Blu-ray Review TV

Blu-ray Review: Top of the Lake


A determining factor, some may argue, at the heart of Campion’s oeuvre is the inclusion of a strong, emotive (and convincing) female protagonist seen in the likes of Sweetie (1981), An Angel At My Table (1990), The Piano (1993) and In the Cut (2003) to name but a few; these women are usually in search of themselves and while their strength and femininity are rarely questioned they tend to be deeply flawed characters. In Campion’s crime mini-series Top of the Lake – which sees her reunited with collaborator and long-time friend Gerard Lee – leading protagonist Robin Griffith (Elisabeth Moss) picks up the baton left by these memorable characters.


When 12-year-old Tui Mitchum (Jacqueline Joe) is rescued from Lake Top’s freezing stretch of water, her pregnancy is discovered and Detective Robin Griffith – having returned ‘home’ from Sydney – insists on taking the case. Over the course of the six-part drama, she contends with a lot more than just a statutory rape case; namely a dying mother, a long-term engagement she may or may not want, the boy she left behind, and her own demons that she has never fully faced. Throw into the mix, the all-female commune (attempting to take refuge from the debilitating aspects of their respective lives) that has set up home in a field they call Paradise, led by the enigmatic GJ (Holly Hunter). Feeling such a strong personal affiliation with young rape victim Tui, Robin is determined to assist the child; a prospect made all the more difficult when Tui disappears from a dysfunctional community full of secrets, lies, and deception, seemingly led by her father, Matt (Peter Mullan).


Boasting a cast which includes David Wenham (Oranges and Sunshine), Genevieve Lemon (The Piano) and Thomas M. Wright (soon to be seen in the US version of The Bridge) as well as the stellar prowess of Hunter and Mullan, all of whom are superb, this is really Moss’s show. Proving that she can do so much more than Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson, she is, quite simply, brilliant as the psychologically paradoxical Robin. Filmed largely on New Zealand’s South Island (a character in itself), Top of the Lake, is a TV story which unfolds like a novel much like HBO’s Deadwood. Yet amid its style there is a stark hyper-realism and mimetic quality which emerges at its own pace – some may say a snail’s – but this deliberate pacing, silence and haunting cinematography has a purpose and builds upon the thrilling tension.

It is, oddly, reminiscent of Smillas’s Feeling for Snow (1997), yet ups the emotionally raw ante (and provides a much more relatable leading lady). Campion and Lee wrote a script in 2010, a lot of which is improvised around here, and manages to keep audience interest through many-a subject matter including murder, incest, police corruption and gender politics. Misandry and misogyny go hand-in-hand; the invisibility of the older woman is offset by the impotency of the ageing male, here in Lake Top everybody is damaged, vulnerable and/or breaking the law in some capacity. By the last episode, the conclusion of which is grimly satisfying, one realises that there is no actual resolution; there are still unanswered questions which is frustratingly refreshing and not usually expected in crime television of today’s standard, at least not of the English speaking variety anyway. Campion nails it yet again.


My Favourites of 2013

It has been a ridiculously brilliant year for film and this list made all the more difficult by trips to FrightFest and LFF but I have stuck (as best I can) to 2013 releases. My favourite film of 2014, so far, is The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani) and I implore all to see it when it is out in March. Anyway, I digress, in reverse order the films I have enjoyed most this year.

#13 After Lucia (2012, dir. Michel Franco)

afetr lucia

#12 Lore (2012, dir. Cate Shortland)


#11 Laurence Anyways (2012, dir. Xavier Dolan)


#10 Stoker (2013, dir. Park Chan-wook)


#9 Wadjda (2012, dir. Haifaa al-Mansour)


#8 Simon Killer (2012, dir. Antonio Campos)

simon killer

#7 Beyond the Hills (2012, dir. Cristian Mungiu)


#6 Bullhead (2012, dir. Michaël R. Roskam)


#5 Frances Ha (2012, dir. Noah Baumbach)


#4 Blancanieves (2012, dir. Pablo Berger)


#3 Before Midnight (2013, dir. Richard Linklater)


#2 Big Bad Wolves (2013, dir. Aharon Keshales & Narot Papushado)


#1 La Grande Bellezza (2013, dir. Paolo Sorrentino)


Special mentions:

  • Django Unchained (2013, dir. Quentin Tarantino)
  • Spider Baby (1968, dir. Jack Hill)
  • Grabbers (2012, dir. Jon Wright)
  • I Wish (2011, dir. Koreeda Hirokazu)
  • Forbidden Games (1952, dir. René Clément)
  • The Hunt (2012, dir. Thomas Vinterberg)
  • Only God Forgives (2013, dir. Nicolas Winding-Refn)
  • A Field in England (2013, dir. Ben Wheatley)
  • Lake Mungo (2008, dir, Joel Anderson)
  • The Act of Killing (2013, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
  • Mud (2012, dir. Jeff Nichols)
  • Oslo, 31 August (2011, dir. Joachim Trier)
  • Where Do We Go Now? (2011, dir. Nadine Labaki)
  • Holy Motors (2012, dir. Leos Carax)
  • Blonde Venus (1932, dir. Josef von Sternberg)
  • McCullin (2012, dir. David and Jacqui Morris)
  • What Richard Did (2012, dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
  • The Kings of Summer (2013, dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts)
  • Head On (2004, dir. Fatih Akin)
  • Bal (2010, dir. Semih Kaplanoğlu)

‘Twas also the year I ‘discovered’ Abbas Kiarostami. The man is, for want of a better word, a genius. I would highly recommend the following:

  • Taste of Cherry (1997)
  • The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)
  • Like Someone in Love (2012)
  • Ten (2002)
  • Close Up (1990)
  • A Certified Copy (2010)
  • Shirin (2008)

Review: Texas Chainsaw (Dir: John Luessenhop, 2013)… No Massacre, No Substance


The old adage, “you can never have too much of a good thing” would appear to be the mantra of Hollywood horror producers – excellence being sporadic and fleeting. Friday the 13th tops the list of saturated horror franchises with twelve movies, followed by Halloween with ten and then there are the seven Saws. The next dire instalment of mediocrity is probably not too far behind.


It has been thirty-nine years since Tobe Hooper’s seminal family horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and over the years viewers have been party to sequels, new generations, prequels and  remakes – “Chain Saw Massacre” became “Chainsaw Massacre” and then no “Massacre” at all – none of which have even come close to the first. Part of what made Hooper’s original so influential was its stark cinematography, verisimilitude and its “true story” marketing (based loosely on the exploits of real-life serial killer Ed Gein) with a documentary-style voiceover and photographic stills filmed on 16mm. Its narrative and plot were, of course, entirely fictional but the finished film serves as a subtle commentary on the political climate and symptomatic of the era; something of worth created within budgetary constraints. The US was still knee-deep in the Vietnam War and this affecting horror visualised an apocalyptic landscape, sparse and abandoned through industrial capitalism (Robin Wood). It depicted a non-traditional, perhaps arguably degenerate, familial homestead transgressing the boundaries of the norm and surviving via cannibalistic insanity. As a movie, it stays with you long after viewing and its esteemed standing in the horror genre a testament to director Hooper and writer Kim Henkel, who created an influential piece of frightening art in spite of a profound lack of blood, guts and gore.


A whole decade has passed since Marcus Nispel’s futile remake starring Jessica Biel and seven years since …The Beginning which tried to explain away all elements which made the original so groundbreaking and yet still the unnecessary franchise additions keep coming. The latest attempt, Texas Chainsaw is released on DVD from the 27 May 2013 through LionsGate. The film begins moments after the 1974 release and condenses its pioneer into a few short frames culminating in Sally Hardesty’s (Marilyn Burns) bloodied and hysterical escape. A Hatfield and McCoy type battle ensues between the Sawyers and Hartmans which leaves the old farmhouse burned to the ground, several members of each party dead and a small child ripped from the arms of her mother. Flashforward to present day and Heather Miller (Percy Jackson’s Alexandra Daddario) learns of her adoption and her biological grandmother Verna who has left her a significant inheritance. She jumps into a Volkswagen with her boyfriend Ryan (Tremaine ‘Trey Songz’ Neverson) and friends Nikki (Tania Raymonde) and Kenny (Keram Malicki-Sanchez) to learn her true identity. They pick up a drifter along the way in the form of Darryl (Shawn Sipos) and arrive in Texas to revel in her new-found wealth and meet her birth family, of which there is only one surviving member.


Regurgitating elements of horror films including Psycho (1960), Halloween (1978) The Funhouse (1981), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) (there’s even a cheesy nod to Saw), this film lacks any of the originality, atmosphere, zeal or purpose of those previously mentioned. Its director John Luessenhop has, by his own admission, never directed horror before and it shows. He has attempted to make a film comprising mainly of replicated shots, imitating but never matching the original source material. The mise-en-scène is coaxed to the point of contrivance, resulting in no scares and making for dull, and insulting, viewing especially for a fan of the genre. The decision to discount the franchise instalments which have been made since ’74 is certainly an interesting one from writers Debra Sullivan, Adam Marcus and Kristen Elms, especially in the introduction of the extended Sawyer clan (the Sawyer family name was not introduced until the 1986 sequel).

Unfortunately, this lack of research and attention to detail is evident throughout the 90 minutes and, for a film selling itself as a saga continuation, is problematic. There is an attempt to humanise the psychopath to almost Frankensteinian level asking the audience to illicit empathy for a character that back in the day was motiveless and incapable of remorse and one who should be close to retirement age by now. The recurring motif of meat has all but been removed, here “flesh” obviously connoted through its Abercrombie-&-Fitch-alike cast of characters, all of whom are underdeveloped, and a leading lady who blatantly and irritatingly defies the timeline the writers and director are attempting to evoke. Throw in a few derivative proverbs regaling family, highlight vigilantism and have at least three cameo appearances that only draw attention to the shortcomings and you have got yourself a wholly atrocious and (un)bloody waste of time.


Review: Behind the Candelabra (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2013)


Upon hearing the news regarding Steven Soderbergh’s ‘retirement’ I, like a lot of the movie-going public, flocked to see Side Effects (2013) and was left utterly disappointed. For me Haywire (2011), Magic Mike (2012) and the afore-mentioned have not been, well, particularly good. However, any reluctance I felt about Behind the Candelabra quickly dissipated upon reading reviews from Cannes and seeing the odd TV spot/trailer – also general curiosity is hard to ignore.

The film is based upon the memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson, which recounts the tempestuous six year relationship between the blonde, animal handler Thorson and the pianist extraordinaire and showman, Liberace. The candelabra referring to the sparklingly opulent piece of tableware Liberace always had placed upon his piano. The interesting thing about the candle tree is that, literally, you cannot actually hide behind it, but arguably be seen through it, part of your features hidden from view. Soderbergh attempts to show the viewer what is behind it, a glimpse of a man who insisted on hiding his sexuality from view. Unable to secure a major Hollywood studio to back the film, the director believed that studio rejection was down to it being ‘too gay’, thankfully, HBO stepped into the breach and produced this biopic. As a result, there will be no cinema release in the States and any accolades that Douglas could be nominated, or indeed deserve, for his portrayal of the flamboyant entertainer, are limited to Europe.


It is 1977 and the opening scene introduces the viewer to Thorson (Matt Damon) and his simple lifestyle working with animals and living with his Foster parents Rose and Joe Carracappa (Jane Morris and Garrett M. Brown) on a ranch in California. He is picked up in a bar by Bob Black (Scott Bakula) who, upon next meeting, flies the teenager to Vegas to meet ‘Lee’. Thorson quickly finds himself in a relationship with the much older, closeted, devout Catholic star. Spanning ten years, each year displayed upon an intertitle, Scott and Lee’s six-year relationship is very much a give-and-take kind of liaison; Liberace heaps wealth, in the form of gold and diamond jewellery, clothes, cars and a fixed abode in one of the most ostentatious surroundings, and Scott gives him what he needs in the bedroom. The pianist lived the life he chose, believing that ‘too much of a good thing is wonderful’. He, on countless occasions, denied his homosexuality and swiftly sued any tabloid/journalist who reported otherwise. The man purported on screen is one not completely removed from the lovable, warm, smiley entertainer the world seems to remember – perhaps a little darker. There is no denying the attraction to young men, however, the lonely star appeared to want a lover, friend, and son in Thorson and during one bizarre sequence ‘Lee’ and Scott meet with a lawyer to discuss the adoption process.


Their idyll becomes too comfortable with both surrendering to food during their extended ‘love-in’ and upon seeing himself on the Johnny Carson show, Liberace declares that he can no longer look so old. He enlists the surgical expertise of Dr Jack Startz (a ridiculous-looking Rob Lowe) and has a full face-lift, eye-lift…the whole shebang – the only side effect being that he cannot close his eyes, even when sleeping. Startz also sets out to recreate Scott too, into a young Liberace, complete with chin and cheek implants. The doctor then prescribes diet pills and Thorson’s spiralling unhappiness and claustrophobia from the reclusive living environment develops into an addiction with the ‘California Diet’ pills making way for cocaine. This then sees Scott sell off his possessions one by one, in order to support his increasing habit. Scott’s despondency, drug-induced mood swings and struggling with the concept of monogamy, Liberace begins to shut his lover out and they begin fighting amid jealous recriminations. It all comes to a head when Rose dies and Liberace insists on flying Scott home for his foster mother’s funeral. Upon return, Lee has already moved in Scott’s replacement and so begins a bitter battle when Scott attempts to sue for palimony – their life together, he insists, was a marriage.

In his first role since his cancer remission, Michael Douglas’ star has never shone quite so bright – not since Falling Down (1993, dir. Joel Schumacher) and Wonder Boys (2000, dir. Curtis Hanson) has he owned the screen in quite the same way – in fact, he is incandescent, sequins and glittering diamonds aside. It is hard to reconcile the virile, ladies man of the 80s and 90s, with this role; I would go as far as to say that this was the role he was born to play. Damon is, as ever, a strong presence as Thorson and the supporting cast including Debbie Reynolds as mother (Frances) Liberace, and Dan Aykroyd as Lee’s manager Seymour Heller is a joy, complete with a hairpiece to rival the showstopper himself. This feels like an HBO production and yet it still retains the richer, stylistic nuances which are associated with Soderbergh: lighting, colour washes, oblique camerawork and point-of-view. Whether his retirement or sabbatical from filmmaking is true, I am quite content for Behind the Candelabra (especially with that fabulously kitsch, blinging and camp dénouement) to be literally, albeit not technically, my last Soderbergh; at least for the time being.