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Review

Review: Sicilian Ghost Story (Dir. Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, 2017)

Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s Sicilian Ghost Story begins dialogue-free as Luna (Julia Jedlikowska) follows the object of her adolescent affection into the woods which surround school. Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) is a gentle soul who adores video games, football and horses – all the things that cement their burgeoning love. On this particular day, Luna’s ‘White Knight’ saves her from a rabid Rottweiler albeit in a crisp white shirt and grey trousers – as opposed to armour – but it’s a nice nod to Marco Mancassola’s short story in We Won’t Be Confused Foreverfrom which the film is derived.

The young couple’s time together displeases Luna’s strict and oppressive mother (Sabine Timoteo) who is framed as the Wicked Stepmother with her mild sauna compulsion, and made all the more severe by her 19th century-looking clothing. Mother and daughter relations are fractious at best therefore making it easier for Luna to rebel against later on. Her mother’s opinion means little to her, as she continues to skip school and spend her afternoons with Giuseppe. While this film has all the markings of a love story this aspect of the narrative never feels contrived nor does it overwhelm, it merely drives Luna in her quest to find Giuseppe when he suddenly disappears.

At its core, the film sets to retell the true story surrounding the kidnapping of Giuseppe Di Matteo in 1993 (the basis for Mancassola’s short story) yet does so in a completely unique way. It is steeped in mythology and fairy tale imagery – specifically reminiscent of Basile and the Brothers Grimm – as the symbolic manifests in Luna’s connection to Giuseppe, his abduction failing to ignite much concern among the adults around her. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s fluid camera movement and expertise with low-angle shots and a distorted lens conveys the strange atmosphere and enforces the supernatural aspect of the young protagonists’ bond as they learn the cruelty of the world.

It is easy to compare Sicilian Ghost Story to Pan’s Labyrinth not least in the centring of a female protagonist fighting against a patriarchal force (here, the Mafia) and the juxtaposition of a childlike fairy tale fantasy with the harsher, violence realities of life, however, this has much more in common with the likes of Paperhouse (1988) and I’m Not Scared (2003). There are even aspects of the poliziotteschi genre despite the themes of innocence, experience, fantasy and reality explored through Luna’s point-of-view. She refuses to be silent and finds her voice, determined to locate what is lost. It’s a mature and assured central performance by the Polish-born Jedlikowska who carries this visually gorgeous feature more than capably on her shoulders.

There are not many pieces of work that can straddle so many genres but this allegorical coming-of-age-fantasy-romance-crime drama meditates on first love, rebellion, grief and tragedy. It takes elements of all those familiar genre motifs and fuses them so succinctly to create something unique and profoundly affecting; embracing the power of myth and philosophically laying ghosts to rest.

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Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: The Congress (Dir. Ari Folman, 2013)

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Robin Wright (the actress playing a version of herself) has made some lousy choices when it comes to her film career and men, or so she is forcefully told by her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) at the beginning of Ari Folman’s The Congress.

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Her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has health problems, her daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) thinks she should ‘do’ a Holocaust film as she can perfectly encapsulate ‘Nazi and victim’. These chalk-and-cheese children are just two of the reasons listed why character Wright ultimately chose life over the film offers and now Miramount Studio executive Jeff (Danny Huston) wants to offer her the chance to sign away the pressure. They wish to own “[the] thing called Robin Wright”; to create an image they manipulate and render in any filmic form as long as she retires from acting altogether. Any initial reluctance is given way to an affirmative and Wright is scanned; every emotion , every line, twinkle and wrinkle (a sequence that is particularly breath-taking, if completely isolating). The viewer is then transported twenty years into the future and the pension-age Wright is thrust into Abrahama City – the animated zone where she meets a 2D Disney-fied Jon Hamm.

The Congress, based upon a Stanislaw Lem story, is relevant, provocative, thematically rich – often to its detriment – and is almost impossible to categorise; part sci-fi, fantasy, family drama, there’s even some speculative dystopian fiction thrown in for good measure. However, what begins as a stinging critique and almost sly satire aimed primarily at the commodification of celebrity disappointingly loses its anger and gestates into something else entirely. The animated world is hallucinatory and disconcerting, a sinister Disney World™ where eagle-eyed viewers can spot Michael Jackson as a restaurant waiter, Grace Jones as a nurse or an exaggerated toothsome caricature of Tom Cruise. It is exhilarating, mesmerising and a little tiresome but perhaps this is the point in a post-avatar, digital-obsessed world? The questions of mortality our protagonist faces are replicated in our own manipulated interpretation; we should beware of the image. While its plethora of ideas and ambition feels relentless and even a little confusing, The Congress finally finds its humanity amid an existential denouement.

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In any other actor’s hands, The Congress could have been a huge failure but the luminous Robin Wright delivers a stunning performance thanks, in part, to an excellent supporting cast of Keitel, Hamm, Huston and Paul Giamatti but mainly due to the fact that she is just that damn good. There is one scene in which the forty-plus Wright gazes at herself as Buttercup on a Princess Bride film poster, perhaps nostalgic for youth or the career she might have had, yet aside from the hair and the odd wisdom line, she appears exactly the same. If this film is one of her lousy choices, let’s hope she keeps on making them.

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Review

Review: Excision (Dir. Richard Bates Jr., 2012)

Being a teenage girl can, for want of a better word, suck. Fighting against changes you cannot control, whether they be bodily, emotional, and/or familial; attempting to force yourself to fit into whichever societal mould proves popular can be exhausting, often heartbreaking and wholly unnecessary (survival and hindsight can be a wonderful thing). Within the horror genre, females are often victimised, punished for sexual transgression, through the finality of death, as per the ‘slasher’ movie or can be depicted as teenagers and aligned with the abject. This abjection can be in the form of literal law-breaking, often by committing murder, seeking pleasure through the perverse and/or the secretion of bodily fluids, most often menstrual blood. While some female critics/theorists have read these texts as a further attack of their gender by patriarchy, these “monstrous femmes” have rendered some of the most memorable female protagonists recorded on celluloid. These include cult favourites Sissy Spacek as Carrie (1976, dir. Brian De Palma), Katharine Isabelle in Ginger Snaps (2000, dir. John Fawcett) and now AnnaLynne McCord’s astonishing portrayal in Richard Bates Jr’s Excision (2012).

McCord, best known as a spoiled, rich blonde in the re-vamped 90210 delivers an, in any other generic movie, award-winning performance as socially awkward Pauline. Physically, she is unrecognisable with lank, greasy brunette hair, acne strewn blemishes and hunched stance. She embodies a complete smorgasbord of emotions and characteristics and goes against the ‘norms’ of the female in horror, specifically in her lack of sexual reluctance, aspirations to be a surgeon and the oblivious way in which she approaches life. Most significantly, she is no passive victim. Pauline lives in picket-fenced suburbia in a repressive family unit headed by her castrating mother Phyllis (Traci Lords), emasculated father Bob (Roger Bart) and ailing little sister Grace (Ariel Winter). Phyllis exerts her maternal authority over the whole household and is determined to raise her daughters through the Church and the formality and etiquette of cotillion. At the crux of the difficult, terse and often cruel mother-daughter relationship is the ferocious need for the other’s love and acceptance.

 Pauline is a sociopath but manages to convey levels of real empathy.   She is gauche, fiercely intelligent, obsessive and delusional and suffers vivid dreams, of which only the audience is party; these are often sexually indulgent and display necrophiliac fetishes.  For all of the blood, gore and toe-curling masturbatory fantasies, at Excision’s heart is pitch black, offbeat, comedy. These comedic moments are most evidently displayed in the ingenuity of the casting: John Waters as Pauline’s Preacher-cum-psychiatrist, Malcolm McDowell as her maths teacher and former adult film star Lords as her mother, plus losing her virginity to Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) rounds things off nicely. Bates’ directorial debut is truly impressive, made with deliciously demented precision, a fierce sense of humour and, as its title suggests, is incredibly cathartic.