All posts by HermioneFlavia

A film critic and film maker, with some awards under my belt, I love talking movies!

East End Film Festival: Susu – Review

In London, two young Chinese women (Zitong Wu and Zhu Lin) are studying art and design when they’re invited to stay at a country manor for a weekend to make some money working in a private film archive. When they arrive at the quiet estate, their host is an eccentric wheelchair bound person (Steve Edwin) who appears obsessed with Susu (Junjie Mao), a Chinese Opera star who lived and died there in the house. As the two girls stay in the house, things get stranger and stranger, as the past threatens to invade the present: the past of the two girls and the past of Susu, including the real reason she died.

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I love a haunted house story, especially when the story feels a familiar but also fresh. And a large part of that is down to the characters. They’re not stock types but rather a cast of different originals. And in a way, they’re London types, a city where you can escape and build a life away from your comfort zone, a melting pot of all walks of life. The two girls are friends drawn together by both being Chinese, but as they point out to each other, they would not have ever met or been friends in China, due to one being wealthy and the other poor, one having opportunities and the other longing for impossible escape. I love that they’re both distinct characters, one out going, the other more reticent, one hard working, the other more free. Their relationship feels warm and close, but not simple. Their host is Shirley, whose voice sounds so classic and British, like a BBC show from the 70’s. Shirley is a man who dresses as a woman, and who is confined to a wheelchair, wandering the deserted halls of a house filled with objects belonging to people who are long gone. While the obsession with Susu at first feels just eerie and eccentric, it’s Susu herself, her spirit, and the feeling that the girls will not be able to leave the house that really builds the tension.

While a large part of the story takes place in the country house, it’s framed by the girl’s life in London. The city is displayed as a place of cobbled streets, narrow roads and terrace houses, a very old and beautiful city, the same city where Jack the Ripper did his dark work. The country manor on the other hand, is lush and green, little bridle paths leading to crumbling stone. Indoors, scones are at the ready, rooms are dark and wainscotted and hidden doors lead to dusty collections of memorabilia. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition of town and country, and how like London, with it’s country retreats just a short trip from the winding narrow lanes of the city. The film is very beautifully shot, with an emphasis on slightly golden, cinematic visuals, lingering on faces and places flatteringly, creating mood and atmosphere.

That lingering sense is such a wonderful aspect of this film. It lingers like a ghost, like the scent of perfume in a closed up room, but it’s never dull or slow. The pace is even, unfolding really nicely, giving you just enough clues and just enough scares, but always focusing on people, place and story to create atmosphere. There is violence and death in this film, but they’re not used to carry the story. There are no jump scares or cheap tricks, but the quiet set against clever use of sound and music will have the hairs on the back of your neck standing up, as you wait to see what the next little twist will be.

It’s a film in the tradition of old, Victorian ghost stories, with beautiful young women in peril, a strange but beautiful house with an eccentric occupant, and a collection that hints of a deep darkness in the house, a ghost who refuses to stay buried. It’s a story that Wilkie Collins or Dickens would be familiar with. But it’s also very modern, with it’s focus on thoroughly modern characters, Chinese students, men who identify as women, and women who write for a living (how many Victorian women had to publish under male pseudonyms?). It’s not a racy horror, but a delightful, dark chiller, one that is both beautiful to watch, and satisfies while also being just surprising and original enough. Darkly enjoyable.

Susu screens East End Film Festival on the 26th April 

Hocus Pocus – 25th Anniversary

At the start of October, I change my black cats purple collar to an orange one with jack-o-lanterns on it, switch to pumpkin spice flavoured coffee, and start watching Halloween films. And Hocus Pocus is always on the watchlist.

A kind-of horror film for kids from the wonderful people at Disney, Hocus Pocus was a bit of a flop in cinemas, and yet somehow became a perennial favourite on video and TV. Now, it’s a Halloween cult classic, and it’s also 25 years old this year.

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In case you haven’t seen it, Hocus Pocus is the story of two teenagers and one little girl who accidentally bring back three witch sisters from the dead on Halloween Night in Salem. With the help of an immortal talking cat, they must race against time to stop the Sanderson sisters before they devour the children of the town. But that’s just the bones of the story.

There are a few things that make the film kinda great, and the first that has to be mentioned is the Sanderson sisters themselves. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy play the three witches, and have a blast doing it. They really throw themselves into being comical and diabolical, and have great costumes too. Their whole motivation is that by drinking the essence of local children, they can look young forever, and yet their idea of youthful beauty is still pretty witchy. Midler is their leader, and with prothetic buck teeth, she’s kind of creepy and dark, but still delightful. Parker is the bubbly, flirtatious one, while Nijimy is kind of jocular and foolish. They’re clearly having a great time being bad, and their cartoonishness keeps them lovable and also not too scary for the younger kids.

Though they really do steal the show, the protagonists do hold their own. Omri Katz is Max, whose family have just moved from California to Salem, which is something that he’s not taking in stride so well at first. He’s confused by how seriously the town takes magic and Halloween, but he’s a likable kid who tries to get along with people and cares about his little sister, who is played by a really tiny Thora Birch. She is absolutely adorable. Thrown into this is the beautiful Vinessa Shaw as the love interest. She’s the local girl who takes the two newcomers to the Sanderson house, and whom Max tries to impress but in the process accidentally unleashes the evil trio. They’re all really likable kids, and pretty cute. The romance between the two teens is really nice, and all three show a lot of heart.

Which brings me to my personal favourite character in the film, Thackery Binx the cat. What is a story about witches without a black cat? In the grand tradition of 90’s on screen witches, this cat is a talking immortal who used to be a kid, but was cursed. He’s on the side of the kids, and since he has been wandering the earth since the curse, and he misses his sister who was killed by the sisters, he’s a pretty endearing furry character.

This film really delights in being creepy and spooky, but is never really scary. It’s more of a darkly sparkling riot. The three witches are constantly wise cracking and being scared by new technology. There are constant one liners and little jokes all through the film, including the obligatory town bullies, which are always a fun addition. And of course, any film with Bette Midler has to have a few musical numbers, which are mostly pretty fun.

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Perhaps it’s the heady glow of childhood nostalgia that makes people love this film so much, because in some ways it’s not a great film, it has flaws, and yet there’s something about the joy and magic in this film that makes me really get a kick out of watching it every year when October 31st comes around. Over the years there have been talks of a sequel, with the films writer and some of the actors hinting that they would love to be on board. The latest news is that Disney is in talks to do a remake without any of the previous stars, which has caused the obligatory internet furore amongst fans. There’s also a book released by Disney for the 25th Anniversary, which is a novelisation of the film, plus sequel story, which has the daughter of the two teens of the first film dealing with the Sanderson Sisters return, which might interest some of you fans.

For me, I don’t need a remake or a novel, I’m happy to go back and watch those sisters stumble out of the past and into modern, 90’s life, and those two teens fall in love while a tiny, angelic Thora Birch cuddles a talking cat. At 25 years old, this film is still as delightful and funny, and of course, magical, as on first viewing.

Happy Birthday Hocus Pocus!


mother! – Review

Darren Aronofsky is known for having a strong psychological element to his works. Black Swan being a prime example of his masterful way of building story and meaning, as well as a sense of the unreal, through imagery. He is good at rendering the inner turmoil of a character as an outer manifestation and isn’t afraid to get ugly or dark, as those of you who’ve seen Requiem For A Dream will know all to well. His latest offering is mother! which the director penned over the course of five days, pouring out the darkness and confusion in his psyche and creating a film.

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Whilst the film opens with an unamed couple, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, living a slightly troubled relationship in their idyllic house, whose paradise is soon invaded by unexpected gusests, the film soon becomes something else entirely, throwing imagery and terror at you at an alarming and increasingly escalating rate.

The entire focus of the film is on Jennifer Lawrence’s character. The camera follows her through her house, which is the sole location of the film. It’s a house that was her husband’s but that she has rebuilt for him from scratch with loving attention to detail, and with seemingly no outside help. Her husband is a writer with writer’s block, and it seems to have put a strain on their relationship. She knows something is wrong, but is not sure what.

Then the guests come (Harris and Pfeiffer). They are neither known nor invited, but the husband asks them to stay, and she is horrified both at his lack of consideration and his willingness to harbour strangers. We come to see that he is almost entirely motivated by ego, and loves the attention of the outsiders, whilst they take little care of the house, which is so important to her. As the guests brashness and rudeness escalates, he invites them further into their lives, as opposed to creating boundaries or protecting her, and perhaps this is at the heart of the film, because this situation only escalates. It’s her house and home that she has created, her paradise with him that is so completely invaded, and which he shows no willingness to defend if it will mean curbing his growing popularity and attention to himself.

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Does this sound a bit vague? Like I’m describing themes instead of plot points or characters? There’s a reason for that. No character has an actual name in this film, and everything happens in a strange dreamlike way, one event after another, following on and on and going to the extreme. The whole film is a metaphor, but for what? It’s an ambiguous film which takes in ideas about our inability to have privacy in the modern world, the draw of fame and social media, the destructive nature of religious fanaticism, the current political climate and uncertainly, violence, and also traditional male and female roles in marriage. The second half of this film is quite chaotic. There are also scenes that foreshadow like a horror film, but that don’t really presage a traditional one (that is, the early part of the film seems to suggest that she is hallucinating or may be a ghost in her own house, but this is not exactly followed up in traditional horror fashion).

With it’s focus on religious iconography and symbolism, I feel like perhaps this film is a bit like a creation myth. The creator, that is Bardem’s writer, creates a world outside while she, the divine mother, creates a paradise and a home. But man and woman come to their little Eden and the woman has a destructive impulse, like Eve, while the man acts like a disciple to the creator. Soon they’re deluged by devotees and the purity of the home and relationship is ruined. There is war and destruction, fanaticism, but the creator will not turn anyone away, but rather, he lets the mother or female principle be destroyed and reviled, as long as he is adored and comes first. That narrative is definitely there, if you want to see it.

But on the other hand, the film could also be about destructive relationships, or abusive ones. Whilst her whole life revolves around the house and it appears that she can’t leave, he must be the focus of attention at all times, and his temper can be quite scary. He takes no care of her, and she cries out to be heard and create healthy boundaries that he consistently violates and allows others to, to the extreme of allowing war, famine and authoritarian regimes into their very home. That is certainly there too.

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As you can see, it’s a very hard film to define, and perhaps part of the enjoyment of the film is trying out different interpretations to see how they fit and what it all means. And perhaps it’s more fun not really knowing or having one truth.

I think the secondary enjoyment of the film is Lawrence herself. She’s a brilliant actress, and here she seems beautiful and pure, but also quite complex. She struggles to be heard against the domineering husband, and yet she’s not a doormat, she just doesn’t have any leverage to make change. She says no, and often screams it, but he is inexorable in his wants and his reasonableness. I found her really fascinating to watch in this film, and in fact the camera rarely allows you to look at much else, dogging her and giving her closer frames than any other character. In the final throes of the film, her pain and anguish are practically one long scream, which is quite a feat of performance.

This film will inevitably divide audiences. It’s a strange film to define and one with ambiguous meaning, even though it’s well crafted. If you like your films to be clear cut and to have a defined message, this film is not for you. But it does push the boundaries of film as a creator of meaning and seems like some kind of primal scream into the void of modern life and it’s existential angst. That’s no small feat really.

mother! is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now! 

It – Review

We all float down here…

It’s been a long time since Tim Curry graced our screens with his disturbing and disturbed Pennywise the dancing clown in a two part version of Stephen King’s It. In 1990, he was a pretty scary evil clown, but what passed for fear in the 90’s is camp now. The property was ripe for a remake, but it could so easily all go wrong. King’s books have been adapted for the screen for decades with some really mixed results. For every Carrie or The Shining you have supremely bad and confusing duds like Dreamcatcher. There was always the chance that this could be an epic fail.

Instead, it’s one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time (and I watch a lot of horror films) and is perhaps a new entry in my list of favourites.

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It is the story of a group of kids who live in Derry, an idyllic small town in Maine (of course, where else?) which has a major problem. When Georgie, younger brother of Bill (Lieberher), goes out to play in the rain one day, he never comes home. Soon other children go missing, but Bill holds out hope that Georgie might still be alive. When he and his misfit friends start to see strange and terrifying things, including a clown called Pennywise (Skarsgard), they discover that this isn’t the first time the clown has stalked children in Derry, and also that adults can’t see him. They may be the only thing that can save the children of Derry.

Those of you who know the book or the older film will know that there’s more to the story, and this will be told in a second film. If you’ve seen how thick the book is, you can imagine why (it’s fat enough to choke a whale!). And if you’re a fan of the Stephen King book, you might have concerns about those changes from manuscript to screen… well there are some, notably that instead of being set in the 60’s, it’s now set in the late 80’s, and Beverley who was such a good shot in the original story now has a slightly different story, but these are really cosmetic changes. The sense of the deep bond between a group of kids who don’t fit in and need each other, who all have their own dysfunctional family story, who all have their own personal fears, well that deep beating heart is till there.

In fact, it’s probably what makes this film so wonderful. The group of kids call themselves jokingly the losers. There’s Bill, whose lost his little brother Georgie to the clown. Beverley (Lillis), who lives with her creepy father and who is slut shamed by the other girls at school. The new kid Ben (Taylor), who here loves New Kids On Block, crushes on Beverley and is chubby enough to gain the attention of the school bullies (no one bullies like an 80’s bully). Richie (Strnager Things alumnus Wolfhard) is the joker of the group, and is adorable with his thick glasses and attempts at humour. Mike (Jacobs) is home schooled and lives with his grandfather since his parents died. Eddie’s (Grazer) mother is overbearing and overweight, and he’s terrified of getting sick. And Stanley (Oleff) is a Jewish kid, whose father is a Rabbi and pressures him to study harder. Each one is a well realised person with a distinct voice, which is no small feat with this many characters and with child actors. They manage to encapsulate different aspects of being an outsider and how important belonging is. The bond and banter between them feels really natural and it’s lovely to watch it develop.

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Perhaps the heart of them is Beverley, who is remarkably pretty and a Molly Ringwald doppelganger. A real stand out, she is warm and caring, strong and vulnerable, plucky. She was a pleasure to watch.

On the flipside, psychotic bully Henry Bowers is played by Nicholas Hamilton, which manages to look incredibly like River Phoenix to me, and shows all the delight in humiliation that a vintage 80’s bully would, but with an added dimension. You know that he really wants to destroy someone, and you also know that it’s grounded in a destructive home life. Yes, he’s a bit mad, but he’s never one dimensional, which makes him all the more terrifying.

But that leaves the scary parts to talk about til last. I guess that clowns are a pretty scary prospect on their own, but Bill Skarsgard manages to put so much cheerful menace and playful evil into Pennywise that it’s a whole new level. He’s delightful in a, you know, really deadly and scary way, chewing up the scenery and popping out of it in the most creative ways. The design of this film is amazing. It never really relies on jump scares, it’s more the creeping inevitable dread of the awful. I don’t want to give anything away, but the way the film evokes our deeper fears and manifests them is so well handled. The use of CGI is beautifully rendered, the film is full of dark surprises, and the way things move and come inexorably on towards the victim is really something. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the way it got under my skin and made me so uncomfortable and yes, scared.

It’s a nightmarish vision, all the more terrifying because it’s attacking the most vulnerable, children. It’s foregrounds the importance of childhood friendships for survival of the horrors of life that family and school life visits on the young, and shows how those relationships are the means to survive the unimaginable horrors that should only be the stuff of nightmares, but that are, in Derry, Maine, all to real. A wonderfully balanced story of horror, grounded with just enough humour.

It is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!
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A Woman’s Life – Review

Beautiful, quiet and sad, A Woman’s Life is an award winning, French film based on the novel of the same name (En Vie in French) by Guy de Maupassant. The life referred to is the one lived by the upper class woman of the early 1800’s, a perilous one that looks quite luxurious from the outside, and yet is full of frustration, restriction and powerlessness.

It’s the story of Jeanne, who has just returned from her education in the safety and strictures of the convent to the country home of her parents. She dreams of nothing more than romance, and so is gently guided into the arms of the dashing man that her parents choose for her. While at first she has big dreams of a grand passion and thinks that she has found it, she soon finds that life is not at all what she expected. Her husband is an impatient man who complains at her spending any money and leaves her alone for long stretches of time. When she finds out that her maid and close friend is having his child, she watches helpless as her life slowly unravels.

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The film takes in her life from the cusp of womanhood through til almost it’s end, and is unusual in that it does not push any agency or drive on her that a woman of her time and place would not have had. She is literally powerless as the men around her make decisions while she is given very little in the way of choices. But even though she is a victim of other people in many ways, she does fight where she can in the ways that she is allowed, and it’s a brilliant film in the way it manages to make its protagonist sympathetic, sometimes annoying, but always compelling.

The film has some interesting aesthetic qualities that I really liked, too. It shifts so that often we hear conversations over other the visuals of other moments, like memories, flashback or flash forward moments. It allows us to see into the character of Jeanne and her dreamlike personality and life, a sense of how she thinks about what’s important to her. The film is often very close in it’s shots, echoing the claustrophobia of society at the time, in which strict codes of conduct and religion dictated people’s behaviour so thoroughly, especially women. When there is trouble in the home, the local priest calls and gets involved, making women forgive philandering husbands and making their moral choices for them.

The film takes place in the countryside, and there’s often a sense that Jeanne connects with the land and the outdoors, perhaps longing for the freedom she can never have. She gazes out windows, sticks a hand out into the rain, swims in the ocean, grows plants. But more than this, at the start of the film, there is so much light in her virginal world, streaming in through windows even when it rains. But as the film progresses, there’s more and more feet squelching in mud, dull skies, and a plain white face, swathed in black staring down an empty road in the bitter rain, waiting, hoping.

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A Woman’s Life is a domestic film, and there’s a lot of play of the camera over hands, dresses, faces, chairs and windows. Life is slow, measured. Women read letters to themselves and covet them. Marriage is exciting but also a life or death choice. A maid can be your best and only friend. It’s small, everyday moments. Being the daughter of a Baron, Jeannes’ home is beautiful, her dresses are stunning, she has privilege and yet doesn’t really understand money at all. There’s beauty everywhere in this film, but Jeanne’s struggle with her husband, and later her son, are her permanent dark cloud. While she loves and given them everything, they have no real feeling for her, and are happy to take all she’s worth without a backward glance, sucking her dry.

Admittedly, in it’s dream like way, this film feels a little long, and as Jeanne becomes more entrenched in her position, she becomes slightly frustrating. This film is not your usual period drama fare with it’s focus on romance and gallant rescue from bad mistakes. This is a study of life at the time from an author who talked about what was, about real life for a woman in 1819 and what she could really expect, and a director who is fascinated with Jeanne, her time and her story. It’s very beautiful and draws you in, but it’s also sad and real. A moving story of a bird driven half-mad in a gilded cage.

A Woman’s Life is out now! 

Unlocked – Review

In the world of spies and espionage, sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re the hunter or the prey and who’s spying on who. At least, that’s how it always goes in spy movies.

This one stars Noomi Rapace as Alice Racine, a CIA operative whose job is to “unlock” people, that is, get vital information and secrets out of them. Since a job she was assigned went wrong in Paris and innocent people were killed in a terrorist attack, she feels responsible and has taken on less risky work in London, but she is called back to the line of duty when she’s the only one who can help get important passwords from a suspected terrorist.

However, it all starts to unravel when she realises that the people she’s working for are not who she thought. Is there a leak in the CIA? Can she stop the terrorists from leaking a chemical weapon in time? And who are the real enemies here? Caught between her contacts in the CIA and MI6, with her own former team trying to bring her in, she races through London, dodging bullets and following leads that suggest that the corruption might go all the way to the top.

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I suppose it’s standard that you can’t trust anyone in these types of films, and it’s a theme that for some reason never really gets old. I love the guessing game of who the hero can really trust and who’s a double agent. But on the whole, this film lacks excitement. Perhaps there have been so many big budget action thrillers, like Jack Reacher, the Bourne films or recent James Bond outings that the smaller films need to depend on strong character development to really stand out. And that might be the issue here. It’s not that there aren’t great performances in this film, and the plotting is quite fun, with it’s various twists and obligatory plot holes that you probably won’t notice til you’re on your way home from the theatre, but it always seems to be fun rather than truly thrilling.

Take a scene in a lift for example. Our heroine enters in the clutches of a bad guy. In the lift already is an East London thug with two Rottweilers. Alice slips off the muzzle of one discretely and then causes a fight… at which point it cuts to the outside of the lift. Where the film could have done something as original as the scene with a hammer in Oldboy, it didn’t. There is also no real car chase in this film, which sounds like a good thing, avoiding a cliché, but think about it, where is the tension going to come from without some set pieces?

Rapace is joined by quite a few stars in this film, notably Michael Douglas as her London handler and mentor, who has a fatherly influence on her. And John Malkovich as the head of the CIA operation in the US, with his characteristic coldness always suitable to such a role. Toni Colette as a senior MI6 agent who decides to believe Alice Racine and helps her, is perhaps more interesting than these two, because she’s given more to do, but these three have all played this role before in other films, more than once. They work, but they’re not exactly original.

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That leaves Orlando Bloom, more well known as a romantic lead, who gets his face on the poster and to show that he’s more than a pretty face. He’s actually quite a stand out in this film qs a thief who Alice surprises breaking into a safe house, and who quickly joins her team, though winning her trust is hard. His natural likeability lends him to the role, and he feels natural as a down on his luck ex-soldier who just wants to help, and yet he shows more range here than just a sidekick. Hopefully this is a sign that Bloom is going to do a McConnaughy and have a brilliant second half of his career, the seeds are there.

And of course, it’s really lovely to have a strong female lead to this film, especially with Rapace at the helm, with her ability to be both steely and compassionate, someone who you believe would be excellent with a gun and also care about the innocent lives that are resting in her hands. Alice is no ones fool, she’s good at what she does, and she’s also something more than that: she’s still human. Not an ice cold killing machine. She’s the beating heart of this film, and the element that pulls it all together and keeps it interesting, even if the film doesn’t reach the heights of other thrillers.

With all it’s twists and turns, this film feels rather PC and tame, in the end. It’s fun, there’s some action and intrigue, but there’s just not enough. It’s neither Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with it’s focus on drama and people, nor is it Bourne, with it’s focus on character and spectacle. It’s all rather in the middle. Entertaining, in it’s way, but not game changing or original.

Unlocked is on DVD & Blu-Ray now!