The Transfiguration is a clever take on the vampire genre, showing how society sucks the life out of those at the bottom, while Warren Beatty’s return is intriguing but not all that exciting
The Transfiguration (15) ****
A Bunch of Kunst (18) ****
Rules Don’t Apply (12A) **
Their Finest (12A) **
Like zombies, vampires never quite go out of vogue. They’re such a pliable metaphor for all kinds of socio-economic, political and sexual identity issues that they can generally be found forever lurking in the shadows of pop culture, occasionally breaking into the mainstream when a phenomenon like Twilight captures the public imagination. As it happens, Twilight is referenced a lot in The Transfiguration, but mostly to signify what this American social realist spin on the vampire genre is not. Set on a housing project in Queens, New York and revolving around an economically disadvantaged black kid called Milo (brilliantly played by Eric Ruffin), it certainly isn’t a swooning, gothic-tinged coming-of-age movie codifying the advantages of abstinence for impressionable teens. Rather, it’s a gritty look at a troubled kid whose transgressive obsession with vampire lore reflects his own misguided attempts to process the trauma he’s already experienced in his young life.
That’s signified by Milo’s viewing habits. He prefers Nosferatu, Martin, Let the Right One In and Blade – vampire films that chime with his experiences as a bullied outsider who’s been orphaned in tragic circumstances. For him, “Twilight doesn’t seem realistic”, and in keeping with his sense of authenticity, The Transfiguration remains ambiguous about the extent to which there’s any supernatural element to his bloodlust. When we first see him, he’s sucking the neck of a middle-aged man he’s lured into the stall of a public toilet – a disturbing, sexualised act in which a violent kid knowingly exploits a would-be exploiter. But in lieu of fangs he deploys a penknife to the jugular of his victims and later we see him vomiting after drinking another victim’s blood.
Writer/director Michael O’Shea ratchets up this quest for realism in his choice of locations and sound design, recording dialogue live on the streets of New York’s less salubrious neighbourhoods to enhance the documentary feel of what is, essentially, a character study of a sociopath who may yet be redeemable. That potential redemption comes in the form of Sophie (Chloe Levine), a slightly older, self-harming teenager who’s moved into Milo’s apartment block to live – against her wishes – with her grandfather. She’s clearly a kindred spirit, but her revulsion at some of Milo’s more questionable viewing habits leads him to start wrestling with his own secret homicidal impulses (he excitedly shows her a YouTube clip of some animal-on-animal violence that has to rank alongside the porn movie outing in Taxi Driver as one of the worst movie dates ever). What follows is a chilling but empathetic horror film about a kid with limited options trying to free himself from the curse of his own life. It’s a vampire film, but one in which society sucks the life out of those forever stuck on the bottom rung.
That’s the sort of thing Sleaford Mods might rant about in one of their raw, lyrically dexterous songs about the state of modern Britain. Comprising signer Jason Williamson and musician Andrew Fearn, the 40-something Nottingham duo’s rapid rise from pub-circuit obscurity to Iggy Pop-fêted headline act has been one of British music scene’s most interesting and entertaining stories over the last three years and it has been brilliantly documented in appropriately rough-and-ready style by Berlin-based music journalist Christine Franz’s debut film, A Bunch of Kunst. Though Franz assembles a few influential talking heads to contextualise the band, mostly she lets them and their dedicated manager/label owner Steve Underwood tell the story as it happens. As such, there’s a real sense of lightning being captured in a bottle here, and the guys – along with Williamson’s no-nonsense wife – are just great company.
Warren Beatty’s unintentionally memorable appearance at this year’s Oscars notwithstanding, it’s been a long time since the Hollywood legend has generated much interest as a performer. His last role was in 2001’s Town & Country, a film memorable now – if at all – for somehow losing upwards of $100m at the box-office. You’d have to go back to his last directorial effort, 1998’s political satire Bullworth, to get some measure of his mercurial talent, and even further to start seeing the really great performances. Given his limelight shirking proclivities over the last two decades, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the project with which he’s chosen to re-enter the filmmaking fray is about Hollywood’s strangest recluse: Howard Hughes. Written, directed by and starring Beatty, Rules Don’t Apply is nothing if not strange, though sadly not in a good way. Set mainly in 1959, but framed by a 1964 press conference set up to dispute the publication of Clifford Irving’s notorious hoax biography of Hughes, the film is a sort of epic screwball comedy that plays more like a private joke designed to amuse Beatty and perhaps Beatty alone. His own shadowy appearances as Hughes are mildly amusing, but his direction is far too skittish to generate much interest in a plot that mostly focuses on a newly arrived contract player (Lily Collins) and her subsequent relationship with both Hughes and his young driver (played by Alden Ehrenreich).
Their Finest isn’t much better. A honking, melodramatic nostalgia-fest about the British film industry’s stiff-upper-lipped efforts to win the war by making (abysmal looking) patriotic movies, it stars Gemma Arterton as a screenwriter working to create a film that will lift national spirits, encourage the Americans to join the war and help her realise the value of listening to her heart when the world is hanging by a thread. An Education’s Lone Sherfig directs, but Powell & Pressburger this ain’t.