Black Swan (2010)

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2017 #128
Darren Aronofsky | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Black Swan

Oscar statue2011 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Actress (Natalie Portman).
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing.



Described by director Darren Aronofsky as “a psychological thriller horror film”, Black Swan straddles the divide between classy Cinema and genre Movies as artfully as, say, a Hitchcock thriller. It’s the story of ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) who’s desperate to be the lead in her company’s production of Swan Lake. She’s suited to the White Swan but struggles as its black counterpart, a role newly-arrived rival Lily (Mila Kunis) seems perfect for. As Nina pursues perfection with a monomaniacal focus, she’s pressured by the lascivious director (Vincent Cassel) and her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), to the point where her sanity is beginning to crack…

Shot handheld on a mix of 16mm and video-capable HD DSLRs, Black Swan has a documentary look, often emphasised by its editing — at times it could almost pass for a fly-on-the-wall look behind the scenes of a ballet company. That’s not to say the visuals lack artistry, however. In particular, the constant presence and use of mirrors is fantastic — both thematically relevant and visually rich. Nonetheless, the documentary-ish look serves to make the film’s unsettling parts all the more effective, especially as they take a while to emerge and continue to sidle up on you as the film goes on. The final act is where everything really kicks off — the point of the rest is to build up to that; to establish and put in place and explain everything we need for a shocking, thrilling, somewhat unguessable climax. If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not, because the movie leading up to that point certainly has worth.

Reflections

I’m not particularly familiar with Swan Lake, but it would seem Black Swan’s story echoes it — to the point, even, that all the cast are credited with both their character in the film and their equivalent in the ballet (and I don’t just mean the dancers who also play that role in the ballet-within-the-film — Hershey, for example, is billed as Erica Sayers / The Queen”). This extends outwards in other ways, like how the music of Tchaikovsky is repurposed by the film to its own magnificent effect. That’s as well as featuring a typically striking score from Clint Mansell.

Natalie Portman is brilliant as the conflicted Nina. She’s introverted and sheltered but has chosen (or been railroaded into) a career that requires she perform publicly; she’s fragile and under-confident but in a profession that invites criticism from all sides; she’s been left repressed, uptight, and virginal, which clashes with her perfectionism when trying to embody a role that is none of those things. It’s a complex role with many subtle facets that Portman negotiates skilfully. It feels like a departure from who she is — proper acting, if you like — which makes the performance all the more striking. Conversely, Mila Kunis feels more in her comfort zone as Lily, the free-spirited, lively but imperfect, almost a bit of a bitch, company dancer that Nina is inexplicably drawn to. She holds her own against Portman when required, but it’s not exactly a role of equatable complexity.

Titular terror

Depending how you want to see it, Aronofsky’s film is an arty movie about ballet and the psychological effects of perfectionism, or a slow-burn horror-thriller with almost as many jump scares as instances of introspection. Best of all, it can be both those things.

5 out of 5

Black Swan was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Darren Aronofsky’s latest dark mind-bender, mother!, is released on UK DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow.

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The Mummy (2017)

2017 #82
Alex Kurtzman | 110 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, Japan & China / English & Ancient Egyptian | 15 / PG-13

The Mummy

As studios scramble to emulate Marvel’s shared universe success, there are some very odd ideas being thrown around. One of the least odd, really, was Universal’s Dark Universe, which intended to mix together their various famous horror properties. At first blush that sounds as forced as most of these ideas are, but back in the day they made tonnes of “Dracula Meets Frankenstein” type movies, so why not do it again today? All of these movies were to be reboots, obviously, and they arguably played it safe by beginning with a reboot of one they rebooted before — a re-reboot, if you will. The Mummy 2017-style bears no resemblance to its popular ’90s forebear, but I doubt that was anything like the ’30s version anyway, so all’s fair in love and blockbuster moviemaking.

You’ll notice the repeated use of the past tense in my opening paragraph. That’s because The Mummy flopped, both critically and commercially, and the Dark Universe plans have been thrown into doubt. (Some say it’s been definitely cancelled, but I don’t think that’s been officially confirmed.) While I wouldn’t go so far as to call that a shame, I didn’t necessarily think The Mummy was that bad. On the other hand, it’s not great either…

Tom Cruise realises he's made a terrible mistake...

This iteration of the concept sets its scene in the present day war-torn Middle East, where Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a mercenary who stumbles upon a hidden tomb, inside which is the well-protected coffin of an Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella). To cut to the chase, the dead lass wakes up, and brings all her supernatural powers to bear on destroying the world… or something. At the same time, Nick seems to have developed some kind of connection to her.

However, what sticks in your mind about The Mummy is not its eponymous villain, but all the time it spends trying to establish the aforementioned shared universe. Nick eventually comes into contact with a secretive organisation headed by Dr. Henry Jekyll — a name we all know, of course, so you begin to see the connections developing. You can’t help but feel more effort has been put into setting up this element than the movie that surrounds it, which therefore feels like little more than a delivery system for Dark Universe: Part 1.

But let’s try to judge it anyway. Primarily, it’s a tonal mishmash. It’s not exciting enough to satisfy as an action movie, but not scary enough to qualify as a horror. There’s humour, but it’s poorly integrated, feeling at odds with the dark tone. This is a PG-13 movie that kinda wants to be an R, but not so much that it’ll really commit to sitting on that PG-13/R line. Whole sequences and imagery seems to have been included just to look good in the trailer. For example, a bunch of business with a sandstorm in London — in the trailer it looked like it would be some sort of end-of-the-world climax, but it’s actually just a bit of a chase scene to get characters from one location to another.

“I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.”

Cruise isn’t given room to display his usual charm, instead wandering through the plot being told stuff and always threatening to tip over into being the villain. This movie always seemed like an odd choice for him — getting stuck into a franchise-within-a-franchise at this stage in his career — and, yeah, it remains an odd choice. Russell Crowe phones in his Nick Fury turn as Jekyll, while sidekicks Annabelle Wallis and Jake Johnson fight against the material as they struggle to make their mark. Boutella’s part makes feints at complexity, but is ultimately no deeper than you’d expect the Mummy’s role to be in a Mummy movie.

And after all that it doesn’t even end properly. It’s not even that it’s blatantly set up for a sequel (it’s not, really), but it’s clearly aware that it’s part of a shared universe and they might want some of these characters back. Well, that’s what this is all about, don’t forget — Dark Universe: Part 1.

Despite all that, there are hints of a decent movie here: the first act is fairly good, and while the humorous moments may sit oddly with the pervading tone, they’re mostly fine in themselves. But it’s too concerned with establishing a universe when it should worry about being a good yarn in its own right, meaning it fails to do either adequately.

Mummy mia, here they go again

When I started this review I was going to end up giving it a generous 3 (that’s what it’s down as in my 2017 stats therefore), but my memories of whatever I liked enough to nudge it upwards have begun to fade. The Mummy — and the Dark Universe it was meant to kick off — could’ve been something, if not great, then at least worthwhile. Shame.

2 out of 5

Get Out (2017)

2017 #104
Jordan Peele | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Get Out

Writer-director Jordan Peele’s timely horror (or, according to some people, horror-comedy — I’ll come to that) has topped various “best of year” critics polls, including those in Sight & Sound and Empire magazines, and is now part of the awards season conversation, having been nominated for Best Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes and is many people’s pick for an Oscar nod too. It’s a good film… but is it that good?

It’s the story of a guy, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), going to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. The only complication is that Chris is black and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), is white. But it’s okay, her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) are very liberal and keen to be welcoming to their daughter’s fella, even though they’ve accidentally arrived the same weekend as a large gathering of the family’s friends. And there’s something strange going on with their black housemaid and gardener too…

Get Out unfurls with a slow-burn tension, where you can’t be sure that Chris isn’t just being paranoid. Well, we can be sure, because we know we’re watching a horror movie. In terms of that genre, it’s effectively creepy without indulging in many outright scares — it foregrounds an encroaching sense of unease rather than pure terror. It’s as much about the mystery of what’s going on, and in that regard it’s neatly littered with clues that either you can piece together or, with hindsight (or a second viewing), marvel at all the little blatant hints you missed.

Everybody loves Chris

The aspect that’s attracted so much praise beyond the usual genre constraints is its commentary on contemporary race-related issues. What it has to say is clear without being batter-you-round-the-head obvious. It satirises the casual racism of white, liberal, “woke” (as I believe the kids are saying nowadays) people, with a particular view on something akin to cultural appropriation — the point where white acceptance or praise of black people and their culture runs into being racism, just not of the ‘traditional’ sort. It’s more nuanced and current than your old-fashioned KKK-ing.

It’s also where we run into the “comedy-horror” point. We usually think that satire = comedy, but Get Out demonstrates it doesn’t have to; or, at least, not in an overt, laugh-a-minute kind of way. I don’t think the comedy-horror label is accurate because, while it’s undoubtedly satirical, it’s not outright comedic. There’s a funny character/subplot about the antics of Chris’ friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), but as he’s not actually very funny I don’t think that lends much credence to the idea this is a comedy. There’s the odd other laugh here and there, but no more than you’d expect from any movie that wasn’t concerned with being po-faced for every single second. In other words, this isn’t Shaun of the Dead.

Everything's FINE

As a film it’s mostly well made, with good performances in particular from Kaluuya, Whitford, and Betty Gabriel as the family’s maid. The most effective moment comes at the end, an aspect that was changed after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which now effectively plays on the audience’s expectations for what’s about to happen. That said, while there’s the odd moment like that to praise Peele’s direction, I didn’t think it was especially striking on the whole. The film’s certainly not without glaring faults, like the grating ‘comedy’ character I already mentioned, or a deluge of exposition at the start of act three that’s disappointingly clunky.

This is why I’m not convinced by Get Out’s presence in those best-of-year conversations. Personally, I think it’s merely the timeliness of what it has to say that has put it in that position — perhaps, if we’re being cynical, even just white critics/voters being keen to signal their approval of its message. Or maybe the way it encapsulates and comments on things that are very pertinent in society right now is merit enough? Whether it’s the year’s best film or not, it deserves to be seen, not only for its commentary on contemporary issues, but simply as an entertaining horror-mystery.

4 out of 5

Get Out is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Life (2017)

2017 #123
Daniel Espinosa | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Japanese | 15 / R

Life

Aboard the ISS in the near future, a team of astronauts receives a probe returning from Mars with samples from the surface. Included among them are some living cells — the first proof of extraterrestrial life. The cells begin to quickly evolve into a living organism, thrilling the scientists… until it turns nasty and begins to attack the crew. That feels like a spoiler, but this is a sci-fi horror and that development is kind of inherent in the genre.

Playing like a cross between Gravity (a near-future thriller where space technology is almost identical to our present capabilities) and Alien (a violent alien lifeform attacks the crew of a space vessel), Life clearly aspires to be little more than a straight-up sci-fi/horror thrill ride, and on that score it’s a pretty effective piece of entertainment.

Of course, it’s not without its niggles. It could’ve nixed some of the stupid-ass dialogue, like one of the crew commenting “it’s so cold” while they’re shivering and their breathe condenses. More fundamentally, as the organism rapidly develops none of the scientists seem all that concerned by this, sticking to their initial feelings of awe and wonder. Surely there should be some worry about its potential? Perhaps the film was supposed to be saying something about humanity’s hubris when it comes to nature — that we wouldn’t worry about such a small organism, because why would we? — but I’m not convinced that’s a theme being actively invoked. Or maybe it was: comparing his movie to that other recent first contact flick, Arrival, director Daniel Espinosa notes that Denis Villeneuve’s film “is a great, beautiful, cinematic essay about philosophy. Mine is a rollercoaster with some underpinnings of philosophy.” Well, they’re under enough that you can ignore them entirely if you like. There are certainly some even bigger ideas it could’ve chosen to tackle — see the ghost of 82’s review for some interesting thoughts on that.

In space, no one can hear you rip off other movies

Still, we shouldn’t really judge a film for things it wasn’t aspiring to do. As a “rollercoaster”, this is decent entertainment. It builds to a helluvan ending too, which naturally I won’t spoil. That said, spoilers follow, because there are some interesting comments by Espinosa about the ending here. Two points jump out at me. One: the alien doesn’t kill David — why not? Espinosa says David didn’t fear it; in fact, he has a connection to it. Personally, I’d say that’s not apparent in the film at all. It would certainly make the ending more interesting if it were true, but I’m not convinced it was actually set up. Two: nowadays we’re so trained to expect sequels that we don’t consider the implications of ambiguous endings anymore (certainly not on blockbuster-sized movies, anyway). We don’t think about what it might mean, we just wait for a sequel to tell us. At best, we consider the ending in terms of “what’s the next two-hour genre-friendly story here?”, which is equally as limiting. He might well have a point there.

I have no idea if Life is getting a sequel to tell us what happens next or not. I believe the writers wanted one, but I’m not sure how well it did at the box office in the end. I’m not anxiously anticipating a follow-up, but I’d watch it. Life isn’t interesting enough to be a great movie, but it’s an entertaining thrill ride. My score is a smidge generous, but I did enjoy it overall.

4 out of 5

Life is available on Sky Cinema from today.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

2017 #142
David Slade | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

For the third Halloween in a row, I’ve subjected myself to true cinematic horror: a Twilight film. I suppose this one’s theoretically the turning point of the franchise: it’s the middle movie in the film series, while in the books it’s the penultimate instalment — surely in every regard placed to set up the final conflict. Well, you wouldn’t know it, because this is another Twilight film where very little happens.

The plot, such as it is, sees Bella (Kristen Stewart) trying to juggle her romantic relationship with vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) and her just-about-platonic friendship with werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner), which is tricky because the pair don’t get on owing to an ancient feud between their species. Just your regular high school problems, then. Meanwhile, a series of mysterious murders in Seattle have caught the attention of Edward’s de facto vamp family, because they reckon it’s probably not your bog standard serial killer, but rather something in their neck of the woods. (Their neck of the woods. Geddit? Neck of the woods. Nothing? Okay then.) What do they plan to do about it? Watch it… on the news… and… er… wait and see… if it comes near them… maybe?

So, that, but for two hours.

I know how to settle this... a stare off!

So yes, nothing happens — and yet, somehow, nothing happens less boringly than last time. I mean, it’s not great, but it’s not as bad. It actually has some passably good scenes and conflicts, for example. That said, it spends the whole movie getting to basically where the last one ended. The dialogue’s still shit as well. Especially the supposedly passionate stuff, which is like some 11-year-old-who’s-watched-too-many-movies’ idea of what would be romantic. Most of the scenes go on far longer than needed. Plots go round in circles (as I said, nothing happens). And there’s nothing as brilliantly awful as Face Punch, though Edward and Jacob do get one passingly amusing one-liner each. And I have absolutely no idea whatsoever why it’s called Eclipse. I suppose Twilight and New Moon didn’t mean a great deal either, but I still think they meant more than Eclipse.

This may sound a strange thing to say, but this one’s very much a romance movie. The first two must’ve been as well, because that’s what Twilight is, so I’m not sure why I felt it more this time. I suppose the first one had a lot on its plate establishing all the supernatural stuff, and New Moon had a lot of palaver building out the world further, mixing in werewolves and the vampire high council (or whatever). Eclipse does have the Seattle stuff, but that just pops up now and then in between Bella umming and ahhing over her relationships.

Team Abs

As to that, the story tries so. hard. to make you believe it’s possible Bella could change her mind and switch affections from Edward to Jacob — but did anyone ever really believe that was an actual possibility? The story just isn’t built that way. Before I watched the films, I could never understand why anyone would be Team Jacob. It seemed so obvious she’d end up with Edward, why waste your energy? But now, even still thinking it’s inevitable, if I had to pick a team it’d definitely be Team Jacob. The reason is Taylor Lautner. No, not because of his phwoarsome abs. I remember everyone being very surprised when Lautner joined BBC Three sitcom Cuckoo, but actually watching these films you can see he has at least some ability with comic timing. His character is also more down-to-earth and levelheaded than his vampiric rival. Put together, these traits make Jacob much more likeable than bloody Edward.

The rest of the cast are as much nonentities as ever. It’s no wonder it’s taken Kristen Stewart years to re-establish the positive career path she was on before Twilight. Original Victoria actress Rachelle Lefevre was fired because her schedule for another film overlapped, and her replacement is Bryce Dallas Howard. Although Victoria has been an antagonist throughout the series, and her storyline ostensibly comes to a head in this instalment, she’s barely present. Quite why they cast a relatively well-known actress in such a minor role, or why she agreed to do it, is a mystery. At least it doesn’t seem to have harmed her career.

Team Sparkles

Others have been less fortunate. I mean, Robert Pattinson still works, but in what lately? I thought the same about director David Slade, whose work here is perfectly serviceable while at no point being memorable. Previously he’d helmed well-received horror/thrillers Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, a promising start to his career. However, since taking the Twilight dollar (he’d previously slagged off the series, comments he tried to pass off as a joke when he signed on for Eclipse) he’s shifted to TV, starting off poorly with a raft of pilot episodes like This American Housewife (not picked up), Awake (ditched after a half season), Crossbones (cancelled after nine episodes), and Powers (only available on PlayStation). But more recently he’s been an executive producer and director on Hannibal and American Gods, and has a Black Mirror coming up. I guess the era of prestige TV is working out for him.

Anyway, back to Eclipse. For a movie in which so little happens, I found it surprisingly unobjectionable. It’s not good, but I’d say it’s the least-bad Twilight so far. Of course, it wouldn’t make any sense to watch it without sitting through the previous two first, so my assessment is even more damning with faint praise than it sounds.

2 out of 5

See you this time next year for Breaking Dawn Part 1… and maybe Part 2, just to get this thing over with.

The Exorcist (1973)

2017 #150
William Friedkin | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English & Arabic* | 18 / R

The Exorcist

Did you know The Exorcist was based on a true story? I didn’t, until I watched some of the special features on the Blu-ray release. “Based on” is a bit of a stretch, to be honest. “Inspired by” would be more accurate. But you get the sense from author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty that he believes all this stuff so much that he thinks “based on” would be fine.

The Exorcist does start out very plausibly. It’s about Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), a sweet 12-year-old kid living with her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) in Washington, D.C. But one day Regan begins to act oddly: delivering insults and soiling herself at a party; yelling obscenities; slapping her beloved mother; somehow causing her bed to shake uncontrollably… Doctors run tests, but they reveal nothing. The only suggestion they’ve left to give is that Regan may believe she’s possessed by an evil spirit, and that she might be tricked into believing she’s cured if the church will perform a little-known procedure called an exorcism.

Worried mother

Everyone’s so busy talking about The Scary Stuff when it comes to The Exorcist, no one ever tells you how low-key and grounded a lot of it is. Okay, the talking in voices and spinning heads and vomiting green gunk and bloody crucifix masturbation are pretty memorable, so fair enough. Before that, though, it’s more of a character drama, about a single mother struggling to handle what appears to be her daughter’s out-of-control mental health problems. Meanwhile, a priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), struggles with a crisis of faith brought on in part by his ailing mother. Naturally these two threads align when Chris calls on Karras to investigate Regan’s condition.

Another thing I’ve never heard about The Exorcist is how good Miller is. This is his film debut, before which he was a stage actor, but he delivers a very naturalistic performance as a man of the cloth who also has his head screwed on — his training in psychology keeps him suitably skeptical of what’s going on with Regan. Events conspire to challenge his point of view, of course. Karras has the clearest arc of anyone in the film, giving Miller the most scope to develop his role. I’d venture he’s the film’s most interesting character.

Father Karras

That’s not to dismiss Burstyn, who’s also excellent as the very together mom who begins to crack under the increasing strain of her daughter’s worsening, inexplicable condition. As said daughter, Blair’s performance is certainly memorable, though the potency of Regan is aided by special effects and voice work from another actress. Although second billed, Max von Sydow only pops in at the beginning and end in the titular role of Father Merrin. It’s no wonder someone later thought Merrin’s past was ripe for a prequel, because there’s a backstory there that’s only hinted at.

And no one ever says how little Tubular Bells is in it, either.

The thing people do say about The Exorcist is how scary it is. Tales of audiences fainting and running out during its initial theatrical run are the stuff of movie legend. Today its releases are branded as “the scariest film ever made”, with the justification of several polls that have named it thus. I can well believe that, in the early ’70s, it was indeed the most shocking film most people had ever seen, certainly from a major studio. The extreme bad language, the gruesome special effects, the morally depraved acts, and all of it happening to a child…

Regan... or is it?

It was surely an element of sensibilities being offended (especially in America), as much as it was actual horror, that provoked such radical reactions from audiences back in the day. Nowadays we’re a bit more deadened to those things — the last 40+ years have served up plenty of elaborate gore, and potty-mouthed pre-teen girls are more likely to be found in comedies (Hit-Girl is even younger than Regan when she utters the C word in Kick-Ass, for example). I also thought it frequently undermined its own intensity by cutting away from the scary scenes to more mundane stuff. Maybe the goal was to never give those scenes an ‘out’ — we always seem to leave them when supernatural stuff is still going on — but for me it killed the momentum that was building.

That’s not to say the horrific and shocking stuff is no longer powerful. What really works in its favour is how long the film spends being grounded and plausible — most of the first hour is a ’70s social drama about a child with a mental health problem. That level of realism helps the later horror scenes be all the more effective. They quite quickly transcend the realms of the plausible (unless you’re some kind of religious fanatic, I guess), but the grounded setup lends weight to them nonetheless. The climax in particular — the actual exorcism — might just be silly without the realistic world it’s been placed in. Instead, it’s a suitably tense climax.

The exorcism

Obviously it was the extreme stuff that caught people’s attention and earnt The Exorcist a reputation that it still trades off to this day. However, I’d say it’s best regarded, not as a fright-fest, but as a film about characters: the mother who’ll do anything for her child; the priest battling with a crisis of faith. It’s a drama about real people in extreme circumstances, it’s just that these extreme circumstances happen to be horror movie fodder. In this respect it’s such a film of the ‘70s, which I mean in the best possible way.

5 out of 5

The Exorcist was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

* IMDb lists half a dozen other languages, but Arabic’s the only one I remember being significant enough to earn subtitles. ^

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

2017 #129
Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller & Steven Spielberg | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG

Twilight Zone: The Movie

I can’t remember when I first heard of Twilight Zone: The Movie — certainly not until sometime this millennium — but I do remember being surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Why wasn’t it more often talked about? After all, here’s a film based on a classic TV series, directed by some of the hottest genre filmmakers of the time: John Landis just after An American Werewolf in London; Joe Dante just before Gremlins; George Miller fresh from Mad Max 2; and, most of all, Steven Spielberg, coming off a run that encompassed Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. I mean, Jesus, even if the movie wasn’t great then surely it should be well-known! It was only later still that I learnt about the infamous helicopter crash. Couple that with a mediocre critical reception and relatively poor box office results, and suddenly it’s no wonder no one ever talked about the film. My viewing of it was primarily motivated by attempting to complete the filmographies of Spielberg and Miller, but I’m glad I did because, on the whole, I rather enjoyed it.

As the original Twilight Zone was an anthology series, so is the movie — hence having four directors. Although the original plan was to have some characters crop up in each segment, thereby linking them all together, that idea didn’t come off. The end result, then, is really just five sci-fi/fantasy/horror short films stuck together — composer Jerry Goldsmith is the only key crew member to work across more than two segments. The advantage of that as a viewer is, if you don’t like one story, there’ll be another along before you know it. Because of that, I’ll take each part in turn.

The Trump Zone

The film begins with a prologue, directed by John Landis, featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd as a driver and a hitchhiker chatting about classic TV and scary stories. Although obviously the shortest segment, it’s good fun and sets a kind of comic tone — not one the rest of the film follows, to be fair, but it’s kind of effective in that it has a knowing wink to the audience: “we all know The Twilight Zone is a TV show. Now, here are four stories from it.”

Landis also directs the first full segment, Time Out, the only one of the four not adapted from an original TV episode. Basically, it’s about a Trump supporter. You might not have noticed that if watching before last year, for obvious reasons, but viewed now it’s kind of hard to miss. What’s depressing it that the point of the film is this guy’s views are outdated in 1983, and yet you have Trumpers spouting the same shit in 2017, three-and-a-half decades later. That aside, as a short moral parable it’s effective. It doesn’t have the ending that was scripted (thanks to the aforementioned tragedy), I think the conclusion it does have is actually more appropriate. It feels kind of wrong to take that view, because the only reason it was changed was that terrible accident. Obviously it wasn’t worth it just for this segment to have a better ending, but there it is.

Scary kid? Check.

Segment two, Kick the Can, is Spielberg’s, and anyone familiar with his oeuvre — and the criticism of it — will see that right away: it’s shot in nostalgic golden hues and contains positive, sentimental moral lessons. In fact, it’s so cloyingly sweet, it’s like a parody of Spielberg’s worst excesses. It was originally intended to be the last film in the movie, and you can see why: it would’ve formed a positive, upbeat finale to the picture. I’m not sure why they moved it — possibly because they felt it was the least-good. That’s what a fair few critics believe, anyway.

Personally, segment three was my least favourite. This is Joe Dante’s short, titled It’s a Good Life, and is about a woman who accidentally knocks a boy off his bike, gives him a lift home, and finds a pretty strange situation therein. I found it to be kind of aimless; weird for the sake of weird. It’s prettily designed and shot, with bold cartoon colours, but if I watched the film again I’d give serious thought to just skipping it.

The final segment remakes arguably the most famous Twilight Zone episode: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. It’s about a paranoid airplane passenger on a turbulent flight, who thinks he sees a monster on the wing. Naturally, no one believes him. I’ve not seen the original version so can’t compare, but director George Miller and star John Lithgow do a fantastic job of realising Richard Matheson’s story, loading it with tension and uncertainty — is it actually all in the passenger’s head? And if it isn’t, can they survive?

Fear of flying

On the whole, I liked Twilight Zone: The Movie more than I’d expected I would. Nonetheless, as a series of shorts, it’s destined to be a footnote in the career of all involved (even Landis has done a fair job of moving on from the controversy — as I said, I hadn’t even heard about it until relatively recently). The only truly great segment is Miller’s finale, but the others all have elements that make them worth a look.

4 out of 5

Death Note (2017)

2017 #115
Adam Wingard | 100 mins | streaming (4K) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18

Death Note

Something of a global phenomenon in the ’00s, Death Note started life as a manga, is perhaps best known for its anime adaptation, was adapted into a series of live-action films (I reviewed the first two last week), adapted again as a live-action TV series, and was even turned into a musical. Although it’s taken a while, finally the inevitable is here: an American remake. After passing through several studios, it’s wound up with Netflix, under the helmsmanship of Adam Wingard. Thus, I was hoping for the new film from the director of The Guest. Instead, I got the new film from the director of Blair Witch. And much like Blair Witch, this is a ham-fisted reimagining of a once-popular franchise.

This incarnation of the story concerns Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a Seattle high school student who one day discovers the mysterious Death Note, a notebook with the power to kill just by writing someone’s name in it. Goaded into using it by the demonic death-god Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), Light soon teams up with his crush Mia (Margaret Qualley) and they set about murdering criminals. Their actions become famous under the alias Kira, which they hope to use to establish a new world order. But hot on the case is a mysterious super detective known only as L (Lakeith Stanfield), who engages Kira in a battle of wits.

As with so many things nowadays, the US version of Death Note has been dogged by accusations of whitewashing. As seems to be the case at least half the time, these accusations are largely unfounded. If this had kept the Japanese settings and character names but given them white faces, fair enough, but it hasn’t — it’s relocated to America, with American characters. It’s no different to all the other new-country remakes that have always happened (and also goes on the other way, with US movies remade in Bollywood and Asia, we just don’t hear about them very often here).

Light vs L

Unfortunately, Death Note: America has genuine problems to contend with. Despite that reimagining status, it’s still understandably shackled to the broad shape of the original work. Consequently, it glosses over some of the more interesting implications of the premise in its rush to make Kira famous and introduce L. Partly that’s what happens when you condense so much story into just 100 minutes, but it’s also because it’s beholden to bringing in L and starting his cat-and-mouse game with Light. When I reviewed the Japanese live-action movies, I didn’t think Light and L’s battle of wits was as clever as the films clearly thought they were, and it’s even worse here.

There would seem to be more fertile and interesting ground for exploration in why Light and Mia are trying to establish a new world order — what exactly they think that means; what motivates them to do it; and how they intend to achieve it. On the whole, the film doesn’t seem to be making time to dig into the psyche of its characters — why they’re doing what they’re doing, how it changes them — instead just going through the motions of a thriller plot. It feels like it’s had 20 minutes of character stuff cut out that would grease the wheels of the plot. The worst offender is the climax: there’s no weight to the big finale because we’ve been given no time to care about these characters or their relationships with each other.

Ello, L

For all the faults of the way the other version I’ve seen executed Light and L’s chess-like interactions, at least they consistently involved Light using the Death Note and its rules to try to trick L. Here, after the eponymous book and its abilities have been established, it’s basically just used to control other people to make them forward the plot, only returning to its real purpose come the climax. This is another reason the focus on Light and L’s duelling doesn’t work here: at least the original thought they were both geniuses and behaved as thus; each of them was motivated by proving they were cleverer than the other, everything and everyone else be damned. Here, L is still some kind of savant, whereas Light seems a pretty normal teenager, motivated by… well…

So, in the original, Light does his utmost to keep the Death Note secret from everyone to protect his identity as its user. Here, almost as soon as he’s got it he blabs about it to the girl he fancies. Why? Same reason most guys try to show off to girls: because he thinks it’ll impress her. It’s a change of motivation, but okay, why not? But he’s given very little indication that such a thing would impress her. What if she’d been appalled and gone running to the police? She doesn’t, of course, because this is a geek’s fantasy, so she a) loves it, and b) within minutes is shagging him. (Presumably. This may be an 18 for gore, but sexy times are implied by no more than a little light clothing removal. Perhaps they just sat around in their undies while murdering people with their magic book, I dunno.)

Bloodthirsty crush

Believe it or not, Death Note is not a total washout. Indeed, the best things about the film are easily identified. Firstly, there’s Willem Dafoe’s voice performance as Ryuk. If you need a manipulative death-god, he’s a perfect choice. Secondly, the visual realisation of said death-god, a mix of strong CG and keeping him in the shadows. It’s light years more effective than the ’00s movies. On the downside, Ryuk’s role amounts to little more than a glorified cameo: after an initial appearance to explain the rules, he just pops up briefly to remind us he’s still a bother.

Thirdly, then, there’s the death sequences that occur on the first couple of occassions Light uses the Death Note. This film skips the “they just die of a heart attack” phase and goes straight for the “you can dictate how they die” jugular. In this version, that means a Final Destination-a-like chain of random events occur that make the deaths fairly amusing. Also, graphically violent — enough for that 18 in the eyes of the BBFC. These go AWOL again as the film has to get busy with its plot, which is a shame. Basically, someone should’ve tapped Wingard to make Final Destination 6.

Fourthly, and finally, the score is very likeable. It’s full of the ’80s horror movie synths you’d expect from the director of The Guest, though it’s undercut somewhat by a few bizarre song choices, mostly during the climax.

In the dark, no one can see your CGI

Having read a few reactions to the film online, it strikes me that on one hand you’ve got fans criticising it for not being faithful enough, while on the other you’ve got critics picking on it for things that I’d argue are inherent in the source narrative (at least based on what I’ve seen before). That doesn’t excuse this adaptation entirely — they’ve changed so much that fixing logic issues could definitely have happened too — but it’s an amusing juxtaposition of reasons for displeasure: it’s a film scuppered both by being faithful and by not being faithful. Unfortunately that means that, whether you’re comparing it to a previous version or not, it fails to be a coherent experience.

2 out of 5

Death Note is available worldwide on Netflix now.

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

2017 #28
Colm McCarthy | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

The Girl with All the Gifts

When George A. Romero invented the zombie subgenre in the ’60s, he was more concerned with allegory than blood ‘n’ guts. The latter has come to dominate, as it has with so much of the broader horror genre, but from time to time there’s still room for thoughtful contributions more befitting Romero’s legacy. This low-budget British film, adapted from a young adult novel, is one such effort.

As the film opens we’re introduced to Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young girl who sits in a concrete bedroom treasuring her photo of a kitten. Then soldiers enter and, at gunpoint, strap her to a chair, before wheeling her to a classroom with similarly restrained children. It’s just the beginning of a fantastic first act, full of atmosphere and intrigue as this world is rolled out before us. The less you know the better, though the chances of going in so cold that it’s a total mystery are sadly slim. If you’re intrigued enough already to check out the movie on my recommendation alone, stop reading now! Go watch it! If not…

So, as it turns out, we’re in the near future and a fungal disease has turned most of humanity into zombie-like creatures known as ‘hungries’. They spend most of their time in a dormant trance, but the smell of uninfected blood sends them wild and chompy. Melanie and her classmates are children who are infected but ‘normal’ — unless provoked, when they too turn into ravenous fiends — and they may hold the key to a cure. They live on an army base, but, when it’s overrun by hungries, Melanie and a ragtag group of survivors — including Paddy Considine’s sergeant, teacher Gemma Arterton, and scientist Glenn Close, who’s obsessed with finding a cure at any cost — hit the road in search of safe haven.

On the road

In the A.V. Club’s review, Katie Rife asserts that “once this initial premise is revealed and The Girl With All The Gifts leaves the base… this intriguing twist on zombie lore becomes subsumed by postapocalyptic road-trip cliché.” Well, yes and no. There are certainly some familiar beats, but I felt like those just gave a narrative shape to contain otherwise interesting ideas. I haven’t seen enough zombie movies to vouch for The Girl With All The Gifts being 100% original, but I’d certainly not come across some of its ideas before. That goes for both the way it handles the zombie action (though, of course, there are only so many ways you can depict the monstrous undead) and the social commentary, which, as much as anything, tackles the way children and adults interrelate.

The eponymous girl is fantastic — Melanie is an interesting character, and an interesting type of character too. She’s fantastically played by Sennia Nanua, who may be a talent to watch out for in future (I say ‘may’ because, per IMDb, she’s not got anything else coming up). The more familiar supporting cast are as superb as you’d expect. Glenn Close brings plausibility to what could’ve just been an Evil Scientist role, while Gemma Arterton provides the film’s heart as a motherly teacher. Paddy Considine’s role is best appreciated once all is said and done — he seems to be just the gruff soldier type, but snippets of his backstory are revealed right up until the end, revealing new layers to his character.

Special school

Director Colm McCarthy, a veteran of copious amounts of British TV (Spooks, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders, and much, much more), keeps the focus on the characters while also giving their world a fantastic sense of scale. The film was made for a pittance (for comparison, it cost about half as much as a single episode of Game of Thrones) but looks incredible. There may be some blurry edges on green screen shots and things like that, but I’ve seen less convincing effects work in movies that cost 50 times as much. Some of the footage was captured by flying over the remains of a town left to rot after Chernobyl, which lends a veracity to the post-apocalyptic vistas (and presumably saved a tonne on CGI). In terms of places you can actually take actors, it was partly filmed in Birmingham, which seems to be becoming a go-to location for dystopian / post-apocalyptic cityscapes (Spielberg’s forthcoming Ready Player One also shot there last year).

The zombie genre is an overcrowded one nowadays, even if you exclude the innumerable direct-to-DVD knock-offs, but there’s still space for well-made movies that can put the familiar tropes to greater use. The Girl with All the Gifts is an impressively mounted and performed production, and is worth watching if just for that horror-thriller kick. However, it also has something to say. I imagine Romero would be pleased.

5 out of 5

The Girl with All the Gifts is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Blair Witch (2016)

2017 #66
Adam Wingard | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | Canada & USA / English | 15 / R

Blair Witch

Twists in movies come in all shapes and sizes, but rarely do they come in the marketing. This latest film from the writer-director team behind You’re Next and The Guest was initially promoted as The Woods, only for its true name to be revealed at the first public screening. Quite neatly, during said screening they switched all the posters in the lobby for ones featuring the real title. It’s a shame it wasn’t possible to give every viewer that “oh shit, it’s a sequel to The Blair Witch Project!” surprise, because it’s probably the most interesting thing about the film.

Set however-many years after the original movie (and ignoring the first sequel, just like the rest of us have), it’s about the younger brother of one of the original missing documentary-makers, who comes to believe that his sister is still alive, somehow, in those woods, all these years later. So he sets out with a couple of friends to investigate, and of course one of them documents it, using all sorts of cameras — handheld, body mounted, even a drone. So, yes, this is once again a found footage movie. Well, they are all the rage.

In fairness, the first Blair Witch was the father of found footage, so it only makes sense to retain the form. However, I’d argue that everything that worked about the original movie did so because of how it was filmed — that the cast had been put in that situation ‘for real’ and the filmmakers were fucking with them. It gave it all a rough plausibility, which is largely what made it scary. Conversely, this Blair Witch feels scripted and constructed from the off. That’s fine for most movies, even found footage ones, but here it stands in sharp contrast to how the original worked, and I think it undermines this movie. Almost everything feels inevitable, and you know all the important stuff will be captured on camera (at least one major stunt in the original film was missed because the scared actors didn’t happen to point the camera at it).

A deserted house in the middle of a creepy forest? What could possibly go wrong!

As a horror movie, it does achieve moments that are kind of scary, but they’re undercut by a certain obviousness. I mean, of course a deserted house in the woods is scary when you know there’s a murderous witch inside and you’re limited to seeing it only from one character’s torchbeam-lit perspective. The whole movie is powered by similarly cheap jump scares: friends creeping up on each other; cameras glitching whenever they’re turned off; or, indeed, on — that kind of thing. The only genuinely terrifying bit, at least to me, was a final-act crawl through an underground tunnel. This is not a good movie for claustrophobics. And it only gets worse when you learn they made the actress do it for real.

In some ways Blair Witch is just a remake — a bunch of young people running around in the woods from something scary that we don’t see. Early on it seems like it will bring something interesting to the party with its use of new technology to update the concept: whereas in the original they had one simple video camera, here there are ear-cams with GPS, webcams they can mount in trees, even a drone. Sadly, none of these contribute anything except more angles for the editor to use. Plot-wise there’s a shiny new twist, though I wonder how many people guessed it a long time before the end. Credit to the filmmakers for not overplaying it — it’s there just to be noticed; it’s not highlighted when it’s revealed — but I was so expecting it that such credit doesn’t get them far.

Eh, that's a bit of a reach

According to, er, themselves in their commentary track, director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett actually had a lot of interesting ideas about and explanations for the inexplicable stuff that’s going on in the movie. Unfortunately, they buried these notions so deeply in the finished work that it feels as if they’re not there at all; and now there’ll be no sequel to expound upon them, and the guys were in such a bitter mood when they recorded the commentary (within days of the film being a critical and box office flop) that they don’t explain them, apparently out of spite. Well, I guess we’ll have to take their word for it, then.

Maybe if they had bothered to explore the implications of their new tossed-in ideas then there’d be something to appreciate here, but instead it’s just 80 minutes (and it feels longer) of shaky footage of people running around in the dark. I suppose that, as a horror film, some of it works in the most literal sense of being scary in the moment. But it doesn’t feel earned; it doesn’t feel like it’ll be haunting me later, in the way the most effective horror movies do — in the way the ending of the first Blair Witch did.

2 out of 5

Blair Witch will be available on Netflix UK from tomorrow. It’s also currently available to rent on Amazon UK at a discount for Prime members as part of Prime Day.