Category Archives: Film Review

Revenge

Rating: 4 out of 5 (excellent)

Synopsis: A getaway trip with her boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens) becomes something far darker for Jen (Matilda Lutz) when Richard’s friends arrive looking to hunt more than the local wildlife.

Centred around a woman pursued by cruel men amid a hostile land, Revenge’s premise, grind-house gore and sexualised protagonist plunges the film into the exploitation genre. Coralie Fargeat’s female perspective transcends Revenge into a relevant depiction of women’s sufferings at the hands of men. Protagonist Jen’s metamorphosis from sexual object to wrathful survivor moulds her into an imaginary action figure. Yet the increasing disbelief of Jen’s feats sadly makes the actions of the men feel ever more grounded.

Shortly after Revenge begins, as Jen gallops around the Mexican villa and has sex with Richard, a man in the cinema’s predominantly older audience shouted out ‘slut’. The man’s reaction highlights Revenge’s trick, to insipidly convey a woman on the screen as a sexual object, a thing to be followed lecherously by the camera around the story. Then Revenge unflinchingly presents, to Jen and audience alike, the consequences of the male gaze as she is reduced to a tool for pleasure, an object to be used, bribed and disposed. The price of the male gaze is that the viewer is forced to look away as perky flirtatiousness is replaced by horrible acts and a visceral cacophony of gore that deeply unsettles.

Awash in pastel colours and psychedelic tints, peppered with nods to David Hockney and Rene Magritte and connected by a pulsating score, Revenge’s aesthetic belongs in a graphic novel. The film’s opening location of a splendid home in the middle of a desert never feels real, permeating the plot with a sense of illusion. This detachment only mounts as the gore fills the screen, interlaced by magnified shots of red ants wading in decay and blood. The film inverts the fantasy of violence of exploitation films, lightly suggesting that later events may be Jen’s hallucination, her projected dream of wreaking violence upon her attackers.

The film is helped by a very small but excellent cast of actors who each play their role well. Revenge follows Jen but ample time is afforded to her boyfriend Richard and his two friends. The dynamic between these men, and the interminable ruthless of Richard leads the audience to question who are the worse men, those who harm women, or those who cover it up?

Revenge’s visceral displays will exceed most viewers tolerance for gore as Coralie Fargeat revels in Jen’s bloody transformation.  Jen’s continued survival, alongside the ultra-violence draws the audience out of the plot and can detract from Revenge’s message.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

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Isle of Dogs

Rating: 5 out 5 (Classic)

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Koyu Rankin, Scarlett Johannson, Yoko Ono.

Synopsis: In near future Japan, virulent strains of dog based diseases cause Magaski city to ostracise its canines to a junk-heap island. Determined to get his dog back, Atari Kobayshi ventures to the island and discovers a conspiracy against man’s best friend.

Youth is a fleeting thing that should be cherished before it slips entirely. I am still young but I do not forlornly look back at childhood as the halcyon days of simpler joys and times. The world was uncertain then and is uncertain now, but my view clashes with a generation still clinging to Disney films. Against this context Isle of Dogs is the typical Wes Anderson work, full of pantomime whimsy, yet quietly and unexpectedly, the film made me feel like a child again.

Composed of stop animation throughout, the painstaking efforts of Wes Anderson, 3 Mills Studios and the modeller team converts Isle of Dogs into a labour of love. From the handcrafted backdrops to the bulbous eyes of the central group of dogs, the city of Magaski and trash island are exquisitely detailed. Superseded by computer graphics, the use of stop animation in Isle of Dogs imbues the tale with a forlorn exoticism, of witnessing a land both enticing and long passed. The choice of stop animation to depict a near future Japan speaks to the country’s reputation today; a land both advanced and steeped in the past. Adorned by clunky framed T.Vs, tape machines and giant computers, the retro-future vision of Isle of Dogs springs from a 1950’s comic. Anderson’s works have always been tinged with a nostalgia and in Isle of Dogs Anderson’s gaze looks back at the post war futurism full of hope and despair.

Written by a combined team of Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura, the plot for Isle of Dogs is impeccable. The films stands alongside The Grand Budapest Hotel as the films I consider to be Wes Anderson’s masterpiecesFull of innocent and often unintentional humour, Isle of Dogs builds on one of Anderson’s tropes, the outsider, to create a tale of exclusion, oppression and acceptance. The speaking of English between the dogs and Japanese for nearly everyone else subtly connects the viewer with the film’s literal underdogs. Anderson’s language choices also act as a smokescreen distracting mainstream audiences from what is a foreign language film.

Yet the best part of Isle of Dogs is its sense of adventure, of the wonder the world  contains through the innocent eyes of young Atari (Koyu Rankin) and the dogs who join him.  I really cannot remember the last time a film made me smile throughout. A large part of Isle of Dogs’ excellence stems from the impressive cast Anderson amassed for the film. The cast’s clear enjoyment of their work resonates in their performance. Highlights from the stellar roster are Bryan Cranston as lead dog Chief and Jeff Goldblum as Duke, or should I say Jeff Goldblum in dog form.

This is a film not to be missed.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

Western

Rating: 5 out of 5 (classic)

Director: Valeska Grisebach

Cast: Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov

Synopsis: Sent to a remote corner of Bulgaria, a German construction team find themselves at odds with the locals. Grizzled former Légionnaire Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is the outsider of the team, integrating with the locals and placing himself between both sides.

Germany, the unaware King

Since Rome every European power has tried to scramble for the continent, but Germany is the anomaly, in defeat and disgrace its has become the victor. Marked as the Cold War default line and then moulded into the E.U’s protector and financier, Germany today is the King unaware of the crown it has unwillingly built. Returned to global status and granted an empire in all but name, Germany struggles to lead Europe to the future. Why Germany cannot move forward is because it cannot move on, its misdeeds litter the continent. From Anne Frank’s home in Amsterdam to the husk of the Warsaw ghetto, the spectre of the Nazi empire still lingers, if only by shallow breathes.

Looking into the past

Set in a country which was allied with Germany in World War Two, Western confronts the Nazi legacy contained in Bulgaria. The older villagers fondly remember the German soldiers who passed through to invade Greece. The promise of development espoused by the construction team harks to the Nazi’s quest of butchering Eastern Europe under the banner of ‘progress’. It is a past which the German building crew instinctively, and triumphantly, connect with. When the German flag is hoisted atop the construction camp and it unfurls across the idyllic mountainside, the builders become the arriving conquerors, achieving what could not be done 70 years ago. The German builders are bound by past stereotypes while the Bulgarian villagers are caught by the present prejudices in Western Europe held towards the Slavic countries. The name itself, Western, alludes to the clash between the two groups, between East and West as the image of both sides is both affirmed and changed.

A hall of mirrors

Nothing and no one is clear in Western. The Germans’ promise of development is underpinned by profit and the villagers are friendly but hostile, forgiving yet vindictive. The villager leaders who Meinhard befriends straddle a line between farmer and gangster, men who comfortably attend meetings with a pistol and whose business veers into outright criminality. Surrounded by two ways of life and two peoples so alien to each other, the film’s borderland locale is a warping hall of a mirrors; a place where the viewer can never expect the next moment. Bloodshed constantly seems inevitable between the groups, yet Western surprises at each possible breaking point.Western’s constant is its ambiguity, to be a Western film far removed from America while sporting a plot that says much while little happens. What allows Western to maintain this balance are the cast of non-trained performers and in particular Meinhard Neumann. Neumann mesmerises, his slightest actions grip every scene and his silent intensity indicates a man who is not acting but relieving his own life. Being ordinary people, the rest of the cast grant Western’s pace the slow burn of a documentary unlike the dragging plot of many independent films.

Two faces of Colonialism

In the dichotomy between Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), the construction leader, and Meinhard lies the two faces of colonialism, the desire to either impose or integrate. Vincent may resent Meinhard’s seeming success in befriending the locals and learning their way of life, but in the end both know that the land can not and will not become their own. Although the traces of Germany’s past resonate through the wild borderland, the nation’s future as Europe’s vanguard is more obscured. It is in Vincent’s promise of infrastructure to the area that belies Germany’s role of moderniser among the E.U’s poorer states. It is a role which Germany, like the construction crew, is unsure how to perform in practice. The recipients of German toil accept it begrudgingly, dismissing it as another attempt to rebuild the Reich.

To be a man

The Western genre is about masculinity and masculinity to the Western is two things, sex and violence. The men forming the two sides of Western clamour for parts of the genre’s masculine image, the Germans eyeball the local women while the Bulgarians talk of toughness, soldering and killing. Only Meinhard the outsider has both, but far from the stoic cowboy figure Meinhard is vulnerable and volatile. He is a man envied by either side while in reality he has nothing. Meinhard, like any gunslinger, must move on, and that is the tragedy of Western’s subverted take on the genre. Meinhard will always be the outsider, no matter his efforts to fit in both at home and far away.

Western may look like a BBC Four film, something to be enjoyed by the middle class and the middle aged on a Saturday night, but it is worth far more appreciation than many Anglophone films out now.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer see below:

Thoroughbreds

Rating: 2 out of 5 (Poor)

Director: Cory Finley

Cast: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks

Synopsis: Thoroughbreds is a tale of teenage angst set in the towering echelons of America’s wealthy, nestled in the upper-class affluence of Connecticut suburbs. Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), reunited with childhood friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke) conspires to kill Lily’s stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks).

Thoroughbreds is a cautionary warning that pedigree only goes so far. The film’s respectable cast and advertising campaign have the trappings of potential but both are deceptive. Projected as a major presence in trailers, Anton Yelchin is a secondary character in Thoroughbreds. Having been drawn to Thoroughbreds by Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance in Split and Anton Yelchin, I was disappointed to find that the film ditched a major part of its proclaimed appearance. The film’s plot, like the exquisite mansion in which Lily resides, is barren beneath its deluxe decor. Billed as a psychological thriller, Thoroughbreds is a litany of conversations between Lily and Amanda whose dialogue can be as boring as overhearing strangers forced to talk to one another. At times Thoroughbreds feels like an emaciated independent film, with all the money being spent on the expensive clothes and settings in which nothing happens.

The fulcrum of Thoroughbreds is the friendship between Lily and Amanda. Their relationship is palpably feigned, hastily propped up by past references while in the present, Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke have no chemistry between each other. Both actresses give performances that are stilted, projecting a sense that both are uncomfortable playing spoilt teenagers. Cooke is so devout as the sociopath Amanda that her unemotional demeanour creates a character which is just lifeless, while Anya Taylor-Joy feels equally cold as Lily.

Neither actress are helped by the writing and camerawork. Director and writer Cory Finley attempts to turn Amanda into the comic relief, but the reoccurring Steve Jobs gag wears thin and other jokes mainly fall flat. The plot’s major flaw is that neither the camera nor the writing convey the stepfather Mark as a man deserving of murder. Mark is certainly arrogant as Finley’s direction shows, but he is by no means evil. Later on in the plot the acts fatherly towards Lily, telling her to get rid of the cigarettes so her mother does not find out. Consequently it is difficult to understand Lily’s and Amanda’s mission and see them as anything more than adolescent upstarts. A few twists emerge at the film’s conclusion, arriving with little forewarning as though they were a rushed attempt to make Thoroughbreds appear clever. Nor does Thoroughbreds make any commentary upon the American elite that populate the film.

Paul Sparks and Anton Yelchin are the best parts of the film, but sadly neither are present enough to improve a film that never quite fits. Finley does show promise in what is his directorial debut, but he does have a long way to go.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Ghost Stories

Rating: 4 out of 5 (excellent)

Director: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman

Cast: Andy Nyman, Paul Whitehouse, Martin Freeman, Alex Lawther

Synopsis: Contacted by a childhood hero long thought dead, parapsychologist Professor Phillip Goodman is tasked with investigating three cases which upend Goodman’s life work of debunking the supernatural.

Horror films cleave into two types. The majority are a sequence of bumps and scares whose power recede when the lights return and credits roll. The rarer breed are the tales which unsettle, where the barrier between film and reality melts and the viewer is gnawed by the feeling that the monster is hunting them too. Ghost Stories is a potent hybrid of the two types. Despite watching the original play eight years ago, my past experience with Ghost Stories provided little protection. The stories unfolded to the same pattern but I again became the frightened teenager who realised, as the monster edged ever closer, that his stomach for ghost stories began and ended with M.R.James. A week after Ghost Stories I froze upon a darkened landing transfixed, just like Professor Goodman, that something was waiting for me in the pitch black.

From setting to scares, Ghost Stories is a loving homage to the adaptations of M.R.James’ tales from the 1960’s and the 1970’s. Filmed entirely in Yorkshire, Ghost Stories’  rugged moors and vacantly bleak coastline share the same English landscape which exude M.R.James’ tales. Professor Goodman’s journey through the empty countryside in his antiquated convertible mirrors the insipid other-worldliness of A Ghost Story for Christmas. Stronger nods to M.R.James pepper the plot; bed sheets form into a monster matching Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad, and just like A Warning To The Curious, not even the observer is safe. Atop the streak of M.R.James pervading Ghost Stories are the ideas of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman. The pair have taken the classic ghost story and infused it with modernity, creating something far more personal and psychological. The three stories in Ghost Stories are interlaced by the guilt of inaction, and the monsters themselves become a negative imprint of their unfortunate victims. Once Ghost Stories arrives at its hidden destination, Dyson’s and Nyman’s twist becomes a revolution, churning all that was grounded and true into a subjective jumble of questions that warrant watching the film again.

The best testament I can give to Dyson’s and Nyman’s debut as film directors is that the camera never feels present. Once Professor Goodman stops talking to the fourth wall the viewer could easily be his assistant, equally plunged into the strangeness and terror of the film. Unlike the stage version which used the whole set, the camera in Ghost Stories can be restrictive, pressing viewer to confront both witness and monster alike. The only visual drawback for Ghost Stories are the monsters themselves, who lose their effect once placed into plain sight.

Dyson and Nyman are matched by the excellence of Ghost Stories’ cast. Talking at a Q&A session for the film at Home Manchester, Dyson discussed the eight year journey from the play to the film. Dyson said that they needed an international star to receive financing and luckily Martin Freeman joined the film. Besides Freeman are Paul Whitehouse and Alex Lawther as the trio recollecting their stories to Professor Goodman, and they all excel in their roles. Whitehouse steals the limelight for playing a character radically different to his usual comedic personas. All three lend much needed comedy at times while Nyman is as good as ever as Professor Goodman. Goodman has transitioned from observer in the play to a far more human character. Goodman’s arc leads to a looping narrative which hopefully a second viewing will explain.

Thank you to Jeremy Dyson for attending the Q&A at Home Manchester and answering my question about what parts of him were in the film.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Annihilation 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (good)

Director: Alex Garland

Cast: Natalie Portman, Benedict Wong,  Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson

Synopsis: U.S. army biologist Lena uncovers a deadly menace, her husband returns from the dead, and an expanding alien zone dubbed ‘the shimmer’ offers the only salvation for Lena’s returned but ailing husband. 

Visually striking, Annihilation has style but lacks originality. Adapted from the self-titled novel, Annihiliation’s bones originate in The Strugatsky Brothers’ ‘Roadside Picnic’. Both stories share an unknown alien zone and mysterious epicentre attracting the flawed and the outcast. Annihilation is an enjoyable but predictable two hour stint that retreads The Strutgatsky Brothers’ seminal novel. Annihilation has trappings of potential; the shimmer is an eloquently bleak depiction of a world devoid of man and the all-female expedition Lena joins hints at a deeper mystery. Yet Annihilation concedes uniqueness for comfort in its final act, peaked by an ambiguous ending that tramples over Lena’s arc. Worse still is that the shimmer is a strange plane, but its vibrancy denies Annihiliation of the insipid eerieness marking Roadside Picnic

Annihilation begins well: a slow-burn pace gradually introduces Lena, the shimmer and Lena’s crew, teasing out the audience’s intrigue. The all-female expedition accompanying Lena consists of brilliant actresses who match Natalie Portman. Tessa Thompson is the polar opposite of the brash Valkeryie she played in Thor: Ragnarok as introverted physicist Josie. Jennifer Jason Leigh is equally impressive as psychiatrist and mission administrator Dr. Ventress. Perceiving everything with detached indifference, Ventress is akin to an automaton, at times acting with bravery while her reactions can exude a menace matching ‘the shimmer’. Ventress’ ambivalent nature and Leigh’s performance steal the focus away from Natalie Portman’s Lena. Initially Lena is a decent protagonist, but the audience’s sympathy for her character is damaged by dream sequences that reveal her nastier side. Annihilation is indirectly narrated by Lena, who is shown in the future, having survived entering the shimmer. Lena’s confirmed existence before Annihilation even unfolds denies tangible investment into her character because no matter the bad things that befall her, the audience already knows that Lena’s fate is secure. The dreams negate Lena’s motivation for entering ‘the shimmer’, thereby flattening Lena’s character into something two-dimensional.  

Annihilation’s efforts to create complexity muddy aspects of the film which would have suited greater simplicity, such as Lena just being an easily relatable woman attempting to save her husband. The result is that Annihilation can feel too clever, with tid-bits sprinkled into the film with no explanation. Unlike Blade Runner whose twists and clues weave into the plot and hint at a deeper meaning, Annihilation is riddled with details left unanswered that feel like forgotten additions. Annihilation can be engrossing when it’s visual clues are developed but Alex Garland’s approach to them is scatter-brained. Annihilation’s plot is exacerbated by intermittently lazy writing. Key points are delivered by a supporting character just stating them in dialogue, with nothing appearing on screen to either convey or develop these ideas. The worst is when one of Lena’s crew simply states that every team member is flawed and then lists their problems. In the next hour nothing proves these flaws, none of the crew crack under the shimmer and turn to their demons for solace. 

There was an opportunity once the team entered the shimmer where Annihilation could have transcended into a great sci-fi film. Awaking in her tent Lena goes outside to find that everyone is unaware of  the past two weeks which have passed since crossing into the shimmer. In this scene, the shimmer was alive, a force that was toying with the team just like everyone else who had entered. Sadly this idea is never developed upon, with Annihilation relying on a few monsters and found footage instead of building up the shimmerThe film does scare but it never creates the haunting otherworldliness of Roadside Picnic.

Annihilation is still an enjoyable sci-fi flick, but in highsight it does not have the complexity that would make it eminently rewatchable like the genre’s greats. 

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

The Night of the Hunter

Rating: 5 out of 5 (Classic)

Director: Charles Laughton

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce.

Synopsis: Directed by venerable actor Charles Laughton, murderous preacher Harry Powell comes calling to a small West Virginian town, seeking the stolen money a bank robber hid with his children.

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Robert Mitchum as preacher Harry Powell

I first watched The Night of the Hunter when I was ten years old after my dad, persuaded by the film’s degrading from an X to a 12A rating, bought a DVD copy.  Ninety minutes later one October evening and I was absolutely terrified. I remember being unable to go to bed after watching the film, afraid to venture into the darkened upstairs and find the maniacal preacher waiting there. Re-watching The Night of the Hunter fourteen years later on the big screen, the film may not scare but still resonates with an unnerving portent.

Malevolence and innocence

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A child stumbles across a victim of Harry Powell

The Night of the Hunter is about innocence caught in the snares of malevolence. Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) and stalwart youngster John Harper (Billy Chapin) are these opposing forces, beginning in the film’s title screen as the preacher’s blaring score roars and fades into children singing. Even before promising to hide his father’s stolen bank money, the camera places John and sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) into a dark adult world. The Night of the Hunter debuts with the camera descending from the sky onto a quiet neighbourhood. Approaching down towards the ground, a group of adults turn into a group of boys who in their play find another widow killed by Harry Powell. The body’s discovery is an omen that only children, specifically John, see Harry Powell for what he is. To the adults of the small West Virginian town he encounters, Powell is a saviour. All the adults John and Pearl know are in someways flawed, even Uncle Birdie who is wary of the preacher has a drinking problem. Besides old Uncle Birdie, Powell becomes an answer to the adults’ flaws, be it the Spoons’ desire for normalcy or Willa Harper’s yearning for absolution after her husband’s crimes.

Sex and death

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The burlesque show Harry Powell attends

The Night of the Hunter was simply perturbing as a child, but watching it again with an adult’s eyes is to appreciate a different, far more complex film. It would be deemed mild if released today, but by the chaffing standards of the 1950’s, The Night of the Hunter is overtly sexual. The switchblade Harry Powell wields with his ‘hate’ inscribed left hand is a phallic symbol of his sexual impotence towards women, erupting from his pocket as he grimly attends a burlesque show. Powell is compelled towards murder by women but strangely women fall into Powell’s mesmerising orbit. Half of the town where the Harpers live are equally obsessed with sex, talking about it with a winking subtlety like Mrs. Spoon’s recollection of ‘laying on my back and thinking about my canning’. Willa Harper’s desire for Powell warps into a hysterical zealotry when they marry and her advances are scorned, while one of Rachel Cooper’s (Lillian Gish) adopted children has been doing more than courting on a Thursday night. The only adult who sees Powell clearly is the least sexual woman in the film, the kind Rachel Cooper.

The devil is in town 

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Harry Powell arrives to town

The audience is privy to the depth of Harry Powell’s evil as he candidly talks to God about murdering widows during his introduction. There is no further depravity Powell can fall to; he just becomes more powerful, morphing from a serial killer into a demonic malevolence. Powell’s arrival is ominously heralded by a benighted steam train screaming across West Virginia and then like a vampire, Powell lingers outside the Harper house, his shadow casting over John. Powell’s power only abounds as he charms his way into the town, hiding his hideous self behind his right hand of ‘Love’. By the conclusion of The Night of the Hunter Powell loses the mask of humanity, becoming an inexorable evil hell-bent on taking John and Pearl.

The supernatural strength of Harry Powell partly stems from actor Robert Mitchum’s performance. He lends to Powell his natural charm, but like Joseph Cotton in Shadow of A Doubt Mitchum channels a darkness that only Michael Shannon seems to grasp among today’s actors. Charles Laughton’s use of light and dark, accentuated by the black and white film, propels Powell’s otherworldly stature. At key parts of the film, Powell’s figure is projected as a shadow doggedly following the children or Powell himself is illuminated in contrast to the dark surroundings, giving him a ghoulish air.

A web of intricacies 

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A failure upon release in 1955, Charles Laughton swore to never direct again after The Night of the Hunter. Yet what Laughton created was a story of economic design that has preserved The Night of the Hunter through the decades. Loaded with symbolism, every part of The Night of the Hunter connects both forwards and backwards. The film’s design and imagery imbues a circular logic, with Rachel Cooper’s warning of false prophets becoming realised in her standoff against Powell, as the hymn Powell habitually sings fails to match Cooper’s version. Compared to the grand scale of other post war films which have stood to the present, The Night of the Hunter is distinguished by the minute details. From Powell’s tattooed knuckles acting both as his facade and his tell, to the frame of Willa Harper’s bedroom evoking a church roof, every frame contains a meaning. What this creates is a film that can be reinterpreted repeatedly, keeping The Night of Hunter fresh to this day.

Thanks to Home Manchester for screening The Night of the Hunter. 

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Unsane

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (good)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: Claire Foy, Juno Temple, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah

Synopsis:  Shot on an iphone 7, Unsane is a low budget psychological thriller starring Claire Foy. Sawyer (Claire Foy) is rebuilding her life after being the victim of a stalker. Isolated in a new city,  Sawyer’s attempt to seek support results in her committal to a dubious psychiatric hospital where an old threat manifests itself.

Unsane’s occasional lapse into tediousness is far outweighed by a spectral shadow of tension and confinement. Soderbergh inverts Unsane’s low budget and the iphone’s limits into solid foundations for a taut thriller that Hitchcock fans will appreciate. Unsane is claustrophobic, trapping you in an 4:3 aspect ratio whose borders restrict as Sawyer is observed and confronted by others both real and imagined. At times watching Unsane is to see the world through a warped pinhole as Sawyer continues unaware of your presence. Although Unsane was shot on an iphone, the footage has been helped by aggressive editing and some decent extra equipment. Some of the simpler editing effects mingle well with the choice of camera. Sodium hues and cobalt tints swirl with the noise and grain picked up by the iphone, as though Sawyer is slipping in and out of reality. Possessing the weapon of the selfie generation, Soderbergh is not afraid of getting up close with the iphone, creating an uncomfortable proximity of detailed observation like the stalker Sawyer fears has returned.

For those who have not watched Netflix original The Crown, Unsane is a seminal introduction to Claire Foy. Affecting a flawless American accent for a British actress, Foy exudes a gnawing undertone of anxiety throughout the film. Even during Unsane’s lulls Sawyer grapples with an internal hysteria half hidden behind her shifting facade. Sawyer is unpredictable and clearly damaged, drawing out the mystery of whether she is lucid or insane. This tension exudes from Foy’s choice of small tells, perfectly picked up by Unsane’s 4:3 aspect ratio and close-up portrait shots. Foy’s performance is mirrored by Joshua Leonard as the hospital attendant who Sawyer claims to be her stalker ‘David Strine’.  Sawyer and ‘Strine’ are both similar yet opposing forces, characters who are clearly hiding something, and only in the second act does Soderbergh startlingly reveal who is right.  Alongside Leonard and Foy are Juno Temple and Jay Pharoah as fellow psychiatric patients. Known for his work on Saturday Night Live, Pharoah provides a nuanced comic relief but sadly Temple’s character, Violet, lingers in the background. Temple still captivates when present, seamlessly fitting into the eerie decrepitude of the  psychiatric hospital. Following Thor: Ragnorak, Matt Damon adds another surprise but welcome cameo later on.

Unsane sports a few plot holes and stalls while transitioning into the final act, but both faults are made up by Soderbergh’s direction and Foy’s delivery. Unsane released this Friday and is definitely for those looking for something different at the box office.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

You Were Never Really Here

Rating: 5 out of 5 (Classic)

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman

Synopsis: Adapted from the Jonathan Ames’ novel of the same name, traumatised combat veteran Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) trawls New York’s underbelly looking for young girls snatched into paedophile sex rings. Tasked with finding a senator’s daughter, Joe comes unstuck as a routine rescue spirals into something far worse.

 

This film is an unexpected gut punch, a visceral sting of sudden and stunningly powerful twists and events which leave you dazed and breathless. Knowing the context before watching You Were Never Really Here will provide little respite for the following 90 minutes. The film’s dark setting is a quagmire of quicksand as the plot plunges deeper into the darkness of mankind.

The thrall of You Were Never Really Here is due to what does and does not happen. From Man on Fire to the upcoming Sicario sequel, the Hollywood conveyor belt has issued reiterations of the urban western. Even if you have not spotted the overlaps, so many ‘hard-boiled’ thrillers centre around a grizzled cowboy in a dark world who finds redemption in a young daughter figure. Joe may be quiet and grizzled, but he is not the Gary Cooper type Tony Soprano used to lament over.  Joe’s demeanour belies a broken man whose life has been a march of pain through trauma which haunts him in jarring bursts like a looping record. Violence is prevalent but there are no slick action sequences or any ghoulish obsession with gore that marks Tarantino’s recent films. When it comes, violence is served in the Hitchcockian style, absently indirect. It happens beyond our vision while the worst acts are stumbled upon by Joe. Ramsay’s suggestive approach to these scenes are made more powerful by a tenderness that Joe sometimes exhibits, which I do not think a male director would ever consider. It was Joe’s empathy that I found the most disconcerting, especially when he lays down next to a dying man. Watching this film never feels comfortable, because nothing can be predicted and that is its power. When You Were Never Really Here ends there is no happiness, no catharsis in the manner we have come so expectant of.

Exiled from the real world and even himself, Joe is the ‘you’ in You Were Never Really Here, and it it Lynne Ramsay’s camera that tells this tale. The camera picks between bouts of seeing the world from Joe’s perspective to distanced shots of him amid New York. Joe’s flashbacks are incomplete frames and close cuts, while in the present the camera is either obscured or observing from afar as he brutally attacks anyone who crosses him. Close-ups, point of view shots, and wide frames are simple tools for the filmmaker, but Lynne Ramsay uses them masterfully to imprint her voice onto You Were Never Really Here. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood’s original score is in complete unison with Ramsay’s vision. Amid the madness and violence of You Were Never Really Here,  Greenwood’s songs can bring tears even at the darkest points.

For a film anchored around his performance, Joaquin Phoenix does not disappoint. In both his wardrobe and appearance he is Joe. Contrasting the chiselled mid-riffs we see litter the action genre, Phoenix has transformed himself into Joe but not as an attempt to help Men’s Health magazine sales. Phoenix looks strong, but like a man who once served in the army, carrying the extra weight of a someone who was once more active. Phoenix says little throughout the film, but his face exudes an unaware vulnerability that can’t be hidden by his straggled hair or limping gait. It is this visible pain that makes Joe such an interesting and sympathetic character, no matter what he does.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

Mute

Rating: 2 out of 5 (poor)

Director: Duncan Jones

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Justin Theroux, Paul Rudd, Robert Sheehan, Seyneb Saleh

Synopsis: In a near future Berlin, mute Amish man Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) lives unwittingly alongside the city’s underworld until his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) disappears, sparking a desperate attempt to find his love.

Mute is best described as disappointingly confused. The film is addled by poor writing, mismatched performances and  inconsistent visuals. The film does have potential, and is largely saved by the middle act and a great turn from Paul Rudd as Bill Cactus. Unfortunately,  Mute is ensconced by a tedious first act and a protracted ending. Flashes of Duncan Jones’ brilliance flare in Mute’s immediate beginning, with Leo’s childhood creating intrigue while subtly establishing Neo-Berlin. The opening is followed by a boring twenty minutes of contrived romance and mystery exacerbated by poor audio that had me continuously adjusting my speakers.

For what is a science fiction thriller, Mute’s writing is poor. The build up of the central mystery in the film’s opening act is hampered by inaudible dialogue and the feigned chemistry between Leo and Naadirah. The few clues which string the tale along are indecipherable on the first viewing of Mute. The film’s revelations arrive as hollow tricks relying on past events shown through hazy flashbacks or not shown at all. Worse still is that some of Mute’s twists leave gaping holes in the plot’s logic. Many of Mute’s characters show a palpable effort by Michael Robert Johnson and Duncan Jones to write a verdant dystopia. Leo, Bill Cactus and his army buddy Duck (Justin Theroux) were opportunities to elaborate on this world and explore further themes due to their background. Taking Leo as the worst example, he is a disabled Amish man living in a futuristic metropolis. Yet Mute never explains why Leo has left the Amish community who shun modernity. Nor does Mute explore the theme of isolation which naturally surrounds Leo’s character, due to his disability and rejection of technology.

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Robert Sheehan as Luba 

Bill Cactus and Duck are the strongest characters in Mute and are matched by great performances from Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux respectively. An enigma surrounds Cactus and Duck’s relationship as they hint at a prior relationship while they both served as U.S. army surgeons in Afghanistan. Throughout Mute their relationship veers between animosity, love and enmity as the darker sides of both characters are revealed. Some bold choices are made around Duck’s character but it leads to unfitting and unnecessary events in Mute’s final act. Rudd shows his more serious acting chops in Mute, at times carrying whole scenes by himself. Hopefully Rudd will pursue similar roles in the future. Alexander Skarsgärd is initially clunky as Leo, acting as a gentle giant but later on both Skarsgärd and Leo become more engrossing. Robert Sheehan of Misfits fame is unrecognisable as bartender and gigolo Luba who both aids and hampers Leo in his search.

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Mute’s visual style does have speckles of originality

Visually, Mute is haphazard in quality and lacks any real soul, appearing to be a discount version of Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles but set in Europe. Netflix probably did not have the same resources and talent which crafted Blade Runner 2049’s aesthetic last year. However, it is startling how poor some of Mute’s effects and designs are given that Netflix wants to ‘disrupt’ the film industry as I have discussed here. From the robotic stripper to the flying taxi zipping across Berlin, parts of Mute were of the same quality as early episodes of the rebooted Doctor Who back in 2008. Mute fortunately does have its moments of originality where Duncan Jones’ vision shines through. The criminal syndicate that Leo encounters in a restaurant was one of the more absorbing concepts in the film. Clint Mansell, who worked on Moon’s score, joins Duncan Jones again to make an excellent soundtrack that seamlessly coalesces with Mute’s later acts.

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Gunther, the three-fingered gangster

Watching Mute again after my first viewing, I realised that it would have been better as a Netflix original series. The slower pace and ample run-time of a television show would have allowed the plot to really breathe while drawing out the uniqueness of Berlin. If Netflix did turn Mute into a series, the potential for something unique is there, such when a three-fingered gangster is reading his ‘Captain Berlin’ comic while a man is being tortured.In these moments, Mute was alive and alluring, projecting a world I did not want to leave.

Sadly, Mute is a slog whose better parts will not be deemed by many viewers as worth the effort of watching the rest of the film.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below: