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Movie Reviews

A Ghost Story

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: David Lowery

Stars: Barlow Jacobs, Brea Grant, Carlos Bermudez, Casey Affleck, David Lowery, Grover Coulson, Kesha, Liz Franke, Richard Krause, Rooney Mara, Sonia Acevedo, Will Oldham, Yasmina Gutierrez

Released: August 11th, 2017

It’s not what A Ghost Story is saying. It’s how A Ghost Story says it. Like chimes gently rustling in the wind or chills slowly creeping up your arms A Ghost Story somehow manages to give a sense of being so distant you’re not one hundred percent sure what is causing the noise or the feeling, but at the same time it feels so deeply personal and so intimately cutting that deep down in your soul you know what it is. You know it’s the wind, but you imagine something more ethereal. You know it’s the melody of the song you’re listening to, but you imagine it’s because the singer is speaking directly to you; into your ear. It’s difficult to describe past these dumbfounded attempts at articulating something meaningful just how much A Ghost Story hits you-that is, if it hits you. While it’s difficult to describe all of the emotions and thoughts this latest film from David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) left me with I realize it will be just as difficult for some people to understand what the movieit is, what it’s trying to do, or what the big deal is at all. And in many regards, this is understandable. This is a very quiet film-a film where people don’t communicate and we, the audience, must discern what is happening and what is being felt from that non-verbal communication. We must allow Lowery and his 4:3 aspect ratio images to wash over us in a way that requires a fair amount of patience. If patient, the film seemingly speaks to you. If not, there is no need to waste your time on it. For me though, A Ghost Story worked in stages in that at first I was curious; never knowing where the story might lead or what might happen to the characters we see come in and out of the picture. Then, once the structure began to take shape, it became about the ideas-the themes of subjective spirituality, the concept of time and how it’s the one thing we can’t get more of no matter how rich we are, or the pain of dealing with loss and death and the inevitable nothingness everyone’s future is likely to be, but that we hope and pray it’s not. It’s bleak. It’s very bleak and it’s very sad in how it captures small truths about life and the relationships we form while we’re here. It’s a film I find difficult to comprehend fully and thus is likely the reason it continues to resonate with me even days after seeing it and having watched several other films since. I keep returning to images, to sounds, and to the thoughts it instigated in my brain. It’s a movie not for everyone, but if you find it’s for you it’s something pretty special.

Lowery’s film opens with a quote from a Virginia Woolf short story titled, “A Haunted House,” that, very much like Lowery’s film itself, is both easy and difficult to summarize. While one could simply describe A Ghost Story as that of the story of Casey Affleck’s unnamed character passing away in the midst of a relationship and his search in the after-life to come to some comprehension of the meaning of his previous existence it could also easily be described as so much more than that. Yes, we see Affleck and Rooney Mara co-exist as a couple for a short time before Affleck’s unexpected death and there are implications of arguments and issues, but nothing major that might set them on different paths the way his death so abruptly does. And while the scenes in which Lowery depicts the grief of Mara’s character and the achingly sad ways in which she copes (or doesn’t) it is when she ultimately goes against what Affleck’s character wished for them after his death that the movie does something even more interesting and frankly unexpected. While films certainly shouldn’t be judged or held against any personal expectation it is almost always a strange sensation when a film goes against such expectations in a way that improves upon those initial presumptions held by the viewer. This is what A Ghost Story so expertly does once it competes the arc one expects the entire movie to encapsulate based on the marketing. Time is very clearly a big theme here in that time is our most valued possession on this earth and that despite trying to find things to fill it, loves to make it more meaningful, and art to try and understand it-this concept of time, this structured thing that was never meant to be understood remains elusive. It comes to present this cyclical idea of time through its structure with only a single, heavy-handed scene on dialogue to reinforce such ideas, but beyond this preachy point it seems most audience members, if on board with the movie by that point anyway, will have caught what Lowery is laying down and are already willing to go along with his approach. Lowery’s script comforts us with the idea there might be finite points when trying to comprehend or organize the universe and how it deals in dispersing this heavy yet intangible presence, but what that screenplay does most effectively with time is give the audience a fair amount of it in between certain actions being taken that allow us to contemplate and consider what the film is saying as well as to fill in the gaps with our own personal experiences which, by default, makes the film feel that much more personal. And it’s not that A Ghost Story is completely meditative as there are things happening and we remain intrigued and invested because there truly is no telling where Lowery’s narrative could potentially go because it could seemingly go anywhere.

What is most endearing about A Ghost Story though is clear from very early on as the writer/director introduces us to this setting, this place that, coincidentally, almost feels trapped in time while Daniel Hart’s haunting score plays like a theme to a much bigger, more cataclysmic film-the juxtaposition of the serene images and large ideas being implemented early. In one of the first scenes of the film we see Mara’s character pulling a piece of furniture to the end of the driveway so that they might get rid of it; to notify a passer-by they are more than welcome to it if so desired. It is everything about this single shot be it the house itself, the flat and scruffy yard, down to the small detail most likely won’t take note of in that Mara’s character hasn’t fully put her shoes on, but rather has slipped her feet as much into them as she could while walking out the front door that grabs you. Granted, this comes with the caveat of wanting to be taken by the film as there is a need to look willingly for things all might not see in order to make a piece of A Ghost Story your own. There is an authenticity to everything this picture is painting, especially if you’re familiar with such terrain and the habits formed out of it. This continues as we’re welcomed inside the house and into the relationship of Affleck and Mara’s characters as he will drift in and out of conversations as if to suggest he isn’t as focused on their relationship as he maybe should be or she will give side glances where it never reveals what she’s looking at or allows her to speak so as to explain what she’s thinking, but instead the film lets us soak in these moments and decide for ourselves what might be going on internally-little truths that might bring our focus and thoughts around to moments in our own lives akin to such scenarios or circumstances. This speaks to the biggest thread that runs throughout the film as we see Mara’s character repainting the house she and Affleck shared before moving out and in before painting over a crack in the molding of a doorway she takes a small piece of paper, writes something on it, and places inside the wall of the house. It becomes the ghost at the center of this story’s objective to retrieve this note and yet it is left up to the viewer to decipher the real meaning. There is a similar moment where, soon after Affleck’s character dies that Mara’s character returns to the home they shared together and does something as small as throw a few pieces of mail away, but in doing so notices something in the trash. What she sees could be any number of things that remind her of this man who has all of sudden left her life when not a week ago he made up so much of it. It could be nothing more than what it is likely the last thing he ever threw away, but the point is we get to decide how emotionally wrecked her character is by what she sees and this option is very much what the film gives the viewer as well. You can choose to be wrecked by it or not-it depends on how much meaning you attach to certain things and I, personally, attached much meaning to these proceedings.

While all of these ideas and themes become the nutrition of what might at first seem to be a somewhat scant meal what is almost more impressive is how Lowery is able to use the limited range of tools at his disposal to convey such atmosphere and a dream-like quality to his movie; creating an aura that allows the film to speak a language all its own. Of course, most noticeable is the framing of the film and how Lowery utilizes this now uncommon aspect ratio to make it feel as if, at least on the big screen (and I’m really happy I saw this on the big screen), we’re peaking in on this couple-watching something we’re not really supposed to see. That’s the level of personal we feel we attain with this couple and later on the spirit of one half of this couple. I’ve heard others say this choice of aspect ratio makes it feel as if we’re watching old home movies, but the perception is the same-A Ghost Story feels like portions of someone’s life that were filmed, but maybe never meant to be viewed or cut together in the way a traditional feature is. It’s a movie that isn’t constructed with typical story beats in mind either, but rather a way of materializing scenes and theories that explain what we all tend to “sense”. In having to illustrate such elusive and sometimes hard to explain emotions Lowery takes advantage of Hart’s aforementioned score in one of the handful of ways the director allows himself to play into the tropes of a genre horror film as, initially, the score will take you off guard and leave you confused and wondering if something isn’t wrong with the audio in the theater only to crescendo at this moment of pure confusion for what we’ll call the protagonist despite him being anything but your conventional hero. This is to say that Lowery uses several elements to not only make the experience more enthralling, but to further emphasize the emotions that are being felt on screen. Beyond this, there are of course a few qualms with the picture that keep me from scoring the film ten’s across the board, but these largely have to do with some silly moments that took me out of the experience rather than providing the temporary respite or slight comic relief they are likely intended to be. There are a few sequences that feature ghost subtitles that are just a little too goofily disruptive for what the rest of the movie is trying to accomplish while the aforementioned scene featuring a prognosticator spewing a monologue set to the sounds of a dollar tree pop song gave the sense Lowery wasn’t completely sure his audience would catch his drift. Trust me, Lowery-we did. I didn’t need ghost convos or speculative explanations to make me feel better about the deeply sad ideas your movie explores. Strangely enough, I was comforted by the conclusions you seemed to draw in the meditative parts of your film that, while heartbreaking in many ways, gave me the chills…but, you know, the good kind.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Movie Reviews

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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Movie Reviews

Superfly ★★

Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience

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Director: Director X
Stars:  Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams
Released: 14th September 2018 (UK)

Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.

Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.

Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.

There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.

Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.

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