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In Cinemas This Week

The Witch

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Reviewed By: Luke Flood

Released: 11th March 2016

Directed By: Robert Eggers

Starring: Ralph Ineson, Anya Taylor-Joy

Beloved British film critic duo Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo have a running joke on their radio show about films that aren’t really about what they appear to be. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy isn’t really about spies, it’s about paranoia,The Godfather isn’t really about gangsters, it’s about family, and so on. One suspects that they would have a field day with debut director Robert Eggers’ The Witch, a much-anticipated horror film that isn’t really a horror film at all, featuring a story about witches that is is really about so much more than cackling crones.

Set in the 17th century New England wilderness, the story focuses on William (Ralph Ineson) and his Puritan family trying to survive following excommunication from their plantation. After William’s infant son disappears near the woods, he and his family begin to suspect devilry in their midst, and it isn’t long before they begin to turn their suspicions on one another, fuelled by their fear of the unknown wilderness and their unknowable God.

The Witch is a complex film to discuss as it refuses to squeeze itself into any genre pigeon hole, and it may leave some audiences disappointed or confused because of this. Yes, it does feature many of the trappings of a horror film, but its horrifying scenes are presented with a creeping menace rather than a traditional seat-leaving jolt or an over-generous display of blood and viscera. Horror fans expecting a satisfying tour of the standard genre tropes may exit the cinema wanting more. However, as an exercise in tension, performance, atmosphere and straight up creepiness, The Witch is a stirring success.

Writer-director Eggers focuses much of the film’s time and energy on the day-to-day lives of the family. Patriarch William tends to the corn field, eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) washes clothes in the brook while twins Mercy and Jonas skip and play with the family goat (wonderfully named Black Phillip). Eggers and his team appear dedicated to the rigorous portrayal of the period. The Jacobean language is authentically employed, the family’s relationship with and fear of nature examined and studied, the startling newness of the world these first Americans find themselves in looms large. These scenes of puritanical mundanity and authentic familial relationships make for engaging viewing on their own, but they also allow for the lashings of surrealist horror to seem all the more uncanny and dreadful by contrast. The few times that the titular Witch is present on screen leave a lasting impact.

The performances in the film are exemplary from top to bottom. Eggers shows a deft touch in guiding 4 youngsters (along with several animals – what’s that old saying..?) through such bleak territory. Harvey Scrimshaw as eldest son Caleb is especially impressive, channeling the burdens and fears of life in the wilderness through his freckled, cherub-like face. One particular scene following an encounter with The Witch will live long in the memory thanks to the bravery and commitment of his performance. The cinematography also must not go unmentioned. It is almost startling to learn that the film was made for a million dollars and almost exclusively employs natural light. The photography, like the score and the performances, manages to leave an impression without ever being showy. The formal trappings of the film have a delicately avant garde quality; their is an uneasy sense of the unusual that is never laid on too thick.

Like many debut directors, Eggers wears his influences and inspirations on his sleeve, but this is no slight on his skills. The stringent focus on a familial breakdown, along with the way he captures the looming wilderness regularly invokes Ingmar Bergman, while the combination of witchcraft and nightmarish atmosphere clearly has its roots in Giallo cinema. The resulting effect is as if Dario Argento directed an episode of Little House On The Prairie. For this reviewer at least, that is a bizarre yet whole hearted endorsement. The Witch is a unique, fascinating folk tale that will burn its imagery and ideas onto your brain. Just don’t call it a horror film..

 

In Cinemas This Week

Ghost in the Shell

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Reviewer: Hannah Woodhead

Director: Rupert Sanders

Stars: 

Released: March 30th, 2017

Months before it came anywhere near the big screen, Rupert Sauder’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell had a problem. The decision to cast white actors in the majority of main roles in a live-action version of a cult Japanese manga/anime did not go unnoticed by fans around the world, and many took to social media to voice their disappointment in Hollywood’s decision. “I think when people see the film they’ll understand the casting choices,” said Sanders smugly.

Well, Rupert – I saw the film. I understand the casting choices. You made the wrong ones.

It seems he meant that he decided to cast Scarlett as the character of Major to differentiate her from the world in which she exists, but the logic is flawed, and as the film drags on, it’s increasingly obvious that Johansson’s casting wasn’t anything to do with a conscious decision about storytelling. It was an attempt to make the film appeal to a wider audience, and indeed for large portions of the film Johansson cavorts around in a strange almost-nude ensemble that seems to fetishise the character. In fact, the film isn’t short on creepiness: there’s a transphobic joke, and an uncomfortable scene which implies a sexual assault is about to happen. The Major’s beauty is mentioned almost constantly, and you get the sense that the characters aren’t referring to the miracle of cybernetic enhancement. Whilst these could have been opportunities for the film to make a statement, that never happens, and it all feels gratituitous.

Scarlett Johansson is a talented actress – that’s a fact. She was spellbinding in Under the Skin and brought a character to life with nothing but the power of her voice in Her. Yet in Ghost in the Shell she doesn’t have the chance to really do much acting – so much of the film is concentrated on action sequences. The small parts of character development we do see are interesting and Johansson is more than capable of providing the delicate balance of vulnerability and grit that The Major requires, but it’s lost amidst the scramble to make the film big, bold and action-packed. It’s one fight scene after another, the only respite coming in the touching scene where The Major reunites with her mother, played by the wonderful Kaori Momoi. Michael Pitt, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk and Juliette Binoche are a fine supporting cast too, but there’s too many characters given too little to do for any of it to really matter. If you come out of the film remembering any character’s name but The Major, pat yourself on the back for paying very close attention.

There are some positives to note beside the acting – Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe have produced an excellent score, and the visuals are stunning in IMAX, but too much of Ghost in the Shell is soured by an attempt to westernise a story that should have been treated with more respect.

There’s a serious lack of pacing at play too – at 106 minutes, this isn’t a long movie, but it definitely feels it. The first half drags and the second half glosses over much of the material that made the anime so unique and compelling. In fact the whole plot is largely changed and additions made, and the ending a definite departure from the original. Like Spike Lee’s Old Boy remake, it just feels unnecessary, like the story has been watered down for an audience who the producers assume have a limited attention span.

It’s lazy casting that ignores the fact that Asian audiences are criminally underrepresented in Hollywood, and Asian actors continually denied parts as studios have a ridiculous fear of alienating potential audiences. “You need a figurehead movie star,” said Sanders – so what about Rinko Kikuchi, the breakout star of Pacific Rim, or Kiko Mizuhara, the Asian-American actress who starred in Norwegian Wood and Attack on Titan? What about Rila Fukushima, who starred in The Wolverine, Arrow and – here’s the kicker – plays a robot Geisha in Ghost in the Shell?! Hollywood has a responsibility to audiences to introduce them to new talent and to represent the world for the brilliant, colourful diverse place it really is. Actors Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were catapulted to superstardom by their roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens – big budget films can afford to take risks. Suggesting they are at the mercy of “what the fans want” is a complete cop-out.

Even if you try to ignore the obvious racism and creepy overtones in the film, this adaptation lacks the passion and emotion of its source material. The best films evoke some sort of emotional reaction from viewers – laughter, sadness, fear, anger. Ghost in the Shell evokes very little than a sense of wasted time. It’s definitely not the worst blockbuster ever made, but it’s far from the best, and the manga deserved better. Viewers deserve better. If you’re interested in the story, watch the fantastic original anime series first, and then if you feel the need, perhaps give this film an outing – but you might prefer to spend your time watching other films that deal with similar themes: Dredd, Under the Skin and Ex Machina are all far superior films and more worthy of your time.

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The Conjuring 2

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Released: 13th June 2016

Directed By: James Wan

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga

Certificate: 15

Reviewed By: Liam Hoofe

Having turned down an apparent life changing amount of money to direct Fast and Furious 8 James Wan makes his return to the genre where he had his name with his sequel to 2013’s hugely successful The Conjuring.  The Conjuring was a box office smash in the states – breaking all sorts of horror box office records and also providing us with a spin off in the form of 2015’s Annabelle, which also proved to be box office gold.

This time around Wan’s move focuses on the famous Enfield Poltergeist case, which took place in London in the late 1970’s.Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprise their role as Ed and Lorraine Warren, whilst a relatively unknown supporting cast play The Hodgsons- a working class English whose daughter, Janet has been possessed by the spirit on an old man who died in their house decades before.

In terms of narrative and scares the movie is horror 101- Wan delivers the usual array of banging doors and frightening reflections, but what elevates The Conjuring 2 is Wan’s confident and assured direction. He brings to the table his usual bag of tricks but as with the movie’s predecessor he delivers them with a quality that is largely absent from the genre.

Unfortunately the film is somewhat indulgent; at just over two hours long the film suffers from some serious pacing issues and spends a lot of time meandering around the relationship between the Warrens instead of just delivering the scares it should be aiming for. Farmiga and Wilson both deliver solid performances as The Warrens but there is too much unnecessary fluff in the movie, several scenes- including the movie’s final one feel out of place and make the movie an endurance test at times.

The film closes with footage and images from the real life Enfield case and whilst these clearly serve the purpose of scaring the audience with the old ‘ based on a true story’ line what they actually succeed in doing is showing what an effective job Wan has done in terms of period setting and casting choices. American’s all too often provide an unreal depiction of life in England but Wan gives us a pretty authentic slice of working class British life in the 1970’s.

The Conjuring 2 is not going to change the genre but it will likely do incredibly well at the box office. Wan delivers well-crafted cheap scares throughout and despite suffering from some tonal and pacing issues The Conjuring 2 is an entertaining slice of horror cinema that proves that when it comes to mainstream horror James Wan is the man to turn to.

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In Cinemas This Week

Video Review – X-Men: Apocalypse

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In UK cinemas from Wednesday 18th May 2016.

Here is Darryl Griffiths’ video verdict on Bryan Singer’s (X-Men: Days Of Future Past) X-Men: Apocalypse.

https://youtu.be/8ETp5vN5kpc

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