This was my fourth visit to Amsterdam’s Imagine Film Festival, which now seems to have turned into an annual jaunt for me. Comfy seats, well-behaved audiences, friendly staff who are endlessly patient when I try to practise my Dutch on them, and a great selection of genre films from around the world – in short, everything I want from a festival.
For the third time, it was held at Eye, the spectacular space-age building overlooking the IJ Harbour just north of Amsterdam’s Central Station, and easily accessible by a regular (free) ferry service. This year, I had already seen some of the bigger films – It Follows, Ex Machina, Alleluia and Lost River – so tried to pack my weekend with some of the more recherché titles, ones less likely to get a release in Belgium, where I live. Here are the films I saw. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers.
THE FRAME (USA, 2014)
This absorbing meta-fantasy was written and directed by Jamin Winans, who has already amassed something of a cult following for films like Ink (2009). This one was shot in Denver, Colorado, but to this non-American viewer it might have been any big U.S. city, from Los Angeles to Chicago. A thief (David Carranza) and a paramedic (Tiffany Mualem) from separate TV shows find their stories intersecting in mysterious ways, surveyed by a demonic figure (Christopher Soren Kelly) who takes on various guises and tries to prevent them meeting. But the thief’s show is approaching its season finale, and the showrunners are known to favour downbeat endings…
Williams has impressive control of his material, weaving in and out of the different realities in a way that leaves one intrigued rather than confused or irritated. He’s matched by two perfectly calibrated performances from his two leads, who skilfully balance their soap opera performances with real offscreen personalities. As their worlds begin to unravel, the film strikes out into gloriously nutty territory involving an ancient typewriter, Clotho-type threads of fate and a sinister Childcatcher-type figure who drives a squeaky bicycle/barrow through the increasingly unstable cityscape.
Williams stumbles only in the final 20 minutes or so, bludgeoning home his metaphysical themes so repetitively the film outstays its welcome by at least 30 minutes and he risks undoing all the good work of the subtle, intelligent build-up. The word “frame” has several meanings, right? OK, we get it, no need to belabour the point.
HOMESICK (Germany/Austria, 2015)
Jessica (Esther Maria Pietsch) is a highly-strung cello prodigy who moves into a grand old flat in Berlin with her preternaturally patient boyfriend. The pressures of a forthcoming international competition and disputes with their new neighbours gradually tip her over into neurosis and paranoia. The Imagine programme namedrops Michael Haneke, but the guiding influence here is clearly Roman Polanski’s flat-dwelling nightmare trilogy, with Jakob M. Erwa’s domestic psychothriller deliberately incorporating elements of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant.
It’s elegantly done, with a cool greyish-blue colour palette, bravura performances from Pietsch and Tatja Seibt (unsettlingly ambiguous as the most formidable of the neighbours) and the issue of next-door noise is as fruitful a source of horror-comedy as ever. But Jessica’s descent into full-on loony tunes (signalled from the outset, so this isn’t a spoiler) trundles along overly familiar lines, topped off with a sadly predictable bait-and-switch denouement.
At one point, the young couple even adopts a kitten. I don’t suppose you can guess what happens to it.
BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES aka XIU CHUN DAO (China, 2014)
Lu Yang’s martial arts drama is set in 1627, towards the end of the Ming dynasty, when the young emperor is attempting to wipe out the influence of the eunuch clique. Three low-ranking officers of the imperial secret police are dispatched to kill the clique’s most powerful member, but all three have money problems, resulting in rash action, intrigue aplenty and no end of Doublecrossings-R-Us set in a milieu where corruption is apparently endemic.
The film’s most interesting touch is the characterisation of its three protagonists, who are never merely heroes – they are each of them morally compromised, though they do retain our sympathy, especially when the extent of the manipulations around them is revealed and their predicament appears hopeless. It’s no classic, but the fight scenes are competently staged, and the story barrels along at an energetic pace, with only a few longueurs and a slightly baffling ending, where you can’t work out whether or not someone is supposed to have died.
THE ANSWER (USA, 2015)
No sooner has a nerdy clerk got off with the hot chick at his office than they’ve been framed for the murder of their boss and have to go on the run from mysterious men in black motorcycle helmets. Could events be connected with the extraordinary abilities he has been trying to keep hidden since his childhood in an orphanage?
Iqbal Ahmed’s cheap and cheerful couple-on-the-run-from-aliens has a cheesy 1980s vibe (I found myself thinking the heroine was being played by Sarah Jessica Parker), the saddest ping-pong story ever told, and nice touches such as a secret code hidden in a 20-year-old hand-held Space Invaders-type game. But it overestimates its own amiability, the plot ends up running on the spot, and the film-maker ends up falling back on tired contrivances such as letting the heroine get kidnapped by the not-very-menacing bad guys.
NORWAY aka NORVIGIA (Greece, 2014)
Kudos to Yannis Veslemes – who wrote, directed, co-produced, scored and designed the first Greek vampire movie I’ve ever seen – for depicting his vampires as sleazy old neo-hippy deadbeats instead of following in the modern tendency to show them as glam young überbeings. It’s set in 1984, when a somewhat dissolute Eurotrash vampire called Zano (Vangelis Mourikis in a Rod Stewart wig) rolls up in Athens in search of fun. He finds it (sort of) at the Zardoz Club, hooking up with a femme fatale who ends up taking him on an extended nocturnal trek through the Athenian hinterlands before revealing her hidden agenda.
The last 15 minutes pack in more plot than the rest of the film, which meanders all over the place, but the wayward scenario is peppered with agreeably odd touches: amusingly upfront stylised miniature work, disco-dancing, junkie vampires, some kinky stuff involving gas masks and (I’m informed) a sprinkling of local pop culture references that will be lost on non-Greek viewers. But it’s a true original, worth seeing for a droll punchline.
FROM THE DARK (Ireland, 2014)
For me, the most agreeable surprise of the festival was this Irish horror pic directed by Conor McMahon, best known for the dead clown movie Stitches (which I haven’t seen, though I might seek it out now). Niamh Algar and Stephen Cromwell play a young couple who have the misfortune to get lost in the Irish countryside at almost exactly the same time that a farmer in the vicinity accidentally removes the stake from something buried in the peat. The couple ends up spending the night under siege in a farmhouse, desperately searching for sources of light (smartphones, Zippos, an angle-poise lamp) to fend off a Nosferatu-like creature whose only weakness is an aversion to it.
There’s not a lot of originality here; it’s not a game-changer, and adds nothing to the conventions of vampire cinema other than the idea of Peat-Bog Vampires (who actually behave more like flesh-eating zombies than recent cinema vampires), but it’s snappily paced, well-crafted, efficiently shot and edited on what looks like a tight budget, with smart dialogue establishing the two main personalities, a female character who turns out to be more resourceful than she looks, and some gleefully ironic symbolism as she and her boyfriend fight for survival.
I particularly appreciated a major moment played out entirely in shadow (shades of Nosferatu again) and the Gothic throwback of a heroine with a candelabra. I felt as though I were in the hands of people who loved the genre, and who knew what they were doing.
Probably the worst thing about this film is the generic title, which I am still having trouble remembering.
YOUNG ONES (South Africa/Ireland/USA, 2014)
Jake Paltrow (Gwyneth’s brother, but don’t let that put you off) wrote and directed this slow-moving but polished SF western set in a post-apocalyptic near-future where water has become the most precious commodity. Michael Shannon plays a patriarch who stays loyal to his parched land; Kodi Smit-McPhee (my, how he’s grown) plays his gangling teenage son; Nicholas Hoult is a smooth-talking motorbike-riding huckster with questionable ethics. Elle Fanning rounds out the cast in the underwritten role of Shannon’s rebellious daughter.
There are touches of Mad Max 2 in the design, if not in the action, and the domestic details of this future-world are nicely realised – painted pigeons, dishes cleaned with dirt instead of water. Robots are an everyday reality, but not in an antagonistic Westworld way; when Shannon has to put down the mule he uses to trade with local water-drillers, he replaces it with a mechanical one. And his crippled wife (it’s hinted that her husband was responsible for her injuries) is hooked up to a hi-tech pulley system that enables her to walk during family visits.
The robot mule plays a vital part in the denouement, but otherwise this is a traditional revenge western that will probably be appreciated more by aficionados of that genre than by SF fans. Giles Nuttgen’s dusty-looking desaturated cinematography and Nathan Jones’ score put the finishing touches to the widescreen epic feel.
REVERSAL (USA, 2015)
I like the idea of José Manuel Cravioto’s revenge thriller a lot more than its execution. Tina Ivlev plays Eve, who manages to coldcock the creep (Richard Tyson) who has her chained in his basement, and makes a break for it. This is the point at which many tie-up-and-torture psychothrillers end (the ones that don’t kill off their protagonists, that is) so the prospect of seeing what happens next is intriguing.
Unfortunately, what happens next is that Eve, instead of summoning the emergency services as you or I would do, decides instead to drive around with The Creep tied up in the back of his truck, trying to rescue the other women he has imprisoned in makeshift sex-dungeons in other houses all around town. It’s not inconceivable that she would do this – it’s just that the screenplay never gives her a good reason not to go to the cops, so I spent the rest of the film rolling my eyes at her stupidity, especially when The Creep, whom she has insufficiently restrained, sporadically breaks free and has to be subdued all over again. It seems like a lot of unnecessary trouble to go to, as well as a course of action that threatens to get her killed at any moment.
Some of the female prisoners Eve tries to liberate don’t react in expected ways, which makes it interesting, and The Creep turns out to have not been acting alone; “I’m not the hunter; I’m just the zookeeper.” But the male characters we encounter are so uniformly despicable, Eve behaves so idiotically, and the women (with one exception) are such helpless victims that the scenario becomes tiresome and repetitive, and undercuts any hopes you might have had that this was going to be a rousing slice of female empowerment exploitation. There’s a last-minute twist which has been so heavily telegraphed that it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Brownie points to the film-makers for attempting to tweak the formula, but maybe some female input at the writing stage might have helped? Just a suggestion.
It was shot in North Hollywood, so the settings range from underpopulated desert terrain to indeterminate industrial buildings to sprawling low-rise residential, though the interiors are so samey you suspect most of these were shot in the same place with the furniture rearranged.
EVERLY (USA, 2014)
Did I say “female empowerment exploitation”? Look no further than Joe Lynch’s bloody shoot-em-up, starring Salma Hayek as a woman determined to extricate herself from the clutches of the mob (apparently Yakuza-adjacent, judging by the tattoos and cultural artefacts). Nearly all the action takes place in a luxury apartment-cum-brothel at the top of an apartment block (exteriors were filmed in Rotterdam, interiors in Serbia) as Hayek shoots, hacks and slices her way through a cast of cannon-fodder goons, killer-hookers and oriental torture experts. The film’s catchphrase, repeated by sundry characters, seems to be, “That’s a lot of dead whores,” which isn’t nearly as funny as the film-makers seem to think it is.
Alas, Everly’s motivation is not so much to save her own skin as to preserve that of her small daughter, currently lodged across town with Everly’s mother. It’s here the film drops the ball with excessive harping on maternal feelings. Nothing wrong with having a kid as a plot device, but Everly overeggs the pudding, which is a shame, because Hayek is great as a female John McClane in a vest. Less gushing sentimentality and more pragmatic cynicism wouldn’t have gone amiss.
THE ADMIRAL: ROARING CURRENTS aka MYEONG-RYANG (South Korea, 2014)
The Korean admiral Yi Sun-Shin (1545-1598) is considered by many military history experts to be one of the three most brilliant naval commanders of all time. (The others are Horatio Nelson and Michiel de Ruyter, subject of a recent film – in which the bad guys are the English.) This historical epic from Kim Han-min (War of the Arrows) depicts one of Yi’s most famous feats – defeating an invading Japanese force of 133 warships with only 13 ships at the Battle of Myeongnyang in 1597.
Choi Min-sik, of Oldboy fame, plays the grizzled but wily Yi, who spends most of the first half of the film arguing with pigheaded superiors and jealous peers, and struggling to raise the morale of troops already hammered by defeat. The subtitles were in Dutch so some nuances might have gone over my head – though it didn’t strike me as a very nuanced story. I did learn one excellent new Dutch word, though – schildpadschip. (Literally “turtle-ship” = a heavily armoured precursor to the modern battleship.)
In the film’s second half, we get down to business – the Big Battle Scene in all its CGI splendour. Apart from a heroic spy, the Japanese are uniformly depicted as swaggering bad guys who cheat at duels and use sneaky things like ninjas, snipers and ships laden with explosives. The Korean good guys fight back with rocket-propelled arrows (!), cunning tactics, and knowledge of the local currents, which (according to the movie) sporadically configure themselves into an actual maelstrom.
It’s a lot of fun, particularly if you like big battle scenes, though ultimately not as satisfying as John Woo’s Red Cliff, which had better-written characters and more thrilling intrigue. Everyone in The Admiral: Roaring Currents is a stereotype, including the Admiral himself (though Choi’s natural screen charisma just about makes up for it) and the thrust is unashamedly nationalistic. This approach clearly works, though, since it became the most successful film of all time at the Korean box-office.
It’s worth noting, perhaps, that it was released during the inquiry into the MV Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014, in which 304 passengers died. Captain and crew were charged with abandoning ship and negligent homicide, there was wide-ranging criticism of ferry regulations and rescue services, owners were prosecuted, offices were raided and the Prime Minister of South Korea resigned in a case that traumatised the nation. Under the circumstances, you can see why South Korean audiences might want to seek consolation in a more glorious nautical episode from their past.