The Little Stranger (2018)

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British gentry and inflections of Gothic horror are to be found in Lenny Abrahamson’s recent feature. ‘The Little Stranger’ is adapted from a 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, a book that plays around with the themes of finance and evil, which the film attempts to do but doesn’t altogether get a handle of.

Doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) pays numerous visits to an estate out in the country to help with the physical pains felt by RAF veteran Roddy Ayres (Will Poulter). As his trips to the house become more frequent he starts feeling an unshakeable presence through the house which he pins down with rational answers but Roddy’s sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) is sure something else is going on as is her their mother Angela (Charlotte Rampling).

Abrahamson; the man behind a musician in a papier-mache mask and a kidnapped mother and child, shows he can switch genres well, but there is a connection. The director always seems prone to keep focus on the story’s characters, his latest feature is no different. The characters create a large proportion of the odd mysteries but unlike with Frank or Ma and Jack, the figures roaming through ‘The Little Stranger’ lack a special something and in the end, that’s the main weakness for this film.

This drama does feel too long as well, it snails through the narrative and though it’s not a bore to sit through, the gentile pace is prone to uninteresting spells. A lot of the film comes across like a theatrical play, a drawing room scene especially feels that way and I’m sure this tone stems from scriptwriter Lucinda Coxon who has many plays under her belt. This quality is by no means a negative, in fact it does show off the great acting but it stifles the stride and the times when the film could be more scarily cinematic.

Perhaps if the film stayed in the confines of the home then the run-time would have some minutes shaved off but ultimately it would have kept up an unsettling atmosphere and curious character, of which the house most certainly is one. It almost breathes with a strange desire for trouble. What the film explores well is the air of something not being fully right, through creaking halls and scratched walls, Abrahamson ensures the ghoulish moments are all the more striking by utilising a calm approach to the tension, this is echoed by the slow-moving camerawork which floats in and around the rooms of the dilapidating country house.

You can’t quite put a finger on Dr. Faraday, this is thanks to the fascinating performance from Gleeson who is charming in an irregular way but also quietly threatening. The more he appears, frequently stopping by the big house, the more he feels like an unwelcome stranger. Wilson plays a nice balance of hope against meekness, a smart soul trapped by an event in the past.

This film reminded me of ‘I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House’, not because Wilson also appears in it but because both have great yet rare moments of spooky atmosphere stitched together in fairly quaint, hushed hushed settings and both carry intrigue which speedily vanishes to unwanted disappointment.

5.5/10

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The Meg (2018)

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Swallow a load of this monstrous shark movie, which on trailer and prior buzz alone looked to be the perfect summer popcorn flick of ridiculousness, but upon viewing it doesn’t quite reach that fabled height of silliness but comes close enough to make ‘The Meg’, a grin-inducing creature feature.

Backed by the financial might of Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson), a diving team are hoping to discover an entire new layer underneath the Mariana Trench. As bad luck would have it they stumble upon the hungry jaws of Megalodon and the surface crew need to rein in the help of rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), who can hopefully stop the toothy villain from killing them and many more.

Director of the National Treasure movies, John Turteltaub sure knows how to call the shots with a rough and ready lead and provide fun thrills, so he’s a handy choice for this shark based feature. Once the film really gets kicking, then the enjoyment factor breaks through the shark cage roof but there are some moments that are, dare I say, a little slow and I wanted more blood-soaked action and some sense of silliness which the narrative set up sorely lacks.

Perhaps the 12A rating doesn’t help this movie either, if it had have been bumped up to a 15 it could have elevated the nastiness and nightmarish situation of a beastly water-dweller stalking populated waters but aside from this weakening classification and a mildly boring first act, this is a film that hints at deathly danger enough to whet the adrenaline-taste buds and survive as a dumb but fun family film.

Shark films obviously have a hard time living up to the famous dread which was sustained throughout ‘Jaws’, but as a B-movie sci-fi outing, this manages to provide two if not three sequences that are tense and have you fearing for the characters and fearing more the chomping nature of this gigantic prehistoric fish, for example, a beach swarming with happy go lucky people is a short but brilliant bite of joyful shark bait tension and features a true underdog!

Jason Statham on board is always a stonking good casting choice, if he’s knowingly setting himself up for meme culture and silly dialogue then it’s a film to revel in. Seeing The Stath taking on something, be it Cranky syndicates or the man-mountain that is Dwayne Johnson is never not a delight and in this movie he takes on something just slightly bigger than The Rock with great gruff determination.

This is a fun film that could have benefited from starting a little earlier in it’s knowledge of being a tongue-in-cheek blast, but once the fearsome creature surfaces than so does the entertaining ride.

7/10

First Reformed (2018)

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The writer behind great and iconic films ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’ has, it’s fair to say, had quite a run of middling to poor releases but this recent drama has gained lots of attention and acclaim. It’s a slow-burning watch that sheds light on Paul Schrader’s quality scripting of central figures facing conflict.

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a reverend at the First Reformed church in New York, a building soon facing its 250th anniversary. In the build up to this, Toller begins keeping track of his thoughts in a journal for a year. He also gets asked by church-goer Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to help counsel her husband Michael, who is becoming isolated through his strong views about global warming.

In contrast to what a lot of people seem to be saying, I found the first 90 minutes or so of the film to be the strongest. The final 20 are indeed out there moments and give the movie a bold spiritual identity, but I liked the gentile almost unnerving pace of watching the reverend’s character being set up and then dismantled as his paths and beliefs cross with Michael.

This conflict of belief makes for an engrossing watch and Schrader keeps the majority of scenes in a static, square aspect ratio of 1.37:1. This screening gives the film a vaguely claustrophobic feel, his decision to have little-to-no non-diegetic sound also adds a theatricality to the movie, as if they’re playing out these unexpected turn of events on n intimate stage. It’s only as the final minutes arrive that the camera becomes more animated, circling around characters and moving more than it had been, this works with the dramatic interpretative ending and makes the choices of Toller that much more elevated.

‘First Reformed’ does have transcendent moments which have us literally floating through the beauty of Mother Earth and the consequent destruction it bears, thanks to the actions of the human race but it’s this moment that the weighty climate change theme becomes too on the nose. However a scene between Toller and Michael discussing the horrors of pollution, deforestation etc is brilliant; it’s fuelled with bitterness from Michael and struggle from Toller as he worries for the future and questions his faith.

Amanda Seyfried excels in a turn as a grief-stricken wife bearing a child. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that she’s called Mary, as Seyfried plays a comforting welcome presence to the toils of Toller’s journey. Their pairing certainly takes unpredictable turns but she and Hawke act the binding of their souls well enough to almost forgive how annoyingly the film took me out of the story by the end. Ethan Hawke is quite hypnotising as this pastor facing near Travis Bickle levels of anguish. He never over eggs the performance, ensuring the subtlety of Toller gives him that shaky edge of instability and his problems become a believable oil slick on his life.

If you don’t like slow films…or like Trump, you don’t believe that climate change is a thing then this emphatically underlined story of faith, loss and a parable for the modern era with politics and global warming, is not for you. Aside from a hugely disappointing ending, this is a film that’s thought provoking and will stick with me.

7/10

Hostiles (2018)

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After a dry spell of Westerns last year; aside from perhaps the snowy frontiers with Caesar and co in ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’, a new year in UK film releases sees us literally follow soldiers and a Cheyenne family ride across New Mexico.

Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is ordered to escort some of his own men and a Cheyenne family to peaceful tribal lands in Montana. This is a journey in itself but the fact that he’s taking Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi); a man who has killed people he knows, makes it even more of a burden. Along the way they find Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) who has her own path to take.

Two years on from his so-so ‘Black Mass’ feature, director Scott Cooper manages to really let us feel the danger and grit of the expansive South West upwards to the North of Montana. It’s a huge and perilous journey, both physically and mentally, and through the choices made we truly sense that overwhelming scale of weight a few of these characters carry with them. Cooper fares well in delivering a palpable sense of tension on more than a few occasions which adds stakes but annoyingly the film does have some problems.

It’s a film that stretches just a touch too much. The pacing of numerous scenes don’t help feeling like this is a long movie. After completing one assignment, we’re thrust back into another similar job to follow which feels like a drag at points. The cliche of the character dynamic we’re left with by the end of the movie is another downer. It’s a film that looks beautiful, can be admired but isn’t a home run and I think that’s more down to the story which as said suffers from pacing issues and general writing missteps in the true harshness of rural America that could have been tapped into much more by changing the ending dynamics.

Bale is quiet and brooding as the rough but kindly captain but has changes of hearts or attitudes that feel slightly off, that’s more down to the writing than the actor of course. Pike is sensational in an opening sequence that bursts with shocking intensity and bleak tension. She’s just as brilliant throughout in a role that sees her show compassion, strength, weakness and forgiveness. Studi is an even quieter presence but one you never fear which is right. There’s a slow sturdiness about how he plays Yellow Hawk that mirrors the slow nature of the film itself.

It may be too slow and slightly long and a film that I’ll likely not remember come the end of the year, or maybe in 6 months time, but it’s shot stunningly well, the acting is great from everyone involved and there is an undeniable sensation of un-glorified violence that works well.

6.5/10

Haywire (2012)

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This thriller/action movie had me annoyingly disengaged for the majority of the run time. There is a genuine admiration to be had for the stunt work and actual fighting style used by MMA fighter Gina Carano, but apart from that I feel this was nowhere near as exciting or special as it could have been.

Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is a former Marine and after retrieving a hostage in Barcelona she gets an assignment to Dublin from director Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). There she meets up with MI6 agent Paul (Michael Fassbender) and after a shady night she realises she’s being wrapped up into a conspiracy.

It’s a film that feels like it has so much potential, from the talents of director Steven Soderbergh to the impressive acting list including Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Bill Paxton, there’s the action grittiness that usually works so well and a story about embroilment and pointing the finger but it only comes across as…average.

It would be hard not to compare this film to the Paul Greengrass splendour of the Bourne 2 and 3. This one appears like a female version of Jason Bourne but sadly is never quite as impacting or interesting. The action is alright but the attempts at the murky world of intelligence shrouding a person in blame and mystery doesn’t ignite in the same way as the JB trilogy.

Soderbergh does a neat job in utilising blends of fast paced shots with black and white moments, he gives each new location a suitable amount of breathing time and he ensures that the focus sticks with capable Mallory, but it never felt like he was breaking out of the action thriller formula and aside from him doing well in casting an actual subject for his lead and giving the movie some sleekness, this for me felt like a blah picture.

I do commend the way we see Carano kick ass and flip off walls, the brutal elements as she takes down a succession of men is cool to see but it nearly gets blinded by the stupid choice to have Mallory and Aaron just kiss, the awful deer in car moment and a drained sense of colour and blur to most of the movie. Even David Holmes’ music at most points sounds like it comes from a 60s/70s TV show and doesn’t feel right.

There’s a neat ending which feels very right and helps the film…but it’s at the ending. I don’t know, you just never feel tense or you don’t get nervous for the main character because she just gets seen as a strong fighter and nothing else. Everything is almost to easy for her, I feel from the other reviews I’ve seen of this feature that I’m firmly on my lonesome in having this viewpoint on the film but I didn’t really like it.

 

Gina Carano isn’t much of an actress but she more than makes up for it with her display of real hand to hand combat. There’s a cold tenacity in her eye, a furious touch to her look that helps Mallory feel driven. Michael Fassbender is brooding, handsome and dangerous as Paul. Ewan McGregor doesn’t get to do much outside of the typical director cliche mould, his motive transparent and Michael Douglas also fails to get much to do to pique the interest.

I admit there’s a cool level of muscle and style to this action number, but the pace, music and been there done that plot made me switch off multiple times.

4.5/10