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Jack Sargeant Reveals

The programmer of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival tells us about his approach to putting together one of this country’s best film culture events.
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Known for his work on the Rec series, in Veronica director Paco Plaza turns his attention to the story of the titular fifteen year old, played by newcomer Sandra Escacena. After dabbling with a Ouija Board during a solar eclipse, Veronica summons something that follows her back home and duly terrorises the teenager and her younger siblings (although not the other teenage participants who also used the Ouija Board, which seems odd). With their mother working late at night in a cafe, the fatherless children are left to their own devices, and Veronica as the eldest is responsible for making sure that the day-to-day of family life flows as it should.

Conceptually the idea of children stranded in an apartment in Madrid with an unknown monstrous entity should be enough to spark a real sense of claustrophobic horror. Two of the most unnerving films made transform the humble European flat into a true nightmare – Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976, both directed by Roman Polanski) find sinister shadows, scary neighbours, and narratives of bleak psychological horror in every inch of heavily populated inner city buildings. Sadly Veronica appears to eschew the real potentials for terror, and while the film could have explored the alone-in-the-city feeling of the apartment, it never really pushes the vulnerability of the protagonists as much as it could.

Instead, the movie relies on more conventional jump scares and comparatively unsurprising narrative twists. While the presence of a chain-smoking, blind nun known to the school children as Sister Death locates the film in the dogma of religion, the sister warns that through her actions Veronica has forgone the world of God – “God has got nothing to do with it. Leave Him out of it” – but the ramifications (and implicit horrors) of such theological and metaphysical debates, especially in a genre which spawned films such as The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), are never fully explored.

The film has been heavily promoted as the ‘scariest film ever’, but that seems remarkable considering what a grab-bag of cliches it is. According to the closing credits (and much online chatter) the film is based on real events, but a cursory glance at news sources suggests that the film is perhaps a loose adaptation inspired by the story of Estefania Gutierrez Lazaro, who died in a hospital several months after playing with a Ouija Board and after experiencing “seizures and hallucinations”. In Veronica the youthful cast deliver effective performances, but despite this, and an undoubted understanding of the genre by the filmmakers, the film never reaches anything like genuine fear. In the final eventuality, the horror of a teenager struggling to protect her younger siblings in a world devoid of adult protection, and seemingly abandoned to evil, should make the viewer experience terror, instead it makes you wonder who the hell said this was the scariest film ever made.


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In Suburbicon, director and co-writer Clooney and writers Joel and Ethan Coen, and Grant Heslov, set out to explore the underbelly of the titular late 1950s community. The suburbs have always been Gothic, the darkness behind (or below) the neat rows of houses was always there, hidden beneath the veneer. It lurks in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989), and even Desperate Housewives, (sorry, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet doesn’t qualify; its location is the small town, the darkness of Frank Booth et al is geographically ‘elsewhere’, likewise most movies adapted from Stephen King books).

Among the rows of neatly manicured lawns, small houses, and clean streets, life in Suburbicon appears straight forward. The 1950s suburb is beautifully evoked in the film’s art design and opening sequence. To its post-war boomer inhabitants the community feels safe and happy, everyone wrapped up warmly in their smug sense of themselves, talking to the postman and making custard pies. Until a black family, the Meyers (Leith M Burke and Karimah Westbrook), move in and the all-white suburb erupts into racism. In the house bordering the rear of the Meyers’, lives Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wheelchair bound wife Nancy, her carer and twin-sister Margaret (Julianne Moore), and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe). But the veneer of this wholesome family is shattered one night when two robbers pay a visit.

These twin narratives are almost-linked through the vague friendship of each family’s sons, but ultimately the majority of the film focuses on the Lodges and a predicament that almost seems to echo the Coens’ more noir inspired works (watch out for the appearance of a VW Beetle, a nod to the brothers’ debut, Blood Simple). In part the story, which slips between uneasy comic tones and crime drama, echoes the brothers’ better thrillers – Suburbicon was apparently first written in 1986 immediately after Blood Simple – but it lacks the power of that work and the wry, witty intelligence of films such as Fargo.

While Clooney’s direction is efficient, the script lacks the necessary intensity, the cast – and Moore especially – deliver good performances, and as an ensemble piece the film is not without charm, but lacking the necessary narrative focus it becomes hard to care about the protagonists, and by the inevitable third act neither story climaxes with the necessary emotional power.

Suburbicon wants to say something about violence, about the darkness behind the twitching curtains, about the smiles that hide lies, about the fear of the outsider, about the motives that drive people, and about the undercurrent of the suburban dream of 1950s USA. But despite evoking the period through great design, the film just doesn’t live up to the sum of its parts.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Suburbicon


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Bitter Harvest

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Between 1932 and 1933 an estimated seven to ten million people died in the Ukraine as a result of the Holodomor (death by starvation). This man-made famine was used by Soviet authorities to suppress the Ukrainian population who were unable to flee across the country’s closed borders. The full, horrific extent of the Holodomor only emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Set during this period, Bitter Harvest tells the story of Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks). Childhood sweethearts, their life in the Ukraine appears idyllic. Lavishly shot in rich colours, existence here has a vital, timeless feel to it. Village rituals come, seasons pass, and Yuri – the grandson of a great warrior – dreams of traveling to the city to become an artist. The arrival of Bolshevik troops heralds a change in village life, but Yuri still leaves for Kiev. Far from his family and loved ones, he finds himself questioning what he sees, thanks to a stranger who tells him that an artist has to “let the world know the truth.” Invariably Yuri finds himself in trouble with the murderous Soviet authorities. Meanwhile, Natalka, left in the rural community, witnesses the famine first hand and has to face the advances of cruel local Red Army commander Sergi (Tamer Hassan). Will Yuri ever see Natalka again?

As a dramatic love story Bitter Harvest fulfills its basic generic purpose, although (spoiler alert) there is little doubt that the lovers will be reunited. The relationship between the couple – established in the opening scenes – is presented by the narrator as an immense love. And yet beyond simple declarations there’s little sense of what underpins their relationship. The tribulations the couple face are suitably grim, but events proceed rapidly and subplots never have time to develop with the depth demanded. Thus Yuri joins forces with the anti-Bolshevik resistance for a battle but the entire sequence is far too short and leaves the viewer with more questions than answers, as does a strange food-poisoning/acid sequence.

Perhaps the most important lesson the twentieth century can teach is that evil is banal; across the globe, ordinary people have engaged in violence, cruelty, and genocide. But in Bitter Harvest evil is reduced to cinematic caricature. Like so many on-screen villains – whether Communists, Nazis, or gangsters ­– Sergi’s cruelty is apparently boundless as he delivers dialogue such as “There is no God! No evil! No sin!”, before shooting a priest who has hidden a religious relic. Later in the film, he sadistically demands, in his deep resonate voice, that Natalka wash and dry his feet with her hair. Likewise, a brief discussion on famine cuts to a scene of Stalin (Gary Oliver) enjoying an opulent feast. These, and other, sequences are heavy-handed, a clichéd villainous malevolence that ultimately creates a film that emphasises overly familiar action rather than history.

The problem Bitter Harvest faces is that the Holodomor deserves to be fully explored in narrative film but it becomes almost impossible to explain, much less show, such horrors in what is primarily a melodramatic love story. Despite moments of beautiful cinematography (Douglas Milsome) and a handful of brief spectacular scenes the film never becomes epic. Torn between exploring the horrors of Stalin’s rule and Yuri and Natalka’s relationship, the film opts for an overtly melodramatic tale of love.