Max Winslow & The House of Secrets – Review

Written by Jeff Wild

Directed by Sean Olson

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Throughout 2020, being indoors has offered us the opportunity to explore the places we call home. To familiarise each nook and cranny, and know the inside of the door frames from the brickwork outside.

For Max Winslow however, life is a little duller, and she finds authentic beauty in lines of code rather than lines of literature. Though, one particular house may offer the opportunity to drastically alter everything in her life. A hacking and coding marvel, Maxine has tremendous potential but finds difficulty in forging relationships after her father leaves a lasting effect when he abandons the family. When Atticus Virtue, the world-changing genius offers the opportunity for one of five lucky kids to win his mansion, the inner workings and much much more, Max sees the opportunity to escape and support her family.

Now, this does ring true of noted classic Willy Wonka, but Max Winslow & The House of Secrets holds more in common with the eighties & nighties sci-fi classics which blended a darker drama with family-friendly creativity and light-hearted adventure. As the five (un)lucky kids work there way around Virtue’s mansion, they come to realise that the welcoming computer programme Haven is a touch less homely as they first thought. As puzzle evolve and stakes raise, the film offers viewers an opportunity to flex their brains as well as their concerns for the characters.

And in a world where young adults and kids weigh their self-worth more so than ever before, Haven’s torture is not only poignantly destructive but transcends the film from being a light-weight family film into a profoundly multi-faceted adventure. And even though the film does confine itself to a few key tropes, Wild’s script has the nerve to push just enough to open up the dimensions of a few characters beyond expectations.

Subverting those past concerns of kids films obsessions with chocolates, cartoons and material greed, Wild’s script gradually builds on the glaring character flaws which make their presence known early. Almost to the film’s initial downfall, characters are, if anything, aggravating, but there’s intention behind Sean Olson’s direction. Wild breaks down these blemishes, heightening them as to impact Haven’s twisted protocol to ‘heal’. Whether this is from our tainted self-worth thanks to social media, bullish trolling attitudes behind a keyboard or an addiction – Max Winslow and the House of Secrets readily tackles contemporary issues.

For Sydne Mikelle, taking on the lead is daunting enough, but the drive Mikelle brings to the closing moments of Max’s character as she confronts her father, berating her sense of karmic retribution has an edge. Understated, Mikelle carries a lot of the film’s humour and relatability, with much of the other cast being relatable, if exaggerated until the latter halves revelations. Her onscreen chemistry with Tanner Buchanan is there, though the characters feel mildly forced into being a pair. Welcomed too is her energised back and forth with Chad Michael Murray as the infamously brilliant Atticus Valiant – creator of Haven.

From Douglas Rain’s HAL – 9000 to Stephen Moore’s Marvin the Paranoid Android – there’s something to be said for voice performances which broaden the role of an otherwise unseen, or non-living character. By and large Haven, the AI programme running the manor house is in essence, a main character and the principal antagonist. Marina Sirtis revels in such a disgustingly enjoyable role while maintaining a distinctive computer-presence, it’s hard not to both admire and fear Haven as a less-than-distant real-life concern.

Cleverly, Isaac Alongi’s cinematography for the film moves from open to confined to keep up with the film’s pacing and tension, which can alter at any moment. Only drips of the momentum slow, usually at the result of an over-held shot, weak CGI or pause for a joke to pan out. What helps bridge and transition is the film’s decidedly effective score, Jason Brandt borrowing from a generation of sci-fi classics and video game creations to offer the film nostalgia kindling, but up-to-date musical genres.

Max Winslow and the House of Secrets is a reason to venture back into the cinema. A humble piece of science-fiction thriller, which dashes itself with enough references and tributes to zhuzh up its own rather splendid being. A must-watch for all this Autumn, Olson’s film is a Wonka-esque thriller for the age of coding and influencers.

For listings of where & when Max Winslow & The House of Secrets is showing please consolt the film’s website here.

Uncle Vanya – Harold Pinter Theatre

Written by Anton Chekov

Directed by Ian Rickson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Everything’s the same, but worse” – Uncle Vanya’s opening sentiments reflect a great many thoughts across the nation, as the ennui of our provincial lives shrink in perception as the world shutters itself inward. Ever since its debut in Moscow in 1899, Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya emerged as a staple of the theatrical and literary culture for its frankness in life’s pragmatic outlooks and pangs of romance. Now Ian Rickson returns to an empty Harold Pinter Theatre to create a film version of his production of Uncle Vanya, which opened at the beginning of the year, for the BBC.

Sensationally sentimental, Rickson’s direction and interpretation of the Russian classic takes an intoxicatingly personal approach to the volatile nature bureaucracy has on the lives of workers. The rub being, it’s too safe: too soppy in moments and he doesn’t sharpen the knife enough to hurt where it needs to. The lament of wasted time bites for some and every character in one way or another, lose something, be it a home or a loved one or their grip on the fleeting happiness they had.

The broken heart at the centre of this is, of course, Vanya and Toby Jones brings decisive delivery, once more demonstrating how utterly undervalued Jones is as a performer. His Vanya is not only a bag of histrionic nerves but has an earthy jovial charm which feels authentically rustic. This is a Vanya who carries the estate on his shoulders, and Jones emphasises the weight, but conveys the attitude and quips Vanya makes to ease some of the burdens effortlessly.

Jones has tremendous co-stars to work with, developing Vanya’s futility of life into a painful reminder that his wasted time is now steadily tightening around his neck – particularly his adoration for Yelena, which clashes with the uncomfortable force of Richard Armitage’s advances as Doctor Astrov. A lynchpin for the men surrounding her, Yelena becomes a catalyst of sorts, though understated, leaning into the humanity and stresses. Rosalind Eleazar centres herself of between the opposing forces.

Pandering, sycophantic and blind sighted, Roger Allam’s Serebryakov surrounds himself with the head-bobbers who would likely feel quite at home in the current Government cabinet. From the stoic, but the revolting upturned nose of Dearbhla Molloy to the simpering, but tragically poetic and engaging Aimee Lou Wood – Uncle Vanya, through these performances, unequivocally demonstrates the unparalleled ferocity in live performance.

Blending into the digital format, the decaying opulence of Rae Smith’s set and Bruno Poet’s lighting design proffers a creative mindset to fuse theatre and screen, though steadily as the production moves forward some shots come straight out of Albert SquareWalford with intense close-ups which oversaturate the melodrama (which in a Chekov play is remarkable). Taken for granted by the camera (the film director is Ross MacGibbon) is the lavishness of the settings, the tainted light capturing the mundaneness of the lives of the residents.

The parallels of the mindless elite sweeping the livelihoods of those around them for a small profit is the lowest of low hanging fruits these days, but Uncle Vanya takes a decidedly less obvious approach in the actions of the few to undermine the many. Instead, there’s a direction which works its way more into the underrunning narrative promoting conservation. Sickly sentimental, Rickson’s production is nonetheless a testament of the stage, and a more than welcome addition to homes across the country.

In selected cinemas from 26 October 2020

Review published for The Reviews Hub

Saint Maud – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Directed & Written by Rose Glass

UK / 2019 / 84mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In a sold-out event for Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, horror seems to be the genre encouraging people back into the world of cinema. Rose Glass’ psychological thriller (a debut piece nonetheless) Saint Maud plummets the audience into the morose and obsessive mindscape of a young, seemingly good-natured nurse as she comes to care for a dying patient. With a redemptive mindset, Maud seeks not only to ease the woman’s suffering body but to care for her ailing spirit.

Full of ritualised obsession, Morfydd Clark’s performance of Maud is unsettling, yet it conjures grounded insecurities, and dare we say, even recognition. Embodying the horror staple of a lurking darkness beneath the unexpected or even mundane, Glass frames Maud as a doormat, complacent and bland.

There’s a rarity with Clark’s performance in so far as how remarkably unhabitual she dimensions herself as Maud. It’s a display of integration, rather than performance, carrying a desperate struggle as an otherwise kind young woman, grappling with severe mental issues. They say that Hell is paved with good intentions – well, Clark makes it so that the audience falls in line behind her choices at first.

Lampooning her career, life and religious intentions, much of the cast find Maud an oddity, but harmless. Perhaps most gravely, so too does her patient Amanda, a once sensational dancer succumbing to the end of her days. Jennifer Ehle’s booze-hounding party girl is a woman ensuring her final hours won’t be spent on medication and stagnation, but filled with frivolity, time with her female partner (Lily Frazer) and the luxury of sin.

And as much as Amanda toys with Maud’s lifestyle choices, the pair form a genuine sense of connection between them, as much as the spider has with its fly. Saint Maud demonstrates its deep-seated physicality and erotic ties with religious obsession and the intimacy of palliative care and nursing. The levels of complexity and warped beauty in Glass’ filmmaking demonstrate an unequivocal understanding of the brilliance in psychological horror.

A masterclass in horror cinema, Ben Fordesman’s framing of the film is uncomfortable and intense. He seems determined to cause distress in the audience, pushing them into unfamiliar situations and angles. While you may suspect this aids in grounding Maud’s reality from her psychosis, the cinematography deftly blurs the line even more.

This blurring of reality is where grazing slip-ups happen, where the psychological nature of the film worries filmmakers that the audience will knot themselves in deciphering. A tiny let-down is that a vast portion of Saint Maud concerns Maud’s past, never divulging the truth and wishing the audience to put together a jigsaw which is sadistically missing a few components. Occasionally, the imagery stretches beyond the scope of the film, as the delusions Maud suffers eke themselves from the realms of believability and into a more schlocky horror aspect in reinforcing how unhinged from reality her obsessions are.

This said, the meticulously well-crafted palette lends itself so intensely into shadow manipulation that when the scenes set up tension, they delivers in subtle ways. It isn’t solely the eyes which are forced into uneasiness; Saint Maud’s soundtrack is a composition of hellscapes, written by angels. A slice of the film blends an end-of-days party album with distortions of divine opulence, scratching disc-jockeys and warped air-raid sirens. Disconcerting, Glass does all they can to leave the audience writhing as they watch the movie unfold.

A reformation of contemporary horror, Saint Maud is the unlikely saviour of the genre in testing times. Glass’ unwillingness to sully the film with cheap novelty, instead ingraining its twisting gnarled roots in a religious sub-text, make for a visually exquisite embrace of eroticised religion and a near-ideal eighty-minute horror classic. 

Screening at the Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 9 Oct 2020

Review published for The Wee Review