Review Roundup

This small selection may at first look a little disparate, including as it does two comedies, with release dates separated by a quarter of a century, and a horror movie. The two points of connection are that I watched them all last year, and I didn’t really enjoy any of them.

In today’s roundup:

  • Phantasm (1979)
  • National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
  • Step Brothers (2008)


    Phantasm
    (1979)

    2018 #92
    Don Coscarelli | 89 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Phantasm

    A cult classic horror that spawned a pile of sequels and numerous novelty-packaged disc releases, Phantasm is about a supernatural undertaker, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), who (to quote Wikipedia) “turns the dead of earth into dwarf zombies to be sent to his planet and used as slaves.” Sounds totes plausible, right?

    Well, implausibility is no sin — many great fantasy or horror movies feed off setups that are just as outlandish. No, the problem here comes from the storytelling, because what happens in Phantasm is resolutely illogical. None of it makes any sense. No one behaves plausibly. Is there a mythology? I don’t know, because it all seems random. It appears to operate on some kind of dream logic, wherein stuff… just happens. And then at the end it’s revealed that it was, in fact, all a dream! Eesh. Are either of those things ok? Telling a story with “dream logic”, maybe. But then again, why should that be ok? We can’t control dreams, so we can’t expect them to obey the rules of narrative; but films are consciously made, so surely they should aim for coherence? And as for an “it was all a dream” ending, that’s just about the most despised device in storytelling for a reason. (Of course, there’s an “or was it?!” final twist, because it’s a horror movie and that’s how they always end.)

    It doesn’t help matters that the film simply isn’t well made. No one can act. Characters turn up out of nowhere. Most of it is cheaply shot and uninterestingly edited. There are a couple of good bits of imagery, but the rest of the movie is so nonsensical that that’s all it is — imagery. There’s no meaning attached.

    And yet the Phantasm series has its fans (or, predictably, “Phans”). Perhaps, if we’re being kind, we can say it’s an acquired taste — you either get something from its strangeness or you don’t. Clearly there are people (“Phans”) who see something in it. I wasn’t one of them.

    2 out of 5

    Phantasm featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    National Lampoon’s
    Vacation

    (1983)

    2018 #140
    Harold Ramis | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    National Lampoon's Vacation

    Written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, Vacation certainly has strong pedigree (I’m not even going to begin to list all the classic comedies attributable to their names). It also spawned three sequels and a remake, so it’s clearly popular. Unfortunately, something about it didn’t click with me.

    It’s about a family going on a summer holiday; specifically, a cross-country road trip from Chicago to California, to visit Disney Walley World. Naturally, the journey doesn’t go to plan, and a series of episodic hijinks ensure. These include such hilarious escapades as meeting some black people (who of course steal their hubcaps); falling asleep at the wheel and careening through a town; hanging out with a cousin who French kisses his own daughter; and accidentally dragging their aunt’s dog along behind the car until it dies. Good times!

    There’s also a song by Lindsey “Fleetwood Mac” Buckingham, called Holiday Road, which is played again and again throughout the film. I started out hating it, but by the end I was listening to it on loop while I updated all my post-viewing lists. It’s sort of gloriously terrible. Sadly, I didn’t have the same Stockholm syndrome reaction to the film itself.

    2 out of 5

    Step Brothers
    (2008)

    2018 #204
    Adam McKay | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Step Brothers

    Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly star as two developmentally-stunted man-children who are forced to live together after the former’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) and the latter’s dad (Richard Jenkins) move in together.

    The movie relies on the notion that watching two 40-year-old men behave like bratty 10-year-olds will be constantly hilarious. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. Unlike the infamous recent collaboration between Ferrell and Reilly, Holmes & Watson, this effort does at least manage some funny bits, though they generally occur when it moves away from the primary conceit for a moment. It also has the most implausible sex scene this side of The Room, which is some kind of achievement, I guess.

    2 out of 5

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  • The Meg (2018)

    2019 #77
    Jon Turteltaub | 113 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

    The Meg

    Jason Statham vs. a giant prehistoric shark — what more do you need to know?

    Okay, well, despite the obvious pulp-blockbuster nature of this premise, it’s actually based on a novel, which was originally published in 1997 and so I guess arrived in a wave of post-Jurassic Park interest in man vs. prehistoric creatures thrillers. Well, Jurassic Park and the other obvious comparison, Jaws, were also both adapted from novels, so perhaps it’s not so weird after all. I’d never heard of the book before, but apparently it has a dedicated fanbase (there are multiple sequels), who were disappointed with this film because it makes some radical changes to the source material. Clearly, I’m not the right person to make that comparison.

    Judged as a film in its own right, then, I thought it was a ton of fun. You know what you’re getting into with that pitch, and doubly so if you’ve watched the trailer. This isn’t some thought-provoking docu-drama about “what if we really discovered a prehistoric creature still lived?” This isn’t even Jaws, a relatively grounded adventure movie about normal people defeating a larger-than-average killer shark. This is a movie about a super-high-tech underwater research facility that accidentally unleashes a prehistoric monster and then all the scientists and submariners and whatnot on board have to track it down and stop it. This is a move about Jason Statham fighting a giant shark.

    Stath vs shark

    All of that said, some people have criticised the movie for not being quite as daft or out there as they wanted from a B-movie-inspired effects spectacular. I guess that’s a real “your mileage will vary” situation. Personally, I had a lot of fun with it. It keeps things more grounded than the utter batshit craziness of, say, Sharknado, but it’s clearly still allowing itself to have fun with the situations and concepts. It also doesn’t feel too samey, which considering there are only so many ways to interact with a giant shark is some kind of achievement.

    Other criticisms I’ve read include that it’s too slow to get going, focusing on undersea rescues rather than getting straight to Stath-on-shark action. Again, this was something I actually liked about the film — that it allowed at least some time to build the Meg up as a mysterious unseen force (and, in the grand scheme of things, not that much time — this isn’t Jaws). It also gave the film a certain scope and scale. It’s not like this shark rocks up and they defeat it in an afternoon — the plot spread out over a couple of days, at least. I don’t know, there’s just something I like about that pacing.

    Also, the film is a Chinese co-production, and so features many major and minor Chinese characters, and the climax is set in the vicinity of a Chinese beach. I’ve seen people criticise this aspect of the film because… um… Yeah, not liking that aspect smacks of racism, let’s be honest. I’m not saying everyone who dislikes The Meg is a racist — that would be stupid — but some reviews I’ve seen come with this slightly weird sense that part of the reason they dislike it is because it’s 50% (if that) a Chinese blockbuster.

    Who fancies Chinese for dinner?

    At the end of the day, I come back to what I said at the start: it’s a movie about a giant prehistoric shark being unleashed and attacking humans, and Jason Statham has to fight it. That’s all. It delivered on that in spades for me and I had a great time with it. And I guess tied to that pulpiness, if you have the option and enjoy the effect, I thought it looked fantastic in 3D.

    4 out of 5

    The Meg is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    It Comes at Night (2017)

    2018 #55
    Trey Edward Shults | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    It Comes at Night

    Described by Kim Newman in his Empire review as “existing between a Sundance and a FrightFest film”, which is a neat way of putting “arthouse horror”, It Comes at Night went down very poorly with many viewers, seemingly because it was mis-sold by its trailers. As someone who went in pretty much cold, however, I thought it was very good.

    Sometime after some kind of contagion has wiped out civilisation, we’re introduced to a family — Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) — who’ve sequestered themselves in a secure house deep in the woods. But their existence is disrupted by the arrival of a couple (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) and their young son seeking refuge. Although Paul is deeply distrustful, he agrees to take them in. But is there some one, or some thing, else waiting for them in the woods?

    Well, I should be careful there, lest I slip into doing what the trailers did. I watched one after the movie, and it certainly wasn’t a great representation of the film. So was it wrong to advertise it as a horror movie? Yes and no. I mean, it’s not your typical horror flick, but it is moody and creepy and tense, and scary because of it. I’m tempted to compare it to something like The VVitch, though their styles do diverge as they go on (I could say how, exactly, but it might be construed as a spoiler). It partly depends how you define genre. You could argue It Comes at Night is actually a psychological thriller with a dash of sci-fi (thanks to its post-apocalyptic setting) — and it definitely is those things — but, functionally, it’s a horror movie. It’s built to unnerve and scare you. It’s only really once those immediate terrors are out of the way — i.e. when the film ends — that what it leaves you to chew over is its commentary on paranoia and trust.

    Distrust

    In the case of the latter, and the way it executes its sci-fi-ish setting, it all feels very realistic and plausible. That realism is underscored by the pace, structure, and characterisation. The combination of the writing and an array of good performances mean all the characters come across as believable, supportable people — there are no clear heroes and villains here. And even things that look like clues to solving some mystery turn out to be, if not red herrings, then functional dead ends.

    It’s a very well-made film on the whole. The cinematography by Drew Daniels looks incredible. Well, some of the daytime stuff just has a grainy, handheld, documentary-ish feel, which is appropriate and well done if fundamentally unremarkable; but everything in the house after dark — seemingly lit only by handheld lanterns and torches — looks fantastic. And all that darkness is suitably scary, of course. Plus film grammar nerds are going to love something subtle the visuals do later on, if they even notice it — it’s that low-key that it might pass you by, but it’s really effective. (Writer-director Trey Edward Shults discusses what it is, and why they did it, in this interview. I had so much of that article copied into my notes for this review that I decided I may as well just share the whole thing.) I also liked the score by Brian McOmber. Sometimes it feels a mite familiar from other movies of this style, but it remains highly effective — not overblown, but atmospheric, without being a mere background hum.

    The best way to see It Comes at Night is as cold as possible — perhaps off the back of a positive, accurate review, say. A lot of the low viewer scores and negative comments do seem to stem from being mis-sold by the trailers, and I hope that, divorced from that, the film will be able to latterly find an appreciative audience; one not interested in gore and jump scares, but in tension, paranoia, and the psychology of fear.

    4 out of 5

    The Silence (2019)

    2019 #58
    John R. Leonetti | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Germany & USA / English & American Sign Language | 15 / PG-13

    The Silence

    A 15- / PG-13-rated horror movie in which the world is under attack from creatures who hunt and kill via sound, and we follow a family who attempts to survive by hiding in a remote farmhouse, aided by the fact they’ve all learnt sign language to communicate with their deaf teenage daughter.

    If you’re thinking “wait a minute, that’s a description of A Quiet Place,” you’re right, it is. It’s also a wholly accurate summary of this new direct-to-Netflix film.* Yes, really, they are that similar. At first glance it seems utterly ludicrous that Netflix would release such a blatant rip-off, especially just one year after the previous film; but, as ever, there’s a little more to it than meets the eye: The Silence is based on a novel published in 2015, and filming began back in September 2017. It seems it got unlucky, and is now doomed to be dismissed as no more than a shameless rip-off. But while it’s not The Silence’s fault that A Quiet Place beat it to the punch, it is the film’s own fault that it’s not very good.

    The real problem here seems to be the screenplay. John R. Leonetti’s direction is fine, if unremarkable, and there are decent performances, particularly from leads Kiernan Shipka and Stanley Tucci, but they’re all saddled with a poorly rendered narrative. Early on, backstory is dumped via some random teenage-diary-level voiceover narration, making sure to shoehorn in some information that we then never actually need to know. One part of that asserts something along the lines of “everyone has a story of where they were when it happened; this is our story,” and then just minutes later we cut away to an event happening that’s completely unconnected to the main story. To make matters worse, it only does that once. It’s like they could only come up with one other idea for what might be going on during this disaster.

    Just going for a nice family walk

    The way The Silence handles its deaf character is another case in point, especially when contrasted with A Quiet Place. The latter embraced its deaf character and the family’s sign language communication (far more of the dialogue was signed than spoken), whereas The Silence sees to be doing its best to avoid or cover for that fact: she only went deaf when she was 13, so she still speaks, and she can lip-read so well people that other people don’t always bother signing to her either. There’s a bunch of little moments that undermine it as well. For example, at one point she has a video call conversation with her boyfriend, when for reasons of both situation (she’s sat in the back of the car with her family) and character (she’s deaf) it would make more sense for them to be texting. But later, the film flips all this on its head: once they full accept they need to stay as quiet as possible, they start mouthing things and signing all over the place, but the film doesn’t bother to subtitle it… although, ironically, if you turn on the hard-of-hearing subtitle track, it is subtitled. What a mess.

    Even coming in the wake of A Quiet Place, The Silence had a chance to mark itself out by telling a slightly different story: here the event is just beginning, so we’re witnessing the stuff the other film skipped over. Except A Quiet Place skipped it for good reason: we’ve seen this “the apocalypse begins” rigmarole in many films before. The Silence doesn’t have any significantly new perspectives on it. Eventually it introduces a cult of religious nutters to threaten the family, but it does so with less than half-an-hour of the film left, consequently racing through to a conclusion at breakneck speed. It’s weirdly rushed after the almost methodical hour that preceded it.

    It’s not an unmitigated disaster — there are moments that work, and Shipka and Tucci are both very watchable — but the overall concoction is poor, with shortcomings that are only emphasised by how well it was done in A Quiet Place.

    2 out of 5

    The Silence is available on Netflix now.

    * Unless you’re in Germany, where it’s instead getting a theatrical release next month. ^

    Resident Evil (2002)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    Resident Evil

    Survive the horror

    Also Known As: Biohazard (in Japan — the film uses the original title of the game it’s based on in the country it originated from, appropriately enough.)

    Country: Germany, UK, France & USA*
    Language: English
    Runtime: 100 minutes
    BBFC: 15
    MPAA: R
    * The end credits call it “a German/British co-production”. IMDb adds the other two.

    Original Release: 15th March 2002 (USA)
    UK Release: 12th July 2002
    Budget: $33 million
    Worldwide Gross: $102.98 million

    Stars
    Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element, Hellboy)
    Michelle Rodriguez (The Fast and the Furious, Avatar)
    Eric Mabius (Cruel Intentions, The Crow: Salvation)
    James Purefoy (Mansfield Park, Solomon Kane)

    Director
    Paul W.S. Anderson (Event Horizon, AVP: Alien vs. Predator)

    Screenwriter
    Paul W.S. Anderson (Shopping, Death Race)

    Based on
    Resident Evil, a video game by Capcom, directed by Shinji Mikami.


    The Story
    After a virus kills all the employees at the underground research facility of Umbrella Corporation, a team of commandos are sent in to contain the outbreak. But to do that they’ll have to fight the facility’s megalomaniacal supercomputer, plus all the employees, who aren’t exactly dead after all…

    Our Hero
    Alice wakes up in her mansion with total amnesia… but soon a bunch of military operatives are whisking her along into a life-or-death situation, which it turns out she’s equally trained for herself.

    Our Villains
    The undead! Hordes of ’em, as always. Plus an evil supercomputer who controls the entire facility and speaks with the voice of a little girl, because why not. Oh, and we know someone deliberately released the virus — could they now be part of the team investigating the facility? Hmm, I wonder…

    Best Supporting Character
    Rain is just one of the commandos, but, as played by co-billed Michelle Rodriguez, she gets the lion’s share of the best lines. (I mean, the dialogue is hardly sparkling, but what good lines there are, she gets. Maybe it’s all in the delivery.)

    Memorable Quote
    Rain: “All the people that were working here are dead.”
    Spence: “Well, that isn’t stopping them from walking around.”

    Memorable Scene
    With the team separated, Alice is exploring the facility alone and comes across some empty animal cages… and, shortly thereafter, the dogs that used to live in them… who are now zombie-dogs out to eat her, obviously. It’s mainly memorable for this bit:

    Memorable Music
    The score, co-credited to habitual genre composer Marco Beltrami and Goth rocker Marilyn Manson, was explicitly influenced by John Carpenter’s early electronic work, albeit given a very ’00s techno/rock spin by Manson.

    Letting the Side Down
    There’s so much stuff some would put in this category, but the main jarring point is some middling ’00s CGI. It’s not outright bad (like, say, the Rock-scorpion-thing in The Mummy Returns), but it definitely shows its age.

    Previously on…
    The first Resident Evil video game was released in 1996. The film is more “inspired by” than adapted from it. Multiple sequels to it came out before the movie finally hit the big screen, and even more have followed since, not to mention various spin-off novels, comics, animated films, and other stuff, like a themed restaurant in Tokyo.

    Next time…
    Five sequels followed over the next 14 years. Before the series-concluding final film had even made it to home media, a reboot was announced. That’s gotta be some kinda record, even for Hollywood.

    Awards
    2 Saturn Award nominations (Horror Film, Actress (Milla Jovovich))
    3 Golden Schmoes nominations (Most Underrated Movie of the Year, Horror Movie of the Year, Best T&A of the Year — you might read that last category and think “only in the ’00s!”, but I checked and they still award it today)

    Verdict

    Writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson has managed to sustain a lasting career out of making movies no one seems to really like. With a CV full of video game movies (Mortal Kombat, multiple Resident Evils, the forthcoming Monster Hunter), and B-movie do-overs (Death Race) and emulations (AVP), he’s a bit like a bigger-budgeted, less-objectionable version of Uwe Boll (remember him?). Anyway, the first Resident Evil is actually one of his better efforts. I’ve never played any of the games so have no idea of its faithfulness (“not very” is my impression), but Anderson took inspiration from early John Carpenter movies to create a lean action/thriller/horror flick (again, leaning into those B-movies), which drives the viewer from set piece to set piece with quickly-sketched characterisation (or, in many cases, none at all) and a mysterious backstory to be uncovered. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a solid 90-minutes-and-change genre fix.

    Mandy (2018)

    2019 #34
    Panos Cosmatos | 121 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Belgium / English | 18

    Mandy

    Words feel inadequate to describe Mandy, the sophomore feature from writer-director Panos Cosmatos, the son of George P. Cosmatos, who directed the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone — films which are not helpful comparisons here, I hasten to add. You could call Mandy an action movie, of a sort, but it’s unlike either of those. It’s not like a whole lot else, really.

    Let’s start with the plot. I’m not sure Cosmatos did, but we will. Set in the mid ’80s, it centres around Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and his girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), who live happily in the back of beyond somewhere in the United States. One day a group of Christian cultists happen to drive past Mandy, and their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), takes a shine to her. With the aid of a demonic biker gang, Sand and co accost Red and Mandy for some nefarious cult-ish purpose. Naturally it does not end well, sending Red on a nightmarishly surreal journey of revenge.

    I said Mandy could be considered an action movie, which is true: Red’s revenge naturally leads to some violence, which in this case often come at the end of fights. But if you come just for the action you’re liable to leave unsatisfied, because Cosmatos definitely makes you wait for it. Some of it does satisfy on a visceral, B-movie level (there’s a showdown in a quarry I shan’t spoil by detailing), but its purpose is not to revel in combat.

    Nic Cage gripping his huge weapon

    Rather, it is very much a horror movie. Not in terms of the obvious connotations of the genre — there’s no supernaturally-powered serial killer, no vampires or werewolves, no jump scares — but in the unnerving atmosphere the film sets out to create. This is what I meant when I said I’m not sure Cosmatos started with the plot: there’s a definite story here, and characters and emotional arcs within that too, but the primary goal seems to be the mood that’s generated and the feelings that instills in the viewer. It’s possible Cosmatos may have bigger ideas on his mind beyond that — some reviewers seem obsessed with the notion that the film wants to explore philosophical concepts but doesn’t do it very well. Perhaps they’re right. I didn’t see it that way, however, taking the whole affair as simply an inescapable dive into a fever dream nightmare experience, where the aesthetics and the sensations they create are the point.

    Certainly, a good many elements are on board with this twisted perspective. The performances are certainly in the right space, with Nic Cage going full Nic Cage as he travels deeper into the nightmare, the impact of his barminess emphasised by him being fairly normal at the start. As the cult-leading big bad, Roache steps up to the plate of trying to equal Cage’s insanity, and I’d say he gets there — an impressive feat. Around them, Cosmatos lets thing unfurl at a leisurely, dreamlike pace. Some will say it’s too slow and succumb to boredom, but I think it’s very deliberate — though I will certainly allow that it does go too far in this regard at some points.

    Crazy cultists, crazy colours

    Further to that, he blends in a lot of surreal and fantasy-inspired imagery and visual flourishes, with Benjamin Loeb’s photography often pushing into extremes of colour (lots and lots of red), lens flare (so much more effectively than anything J.J. Abrams has ever been responsible for), and a deliberately-created haziness that, once again, the best descriptor for is “dreamlike”. That said, the shot-on-film, pushed-to-extreme aesthetic also helps evoke low-budget ’80s fantasy/horror films, in a kind of race-memory way — I couldn’t give you specific examples of what films I feel its emulating, but there’s something about the overall style that gives that vibe. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie score also hits those same beats, in terms of both the era recreated and the film’s own unsettled atmosphere.

    Mandy is today’s premiere on Sky Cinema, which feels like an ill fit to me. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I always feel like Sky Cinema (and by extension its viewer base) is much more focused around mainstream blockbuster kind of movies, especially for a Saturday premiere. Instead, it feels like Mandy should be making its TV debut on Film4 at about 11pm in the middle of the week (I won’t be surprised if that’s where it ends up getting its first network TV airing). I can see some tuning in expecting a violent revenge action-thriller and giving up after a few minutes of its particular weirdness. For those on its wavelength, however, it’s an experience (and it’s definitely an experience) that’s thrilling in very a different way.

    5 out of 5

    Mandy is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Hereditary (2018)

    2019 #19
    Ari Aster | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Hereditary

    Unless I’m forgetting something, I think Hereditary was the most-discussed, most must-see horror movie of 2018, so if, like me, you’re only watching it now, you’re late to the party. Still, as with most horror films, the less you know the better for its effectiveness (not to mention there are so significant unexpected developments in the story, which even the marketing managed to hide for a change), so I’ll keep this review spoiler-free.

    The film centres around a family living in a remote-looking part of Utah: mother Annie (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her 16-year-old son Peter (Alex Wolff), and 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). After Annie’s sometimes-estranged mother dies, various family members begin to see and experience odd things, and… well, like I said, the less you know the better. Hereditary is the kind of horror movie that relies on the mood it builds up to unnerve you, so if you have too much of a head-start on the plot it’s like crippling the film’s ability to suck you in.

    I do think it’s perhaps important to understand what kind of movie this is, though, because many of the negative reactions I’ve read seem to stem from misaligned expectations. Hereditary plays almost more like a family drama than a horror movie for a good while, albeit one with some scary moments and a general air of unease; of something about to go very wrong. You’ve likely heard how good Collette is in the film, how many people wanted her to get an Oscar nom, and this is really why. The storyline gives her a plausible character in a state of extreme emotional strain, and she plays this conflicted, broken woman with just the right balance of subtlety and explosive emotion. Credit, too, to the rest of the lead cast, who are more understated, but in a way that brings necessary balance. They may be less showy, but their contribution is vital. First-time writer-director Ari Aster has been hailed as a great new voice in horror filmmaking, but I’d wager if he went on to do straight dramas we’d be just as fortunate.

    Toni Collette

    As things go on, naturally the background creepiness increasingly edges into the foreground. There are even jump scares that got me, and I can’t remember the last time a horror movie managed to get me with a jump scare — and one of them was purely auditory. This movie made me begin to hate my surround sound system. If you watch with out one, you are losing some of the impact, frankly. But even worse than the jumps are the things you see coming, or gradually come to notice are there; the stuff you see but then have to wait for what’s going to happen. There are situations and images here that will haunt your memories after viewing. It’s this overall unsettling atmosphere that will keep you on the edge of your seat for much of the runtime; more like, say, The Shining than a blood-and-guts fairground ghost ride.

    If there’s one place it missteps, it’s perhaps the final act. Some people have accused it of a tonal shift here, or even of being “goofy”. I agree that it spirals quite quickly from “family drama with a bit of the supernatural” to bringing everything to a head, and many of the most outright “horror” bits are in this final act, but it still kept me uncomfortably on edge. (I know I said I’d keep this spoiler free, but, fair warning, I’m going to allude to the ending now. Jump to the final paragraph to avoid all that.) The only time that tension dissipated was in the very last scene, which I don’t think was the intention — it’s not meant to come as a relief, but by finally answering some questions and putting some things out in the light, it kind of lets you come to terms with them. It’s also a little, for want of a better word, daft; or, as that other person said, goofy. Most of Hereditary is truly unsettling, even when it’s not being outright scary, so it’s kind of a shame it didn’t have a final moment that maintained that unease.

    Milly Shapiro

    I say it “answers some questions”, but it’s not an exposition-fest that explains everything that’s been going on. That may well lead you to start interrogating the plot afterwards to fill in some of the gaps, and I’m not sure it all hangs together. I’m all for films that leave audiences to use their imagination and intelligent thought to fill in holes themselves (and by “holes” I don’t mean “plot holes”, just things the film hasn’t explicitly explained), but when you start trying to plug gaps and find it doesn’t add up, maybe the film should’ve explained something more. Or maybe it’s a movie about the unknowable and so, of course, we can’t know it all. An individual’s own taste will vary on how much this matters: some people won’t spend any time turning the story over after the film ends, in which case it’s conclusive enough as it is; others can write it off as, as I said, the unknowableness of the supernatural; others still might find the apparent gaps undermine the whole experience. I sit somewhere between the latter two stools, because I don’t think you notice the gaps until you begin to think back over the logic of what must’ve occurred, and I don’t think the lingering questions retrospectively undermine the potency of the movie-watching experience, but it is a shame it doesn’t seem to all add up.

    It’s these questions that were going to hold me back from giving Hereditary full marks, but I’m not sure that’s fair. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. Even then Hereditary’s destination isn’t bad, it’s just not perfect. And the journey to get there… As a horror movie, it’s one of the most genuinely unsettling I’ve seen for some time, with imagery that makes my hair stand on end just remembering it. It’s all the more effective for the way it grounds itself in real-life tragedy, with a powerhouse performance from Collette that, yes, if it were in a straightforward indie drama would surely be a frontrunner this awards season.

    5 out of 5

    Hereditary is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from today.

    The Ragtag Review Roundup

    My review backlog has got a bit silly: there are currently 128 unposted reviews on it, dating back to stuff I watched in January 2018. I was hoping to really get stuck into that as 2019 began, but I’ve been busier than expected. Anyway, I’ll keep trying — and here’s a start, with a real mixed back of films that have basically nothing in common.

    In today’s roundup:

  • American Psycho (2000)
  • Logan Lucky (2017)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)


    American Psycho
    (2000)

    2018 #66
    Mary Harron | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    American Psycho

    The film that made Christian Bale’s name sees him play Patrick Bateman, a high-flying New York banker with psychopathic tendencies — well, that just sounds like all those Wall Street types, right? Except hopefully they’re not actually engaging in literal killing sprees, unlike Bateman.

    While the murdering stuff may look like the draw, American Psycho is more interesting as an examination of the corporate mentality. It manages to be remarkably insightful, satirical, and terrifying all at once. Take the scene where they compare business cards, for instance: it’s ridiculous how much interest and importance these guys are placing in little cardboard rectangles with their name and number on, and yet you can believe such business-wankers would care about it. The anger Bateman feels when other people’s cards are considered classier than his is palpable.

    It’s a great performance by Bale across the board — so well judged, despite being barmy. It’s also interesting to observe the links between this and his version of Bruce Wayne, which is a wholly appropriately connection. I mean, who’s more of an American psycho than a guy who spends his days pretending to be a playboy businessman and his nights dressing up as a bat to beat up bad guys? I’m sure someone must’ve already developed a theory / amusing trailer mashup connecting the two films…

    The only thing that really let the film down for me was its final act. No detailed spoilers, but while I thought the rest of the film was engagingly made, the ultimate lack of resolution felt empty. To me, it seemed like it didn’t know how to end.

    4 out of 5

    Logan Lucky
    (2017)

    2018 #65
    Steven Soderbergh | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Logan Lucky

    Two brothers, whose family has a historical proclivity for bad luck, decide to rob one of the US’s largest sporting venues, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, during one of its quieter events. But when the situation changes, they end up having to pull the job off during the biggest race of the year.

    Director Steven Soderbergh’s return to the heist genre a decade after Ocean’s Thirteen is something to be noted; and while Logan Lucky is a very different kind of heist movie (there’s none of that trilogy’s Hollywood glamour to be found here), it’s a more successfully entertaining movie than either of the Ocean’s sequels.

    Like them, it’s not terribly serious, instead ticking along as generally quite good fun — though there’s a scene with Take Me Home, Country Roads that’s quite affecting. Between this and Kingsman 2, I’m left to wonder how that wound up becoming just about the most emotional song ever recorded…

    Anyway, the showpiece heist is clever, in its own way, and rolls around sooner than I expected — it’s funny to read some people criticise how long it takes to get to, because I assumed it would be Act Three. Instead, the film constructs a post-heist third act that was the only time it really got too slow for me, though it does eventually reveal a purpose that was kinda worth the wait. That said, the whole thing might benefit from being a little bit tighter and shorter — ten minutes trimmed across the pre- and post-heist acts might make it zing just that bit more.

    4 out of 5

    A Nightmare on Elm Street
    (1984)

    2018 #71
    Wes Craven | 87 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    A Nightmare on Elm Street

    It may be regarded as a horror classic, but I have to admit that I found A Nightmare on Elm Street to be a crushing disappointment. To me, it seemed to be a pretty poor movie (all weak: the acting, the dialogue, the music, the timescale events supposedly occur in) with some fantastic imagery. Director Wes Craven was a master, of course, and he manages to construct some truly great shots and moments amid a dirge of mediocrity. There’s a lot of nonsensical stuff too. I guess “dream logic” is meant to excuse it, but… eh.

    I do really like that poster, though.

    3 out of 5

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    (1948)

    2018 #6
    John Huston | 121 mins | TV (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

    Set in the mid ’20s, two American drifters in Mexico (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) team up with an old and experienced prospector (Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father) to hunt for gold in them thar hills. Along the way they have to contend with rival prospectors, violent bandits, and — most dangerous of all — their own suspicions and greed.

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre blends genres like there’s no tomorrow: it’s been described as a plain drama, an adventure movie, a neo-western, it’s included on film noir lists… Of course, depending which angle you look at it, it’s all of the above. It’s both an exciting adventure movie and a character-centric exploration of the effects of greed. In depicting that, Bogart’s performance is excellent, though Huston Sr threatens to steal the show. Poor Tim Holt is overshadowed by them both, even though he gives a likeable turn.

    5 out of 5

  • Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

    2019 #11
    Dan Gilroy | 112 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Velvet Buzzsaw

    The team behind neo-noir modern classic Nightcrawler (writer-director Dan Gilroy, stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, cinematographer Robert Elswit, among others) reunite for this direct-to-Netflix genre mash-up — it’s part art-world satire, part mystery-thriller, part horror. The Verge described it as “Robert Altman’s Final Destination”, and that so succinctly articulates what the film reminded me of that I decided to just lift it. Well, just pilfering someone else’s work is in-keeping with the film’s themes, at least.

    Set in the world of high art, it stars Gyllenhaal as all-powerful critic Morf Vandewalt, whose reviews can make or break sales worth millions of dollars, plus the careers that go along with that. One person his tastes always align with is prominent dealer Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), whose assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is falling out of favour due to relationship woes. But when her reclusive neighbour dies, she finds his apartment full of striking and original artwork, which she promptly steals. Mort is bowled over by their quality, Rhodora muscles in on the sales, and soon the deceased artist is a sensation. But there’s more to his disturbing work than meets the eye, and soon people start dying…

    So far so Final Destination, but not very Robert Altman, I know. The latter comes more in the execution than the subject matter, in particular that this is really an ensemble piece — the marketing pitched Gyllenhaal as the lead, I guess because he’s the biggest and most marketable name, but Ashton’s role is at least as large and central, if not more so, for example. Plus, as well as those two and Russo that I’ve already mentioned, there are significant roles for Toni Collette (as an art buyer for a museum), John Malkovich (as an uninspired elder-statesman artist), Natalia Dyer (as an intern struggling to break in), Billy Magnussen (as a handyman who wants to be an artist), Tom Sturridge (as a rival dealer), and Daveed Diggs (as an up-and-coming artist everyone wants to sign). Before the thriller and horror elements come into play, this spread of characters makes the film seem much more like a portrait of the art world from multiple different perspectives.

    Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining

    Gilroy has specifically cited Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player as an influence on how he approached things. By complete coincidence, I watched The Player just a few days before this, and so that similarity was very clear to me. That said, Gilroy’s lack of experience relative to Altman perhaps shows through. Where The Player was very pointed and effective in its satire, Velvet Buzzsaw takes more of a vague, scattershot view of the contemporary art scene. Gilroy does have a specific theme in mind — the disjunct between art and commerce, and their negative effects on each other — which manifests in various ways (it’s part of the film’s horrors as well as its satire), but that seems slightly disconnected from the Altman-esque “different perspectives” approach. Having so many key characters does lend a slightly different feel from what you might expect, but it doesn’t lead to the same kind of forensic dissection that Altman was capable of.

    It’s just one aspect of the film that seems somewhat muddled. It’s not fatally flawed, but there are things about it here and there that just don’t seem to add up. It’s almost as if scenes had been arbitrarily removed; not ones that particularly affect the plot, but maybe ones that affect the details. For example, at one point Mort exclaims that he’s been seeing strange things recently, but the only evidence we’ve seen of that came with the thing that prompted his exclamation. These kind of vague, not-quite-right bits pop up now and then. You’d almost wonder if it had something to do with the film’s horror side, like it was trying to be disquieting, but it doesn’t correlate or connect up to the actual horror bits.

    About to connect with the film's horror bits

    And yet, despite that, it’s so good in places. In particular, it looks gorgeous, especially in UHD. That’s how Elswit has shot it, of course, but also some of the striking visual ideas Gilroy throws into the mix. His screenplay definitely has its moments also. One of Mort’s first reactions to the startling work Josephina has unearthed is that “critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” which is just begging to be quoted in reviews. That line was in the trailer, so it’s already threatened to take on a life of its own outside the film, but it’s certainly not the only meme-in-waiting that’s thrown up. “The admiration I had for your work has completely evaporated” is another choice example. Heck, about half the rest of the dialogue is as well, never mind some reaction shots.

    Sometimes, star ratings really aren’t nuanced enough to represent one’s reaction to a film. There are bits of Velvet Buzzsaw I adored — performances, scenes, individual lines, the cinematography — at a level normally found in a five-star film. But there are other things it fumbles, like the way the story sometimes jumps as if scenes have been deleted, or the way it doesn’t seem to have an answer for some of its mysteries, or the way the trailer spoilt pretty much everything (not a fault of the film itself, I know, but still a grievance). Some of those err down towards a three-star experience. It’s quite frustrating in that respect. Overall, there’s enough I liked that I’m going to give it a four, albeit a cautious one.

    4 out of 5

    Velvet Buzzsaw is available on Netflix now.

    Unsane (2018)

    2018 #219
    Steven Soderbergh | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.56:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Unsane

    Probably the best-known thing about Unsane is that Steven Soderbergh shot it on an iPhone. Well, he’s not the first person to shoot a feature on a phone, nor will he be the last, but I guess he must’ve been the most high-profile. It’s a shame that’s all people seemed to talk about, though, because the content of the film is worth a look too.

    It’s a psychological horror-thriller starring Claire Foy as Sawyer, a young professional woman struggling with a past trauma, who tries to simply get an appointment with a counsellor but ends up accidentally committing herself to a mental hospital. Although initially only in for a 24-hour assessment, her attempts to get out are only seen as further proof she has problems, and her ‘voluntary’ stay is extended against her will.

    This early part of the film plays more like a drama than a horror movie, in that it’s fairly grounded in plausible reality — it doesn’t seem to be some nefarious scheme that gets Foy incarcerated, but rather bureaucracy and misunderstanding. Later the film takes a swing into outright horror territory, and I’ll discuss that in a moment, but it’s the first act that is most genuinely frightening. Events move inexorably forward in such a way that you can imagine yourself in Sawyer’s shoes, imagine yourself making the same unwitting mistakes that she does, imagine what you might try in that situation to get out of it, and imagine how you’d fail just as badly as she does. The film doesn’t gloss over any “if only she’d done this it would’ve been fine” moments — she tries everything rational, and it still goes wrong.

    Hello, Domino's?

    But, as I said, later things change a bit: Sawyer claims that one of the men working at the hospital is actually her stalker. Obviously this just contributes to the staff thinking she’s deranged, because of course a mental health institution wouldn’t employ a convicted stalker, but it makes us wonder: is it the stress of the situation getting to Sawyer, making her see things? It would certainly be ironic — the place that’s meant to ‘make’ her sane actually driving her insane. Or maybe the staff are right, and Sawyer is an unreliable narrator?

    From there the film only becomes further immersed in genre-ness. It loses that “what would you do?” aspect, but I was engaged enough by then to just go with the story; others have found the tonal shift jarring, however. It definitely keeps you guessing — even after a mid-way reveal, you’re still unsure what further twists it may or may not pull. But it’s a funny old movie, in a way, because the shift from believable real-life horrors to inhabiting a more overt Horror mode means it sits at a hitherto unimagined crossroads between schlocky madhouse B-thriller and arthouse psychological drama. Well, I guess that’s the kind of thing we should expect from Soderbergh by now: a genre movie reimagined with auteurist sensibilities. Even when it takes the shape of a B-movie thrill-ride, there remains some psychological truth to the trauma Sawyer’s suffered and how it affects her. It’s also casually damning of things like the US healthcare/insurance infrastructure, which is, of course, a real-life problem. It’s always nice to sneak a valid real-world point into what is essentially a thrills-and-chills flick.

    Just say no

    The sense of unease is further emphasised by the shooting style, because it looks… odd. Odd how? It’s hard to say, exactly. It’s partly the aspect ratio, which for some reason is 1.56:1. I’m perfectly used to watching films in 4:3 or 1.66:1, so pillarboxing doesn’t bother me, but it being a nonstandard shape is surprisingly disconcerting. It also seems that Soderbergh hasn’t just used the iPhone camera as-is, but has attached at least one different lens. I suppose some might argue that’s cheating, but it’s normal to add lenses to the basic camera in other modes of filmmaking, so why not? I’m no expert on lenses so can’t quantify what he’s done exactly, but there’s a sort of wide-angle, sometimes even fish-eye, effect that is, again, strange. Combine all that with an even-less-definable quality that seems to wash over the whole image, like it’s lacking resolution or definition or something, and I’m not sure if the film’s visual style is down to the limitations of the tech or if it’s a deliberate emphasis of them. Whatever the reason, it kinda makes me hope no one ever chooses to shoot a film on an iPhone again, because while it can be done, the results aren’t great.

    And yet those results really do fit the mood of this film. I kinda hope no one copies that tech choice ever again, but, nonetheless, Soderbergh’s made it work for the story he’s telling. That story — with its ups and downs, its whiplash tonal changes, its very imaginable horrors and its only-in-a-movie ones — means the fact Unsane was shot on an iPhone is probably the least interesting thing about it.

    4 out of 5

    Unsane is available on Sky Cinema as of yesterday.

    Steven Soderbergh’s next film, High Flying Bird, was also shot on an iPhone. It’s released on Netflix on 8th February.