Film Festival Review

Review: Burning Cane (Dir. Phillip Youmans, 2019)

LFF 2019

Much will be made of Phillip Youmans’ age when the writer, director, DoP, and camera operator made, this, his first film. Just look at Xavier Dolan following his debut, the ‘wunderkind’ label was bandied round for at least five years of the last decade. However, that surliness and juvenile (albeit brilliant) edge to I Killed My Mother is largely missing from Youmans’ debut Burning Cane; a mature Southern Gothic drama which belies the (then) High Schooler’s age (he’s 19 now).

Set in rural Louisiana, our leading lady Helen (Karen Kaia Livers) sits on her stoop smoking, her voiceover discusses her dog Giorgio. It has the ‘mange’ and she is attempting to prolong its life anyway she can. Helen has been surrounded by ‘diseased mutts’ most of her life – her late husband succumbed to an AIDS-related illness while her Pastor Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce) and only son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) are fighting with alcoholism. Tillman continues to drink on the job following the death of his wife and won’t accept any help, least of all from his flock, choosing instead to drive home each night after sermons, inebriated, his car swerving all over the road.

Daniel, on the other hand, has to contend with keeping house while his partner (Emyri Crutchfield) goes to work and supports their family. He cooks, cleans, and fixes things around the place but it’s taking its toll. He’s questioning his masculinity and is steadily on self-destruct mode; he’s the man and should be the one providing, not staying at home looking after son Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly).

‘Looking after’ may be somewhat of a stretch, the boy is mute – presumably a nod to the weeping prophet he is named for – unable (or choosing not) to talk and accepts his father’s love in the form of an occasional meal and glasses of milk laced with whatever liquor the older male is guzzling down. There’s a hint at something darker going on between father and son but the level of abuse remains at the booze-pushing and never leads anywhere else, beyond the steady decline of a man who would rather use his fists in a drunken stupor than work through any of his issues.

Youmans utilises a number of camera angles and shots which suit the oblique storytelling, however, at times poor lighting and a literal lack of focus feel unnecessary especially when considered alongside the already slow pace. Being unable to see much within the frame is problematic, however intentional but it does help build mood with the extreme dichotomy of light and dark. As the claustrophobia hits its peak, the humidity and sweat are palpable. It’s a pensive narrative, and while its foundations are embedded within the art film, it is largely raw, grass roots filmmaking.

This is Helen’s struggle to reconcile her faith alongside her relationship with her son. It’s a film about sin, despair, drink and poverty. One which examines a mother’s love for her child, deep-rooted toxic masculinity – the definition of what it means to be a man – and the role religion plays within the black community onscreen. Many pray to a Father for guidance, and yet few have fathers to guide them. There is condemnation of the Church and yet at no point does the institution feel demonised.

Colours are kept to a minimum too, greys, greens, browns with the occasional flash of orange (courtesy of the fruit trees Jeremiah finds solace in or the burning umber of a lit cigarette). Daylight is also a rarity – while we’re so used to the depiction of a light, bright sunny South on film, in Helen’s world, everything is tinged with a dismal grey while heavy clouds hang in the sky. The film’s title relates to the annual process of harvesting sugar cane; fields are set alight before the valuable part of the crop is harvested, an apt metaphor for the film’s narrative.

While as a whole, the film never feels completely cohesive and ends somewhat abruptly, it is a promising vérité style debut which feels reminiscent of early Burnett and Malick. Following its trifecta of wins at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, It’s safe to say there will be plenty of interest in what Youmans creates next.

Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Don’t Torture a Duckling (Dir. Lucio Fulci, 1972)

Of the three main maestros of Italian horror, it is Lucio Fulci who is regarded the most lurid, gory, even the trashiest of the trio, or at least he might have been once upon a time. Following many of the tropes associated with the genre, this Giallo also touches on prostitution, child murder, paedophilia, religion, truth, loss, and motherhood, Don’t Torture a Duckling is replete with symbolism and depth, the term ‘masterpiece’ has been somewhat cheapened over the years but this could well be Fulci’s.

Opening in rural Southern Italy, the landscape is split by an ugly concrete motorway bringing with it a bit of modernity; prostitutes, and the ‘outsiders’ (following the first of the murders) in the form of rich ex-drug addict Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet) and city journalist Andrea (Tomas Milian). The idyll of the small village is rocked when the first of the boys, Bruno, goes missing. His brutal murder is quickly followed by the senseless deaths of his friends Michele, and Tonino. Suspicions soon lead to a local ‘witch’ Magiara (Florinda Bolkan), one-time student of eccentric black magic-practitioner Francesco (George Wilson), and of course because of her difference – even after she is exonerated – some local men take the law into their own torturous and contemptible hands, little do they know that the real culprit is much closer to home. It is down to Patrizia and Andrea to work together and expose the killer before he/she strikes again.

Mixing the thematic and stylistic tropes of the giallo with Gothic horror, Fulci makes women the interesting subjects in the narrative, especially Bolkan who is not only the most sympathetic character but whose performance is exceptional. In a film about the destruction of innocence and child murder, it isn’t actually their disturbing deaths that are the most shocking. Fulci builds the superstition and style, mood, tone and atmosphere with light and  bright wide exterior shots and juxtaposes them with claustrophobic dark interiors and yet subversively, just as the killer comes from within the community so, too, are these children killed outdoors.

Violence is, as one can expect, never shied away from and a truly gripping story intensifies to an emotional and visceral crescendo which is unforgettable thanks mainly to the editing and that slightly grating piece of pop music used to accompany the brutality. Yes, the effects are a little dated and the acting, a tad histrionic but it’s in keeping with the genre and boy, what a social commentary it provides. Traditional, old-fashioned values and small-town mentality are pulled apart and what goes hand-in-hand with that? Religion. Understandably, this film courted controversy in the eyes of the Catholic Church especially given the film’s ending, which is almost gleeful in its transgression (the director’s own Catholicism making it all the more delicious and rebellious) especially considering it’s length, audacity and those gratuitous close-ups.

While Lucio Fulci never seemed to have the sumptuous production value of Mario Bava or the operatic visual mania of Dario Argento, he’s integral to the period, Gialli, and Italian horror – Don’t Torture a Duckling more than proves that and now, thanks to Arrow Video you can view it in all its lurid high definition gory glory.


The Blood of Innocents (30 mins) – This video essay is delivered by Dr. Mikel J. Koven from the University of Worcester and author of La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film. He discusses the concept of ‘vernacular cinema’ (those films which tend to avoid the bourgeoise mainstream audience) with enthusiasm and makes this a fascinating lecture. While it is ultimately a bloke behind a desk, the essay is intercut with many clips of multiple film texts which fall under the Giallo umbrella including work from Sergio Martino, Dario Argento, Pupi Avati, and Antonio Bido.

Hell is Already in Us (20 mins) – Written and narrated by Kat Ellinger, this audio essay focusses on violence and gender with Ellinger defending the claim that Lucio Fulci was a misogynist filmmaker. She refers specifically to his 1982 New York Ripper and Don’t Torture a Duckling to state her case; that Fulci confronts the taboo and uses his art-form to comment upon civilisation and depicting oppressive patriarchal society in all its evil glory.

Audio Interview (Part 1: 20 mins/Part 2: 15 mins) – In August 1988, journalist Gaetano Mistretta sent a letter with a list of questions to the filmmaker and Fulci recorded an audio tape complete with all his answers and sent it back to Mistretta. It’s a great listen full of personal anecdotes about his process, his grandchildren even though we all know, he adds with a chuckle, that “children are monsters”, his favourite filmmakers (Argento, Cronenberg, Kubrick and Bava) and the correct length of a horror film (it’s 80 mins btw).

Interview with Florinda Bolkan (27 mins) – Filmed for Freak-O-Rama in 2016, one of Don’t Torture a Duckling‘s leading ladies chats about her experiences on set with Fulci (having completed A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin the previous year with him), whom she deemed a gentle man and genius. Discussion turns to that scene and despite never viewing it in its entirety, she agrees to watch it for the first time in 44 years, and is understandably horrified by it. Additional segments from this 2016 programme are also contained in the special edition content , all include those involved with Duckling including: The DP’s Eye (45 mins) – time spent with cinematographer Sergio D’Offizi, From the Cutting Table (25 mins) – assistant editor Bruno Micheli takes us through his process and in Endless Torture (15 mins) make-up artist Maurizio Trani talks his history with make-up, Fulci and the special effects used during the Bolkan scenes.

Audio Commentary provided by Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films.

Reverse sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Timothy Pittides.

First pressing only: collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Barry Forshaw and Howard Hughes (not available for review).

Region: AB 1/2|Rating 18|Language: Italian/English|Subtitles: English|Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1|Audio: Mono|Colour|Discs: 2

Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Beyond the Hills (Dir. Cristian Mungiu, 2012) Damnant quod non intellegunt*

(2012) Dir. Cristian Mungiu


Beyond the Hills is Cristian Mungiu’s follow up to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days which won the coveted Palme d’Or in 2007 and once again, the director utilises the close friendship of two female protagonists to comment upon gender and politics influenced by Communism and its chokehold on Romanian society. While political and sexual repressions were depicted through the gamut of illegal abortion, here it is commented upon through an organised religious sect.

Volchita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) are young women in their twenties, having grown up together in an orphanage. They have a familial bond tied by history and circumstance rather than blood; the true nature of their relationship is hinted at yet remains somewhat ambiguous throughout. Alina returns from Germany, where she now works, for a few days – a holiday – expectant that Volchita will return with her. Instead, she finds her friend living in a Monastery deep in the Romanian hills, literally hidden from civilisation embedded in an austere, archaic landscape. Volchita is confined to the bosom of Nuns who cohabit under the strict patriarchal, authoritarian rule of ‘Father’ (Valeriu Anchuta). The devout community stands alone next to an unconsecrated Church which houses a small congregation on a holy day. A sign on the front gate reads, “This is the house of God, forbidden to anybody of a different religion. Believe and don’t doubt”, the irony of which is not lost on the viewer especially once learning of the idolatrous and essentially, sacrilegious existence of this ‘House of God’. It is interesting and somewhat staggering to note that nearly 86% of the Romanian population practises the Orthodox faith, despite the fact that the country has no state religion but then, this film is not preoccupied with religious institution, at least not completely.


Mungiu’s third feature is a love story of sorts, faith at its very heart; belief in State, family and in a God which remains largely silent. It is a film about exorcism/possession, one situated outside of the confines of genre conventions and misogynistic dictatorship which is set on suppressing sinners who also happen to be women. The population outside is at a distance. You would be forgiven for thinking of it as a historical drama, the community is frozen in time, isolated, amid a lack of running water and electricity, save for Alina and her contemporary clothes. She is often the only splash of colour in an otherwise dark, dismal, and sombre mise-en-scène. She is a symbol of the outside world threatening to upset and challenge the religious conservatism and totalitarianism that appear to have engulfed Volchita.

The film is beautifully shot, blue and grey hued washes are abundant across the breathtaking landscape always captured in long shot, adding, not only, to its beauty but also educing the notion of freedom especially when juxtaposed with the interior medium shots. All employ, long takes, deep focus and are tightly framed which feeds the claustrophobic and repressive nature of the Monastery, exacerbating the tension between the religious and secular dichotomy and, in addition, the verisimilar style of storytelling Mungiu and his Romanian New Wave contemporaries adopt.

Beyond the Hills is deliberately paced to show the mundanity of life and natural flow of time. It is an enthralling and chilling commentary on traditionalism, irrationality of society and humanity at its most flawed. By its conclusion, which takes a jolting twist, all are accountable and yet there is no obvious villain. The final shot will resonate for a long time after the film has finished, once again, proving Mungiu as a director of merit, one who can coax astonishing performances from his leading actors and I know I, for one, will be awaiting his next contribution with bated breath.

*They condemn what they don’t understand


Review: Antichrist (Dir. Lars von Trier, 2009)

antichrist (1)

It is a fair assessment that Lars von Trier courts controversy, to the extent that some viewers now expect to be shocked. Personally, for me, there is a level of indifference when approaching von Trier’s work, he is a sporadic captivator, and not always in a positive sense. His films demand engagement  and provoke reactionary feelings which is said of any piece of subversive art, and that is to be celebrated. However, I never expected a film would provoke such a reaction as to make me turn it off. Antichrist did and yes, during *that* scene. I’m no prude but seeing such self-mutilation up close prompted me to cease watching. Months later, after the sheer joy of Melancholia, I decided to give it another chance. To be clear, von Trier does not need to justify why he makes the sensationalist, lurid fare he does but this, more so than his other texts, adds provocation to his chauvinism and disdain for the female sex, in addition to his fascination with Catholic ideology and iconography.

A couple ‘He’ (Willem Dafoe) and ‘She’ (Charlotte Gainsbourg) engage in energetic sex while their toddler son, supposed to be asleep, escapes his crib and displaying a final act of dare-devilry climbs upon a chair and tumbles out of an open window to his death. Devastated by the loss and rapidly losing faith in medicinal therapy, ‘He’, a psychiatrist, decides to treat his grieving wife himself using exposure therapy techniques. They retreat to their cabin in the woods, know as ‘Eden’ and both attempt to work their way through their grief, pain and despair; here depicted as three talisman in the opening prologue and then as an unholy trinity of animals, in the form of a roe deer, fox and raven.


Had this film been solely about the emotional turmoil of losing a child then perhaps it would have elicited heightened feelings of empathy and identification thereby making the experience a more enjoyable one. Instead, von Trier muddies the waters with allusions to Adam and Eve, Satan and concentrated evil personified in the figure of ‘woman’. Here, woman is aligned with nature…’She’ is a body of impulse, instinct and desire and is, apparently, beyond rational control. ‘He’ attempts to control her and when that fails, she must be punished – first mutilated at her own hand; then irrevocably at his.

The cinematography deviates from linear and transition shots, lens effects and from black and white stock to colour seemingly to create the idea of chaos while in reality it adds to the over-indulgence of the whole ‘horror’ text. There serves little purpose to ‘She’s Gynocide thesis plot-point other than to further elicit the Nietzchean  ideal upon which the film is seemingly based. The director claims that this is his most personal film, however, I would suggest that the man has willfully set out to create a pretentious and rebarbative piece of art with the sole and deliberate intention of exasperating people to the point of irritability. Job done.