Sunday 19 January 2020

Film review: Bad things happen with the lights out

* Lights Out (15A, 81mins), 3 Stars
* Viva (15A, 100mins), 4 Stars
* Swallows and Amazons (PG, 97mins), 2 Stars
* Behemoth (No Cert, IFI, 95mins), 4 Stars

'Viva': Mark O'Halloran directed this Cuba based film
'Viva': Mark O'Halloran directed this Cuba based film

Swedish film-maker David F Sanberg was flat broke when horror guru James Wan chanced on his short video about a ghostly silhouette that disappears every time a light comes on. It was a brilliantly simple concept, and Wan promptly hired Sanberg to make a feature film based on the idea. The result is Lights Out, a brisk horror yarn that does nothing new but handles its story well.

Teresa Palmer is Rebecca, a spiky young woman who's long been estranged from her mentally fragile mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). But when Sophie's latest husband is murdered, Rebecca becomes worried about the well-being of her 10-year-old half brother. He seems exhausted, and complains that his sleep is being disrupted by a shadowy figure that can only be seen in darkness. This description triggers long suppressed memories for Rebecca, who decides to get to the bottom of a mystery that's troubled her for years.

In horror films, keeping things simple is usually a good idea, and Lights Out never makes the mistake of getting bogged down in distracting details. The character of Diana is brilliantly rendered, a dark and sticky scarecrow giant that dances towards you with distracting grace. She's good and creepy, and makes this film work.

Directed by Paddy Breathnach and written by Mark O'Halloran, Viva is set in Cuba and follows one man's rocky path towards self-expression. It was unlucky to miss out on an Oscar nomination earlier this year, and is a superb and refreshingly unusual Irish film.

Hector Medina stars as Jésus, a young prostitute from Havana's slums who acts as hairdresser to the local drag queens. He hangs out at a club where they mime splendidly to popular torch songs, and dreams of joining them, but in his way stands his formidable jailbird father.

Angel (Jorge Perugorria) is horrified to discover that his son enjoys dressing up like a peacock and pretending to be a woman. But Angel is sick, Jésus yearns for a meaningful relationship with his father, and the tantalising possibility of rapprochement gives Viva real emotional depth.

Luis Alberto Garcia is superb as the head drag queen, the music is wonderful, and Cathal Watters' cinematography skillfully captures the vibrancy of Havana's streets.

Swallows and Amazons casts us back to the England of Enid Blyton, of rock scones, flasks of tea, short trousers, sensible haircuts and absolutely no bad language. It's based on a much-loved children's story by Arthur Ransome, and is set in the 1930s. Kelly Macdonald is Mrs Walker, a harried mother of four who takes her kids for a holiday in the Lake District.

With time hanging heavy on their hands, the children beg their mother to let them sail out alone and camp on a wooded island on the nearby lake. She relents, and soon the siblings are caught up in an adventure involving a rival gang and some real-life Soviet spies.

That espionage sub-plot was not in the original novel and has been tacked on by producers perhaps nervous about who will go and see it. They are right to worry because, in spite of a decent cast, some nice locations and camera work, it all seems hopelessly pedestrian.

Zhao Liang's documentary Behemoth isn't exactly in a hurry either, but has a cumulative power that is almost overwhelming. It follows the construction and operation of a giant coal mine in the mountainous and previously sleepy landscape of inner Mongolia during China's recent construction boom. A mountain is literally gutted to create the mine, which has serious health and safety issues and looks like something out of Dante's Inferno. The end game? To create enough steel and fuel to power a brand new city that now sits idle, a gleaming, empty ghost town.

Irish Independent

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