Parky At the Pictures (27/10/2023)
(Reviews of The First Day of My Life; Doctor Jekyll; It Lives Inside; Suitable Flesh; Beyond Utopia; and Savage Waters)
THE FIRST DAY OF YOUR LIFE.
Paolo Genovese has a unique place in cinema history, as his 2016 conversation piece, Perfect Strangers, has been remade a record 21 times around the world. He told the Cineuropa website that he's not a fan of remakes, but there are distinct echoes of familiar stories by Charles Dickens and Frank Capra in Il primo giorno della mia vita!/The First Day of My Life, which is the latest presentation from CinemaItaliaUK.
Adapted from Genovese's 2018 novel, this was going to be an English-language picture, set in New York with an all-star cast. However, the cornavirus pandemic prompted a change of plan and the action now takes place in some lesser seen parts of Rome.
One rainy night, a man (Toni Servillo) picks up three people in his estate car and drops them off at the Hotel Columbia. Ex-gymnast Emilia (Sara Serraiocco) needs a wheelchair to get to her room, while life coach Napoleone (Valerio Mastandrea) and cop Arianna (Margherita Buy) check into the adjoining rooms. They meet with Uomo in the breakfast room the next day and he introduces them to 12 year-old Daniele (Gabriele Cristini), who is hungry even though they are in a form of limbo having committed suicide the day before. They are told they have been granted a week to reconsider their actions and Uomo ferries them around Rome so that they can witness unseen Napoleone's body being fished out of the Tiber, the press gathering outside the former Olympian's apartment after she jumped from a window, and Max (Giorgio Tirabassi) and Arianna's other police colleagues toasting her at their favourite bar after she had blown her brains out while on patrol.
Despite Uomo playing jazz in the car, the mood is sombre as Emilia and Napoleone smoke on the balcony and tease each other about the discovery of their corpses and wonder if it's possible to die twice. Downstairs, Uomo chats with Donna (Vittoria Puccini), who needs to borrow the station wagon, as the three in her care are coming towards the end of their week and she still has work to do to convince them to reconsider.
Day Two starts with Arianna describing how her 16 year-old daughter, Olivia, had keeled over on a basketball court and she explains how she could no longer be a glass half full kind of person because God had pissed in it. They visit the hospital where Daniele is in a coma. He's a YouTuber with 900,000 watching him eat vast quantities of food, in spite of being a diabetic. His parents (Lidia Vitale and Antonio Gerardi) don't believe that he skipped an insulin shot on purpose and Daniele urges them to listen to the doctor so that they finally understand the pain he's been in.
At a nearby theatre, the group watches Napoleone conduct a motivational session, in which he coaxes the bashful Nicolas (Davide Combusti) into singing Leonard Cohen's `Alleluia'. A colleague, Zeno (Thomas Trabacchi), comes on to the stage to mourn Napoleone's passing, but his wife, Greta (Elena Lietti), stands in the audience to denounce the gathering as a sham and encourage everyone to leave and find happiness on their own terms.
The next morning, Emilia watches as Daniele starts skipping in a bid to lose weight. She is telling him about the hours of training required to be fit when they hear voices coming from another room. Uomo is watching highlights from Emilia's gymnastics career on a bank of televisions and she briefly takes a pride in her achievements. However, he shows her footage of competitors falling off the apparatus and she snaps that she didn't get up after her accident. She accuses him of trivialising her suffering, but Arianna disagrees when she avers that the agony will never ease.
Back at the Columbia, Napoleone tells Uomo that Zeno is in love with Greta and will ask her to move to Milan with him. But Uomo assures him that nothing is written in stone. Daniele apologises to Emilia for laughing at the tumbles and Arianna asks about the video of him eating chicken that went viral and led to him becoming Johnny Big Boy. He reveals that his father had suggested setting up a video channel, but it cost Daniele his anonymity and led to him being bullied. However, Arianna doubts that he'll be granted his wish to stay invisible.
On Day Three, Uomo takes them to a cemetery and is sad that a man called Simone missed out on meeting them all because he couldn't be persuaded. Next stop is an abandoned cinema, where each watches a brief clip of the people who will become important to them if they live. The short reels raise more questions than answers, but Uomo insists he can't divulge any more details. Nevertheless, the foursome joke about Daniele trying the popcorn Uomo had given them (which they couldn't eat) and agree that Napoleone's bridge jump was the best method of suicide. Although he joins in the chatter, a pall has re-descended by the time they reach the hotel.
As Day Four begins, Napoleone strides to the nearest Metropolitana station and throws himself under a train. Uomo watches sadly from the platform before escorting his charge back to the Columbia, where Arianna is explaining to Emilia how much she misses the eased pain of losing her child. They are surprised that Napoleone has tried again, but he reveals that he envies them having a single reason for their anguish. He doesn't know why he feels depressed and can't see the point of trying to focus on a future he doesn't want.
Emilia chases after him when he storms out and discovers that she can walk in her limbo state. Rather than be pleased, she admits that she had become accustomed to her chair and felt relief at the removal of the pressure to compete when she had become a perennial runner-up. She taunts Napoleone for being a poor life coach and he agrees with her. She's joined on a bench by Tomasso (Lino Guanciale), who claims not to be an angel, but reminds Emilia that even though everyone dies and life goes on, her story will remain entirely unique.
As Uomo has given them a day off, Arianna goes for a walk with Daniele, who wonders why his parents failed to notice how miserable he was. Meanwhile, Donna finds Uomo in a bistro and sympathises with his struggle with Napoleone. He wants to let him die, but sees something of himself in him and this drives him to keep trying. After all, Napoleone could see a light, as Emilia does when Tommasso invites her to a birthday drink with his friends.
Arianna takes Daniele to her apartment and gets cross when he touches stuff in Olivia's bedroom. He claims that he is the younger man in the film Arianna saw at the cinema, as he recognised his back garden. She's confused and remorseful when he runs away from her chiding. But she gets to apologise when she tucks him up for the night and he sleepily calls her `ma'. Emilia also comes back and asks Uumo why he made her visible and he shrugs that he has free will and occasionally decides to use it.
Across the city, Napoleone attends his own funeral and watches Greta in the pulpit as she wishes she could have saved him from himself. Donna walks up to him and pricks his finger and informs him he now has the freedom to make his own choice. When he returns to the station, however, he hears Nicolas busking `Alleluia' and returns to the hotel to find Uomo smoking outside. Napoleone asks if the others are back and Uomo wonders if he's sufficiently engaged with the lives of others to want to start living again.
An excursion on Day Five takes them to a wooden shack in an industrial outskirt, where Uomo cooks a seafood pasta that they are able to eat. He grants them a wish and Emilia asks for a red dress, while Daniele wants his parents to find the letter he left them. Arianna promises to let Uomo know her desire when they're alone, while Napoleone declines the offer altogether. They smile when Daniele strips off to swim in the river and Uomo confirms Napoleone's suspicion that Emilia can walk if she wants to.
As night falls after a lovely day and Uomo takes them to a viewing point over the Eternal City. He dims the lights in all the buildings and shows them how few people are happy at any one time. But he reminds them that such rare moments are precious and that one has to be alive in order to be open to them.
Arianna asks Uomo to show her if her daughter still exists and Day Six starts with him taking her back to her old house to show her places she associates with Olivia. She smiles and cries, but informs Uomo that memories and a sense of presence won't make life any more bearable. Daniele also receives a setback, as his parents find the letter, but misunderstand the cry for help and implore their son to come out of his coma so they take personal control of the social media career he simply doesn't want.
He pulls the plug on himself and rides the subway alone, while Arianna sees her mother bringing flowers to the burial plot she shares with Olivia. Uomo joins Daniele on the train to confide that even people who love us let us down before restoring his spirits by showing how they can levitate (because Daniele has been convinced from the outset that Uomo can fly). Much to his chagrin, he can't make Emilia get out of the car to join Tommasso at his party, as she has never had any luck with men and doesn't want to come second in the romantic stakes, either.
Napoleone finds Greta in a restaurant and he asks Uomo to let him speak to her. He refuses, but makes him wait because she's dining with Zeno and has some news. She can't go to Milan because she's pregnant and wants the child to be born in Napoleone's city and he shoots a distressed look at Uomo because he realises that the child in the cinema film was his son and that he will never know him unless he reverses his decision.
While the others spend Day Seven thinking in their rooms, Uomo puts photographs from their pasts on the wall, along with snaps of the last week. Once night comes, he picks them up in the car and Daniele asks if anyone will remember them. As Uomo drives off, everyone finds themselves back on the rainy night a week earlier, as Daniele takes a tray of 40 doughnuts to eat before his webcam, Napoleone writes Greta a note after finding their luxury apartment empty, and Arianna ignores Max's question about why she always works the night shift.
When he goes for coffee, Arianna pulls the trigger but misses and speeds round to Daniele's house. He has tossed the doughnuts out of the window and joyfully joins Arianna, as they drive to Emilia's residence to find her on the roof turning somersaults along the ledge. She runs to them for a hug before they head for the bridge, where Uomo is telling Napoleone that he bitterly regrets choosing to die when he was given his week of grace. But there's no talking him down and Arianna tells Daniele that Napoleone must have thought better about coming (even though his glasses are perched on the capstone) and they leave.
Uumo readies the hotel for the next guests (but doesn't see the message that Daniele had scrawled on the wall behind his bed). Out in the city, a woman climbs over the rails to jump from a bridge. But she's stopped by Napoleone, who asks for a week of her life in the hope he can convince her to reconsider.
The performances couldn't be better. Chiara Balducci's production design is envelopingly atmospheric, while Fabrizzio Lucci's images of the wood-panelled interiors and the imaginatively contrasting locations reinforce the contemplative mood. Consuelo Catucci's measured editing and Mauricio Filardo's unobtrusive score also contribute to the solemnity of the ambience.
The problem lies in the scenario concocted by Genovese in conjunction with Isabella Aguilar, Paolo Costella, and Rolando Ravello. It's fine to leave Uumo and Donna's status a mystery, just as there's no need to explain how they can access the past, present, and future or why they cannot be seen by living humans. We don't even need to discover why they require a station wagon to get around Rome and why the one they have between them needs petrol and why (if it's visible) it's never been pulled over by the police for driving along while seemingly being unoccupied.
But, if they're to root for the deliberating quarter, viewers deserve to know more about the backgrounds that have driven them to despair and the reasons they might have for stepping back from the brink. Unlike A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, the emphasis is less on what was and what still might be than on the gambits that Uomo employs to show his charges that there is more to life than the traumas that beset them. For all the sensitivity of Valerio Mastandrea, Margherita Buy, Sara Serraiocco, and Gabriele Cristini's acting, their characters never discuss their reactions and emotions in the way that Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey do. Consequently, the audience never really gets an insight into either their personalities or their mindsets, with the result that, while this makes for an affecting watch, it has nothing new or profound to say about human nature or the great mysteries of life (and death).
There have been over 120 screen adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde since the novella's publication in 1886. The earliest appear to have been directed by Otis Turner and Sidney Olcott in the United States in 1908, although both are presumed lost. Fredric March won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 adaptation, since when several variations on the theme have appeared. Among them are two Hammer offerings, Terence Fisher's The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (1960) and Roy Ward Baker's Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971). Echoes of each can be felt in the studio's lastest reworking, Joe Stephenson's Doctor Jekyll, which casts Eddie Izzard in the title role.
When brother Ewan (Morgan Watkins) wangles him a job interview, Rob (Scott Chambers) is delighted, as he needs employment to gain access to the infant daughter he has been unable to see since coming out of prison. Housekeeper Sandra (Lindsay Duncan) is convinced that Rob is unsuited for the position of care assistant to recuperating pharmaceutical billionaire Nina Jekyll (Eddie Izzard), but she is intrigued by his nervous decency during an informal interview.
Sandra shows Rob around the sprawling mansion, with its numerous rooms and ancestral portraits. She warns him that there are cameras in almost every room and that she expects him to fail during his unpaid probation period. Nina is much friendlier, however, and has Rob check the security censors around the house and change the set code. As he has to leave his phone in his room, she even gives him her watch so he's always on time with meals and medication.
At lunch, however, she's snarkier and orders Rob to disable the system. When Sandra returns, she accuses him of stealing the watch and meddling with the alarms and dismisses him. However, Nina insists on rehiring him on full salary and drops into his bedroom to compliment him on his determination to be a good father. While shopping in town, however, Rob runs into Ari's mother, Maeve (Robyn Cara), who urges him to help her rob the mansion and threatens to block custody unless he co-operates.
Woken in the night by a squawking parrot, Rob overhears Sandra telling Nina that she has lost control of someone. She disagrees and almost catches him cowering in the darkness, as she hobbles out up the stair on her stick. Next morning, when Rob serves Nina the crunchy nut cornflakes she has craved, she bellows at him after they disagree with her and she has to rush to the bathroom to throw up. While she sleeps, Rob (who is concerned that he has not seen Sandra all day) goes to her office and fails to see someone coming downstairs, as he rummages in drawers and finds the phone that Sandra calls her `fifth limb'.
Once again, the boss is in a charming mood, as she invites Rob for a game of chess over a glass of golden nectar (a residual habit from `walking in a man's world'). As they play, she offers to help Rob recover his daughter from social services before sending him to the pub for more supplies. While she lights up a green-glowing cigarette and dances to Tony Newley's `This Is the Beginning of the End', he bumps into Maeve who repeats her threat and watches on as he's badly beaten by a couple of her new friends.
As a trained doctor, Nina is able to patch him up and asks him about the chess game he had played the night before. Puzzled, Rob follows her to the room of her grandfather, Henry (Jonathan Hyde), where she explains about the research he had conducted into personality and the evil it had unleashed. She had continued the work and Rachel Hyde had been born. Confused and scared, Rob tries to leave. But Nina begs him to help her conquer her demon by killing her and ensuring that Sandra is the last victim of her murderous alter ego.
That night, Nina tells Rob that she has left a suicide note by the bed and plans to stab herself with the blade inside her walking stick. As she settles down to die, Rob hears Rachel trying to regain possession and pushes the blade into her abdomen. At that moment, Maeve pulls a gun on him and panics because she thinks he's murdered Nina. However, Rachel rises from the divan and shows Maeve to the floor safe she has come to rob.
Locking Rob outside the patio doors, Rachel slits Maeve's throat and shoots her masked accomplice, who turns out to be Ewan. She gleefully reveals that his brother has set him up as part of her plan to take permanent control of Nina's body. Rob howls as she shoots Ewan and then offers him the Jekyll fortune if he agrees to host the evil spirit of her grandfather that has been possessing her for decades.
Desperate to help Ari, Rob takes a toke on one of the green-burning cigarettes and, as he does, Nina regains control of her body and looks around in horror at the carnage. She asks Rob what she has done and he bends down to help her. Suddenly, the wickedness kicks in and sends his body into convulsions. With a demented glint in his eye, he stabs Nina and the scene cuts to black.
In a coda, Robert Stevenson, the heir to the Jekyll estate, meets with a TV personality (Simon Callow) in the cathedral he has helped restore with his millions. He laments losing Nina and his child to cancer, but a hint of green twinkles in his eye, as he leans back in his seat and cackles, as his alter ego takes over.
Closing on the weakest scene in the entire film will cause many to question the quality of what has gone before. In fact, Scott Chambers - who worked with Stephenson on Chicken (2015) - does rather well as the bad boy who has become something of a milquetoast behind bars. His good intentions and eagerness to please, while forever being perplexed by what is happening around him make Rob a pitiable, if not entirely plausible character. But Chambers flounders on the dark side and one has to wonder what Stephenson was thinking in calling for such an unconvincing transformation.
Eddie Izzard has an easier time of things, as screenwriter Dan Kelly-Mulhern gifts both Nina and Rachel dialogue that can be rolled around the tongue like vintage claret. Consequently, Izzard is able to exploit her various stage/screen personae in order to keep viewers guessing (without resort to ingenious make-up effects) whether we are watching Jekyll or Hyde. It's actually not that difficult to spot the switches, but Rob can't tell the difference and that's all that matters in keeping the story stumbling forward.
By giving Nina a broken leg from a failed hanging attempt, Kelly-Mulhern and Stephenson cannily restrict Rachel's antics and give the action a claustrophobic feel. However, it also reduces its sense of unfettered fury and unpredictable danger, as the deranged id is prevented from marauding at large. Such an approach might well suit the stage, which is ironic as Hope Dickson Leach's forthcoming adaptation, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, was filmed live with six cameras at the Leith Theatre in Edinburgh during the Covid pandemic.
Balancing the shortcomings are Natalie O'Connor's thoughtful production design, Birgit Dierken's stealthy cinematography and Blair Mowat's knowing score. So, while this may not expunge memories of Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick, it marks a decent first outing since Hammer was resurrected by the aptly named John Gore.
IT LIVES INSIDE.
Writer-director Bishal Dutta moved with his family from India to North America when he was four years old. He draws on his experiences and emotions for his feature debut, It Lives Inside, which centres on the Hindu mythological demon, the Pishacha, which feeds on both human flesh and the negative energy of its victims.
Having moved to Vancouver when father Inesh (Vik Sahay) got a work transfer, teenager Samidha (Megan Suri) is desperate to fit in. Consequently, she replies in English when mother Poorna (Neeru Bajwa) tries to interest her in Hindi in an upcoming puja. Her father encourages her efforts, which have prompted her to distance herself from Indian classmate Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), whose dishevelled state and withdrawn demeanour is of concern to Wooderson Grove teacher, Joyce (Betty Gabriel).
Sam resents the notion of `looking after your own', as she would rather hang out with Russ (Gage Marsh) and Kittie (Beatrice Kitsos), even though the latter is often carelessly condescending in nurturing their friendship. However, Sam feels guilty when Tamira disappears after approaching her in the locker room with a Kilner jar that she claims contains an invisible demon that lives on raw meat. Unnerved by Tamira's intense terror, Sam had called her a psycho and knocked the jar out of her hand, with the glass shattering on the tiled floor. But she now feels compelled to find her friend, especially as she starts appearing in her dreams.
We saw Tamira being yanked away by the hair after seeming to see something moving behind Sam in the corridor. But Sam is baffled and a dropped notebook filled with Sanskrit scrawlings and spooky sketches offers no clues, even though she feels a sinister presence as she reads it while sitting on the bleachers in the school gym during a storm.
Skipping the puja, Sam goes to the party Russ is hosting and he offers to give her a lift to the house of an Indian kid who had supposedly killed himself after slaughtering his parents (an incident squeezed into a puzzling prologue). He had owned the book that Tamira had been carrying and they see drawings of a monstrous entity on the walls while creeping around by torchlight.
After another nightmare and annoyed by Poorna scolding her about abandoning her culture, Sam seeks out Russ at the scene of the Choudhary tragedy. As they sit on the swings in the garden, she confesses to having been close to Tamiraas kids before she felt the need to assimilate at high school. They kiss and Sam takes a drag on a cigarette before being drawn into the house by whispering voices. While she's away, the Pishach attacks Russ for helping her and she sees his body dangling in the air before it's unceremoniously dumped on the grass with lacerations in the neck.
Poorna is ashamed of the dagger looks she gets from the neighbours as Russ's corpse is taken away. Inesh remains supportive, but the nightmares keep coming and Sam turns to Joyce in the hope she can decipher some of the writing in the notebook. However, she is spooked when the Pishach looms behind her teacher and heads home, where she confides in her mother in a bi-lingual conversation about the powers of a Pishach and the fact that they have to act quickly in order to prevent it from taking Tamira's soul that night.
While they don traditional clothing and rustle up a curry to placate the Pishach, it stalks Joyce through the school (where she has gone for some reason) and it finally pins her down in the bathroom. Entering the house, the Pishach attacks Inesh and Poorna, but Sam manages to get away and heads for the Choudhary house because she's realised that Tamira is being held in the basement. She has a jar at the ready, but can't entice the critter inside. So, she reasons that she can be the vessel to trap the demon and, as it shifts into a wispish form, she allows it to enter her body through her mouth.
One year later, Sam and her parents invite Tamira and Joyce to supper. She has to eat raw meat, but she is content to continue with her sacrifice for the greater good. As she walks Tamira home, Sam gets a hug of thanks. But, despite her promise that the Pishach will never be free again, she looks troubled as she stares into the camera.
With the majority of its shocks taking place in the dark or being archly diced to prevent audiences from realising that the Pishach is actually Jenaya Ross in a rubber suit, this tame horror has little to offer beside some rather regressive views on social assimilation and cultural identity. These echo those in another Desi chiller, Elan and Rajeev Dassani's Evil Eye (2020), with the relationship between Neeru Bajwa and Megan Suri having much in common with that of the Blumhouse film's mother and daughter, Sarita Choudhury and Sunita Mani.
Having Bajwa deliver most of her lines in Hindi underlines the purposive nature of Dutta's approach, as he leaves little to the imagination in manipulating the viewer's response at every stage. Scenes like the locker room confrontation could have been deeply disconcerting, but a lack of both ingenuity and finesse often leaves the debutant reliant on hackneyed tropes like creaking floorboards, flickering lights, and nightmare wakenings. One wonders what input he received from Sean McKittrick, who had produced Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017), which also co-starred Betty Gabriel.
She makes an empathetic teacher, but the characterisation is sketchy and the dialogue often banal. Suri is solid, if strangely unsympathetic as the heroine, but she's also stranded on occasion by the one-dimensional Sam's petulance and plot leaps that prompt her to act impulsively and irrationally. The inkiness of Matthew Lynn's widescreen cinematography and the jitteriness of Jack Price's editing don't help much, either. But they possess a slickness that is shared by Tyler Harron's production design and Wesley Hughes's score. Dutta's direction is patchy, while he and co-scribe Ashish Mehta create no sense of the Indian enclave's place within the wider suburban community. Moreover, he resorts to generic jolts that ensure the promising premise generates little palpable suspense. Most damningly, however, he contents himself with exploiting complex cultural issues without discussing them any meaningful depth.
Director Stuart Gordon was well known for such H.P. Lovecraft adaptations as Re-Animator (1985), From Beyond (1986), Castle Freak (1995), Dagon (2001), and Dreams in the Witch-House (2005), which he mostly made with screenwriter Dennis Paoli. Before his death in 2020, Gordon was working with Paoli and former producer Brian Yuzna on a reworking of the 1933 short story, `The Thing on the Doorstep'. Rather than leave the project on the shelf, however, Joe Lynch has been brought in to direct and opinion will be divided as to whether Suitable Flesh is a fitting tribute to Gordon's distinctively schlocky approach to horror or a sleazy softcore thriller that does a disservice to both its source and its eminently sporting cast.
At Miskatonic Medical School, Dr Daniella Upton (Barbara Crampton) opens up a body bag and is shocked at the state of the cadaver inside. The morgue attendant (Graham Skipper) remarks that everyone looks pretty much the same on the inside, but she knew Edward (Johnathon Schaech) when he was the handsome husband of her best friend, psychiatrist Dr Elizabeth Derby (Heather Graham), who is being detained in a security ward after murdering him.
Desperate to convince her friend that she isn't schizophrenic, but has been possessed, Elizabeth explains how she had become obsessed with Asa Waite (Judah Lewis), a man in his twenties who had claimed to have had an out-of-body experience. He had also insisted that he was scared of his father, Ephraim (Bruce Davison), before having a seizure following a phone call and turning into a snide cynic, whom she fantasises over while having unsatisfactory sex with her husband.
Breaking the rules, Elizabeth visits Asa at his home and, finding the door open, she ventures inside. He has run away, but Ephraim is having a seizure at his desk and Elizabeth hands him one of his pills. Rather than show gratitude, he taunts her for trying to analyse his son and he cuts the palm of her hand with a curved knife pulled from a drawer when she tries to get too close to the necromantic manuscript he is perusing. As she flees, the page seems to soak up the blood from the blade.
Time passes and Elizabeth tries to return to normal. But Asa comes back to her office claiming that Ephraim wants to take over his body. When he does another bunk, she worries about him and responds when he calls her late at night. Arriving at the house, she finds Ephraim collapsed on the floor. Asa pleads with her not to give him a pill and she thinks he's died. But Ephraim rises up and whispers an incantation into Asa's ear that turns him back into the suave alter ego, who proceeds to have sex with Elizabeth to stop her from calling the emergency services.
She slinks across the room with a post-coital purr and, in a composed voice, pronounces herself delighted with her new body. When Elizabeth returns to normal, Asa in stud mode reassures her that things won't hurt as much the second time. But she still doesn't realised that she has been chosen as the new host for the demon inhabiting Asa, who promptly decapitates Ephraim when he revives as a frail old man pleading for help. In her panic, Elizabeth knocks over a candle and sets the house on fire, as manic Asa cackles about the mayhem he has caused.
When Elizabeth confides in Daniella, she is convinced that she's projected guilt from cheating on her husband on to the seducer and turned him into a father slayer. Reassured, despite feeling certain something weird happened, Elizabeth returns home to find Detective Ledger (J.D. Evermore) and Officer Huxley (Giovannie Cruz) waiting for her. She bluffs her way through the questions, but Edward refuses to accept her apology about sleeping with Asa. Spending the night at her office, Elizabeth has a nightmare in which she falls from an open window in shock when she looks down on Asa giving her cunnilingus and his face turns into Ephraim's.
Deciding to come home to reason with Edward, Elizabeth takes a call from Asa, who is chained by his wrist to a metal pipe. Nevertheless, he whispers the incantation and the entity passes into Elizabeth and enjoys exploring her body in front of the bathroom mirror. She has even more fun riding a baffled Edward, while Asa (who is now hosting Elizabeth's persona) calls Daniella to free him from the room under the trapdoor in the Waites' burnt-out house. She is sceptical until Asa/Elizabeth mentions a case only they know about. But, just as she recognises her friend in another body - and just as Elizabeth is flirting with Officer Huxley after she and Ledger are called to a domestic disturbance call placed by Asa/Elizabeth - the demon switches bodies and Daniella is disturbed by the sudden change of Asa's tone and leaves as he unlocks his handcuff and claims he and Elizabeth have been playing a kinky sex game.
Spooked when Edward suggests some more knife and throttling play, Elizabeth realises that she has been possessed twice and that a third will be the end of her. She tells Edward to keep away from her and zooms off to her office, knowing Asa will find her. He proclaims that he has grown tired of being male and, as the future will be female, he prefers to use her body for a while. Using a knife blade and a desk lamp to perform her hypnosis technique, Elizabeth plays on the entity's isolation and weariness to put it off guard enough to stab Asa in the forehead.
When he lunges at her, she manoeuvres him to the open window and pushes him out. Rushing downstairs, she repeatedly backs her car over the body and is stabbing frenziedly when the cops show up. But, as she explains to Daniella in her cell, she was trying to kill the beast and not the boy. Trusting the word of a friend, Daniella promises to help her.
At that moment, Asa sparks back to life as the autopsy is about to begin and the terrified assistant leaves the door open for him to crawl out after having spoken the incantation for a third time. Elizabeth goes into convulsions and Daniella realises when she doesn't know her name that the transference has occurred and she rushes out to try and resuscitate the badly injured body pulling itself along the corridor by its fingernails.
Confronting the entity in Elizabeth, Danielle picks a fight and they burst out into the corridor, where Mace the security guard (Hunter Womack) has no idea why two female superiors are brawling. As they tussle, the malignant spirit passes into Daniella and her personality enters Elizabeth's body. Putting her friend out of her misery by shooting what remains of Asa/Elizabeth on a gurney, Elizabeth/Daniella points the gun at the possessed doctor. However, a swift switch leads to Mace being gunned down and the women scrapping over a scalpel when they are restrained.
Viewers, of course, will know that Lynch and Paoli have pulled a fast one and that the closing scene, in which Daniella apologises to Edward for failing to notice Elizabeth's deteriorating mental health, is little more than the set-up to any number of sequels in which the restless ghoul keeps body-hopping to its black-hearted content. As Danielle lights a roll-up (because her vape makes the entity cough), she blows the same smoke rings as Ephraim and starts to cackle. With the camera spinning through 360°, the scene shifts to Elizabeth/Daniella in a staitjacket pleading to be heard before Barry Louis Polisar's children's song, `I Need You Like a Donut Needs a Hole', plays over the closing credits.
It's hard to know how Stuart Gordon would have tackled this rug-pulling scenario. But it's safe to say that there would have been more gallows humour and a considerably more precision and concision. As he proved with Everly (2014), Joe Lynch is a slick director and he slips in plenty of Gordonian tropes to keep aficionados amused. But any plus points for the irises and spinning cameras are lost during the gauchely sniggering sex scenes, which drape wailing sax over gasps and gyrations that were old hat in the heyday of the 1990s erotic thriller.
Despite a teasing reference to gender identity, the cast has psychological depth to work with. Yet they couldn't have thrown themselves into the conceit with more commitment. Heather Graham relishes her bad girl scenes, while Judah Lewis taps into his inner Christian Slater when Asa goes to the dark side. Bruce Davison and Johnathon Schaech also make the most of glorified cameos. But, perhaps fittingly for a Gordon homage, Barbara Crampton takes the laurels for a knowing display that would have made her erstwhile director smile.
Greg McDougall's make-up effects are splendidly gooey, while there's lots of booming bombast in Steve Moore's score. Apart from the pinwheel gimmicks, David Matthew's camerawork feels somewhat restrained, although Jack N. Gracie's editing has its madcap moments, as Graham and Lewis's possession spasms are sliced to clichéd ribbons. There's no question that this was well meant, but it feels more like a pastiche than a panegyric.
Over the last two decades, there have been a number of striking documentaries about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Among them are Pieter Fleury's North Korea: A Day in the Life (2004), Yang Yong-hi's Dear Pyongyang (2005), Daniel Gordon's Crossing the Line (2006), Mads Brügger's The Red Chapel (2009), Marc Wiese's Camp 14: Total Control Zone (2012), Ahn Seul-ki's Under the Sun (2015), and Robert Cannan and Ross Adam's The Lovers and the Despot (2016). Nothing, however, quite compares to Madeleine Gavin's Beyond Utopia.
In the opening interview, Hyeonseo Lee, the author of the bestselling memoir The Girl With Seven Names, describes how she crossed the Yula River between North Korea and China with the help of a handsome border guard and what felt like divine intervention. We also meet Pastor Seungeun Kim, the leader of the Caleb Mission Church in the South Korean city of Cheonan. He devotes his time to helping people escape into China and shows Gavin how the border has been tightened since Kim Jong-un made flight a treasonable offence and offered guards rewards for capturing fugitives heading for the Changbai Mountains.
Soyeon Lee escaped herself and is now hoping broker Mr Hwang can bring her 17 year-old son to safety. Hyeonseo describes the feeling of discovering that the leaders she had been taught to worship were monsters and former CIA analyst Sue Mi Terry and journalist Barbara Demick offer some background into the controls imposed by the ruling regime to limit the knowledge of a trusting population that believes it resides in a utopia. Defector-turned-activist Gwang Il Jung and former Associate Press bureau chief Jean Lee note how subservience to the world's only Communist, Confucian, hereditary dynasty is ensured through media manipulation and spying.
Terry and Sokeel Park (from Liberty in North Korea) explain how things have grown worse under Kim Jong-un, who ruthlessly and brutally removes any opposition within the ruling élite. Chilling smuggled phone footage is shown of a public trial, an execution, and some interrogation beatings, as Hyeonseo mentions a United Nations report on human rights violations in North Korea that compares the level of barbarity with that of Nazi Germany.
Soyeon describes how she was sent to a camp after her first bid for freedom failed and she was prevented from seeing her son before she finally made her getaway. She has been buying clothes so he can pass for South Korean in China, but she has no idea of his size. But Pastor Kim details how dangerous this passage can be, with defectors often being caught and forced into marriage or prostitution if they are not deported.
He learns of the plight of the Roh family from Hyesan in the Changbai Mountains. In addition to their two children, Jinhae and Jinpyeong, parents Yonggil Roh and Yeongbok Woo are travelling with her 80 year-old mother, Sunok Park, and their video message for help is harrowing in the extreme. As such a party has no trafficking value, they are offered for sale by brokers to Christian organisations, who try to provide them with clandestine help on their journey.
Having been moved by the sight of homeless children while doing missionary work in China, Pastor Kim met wife, Esther Park, in a refugee centre. A former North Korean army commander, she had fallen for him because he had a tummy like Kim Jong-il and he first discovered potential smuggling lines while researching how to get her to South Korea. Such has been his commitment to the cause since that he even broke his neck after slipping on ice in the mountains.
Hyukchang Wu is related to the Roh clan and he tells Pastor Kim about the knock-on effect of his brother being accused of spying, as family members are punished by association. He feels guilty about fleeing and causing pain to those left behind, but is overjoyed to be reunited with sister Yeonghee Woo, who is in hospital in Seoul. They have a tearful phone chat with the family, who are being sheltered by a kindly Chinese farmer. Phone footage shows their excruciating slow progress, as Hyukchang outlines how they were persecuted as a result of his defection and were left with no option but to try for freedom themselves.
At this point, Gavin offers a history lesson that dates back to the Japanese invasion of a united Korea in 1910. She shows how the peninsula was divided at the end of the Second World War and how Joseph Stalin installed Kim Il-sung as the leader to the north of the 38th Parallel. As he had been raised in Manchuria, his Korean was poor and his speeches had to be translated. But he inspired loyalty and the people backed his bid to unify Korea under Communism. An army with soldiers from 21 countries fought to defend Syngman Rhee's regime, but the 1953 armistice didn't strictly end a war that is technically still going on today.
As we learn that the enemy are still called American-Bastards, Soyeon receives news that her son has been captured in China and she seeks brokers to help him, as she fears he will be tortured and sent to a camp (or worse). Meanwhile, the Roh family keeps moving and Pastor Kim explains how he bribed a Chinese cop to transport them across the country in a police car. After a flight to Vietnam, they will have to reach Laos by foot and cross illegally through the jungle in order to find sanctuary in Thailand.
Various speakers recall how prosperous Kim Il-sung's nation was because of Soviet subsidies. But regime change in the Kremlin led to an economic collapse and a famine that killed three million. Taking over from his father, Kim Jong-il implemented a nuclear policy to distract people at home and intimidate foreigners. His son has continued this strategy, with the ordinary citizenry being of little concern (as is the case with the traffickers).
It's from this unconscionable chaos that the Roh family is seeking to flee. Hyukchang has flown to China to escort them and he is nervous about the level of security. Meanwhile, Soyeon awaits news of her son and fears he's been sent to a gulag like Yodok, which is where Gwang was sent after he confessed under duress to being a spy. He recalls one inmate having been sentenced for tearing a piece of newspaper bearing Kim Jong-un's image in order to roll a cigarette. More disturbing, however, are the memories of men crushed by rolling tree trunks being left to die and congeal together before their corpses were buried.
While Pastor Kim flies to Hanoi to meet the Roh party, Soyeon sobs on camera as she describes the injuries that have been inflicted upon her son. But he's still alive and a friend in North Korea is making to enquiries on her behalf. Hyeonseo reflects on life in the country she had been told was a paradise and remembers hearing how terrible conditions were in South Korea and the United States. Looking back, she realises she had been trapped in a virtual prison, in which toil and struggle had been presented as positives.
While Soyeon endures sleepless nights waiting for news of her son, Pastor Kim informs us that he has helped 1000 people escape since the death of his young son a decade earlier. He is happy to meet the Roh family in Vietnam, but knows the size of the party makes them conspicuous and foresees problems in the Laotian jungle. But he remains positive and calm and uses his experience to deal with any brokers who try to pull a fast one. It proves worthwhile, as the family members are thrilled by the safe house, with running water, snacks, and a lush garden.
Jinhae and Jinpyeong try on new clothes and get to act like children. Hyeonseo recalls the training that goes into the mass sports events that are staged to glorify the regime and Demick muses on the degree of repression involved in regimenting such small kids. We see clips of the stadium gymnastic spectacles and the card displays in the stands and the comparisons with the shots of deprivation are benumbing.
While Gwang and Demick discuss the plundering of the Bible by the Kim dynasty (a book that is banned to prevent similarities being detected), while a rumour reaches Soyeon that her son had agreed to meet her in a bid to kidnap her back to North Korea so they could be together. In Laos, the Roh expedition rises early and drives to the border for a trek in darkness through the jungle. After having had three major surgeries, Pastor Kim is feeling the strain, as is Sunok. But there's no option but to press on and it takes an intervention with the brokers who are stringing things out to earn more cash before the ordeal is over.
As Pastor Kim and the Rohs tuck into a nice meal, Hyeonseo tells Garvin about how households have to donate their excrement to the government for use as fertiliser. We see footage of people trudging along with sacks and carts to make deposits at the local school. Such humiliation is also heaped upon Soyeon, as it's not only confirmed that her son wanted to abduct her, but she also learns that her mother is so disappointed with her for putting him through such torment that she wants to break off contact. Soyeon is worried her mother is being relocated and begs her neighbour to send her regards and gratitude for bringing her into this world, even though she had the misfortune to have been born in the wrong country.
Yonggil and Yeongbok have no doubt that they are better off elsewhere. But, as Gavin meets them in the Laos safe house, Sunok is still suspicious of the American crew, as she has been told to hate them throughout her life. She also continues to believe that Kim Jong-un is trying hard at a young age to save his people. But she is forced to wonder what lies have been spread, as Gavin seems so nice.
After a trip to the zoo, the Rohs are given final instructions about the boat journey along the Mekong River. They are warned not to rock the narrow craft and to keep quiet, as they are following a drug smuggling route. Once in Thailand, however, they are to surrender immediately to the police, who will make arrangements to send them to Seoul. Filmed in eerie green night vision, the crossing is ethereally tense and everyone feels too emotionally exhausted to celebrate once they set foot in Thailand. The broker congratulates them on being free and urges them to hurry.
While Soyeon laments the fact that her son is in a gulag and can't be helped, the Roh family undergo re-education and all tell Gavin via Skype how angry they are to have been duped so cruelly for so long. They have a nice new apartment and have settled nicely, in spite of Coronavirus. The pandemic has impacted upon mobility, however, and Pastor Kim has to keep turning down requests from North Korea, where no one has heard of Covid or its effects on global society. His work goes on, however, while those he has helped continue to miss their homeland and their loved ones. But not the Kim dictatorship.
While it's easy to be lost in admiration for Pastor Kim and to be relieved that the Roh family has been given the chance of a fresh start, it's harder to deal with the anguish in Soyeon's face at the realisation that her efforts to make things better have made them so much worse for her son and mother. Similarly, it's impossible to forget the images depicting daily life in one of the most dysfunctional states on Earth and fathom the grotesque truth that the vast majority of North Koreans are convinced they are dwelling in paradise.
The focus on ordinary people shrewdly magnifies the depraved crimes of the Kim tyranny and the collusion of the Communist neighbours, who treat fugitives with the same disdain of the traffickers who seek to profit from their misery. In making such damning political criticism, however, Gavin never loses sight of the human toll. Thus, for all its suspense, this is never simply an account of an escape or a refugee saga like Hasan Fazili's Midnight Traveler (2019). This is a paean to the courage of those who stay, as well as those who flee and its compassion and fury are evident in every frame, right down to the Hirotoshi Iwasaki line animations that illustrate the unfilmable. But what's so sad is that the fugitives don't want to leave home. They just can't live there any more.
In 1890, E.F. Knight published the seafaring memoir, The Cruise of the `Alerte'. One hundred and twenty-odd years later, experienced sailor Matt Knight discovered the tome and became intrigued not by the hidden Spanish treasure that his namesake had sought, but by the prospect that the rocky Atlantic outcrop that he had visited might be an extreme sports paradise. Big wave surfer Andrew Cotton had the same idea and film-maker Mikey Corker was invited along to chronicle their adventure on the Ihlas Selvagens. However, as Savage Waters reveals, things didn't go according to plan and Corker wound up making a very different kind of film.
After reading the Victorian chronicle, Matt Knight and wife Suzanne Hobbs agreed it sounded an exciting prospect. In August 2016, Knight and Andrew Cotton started researching the perilous Savage (or Salvage) Islands and plotted a course via Nazaré and Madeira.
We flashback at this point to reflect on the Knight-Hobbs marriage that has produced four children and lots of memorable moments on the high seas. Footage of earlier voyages is cross-cut with a rough patch during the Savage excursion, as Knight reminds us that the ocean is as unpredictable as life and just as uncontrollable. This proved the case in the 1980s, when a crewmate was washed overboard during a storm in the Pacific.
Another blast from the past shows the media response to Cotton breaking the world record for surfing a 78ft wave off Nazaré in 2012, when he was still a plumber based in North Devon. He and fellow big waver Alex Botelho are as excited as Knight and Hobbs, as they reach the archipelago after an 18-hour sail. Picking their way through the reefs, they spot potential rollers, but decide to beat a retreat on receiving a storm warning over the radio. Cotton is disappointed, but accepts the skipper's caution and heads off alone to surf at Nazaré to keep his sponsors happy.
Daughters Jemma, Harriet, and Peony join their parents for a break in Bristol and we see clips from previous adventures, as Knight laments the fact society places constraints on families to try and make them conform. We also meet son Taz, who has bought a property to renovate in Bundoran in the Republic of Ireland. He's a professional surfer, but not a major risk taker. Cotton needs the rush, however, and takes to the waves off Nazaré, only to break his back on 8 November 2017.
Soon after Hobbs was given six months to live after a cancer diagnosis, she insisted on joining Hecate crew escorting Ross Edgley in his 2018 bid to swim around mainland Britain without touching land. Knight pays tribute to her enthusiasm and courage and her survival seems to typify her spirit.
By March 2018, Cotton is also on the road to recovery and parents Christine and Bob question whether returning to the sport after so many injuries is wise for a father of young children. Keen to make up for lost time, he bales out of a trip to the Savages to surf in Nazaré and Knight is disappointed after making a dash from Devon to the Azores to find the elusive swells. But Taz and Peony (who is currently the British Women's Champion) are ready to go and his pal Ed Smith comes along, under strict instructions from Knight to follow his orders at all times.
After a choppy passage, Taz, Ed, and Peony paddled out to surf and had fun, even though they didn't ride anything exceptional. Knight consults his predecessor's book and finds a section about the crew's disappointment at not finding buried treasure. He's happy to have fulfilled an ambition, but still thinks there's unfinished business amongst the Savages.
One year later, off the Azores, Cotton joins the family for some fun surfing. He is still chasing records, but is glad to be fit enough to pursue his passion. Similarly, Hobbs is grateful for her health and the happy times she has ahead with loved ones. As for Knight, he knows the waves will keep on rolling long after they're all gone. But having quixotic goals drives him to keep living to the full.
Sombre in places, but mostly full of joie de vivre, this is a worthy tribute to a remarkable couple and their approach to family life. Cotton's comeback from a horrendous injury is also inspirational, although he would probably be willing to doff his cap to Hobbs's intrepidity and indefatigability. Although the focus falls on her husband, she's the star here, if only for the anecdote in which she reveals her new mother-in-law's disappointment when she promised not to curtail her son's daredevil spirit.
Corker and editor Jordan Montminy make deft use of home-movie clips in charting the family's course. But Corker's all-weather camerawork aboard the various vessels is laudable, as is his land-based footage of the surfers in action and his drone shots of the Savage Islands. But this isn't really a surfing movie in the Bruce Brown mode, in spite of the pulsating score of Aisling Brouwer and Anna Phoebe. There's a hint of Robert Louis Stevenson about the prose intoned with mellifluous gravitas by Charles Dance, but it's intriguing how frequently the Knight narratives overlap across the decades how the implacable and intimidating the Atlantic has remained over that span.