My Old School (15) ****
The Feast (18) *
Orphan: First Kill (15) ***
Scottish director Jono McLeod’s stranger-than-fiction documentary My Old School unpicks the fascinating, deeply weird story of a former student whose enrolment in his school became headline news after it was revealed he wasn’t who he said he was. You probably remember the main twist of the Brandon Lee story, the supposedly academically gifted Canadian teenager who attended Bearsden Academy for two years in the mid-1990s, not Bruce Lee’s son who was killed on the set of The Crow around the same time (the two stories do intersect in the film). Revealed to be a man in his 30s, this Brandon’s story became a sensation, the brazenness of his hoax as fascinating as his reasons for pulling it off. McLeod’s film delves into those reasons and draws out a story that’s funny, sad, at times a little bit creepy, at others oddly heartwarming. As one someone who was there, McLeod’s intimacy with the story helps the film deliver a relaxed, bemused perspective that downplays sensationalism and instead provides an empathetic portrait of his imposter classmate and the effect he had on those he came into contact with.
Rather than singling himself out to tell this insider story, though, McLeod includes himself in a larger group of his former classmates (a nice bunch), who he mostly interviews in pairs, sitting at old fashioned school desks (he also uses 1990s-style animation to help tell the story visually). Their individual accounts of the person they knew as Brandon are funny without being mean, and actually largely positive given they were the ones being duped. There’s also a wry investigation into the reliability of everyone’s memory, courtesy of a story about the school musical, a detail that McLeod expertly seeds through to build up dramatic tension.
But My Old School has a lengthy interview with “Brandon” too. Though he refused to appear on camera (for reasons the film has fun hypothesising about), he did agree to let his voice be heard and, in the film’s boldest creative move, McLeod has Alan Cumming play Brandon, seamlessly lip-synching his testimony, a move that functions as both a mystery-enhancing distancing device and a way to further tease out the performative aspect of his life. The real “Brandon” is a slippery character, somewhat bitter about the hand life dealt him, but My Old School isn’t a hit piece; rather it’s an expertly crafted tale of deception that delivers its twists and turns with a playfulness that is eminently watchable.
One of the better jokes of the recent Scream reboot was its sly dismissal of the current trend for “elevated horror” – movies that are at pains to root their genre elements in supposedly complex and serious issues rather than simply getting audiences off on gore and jump scares. “Sounds kinda boring,” quips the kill-crazy maniac on the other end of the phone to the Gen Z horror fan providing this little primer. It’s hard not to think about this exchange while watching Welsh-language horror movie The Feast, the latest tedious example of a film that prioritises art direction over scares and some hinted-at subtextual thesis (this one’s about class) over a decent story. Revolving around a dinner party being held in the sleek, modernist house of a local politician, the film’s main character is Cadi (Annes Elwy), a sullen young woman who shows up to cater the evening. Despite Cadi displaying no culinary or waitressing skills whatsoever – even running out of the house when family patriarch Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones) arrives with two freshly shot rabbits to be skinned – she’s allowed to stay, blithely observing the family’s creepy grown-up sons (one a heroin addict who hates everyone, the other a triathlete who looks like he’s training to become a serial killer) and indulging in grim acts of culinary sabotage. Debut director Lee Haven Jones splits the film into chapters with ominous-sounding headers and uses lots of painfully slow dolly shots to signify something portentous is happening on screen without really delivering anything remotely scary or even interesting. As the tastefully arty bloodletting intensifies, so does the tedium, with a last-minute addition of a folk-tinged mythology unable to save this undercooked mess.
Next to The Feast it’s almost a relief to be confronted with a trashy, belated horror prequel like Orphan: First Kill. That’s not exactly the same as saying it’s good, but it is at least fun. The first Orphan film, from 2009, was a better-than-it-needed-to-be genre effort with a delicious twist: Esther, its psychopathic 11-year-old protagonist was really a 30-something woman with a rare form of dwarfism. As the new film, which revolves around the same character (once again played by Isabelle Furhman), can’t exactly pull off the same twist again, it goes for something almost as crazy by embedding her with a wealthy family with dark secrets of their own. Though the conceit of having Furhman play a character who’s supposed to be two years younger than she was first time – so nine – makes little sense given she’s now an actual adult in her mid-20s (she was teenager when she first played the character), the presence of Julia Stiles as the family matriarch whom Esther is attempting to con adds a wonderfully camp edge when everything goes a bit Mommie Dearest.
All films on general release from 19 August.