Taylor Sheridan has really carved out a space for himself in the past few years, with his writing credits and now directorial debut in Wind River. Starting with Sicario the brilliantly bleak and nihilistic tale of drug cartels and boarder force facing off against one another, his talent for writing modern American politically tinged adult drama became self-evident. The dive into true western stylings yet again payed off in Hell or High Water with great performances and its examination of the modern American South. Now we have his first effort at the helm of his own written work and he yet again delivers, although maybe slightly less convincingly than before.
In Wind River he brings his modern American western noir to the snow covered hills of Wyoming. Based around the gruffly brooding hunter Cory Lambert played with conviction by Jeremy Renner, a man estranged from his wife after the mysterious death of his daughter. One day he is working on his ex-Father in laws Native American Reservation when he discovers the body of a native girl who has been sexually assaulted, it is then up to him and an FBI officer fresh in from Vegas played by Elizabeth Olson to find out who is the culprit and to bring justice to this solitary area once again.
What this film does well is create the atmosphere of a barren and forgotten part of America. Whilst Native American’s are so often associated with the desert plains of Texas and Nevada, snowy Wyoming is where some must reside having been pushed off their natural land. We are deep in no man’s land where everywhere is hard to get to and conditions are deadly for anyone not wearing about 4 layers of clothing. Every shot involving the landscape is drenched in stark white with snow covering every surface, layer this on top of the bleak lives of some of Sheridan’s characters and we have what is quite a harrowing tale of a slice of modern America which has never been seen on screen before.
In Renner we have a main character who is quiet and secretive who rarely raises his voice above a low murmur, he plays the character with a real sense of realism. We can see that this man has gone to hell and back and his working on this case is only making him more determined to avenge his child. The Native American population are also deeply troubled, none of them seem especially surprised at the crime, the young men are off taking meth or in prison and women are often treated badly by the Caucasian population of the area. Sheridan evokes all of this really well and gives the film a definite pathos through his use of the atmosphere of the setting and the descriptions and representation of the Native American community.
This is not to say that I thought it was without problems, there is a definite sense that this was directed by a screenplay writer. What I mean by this is that there are multiple different scenes in which people will stop and start describing their emotions in long poetic speeches which does happen a few too many times for me to be completely invested in some characters. These speeches are very nicely written but you can’t help but imagine that if these were in the scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water that both of their Directors probably have trimmed one or two of them down a bit for sake of pacing. I also felt that Elizabeth Olson’s character was slightly underdeveloped for some of the involvement in the story she had. There are moments where she is at one moment a newcomer to the town and then suddenly is totally invested in everyone on the reservation and involved in the case. Whilst both these issues did tar the film slightly for me there was still enough intrigue and atmosphere in the story for these to not really ruin much of the film. Ultimately the film is successful in delivering a Top of the Lake/The Killing style feature film based in an original and grief drenched story of a community little addressed in films.
‘This generations The Exorcist’. (1973, Dir. William Friedkin) This is the quote that the advertising campaign for Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary (2018) have pushed the hardest. Influences in horror films are all-pervasive and in some ways cannot be ignored. The tropes and clichés that the genre holds are always going to remind one of some other totemic example of the genre. However for me it is often the way these touch points are hit which ultimately makes a Horror film work or not. Does the film rely on clichés and tropes to produce an effect or does it create something new and instead stray into homage or use the ingredients of horror in a new or interesting way.
This is what you may have to think of after seeing Hereditary. The film is not completely original but does this not make it effective? Not at all. Having recently lost her mother, Annie (played by Toni Collette) is feeling distant and disconnected from her family. She makes miniature artworks portraying real life experiences in minute detail, however whilst she may be able to control her art her family is less stable. Her son, Peter is a stoner who doesn’t seem to care about much apart from his high school crush and when he’s going to be able to smoke the next bowl. Peter however has minimal issues however compared with Annie’s daughter Charlie played with a creepy level of detachment by Milly Shapiro. Charlie seems to be deeply affected by the loss of her Grandmother and it manifesting in strange ways. She skulks around, seeing things and making bizarre figures out of wires and bits of anything she can come across. Her quirks and disaffected presence on-screen make her unbearably disturbing at times even if she is actually not doing anything. Oh yeah and Gabriel Byrne plays the Dad, Steve who actually seems to be alright. Ultimately though this family is not in the most stable of moods when we meet them, and to say that things only get worse for the family is an understatement.
If you’re a fan of the basic horror stylings of James Wan or Blumhouse productions usual schlock then this may stray a bit too far for your liking. Aster isn’t interested in giving you jump scare after jump scare, instead he wants to develop and make you empathise fully with his characters. No one feels like they are acting in a way which is just set up for a death, which so often happens in modern horror. I have to give credit here to the two main leads with all of them doing stellar jobs, particularly Toni Collette who is given space to experience everything in a true gift of a role. Her full range is on display here and she really holds your attention tightly throughout every scene she is in. She both displays completely in control and recognisably sane to the complete opposite with an unnerving ease. Alex Wolff’s Peter is also excellent here giving his character a goofy charm in the opening scenes with him which only adds to the tragedy of what the plot has in store for him. You believe totally in the family and you can really appreciate the effort Aster puts into character in order to actually give the scares a pathos, especially as things start to spiral out of control in the films last movements.
Aster here is as confident a director in his first feature as I have ever seen, there was a variety and confidence in the cinematography and framing of the film that I never felt the visuals fell flat. A simple cut from day to night or a glance in the wing mirror is imbued with a palpable sense of dread. There is a lot to like in the film visually with bold and shocking moments being held on for just the right amount of time. There are some extremely bleak points in the films narrative and yet it never really strays into the misery porn you sometimes see in horror.
However this being said this is not the most original example of the genre and does take a lot from perhaps the two most totemic chillers of the 70s. Yes both The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Dir. Roman Polanski) are written in capital letters on the walls at points in this film, this is not to say of course that it wasn’t done with style and panache but to say this is an original vision for horror like those two were in their day would be a lie. This is kind of what I love about this film though, I felt watching this like audiences surely would have when they watched those films in the cinema first time. Coming out of the film it felt like I had seen something which truly got under my skin and was going to live there for a long time, its little details living in my head every time I hear a particular sound or see something which will remind me of it. Hereditary is a film that genuinely freaked me out at points and made me excited to talk about it in a way that so few horror films give you the chance to, a truly nihilistic but very well made piece of genre filmmaking that leaves you wanting more from Ari Aster.
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If you have a natural aversion to people breaking out into song in films it is safe to say that you should give this one a miss. Jacques Demy here has fully realised his vision of creating a ‘film in song’, it is less musical theatre more jazz backed modern opera. Add on to the top of this a large helping of deeply felt French romance and you have a film that remains a true curio of world cinema. It is not really a standard musical in that there is no spoken word in the entire piece, instead Demy uses normal speech and conversation as the lyrics of the songs, creating an interesting balance of fantasy and realism. It is a vibrant and heartfelt experiment in musical filmmaking which for the most part pays off very well.
For the story we have Genevieve and Guy, the former being played by a captivating young Catherine Deneuve and the later by the solemnly charismatic Nino Castelnuovo. The couple is freshly embroiled in a secret relationship and the chemistry between the two is immediately palpable. However all is not well, when they sing that they will love each other forever and that nothing will ever part them the alarm bells start ringing. These chimes soon crescendo as life take a hold of the romance, firstly Genevieve’s mother is unhappy with the two dating and then suddenly Guy is conscribed to join the French army in the fight in Algiers. We then watch as the two people struggle to find a place for their love in a world which cannot allow the two to be together. This is a fairly well-worn romantic tale of lovers kept apart despite their wishes, however Demy and his choice to heighten the mood through the operatic nature of the songs he has his characters sing breathes life into an otherwise fairly unremarkable plot.
The songs in the film are less songs than conversations with melody and rhythm, people talk in full sentences and interact normally just in a continuous melody. The effect of seeing a film tell its story in song but without a normal verse chorus structure gives the piece a real flowingly fast pace which may seem difficult to get on board with at first but soon you become enraptured into the beat of the film. Demy understands the humour and jollity that musicals can bring and yet gives his characters a fairly bleak hand to play in the film. At one point we may have upbeat jaunts underscoring a mothers nagging of her daughter to find the right man, but then the film shifts into its more sombre laments to the nature of lost or misplaced love. At one point Deneuve (or the overdub of Deneuve) sings ‘Why is absence so hard to bear’ in the films signature melody and we feel the emotion of the sentiment. We have watched and heard the joy that the young lovers had when they were together but as life continues we are carried along of the wave of regrets that the two people share. Much like other musicals the emotions in this are very earnest and close to the skin but unlike most there comes with it a sadness which feels very true and less forced than musicals can tend to be.
Demy does not just let the songs speak for the film however, this is 60s French filmmaking after all and we can see his cinephilia shining through in the vibrancy of his frame. Yes we don’t have the huge musical numbers of Stanley Donan and Gene Kelly or the sheer scale of Busby Berkley but Demy doesn’t need these when he has composition and colour. The Technicolor glow of every environment in Cherbourg is a sight to behold, he doesn’t need to use huge sound stages with dance routines to perform his art, and instead he makes real life magical and otherworldly through retina burning pinks, greens and blues. He shows a painters eye for using colour in composition with clear reference being taken from the great Hollywood classics, especially Gene Kelly’s oeuvre.
To say the film is a perfect example of musical filmmaking is not correct. At points the structure of the songs works against it with sentences having to be rushed or crowbarred into the beat of the background music. This is not necessarily a negative however and for me just added to the charm of the piece. It is not an overly happy film despite the vibrancy of every other aspect from the cinematography to the acting to the songs, the plot remains drenched in ennui. As with many of the films in and around the French New Wave both joy and sadness are to be found but you must always break through or reckon with an auteur vision of whatever subject is to be found. For me Demy here created an accessibly vivid tale of young love which dodges the pretensions of the day whilst still feeling artistically daring.
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This overlooked twisted nerve of a film is a very real and emotionally felt, rich examination of a soul on the edge. Directed by Antonio Campos and based on the tragic true story of Christine Chubbuck, a small-time news reporter who is both battling with the changing tides of news journalism as well as her own mental health. Based in Sarasota Florida the station in which Chubbuck works is intensely local, with most of their news being targeted towards those who still believe the news to be informative and truthful. However ratings are plummeting and Mike, the station manager is looking for juicier stories. Chubbuck as a figure in the film is a sweetly natured and well-meaning soul, she doesn’t drink; sings along to john Denver in the car and lives a life devoted to telling stories from real life for real people. As the film progresses it becomes clearer and clearer she is not really cut out for this world, even if it is local, blood and guts journalism is the call of the day.
Due to the real life tragedy that the film is based on this film has to tackle an incredibly complex and largely unknown figure in a respectful and unsensational way. Campos is clearly acutely aware of this and has taken real care in his recreation of the world that Chubbuck inhabited with period detail being very pointedly accurate. The frame is tinted with that signature 70s beige glow that we have come to expect of stories from the period. This is only accentuated by the brownness of the décor of most of the film as the fashions and set design of the station all conjure up the world of 70s Sarasota perfectly. Campos does not want to make a caricature and just feed scepticism however he does want to link this with the media of the time in a very tangible way. The story itself is something straight out of the hyperbole of Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant bullhorn of the rise of news hysteria, Network. However unlike Network this isn’t a parable to warn us of the coming debasement of news, this is coming from a modern voice where this has already happened. Christine is also aware of this and this is her struggle that sends her into a bottomless pit that eventually will swallow her.
Rebecca Hall is a revelation and at points is a sympathetic and sweet natured figure of amusement, the film is funny and goofy in the first act. Christine is weird and off kilter but mostly harmless, it is once you are lulled into this fairly light beginning to the film when the second act starts and we see the real heart and goal of the film, to show depression in its clearest form. It’s not as if Christine is happy and then not, we just see hints at first. Her invitation of a happy couple to be on the TV in an awkward encounter after being stood up by her divorcee mother, this then creates a tension between her and her mother and soon we start to find Christine spiralling. Hall gives the character a sympathetic edge that makes her misfortune all the more heart wrenching. Depression is a beast that Christine isn’t able to fight and we as the audience have to sit by and see how easy it becomes to overlook by others. The stations employees might notice things going wrong but Christine avoids their attentions, Hall physically retreating into herself as they invite her to go out with them or do other things apart from chase stories to get on air. Michael C Hall tries at one point to help her in a sequence that sticks in the mind as one of the most tragic moments of storytelling I have seen in modern cinema.
Campos in Christine offers a truly honest portrayal of a soul on the edge with Rebecca Hall as the beautifully misguided and lost Christine, a figure who may be lost to myth and legend but made truly real through a criminally overlooked performance. I can’t kid and say that this is an easy watch but I really do feel it is a must watch especially for people wanting to understand and see into what depression is and how it can be stopped. Not every story with those in Christine’s position ends like hers did but it is essential we can learn from her story and do what her co-workers were unable to.
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Sometimes you watch a film which reminds you just how plot obsessed we have become in our media landscape. The quest for weightier and more complex narrative continues to drive modern popular cinema, perhaps in a response to the complexities of the great stories being told on our TV screens. However in film sometimes you don’t need a lot of narrative shifts in order to leave a great impression. You Were Never Really Here (2018, Dir. Lynne Ramsay) is an exercise in taut and abrasive storytelling with hardly any meat on the bones to pick on.
We have a hitman hired to seek revenge on child pornographers or paedophiles in general and suddenly n one job things take a turn for the worse. This is essentially the entire narrative of the film, however within this Ramsey challenges the audience and uses every trick in her arsenal to make this short brutal film as effective as possible. Joe is our main character, played by the ever brilliant Joaquin Phoenix, a recent veteran with a gift for reeking bloody justice on the darkest and most depraved of society. His vigilante justice shares more than a little with Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. He may be less talkative and perhaps a more endearing a psychopath than Bickle but it is clear that the two share a psycho cinema bloodline. Much like Bickle we feel the nihilism of the main character and his lack of care or sympathy for the dregs of society. Ramsey herself pulls our attention to the comparison between the two nutjobs, we have scenes of Joe walking in the exact same way as the swaggering Bickle. We also have parallels with the political figures of taxi driver, however they are much less sympathetically seen in Lynne Ramsey’s eyes, becoming embroiled deeper and deeper into Joe’s perverse alternative society. Scorsese is clearly the main influence here and it is writ very large for those who are familiar with the 70s masterpiece, however this is still its own film and in essence is more a reworking of the story for a modern age.
As may be apparent this is not exactly a fun watch and at points it can be teeth clenchingly nasty and brutal. Ramsey does not use this subject however to really leer at the violence of the story and instead often chooses to find some kind of prism to view the hyper-violence of Joe through. Be it in a mirror or through the lens of a CCTV camera the audience is often one step removed from whatever horrific thing is happening at the hands of Joe. It is as if Ramsey is reluctant herself to show these actions in stark HD and would rather the audience itself was able to step back and just observe him, like a caged animal ripping apart its lunch.
The film as a whole is more a character study than a video nasty and often spends a lot of time not progressing, Ramsey would rather give Joe the space to think and contemplate what he is doing in his life and in turn let us sit with him and contemplate our own reactions to him as a person. Instead of just powering ahead and letting the audience gawk at the horror of Joe we instead get to see him as a human being, we see him with his mother and the care he brings to her. We hear him be funny with her and also see the violence in his own past which has led to his own insensitivity to violence and his line of work. The film asks us to consider Joe as a real person much more than is often comfortable and as the film moves into its final act you do start to care about him much more than you may expect to. He is a man removed from the world around him, the film pays attention to him but also the spaces he leaves behind and will linger and shift its eye from him to those around him. We see the normality of the society that surrounds him and yet we know that we are not here to really look at that and as Joe spirals out the film starts to become more and more insular, we zone in whilst Joe zones out.
Ramsey here has created a razor-sharp, taut and Brutal meditation on the human psyche at its limits, and the confidence and strength of Phoenix’s performance pummelled me into submission to its savage viewpoint. If I see another film this year that is this tightly constructed and gut punching I will be very impressed.
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This latest installment from Mexico’s Gothic master Guillermo Del Toro is a thing of true beauty. Del Toro has long stood in my mind as one of modern cinema’s great heroes, championing classic film storylines and longstanding traditions in a masterful way. He fuses fairy-tale wonder and brutal realism in a completely singular and brilliant way. Since his true breakout masterpiece Pans Labyrinth (2006) I have always looked forward to seeing what his macabre mind could create. With The Shape of Water I truly think he has come close to recapturing the magic and brilliance he mustered in Pans Labyrinth, a film which is at once childlike and brutally honest and mature.
The story follows Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute cleaner at a highly secret government facility who is perfectly happy with her routine. She lives above a cinema with her disgruntled neighbour come best friend Giles, a struggling advertisement artist and spends most of her days working and her nights eating and resting.
This intolerance is brought into stark relief for Elisa when an ‘asset’ is brought to the facility in which she works. This ‘asset’ is accompanied by a model of upstanding 50s republicanism embodied by the ever brilliant Michael Shannon as the heavy hand of the decades morality Richard Strickland. He is a man who is obsessed by the status quo, drenched in protestant reasoning and staunch conservative ideals. Shannon thunders into Elisa’s innocuous world and remains a towering force of aggression and conservatism that the film plays with beautifully. Elisa is immediately drawn to the ‘asset’ and soon discovers this is not some object, rather a form of aquatic life the like no human has ever seen. Strickland believes the thing to be an abomination whilst Elisa see’s the humanity and the parallels between her and it and soon becomes wrapped up in an obsession that can only escalate for her.
What this film really excels at is creating a world in which you are drawn completely into, within minutes of the opening scene I knew that I was going to enjoy myself in Elisa’s world. I feel that a huge part of this is the stellar turn by Sally Hawkins who once again proves herself as one of the most underrated actresses out there. With the character unable to talk Hawkins pulls on every trick in her arsenal and uses each second she is on-screen to talk through her motions, past just the sign language. Every smile or furrow of the brow you feel is completely heartfelt and emotionally relevant to the character. Hawkins and her portrayal of Elisa is the vital beating heart of the film, a quietly powerful anchor upon which the film hangs its story.
To return to the narrative of the film, there is a huge figure I have only hinted at briefly. The ‘asset’ itself. This creature cuts a similar figure to Abe Sapien from Del Toro’s Hellboy (2004) films if he didn’t have the wisecracks or a voice at all. Del Toro is clearly thinking back to this character, along with his love for HP Lovecraft’s similar creations. However Doug Jones as the creature is much more subtle than either of these influences suggest. In order for the audience to care for the creature as much as Elisa does we must believe in the humanity behind the scaly facade and the lightness of touch with which Del Toro demonstrates in the two outcasts interactions makes for a really beautiful sequence of encounters. This is a film of movement and feeling rather than straight ahead speech, the two main figures work in such a physical way you are reminded of silent film stars and the ways in which they would have to use their full body to express their own characters.
As is to be expected with such a high concept story and with Del Toro at the helm the production design is sure to sweep the technical awards categories at the Oscars with every scene clearly mapped out to perfectly reflect the fantastical tone of the film. Del Toro seems to take influence from a broad palate, however I was particularly reminded of the overlooked French curio Micmacs (2009, Dir. Jean Pierre Jeunet) which shares both thematic nods to The Shape of Water as well as visual echoes in it lighting and general imaginative sepia toned and expressionistic set design. Del Toro creates a film world which is full of nightmares and darkness but we as the audience are on board wholeheartedly due to the strength of the dreams he realises on-screen. The Shape of Water is his best since Pans Labyrinth by a country mile and is something I will treasure for a long time.
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When a film gets labelled as a cult movie it usually means that the film doesn’t have a great reception on its initial release. It could have been badly reviewed but actually misunderstood, just plain bad or even banned upon its release. The most famous example of banned cult filmmaking is represented most starkly in the list of ‘video nasties’ which were titles banned from release in the UK for their gratuitous violence or dark thematic content by the sensitive 70s and 80s BBFC. Some of these were trash with titles like Driller Killer (1979, Dir. Abel Ferrara) or Cannibal Holocaust (1980, Dir. Ruggero Deodato). However other titles have gained huge popularity partially helped by the infamy of the list, films like The Evil Dead (1981, Dir. Sam Raimi) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Dir. Tobe Hooper) later being recognised as hugely competent and important examples of genre filmmaking.
Now, Possession (1985, Dir. Andzrej Zulawski) was one of these ‘video nasties’ and having seen it I can perhaps understand why it wasn’t received by a conservative ratings agency with open arms. Not an easily digestible 2 hours this one, but for sure a worthwhile one. The film has intrigued me for a long time and after finally watching it I have to say that this is one that if you enjoy extreme filmmaking, this is a must watch. Following the breakdown of his marriage Andrzej Zulawski embarked on a project that no doubt just added fire to the flames of his already messy divorce. Think Polanski and his response to the murder of his wife in through the violence of his Macbeth (1971, Dir. Roman Polanski). Zulawski is channeling similarly bleak feelings, screaming at the top of his lungs about his divorce.
Sam Neill plays Mark, a man sent back from a mysterious mission and it soon becomes clear that he has successfully and almost totally isolated himself from his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) who has been caring for their son in his absence. The details of his mission or his job are never fully explained and honestly I’m not sure it matters that much, what does matter is that Anna has cheated on Mark in his absence. This is news that neither of them seem very well equipped to deal with as soon the screaming starts. No sooner has Mark found out the infidelity than he is smashing up a café and holing up in a hotel room for 3 weeks on a crazy marital problem bender. The hysteria of the film really is both its strongest suit and also is its least palatable, what will turn off a huge amount of viewers. Watching Possession in light of having seen last year’s deeply divisive Mother! (2017, Dir. Darren Aronofsky) you really understand exactly where he was looking for inspiration. Aronofsky does in that film a pretty decent impression of the extremity of expression that Zulawski nails in Possession. Divorce and marital strife are examined by Zulawski in broad strokes with neither the husband nor the wife being without blame for the events of the film.
To describe exactly what happens past the set-up is mute as the film is not ultimately about plot in plain terms. The couple go nuts in the first 10 minutes and only become more unhinged and extreme as the runtime counts down to the explosive final act. This is not to say that the whirlwind of emotions that the film expresses are done in an amateur way, it may be the most overwrought apocalyptic vision of this kind of story that you may ever see but Zulawski handles it all in his stride. He and DOP Bruno Nuytten swirl the camera around the action of the film with deft Steadicam and handheld photography only adding to the disorientation. The film is almost never still with almost every conversation being done in frantic movement with the camera following or preempting each movement almost working as a supernatural third character in the story. The virtuosity of the camerawork comes to a head perhaps the most well-known scene in the film. Set in an underground station walkway Isabelle Adjani’s justifies her Cannes best actress award in spectacular form. Her characterisation of her sheer descent into complete madness is almost balletic, the camera creeps around her as she throws herself around the harsh artificially lit space. The power of her performance is really crystallised in this scene and her commitment to the role is extraordinary, she seems to completely sink into he madness of the film and is powerfully effective in remaining a figure of shuddering possession and brutality throughout. I may seem hyperbolic in my reading of her turn but it really can’t be understated, it is very rare you see an actor commit in the way Adjani here does.
Andrzej Zulawski here places himself amongst the best examples of extreme filmmaking with his nightmare of marital problems and cart-wheeling madness, a truly brilliant piece of underrated European filmmaking. See this if you can stomach it.
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