Pity – Brand New Trailer!

Sadness is addictive. There is no denying that. Just look at the throes of Facebook status, misery porn movies, and  home magazines such as Take a Break that prove that we love slather ourselves with sorrow. We adore it. Which is why Pity looks so good.

Directed by Babis Makridis and written by Efthimis Filippou (who also co-wrote The Lobster,) the movie revolves around a man who only feels happy when he is sad, especially when his wife is in a coma. When she recovers, he struggles to find a way back to the saddness he felt before.

This looks like a devilishly good black comedy that is ripe for a lot of love. What do you think?

Pity screens at Sundance 
There is no official UK release. 

It – Review

We all float down here…

It’s been a long time since Tim Curry graced our screens with his disturbing and disturbed Pennywise the dancing clown in a two part version of Stephen King’s It. In 1990, he was a pretty scary evil clown, but what passed for fear in the 90’s is camp now. The property was ripe for a remake, but it could so easily all go wrong. King’s books have been adapted for the screen for decades with some really mixed results. For every Carrie or The Shining you have supremely bad and confusing duds like Dreamcatcher. There was always the chance that this could be an epic fail.

Instead, it’s one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time (and I watch a lot of horror films) and is perhaps a new entry in my list of favourites.

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It is the story of a group of kids who live in Derry, an idyllic small town in Maine (of course, where else?) which has a major problem. When Georgie, younger brother of Bill (Lieberher), goes out to play in the rain one day, he never comes home. Soon other children go missing, but Bill holds out hope that Georgie might still be alive. When he and his misfit friends start to see strange and terrifying things, including a clown called Pennywise (Skarsgard), they discover that this isn’t the first time the clown has stalked children in Derry, and also that adults can’t see him. They may be the only thing that can save the children of Derry.

Those of you who know the book or the older film will know that there’s more to the story, and this will be told in a second film. If you’ve seen how thick the book is, you can imagine why (it’s fat enough to choke a whale!). And if you’re a fan of the Stephen King book, you might have concerns about those changes from manuscript to screen… well there are some, notably that instead of being set in the 60’s, it’s now set in the late 80’s, and Beverley who was such a good shot in the original story now has a slightly different story, but these are really cosmetic changes. The sense of the deep bond between a group of kids who don’t fit in and need each other, who all have their own dysfunctional family story, who all have their own personal fears, well that deep beating heart is till there.

In fact, it’s probably what makes this film so wonderful. The group of kids call themselves jokingly the losers. There’s Bill, whose lost his little brother Georgie to the clown. Beverley (Lillis), who lives with her creepy father and who is slut shamed by the other girls at school. The new kid Ben (Taylor), who here loves New Kids On Block, crushes on Beverley and is chubby enough to gain the attention of the school bullies (no one bullies like an 80’s bully). Richie (Strnager Things alumnus Wolfhard) is the joker of the group, and is adorable with his thick glasses and attempts at humour. Mike (Jacobs) is home schooled and lives with his grandfather since his parents died. Eddie’s (Grazer) mother is overbearing and overweight, and he’s terrified of getting sick. And Stanley (Oleff) is a Jewish kid, whose father is a Rabbi and pressures him to study harder. Each one is a well realised person with a distinct voice, which is no small feat with this many characters and with child actors. They manage to encapsulate different aspects of being an outsider and how important belonging is. The bond and banter between them feels really natural and it’s lovely to watch it develop.

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Perhaps the heart of them is Beverley, who is remarkably pretty and a Molly Ringwald doppelganger. A real stand out, she is warm and caring, strong and vulnerable, plucky. She was a pleasure to watch.

On the flipside, psychotic bully Henry Bowers is played by Nicholas Hamilton, which manages to look incredibly like River Phoenix to me, and shows all the delight in humiliation that a vintage 80’s bully would, but with an added dimension. You know that he really wants to destroy someone, and you also know that it’s grounded in a destructive home life. Yes, he’s a bit mad, but he’s never one dimensional, which makes him all the more terrifying.

But that leaves the scary parts to talk about til last. I guess that clowns are a pretty scary prospect on their own, but Bill Skarsgard manages to put so much cheerful menace and playful evil into Pennywise that it’s a whole new level. He’s delightful in a, you know, really deadly and scary way, chewing up the scenery and popping out of it in the most creative ways. The design of this film is amazing. It never really relies on jump scares, it’s more the creeping inevitable dread of the awful. I don’t want to give anything away, but the way the film evokes our deeper fears and manifests them is so well handled. The use of CGI is beautifully rendered, the film is full of dark surprises, and the way things move and come inexorably on towards the victim is really something. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the way it got under my skin and made me so uncomfortable and yes, scared.

It’s a nightmarish vision, all the more terrifying because it’s attacking the most vulnerable, children. It’s foregrounds the importance of childhood friendships for survival of the horrors of life that family and school life visits on the young, and shows how those relationships are the means to survive the unimaginable horrors that should only be the stuff of nightmares, but that are, in Derry, Maine, all to real. A wonderfully balanced story of horror, grounded with just enough humour.

It is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!
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Darkest Hour – Review

Darkest Hour, a drama about the change in Prime Minister in Britain in May 1940 as Europe falls to advancing Nazi troops, is a triumphant return to filmmaking by British director Joe Wright. It has flaws (and I’ll get to those) but those are more than outweighed by its virtues: excellent performances, a gripping narrative and a screenplay awash with contemporary references. Beaten to the punch in cinemas last June by director Jonathan Teplitsky’s frankly dull Churchill, it is the one Winston Churchill film of 2017-18 that you’ll need to see.

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Gary Oldman is inspired casting as First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill, called to replace Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom after the latter loses the confidence of the House. Wright and his screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything and the forthcoming troubled Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody) don’t delve too deeply into the politics of the time, but they position Churchill as a maverick with a talent for rhetoric but a litany of painful political misjudgements to his name. Oldman’s baggage is screen villainy. He intimidates and terrifies – qualities that are perfect for a Churchill that does exactly that to his new typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).

Unlike many actors cast as Churchill – Robert Hardy is best known for his portrayal in numerous television series – Oldman looks nothing like him, either in face or body shape. He is, however, an excellent mimic and has the reputation of being a lone wolf himself – he doesn’t have a publicist. As you watch him, peering through intentionally under-lit scenes – you can’t have a ‘darkest hour’ without it seeming gloomy, even in May – you simultaneously see Churchill and Oldman in facially reconfigured make-up (by Kazuhiro Tsuji). The actor’s eyes, misty with vulnerability, give Churchill his humanity. This is no comedy skit caricature.

As the film makes clear, Churchill was not the ideal choice to lead the country during troubled times – and here the contemporary parallels kick in. He was chosen to be acceptable to the Labour Party to head a government of national unity. However, there is a plot within his War Cabinet, orchestrated by Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and ex-Prime Minister Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), to seek terms of surrender with Adolf Hitler. If Churchill refuses outright to engage in peace talks, committing the country to a war that they cannot possibly win alone, then he will be submitted to a vote of no confidence.

Certainly, when you see Labour leader Clement Atlee (David Schofield) on the sidelines waiting out a crisis, you cannot help but think of the attitude of the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to the Brexit talks. Indeed, you can see Corbyn being inspired by history, as Churchill’s success begat Labour’s post-war victory. But there are other Corbyn parallels as well, notably in a frankly groan-worthy scene when Churchill decides to take a London Underground train one stop to Westminster and elicits the views of the passengers before repeating them to MPs. The scene demonstrates that he is a man of the people, but it sure is toe-curling.

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The rest of the film is much better. Scenes between Churchill and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) have a convincing awkwardness, of two men going through a forced formality not knowing how to express their true feelings; Churchill much preferred Edward to the King who replaced him. Oldman’s scenes with Kristin Scott Thomas show Churchill’s gentler side; difficult to countenance with his extravagance for cigars and scotch, but nevertheless committed to standing up for his people.

Churchill’s relationship with his typist has contemporary resonance too. He initially bullies Elizabeth (a fictional composite) and sends her fleeing from the office, and, in one Harvey Weinstein-evoking scene, even informs her that he is ‘of nature’ (that is, nude coming out of the bath). He is sensitive to her concerns and breaks protocol to show her the War Room. I can’t believe this happened in reality, but in narrative terms, it works fine.

Wright is a core exponent of the ‘oner’ – the long take that establishes a mood and puts the characters in perspective. At one point, the camera follows characters in an underground bunker and then, in a continuous shot, frames them as seen from the sky, moving faster and further away from them to illustrate their vulnerability. It is an effective use of technique.

The film also describes Churchill’s first military crisis – the evacuation of 300,000 allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. In order to prevent the Nazis from reaching Dunkirk too quickly, he orders 4,000 troops at nearby Calais to engage with the Nazis to draw their fire. In the film, the strategy appals the Generals, but as history has shown, it was right, sacrificing 4,000 for 300,000. Wright also gives us a bleakly comic telephone scene with President Roosevelt (David Strathairn), who is unable by US law to provide assistance to the British, even supplying them with the planes that they purchased. ‘We can take the planes to the Canadian border and you can get horses – not motorised vehicles – to drag them over,’ suggests Roosevelt, in his best approximation of helpfulness.

It is a tribute to the skill of Wright and his collaborators that Darkest Hour exerted a palpable grip on the audience mostly through dialogue. Returning from the screening, I heard a group of young people at the bus stop talking, without irony, about joining the armed forces. Is our country really on a war footing?

Darkest Hour is out in cinemas now! 

A Ghost Story – Review

As mentioned by a character within a party scene, hollowing the atmosphere of joy and bringing an honest perspective to those around him, life and art is relatively futile. We go around believing we can change the world with our works when millennia down the line, it will all be dust. In the grand scheme of things, you have to question why we commit our energies and passions to such projects. Why thousands upon thousands of creative souls choose to dedicate their moments to capturing a story and showing it on the big screen. Why we still care and haven’t just stopped churning out production after production. Why hasn’t it all dissolved away from us?

Ah yes, the big question of Why.

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David Lowery, director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and, most recently, Pete’s Dragon, takes a stab at this question in A Ghost Story. Whilst some may argue that the vague elements of this unforgettable film tries to unpack life after death, you could definitely say it answers the question of why we make movies. Because what kinda life would it be without seeing A Ghost Story on the big screen? A rather un-lived one.

Starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, A Ghost Story revolves around a young couple, C & M, who live in an isolated house in some nondescript American town. When tragedy strikes and M dies, C has to come to terms with life without him. However, he is closer than she thinks, coming back to stalk the house as a bed-sheet ghost…

The premise borders upon ridiculous or too simple to sustain an hour and a half of your attention but David Lowery (ironically) fleshes out the idea until it is this engaging and (pardon the pun) haunting movie.

Shot, produced, and finalised within a year, A Ghost Story is a profoundly encompassing piece that dives into the depth of emotional grief, identity, and history without uttering more than a few lines. Powerful within its opulent delivery through silence, score, and shot layouts, Lowry’s story unfolds in a compellingly original manner. Using the aspect ratio to frame the tale in a curved box adds this nostalgic layer to the visual masterpiece like Polaroid snippets of time.

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Lowery’s command of the camera-work is a work of art in itself. The fluidity of the camera and how it cares for the subject matter is astonishing. Keeping the camera rolling in ardent, poignant scenes for longer than expected or diving from the sky at the shock of a sound as though we were these inquisitive watchers. In fact, the atmospheric film makes you feel as though you were a ghost yourself, following our shrouded hero as peers, caught in the afterlife.

Rooney Mara has a particular scene that is certainly a test of skill and stomach. Her adroitness in acting is a mesmeric tour-de-force, steering you through a weighted arc that her character nearly silently goes through. As for Casey Affleck, bar a few scenes, he has to spend his time in a sheet and what’s so impossibly genius about that is that despite him covered completely for 90% of the film, Affleck can convey emotion impeccably. (I secretly hope it get’s nominated for Best Costume Design.)

A Ghost Story is a perfect metaphor for life. Transcending through time as our fabric fashioned friend becomes unhinged through moments of life, Lowery is astutely aware of the message he is conveying here. Grief, love, death, moving on, anger, rage, confusion – all diced with this uncertain yet beautiful humour – are facets of A Ghost Story rampant in this bemusing quiet. The captured colours and impressive detail, particular in the sound design and score, prove Lowery as, less a director, but more an artist – skilfully weaving his masterpiece.

A soulful indie drama that will melt gloriously within you, A Ghost Story is an incredibly unique cinematic venture, giving you meaning, spirit, and, most importantly, life.

A Ghost Story is on DVD & Blu-Ray now. 

The Little Stranger- Review

With the current trend of horror movies relying on violence and gore, an old-fashioned Gothic tale always feels welcome. Going back to an interesting narrative with subtle techniques to cause panic in its audience. The Little Stranger is a film that looked to have all the makings of a fresh attempt at the genre. Sadly, despite an impressive cast led by Domhnall Gleeson and Ruth Wilson, the films narrative cannot fulfil its pace or running time.

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The film begins with local physician Dr. Faraday, (Gleeson) visiting a once great estate manor called Hundreds Hall. As a boy he was once granted entrance to the house, despite his humble background. The house and family are now in financial ruin and as Faraday becomes closer to the family, in particular daughter Caroline, (Wilson) it becomes clear that there is something wrong with the house itself.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who made  acclaimed films Room and What Richard Did,  The Little Stranger is based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Waters.

The film is essentially a haunted house story. It centres around the hall and the Ayres family through the eyes of a stranger. Faraday’s fascination with the house and his desire to grow closer to its inhabitants can be read as class ambition. Silence, shadows and the movement of the camera are all used to create an uneasiness inside its walls. It starts strong but as the narrative fails to develop, the curiosity in the house’s secrets fades.

This is a slow burn story. It unravels its self at a minute pace, which sadly overstretches it’s narrative. Yet in doing so it brings great moments of dread and every moment inside the house has potential for danger.

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The film touches on themes of class and social status through its characters. With Faraday’s humble beginnings of constant embarrassment to him, he has a constant fear of inadequacy to the Ayres family. Despite the family’s financial situation, the pressure of upper-class pride is always present and ties each of them to the house against their will.

Gleeson plays calm and controlled Faraday. It is a stoic performance, sometimes making the character unrelatable but opens ambiguity about his real motives. His growing obsession with the house goes from innocent to potentially sinister. Great support is offered by Ruth Wilson as Caroline; Her clear brilliance and earlier successful career show she is clearly desperate to escape her situation. Her friendship with Faraday offers her an escape and him a way into the world he so clearly desires.

Despite a great cast and some real suspense, the film over-stretches its narrative. The more interesting elements of the film are overshadowed by the film sluggish pace.

The Little Stranger is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!