Movie Review

The Ones Below

Written for Film and TV Now Nov 2015 (Available here)

From the haunting lullaby that accompanies the opening image of a sonogram, there is an immediate sense of foreboding horror in The Ones Below, of something about to go wrong.

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The expecting couple are young professionals Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who up until now lived comfortably in the upper half of their London flat. Downstairs a new couple have moved in, a bubbly Finnish woman (Laura Birn) and her older, much less congenial husband Jon (David Morrissey). As luck would have it they have a child on the way too.

The soon-to-be mothers are drawn together initially but their differences soon come to light. Kate has doubts about motherhood that are not even comprehended by her desperately maternal neighbour. Theresa (her name even reminds of the renowned ‘Mother’) and Jon have always wanted to have children but it hasn’t been so easy for them. This is in stark contrast to Kate who wasn’t sure that she even wanted to have children, perhaps seeded in the frigid and distant relationship she has with her own mother. The ease with which she has fallen pregnant becomes a matter of discord as a sudden and dramatic turn of events sends the couples’ relationship spiralling into paranoid contempt.

When Kate eventually gives birth, her reluctance is challenged by the relentless demands of her young baby. She soon finds herself sleep-deprived and strung out, suspicious that the couple downstairs are interfering, but how much of this is in her head? While the more villainous qualities of certain characters is shown as schlocky and over-the-top, even for this style of film, it is the more subtle performance of Posey that grounds the horror and creates something interesting.

The Ones Below cleverly uses the divisive attitudes towards pregnancy as a means of finding tension and dividing lines. This is brought out in the way each character dresses, and the ways in which they decorate their apartments even. Where the more laid back and career focussed  young couple wear mostly monochrome, smart-casual attire, the ones below are splattered with bright garish colours, a quality which is unsettling, almost laughably so in the case of Jon, whose tall and imposing demeanour is undercut by his pink socks.

The on-the-nose title of David Farr’s directorial debut sounds like A Twilight Zone episode, which is rather fitting for this film which owes a debt to the twisty revenge thrillers of decades past, and not to mention Roman Polanski. Not simply Rosemary’s Baby, which is an undoubted influence, but the others in the Polish director’s Apartment trilogy, and his more recent adaptation Carnage, which examines the volatile dynamic of two middle-class couples as they fight over their children.

Although there are glimpses of these other films, The Ones Below lacks the potency to rival them and instead offers a cheap thriller that descends into pure absurdity. The final act is actually quite fun in the end but it comes at the expense of all seriousness up until this point.

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Grandma (2015)

Written for RAF News Dec 2015

When young Sage (Julia Garner) falls pregnant she turns to her feminist poet grandmother (Lily Tomlin) for help. All she needs now is $612 for an abortion which has been scheduled for later that same day, unfortunately grandma Elle is in the process of transmografying her life into art and has turned her credit cards into wind chimes.

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And so the once famous, or mildly well-known, Elle takes her granddaughter on a tour of old flames and affiliates aiming to scrape together the money. They drive around in an old black Dodge, classic in style but ageing and falling apart – the parallel with Elle will become significant on the home stretch.

Elle is sharply intelligent, an academic with rebellious bite. The first we see of her she is breaking up with her young girlfriend (Judy Greer) and as it turns out she can be pretty mean, a trait she almost takes pride in. Despite this, her attitude and cutting remarks are infected with her wry sense of humour.

Grandma is a road movie and an indie comedy, but not in the quirky Juno sense. It is funny throughout but feels somehow more sincere – although you can expect an acoustic score with shots of hands out of car windows rolling on the wind.

It’s not all light-hearted whimsy though, there is an emotional depth to Grandma which comes in a different shape than you might have expected – anti-abortionists are laughed off screen but true drama comes in the form of Elle’s ex Karl, played by a moustacheless Sam Elliot. Touching on their past and the cavernous changes in-between (she is a lesbian and he has a family that borders on an army) the incredible performances of Tomlin and Elliot hint at the complexity of their lives outside of the film.

A clever scene has the long and greying Elliot, hunched over fixing one of his many grandchildren’s play cars – a satire of masculinity, of men and their toys.

Grandma is a feminist film in that it represents strong women of all statures and not without their flaws, this is what makes Elle such a compelling character, she is fuelled by compassion but is openly imperfect.

The Lobster (2015)

Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film offers more of the same darkly surreal dead pan comedy, except this time there’s an all star ensemble cast who speak English for the most part.

This has a number of effects on the film. Firstly, a new audience has opened up to this testing black humour – curiosity irked and sensibilities challenged. This made for a very tense atmosphere in the cinema where I saw the film, confused at what was supposed to be funny, at what was allowed to be funny. There were a few walk outs halfway into the film, claiming that it was the most disgusting film they had ever seen, and that this was surely not the romantic-comedy they were promised on Graham Norton

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The other major effect the English casting had on the film, for me at least, was on the tone of the dialogue. It seemed inconsistent. Some were putting more into their lines than others – more sense of comedy, irony or emotion.

Colin Farrell is impressively uncharismatic as David, damaged to the point of losing his humanness. But his performance seems to be a pastiche of those in Lanthimos’ previous films Dogtooth and Alps. The Greek cast remain defiantly more dead-pan and robotic. This difference is seized upon when David’s passivity is tested by Lanthimos staple Angeliki Papoulia as Heartless Woman – and clearly he possesses more emotion than he is letting on. He, like the audience, is being pushed at what he can stomach.

The use of familiar actors in a familiar language draws more attention to the flat delivery of stilted dialogue, and has a different effect to reading the plainly worded sentences in the subtitles. It feels similar to the black comedies of Scandinavia: obviously staged and void of emotion. Like a children’s play, badly translated from another language, written with an alien understanding of how humans interact. It has a childlike naiveté but is self-aware and hilarious with it (as in the game: Touch Feel Think Win) .

The closest English-speaking counterpart to this style of delivery that I can think of is Wes Anderson, whose characters often speak with a dry melancholic tone; depressed and detached. They are withdrawn emotionally which is usually explained in the narrative as part of a dysfunctional family or childhood. Stylised and self-aware, many of Anderson’s characters adopt this tone, captured perfectly by the blank Buster Keatonlike expression of Bill Murray. The Lobster offers us no such context, instead blanketing the world with people who speak plainly and frankly to the point of extreme discomfort – “This is Robert. He lives in the room next to mine and has a lisp” or “I swallow every time I give fellatio and don’t mind anal sex”.

Although everyone speaks bluntly, there is still dishonesty and within this world deception is grounds for punishment. Masturbating in the hotel means your fingers will be jammed in a toaster at breakfast in front of the other guests. Lying about how little you care about anything will mean your brother-turned-dog will be kicked to death. The lack of explanation forces you to confront the style and relate it to reality, making you realise the farcical nature of human interaction.

This was the subject of Attenberg, a film which Lanthimos both starred in and produced, warping communication between people into something very surreal, especially when dealing with sex. Although this is still confined to strange individuals in our shared reality. In doing this we can choose to draw comparison to our own personal lives or just write it off as fringe behaviour, or an act of surrealism. The Lobster changes the rules of the world and forces us to rethink the rules we have in our own world. The protocol of normalised behaviour, the gameplay of relationships. How people tend to pair together due to a shared interest, experience or flaw. The hilariously frank dialogue is so funny because it defies our social rules – it tells us that we are not always honest. Behind someone’s back we might define a person by their limp or maybe we would suggest flirtingly how promiscuous we are, but we adhere to a code of decency that appears arbitrary and hypocritical in light of The Lobster.

The final moments of the film tease and toy with you. The room tightens up collectively and there are a few audible gasps. It’s almost identical to Dogtooth. Those new to Lanthimos already don’t trust him, and those who are familiar know not to.

The Hallow (2015)

Written for Film and TV Now Nov 2015 (Available here)

As a family drive down to their new home in the Irish countryside, a radio broadcast tells us that Ireland is one of the last countries to have publicly owned forests – they will soon find out that the locals are protective of their land, but not as much as the creatures hidden within.

Father of the family Adam (Joseph Mawle) is a conservationist, having moved from London to inspect the trees. On his first expedition with his baby boy on his back he stumbles upon a deer, mutilated in an abandoned shelter and dripping with a suspicious black substance. As warned by a local policeman played by Michael Smiley, local legend tells of mythical beings in the woods, banshees and baby-stealers, “This isn’t London. Things go bump in the night”.

As much as The Hallow is about people from that London moving where they don’t belong and interfering with nature, it becomes a platform for all different kinds of genre tropes. It feels like an amalgam of horror films of different styles. It splices them together but spreads itself thin in doing so. The seclusion of the town and it’s inhabitants feels a little like An American Werewolf in London, their twisted spiritual beliefs like an inversion of the pagan cult in The Wicker Man. The Irish folklore, as detailed in the Evil Dead-like Book of the Dead, gives way to fantastical creatures that have a touch of Pan’s Labyrinth.

For all of its high reference points it doesn’t land as hard of a punch as it should. The preference of practical effects for the monsters is admirable, but as the story progresses and they come to the fore, their scariness fast diminishes. It is the atmosphere that remains unsettling in The Hallow, the creatures, whilst impressive, are not on the Guillermo Del Toro scale of production value and so are best when glimpsed in darkness. This is after all the directorial debut of Corin Hardy, and an impressive one at that.

Whilst some of these ideas can be seen elsewhere it is this certain combination that fits so well, but in trying to fulfil the style of each type of horror (from house invasion, to creature feature, to body horror and psychological thriller) it doesn’t feel as effective as it might have done if it narrowed it’s focus. The disintegration of trust between Adam and his wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic) leads to a harrowing idea late in the film as they fight over the baby, but with all these plates spinning it’s hard to appreciate how scary this really is.

The Exorcist (1973)

Halloween DVD Review – Written for Film and TV Now Oct 2015 (Available here)

It could be easy to dismiss The Exorcist as of its day. To think of it as a boundary pushing film at the time of release back in 1973, that generated hype and hysteria, and became more of a legend off-screen. You might think that it would have lost its edge, with more convincing special effects now and with audience sensibilities more jaded and depraved since the Saw franchise ushered in the torture porn genre. How could this film still hold weight considering that its iconic status means that people know the scariest moments before they even see it?

The Exorcist is much more than the few scenes it is remembered by. It is a true horror film that deals with something much bigger than a monster in the dark, or the devil in a young girl. It wrestles with deeper ideas which make it so much harder to dismiss as trashy or cheap. It is both scary and compelling, intensely dramatic but often very real.

The story centres around Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her 12 year old daughter Reagan (Linda Blair) who falls ill and starts behaving out of character. When the doctors struggle to identify what exactly is wrong, pushed to the limits of what science will allow, they offer an alternative solution – that Reagan has been ‘invaded by an alien intelligence – a spirit’. Out of sheer desperation, atheist Chris enlists the help of two priests to perform an exorcism to try and bring her daughter back – but they will all be tested to the extreme and witness the most ungodly acts as a once angelic girl becomes a demon.

The film actually begins in Northern Iraq, where we glimpse the foreboding mythology of the demon Pazuzu. Father Merrin, the eponymous exorcist, takes part in an archaeological dig where he discovers the beastly icon in stone. This role is significantly played by Max von Sydow, a man who struggled to find faith in God and challenged Death to a game of chess in Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal.

Already The Exorcist is bigger than one film – it taps into a wider network of meaning that makes its themes more potent, it’s monster more powerful. Adapted from the novel by William Peter Blatty, who was struggling with his own faith, and directed by agnostic William Friedkin, the film is really about faith, and the struggle of one priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller) whose belief in God is waning. It is a film about good versus evil as young Reagan is possessed and tortured by demonic forces in order to test him.

The first half of the film focusses on the relationship between Reagan and her mother, and also psychiatric counsellor-turned-reverend Karras and his mother, who he visits and cares for. They each show tenderness and loving affection until they are torn apart as Reagan is possessed and Karris’ mother dies, making him doubt his belief in God and whether he should change profession.

The dedication to developing these characters has a huge effect on the viewer, you find yourself caring more, invested in their situation. Friedkin draws on his documentary experience to make the characters more real and empathetic – actually favouring real priests over actors – this is before the second half of the film crashes into chaos, before the beloved little girl becomes Pazuzu.

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This is where the iconic moments bloom: from head spinning and puking green slime to Reagan’s spider walk down the stairs – which has been put back into the director’s cut. Every effort is taken to turn this girl into abject horror, utilising practical effects and detailed sound design which have a unique ability to unsettle. Linda Blair is extraordinary in portraying both the little girl and the demon within. Auditioning over 1000 girls for the part, they had to be careful that this very young girl could handle such extreme material, which she does with a flourish despite stating she didn’t understand everything she was doing.

Shot on location in Georgetown the grand architecture adds a gothic, religious tone which feeds into the themes of the film and actually play an important part in the story. The use of stairways become an underlying motif that reinforces ideas of ascension. In a dream Father Karras sees his mother descend down subway steps before he can get to her, this is before possessed Reagan taunts him with notions of his mother in hell. This demon is all knowing, all powerful and aims to challenge Karras’ faith.

The Exorcist immerses you in the world of its characters before plunging you into the depth of its darkness – it is beautifully composed and definitely worthy of its status as a classic.

He Named Me Malala (2015)

Written for RAF News Oct 2015

Malala Yousafzai has lead an extraordinary life and she is only 18 years old. As this documentary makes adamantly clear – her story is the stuff of legend.

Already an activist and covert contributor to the BBC at 12, Malala was targeted by the Taliban on her school bus years later and shot in the head. Surviving this ordeal she had the world’s attention, which she used to advocate human rights around the world and become the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner.

There is definitely a mythical quality to Malala’s life. An idea seized upon by director Davis Guggenheim – animating anecdotes of her childhood in the same pastel-coloured haze as the Afghani folktale that opens the film, drawing a parallel between Malala and Malalai of Maiwind after whom she was named.

A large part of the film is devoted to this origin story of a hero, turning her into an icon, a legend. The other side attempts to show the young girl behind it all, blushing over pictures of Roger Federa and Brad Pitt, and fighting with her brothers. This human side to the documentary is far more revealing in the way that it grounds Malala.

The whole family have a great sense of humour and an openness that invites you into their lives and Malala’s father Ziauddin epitomises this. His fierce belief in education and predilection to deliver passionate political speeches have clearly carried through to his daughter, neither of them deterred by physical impairment – Ziauddin suffering from a stutter and Malala having partial face paralysis resulting from the shooting.

The sceptics see Malala as a character of her father’s creation that the media, and no doubt this documentary, have latched onto, but she is adamant that her father simply gave her the name. Forever cheerful, it is hard to think of the dark reality from which she has emerged, or the continued death threats that she receives, but this is skimmed over throughout the film – perhaps in an effort to keep it light.

Regardless, Malala is a remarkable figure with an amazing story that is told here with passionate conviction but never without humour.

Barely Lethal (2015)

Written for RAF News Sept 2015

High school is hard going – even for a special agent.

Prescott is an institution that takes in young girls and turns them into badasses. Agent 83 (Hailee Steinfeld) is a natural but longs to have a normal life, and so whilst pursuing target Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba) she fakes her own death and enrols in an exchange program at a new school with a new family. But how much of 83’s training help her in the social minefield of high-school?

In preparation 83 gathers intel in the form of Mean Girls, Clueless, Bring it On etc. so when a group of cheerleaders offer her a seat on her first day, she declines defensively weary of it being a trap – ‘I thought we were nice?’ the girl exclaims to her gang with complete incredulity.

From 83’s research it would seem that she will avoid the pitfalls of the teen-movie but instead she falls for each one in sequence, chasing the vapid heartthrob over the endearing geek, and duped into becoming the school mascot for his attention. The selective intelligence of 83 shows that the film wants to have its cake and eat it, no sooner referencing a tired cliche than employing one without irony.

The best comedic performances come from the single parents, played by Rachael Harris and Rob Huebel, but they are just background colour to the romance between their kids, which is far less interesting. Samuel L Jackson plays head of the spy school Hardman in a role that he could act in his sleep, and Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner stars as rival agent 84.

There is something of Grosse Point Blank in the premise, especially the last act, but it is softened for a younger audience and closer to the sensibilities of Spy Kids. Unfortunately for those who have watched the same films as 83, Barely Lethal is predictable and though it tries to be edgy and offers the occasional action scene, it is safe and forgettable for the most part.