Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

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A Bandersnatch is a character cooked up by Lewis Carroll and is never explicitly detailed but it is meant to be a ferocious creature with snapping jaws. This Black Mirror film definitely reflects those fierce jaws with a snappy interactive feature carefully woven into the disturbing tapestry, of which you come to expect from Charlie Brooker’s dark look at technology.

July 1984 and Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) is desperately hoping to program a video game based around a choose your own adventure book which he owns. He calls his creation ‘Bandersnatch’ and it’s modelled after the many different paths the user can take in building their own story through the game. As he works, Stefan has to deal with anxiety, past trauma, a deadline and the inescapable feeling that he’s not in control.

The ‘Black Mirror’ series is a crackling anthology; one with little in the way of weaknesses, only to be found in the later seasons. This is the first full length film to come out of the world mastered by Brooker. This time around he’s upped the anti and taken inspiration from those choose your adventure stories and during this movie you are presented with 2 options, what you pick could determine Stefan’s fate. It’s a movie with so many directions that your chosen film experience could last 40-90 minutes, as there are around 150 minutes of footage that could be selected depending on your choices.

This easily could have been a cheap gimmick with no substance but this built-in interactive design works because the 80’s set story is interesting enough to sustain interest. Granted it does take a while to get into the film and with choices being fired at you quite quickly it can feel a little bit longer to get going but in the latter stages, of course depending on where your story goes, it gets twisted and fuelled with worrying paranoia.

As a film it doesn’t quite work, there’s something missing because of the choices offered up. You can’t quite get lost in the plot, the immersion factor is lost because you have those stressful 10 seconds to mull over what you want the character to say/do. In terms of a psychological test though it is exceptional. The complicity of us an audience is greatly utilised; our participation in Stefan’s life becomes a game and it isn’t long until you could be gleefully making deadly actions occur. The films talk of free will and the paths you can go down in life is greatly scripted, so either from choosing a cereal or whether to fight your therapist, this interactive design greatly says more about its user than the film.

Though there are times when the film shuttles backwards because a decision you made leaves you with no option but to revisit the past. This kind of works because it happens in choose your own adventure books but after a while of being presented with just one option, because your earlier choice was wrong, it starts making you lose interest.

So whilst ‘Bandersnatch’ may not be the most smooth running narrative to get lost in, there’s enough bleak humour and game-inspired tricks to choose from and re-choose again.

7/10

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Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

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All roads lead here, the poster states and this is a road I’d been eagerly travelling down as I looked forward to its release. The trailer captured a perfect sense of mystery, doom and humour which are all wonderfully present throughout the entire feature. ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ is a mixed bag but never a bad movie.

The El Royale is a bi-state hotel situated between Nevada and California; a place that used to be hustlin’ and bustlin’ but is now a cheap stopover for random drifters. The film sees four people staying and each have their own reasons to why they’ve ended up there.

This is a film of two halves and you can really feel when the film switches up and becomes almost a very different product. A shady figure appears dripping from the rain and that’s when you could almost check out of this thriller. It’s a shame because all the subplots are captivating tales but this one spills over into the main event and lessens what had come before. It’s almost as if the movie somewhat loses its grip on the hotel as a character.

The El Royale most certainly is an interesting character and it’s glorious production design give it a great stamp of dated period visuals. The red line streaking through the middle as it splits up the pair of states is a fun starting point for this film to create a business with odd quirks. The mystery of what the hotel management may really be up to and the secrets it possesses are vaguely lost as the aforementioned subplot takes precedence.

You can definitely tell that the director and co-writer of ‘The Cabin in the Woods‘ is behind this, as he plays around with tropes of the thriller genre with gleeful skill as he did with comedy and horror in that 2012 flick. Drew Goddard doesn’t go as extreme with this movie and perhaps this is what the film lacks because there isn’t quite the desired oomph to the later stages of this feature. Goddard’s script kind of paces out in the last forty minutes very nearly making the film feel like a wasted opportunity.

All the customer interactions are ace though and the initial set up of this dual state establishment is solid. There’s a remarkable mysterious tone swirling around who these people might be and why they are there. Chapter title cards signalling the character subplots provide the film a TV serial identity and keeps the audience easily tracking the criss-cross narrative of these characters as their paths unite.

‘Bad Times’ is a great ensemble piece and a whole host of talented actors enjoy running amok in this bold story. Dakota Johnson, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo and Chris Hemsworth are just a few of the names that round out a top tier cast. In the film there’s a nice tender moment between Bridges’ Father Flynn and Miles played by Lewis Pullman, the latter is really something throughout this film, he quivers with a knowing dissatisfaction to what the hotel can mean for people who enter. Jon Hamm is a hammy salesman with great comic delivery but he owns a serious side as his motives become clear and then there’s Erivo who has stunning vocals and balances her singing prowess with emotion and a resilient force to survive.

A thick layer of atmosphere and drip-feeding of mystery help this film feel positively original and a series of delectable performances keeps the investment at a high but ‘Bad Times’ cannot quite keep up momentum and becomes an almost vacant space.

7/10

The Nun (2018)

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As the poster says, this is the ‘darkest chapter’, well it’s certainly a film devoid of enough daylight and interest that a little nap during the run-time could be very desirable. Without being harsh, ‘The Nun’ isn’t exactly a snooze fest but the story is so plodding that this horror becomes a nun entity.

Some priests at the Vatican send Father Burke (Demian Bichir) to an abbey in Romania in the hopes he can solve the mystery of a nun that committed suicide. Burke is ordered to bring practising Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) along and they soon discover the building is inhabited by a powerful evil called Valak; under the pretence of a nuns habit to blend in with its surroundings.

This is the fifth instalment in ‘The Conjuring Universe’ and it’s by far the worst out of the four I’ve now seen. Corin Hardy ensures to direct this film with a focus on keeping up misty, unnerving atmosphere but aside from the swirling mists of a creepy Eastern European building there’s nothing under the surface to really cause a terrifying reflex to what we’re seeing.

A lot of this movie sees us suffering to watch the same camera movements over and over. The lazy horror staple of a slow swipe to the left or right before it comes back and something has now appeared in the frame is just as boringly repetitive as the multiple times a character follows shadows. The frights themselves or tense set pieces are mostly predictable and rely on the jump scare tactic, which don’t utilise any creativity to elicit strong reactions other than a yawn.

Numbers 1 and 2 of ‘The Conjuring’ started off strong but now the additions are staining the impact of what would have been better had they just stayed as a couple of well made Warrens-led movies. The freaky nature of characters like Annabelle or this toothy nun were scary when seen as small sightings within the main film, whereas now they headline their own features and dramatically ruin their intrigue and spook factor. Even an in-joke within this recent movie feels like a dumb idea; you see a reg plate with Valak amongst the letters and numbers but considering how the demon is meant to be defeated in ‘The Conjuring 2’, why would some random Romanian villager have its name on their truck, it feels like a totally misplaced Easter egg.

Taissa Farmiga scrapes through the mire with dignity and talent in tact and is pretty much the only redeeming quality in this unnecessary and boring contribution to the supernatural franchise.

3/10

Hereditary (2018)

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The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In this film, the apple is definitely not ripe for consumption with the family aspect whirled together with secrets and spirits, which makes for a truly alarming nightmarish vision.

Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother has recently passed and whilst trying to hit a deadline with her miniature artwork, she becomes struck with grief. This isn’t helped by a post-party event where Annie’s son, Peter (Alex Wolff) brings more devastation onto the family and things escalate from there.

That’s as much I’ll comment about the plot because it’s definitely best going into this experience with next to no information about what may or may not happen. I call ‘Hereditary’ an experience because it may be labelled as a horror but it’s more than that, it’s a deeply affecting story which immersed me into a troubling world of fraught family ties and emotional over-spill. The horror isn’t from cheap jump scares of which there are like a couple, but instead it’s rooted in the unflinching portrayal of a mother, father, brother and sister facing distressing events.

I tip my virtual hat to director Ari Aster, because for a debut feature length film this is absolutely phenomenal. The directing and writing chops he demonstrates are practically exquisite. He really knows how to hold a microscope over the family and set up a chilling and almost torturous patience in watching the film cleverly build up. A24 and their releases are ones I always eagerly await. Their back catalogue is exceptional and this is no different, they seem to understand fresh talent and provide unique stories in a cinematic landscape often filled with less than original material.

Sound production within this feature is superb, from some almost constant and never calm heartbeat sounding noises over scenes to the tongue clicking which is used in an effectively creepy way. The score itself by Colin Stetson swells in all the right places, which raised the hairs on my arm and made the film that much startling. The design itself and the way the camera moves throughout the house is brilliant. The tracking shots mirror the dolls house worlds Annie creates and the family as characters therefore come across like figures, manipulated by a sinister exterior force.

There are points when it goes a little bit far and odd but aside from this and a couple of slow-ish scenes I think the film is great. I think because it’s 100% something that will stick in my mind and I’ll need to mull it over to work out exactly what my final thoughts are, but I did like it, yes.

Collette is sensational in this movie and hopefully she won’t be overlooked come awards season because her performance is explosive. There’s times when she’s worrying, times when she gives subtle looks of care or something darker and her bursts of grief gripped me like hooks in my flesh. Milly Shapiro carries with her a quiet, haunted and evil feeling which works well. Wolff is so good, the tears, the stares, the frantic screams and concern for where he finds Peter are played perfectly.

It’s very close to being a mind bomb of a movie, leaving me internally screaming WTF but it works so well because of this and the smart way it plays on fear. The film is disturbing and is one I want to experience again.

8/10

Beast (2018)

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Stalking the screen with effective tension is this beastly feature. It certainly has bark and bite, as we see this dark thriller take hold and swallow you up, in a dangerously palpable mystery.

Celebrating her birthday is Moll (Jessie Buckley), who ends up dancing the night away before crossing paths with the possibly shady Pascal (Johnny Flynn), the next morning. There have been a series of grim murders plaguing the island and it isn’t long until people suspect Moll’s new connection, as the man behind the disappearances.

This is a debut work from Michael Pearce; who unarguably knows how to layer on the tension. The film almost sweats out a deep and engaging psychological tale, as if Pearce is allowing us to peer through a magnifying glass at all the worrying little details possessed by Moll and Pascal, details that keep us questioning their relationship and the trail of murders.

Coinciding with Pearce’s fantastically hypnotic visuals is a score from Jim Williams that drips with almost spine-chilling strength. The entire look of this movie is that of a frightening British drama, with a cold dirtiness and a somewhat fun immersion into thriller territory that is enhanced by the plot. The narrative is one that definitely kept me guessing and the end is one I could talk about for some time yet, it’s visceral, unexpected and almost reaches the realm of being powerful.

Saying all of this, I don’t know whether it’s a film I’d watch again and it’s a story that I was a little disappointed didn’t end up being darker or more twisted. The film also slightly suffers from feeling like a slow tick-tock aspect, which does make it feel a little bit long. I’d definitely say the film is strongest in the first two thirds.

The acting is blindingly great, some of the most captivating performances I’ve ever seen. Flynn excels at playing this secretive, maybe dodgy character that turns up in Moll’s life. There’s a great balance of masculinity and softer love he portrays as he gets wrapped up in the whirlwind of the flame haired Buckley. She is incredible, the emotions she goes through are numerous and each one is carefully performed, drawing you into her as a character. It’s almost a tour de force show that she puts on and Moll comes to vivid and horrific life thanks to this.

This could be bad or good but I still don’t really know how I feel with ‘Beast’ and perhaps that’s testament to how fearless and different it is. The movie is rife with tension and I can at least safely say that it’s two leading stars ensure you cannot look away.

7/10

Wildling (2018)

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It’s upsetting but no, this is not some adventurous flick starring Ygritte from Game of Thrones. Instead it’s a horror fantasy from Fritz Bohm, which serves little scares but provides just enough bite.

After finding herself freed from locked confinement, Anna (Bel Powley), learns about the outside world and her own self. Whilst under the supervision and care of Sheriff Cooper (Liv Tyler), Anna begins a drastic change of character which puts her in harms way.

There’s something magically rare about seeing a film that kind of appear without warning and this happened with ‘Wildling’, of which I’d only heard who was in it and avoided any posters, trailers or such story-like information. In that sense, this is a film that’s truly engrossing because I wasn’t waiting for something I’d seen in a trailer but it doesn’t mean it’s a winner.

It never felt like the film was too long in my eyes, in fact, the later stages of Anna’s opening eyes to womanhood and outside world civilisation came across as rushed and never built a scale or weight to her learning. It’s most definitely a wild and weird movie, the coming of age aspect like a cauldron of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, Old Universal monster movies and ‘Raw’.

The film has this relentless feral look and Toby Oliver’s cinematography captures the twisted Brothers Grimm like world well. It’s like every darkly blue scene is splattered with dirt and keeps on track with the developing characteristics of Anna. Though the look of the film may be good, the story as said doesn’t feel fully realised and it’s not really that interesting to follow because from the outset it’s obvious who she is and I knew exactly where the lost shot of the film would be. The romantic entanglement is perhaps a bit dull and the story descends into generic Hollywood storytelling.

Powley is fascinating to watch; her commanding presence with the impressive runs, super hearing and ever reactionary eyes are nice quirks and she held my attention nicely playing this confused but sharply adaptable young lady. Tyler is not at all convincing as a sheriff and has little to do but she’s believable in wanting to make Anna feel settled and safe.

‘Wildling’ is a film I’ll forget about come the end of 2018, perhaps by the end of summer, but for the time being it’s a film I’m content I’ve seen and I found it to be an ambitious creature feature.

5.5/10

Thoroughbreds (2018)

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Posh and psychotic in a way that keeps you guessing and enthralled; this film is never one you can predict and thank goodness to see something original like this. Bolstered further by great performances, this is a nicely wound thriller left best without knowing too much going in.

After committing some extreme off screen act, unfeeling Amanda (Olivia Cooke) gets tutored by distant but once childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy). The two girls talk, study and ultimately spend their time coldly discussing an idea to kill someone.

I’ll leave the plot at that, because I feel this film is definitely more rewarding with less prior expectations. This is how I entered, literally knowing who was in it and that’s it, luckily I avoided trailers and this made my viewing experience much better. Debut director and writer Cory Finley has certainly whipped up Patrick Bateman vibes in his story, featuring two females as similarly pinpoint sharp and calculated personas. When we watch the pair chat, reminisce and plot it’s a fascinating blend of dark humour and uneasy creepiness.

The music throughout this movie is perfectly designed, the choice of cellist Erik Friedlander gifts a good number of scenes a very unsettling string arrangement that almost makes you sit bolt upright with the goosebumps over your skin raised. It’s also mixed in with some sounds that I can only describe as unique, oddly pleasant and unsettling at the same time. Also, a workout machine throws another detail of tension as its sounds reverberate around the house.

The upper class is a platform for us to revel and revolt in, with the two prim, well educated and well off women shown to us as bored lasses, procrastinating from work and driven to conspire of murder like it’s nothing. The look of the film added to this interesting window-gaze into their lives, is clean and crisp; like the clinical white spa Lily and her mother visit. This precise cleanliness of every frame creates another layer of unease but doesn’t overtake the good moments of frost-bitten comedy that strikes in the same way as ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’.

Cooke excels in a role masterfully tailored to her performance power. She plays a character lacking joy or guilt in such a mesmerising way and she manifests tears, with an in-film technique that just shows what a talented actor she is. Taylor-Joy is an enigmatic presence, her large eyes drawing you in and really making us see how unflinching and cold they are. She perfectly travels a path into less empathy and cold hearted indifference which can be amusing and troubling to watch. The late Anton Yelchin isn’t involved much as Tim; a character that’s not wholly necessary or interesting, but the great Yelchin displays a maddening ferocity behind his eyes and future plans, which is a nice opposing quality to the skittish, on edge moments he goes through.

‘Thoroughbreds’ is probably something that’ll slip under the radar; like a horse left in the stables but it deserves to be seen because it’s different, killer and a jolt of talent from in front and behind the cameras.

7.5/10