Thursday 31 March 2016

Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Year: 2016
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Screenplay: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stucken and Damien Chazelle
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman

Synopsis is here:

What a strange beast this is! At first, 10 Cloverfield Lane is tense and taut thriller which coincidentally fits perfectly with the age of Trump. If spiritual predecessor Cloverfield (2007) already established the anxieties of a post 9/11 monster movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane provides us with an intriguing continuation of similar themes. As invasion of the ‘other’ be it otherworldly or otherwise will nearly always help breed paranoid human monsters created on home soil.

Annoyingly, in saying that alone, I may have given away too much. Then again, if 10 Cloverfield Lane wasn’t given the name that it has, then the film wouldn’t have already begun creating certain images in our head. The name alone gives a certain amount of expectation. We’re already on the front foot, with a film that could have easily been a clean and effective standalone thriller.

In fact, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s history reveals this to be true. Originating from a low fi spec script called “The Cellar”, it was only when the Bad Robot production team got involved, that the film became a new entry into a created mythology.

What’s created is a struggle of sorts. Most of the films run time is a sharp and enjoyable thriller which relies on two impressive performances from its leads. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle is resourceful and full of agency. Despite being kidnapped, never does the character feel like a victim. Winstead is a dab hand in these types of genre roles, and gives the character a hefty amount enthusiasm to make us care. We’re then given the formidable presence of John Goodman, with the kind of hulking, uneasy display that the actor can do in his sleep. Goodman’s Howard has an answer for everything, despite the fact you may not ever believe what he says. The fear of the character comes, not only from Goodman’s poker face, but from just how swiftly Howard swings into aggression, and the seeming falseness of his pleasantries. A man who consistently claims to his female captive that she’s safe, despite chaining her, drugging her, and posing threats of violence. Give him a fedora. He’d be a “nice guy”.

The struggle begins once the film breaks free of the claustrophobic world it has created. Dan Trachtenberg’s direction within the confines of the underground bunker is tight and precise. There’s nothing flashy and no shot feels wasted. The tension is more than palpable. Then the film’s final fifteen minutes occur, which “fit” when placed in consideration of the film that came before it, yet lack true definition and detail. It’s not that the film leaves us with questions, but more that it gives us bizarre ones which never felt the need to be posed.

This somewhat takes away from the many things 10 Cloverfield Lane does right. Its formidably oppressive antagonist coincidentally fits in with our fear, our neighbors era. Its heroine correctly shows us a strong female character without the stereotypes of a “strong female character”. The film is tense, well-staged and effectively paced. If the film’s climax doesn’t deter you, then you’re on to a winner.

Review: The Witch

Year: 2015 (U.K Threatical Release 2016)
Director: Robert Eggers
Screenplay: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

Synopsis is here:

There’s not many horror films that trouble the mind like The Witch. In fact, I celebrate the sheer audacity of its execution as well as Eggers’ faith with the audience. Films like this are destined to be cult. This is not The Conjuring (2013) or Insidious (2010), which lean heavily on loud bangs and jump scares. The Witch is a film that is a triumph of tone. Establishing the same sense of dread that lies in films such as Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), The Devils (1971) and The Witchfinder General (1968). As we follow this excommunicated Puritan family forced into braving an unforgiving terrain with only the word of god by their side, we discover that what makes The Witch tick is the anxiety that stems from the character's suspicions.

Uncertainly is ensured as the fear, distrust and religion slowly bleed into each other. A child goes missing, crops wither, animals start playing up. Has God forsaken this family? Is it just dumb luck?  It becomes clear that the eldest child; Thomasin, is beginning to grow into womanhood. This alone causes serious issues between the family. Is it just budding sexuality through? Are we in the presence of Witches?

This unflinching portrayal of this disintegrating Puritan family unit lead by an immensely cagey performance by doe eyed Anya Taylor-Joy works simply because the cast is so committed to the situation. Eggers has stated that he was influenced by The Shining (1980) and that certainly shows, yet the disorientation and gradual shutting down of trust and mental defenses feel familiar to the likes of The Blair Witch Project (1999). Characters so devoted to their faith that it’s hard not to care for them when things go bump in the night.

The cast is helped on by assured direction from Eggers. Together with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and composer Mark Korven, Eggers creates an environment in which a simple shot of a rabbit feels more discomforting than it should. A film made for a budget of $1 million dollars, the film constantly looks and feels like more money was placed in the kitty. The attention to detail is substantial.

The Witch could have possibly gone with being a little more ambiguous. While the film takes a slow ride towards its strange ending, it does reveal a tad too much of itself early on, minimising the curiosity somewhat. Meanwhile the film’s final moments to indulge more than some may need. This doesn’t stop the fact that The Witch is still rather bold in its execution. The film’s drained muddy colour palette and unsettling score do far more to unnerve than the latest “Lawton Bus” scares that will infiltrate in the next mainstream chiller.

I’m quite sure that despite raking in a decent box office take, The Witch probably spilt audiences 30/70 in terms of agreeable opinion. I do feel however that those in the favourable camp no doubt found The Witch to be a refreshing alternative horror which rewards followers who want to place a bit more thought in their horror films.

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Review: Dark Places

Year: 2015 (U.K DVD release 2016)
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Screenplay: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring: Charlize Theron, Christina Hendricks, Nicholas Hoult, and Chloƫ Grace Moretz.

Gillian Flynn’s bestselling book; Gone Girl, features the now infamous cool girl speech, in which a character rants about a certain mode of femininity which they feel is prevalent in our culture. Type in Cool Girl speech into google, and you won’t only find the usual YouTube video clips of the cool girl scene, but also whole articles surrounding the moment. Whether or not you agree with the polemic is one thing, but the scene in the film (as well as the quote in the book), is an effective piece of writing. For some it brings around an element of truth. I know women who I feel possibly fit into the cool girl classification. Many of the articles were quick to dissect and/or debase the idea. It’s the type of titillating rant that could have men nodding or women scowling. The main thing is, it sparks a conversation.

I find it quite doubtful that Dark Places, based on another Flynn book, will do anything similar. Slipping out quietly on home release, the marketing blurbs on the Blu-ray cover, were quick to remind folk of the authorial connection. Unfortunately, Dark Places, unlike Gone Girl, holds little that would heat up the spare time at the water cooler.

Themes which cropped up in Gone Girl, also appear here. Class conflict, media manipulation, financial and marital strife. This is all wrapped up in a similar airport novel package. Jam packed with talk of Satanism, entitled amateur detectives and murder, which I’m quite sure this all sounds interesting on the page.

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner decides that the best thing to do is play everything straight, creating a serviceable yet strangely bland affair equipped with a finale that only had me point out the ludicrous nature of it all as opposed to have it draw me in. On paper, both Gone Girl and Dark Places are potboilers you feel work on a heightened sense of delirium. This is something Fincher understands with his OTT presentation of Gone Girl. It’s a sandbox of absurdity. A hark back to the silly 90’s thrillers, but one with engaging slants on modern culture.  Dark Places may not be able to go whole hog on the macabre, but the film is so solemn, that it did little to get me caught up in the madness. Instead, I found myself counting the plot revelations, nodding at the workmanlike performances from the top tier cast and wondering if the early part of the score was influenced by the film Shallow Grave (1994).

 Dark Places may keep some late night enthusiasts and hardcore Flynn fans occupied, but for those who are interested in the type of themes that Dark Places glosses over, may I suggest the additive and compelling Making a Murderer (2015) via Netflix. A documentary which may be fact based, but is more engaging that this fiction.