Thursday, 30 March 2017

I am the pretty thing that lives in the house

Oz Perkins, 2016, USA-Canada

Generally my superficial rule for ghost story satisfaction is that it be waist-deep in atmosphere and comes bearing one big scare. ‘I am the pretty thing that lives in the house’ delivers this, although I am sure its slow pace and somnambulistic narration will put many off; yes, your mileage may vary. It’s arty and modern in execution but old-fashioned in sentiment.  Director Osgood Perkins (son of Anthony) offers the complete opposite of the James Wan style ghosts, those that blur into demonology and embolden the concept of the horror genre as cattle-prod cinema. They don't even have the malevolence of those in MR James. These ghosts just wander around – like cinematographer Julie Kirkwoods’ camera that seems to get into every corner – and it’s the human’s reactions to them that defines the encounter. It’s a bold move, to resist making the ghosts engage in the pro-active behaviour of poltergeists to force scares, to simply allow their presence just to seep into the wallpaper over years. In fact, it’s just about popularist suicide to draw out the aesthetic and not to give in to conventions as they are now for the genre, for commercial cinema doesn’t really like to wait five minutes for things to happen. It seems that Netflix is showing that they can be backers and home to these cult offerings that won’t be for everyone.*

But this is a tale slight of narrative (some may say underwritten) and acute with atmosphere. I don’t tend to like voiceovers but here it is essential to the mood as it is a voiceover with character agenda as opposed to a narrative expositioning and filling in gaps or telling you what you are seeing. It works much like a hypnotist’s voice, quietly lulling the viewer as it’s saying how the ghosts of houses just allow tenants rent the space. Lily (Ruth Wilson) is a loner, retreating from a soured relationship by taking a job as a carer for a once successful author (Paula Prentiss). But she’s walked into an already haunted scenario. And it’s a feminine one too, pinned upon the vulnerabilities of characters as many great ghost stories are.

You may be thoroughly bored at the slow-slow-burn, or you may wallow in the measured unfolding, the deliberate passing of time. Its uncompromising nature is what distinguishes it, the thing to be celebrated. Have ghosts ever been portrayed so prosaically? Here they creep around and have an afterlife consciousness that is surely candidate for the closest rendering of the ambivalent but pervasive existence ghosts are often imagined to have in the casual encounters we all anecdotally hear. We see the ghosts long before Ruth does, time quite falling upon itself as impressions such as prose poetry and balladry take over the idea of straightforward narrative as we wait all the while for Ruth to have an encounter. And we know she will: “Three days ago I turned 28 years old,” she begins; “I will never be 29.” You can feel the makers relishing the old-fashioned tropes and showing that, yes, they still work. Yeah, and I did jump at that one scare and marvelled at its banality in retrospect (it’s all in the editing and reaction). 

·        Even Netflix offerings such as ‘iBoy’ are surely to be commended for their efforts in demonstrating low-budget ambition over big budget tendency to play safe.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Killbillies / Idila

Tomas Gorkic, 2015, Slovenia

A model photoshoot in the rural vistas of Slovenia turns into a fight for survival when the privileged fashionistas meet the kill-happy moonshine folk. Yes, it’s that old staple of the comfortable and brattish stepping out where they don’t belong and getting their comeuppance – hey, you really shouldn’t leave home, kids – and there’s nothing new in that. If you’re thinking ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ or ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ and a hundred others, you wouldn’t be wrong. Like those titles, psychopathology is directly linked to physical ugliness, so you’re going to know the bad guys at a glance: ugly within and without. 

However, this is decently done with the original moniker
'Idila/Idyll' colouring in a slight subtext that the trashier English re-titling ‘Killbillies’ doesn’t have: namely, that in these holiday brochure surroundings, the worst goes on. The homemade brew distributed by the ugly family and beloved by locals seems to cause deformity and pathology. The characterisation and script are a notch above normal with decent performances. It’s bright and exhibits nice clean cinematography by Nejc Saje, has fun exaggerated make-up and clips through its routine at a brisk pace – it knows we’ve seen this before and doesn’t waste time being too stupid about it. Undemanding but fun, with just a twist of European sensibility to make it fresh enough.


Tuesday, 14 March 2017


Adam Randall, 2017, UK

Caught between Young Adult fiction and urban gangster clichés, Netflix’s ‘iBoy’ forgets how absurd its premise is, that this could be pleasing and that it should be having a lot more fun. Based on Kevin Brooks’ novel, Bill Milner is Tom who, having accidentally stumbled upon a gang-rape of a girl he likes, is shot when fleeing and calling the police and gets bits of his phone stuck in his head. This not only leaves him with a stylish scar, it gives him powers to log into the networks around him and he pledges to use them to get the boys who raped Lucy (Maisie Williams). As superhero powers go, this is promising as it means he’ll have to smart about things and there’s initially some fun to be had when he is discovering how to use his powers – like tracking people using virtual maps. But then he carries out martial arts moves and punches successfully after watching some video and the premise stops relying on wit.

Milner is agreeably vulnerable but it’s Williams as Lucy that stands out more, distinguishing a role that could have relied solely upon victimhood. There are gaping plot holes that can’t quite be avoided – so the assault was because her brother wouldn’t join the gang, but do they just forget about him afterwards? Do the police not follow up gang-rapes and shootings? And when the gang effectively carry out a mass theft, would this not inspire a potential crackdown? Wouldn’t there be some questions after the closing showdown? It’s all filmed in blue hues that just about steer clear of the grey and unflattering tones that usually denote neo-realism, but it’s all muted enough to make the cyberworld Tom’s sees pop out. There is some mildly effective class symbolism by having all this take place in the shadow of London’s Gherkin and Rory Kenear turns up to provide some focus in the later stages, but it’s never fun enough to pull it all together. It never quite finds a happy medium between its absurdity and it's gangster genre cruelty. Rather, it’s so busy trying to “hard-hitting and gritty” in a particularly English way that it fails to realise it’s humour and potential. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2016, USA

Over Christmas, I watched ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ which I hadn’t seen in a while: of course, I came for the Harryhausen creations but then it became evident to me that actually the script and the acting were a bit … lacking. Indeed, my Christmassy family left the room and I could hear them grumbling about “bad acting” in the other room. And I thought: maybe it’s always been this way with monster blockbusters, that the monster stuff is good but the scripts and acting are crap.

And ‘Kong: Skull Island’ is no exception. 

To the good: Kong himself is a frequently exceptional special effect. CGI has come a long way and it’s not unusual, with the right amount of cash and an army of multiple effects crews, to get realistic monsters that can stand up to lingering close-ups. Of course, we could be blasé now that we’re used to such amazing spectacles as the recent Planet of the Apes’ films, but I could  only dream of such photo-realistic monsters as a kid. Some have bemoaned that Kong is shown too early but I would say around the first three Kong reveals are good and thrilling. I had no issue with this, although it did imply a rush to the money shot for fear that the audience wouldn't have any patience. There is enough believable heft to these digital monsters that it’s all quite convincing. Yes, monsters yelling and/or plunging into the camera gets a little tedious, but the fights are decently orchestrated, paced and considered – including Kong battling a giant squid (??) – so it’s all good. That’s what you came for, after all.

But oh the script is woeful - by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly. And that’s when you start to notice all that’s wrong. There are many big names in the cast but this means very little when the material they work with is so poor. I mean, why are good actors even necessary here? Only John C. Reilly really comes to life with what he’s given because he’s the comic relief and has more to work with. But even then, he’s the Comic Relief, because that’s what this kind of thing always has. He’s with the natives, but the natives literally have no voice so it’s America all the way (…okay, except for Hiddleston).

Tom Hiddleston is the ex-army Brit whose introduction speaks to how the script seems to be mostly more just ticking boxes than really trying: John Goodman and Houston Brooks are looking for someone to lead their expedition into an uncharted island so they walk into a bar where Hiddleston is playing pool; he has some kind of disagreement and dispatches his opponents with a couple of violent super-moves and Goodman decides that he’s their man – all this in about a minute. He goes on to warn them that the island will be full of diseases, etc. – but seems to forget this major problem as soon as they land. He’s happy to T-shirt the adventure. But it’s okay: the film forgets too, even though it went to the effort of mentioning it. ... and anyway, just because he's good in a barroom fight, why would they assume he'd be ideal for an expedition on a unknown island? Oh, he is though, so that's okay.

Brie Larson is The Female, an anti-war photographer disapproving of male warmongering as females are wont to do, tilting her chin upwards all the time to denote integrity. But she does get to do some action stuff.

And Samuel Jackson is at his most annoying, fronting the troupe of wisecracking military yahoos. Hey, they die and they never made an impression anyway so we don’t have to care. Jackson is meant to look tough, but he looks equally bored. His character is meant to represent the bad side of the American military “Always Win: Kill Kill Kill!” mindset, and there’s lot of allusions to Vietnam, but these are meagre shadings. Perhaps it’s just Jackson’s character that is irritating.

And why in these things do they seem to think rifles can bring down monolithic monsters? But it’s okay if you have endless ammo, I guess.

And for an island full of gigantitude, shouldn’t the natural surroundings show a little more wear and tear? I mean, we see Kong leaping from peak to peak and causing major damage to the island. And do we really need fantasy monsters as opponents when anything else real could be made big? And this isn’t even getting into how Kong Is A Good Guy And Defender Of Humans rather than a naturally morally neutral, fearsome beast. 

You saw the ‘Kong: Skull Island’ trailer, yes? Well that’s Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ aesthetic: the editing seems to have been learnt from trailers, commercials and actions stills from posters. It’s relentless. Gliding shots over everything – not only over the island, which is understandable, but over a pool table, for example – which means the film is in a constant state of “Awesome!” which only diminishes the genuinely notable and remarkable shots, for example the vista of Kong against the sun and the cast hiding out in a giant skull to name just two (we don’t need a sweeping trick-shot through the native city to see how remarkable it is). Now, I’m all for camera trickery and conceits – I give ‘Hardcore Henry’ a pass for this – but here’s it’s in equal measure intrusive as inspired; it’s like the film doesn’t trust the quieter moments in case we notice how insufficient they are and thinks technical bombast will distract. Mark Kermode thinks the pacing is decent and that the direction has some distinction: I disagree. The monster fights are edited with coherence and focus; my problem seems to be that much else is directed as if a box-of-tricks has been dumped all over it, which I always think reeks of desperation.

And the jukebox soundtrack just seems by rote – by the time Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (sheesh, again?!) is followed by Bowie, I was just rolling my eyes. This just feels emblematic of how cynically packaged the whole enterprise felt (“Hey, people, we know from ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ that you like Seventies soundtracks, right? Buy this one!”). It’s gets so that just the opening riffs of songs can be heard to set a tone and that’s it.

So, yeah, come for the monsters. I am reminded that this is the way with blockbusters but I should be the ideal audience for this – I am a sucker for giant monsters and, sure, there are some great shots – but when so much else aggravates, I am left gravely disappointed. Perhaps this has always been the way with such features, even as far back as Harryhausen, but for all its flaws I didn’t feel the cynicism in that; I didn’t even quite feel it in ‘Godzilla’ or ‘Warcraft’ (for all of their failures, they did feel as if they were trying for something individual), but I felt it here. Yeah, I'm nitpicking and I know it's meant to be fun, but it seemed to be so by rote and cynical that I couldn't find it to be so. I don’t demand much, nothing remarkable, not really, honestly: just a reasonable script with my monsters.

And oh yeah, the post-credits teaser for a franchise is crap too.

Saturday, 11 March 2017


Mike Gray, 1983, USA

A minor close encounter: a couple – Robert Carradine and Cherie Currie -  go investigate weirdness on the nearby hill when she starts to telepathically hear cries; they stumble into a secret subterranean complex where the military are dissecting what they think are alien corpses.

The couple get imbrued in conspiracy scenarios and when the military attempt to cover it all up, the aliens get free. The telepathic angle means Currie can explain the aliens where things need a little clarification – hey, they’re just stranded tourists which means not only being captured and incarcerated but a trip to a church for a little religious undertone and then the desert. The aliens resemble naked bald children so immediately they are going to tap into the sympathetic/creepy kid vibe. Speilberg’s ‘E.T: the extra-terrestrial’ was meant to be cutesier. They see Jesus on the cross and consequently happily go back on their initial rejection of clothing: what is this, an introduction of Shame and a covering up of Innocence? But anyway, it’s then a little more in the adventure mode of ‘Escape from Witch Mountain’ but it’s tone is consistently eerie enough to align it with far headier affairs such as, say,  ‘Phase IV’, helped greatly by a score by Tangerine Dream. Although it’s unremarkable in many ways, the acting is solid and things clip along at a fair pace, but it’s most notable achievement is its accent on the situation and how it veers away from having clearly labelled villains: the military men may be cruel but they do so under the guise of just-doing-my-job rather than overacting malevolence. They often seem desperate and baffled in their orders and the brutal consequences of their reactions an offhand feature of what they do rather than denoting obvious sadism: arguably this banality of evil is far more chilling.

And all of this and claims it’s based on a True Story too, but this does not lead the film: indeed, this was surely already a well-trodden cover-up conspiracy theory in 1983. As an example of earnest Eighties b-movie fare, 'Wavelength' is enjoyable with budgetary restrictions beneficially making the focus on the drama.