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For eleven-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio), a beach holiday in Turkey with her dad, Calum (Paul Mescal), marks the final summer of childhood innocence. Meanwhile, for her dad, the holiday coincides with his 31st birthday, a birthday he never thought he would reach. Charlotte Wells’ adventurous, understated and artistically bold film is a stunning photographic essay of love, loss, joy and disappointment, a mosaic of memories forever burnt into celluloid. Aftersun is filmmaking at its most profound, beguiling and beautiful.
THE MENU (2022)
On a secluded island, a spikey house manager and a reclusive and famous chef greet a small group of wealthy individuals. They have all come to experience a world-class menu that is more theatre than food. But as the night progresses, the menu becomes a deliciously dark game of no escape. Mark Mylod’s wicked satire takes no time in taking a huge bite out of the world of haute cuisine as we watch Ralph Fiennes’ cold and deranged chef Julian Slowik turn from MasterChef into a malevolent and merciless maitre d’.
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It would be easy to label Melissa Lesh and Trevor Frost’s beautiful and tender documentary as a classic healing journey, but Wildcat is much more. It is the story of a young Afghanistan veteran and two lost and lonely ocelots in a world that is often unforgiving and harsh but also full of wonder and hope. Wildcat is a tender, intimate and beautiful exploration of life, loss, love and rebirth that never attempts to sugar-coat the journey of Harry, Samantha, Khan and Keanu.
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THE SCHOOLMASTER GAMES (2022)
Sometimes, movies get lost in a tangle of conflicting and problematic themes from the outset. Unfortunately, The Schoolmaster Games is one of those movies. Based on the erotic gay novel Magisterlekarna, it’s clear that the director, Ylva Forner, had ambitions of exploring concepts of power, place, generational divide and sexual freedom. However, these themes are encased in a deeply problematic, overly camp and frivolous atmosphere that plays to every possible LGBTQ+ stereotype. Despite this being a fantasy world, one of the first problems of The Schoolmaster Games lies in the very foundation of its story: a gay school where an older gay teacher is engaged in sex and power-play with one of their students. This problematic narrative structure plays to long-held and deeply damaging stereotypes of older gay men as sexual predators of the young. If this had found a significant challenge by exploring psychological themes of society’s obsession with youth and beauty, The Schoolmaster Games could have offered something genuinely interesting. However, little effort is made to weave anything meaningful into the narrative.
TOP GUN (1986)
What is Top Gun? Is it a homoerotic bromance? A brazen advert for the US military? Or an opportunity to cash in on the sex appeal of a young Tom Cruise? These questions surround Tony Scott’s military action flick from 1986. With Top Gun, every viewer comes away from the sweat-drenched muscles, pearly white smiles, tight white t-shirts and aviators with a slightly different perspective. However, for me, Top Gun is an amalgamation of all of the themes raised above while also managing to be a damn fine action flick that provides moments of pure escapism. There is no doubt that Top Gun heralded a new, Reagan-inspired vision of the American military following the anti-war movies of the 1970s. But it wrapped this new, bold, star-spangled vision of combat in MTV-inspired pop. Here, Top Gun is, in essence, a feature-length music video.
Designing a movie for the new MTV generation was inspired; after all, it didn’t really need a story, just a killer soundtrack, sex appeal and an emotional hook. Here Top Gun was the first of a new wave of music video movies. These movies would prioritise their soundtrack over their story and bathe us in perfect bodies, skimpy tops, fast action and full-blooded Americana. Watching Top Gun now is a fascinating experience; after all, the triumphalism of America now seems somewhat tired, and its music video montages cover the fact that Top Gun has no real story. Yet, it remains addictive viewing over 35 years later, and that, my friends, is down to its star. Love him or loathe him, Tom Cruise is a Hollywood legend, and Top Gun is a career-defining pop culture sensation that would see white t-shirts and aviators become the must-have fashion accessories of 86.
TOP GUN MAVERICK (2022)
Top Gun (1986) ducked, dived and raced through a series of genres and pop culture tropes to achieve box office success. It had no meaningful story, dramatic hook, or clear vision beyond its flag-waving, all-American charm.
But over thirty-five years after Top Gun lit up the box office, could a sequel achieve the same thing? The jury was out when the press lined up outside Cineworld Leicester Square for the much-anticipated screening. After just over two hours, the vote was in, and it was clear Top Gun Maverick had achieved something rare in legacy sequels; it had surpassed expectations by offering us a carbon copy of the original. In fact, what is interesting is that many of the young reviewers had likely never seen the 1986 movie on its release and, therefore, seemed oblivious to the clear familiarities.
Does that mean Top Gun Maverick is a poor movie? Hell no! It’s a near-perfect blockbuster, which is a rare gift nowadays. But does it offer anything new? Well, here the jury is out, but who cares? It’s the big-screen film we all needed following COVID-19 and a divine homage to the now-dying 80s summer blockbuster format Top Gun helped give birth to.
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DAHMER – MONSTER: THE JEFFREY DAHMER STORY (2022)
If My Friend Dahmer unnerved and upset its audience by challenging our notions of what makes a young man become a vicious killer, then Dahmer aims to revolt and enrage in equal measure. The Netflix drama is as stomach-churning in its horror as it is scathing of the institutions that were supposed to protect and serve. Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s complex and layered drama rejects the notion that Dahmer killed freely just because his victims (Black, Hispanic, Bisexual and Gay) had no one who cared about them. Instead, it squarely places the blame at the doorstep of the authorities, whose actions were laced with racism, bias, homophobia and corruption.
Like My Friend Dahmer, Monster is keen to put a human face to the horror while not apologising for the crime; charged with this near-impossible task is Evan Peters, who not only achieves this goal but, in turn, offers us a performance of such uncomfortable depth that it must have taken a heavy emotional toll. There have been and will continue to be accusations of exploitation, with many arguing that the show should have placed even more focus on the victims of Dahmer. Maybe this is true, but it also sidelines the upbringing, psychology and childhood of the man who took so many lives. Equally, some have stated it should not be labelled as an LGBTQ drama. But by stripping this away, do we not choose to ignore Dahmer’s complex sexuality and the reality that gay men can commit horrible crimes? Monster is uncomfortable to view because it should be; it’s revolting, heartbreaking, infuriating and human.
MY FRIEND DAHMER (2017)
What factors combine to create a serial killer? Are these people born evil, or are their actions rooted in their upbringing and socialisation? These questions surround our obsession with serial killers; in fact, much of the fear they hold over us is based on our inability to understand or comprehend their motivations and actions. After all, as humans, we like to place behaviour in easily defined boxes. For example, when we view the act of murder through a lens of self-defence, war or revenge, we find it easier to identify a person’s motivation. But, a random homicide based on desire remains obscure and scary. At the same time, the murder of a child remains unfathomable due to the power dynamics at play, even if it’s another child who perpetrates the crime.
Based on the 2012 graphic novel of the same name by cartoonist John Backderf, who was friends with Dahmer in high school, My Friend Dahmer places the viewer into a range of uncomfortable encounters where sympathy and even humour mix with a deep sense of unease. For some, this may prove too upsetting. But, for those willing to look into the darkness of the adolescent psychology at play, My Friend Dahmer offers a unique cinematic experience that challenges our very notion of inherent evil.
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THE FENCE (2022)
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Written and directed by William Stone, The Fence builds upon his 2018 short film of the same name as it takes us back to 1980s Bristol for a coming-of-age tale of brotherly love, motorbikes, friendship and crime. At its core, this simple story of a boy and his stolen motorbike may appear too simplistic for the one hour and thirty-minute runtime it consumes, but Stone’s film is far more than an exploration of community justice on the streets of Bristol; it’s a love letter to friendship, brotherhood and community that shines through the performances of its young cast. It’s clear from the outset that The Fence was a labour of love for the director, producer and crew; the attention to detail is exquisite, alongside a screenplay that oozes charm. But even more impressive is that Stone only graduated from University in 2017.
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SANTA CLAUS: THE SERIAL KILLER (2022)
Mobeen Azhar’s documentary follows in the footsteps of CBC’s Murder in the Village (2017) and Catching a Serial Killer: Bruce McArthur (2021); as a result, it struggles to offer anything new to the evidence base surrounding McArthur’s crimes. Azhar explores the lacklustre Police response to the disappearances while also asking us to reflect on the racial dimension of McArthur’s crimes. But at its heart, Azhar’s documentary explores the cultural barriers of a closed gay community and the fact that any community holds secrets and vulnerabilities that residents would rather not face. There are clear parallels between the Stephen Port case here in the UK and the Bruce McArthur case in Toronto. Here, while Azhar’s investigation is interesting and informative, it never quite manages to tease out these similarities, resulting in a missed opportunity to explore Police failures and hidden community concerns. The result is a documentary that occasionally feels overly simplistic in its investigative framework.
FRIGHTFEST BITES 2022: QUICK READ REVIEWS
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We live in a strange new world where people consume media like Pringles; it’s a ‘once you pop and you just can’t stop’ conveyor belt of content, from YouTube to Instagram and TikTok. Here, we are encouraged to like, dislike, comment and buy while judging our own worth based on the number of friends we have or the number of likes we get. Don’t get me wrong, social media and instant video sharing are also a force for good in many ways, but finding the good stuff has become more and more like wading through treacle over the years. I know what some of you are thinking, “You don’t get it”, or “Maybe you’re too old to understand.” But are those thoughts your own? Or are you, even now, buying into the arguments the overlords of social media and instant video sharing want you to use?
On its delayed premiere during the 2020 Venice Film Festival, many critics apparently walked out of Gia Coppola’s movie in disgust. And possibly due to the plethora of one and two-star reviews following this, Mainstream has only just arrived on digital in the UK. So, is it terrible? Is it confusing? And is Andrew Garfield’s power and fame-hungry Link the devil incarnate? Mainstream is far from a terrible movie; it’s a complex satire that hits the mark on several occasions when dissecting our social media-driven world. There are genuinely fascinating themes at play, from mass manipulation to psychological harm and the dangerous frenzy of fandom.
However, Coppola’s film, at times, does lose its way, and much of this is due to the dated concept of the YouTube celebrity. YouTube hit its stride in the late noughties, creating young internet megastars whom most people no longer remember. In many ways, you could argue that the current social media landscape is even more toxic than it was then, and here, Coppola misses a trick by focusing solely on YouTube and ignoring the rise of sites such as TikTok. But does that decrease the power of Garfield, Hawke and Wolff’s dark and unsettling exploration of fame, manipulation, control and entertainment? Not at all! Coppola manipulates us, the audience, from start to finish, wrapping us in a mix of truth and lies resembling a knotted ball of wool. As the yarn unravels, we are left with a tangled and knotted pile that only we can unpick if we have the will to do so.
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NIGHT’S END (2021)
In 1999, the highly underrated Stir of Echoes proclaimed, ‘Some doors weren’t meant to be opened’ on its poster. Directed by Jennifer Reeder, Night’s End could equally have carried this well-worn slogan as we witness Ken Barber (Geno Walker) descend into hell in the confines of his small apartment. Ken is clearly a man with several significant personal issues; after all, he barricades himself into his new abode, blocking each window from the outside world while filming self-help videos on YouTube. Meanwhile, he collects dead birds, his fridge stuffed with plastic-wrapped warblers and convenience food. However, when his friend Terry notices one of his stuffed birds fall from a shelf behind Ken during his latest video, Ken begins to explore the spooky history of the apartment with devastating results.
Despite sitting firmly in the haunted house/demonic possession sub-genre of horror, Reeder’s film also plays with many of the themes of isolation and separation brought about by the pandemic. Here, we witness a man slowly unravelling as he shuts himself away from the real world, each day merging into the next. Within Reeder’s exploration of Ken’s slow mental separation, Night’s End is at its most satisfying and scary. However, unfortunately, Reeder opts to shift gears, and Ken’s journey ultimately becomes wrapped in mainstream demonic horror.