GET DUKED! (2020)

August 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. In this time of pandemic, we may not yet have a cure for the virus, but music video director Ninian Doff serves up his first feature film as a vaccine for those who have been stuck in the house for too long. It’s really a mash-up of comedy-horror-thriller-buddy film, with a dash or two of hip-hop and social satire. Mr. Doff also wrote the screenplay, and the film originally played SXSW under the title, “Boyz in the Wood.”

Three friends/delinquents from school are on the verge of expulsion, and their punishment is being sent on the Duke of Edinburg adventure, a program established in 1956 with the objective of getting kids out of the city and into the country. Dean Gibson (played by Rian Gordon) is the leader of the trio, while DJ Beatroot (Viraj Duneja) dreams of becoming a star hip-hop artist, and Duncan (Lewis Gribben) mostly creates chaos at every turn. They are joined on the trip by their personality opposite, Ian (Samuel Bottomley), a home-schooled boy who actually volunteered for the trip in hopes of padding his university application.

The Scottish Highlands serve as the life-sized game board where the boys take their wilderness trek. Substitute teacher Mr. Carlyle (Jonathan Aris) hands them a map and takes a picture of the group in front of a bulletin board filled with missing kid flyers. That’s just a taste of the humor that awaits. Ian is the only one treating the journey seriously, while the other three are wise-cracking, experimenting with drugs, and putting up with DJ Beatroot’s meanderings about his music “career”. At first, the boys are oblivious to the fact that they are being stalked (or hunted) by a couple of elites played by the always entertaining Eddie Izzard as The Duke, and his partner in crime (literally), Georgie Glen as The Duchess.

Simultaneous to this Highlands’ action, we are treated to a look inside the police station where Sergeant Morag (Kate Dickie) and PC Hamish (Kevin Guthrie) generate some laughs with their excitement over hip-hop terrorist zombies in their area. They find this significantly more intriguing than “the bread thief” which was previously the number one crime to solve. At times, it’s difficult to know which group is the most talented at bumbling – the boys, the rich hunters, or the police.

The Duke of Edinburg award is earned by combining “Teamwork, Orienteering, and Foraging.” For this group of boys, it also involves drugs, hip-hop, and staying alive. Director Doff infuses a zany absurdity to the action, and with some of the set ups, he perhaps could have even gone further – although the bits on rabbit pellets and a fork as a weapon are to be admired. One of the songs drags on a bit too long, but mostly the creativity is fun to watch, as is the collision of teenage group dynamics, the generational clash, and the social commentary. The film is in the mode of some of Edgar Wright’s best work, so if that’s your style, you’ll find this a treat.

Available August 28, 2020 on Amazon Prime

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TELL IT TO THE BEES (2019)

May 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Secrets and lies become a tangled web of messiness that impacts lives and relationships in this story adapted from Fiona Shaw’s 2009 novel. Annabel Jankel (known for her music videos and as a creator of Max Headroom) directs the script from sisters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, and we learn that this rural community in 1952 Scotland is filled with judgmental and close-minded folks unable to accept that some don’t live and love according to society’s general rules of the time.

Holliday Grainger (“The Borgias”) stars as Lydia, mother to young Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), and the two have recently been abandoned by husband -father Robert (Emun Elliott). Charlie is a sensitive boy – in touch with nature, and observant to his mother’s emotional strains. After a schoolyard scuffle, Charlie is treated by the town’s new doctor, Dr. Markham (Anna Paquin, “True Blood”), who not only treats his bruises, but also teaches him about the bees and hives in her garden. She lets him know that telling your secrets to the bees keeps them from flying away.

Dr. Markham has returned to the community where she grew up, and the rumors of her teenage years have not faded. Her father recently passed and she has returned to her roots to take his place as the local doctor. When Lydia gets sacked at the factory where she works (by Kate Dickie’s Pam, her spinster sister-in-law/supervisor), Dr. Markham hires Lydia as a housekeeper and invites her and Charlie to move into the house left to her by her father.

“This town is too small for secrets” is not simply a line of dialogue, but easily could have been the title of the films. As Charlie tells his secrets to the bees, Lydia and Dr. Markham grow closer … creating confusion for Charlie, challenges for the two women, and disgust within the community. Robert is a brut of a man, and threatens Lydia in every way a simple man might. There is also a subplot around Lydia’s younger sister-in-law Annie (Lauren Lyle), who is pregnant from a secretive interracial relationship. What follows is a vicious response from the close-minded folks previously mentioned.

An older Charlie is our narrator, and most of the story is told from his point of view. Secrets kept by children are contrasted by those of adults, and it’s clear that both cause harm. The first part of the movie is beautifully filmed, though the story structure wobbles a bit in the second half. There are many fascinating close-ups of bees and hives, although a mystical/supernatural sequence is difficult to buy. Excellent acting is on display throughout, especially by young Gregor Selkirk and Ms. Grainger, whose face the camera loves. The film is quite tastefully done, and focused as much on the small-minded town folks reaction as the blossoming relationship between the two leads. A stronger third act would have elevated the film, though the first half hour is well done.

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THE WITCH (2016)

February 18, 2016

the witch Greetings again from the darkness. If your own nightmares have become less frequent, and you find yourself able to sleep peacefully through the night, writer/director Robert Eggers’ first feature film will likely fix that. Based in 1630 New England … a full 60 years prior to the Salem witch trials … much of the story and dialogue is based on actual historical documents corresponding to the fears of that era. It would be a mistake to head into this one thinking it’s going to having you covering your eyes or springing from your seat … it’s better described as unsettling and disquieting.

Religious fanaticism plays a key role here, and is actually behind a Puritan family being exiled from the community. They set up a home and farm on the edge of an ominous, heavily-wooded forest … and things start to go wrong. William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) are stern and stoic parental units to coming-of-age teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), two spoiled and annoying twins Mercy (Ellie Granger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and a new born named Samuel.

This is a slow-burn psychological horror film and it never relies on cheap jump-scares. Instead the eerie atmosphere, lurking Satanic evil, and unraveling of the family as they search for answers, all combine for a level of creep that’s not often seen on screen. Adding to our pre-conceived notion that things rarely end well for closed-mind religious zealots is the unsettling use of Old World English … it takes some time to adjust your ears.

Most of director Eggers’ background is in short films with an emphasis on Production Design and Costume Design. It’s interesting to note the gradual decline of lighting as the movie progresses … most notably on the opening and closing shots of daughter Thomasin, who faces the most backlash as a suspected (by her family) witch.

This was a time when people prayed for food and for God to have mercy … and to explain the unexplainable. No amount of praying can make sense of the titular witch (Bathsheba Garnett), or the family’s goat Black Phillip (voiced by Wahab Chaudhry), or an evil bunny that would make Monty Python proud. The dingo taking their baby might actually be a preferred explanation.

Eggers won the Sundance Award for a Director in Drama, and the film was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. Mark Korven’s score is unique and the perfect complement to the onscreen happenings of this poor family. The film stays true to the time period, which of itself, feels like a parallel universe unfamiliar to most of us these days. Young actors Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw are real finds, and director Eggers will have a built-in and well-deserved audience for his next outing.

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