Monday, December 31, 2018

THE LITTLE STRANGER - Crimbo Binge-watch #7

Lenny Abrahamson (ROOM) returns to our screens with another film based on a prize winning book - this time the slow-burn period haunted house story THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters. The adaptation is faithful and so shares the books strengths and weaknesses.  Its strength is its evocation of post-war England in which the great estates are being bankrupted and social change is afoot. Our protagonist is a doctor (Domnhall Gleeson - Star Wars' Hux), soon to become part of the NHS. He still resents the fact that his mother worked herself to the bone in a grand country house, and while he ingratiates himself with the family carries a working class chip on his shoulder.  The grand family hard on its luck are made up of a still grand mother (Charlotte Rampling), a brutally war-injured son (Will Poulter - superb in a "posh" character role), and Ruth Wilson who as ever seems to be operating on a far higher emotional level than the other actors she's working with.  She's really the focus of our attention - a woman who is clever and capable but is stuck trying to keep the family together against financial ruin and now - apparently - spooky goings on.  I also love the theme that Sarah Waters often explores of how women, no matter how smart, are often under-estimated, unheard, or worse wilfully disbelieved simply because of their gender. 

What I like about the film is its patient slow build, but I can see why this might frustrate fans of more pacy and punchy horror. After all, I am a notorious coward when it comes to watching horror so if I can get through the film you know it's not really that scary - more of an emotional exploration of the history that is haunting the family.

THE LITTLE STRANGER is rated R and has a running time of 111 minutes. It was released earlier this year. 

78/52 - Crimbo Binge-watch #6

78 setups - 52 cuts - 2 minutes - those are the metrics behind the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's brutal masterpiece - PSYCHO.  In this meticulous and beautifully curated documentary we get an in-depth look at how that scene was storyboarded, edited and scored - why it works so well - and what meanings Hitchcock was trying to convey.   Director Alexandre O Philippe - of the superb THE PEOPLE VS GEORGE LUCAS - does an amazing job in assembling a wonderful cast of commentators and letting them speak.  He gets everyone from Janet Leigh's original body double, to her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, to horror directors Eli Roth and Guillermo del Toro, to author Brett Easton Ellis.  He gets Danny Elfman who scored the remake, and countless expert cinematographers and editors who takes unto the technical detail of how PSYCHO's impact was achieved. The result is a doc that isn't for dilettantes but a film that will reward the Hitchcock fans looking for further insight. It was an absolute delight to watch.

78/52 has a running time of 91 minutes and is rated 15 for images of sexual violence. It was released in 2017.

ASSASSINATION NATION - Crimbo Binge-watch #5

Sam "Son of Barry" Levinson returns to our screens with the stylish but morally bankrupt political satire slash horror film, ASSASSINATION NATION. It's a film written and directed by a guy who believes he is being truly progressive in calling out slut-shaming and female sexual exploitation but who tragically and apparently without self-awareness is similarly exploitative in how he depicts teenage girls.

The film posits a contemporary American town riddled with social media and MAGA sentiment.  An anonymous hacker starts released people's private emails, photos and texts.  Predictably, the townsfolk respond by becoming a feral mob, and with law enforcement too busy to deal with it, violence ensues. Our heroine, Lily (Odessa Young) is a truly dumb girl who sends explicit pictures of herself to an older man (Joel McHale).  This could've actually been an interesting story if the writer had explored the grooming aspect of this but no, it's just passed over quickly.  She gets exposed and is painted as a whore, and targeted by the mob when they think she's also doing the doxing. I mean, how dumb do you have to be - why would you dox yourself? Anyway, this leads to her and her three best friends being hunted, before they in turn become revenge killers. 

There are occasional moments of brilliance in this film.  Hari Nef is truly amazing playing Bex - a teenage girl who hooks up with the guy she really likes at a party only to have him reject her after sex.  The sheer depth and nuance of emotion on her face after he pulls away is so moving - and what I love is the ambiguity of whether he's just being a classic teenage boy douchebag or whether there's also a layer of him freaking out because she's trans.  Nef is an actress to look out for.

But other than a handful of very truthful moments, what I mostly got from this film is that Levinson wants to tell us the movies he likes - from THE SHINING to KILL BILL - and would probably be better off directing commercials than features. He has an eye for an arresting visual, but doesn't have the balls to sustain his narrative. After all, in the world he posits, the logical outcome is that the two girls pulled out of the house would be gang-raped and left for dead - the trans girl would be strung up - and the protagonist would be shot.  But what's most offensive is that the director seemingly wants to criticise society for sexually objectifying girls while simultaneously really enjoy showing his heroine scantily clad covered in blood. Grow up. 

ASSASSINATION NATION is rated R and has a running time of 108 minutes.  It played the BFI London Film Festival 2018. It also played Sundance and Toronto and was released in the USA and UK earlier this year. 

SPLIT - Crimbo Binge-watch #4

With the release of GLASS on January 18th 2019 I thought it was about time I got my arse in gear and watched M Night Shyamalan's super villain origins story, SPLIT - the successor to UNBREAKABLE and THE SIXTH SENSE and prequel to GLASS.  That GLASS is happening at all is thanks to the remarkable box office success of SPLIT - making just under $290m off a budget of only $9m - making it the most profitable film of the year. 

I can happily report that SPLIT is a truly remarkable film beyond its financials - perhaps Shyamalan's best since UNBREAKABLE - and certainly featuring a career best performance from its lead actor James McAvoy. He plays a man suffering from the real-world-controversial psychological disease of Dissociative Identity Disorder.  He contains 23 personalities of which we see McAvoy portray a five or six, sometimes moving between them in the same scene. It's a truly bravura performance - encompassing not just different accents, but different ages, sexes, sexual orientations and personalities.  Shyamalan goes further than modern psychiatry - positing through his avatar of the psychologist (Betty Buckley - also superb) - that each different identity can manifest itself physically differently. And while McAvoy *is* physically transformed for one of his identities for the rest he merely relies on posture, confidence, presence to make himself appear larger, smaller, or more or less meaning.  For the life of me I cannot think why his performance was not nominated for awards other than the industry's prejudice against genre films in general, or Shyamalan in particular. 

McAvoy apart this is just a very well acted film across the board from a cast of largely unknown actors.  It's also a film that is tightly plotted and does more with less. I was shocked at how low its rating was, but then again, it suggests rather than shows violence. It also has a commendably light touch with make-up and CGI.  Even in his final identity, McAvoy is still a visible, tangible person, rather than some Marvel-esque super-villian. I also loved how it takes the typical trope of teenage hot girls trapped by a killer but gives them agency and smarts, and does't ever show them gratuitously running around naked covered in blood. (ASSASSINATION NATION, I'm looking at you.)

TL-DR - this is one of the best films I've seen his year - admittedly belatedly - and now I cannot wait for GLASS.

SPLIT has a running time of 117 minutes and is rated PG-13. The film was released in 2016.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE - Crimbo Binge-watch #3

Director Steve Martino (ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT) has done an absolutely superb job of translating the joyous Peanuts cartoon strip to the big screen in a new CGI-animated feature. Written by Charles M Shulz' son and grandson, the script really captures everything we loved about the original comic strips, satisfying us with all the trademark themes and gags. 

In the main plot Charlie Brown falls instantly in love with the infamous Little Red-Haired Girl but can't pluck up the courage to speak to her. So he sets about trying to impress her by entering the school talent contest, then writing a book report on War and Peace, then learning to dance - only to be foiled at every turn. In the sub-plot, his faithful side-kick Snoopy also indulges in a romantic fantasy as the World War One Flying Ace, trying to rescue his love Fifi from the Red Baron.

In the midst of all this we get all the classics - Snoopy tackling Linus from his security blanket; Lucy dispensing advice from her booth; the kite-eating tree; "a dark and stormy night"; the classic music from Vince Guaraldi. Most importantly, the writers weave in the fantasy elements to reality - so the Red Baron's plane can rip up a real world book report. Added to this we have really beautiful animation - I loved the feeling of fuzzy fur on snoopy, for example. My only criticism is the choice of modern pop songs for the sound-track. The felt out of step with the nostalgic design of the movie - after all, kids don't talk on landlines anymore.  And I suspect that the music will make this film age far worse than the other Peanuts films. 

THE PEANUTS MOVIE is rated G and has a running time of 94 minutes. It was released in 2015. 

HAPPY NEW YEAR, COLIN BURSTEAD - Crimbo Binge-watch #2

HAPPY NEW YEAR, COLIN BURSTEAD is a darkly funny, very well observed  low budget British comedy from writer-director Ben Wheatley (FREE FIRE).  The conceit is that Colin Burstead (Neil Maskell) as has invited his extended family to a stately home for a New Year's Eve party. As with any good family drama, this exposes us to resentment, anger, jealousy, but also love and the hope of redemption.  Sam Riley (BRIGHTON ROCK) is particularly good as the black sheep of the family and Charles Dance is unusually avuncular as the paterfamilias. The feeling is Dogme with a sense of humour - raw, gonzo, truthful, sometimes brutal, but occasionally laugh out loud funny.  Well worth watching. 

HAPPY NEW YEAR, COLIN BURSTEAD has a running time of 95 minutes and was broadcast on British television this weekend.

THE LADY IN THE VAN - Crimbo Binge-watch #1

THE LADY IN THE VAN is the very funny, rather moving true story of an old homeless lady - Mrs Fletcher - who was taken in by the famous writer Alan Bennett.  Maybe "taken in" is too strong.  She lived in a ramshackle van, had no bathing facilities, and sold small items for money.  She parked up her van outside various houses in a street in Camden until Bennett took pity on her and let her live in his driveway and use his lavatory.   What begins as a kind of bizarre fascination turns into an odd sort of friendship, sustained over decades, culminating in an understanding of what drove her to madness, and a play, then film, for the author. 

The result is a film that is - typically Bennett!  Wry in its observations of English class niceties - the tolerance of a homeless woman by middle-class pretentious people who think they are somehow being charitable in their condescension - and yet that odd way into which English people will transform something unpleasant into a national treasure. And let's be clear about how unpleasant Mrs Fletcher's hygiene and habits could be!  

In front of the lens, Alex Jennings is superb as not just one Bennett, but two - as the author turns into his own interlocutor - a fantastic conceit that avoids the dreaded voiceover. Maggie Smith gives Fletcher more than just the Dowager Duchess' acerbic wit but also real pathos. And occasionally there's some provocative stuff about the demands that religion makes of us.  This film is both intelligent and moving - a real delight. 

THE LADY IN THE VAN is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 104 minutes. It was released in 2015.