Written by: Sergio Casci, Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Produced by: Simon Oakes, Aliza James, Aaron Ryder
Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Alicia Silverstone, Richard Armitage
Music by: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
******* SPOILER FREE *******
If you haven’t seen the Austrian horror filmGoodnight Mommy (2014), then I urge you to do so. It is genuinely one of the most startling and creepy films of recent years. It psychologically gets under the skin with the story of a mother and her two children, isolated, as she recovers from reconstructive surgery. The directors, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, proved themselves adept at creating memorable imagery, tense dread and a shocking ending up there with the horror classics.
With their latest film The Lodge (2019), they have once again ventured into the horror genre. Working with a fascinating screenplay from Silvio Casci, the film is full of intriguing themes relating to religious cults, grief, isolation, post-traumatic stress and family dysfunction. However, despite stellar work from the cast and compelling direction, the film never quite filled me with fear, nor shocked me enough to satisfy my horror needs. It works well as a slow turning of the screw type story, but at times it was too slow for me.
In essence the narrative is similar to Goodnight Mommy (2019); two kids and a maternal character are trapped together in one location and things get weird. Richard Armitage portrays Richard, a father to Aidan (Jaden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), who is desperate for them to connect with his new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough). To precipitate this they spend Christmas at their remote holiday lodge, as you do. When Richard is called back to the city for work, Grace and the kids’ relationship begins to get cold. Thus, amidst the isolation and snowy landscape, a frozen atmosphere exists inside and outside the cabin.
Overall, the film is worth watching for Riley Keough’s committed performance as Grace; a victim of childhood trauma trying to be part of a caring family. Her character is striving for sanity, however, she gets something else altogether. The directors also do sterling work and create a compelling image system, notably around dolls, snow and religious iconography. The lodge itself is rendered creepy with sharp angles, overhead shots, skin-crawling music and darkness all used to sinister effect. But, despite the quality of the production, the central premise, slow pace and confusing plot developments drained any fear I felt by the end. Nonetheless, fans of The Shining (1980), The Thing (1982) and any number of cabin-in-the woods-horror films will find something to chill them here.
Produced by: Rodrigo Texeira, Jay Van Hoy, Lourenco Sant Anna, Robert Eggers, Youree Henley
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke
******* SPOILER FREE ********
Robert Eggers debut feature, The Witch (2015), was a startling debut and deserved the critical acclaim it received. Alas, personally, it left me cold as a story, because I felt little empathy for the characters. By the end, I was totally disconnected from the madness that ensued. Yet, while it failed as a horror film, it did have great performances from the cast and an incredible eye for period detail and language.
Obviously, a talented filmmaker such as Eggers is not going to care what I think; and quite right he is too. Building on the folklore and legends of yesteryear established in The Witch (2015), he has once again delivered a highly ambitious cinematic work on a relatively low budget with The Lighthouse (2019). Indeed, with a superbly researched screenplay full of salty dialogue, authentic locations and insane visuals, I connected way more to this than his debut film.
Shot on black-and-white 35mm with a 1: 19 aspect ratio, Eggers has left us in no doubt his intention to aim for the cinema for the purists among you. Formally though, these creative choices also force the audience into the same claustrophobic, black-hearted watery hell our characters must endure. Moreover, Eggers takes joy in oppressing his characters and the audience. TheLighthouse (2019) is a brilliant but harsh to watch. I mean I felt like I’d been working on a bloody lighthouse myself, such was my mental exhaustion by the end.
The film benefits from two incredible acting performances by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Dafoe represents the experienced sea-dog, with Pattinson as the younger and more secretive, Winslow, The two men drink, eat, work, spar, clash, fart, shout, drink some more and slowly but surely begin to unravel amidst the isolation of the unforgiving rocks, crashing waves and squawking gulls. Full of incredible imagery, devilish sounds and creeping dread, ultimately, TheLighthouse (2019) is a hard film to endure, but an even harder one to forget.
Directed by: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett
Produced by: Tripp Vinson, James Vanderbilt, Willem Sherak, Bradley J. Fischer
Written by: Guy Busick, R. Christopher Murphy
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie Macdowell etc.
Music by: Brian Tyler
Cinematography: Brett Jutkiewicz
******* MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ********
I hadn’t heard too much buzz about this reasonably low-budget fun cat-and-mouse-horror B-movie, but the poster really grabbed me. Thus, as I have an Odeon Limitless Card, I thought why not take a chance. I’m glad I did too becauseReady or Not (2019) is a highly efficient, violent, funny and pacy horror film.
After a quick flashback, which foregrounds the gore to come, we are introduced to soon-to-be-wed Alex (Mark O’Brien) and Grace (Samara Weaving). They are to be married amidst the opulent surroundings of the Le Domas family home. The huge commanding property and the gigantic grounds establish we are in the playground of the wealthy and these rich kids play rough.
After an uneventful wedding ceremony the fun really begins. Well, I say fun, because essentially it’s a game of “Hide and Seek” meets Hard Target (1993) meets Saw (2004) meets Get Out (2017). The similarity to Jordan Peele’s classic horror is loose, however, there is an element of social satire with the millionaire family hunting down a person of perceived lower social standing.
But the Le Domas family, headed by Henry Czerny and Andie MacDowell, are about to meet their match in Grace. Raised in foster homes she is a fighter and imbued with terrific energy by star-in-the-making Samara Weaving. Moreover, Grace, like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, raises her game and battles back. As the body count rises and the blood spills across the screen, Grace’s wedding dress becomes a symbol of carnage, as opposed to love.
Ready or Not (2019) is an unpretentious ninety-minute movie gem. It’s not the most original work I will watch all year, but it had me very entertained with some great tension and blood-curdling deaths. The theme of the rich sacrificing the underclasses for continued existence could have been developed further, but why let it get in the way of a bloody good game of hide and seek.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – FILM REVIEW
Directed and Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Produced by: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Al Pacino, Mike Moh, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Damien Lewis, Kurt Russell and many, many more.
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
From watching the trailers for Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), I remember thinking: this looks so cool and I’m glad they haven’t given away much of the story here. Because, I hate those darned trailers which give away the story!
So, you watch Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film and then you realise, after the excessive running time, THERE ISN’T REALLY ANY STORY as such! Okay, DiCaprio’s character suffers an existential career crisis but that’s kind of it. Instead, you get mostly a nigh-on three-hour historical and cultural nostalgia trip down memory lane filtered through the artistic and fetishistic vision of one of cinemas great filmmaking iconoclasts.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), is essentially an arthouse character study where you get to hang out with two-and-a-half lead protagonists, plus a whole army of fictional and ‘real’ life supporting characters from the 1969 Hollywood era. Our two main “heroes” are neurotic, alcoholic B-movie actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and tough, handsome and laconic, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The two characters contrast and complement each other perfectly. Moreover, the star quality, chemistry and fine performances of the lead actors bind the movie together amazingly.
Brad Pitt is especially brilliant. His character is not, until the violent ending, given much to do story wise; however, he does it with such charm. He imbues a character who has accepted his place in the world with such easy-going humour and control, it is an absolute joy to watch. It’s an iceberg performance which seems shallow on the surface, but has hidden and unsaid depth. I really wanted to know more about his character, especially what appeared to be a very colourful backstory.
DiCaprio, on the other hand, has the showier performance. Edgy, hungover and insecure due to his characters’ fading Hollywood career, DiCaprio gives another fantastic movie performance. He commits to the Dalton character and features in some wonderful sketches which pay homage and parody B-movies, TV variety shows and old TV Westerns. What I loved was his ability to demonstrate different levels of acting skills. DiCaprio can fuck up Dalton’s acting on set one moment, but then deliver acting on a Shakespearean level the next.
Margot Robbie, who we know is a brilliant actor in her own right, alas, is not afforded the same level of care in regard to the characterisation of Sharon Tate. More of an ornamental character in the film, she looks great going to the cinema, packing a suitcase, driving and generally just being effervescent. Yet, it’s truly is one of the film’s major flaws that it doesn’t make more of Robbie’s acting talent. Even the fantastic ending, which Tarantino, takes incredible liberties with in regard to actual events, finds Tate’s character development unfortunately left bereft of emotion.
Similarly, the Hollywood cameos echoing throughout the films are pure style over substance. For example Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski and Bruce Lee feature but these are mostly inconsequential encounters. The Bruce Lee representation and scene is actually really funny as Cliff Booth and the martial arts star face off in a hilarious flashback. Typically, Tarantino has caused controversy with his Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) rendition. Personally, I respect that people may be offended, however, it’s more comedic and iconoclastic rather than overt racism. After all, this is a fairy-tale vision of Hollywood and not a documentary. Plus, Tarantino knows he’s going to piss people off so it’s obvious he’s playing with people here.
While Bruce Lee’s persona is playfully satirized or racist depending on your point-of-view, Tarantino’s representation of the Manson family is more damning. It’s clear he absolutely hates hippies, especially acid-looped killer hippies. Dalton and Booth represent the old-school, honest Hollywood working class, so are the antithesis of the drop-out youths. The culture clashes between this era and the new flower-power cults is something Tarantino explores. Charles Manson, who barely features, is a ghost-like figure though. Instead, it is the character of Tex (Austin Butler) and the females of the commune who are most prominent.
Margaret Qualley as Pussycat is especially hypnotic in her role. Exuding both sexuality and acid-drenched nihilism, Pussycat is a siren hitcher, luring drivers to symbolically crash against the cliffs. For me, Tarantino should have made way more of the old and new California culture clash themes, as they resonated powerfully when on screen. Plus, the scenes on the commune were actually quite creepy, so more should have been made of this threat from a dramatic perspective. Lastly, the irreverent and violent final act carnage exploits the clashing of these two different cultures, but more could have done throughout to enhance this dynamic.
Overall, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) is a near three-hour arthouse classic. If you like films about film and TV making, driving, feet, ensemble casts, films within films, cinema-going, Los Angeles, more feet; and hanging with the marvellous DiCaprio and Pitt in a 1969 setting, then you will love this beautifully rendered and lovingly crafted film about Hollywood. Otherwise, you will probably find it a boring, indulgent and style-over-substance folly. Either way you have to admire Tarantino’s exquisitely controlled writing and direction. He certainly does!!
Safe to say though Tarantino will not care either way, because most of his filmic output has made a lot of money at the box office. This has now allowed him the luxury, like that of true cinema artists such as Kubrick, Altman and Antonioni, to make whatever films a studio is prepared to give him the money for. He’s basically making films for himself and doesn’t care if the audience likes it or not.
I personally found myself magnetically drawn to Tarantino’s vision and from a purely filmmaking and artistic perspective I was totally immersed throughout. Having said that, if the incessant driving and shots of dirty feet were cut and Dalton and Booth had been given a proper plot, rather than the thin stranded narrative within the impressive gallery of cameos and set-pieces, I would definitely expect to be writing about one of the best films ever made.
Way back in September 2015 I wrote an article listing some great ensemble film casts. Please feel free to read it here at this link.
If you can’t be bothered to read it the list of films are as follows:
12 ANGRY MEN (1957) AVENGERS ASSEMBLE (2012) GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014) INCEPTION (2010) LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997) THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) MAGNOLIA (1999) MEANTIME (1984) THE OUTSIDERS (1983) PULP FICTION (1994) SHORT CUTS (1993) TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY (2011)
Never one to worry about originality, I have decided to follow up this article with another list of great ensemble film casts.
The challenge second time round though is to EXCLUDE the films of directors or franchises ALREADY LISTED.
For those who may have lazy-read this I WILL REPEAT!!!
NO DIRECTOR’S OR FRANCHISE WORK FROM LIST ONE WILL BE ON LIST TWO!!!
It would be so easy to include all of Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino’s or the Marvel films. So I am not going to do that. Anyway, here are another TEN films with great ensemble casts (in alphabetical order).
Executive Producers: David E. Kelley, Jean-Marc Vallee, Reese Wetherspoon, Bruna Papandrea, Nicole Kidman, Liane Moriarty etc.
Based on: Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty
Teleplays written by: David E. Kelley
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Main Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Zoe Kravitz, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Kathryn Newton etc.
Cinematography: Yves Belanger, Jim Frohna
Original Network: HBO
**CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON ONE**
I hate Social Media and Twitter especially, sometimes. I also hate myself for getting dragged into the bullshit it sometimes brings. I’m referring specifically to the distorted prejudice the mind can take on when reading a few negative posts about a programme, film or personality. Such reports can obviously be accurate. However, they can mislead and stain your expectations of a show or film or actor or artist. In this case the second season production of HBO’s, Big Little Lies, came under fire from a few people on my Twitter feed. They said it was an awful and an ultimately disappointing series. Were they right? I mean, how bad could it be?
Then there was the Indiewirearticle which highlighted an issue during production. They asserted in a well written piece of click-bait that director Andrea Arnold was unceremoniously disregarded in the editing process and first season director, Jean-Marc Vallee, brought in to oversee re-shoots and final cut. If you believe the Indiewire article, this was the act of a heinous media corporation cutting down a beloved artist and robbing her of her vision. Arnold’s auteur status remains untainted for me. She is a fine director who carried out her contract and did not have final cut anyway. This belonged to HBO and they had say on who they hired during the production.
Thus, in a short period of time, a couple of tweets and one article had seriously affected my expectations of the second season of Big Little Lies. I was expecting a mess of a show. One which did not make sense and was robbed of all artistic and dramatic impetus by the HBO hierarchy. However, I can safely say I was wrong and, while not as good as the brilliant first season, it was still a really intriguing eight episodes worth of entertainment.
After the exceptional first season which found a stellar cast including: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Adam Scott, Zoe Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgård and Shailene Woodley on top acting form, the second season follows on with the aftermath of prior events. The first season expertly inter-weaved stories concerning an unknown “murder” victim; school bullying; warring parents; extra-marital affairs; and abusive relationships, expertly played out over seven compelling episodes. With the “murder” victim revealed in the final episode, we now get an exploration of suspicion, guilt, conspiracy and a test of loyalty and friendship.
Without wishing to give too much away the newest and strongest addition to the series is Meryl Streep. She plays the mother ***SPOILER ALERT*** of the dead guy from the first season, Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård). His death occurred when he was pushed “accidentally” down some stairs at a party. But, the friend’s, including his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), collude to say he fell instead. With the police still suspicious the main investigator is actually Streep as the dogged Mary Louise. She is passive-aggressive and subtle in her enquiries as to how her son died. It’s a delight watching her deviously pull apart each of the lead suspects. It is also an absolute masterclass in acting as Streep’s crafty characterisation makes this series a must-watch. Her scenes with Nicole Kidman’s crumbling personality are especially compelling.
Allied to the investigation into Perry’s death, the show gives some interesting narrative strands to Laura Dern’s energetic power-mum, Renata. Her world is about to disintegrate around her in the face of her husband’s financial wrong-doings. Equally powerful is Bonnie’s (Zoe Kravitz) attempt to heal the rift between herself and her mother. Bonnie suffers the most guilt as ***SPOILER ALERT*** she was the one who pushed Perry down the stairs. As she battles with the emotional repercussions of her actions, she experiences a painful re-emergence of historical parental abuse. Perhaps, not as intriguing are Madeline (Reese Wetherspoon) and Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) narrative strands. Nonetheless, they do support the series’ themes of family, trust and love that add depth and subtext.
To finish, I learnt once again that social media and Twitter surfing can have a negative impact on one’s critical expectation of a programme or film. You have to basically make your own mind up and not be swayed by the pitchforks and torch-bearers baying for blood online. Big Little Lies (2019), Season 2, therefore, while not reaching the dramatic heights of the first season is an excellent follow-up. It explores the privileged lives of the rich Monterey set instilling a sense of humanity and frailty to their lives. The more improvisational direction of Andrea Arnold works well with the fragmented impressionism of the editing style to bring this out. Mainly though, it’s the impressive cast and script which glued me to the screen while experiencing this very watchable drama.
Produced by: Marco Morabito, Brad Fischer, Luca Guadagnino, Silvia Venturini, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, William Sherak, Gabriele Moratti
Screenplay by: David Kajganich – Based on Suspiria (1977) by Dario Argento and Dari Nicolodi
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Chloe Grace Moretz, Malgosia Bela, Lutz Ebersdorf, Jessica Harper etc.
Music by: Thom Yorke
Cinematography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
There are so many films released that it is virtually impossible to see them all. Plus, even if you didn’t have to work to earn a damned wage or physically need sleep you still wouldn’t be able to watch everything at the cinema. More specifically though, we may choose NOT to go to see a film on the big screen for certain reasons. Collectively, I consider these movies to be “one’s that got away!”
Thus, in a new section called, unsurprisingly, FILMS THAT GOT AWAY, I will be reviewing films which I missed first time round at the cinema and have subsequently caught up with on Sky, Amazon, Netflix, Blu-Ray or even good old-fashioned terrestrial television. I will consider the film critically as entertainment and why I missed it first time round. As usual the film will be marked out of eleven.
When the UK release of Suspiria (2018) was announced there were many reasons I was immediately put off from wanting to see it. Firstly, despite having watched it three times, I genuinely could not stand the original Dario Argento film. I know people consider it a horror classic; however, I think story wise, it’s a bad film. It’s neither scary from an emotional point-of-view or actually makes any sense logically. I know it’s meant to be based on surreal and nightmarish imagery, montage and performance, but the story or characters did not connect with me. The colour design, gore and soundtrack are outstanding but, overall, I felt I was trapped watching the manic outpourings of an Italian psychopath.
The second reason I did not want to watch it is I haven’t always got on with Luca Guadagnino’s cinematic works. Don’t get me wrong, he is a brilliant filmmaker. However, I find him an indulgent artist whose tone, pace and direction seems haphazard. Of the films I have seen, I Am Love (2009) was a brilliant character study, anchored by a stunning Tilda Swinton performance. But A Bigger Splash (2011) and Call Me By Your Name (2017), were expertly constructed but indulgent and over-rated travelogues littered with narcissistic bores. Nonetheless, I really liked Suspiria (2018). It is almost, but for Guadagnino’s typical excesses, a horror masterpiece.
Set in 1977 (when the original was released), at the height of the Cold War in divided Germany, Suspiria, is a heady mix of rites of passage, cold war and horror genres. There are many narrative strands with which the screenplay, by David Kajganich, attempts to balance. Further, we also have personal, political, religious, artistic, gender and communal themes prevalent through the story. While it’s an ensemble cast the focus is Dakota Johnson’s Susie. She is a young aspiring dancer, from an Amish background, who joins the world-famous Markos dance company. In the process she is determined to impress Tilda Swinton’s commanding mentor. The parallel narrative involves psychiatrist Dr Josef Klemperer and his investigation into a missing patient (Chloe Grace Moretz); who also happens to be a dancer from the troupe.
As the story unfolds Susie proves herself an incredibly powerful dancer. At the same time, it is revealed that the elders and teachers of the dance group are hiding a sinister secret with darkness and ritual to the bloody fore. Memorable dance sequences full of beauty, energy and gore dominate, with Dakota Johnson giving an impressively physical acting portrayal. I also liked the nuanced control within her character as she grows stronger with each dance. Meanwhile, further dark events occur as Dr Klemperer’s investigations draw him closer to the troupe’s shadowy doors.
As I said, Suspiria is almost a horror masterpiece. The filmmaking, cinematography, art direction, choreography and score by Thom Yorke all collide to create an incredibly tense and terrifying experience. Moreover, while I was fully committed to the characters in the dance troupe and Susie’s movement up the ranks, the choice to juxtapose the socio-political events seemed to belong in another film. The religious context and notions of family and matriarchal dominance were incredibly powerful too and served the horror well. However, Guadagnino, in my humble view should have shaved some scenes from the running time. While I much prefer this film to the Argento original, a further edit for pace would have made this even better. Nonetheless, it had me riveted throughout through the sheer quality of filmmaking. I was incredibly impressed by the melding of dance and death. Indeed, the final orgiastic ritual with buckets of blood, decapitations and gnarled monsters was supernaturally unforgettable.