Film reviews: Apples | Threshold | Cowboys | The Virtuoso

Aris Servetalis in Apples PIC: Bartosz SwiniarskiAris Servetalis in Apples PIC: Bartosz Swiniarski
Aris Servetalis in Apples PIC: Bartosz Swiniarski

Apples (12A) ****

Threshold (N/A) ***

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Cowboys (15) ***

A scene from Apples PIC: Bartosz SwiniarskiA scene from Apples PIC: Bartosz Swiniarski
A scene from Apples PIC: Bartosz Swiniarski

The Virtuoso (15) *

Accidentally tapping into the way a pandemic can shift our perception of what constitutes normality, Apples, the debut feature from Greek filmmaker Christos Nikou, imagines what might happen if ordinary people were suddenly and inexplicably struck down with amnesia. Set in a stylised, pre-digital version of Athens (no one has mobile phones and reel-to-reel tape recorders and Polaroid cameras play an integral role in the plot), the film revolves around Aris (Aris Servetalis), a depressed man whose sudden loss of memory sees him transferred to the Disturbed Memory Department of the local hospital. When no family members enquire after him (a telling sign), he’s transferred to a half-way house where doctors enrol him in a programme to help amnesiacs build new lives for themselves by completing tasks that will hopefully fast-track them through childhood and adolescence to become functioning adult members of society again.

If this makes the film sound of a piece with other entries into the so-called Greek Weird Wave, that’s hardly surprising: Nikou previously worked as an assistant director for its progenitor Yorgos Lanthimos and there’s certainly an element of Dogtooth, Alps and The Lobster in both the film’s off-kilter premise and deadpan performances. And yet there’s also enough going on here to mark Nikou out as a filmmaker to watch in his own right, particularly the way in which he uses the film’s allegorical set-up to question of whether or not a clean slate might be a desirable fantasy at a time when we live so much of our life in public.

Shot entirely on a pair of iPhones over a 12-day road trip, horror movie Threshold demonstrates once again what’s possible at the no-budget end of filmmaking. Building the story around a nifty idea that exploits the forced intimacy of the technology at hand, directors Powell Robinson and Patrick Robert Young demonstrate their chops with a creepy opening act that sends music teacher Leo (Joey Millin) on a mission to rescue his sister Virginia (Madison West) from her latest drug-fuelled downward spiral. When he finds her, though, she insists she’s been clean for eight months and takes drastic measures to prove to him that her junkie demeanour is linked to a cult that helped get her off drugs but has left her psychically tethered to an unknown man whose physical sensations she’s forced to experience and vice-versa.

Thenceforth the Threshold becomes a kind of erratic, satanic-themed family road movie as these estranged siblings set out to rid Virginia of her curse by tracking this man down. Though scrappy and raw in places on account of a largely improvised script, the film has odd moments of beauty and an enjoyably freaky finale that neatly ties its thematic concerns together with an amusing last-second gag.

As the bipolar parent of a transgender kid, Steve Zahn gets a rare but welcome lead role in Cowboys, a tender, Western-themed melodrama that tries a little too hard to transcend its own movie-of-the-week-style messaging with an increasingly unconvincing, incident-packed plot. Set in present day Montana, the film kicks off with Zahn’s cowboy-loving Troy kidnapping his 11-year-old child Joe (newcomer Sasha Knight) as part of a half-baked plan to escape to Canada and make a new life for themselves. Gradually, though, flashbacks provide a fuller picture as we see Joe’s own obsession with cowboys intensifying a rift between Troy and Joe’s mother, Sally (Jillian Bell), who turns out to be considerably less accepting of their child’s clearly expressed gender dysphoria than ex-con Troy. Like the similarly themed Palmer, this is a film designed to tug at the heart strings while delivering a well-intentioned plea for acceptance, so it’s a bit of a shame writer/director Anna Kerrigan over-eggs the genre elements. Still, Zahn’s performance is worth checking out.

You’re watching a hitman movie called The Virtuoso. You realise the main character is going to narrate his every thought in the second person. You prepare yourself for how monotonous this is going to be. You hear the protagonist give himself the titular sobriquet without irony. You laugh as you watch him be very bad at his job. You’re not familiar with the actor playing the lead but note that his character’s penchant for black polo necks recalls Daniel Craig’s in Spectre. You discover the actor’s name is Anson Mount. You conclude that Anson Mount is no Daniel Craig. You hold out hope that Anthony Hopkins will liven things up as his shady boss. You quickly realise the newly crowned Oscar-winner might have had some bills to pay. You get your hopes up again when the protagonist meets Abbie Cornish en route to a mysterious job he’s agreed to do as penance for a previous hit gone wrong. You quickly realise Abbie Cornish might have had some bills to pay as well. You watch the protagonist arrive in a small town and size up all the inhabitants as potential assassins or potential targets. You wonder if the twist is going to be as obvious as you think. You watch the protagonist narrate his way through several dully executed action set-pieces. You congratulate yourself for correctly guessing the twist when it arrives. You glumly acknowledge this is a minor consolation.

Apples is available on demand from Curzon Home Cinema from 7 May and in cinemas from 17 May; Threshold is streaming on Arrow now; Cowboys is on Curzon Home Cinema and digital download from 7 May; The Virtuoso is on digital download now and on DVD from 10 May.

Sasha Knight and Steve Zahn in CowboysSasha Knight and Steve Zahn in Cowboys
Sasha Knight and Steve Zahn in Cowboys

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Anthony Hopkins in The Virtuoso PIC: Lance SkundrichAnthony Hopkins in The Virtuoso PIC: Lance Skundrich
Anthony Hopkins in The Virtuoso PIC: Lance Skundrich