Tag Archives: Film Review

Who are the Mystery Men?

Besides the nod to The New York Dolls, this article is really about Mystery Men, the best superhero film you have never heard about.

Super-heroic spoof

Flight and invulnerability, spandex outfits and ludicrous sidekicks. The concepts of superheroes are childhood fantasies which crumble in the adult world. In the goofy bedlam of Mystery Men’s Champion City, reality reveals superheroes to be losers, oddballs and dreamers. Instead of scowling vigilantes, powerful gods and aliens, the ‘Mystery Men’ are ordinary people pretending to be something more, except for the odd possessed bowling bowl and potent flatulence. Therein lies the wonderful magic of Mystery Men, it looks at itself and superheroes and laughs at the joke.

Released in 1999, the immediate target of Mystery Men’s lampooning is the vaudevillian gaudiness of the Batman films under Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Beyond that Mystery Men satirises dystopian films of the 1980s and 1990’s. Champion City’s architecture nods to the mega metropolis of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, while the film’s aesthetic of old and new technologies living aside each other mimics Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and 12 Monkeys. The gags come from the inherent silliness of superheroes and super villains which Mystery Men exaggerates with a gleefully deadpan take. The real source of laughter lies in the ‘Mystery Men’ of the film; Mr.Furious (Ben Stiller) who has slightly mild anger issues, the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) a mystic knife thrower haphazardly flinging forks and sometimes spoons and The Shoveler (William.H.Macy) who tackles crime with a shovel.

fullscreen-capture-05082018-195558-bmp.jpg

The Shoveler is confronted by his wife

The ‘Mystery Men’

Later bolstered by new members, the ‘Mystery Men’ remain endearingly hopeless underdogs stood against villains who break the rules of comic books. In an odd premonition of Christopher Nolan’s Bruce Wayne, Mystery Men’s director Kinka Usher opens up the vulnerability of his superheroes. This vulnerability is not an Achilles heel but the humanity behind the mask or the shovel. Mystery Men, at its deepest level, concerns men and women dreaming of making it big but struggling against their own ordinariness and doubting whether they can save the day. All of us at some point have shared that fear of being ordinary, of questioning how we are different from everyone else in the crowd.

A film before its time

Created before the Marvel-Disney conveyor belt of melodramatic superhero films was even conceived, Mystery Men’s teasing of the genre has made it a refreshing tonic for the staple of today’s box office. Even if you are oblivious to the litany of D.C and Marvel films, Mystery Men’s is objectively funny. Neil Cuthbert alongside Bob Burden, creator of The Flaming Carrot Comics which inspired Mystery Men, crafted a script brimming with hilarious sound bytes. A personal favourite is the Shoveler’s statement to his wife that;

‘God gave me a gift…I shovel well, I shovel very well.’

It is shame that Mystery Men, given its inexhaustible quotability, came out before the YouTube age ushered in highlight reels of comedy films which propelled Anchorman to universal popularity. Alongside the excellent writing are cast whose calibre is something to behold. The initial trio of Ben Stiller, William.H.Macy and Hank Azaria as Mr.Furious, The Shoveler and the Blue Raja are a powerhouse boosted by the later additions of Paul Reubens as The Spleen and Jaeneane Garofalo as Baby Bowler. The list of actors goes on but most importantly Tom Waits plays mad scientist Dr.Heller who cooks up non-lethal weapons in an abandoned circus full of mannequins and chickens. Somehow I think Tom Waits had no difficulty in playing his role. Plus if you want more Tom Waits the DVD copy of Mystery Men has a wonderful deleted scene of Dr.Heller flirting with retirees. Bonus appearances are Eddie Izzard as leader of a disco gang Toni P and Cee Lo Green as a minor gang member.

Fullscreen capture 05082018 182246.bmp

Tony P (Eddie Izzard)

Being his only feature film to date, director Kinka Usher brings the attentive detail of creating commercials to Mystery Men.  The result is a trove of gags in the film’s environment; from a retirement home’s bar being stocked with prescription medication to the Shoveler’s trophy cabinet for his weapon of choice. Mystery Men just gets better the more often you watch and the harder you look.

Sadly, Mystery Men followed its titular heroes and shuffled into obscurity after a release met with poor box office sales and poor critical responses. The story does sag in the middle but the reason for Mystery Men’s failure was it took superheroes, a thing Americans hold so earnestly as a reflection of themselves, and thumbed its nose at them.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below;

 

Advertisements

A Prayer Before Dawn

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (good)

Synopsis: Cast off into Thai prison for dealing heroin, the strange yet true life of British boxer Billy Moore is a ballad of visceral rawness which sometimes falters against its source material.

Due to the nature of the medium, books can host multiple sub-plots, nuances and themes while films have a limited window to tell a complete arc. The problem films face when transitioning a novel to the screen is either conciseness or fidelity. In trying to faithfully render Billy Moore’s memoirs, A Prayer Before Dawn’s ambitiousness entangles the film in a bramble of plot threads. Suffering from a drifting focus, A Prayer Before Dawn veers from the strangeness and savagery of Thai prison, to Billy’s fight to survive and curb his addiction while also being a boxing film. Even a sprinkle of romance is tossed into the the mix. These elements would meld together in the paper print of a good long book, but in a film they result in a plot which leaps and then spends scenes orientating itself. A Prayer Before Drawn plunges the viewer into a shocking and gruesome reality, but its many stops prevent it being an engrossing journey through Thailand’s underbelly.  

Director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire makes some admirably bold decisions in A Prayer Before Dawn. Absent of any subtitles throughout, the viewer shares Billy’s fear and confusion as he is lost in the Thai commands of guard and prisoner alike. The prisoners themselves are all former Thai convicts. Their grounding in the film’s setting explains how the prisoners unflinchingly depict acts of rape, extortion and violence with a disturbing level of calm. The final and best gamble Sauvaire pulls is his choice of Joe Cole as Billy Moore. Cole brings to Billy Moore the same intensity as his character John Shelby in Peaky Blinders. Yet Cole channels this intensity into someone bearing the brunt of the world, buckling from inner turmoil while reeling at external dangers. Cole captivates as Billy Moore, rendering A Prayer Before Dawn into an intimate look at another rebuilding his life, a man both dangerous and vulnerable. This duality draws away from A Prayer Before Dawn’s problems and proves Joe Cole’s promise to become a venerable star of our time.

Visually, Sauvaire’s use of space and framing invokes the claustrophobia and oppressiveness of prison both environmentally and socially. Certain shots of Billy, his pale skin amid a sea of tattooed prisoners marks out his isolation and seeming incompatibility with this lifestyle.  

Throughout A Prayer Before Dawn I saw the passion and potential of this unique story beyond the rosy tourist images of Thailand. However I struggled to be truly enveloped by the film. Hopefully a second viewing will improve my opinion but I would still recommend A Prayer Before Dawn to anyone looking for something different.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below;

Escape From New York

Synopsis: Escape From New York depicts a dystopian 1997 where New York City has become a prison. War hero turned bank robber Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is offered clemency if he enters New York and saves the U.S President (Donald Pleasence) who is stranded in the Big Apple.

Written by director John Carpenter in the wake of Watergate and America’s loss of faith in itself post-Vietnam,  Escape From New York belongs to Cold War science fiction. Carpenter’s vision of the 1990’s reflects fears in the 1970’s of societal collapse, nuclear war and state control. In Escape From New York America is a police state while the Cold War has turned hot. America’s militarised police, clad in black and obscured by riot visors, are an unsettling mix of Vietnam and Nixon’s faceless G-Men as they descend from huey helicopters. New York’s transformation into a prison represents a sentiment which Carpenter touches upon in Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13; the fear of urban violence, drugs and crime spreading beyond the cities.

Late night television introduced me to John Carpenter’s films, in particular Halloween. At age 14 I bought a DVD of  Escape From New York and devoured the film. Re-watching  Escape From New York years later on the big screen has changed my perception of the story. When I was younger Escape From New York was a strange and alluring thriller. Now I see how modern society has returned to the film’s dark trajectory. In an age of global terror, mass surveillance, mass shootings and rising extremism, we are affronted again by state interference and social instability. Entering into the chaos is anti-heroic gunslinger Snake Plissken. Plissken’s adherence to a tattered moral compass in a grim future represents a begrudging sense of hope, much like Mad Max, that humanity can persist no matter the bleakness. Unlike the original Mad Max films, Escape From New York strikes a lighter tone through Nick Castle’s work on the script. In Nick Castle’s hands, the film gains an awareness of its wackiness; from its gnarled criminal gangs of New York clad in the ruins of the city to the roster of oddball characters.

Fullscreen capture 24072018 204333.bmp

Snakes forges a plan

Crafted from a small budget of $5 million, Carpenter’s ingenuity with practical effects makes Escape From New York visually striking. Filmed in the burned out centre of St.Louis, Missouri, the city’s state gave Carpenter carte-blanche for his gnarled interpretation of New York. Atop the filming location are the models, costumes, painted backdrops and other effects which permeate the film. Time has marked the look of Escape From New York but these are just wrinkles defining a growing maturity. The film’s ability to still draw in the viewer opposes modern films whose proclivity for CGI often rushes disbelief back in. Carpenter’s score much like Halloween infuses Escape From New York with a soul of nervous energy and brooding fear as disco and funk are sifted through a synthesizer.

The cast of Escape From New York flesh out life inside the prison. Isaac Hayes as the Duke, New York’s kingpin, swaggers around with bravado like a cowboy villain followed by his posse in rag tag automobiles. Harry Dean Stanton as Brain and veteran of Hollywood’s golden age Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie exude the strangeness and toughness required to survive within the walls of New York. Best of all is Kurt Russell as Snake, whose grit is matched by defiance as he sarcastically thumbs his nose at authority figures. In the end it is Snake who provides the sole honest voice in Escape From New York, revealing the U.S president and his men to be just as corrupt as those living within New York. In today’s political climate, I think we could learn something from Snake.

Thanks to Home Manchester for screening such a great film.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below;

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Rating: 1 out of 5 (poor)

Synopsis: 3 years after Jurassic World the dinosaurs remaining at the abandoned resort face extinction once more as the island’s volcano is poised to erupt.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’s mistake is to choose seriousness over levity in a world where dinosaurs live and exist as tourist attractions. It is a decision which immediately falls hollow as the plot gives way to a lazy rehashing of box office tropes and predictable twists and even throws in much of Jurassic World’s story. Fallen Kingdom’s attempt at maturity is to ask whether dinosaurs, the creatures which have heartily chomped on humans in Jurassic films past, should be preserved for the benefit of future human generations. It is a dilemma quickly answered by Jeff Goldblum’s response of ‘No’. Yet the film ignores the idiocy of its proposed dilemma and struggles on with no purpose for what feels like a very long run-time.

The film is an old fossil, a rather dull affair to behold that has been seen countless times before. The story is a Frankenstein’s monster of 3 arcs hewn together consisting of animal preservation, romance between Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard and Jurassic World’s threat of weaponised dinosaurs. The animal preservation narrative dissolves quickly, and the film’s depiction of this movement as an anti-corporate millennial upsurge is very twee. Pratt and Howard were decent in Jurassic World but without the children of Jurassic World, the pair lack the chemistry to carry the minutes between dinosaurs. Nor do Pratt or Howard seem enthused to return for Fallen Kingdomwith boredom and fatigue lining their faces as they pretend to see another  dinosaur upon the green screen.

The new characters introduced to Fallen Kingdom are evident character types who exist as stepping stones for the story. At least Fallen Kingdom’s return to the threat of military grade dinosaurs spawns a decent turn by Toby Jones as a miniature Trump replete with fake tan, bleached teeth and dubious hair. Jones alone is not enough to save a film which feels remarkably redundant despite being the immediate sequel to a promising soft reboot. Fallen Kingdom’s twists sport the worst of Hollywood’s absent logic, concluding with a ludicrous ending created only to propagate further sequels. All this could be largely forgiven, but in Fallen Kingdom’s fixatation on more ‘human’ and serious themes, it strangles the fun out of the dinosaurs which are the series’ fulcrum.

Following this dismal sequel, Jurassic World should shuffle off into extinction.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below;

Beast

Rating: 4 out of 5 (excellent)

Director: Michael Pearce

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle

Synopsis: Summertime in Jersey, a killer stalks the land, and Beast’s protagonist Moll (Jessie Buckley) flees from her sham birthday and a family which is suffocating her. A chance encounter in her flight causes a budding relationship between Moll and fellow outsider Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Moll’s connection with Pascal is more bad than good, exposing her to the cannibalism of a community frenzied by fear.

Twisting between fairytale and thriller, Beast is a nebulous story laced with layers of meaning. Glancing at the surface, Beast’s setting and tale of loving the monster conjures up Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher. Yet beyond the veneer Beast is about our latent evil and how forgiveness is a far better weapon of control than guilt. Encapsulated in one visceral act of self-harming, it becomes clear that something is deeply wrong with Moll. Moll’s problem is buried in the past, a sin wielded over Moll by her family to reduce her to the role of valet, nanny and carer. Sin, guilt and regret are nothing new in stories, but what marks Beast is how Moll’s sin has been weaponised through forgiveness. Instead of being reminded of what she has done, Moll is controlled by her mother’s guise of love, friendship and progress.

The name Beast alludes to the animalistic nature of man as family members and authority figures turn against Moll. The  theme is more pronounced among certain characters who symbolise different animals. Moll’s manipulative mother (Gerladine James) is akin to a spider while detective Cliff (Trystan Gravelle) is a bloodhound. The picturesque Jersey setting is also deceptive. The quaint connotations around the tourist spot come tax haven crumbles as Moll and Pascal are pilloried. The rich acquaintances of Moll’s family treat Moll with snickering disdain while the rest of the island condemn her and Pascal as murderers. In his choice of landscapes, the land of Jersey takes on a duality through director Michael Pearce’s vision. Verdant meadows and orchards shining at dawn give way to desolate and eerie fields and swamps. From characters to setting, Beast ensures that nothing is ever clear until the end. Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun’s eye for the land captures the distinctiveness of Britain, contrasting the synthesised depiction of how viewers abroad see the country. Despite all the suffering and trauma that Beast depicts, I could not help seeing the film as one beautifully twisted postcard of Jersey.

Replete with twists and dream sequences, Beast ensnares you in a maze of suspicion from which none are safe. The film is only undermined by a plot straining under its own complexity. Last minutes revelations and surprise twists create an impact laced with an aftertaste of dissatisfaction by upending the plot’s overall narrative of exclusion.

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.

Fullscreen capture 25032018 133916.bmp

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

Fullscreen capture 25032018 161519.bmp

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

Fullscreen capture 25032018 231955.bmp

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 

Fullscreen capture 26032018 001950.bmp

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 

Fullscreen capture 25032018 133527.bmp

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: