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Winchester

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Michael & Peter Spierig

Stars: Angus Sampson, Bruce Spence, Dawayne Jordan, Eamon Farren, Emm Wiseman, Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Laura Brent, Sarah Snook, Tyler Coppin

Released: February 2nd, 2018

Though the directing duo of brothers Michael and Peter Spierig made one of the worst films of 2017 in what was the eighth Saw film it was hard not to hold out hope for what these guys might do outside the IP pool given Jigsaw was likely an opportunity they couldn’t (financially) turn down. And so, in what feels like their true follow-up to their highly underrated and underseen 2014 time travel flick, Predestination, the brothers Spierig take on the real life mysteries likely still held within the walls of the winding Winchester mansion that is located in San Jose, California and was constantly under construction by the widowed Sarah Winchester for thirty-eight consecutive years until her death in 1922. Weird, right? Definitely. Couple this unique spin on the haunted house premise with the fact the Spierig’s have somehow managed to attract the talents of rather pedigreed actors like Jason Clarke and the indelible Helen Mirren and one has to wonder what the attraction was. The Spierig’s also reunite with Predestination star Sarah Snook here, but Snook is unfortunately underutilized as Mrs. Winchester’s niece who has recently moved into the ever-growing mansion with her son after the death of her husband. This is all to say that Winchester has plenty of potential and while it never fully capitalizes on the ample opportunity it has to transcend the genre trappings and become something of a more self-conscious and timeless work it is a solid and sometimes even surprising haunted house tale that uses the audiences expectations to its advantage and takes certain elements in directions that feel fertile. The Spierig’s screenplay, in collaboration with Tom Vaughan, relies too heavily on jump scares to garner the necessary reactions for being a member of the horror genre, but even still-they serve their purpose more often than not. Resorting to these easy, cheap scares feels a way of accounting for a requirement the Spierig’s weren’t really interested in though, as Winchester is seemingly more inclined to explore how cruelty, grief, and loss can affect people in different ways and to varying degrees. If the Spierig’s had figured out a more inherently haunting way to convey their tone and the actions of those supposedly trapped souls in the rooms of the titular mansion this might have been a more convincing study on such topics, but as it is the film comes and goes with more simplicity than it does depth or scares.

Taking place over the course of eight days in April of 1906 we are first introduced to the aforementioned Snook character and her son who takes to wandering around the winding house in the middle of the night with eyes that look to be glazed over while on a mission intended to hurt himself in some manner. If at first this seems a default move for a scary movie to make in order to garner up a few jumps early on that is certainly what it feels like. Fortunately, these efforts are not done without reason as we are next introduced to Doctor Eric Price (Clarke) who, upon that introduction, is shown to have several demons of his own-getting high on his own supply, if you will-and therefore subject to all kinds of questionable decisions and hallucinations. It is somewhat surprising then when a lawyer from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company shows up at his door to offer him employment. It seems the board of Mrs. Winchester’s late husband’s company has decided she may be too mentally unstable to continue holding her place in the company. Being the biggest shareholder in the company has nothing to do with the additional $20 million Mrs. Winchester inherited after the death of her husband, mind you, but the boards concerns come to light a rather than investing in other outlets all of the money Mrs. Winchester makes from her firearms apparently goes back into her house so as to remedy the price she and her family had to pay for profiting from death in such a way. This is getting ahead of the film itself though, as Dr. Price, who was he himself hand-picked by Mrs. Winchester, is taken out to the Winchester mansion to observe and counsel the widow so as to make his own, professional assessment of the woman’s mental state. Though the board members would immediately claim the woman is as mad as the house she’s built Dr. Price isn’t as quick to judge having had his own personal run-ins with death, loss, and the pain that follows a la the attempt to numb himself of any such emotions or memories. It is upon the meeting of Mrs. Winchester and Dr. Price where we see what Winchester might have had the chance to become did it not feel it had to adhere to a strict structure or the tropes of such a finite genre. It is said that after the death of her husband and young daughter, Mrs. Winchester turned to a medium who took advantage of her fragile mental state and convinced her she is cursed by the ghosts of those who died at the hands of Winchester firearms. One can imagine the discussions this might spurn between a woman with such strong convictions and a man of science such as Dr. Price.

What is immediately striking about Winchester with the introduction of Mirren’s presence into the mix is how assured this main character is in her belief as to what is happening around her balanced by her seeming understanding for how hard it would be to actually believe. As they are positioned in the story it would seem viewers are meant to assume Price is the protagonist as he is clearly the one the film is setting up to go through this transformative experience, but it is he who comes to represent more the other side of that coin once Mrs. Winchester enters the picture with her assuredness and the sympathy this quickly creates. The movie wants us to sympathize with Winchester as it becomes apparent she is more a victim of this image and mentality she must convey than she is an advocate for it. To this effect, it is Mirren’s portrayal of this uneven and largely obligated state that guides the movie in more promising directions than even the Spierig’s might deserve. As Mirren’s initially mysterious character comes to be more and more familiar throughout the course of the film and as the layers are slowly peeled back and the audience begins to better understand the dynamics and details of what the house represents and what Mrs. Winchester is dealing with the picture they paint is both simultaneously engaging and always on the edge of devolving into your standard “we must accomplish this singular thing to expel the spirits” climax that we’ve seen countless times before. And yeah, the last act kind of undoes all the great mythology that the film has built into the walls of the house in which it takes place with a resolution that is as anticlimactic and contrary to what it seemed to movie was actively preaching against up until that point that Winchester largely fails to succeed at what it wanted to accomplish, but it gets points for doing a few things right along the way. There is a message somewhere in here about what you think might be the end of you is what could eventually or ultimately save you, but this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given the events that unfold. Again though, this feels more due to the fact the Spierig’s had to figure out how to stay within their genre lines rather than venturing into territory where they might allow Clarke’s character to really figure out how he’s going to cope with his backstory going forward and how the events documented in this film may or may not help him do so, but without venturing into spoiler territory, Winchester instead ends up essentially telling our supporting protagonist that comes to be Dr. Price that we all must learn to be at peace with our destiny otherwise we’ll never have peace in our present-even if that means shooting a man who is haunting you because he’s mad your guns are the ones that were used to shoot he and his brothers. Logical though, right?

Don’t get me wrong, the screenplay tries its best to justify and bring meaning to this exchange, but it all feels muddled and unclear out of little more than the fact the explanation doesn’t actually hold any weight. This may all sound more negative than what is intended though, as for the majority of the film it’s not hard to acknowledge the strides that are being made to subvert both the haunted house film and the audience’s expectations. Much of this begins in the casting of faces like Clarke and Mirren who are typically revered as being actors who star in serious dramatic material so as to be taken seriously themselves, but as of late Mirren has seemed open to more genre-friendly fare (she was in a Fast & the Furious movie last year, remember?) and to see the actress afford herself the chance to play as human a woman in the most supernatural and outlandish of circumstances strangely grounds these events in a manner where there is a balance of how frightening these spirits could have actually been made to be and how easy it might have been to laugh at the old kook. Rather, there is a trust in Mrs. Winchester’s stories from the get-go as Mirren never allows the outer-image she projects as Winchester to account for much of how she is actually perceived. On the other side of the aforementioned coin, Clarke is one of these actors who has an interesting face and can carry the dramatic weight of the story in his expressions. In Winchester, Clarke’s character is forced to come face to face with the moment that has left his life wracked with guilt and a burden he still carries and tries to numb by re-living what is undoubtedly the worst moment of his life in order to realize that he can’t repeat this same mistake twice. It is another of these moments that are sprinkled throughout Winchester where we see real humanity-be it either through the performances or the uneven screenplay-that hints at what type of film this really wanted to be despite including and standing by the belief spirits and ghosts are real and many times truly demonizing in their ways. The Spierig’s know they can’t have their cake and eat it too it seems, but it would be fascinating to see this film through the eyes of a filmmaker who believed they could. The point being, Clarke gives an inspired and rather devastating performance in this instance that deserved not necessarily a different context, but a better conveyed context than he is given by the Spierig’s. It’s hard to say if Winchester then succeeds in actually saying much about grief and guilt, but it at least has a thorough story that is executed in a fashion that is respectable to the genre it feels it must remain within.

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!

Featured Review

Climax ★★★★★

Climax is electrifyingly abstract and a true champion of 2018.

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Released: 21st September 2018 (UK)

Directed By: Gaspar Noé

Starring: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull and Giselle Palmer

Reviewed By: Dion Wyn

Birth and death are extraordinary experiences. Life is a fleeting pleasure.

Master provocateur Gaspar Noé has been warping our fragile little minds for over 20 years. After the vast disappointment of Love 3D in 2015, he finally returned to Cannes this year. Where he won best picture at Director’s Fortnight; with his latest feature Climax. The win truly has reinvigorated interest and buzz of Noe’s work. The big question is does it actually live to the hype? Climax is set in the mid 1990’s, 20 French urban dancers join together for a three-day rehearsal in a closed-down boarding school located at the heart of a forest to share one last dance. They then make one last party around a large sangria bowl. Quickly, the atmosphere becomes charged and a strange madness will seize them the whole night. If it seems obvious to them that they have been drugged, they neither know by who nor why. And it’s soon impossible for them to resist to their neuroses and psychoses, numbed by the hypnotic and the increasing electric rhythm of the music. While some feel in paradise, most of them plunge into hell.

Climax grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Gaspar Noé’s fine form has returned with his sangria-soaked neon nightmare. Climax opens very subtly with interviews from the dance troop. We get a candid view into their lives and what drives their passion for dance. Noé shows the naivety of his cast before we enter the pressure cooker of the dance hall. Once the usual closing credits happen at the beginning, the true story starts to unfold. The opening dance sequence is electrifying and full of raw kinetic energy. You have succumbed to the euphoria of Noé, the camera becomes another dancer in the troop. We are witnessing the synchronicity and passion for the art of dance. You suffer from a slight come-down after the initial performance, but the depravity and relaxed inhibitions of the dancers start to flow out. There is no real script to Climax it is largely improvised, we delve into the sexual depravity of the dancers. These conversations are not for the faint of heart. You start to see where Noé is going with Climax or do we?

Climax Still Movie Marker

Once the LSD soaked sangria kicks in Noé begins his wizardry behind the lens. Distortion and blurriness are subtly put into frame. You can feel the sweat pouring through the walls. The music intensifies and the dance becomes a lot more aggressive. We have now entered the hellish nightmare we were expecting from the get go. It isn’t the drug trip we witnessed in Enter The Void either. Once the LSD has kicked in, you only see the reactions to their hallucinations. Gaspar Noé challenges you to think what is actually going on? The usual camera trickery now ensues, a classic Noé move. The journey warps your senses and you don’t always know what is going on. The crucial element in sustaining the tension is the killer soundtrack. It really is the beating heart of Climax (Vinyl has been pre-ordered all ready). After the explosion of this pressure cooker of a situation, the story goes no holds barred with scenarios of extreme violence, incest and self harm. Noé doesn’t create an in your face scenario in this instants, it is rather out of character for him.

Sofia Boutella has shed away the action star. Her raw and un-tameable energy is addictive. She flows so powerfully through Climax and you can feel her passion for dance. The casting of the dancers is a master stroke. They all bring a different element to the piece and the diversity of characters gives it great balance. Our inner darkest ideas and nightmares flow through Climax like a virus. You are tested from the get go and Climax is a true cinematic challenge. It is a true testament of youth and the ever flowing challenge of perfecting your artistry. Gaspar Noé’s Climax is electrifyingly abstract and a true champion of 2018.

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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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