, with Jim Broadbent in particular, in fine form – although that will come as no shock to anyone familiar with his vast body of quality work.
Tony Webster (Broadbent), is a retired divorcee with a small Leica camera repair shop which keeps him busy in his twilight years. Curmudgeonly and rather intolerant by nature – christened ‘The Mudge’ by his pregnant daughter and ex-wife – Webster lives a simple life of routine, perhaps typical of a man his age?
Such quotidianness is however disturbed somewhat when Webster receives notification that he has been left the diary of an old deceased friend, Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), in the will of the mother of an old-flame, Veronica (Veronica is played in her youth by Freya Mavor, and latterly by Charlotte Rampling).
This is a strange occurrence for a couple of reasons: Why would Adrian’s diary be in the hands of Tony’s old girlfriend’s mother in the first place? And what possible reason could there be for passing it on to Tony, in the event of her death?
The prospect of this gift from beyond the grave understandably piques Tony’s interest and his imagination is let loose on something of a trip down memory lane. He recounts very special times from his school and university days when he first met both Veronica and Adrian. One vivid memory stands out, that of a long weekend spent at Veronica’s family home in which Tony was introduced to her parents. Veronica’s winsome, effortlessly beguiling mother, Sarah, (portrayed by Emily Mortimer – an exceptional piece of casting) particularly captivates the young Tony.
Little however does he realise just how important a role Sarah will come to play in shaping the fate of so many people that he holds so dear.
Manouevering skilfully between Tony’s present, and the at times rose-tinted memories of his past, director Batra slowly cuts through the fog that has somewhat confused Tony’s recollections, to reveal a number of at times unwelcome truths; truths that until now, had remained largely out of sight and mind – partially buried in the ever-amassing sands of time.
Charlotte Rampling’s relatively brief role as the older Veronica, is powerful, yet sweetly understated, whilst Harriet Walter convinces entirely as Tony’s ex-wife, Margaret, who, whilst still being friends with him, wears that look of slight exasperation in his company; clearly possessing only limited tolerance for the silly old fool’s mildly obsessive later-life flights of fancy.
The Sense of an Ending truly is a wonderfully poignant, thought-provoking piece, guilty only of perhaps being a little too subtle at times in divulging the key components of Julian Barnes’ intricate narrative. But creating a little mystery and uncertainty in the minds of your viewers can never be a bad thing, in my experience at least.
Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the year to date.
“…a pair of hired hands, whose demeanour could reasonably be likened to that of Carlton Banks (Fresh Prince of Bel Air) on ketamine…”
What appears to be Jordan Peele’s first official outing as a director, has seen him take on one of those films whose narrative and plot reveals will probably fool no-one. I second-guessed pretty much every last attempted twist and turn that played out for the film’s duration.
And truth be told, I enjoyed every last minute of it.
Proof positive that if you choose to do something, and do it well, it’s always worth doing whether it’s pushing boundaries or not.
Get Out is a tense, at times deeply awkward and darkly humorous piece which, initially at least, pits ‘loved-up’ couple, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), an African American lad, and his white girlfriend, Rose (Jennifer Connolly’s long lost sister? Allison Williams), against her well-meaning but ‘trying-way-too-hard’ all-round embarrassing caucasian parents. The parents are seemingly intent upon making their African-American guest feel as welcome as possible through a succession of strategically-placed cringeworthy positive race references, and by illustrating a deep devotion to Barack Obama. Think David Brent’s Equality Street, and you’re on the right track.
It’s all harmless enough, though Chris’s suspicion that something may not be quite right is aroused on the realisation that The Armitages employ a black maid and gardener to work on the family estate. This, naturally, is all justified by way of a reasonably plausible back story, but on closer inspection there’s definitely something a little ‘off’ about a pair of hired hands, whose demeanour could reasonably be likened to that of Carlton Banks (Fresh Prince of Bel Air) on ketamine – an almost total betrayal of their African-American roots.
Nonetheless, Chris’s primary task in hand is to be positively charming in order to impress Rose’s parents; something he seems to be well on his way to accomplishing until a late night ‘encounter’ with Rose’s mother, Missy, (the ever-beguiling Catherine Keener), puts a serious dent in any such plans.
From thereon in, Chris must face the daunting truth that he is not so much being accepted, as forced into Rose’s family circle.
But should one want to, how does one Get Out?!
As mentioned previously, if one takes a step back from the action, Jordan Peele’s eerie tale offers few genuine twists or shocks, and quickly evolves into a fairly straight forward, albeit slightly off-the-wall thriller.
No matter, it’s highly entertaining stuff, and successfully fuses the macabre and the sinister with the seriously off-beat and comical – Chris’s constant text and phone commentary with fellow African-American best friend, professional cynic and security guard – the larger than life Rod (Lil Rel Howery) – is a constant highlight, throughout.
Kaluuya’s solid lead performance, a strong and believable chemistry between him and on-screen girlfriend, Williams, the substantial weight provided by a good quality support cast, and the insightful, albeit playful undercurrent of race and its perceived ‘place’ in society, all serve to bind this piece together, convincingly.
Get Out may not be overly original, but if we accept that there’s a specific winning formula that should be aspired to for any movie of this type, then it’s only fair to say that in this instance, director Jordan Peele has absolutely nailed it.