The Man in the Hat – Review

Written & Directed by John-Paul DavidsonStephen Warbeck

UK/ 200/ 94 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s a tremendous reminiscence of Dante’s Divine Comedy as The Man in the Hattraverses the B-roads of France, beginning in the inferno before ultimately finding a peaceful sense of paradise, accompanied by those he encountered along the way. Though not quite as similar as the inner circles of Hell, Ciarán Hinds’ silent protagonist finds himself desperate to flee a souring situation, after witnessing the disposal of a body one evening. With naught but the hat on his head, a photo of a mysterious woman, and a Fiat 500 full of never-ending fuel, he embarks on a whimsically comical jaunt as he is pursued by five rather cross men in their Citroën Dyane.

This rhythmic ebb and flow which places all of its chips on performance, visual and sound design rather than words, is a choice from composer turned filmmaker, Stephen Warbeck, writing and directing alongside John-Paul Davidson. There’s a grasp of the vitality of audio that only one who originated from a musical background could grasp. Little of the film has dialogue, save for principal scenes to offer exposition and play with metaphor – Hinds remains a silent protagonist, communicating through expressive reactions, mumbles, and a pair of rather intensely comical eyebrows. Hinds’ effortless ability to make the audience feel at ease in more and more ludicrously humorous escapades, even as the gang get closer and closer, never stretches into farcical.

This comedy is relaxed, coaxing a mirthful smile more than a bellyache, but this is entirely intentional. Visual jokes make up the bulk of the film, with the occasional auditory gag or misunderstanding taking place to split up the structure. Moving into the climax is where the film drags a little, and only a little. The shift from the long-staying purgatory into Hinds’ paradise of sorts has less of a transitional movement and more stumble into closure.

A visual splendour, Kaname Onoyama‘s cinematography frames the less trodden paths of France in an idyllic light. From coastal stretches to more rugged, earthen farm-scapes the manipulations of colour make The Man in the Hat a rich film, where light operates as an extended character, rather than an aesthetic device. If the funders of The Man In The Hat happen to be the French tourist board, there would be little shock, and it’s worked out perfectly.

Demonstrating throughout that their script is a playfully adept little road or journey comedy, Warbeck and Davidson capture the essence of the concept beyond the titular Man. Throughout, tiny glimpses into other stories have tiptoed into the primary narrative, sometimes influencing Hinds’ tale, but more often as mere observers. The single exception is Stephen Dillane, who takes a more defined secondary role, with a clearer finality to his story. Downtrodden and out of luck, ‘The Damp Man’ bumps into Hinds at several key moments. A guide of sorts, Dillane provides the schadenfreude from which many will seek and gain enjoyment, but not quite as much as the eventual happy ending he receives.

Chiefly an upbeat film, it’s a stark difference from many of the comedic journey movies being churned out, with much of its influence and taste located into the history of sixties European comedies. The Man in the Hat does have a breezy mystery seeded throughout which has a less than dramatic pay-off, but this was never a story of murder and secrecy. It’s the drive through a man’s purgatory as he reclaims himself and stretches beyond his comfort zones, encountering richly unique, oddball characters across a gloriously captured French backdrop – all set to a charming score, courtesy of a composer who has taken to the art of filmmaking rather dreamily.

Available in selected cinemas now and On-demand digital Mon 19 Oct 2020

Review published for The Wee Review

My Punch-Drunk Boxer – Fantasia Film Festival

Directed by Hyuk Ki Jung

South Korea/ 2019/ 114 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Aphrase we’ve all heard and potentially used ourselves, Punch Drunk is the more common term for the medical condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease which causes irreparable damage, often as the result of repeated head trauma: a grave concern for boxers.

Allowing the past to provide context, My Punch-Drunk Boxer tells the story of Lee Byung-Gu (Tae-goo Eom), from former boxing star through to his departure from the sport and growing illness. Accused of doping, bringing ill-repute not only to himself but his mentor and practise gym, Byung-Gu now helps out around the struggling boxing pit as a cleaner, towel boy and shadow coacher when able. Upon meeting Min-Ji (Hyeri Lee), his passion to return to the sport returns and he sets out to hopefully repair the damages caused, while promoting Pansori, a rhythmic style set to a drumbeat.

Unsurprisingly, the inclusion of Pansori incorporates rhythmic importance to the film, not only narratively but to seed the vitality of drumbeats and fluid motions of boxing into the film’s structure. It does mean an unwelcome stream of narration is added to the film’s soundtrack as a Pansori storyteller recites verses of what we’re seeing on screen or recaps some of the previous events of Byung-Gu’s life. While inoffensive, the mechanic is only used episodically, but does little else but drive down the pacing of the film and stagger tension or comic timing.

Jung’s way with a dry sense of humour adds authenticity into many of the character’s responses to adversity. As much of the film handles the sensitive matter of Alzheimer’s in the young, the humour thankfully isn’t crass, though it can be over-the-top, and adheres to a character’s traits. Tae-goo Eom’s more fluid movements and awkward moments demonstrate both an understanding of punch drunk syndrome, and a way to physically connect a mental condition with the audience. He never plays his condition for laughs. Instead, Tae-Goo personifies a marvellously created character.

And lordy, what at first presents itself as a budding companionship in its gentile charm is a model of cinematic romance. The chemistry Tae-Goo and Hyeri Lee possess is investible and builds a natural relationship which doesn’t then comprise the entirety of the narrative. Lee absolutely shines as a beacon of enjoyment. Her presence turns bleaker moments to warmth and demonstrates an equal prowess with the choreography as her costars.

Fundamentally raw, without pomp or flash, an earthy choreography drives the fight scenes – though there are few. My Punch-Drunk Boxer isn’t necessarily a sports film, rather a dramatic romantic comedy which centres itself around boxing culture and one man’s desire to make amends. As such, there is little in the way of opulent showboating, no big crowds. What is the focus is the history behind the practices, the precision of the movement and the camera’s ability to capture this (with admittedly a few too many jump cuts and quick edits).

Visually, the film balances, squeezing in the tighter frames as the crowds and narrow lanes of South Korea demand. Kang Min-Woo capitalises on the beaches and more open scenes, and there’s a palate cleanser as the art direction manipulates shadows against the purest of azure skies. It isn’t much, but when the film needs to, it finds a statement shot to carry forward a feeling or a tonal shift, opening up the airwaves from the stuffy gym or concentrated streets.

At its heart though, this film searches for Byung-Gu’s autonomy, and his perseverance to make amends and reclaim a semblance of life. My Punch-Drunk Boxer speaks to a diverse crowd, and ties together multiple genres, stumbling as it brings too much into what are otherwise beautifully stitched scenes. Respectful, humorous and charming, My Punch-Drunk Boxer is a definite for those searching to break from the traditional formula or find a sporting film with a broader scope.

Review published for The Wee Review

Get Duked! – Amazon Prime

Written & Directed by Ninian Doff 

UK / 2019 / 87 mins

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Not much happens in the Highlands, right? An endless majesty of woodland, glens and hills, the Scottish Highlands are home to scatterings of locals, farmers, wildlife, and a few unfortunate kids who have been roped into The Duke of Edinburgh Award. What, though, if while traversing the rolling fogs of this landscape, this envy of the world, something was watching you? Something archaic, powerful, and known to prey upon the ‘plebs’ – The Aristocracy.

Get Duked! finds three lads from Glasgow – Declan, Dean and DJ Beetroot – sent on a ‘character building’ mission to earn their The Duke of Edinburgh Awards, a series of orienteering, hiking and teamwork exercises, where they are joined by Ian (Samuel Bottomley) – a boy keen to improve his university CV. Overcoming thirst, the cold and the munchies, this gang grow closer as they endeavour to finish the hike, claim their laminated certificates and escape this hellhole of hunters, bread-thieves and no phone signal.

Rather cleverly, and despite presumptions, the boys aren’t callous towards Ian – even if he is a bit of a nerd. Ninian Doff writes the group as just a bunch of attitude-driven teens and a bit thick – but never stereotyped as bullies or thugs. Much of this is down to engaging performances across the board, with Rian Gordon and Lewis Gribben bringing a particular energy and genuine enjoyment to the film that makes their characters relatable and entertaining.

Figured in the distance, high above his prey, ‘The Duke’ already stations himself in a superior status to the ‘vermin’ he hunts. A perfectly cast Eddie Izzard channels his notorious chatty, charismatic and distinctive English brand of humour directly into the character. His commitment to the role is complete with pompous posturing that creates a threat to our four lads – it’s just a bloody shame that Izzard isn’t used to his full potential after his introduction.

Somewhat disjointed, the film suffers from an issue with the direction and tone, with half of the cast performing a comedic film with a scary premise, while the others inhabit a horror film with humorous elements. Even in the principal cast, there seem to be moments where Doff’s direction leans heavily on the humour button at the cost of tension. An over-excess of ‘shock’ wording and gags slowly chips away at the feeling our characters are fleshed-out, and instead serve as mere walking punchlines. Most notably, Scottish treasure Georgie Glen flatters to deceive as The Duke’s wife; after an introduction which halts the film with a brief paralyzing fear, she quickly loses any aura of danger shortly after.

Patrick Miller’s distinct flair for wide shots place the threats these boys face far enough away to be acknowledged but close enough to register discomfort. Gradually, as The Duke and his wife grow closer to (and more frequently, move in front of) the camera, their impact lessens.

Doff’s directorial debut is, regardless of anything, an impressive outing. Get Duked! is a complete piece, wherein issues arise not from poor filmmaking, but directorial decisions and tone. For fans of crass humour, who dip their toes into the horror aesthetic, Doff’s work will undoubtedly bring laughs, cheap scares and a few banging tracks. For any hoping for a Highland Attack the Block or CountrycideGet Duked!‘s pulled punches and boasts of trashing elitist nature can’t cut the mustard – but it’s worth the watch just for legendary Scots actor James Cosmo getting high off rabbit droppings.

Available to watch now on Amazon Prime Video

Review published for The Wee Review