Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: James Wan
Stars: Hayley McFarland, Joey King, John Brotherton, Kyla Deaver, Lily Tomlin, Mackenzie Foy, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Shannon Kook, Vera Farmiga
Released: 2nd August 2013 (UK)
There is a difference between a film that meets the rules of its genre and one that is able to transcend them. What director James Wan (Saw, Insidious) does in The Conjuring is not to approach the film as if it were a horror film, but more a serious drama about a family in crisis. That he doesn’t necessarily forget, but in a way uses the archetypes that make up the average horror movie in smaller ways, at least for the first act of the film, to imply what may or may not happen later. In setting up the expository information Wan is all the while creating his mood, but he is also giving us the tools to develop relationships with these people. He isn’t simply going about setting up scares here and there that ultimately add up to nothing, but he is luring us in and making it unavoidable that we become invested in these characters that will ultimately undergo a life altering experience in the latter part of the film. What The Conjuring also does is to not look at itself as some kind of joke or take its material too lightly. It firmly believes everything it has to offer and doesn’t intend to be anything but sincere about the subject matter. If it were to take on a nature of laughing at the Perron family or a sense of doubt in the main cast that is firmly planted in the conflict from the beginning it would lose all credibility immediately. A deal where if they don’t take it seriously, why should we? The film does take itself seriously though and that is meant in the best of ways as it consistently keeps the tone and intensity any good scary movie needs to help convince the audience that what is going on on screen is as real and threatening as the mysterious sounds they might hear in the middle of the night and dismiss as nothing more than the wind knocking something against the window. It is all about atmosphere and mystery with today’s horror audiences as most have grown accustomed to what kind of scares most horror films will throw at you. Wan uses those same kind of scares, but he executes them in a manner that is much more effective, much more chilling, and on the most important of levels, much more emotional.
While I was a big fan of the first half of Wan’s previous film, Insidious, I thought the latter part made the mistake of giving too much away, showing too much of the antagonists and while there is some of that here it isn’t to the extreme of Insidious. With that film the hook was that it wasn’t the house that was haunted, but in fact a child. Here, we have something fairly similar in that it is inherently the house and the land that the Perron family move into that is haunted by pissed off spirits, but it is by their choice where they go and who they inhabit. It does, in many ways make it all the more frightening to know that the mysterious evildoers don’t have a set order of limitations and that they could essentially do whatever they wish to whoever they so desired, but even further than this Wan takes his knowledge of the horror genre and applies a style to his film that not only evokes the time period in which the story is set, but also by hearkening back to horror movies of old. There is an extra air of creep set in by the fact it is set in 1971 where certain aspects are limited and the music of the era now takes on a persona of its own due to its use in countless other horror movies. Wan uses his same sleek camera movements paired with a tan palette to give off an aged, but valid account of the events his film is capturing while at the same time evoking that specific style of 70’s horror films. He keeps things minimal, simple and in an odd way kind of innocent. He doesn’t rely on the blood and guts or gore factors to gross us out, it doesn’t even seem this could land in the same category as those films as what is used to try and scare us here is the presence of the unknown. I have always thought a scary movie without music might be scarier than those who use a loud clash or single note to emphasize where you are supposed to gasp and I’ve always found ghosts or demons or whatever might haunt our unsuspecting heroes all the more scary and intimidating if they remain lurking in the shadows. Wan uses shot composition and lighting to great effect here in that vein while the score by Joseph Bishara could have been reduced several times throughout and I probably would have found it all the more chilling, but hey one out of two isn’t bad.
What intrigued me most about the project though was just how well I came to feel I knew these people. Each of the four main adult characters are presented with genuine characteristics and a willingness to help others out and be understanding to those they may not have otherwise ever engaged. The leaders of the Perron clan, Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and her husband Roger (Ron Livingston) are so earnestly optimistic when they first arrive at their new house it is impossible not to be just as hopeful for them. It isn’t long after they move in that strange things begin to happen. Whether it be the somewhat stock signs of the dog not wanting to come in the house, birds flying into their windows or the clocks stopping on a certain time, these are things we’ve seen before, but they are only the small facets, little pieces of tension that help build a stressful atmosphere which is in turn what our main antagonist is wanting to do. The Perron’s have five young girls (Shanley Caswell, Kyla Deaver, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy and Hayley McFarland) each of which have a moment in the spotlight but are purposefully not singled out or given any defining features that would make them seem all the more ripe for possessing. No, the film wants to make it clear that everyone in the house is under a watchful eye of whoever or whatever it is that is watching and as it reaches the point where each girl is too scared to sleep in their rooms and begin to smell the stench of old meat moving around the house that it becomes clear they need to enlist the help of professionals. Enter Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) a husband and wife team who specialize in hunting down ghosts, demons, and spirits while relying on their strong sense of faith to keep them separated from the world they so often encounter. They acknowledge that if they believe in God they must also believe in the devil and when they come into contact with the spirits that haunt the Perron house it is clear they are encountering something much stronger, much different than that of what they’ve seen before.
In the end, Wan is clearly a master at his craft while ultimately being able to show restraint where other directors might choose to either show too much or simply not have the skill of timing a scare as Wan does. Those skills are very important in today’s horror genre and it takes the right level of execution to truly scare the jaded moviegoers of today. Why the film doesn’t rate higher in my books is due to the fact that despite finding the film very well made, an interesting story with real characters, and some truly chilling moments it never reaches the heights of being as scary as I expected. This may actually be unfair as it is unlikely any film nowadays will be able to conjure (no pun intended) up the right amount of scares to have me ducking in the theater seats, but with the level of buzz surrounding the film I expected more from it. What it does achieve are those chills. It is a film that feels effortlessly creepy and there is something to be said for that. What I expected to feel and even kind of wanted to feel was to be filled with a sense of apprehension, of alarm, of panic or of pure dread. I wanted to be surprised by what I didn’t see coming from around the corner, but I never found myself shaking from what I’d just seen, but instead I was nothing more than a little creeped out. Don’t get me wrong, you could do much worse than The Conjuring and Wan along with Scott Derrickson are two horror directors you should continue to watch out for, but it seems Wan has run out of tricks in his horror bag at the moment. I do hope his Insidious Chapter 2 that comes out in a mere two months proves me wrong and turns out to be something more than the rushed job it seems to be. I am certainly optimistic about these possibilities and would speak kindly of The Conjuring were I asked about it, but I would offer a word of caution that it isn’t anything you haven’t seen before which is what I was hoping for. If you are content with a well made horror film that features credible performances and lush cinematography with a strong sense of atmosphere I’d say go for it; if you’re looking for something truly revolutionary than this, unfortunately, isn’t the game changer we were hoping for.
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.
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.
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.
Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience
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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