Lights Out

Be aware of things that lurk in the dark…

If, like me, you are afraid of both the dark and mannequins you will pretty much be done in by the opening sequence. If they’d also included spiders I probably would have walked out… Anyway ‘Lights Out’ is a feature film adaptation of a rather successful short film (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOI4bJ0-IrY). On the whole it is a very effective horror movie, utilising old-fashioned fears and old-fashioned scares to great effect.

Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) left the family home a long time ago. She now lives in an apartment on her own, far away from her mother Sophie (Maria Bello) and half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman). She’s been dating Bret (Alexander DiPersia) for eight months but struggles with the concept that he is her ‘boyfriend’ – these issues with relationships stem from her turbulent past with her mother that lead her to leave home as soon as she could. Several months have past since the mysterious death of her step-father Paul (Billy Burke) when her brother gets back in touch. It appears their mother, who has a history of mental illness, is struggling again. But when Martin explains some of the strange ongoings in the house, including their mother talking to a friend called Diane when she is actually talking to herself  and strange things being seen in the dark, Rebecca becomes desperate to unlock the truth and soon comes face-to-face with a terror that haunts the shadows. 

Horror is not exactly one of my favourite genres. Honest admission time: I’m easily scared by some of the most ridiculous things and really don’t take pleasure from being scared. Attending this preview screening at The Soho Hotel (which genuinely has the fanciest toilets in London, a comment unrelated to the fact I saw a horror film there!) seemed like a stupid notion, especially as I was going on my own, and yet I went. And I actually really enjoyed the film. Admittedly I clutched the armrest of my chair  (very comfy/fancy seat I hasten to add!) for the entire running time and watched a good third of the movie through my fingers…yet I was somewhat surprised at how much I appreciated the film. Impressively for all the terror I felt I underwent I laughed a lot to, with the film not at it. It easily passed the six laugh test with intentional gags.

At just under 90 minutes long it’s taut, no time is wasted on unnecessary scenes or information. The pacing is strong and unrelenting. The story itself takes familiar tropes of horror films (‘Don’t go in the basement!’ ‘Why are you going on your own?!?’ etc.) and plays around with them. Some moments do not surprise and some moments really do. Whilst there are some rather obvious elements to the story, and a rather problematic use of mental illness to explain character behaviours/story, there is enough freshness to everything that make these issues less jarring.

This is also helped by some excellent acting by the cast. The central trio are definitely three actors to look out for. Eleven year old Bateman, playing Martin, is fantastic as one of the leads. He conveys an excellent amount of emotion and really holds his own amongst the cast. Palmer as Rebecca was certainly convincing balancing her desperate need to know with an adequate amount of logic and cynicism. DiPersia as her boyfriend was a magnetic presence on the screen and suitably charming. The only issues I had with their ‘relationship’ was the obviousness of their characters – both being dressed in black, her music choices and the themes of the posters decorating her apartment. It felt obvious what they were trying to say about her character and yet needless as this an element of the story that was not explored. Maria Bello did a good job with what she was given, although it felt undermined by the flawed use of mental illness to explain away her character and certain elements of the story.

And then there’s Diana, our villain of the story. Having a villain who can only appear in the dark is an inventive idea, one that is used to great and very effective effect. The places that she manages to pop up in..! And then there’s the noises we quickly come to associate with her – whenever she approaches the noise of fingers against a chalkboard pierces the air. Then, when she makes an attack, her roar (she literally roars) it’s actually really terrifying! Most of my deciding to watch some scenes through my fingers came from those noises. My only problem with her as a villain as how undefined her powers were, she seems to suddenly have a skill for every means and possess multiple superpowers. These skills come with no explanation or discussion and soon become convenient rather than believable. And yet she still managed to unnerve me so greatly I did sleep the following night with my bedside lamp on. Just in case.

‘Lights Out’ is a more than solid horror movie, providing thrills and chills within a neat less than 90 minute running. A great way to spent the evening watching, then much of the night trying to forget!

stars

‘Lights Out’ is in UK cinemas from August 19th. 

 

The Neon Demon

“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

Where to start? Yesterday I had the privilege, courtesy of Little White Lies film magazine, to attend a preview screening of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s The Neon Demon, at the very schmancy Soho Hotel with my friend Galia. The film is not released until June 24th in the States and not until early July in the UK. However the film had its international premiere at Cannes last month which led to a substantial amount of reviews. As it stands on June 2nd the film has a rating of 6.8/10 on IMDB and 47% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s looking like The Neon Demon is not going to be the new Drive (7.8/10 and 92% respectively) and there’s one really good reason for that. Refn’s return to LA is with a film that confuses depth with emptiness, mistakes meaning with vapidity and chooses style over substance. The result is an exploitation movie disguised as art, smothered with layers of pretension.

16 year-old Jessie (Elle Fanning) has just moved to Los Angeles. No-one appears to know or care that she is there. Jessie knows she is beautiful, She also knows that beauty is dangerous and that other women would kill for it. After her first photoshoot with amateur photographer and potential love interest Dean (Karl Glusman) Jessie is befriended by makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone). Ruby offers to be the friend Jessie so desperately needs yet Ruby’s other two friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), models only slightly older than Jessie, view Jessie instead as threat and competition rather than a new-found friend. It soon seems like everybody in LA wants a piece of Jessie, her beauty is admired and envied in equal measure – but what will it end up costing her?

What rather infuriates me reading back the plot summary I have just written is that I have made the film sound fun. It isn’t really. Moments of the film are, when the film casts a satirical eye on LA and the modeling industry, but when the film loses focus and Refn seems busy being self-congratulatory about his own brilliance – that’s when you see the film for what it really is. Vapid and empty. I’m sure it would be easy to argue that was intentional, a reflection of the 21st Century’s perception of models and beauty (blah blah yah yah)… but no.

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Prior to the film’s screening its director and lead were invited to talk about the film and answer some questions (picture courtesy of Galia). Refn said, and not for the first time in the promo for this film, that ‘I wanted to make a film about the 16-year-old girl inside me’. This resulted in awkward stifled guffaws from an audience who hadn’t yet seen the film. For the first half of the film there are instances where you can see very loosely what he means by this. Jessie’s interactions with casting agents (Christina Hendricks), auteur photographers (Desmond Harrington) and wildly miscast ‘scary’ motel owners (Keanu Reeves) explore the vulnerability of the young in an industry that can be so parasitic and vampiric. It is during this period that the cast really shine. Fanning possessing an ethereality – an otherness that draws yet repels – Malone unnerving as a metaphorical wolf in friends clothing, Heathcote and Lee wonderfully cold as Jessie’s rivals.    

It is these more conventional moments that are some of the most engaging. They are intersected with moments that are more exploratory and ‘artistic’ (read: rather deluded and self-indulgent). These moments are overlong, assaulting the senses in a way that should be poetic but instead aggravate. However the soundtrack during the entire film is phenomenal – throbbing away and pumping tension into each scene. And, it must be said, the use of colour and lighting during these moments and the film in it entirety is truly extraordinary. Refn’s color blindness means that his use of colour must alway be in high contrast so he can see it (fact courtesy of Galia). The use of lighting and colour within each of these sequences establish then reflect the tone and ongoings in each sequence. It’s almost as if his use of colour reflects the dichotomy of the human experience…. (sorry I had to try at sounding like a proper film critic!)

It’s the film’s second half that gives into Refn’s epicureanism, resulting in the film becoming even less of a narrative (there wasn’t really one to start with) and more a spiral of ‘well that escalated quickly’. Things get weirder, even weirder, and then weirder yet. It is these moments that are the most problematic. I like weird. I am weird. But I need my weirdness in cinema to be purposeful. I don’t need to see a character deepthroating a knife without purpose nor a character performing necrophilia on a dead model again without purpose. Don’t even get me started on the shower sequence. I’m not the only one of the audience of about 50 of us who felt this way. The gasps and intensity of audience focus hugely shifted at this point, with the grosequeties accompanied by laughs of disbelief instead of the intended wonder.

These scenes have resulted in extreme horror from The Daily Mail (quelle surprise) with headlines such as “Coming soon to a cinema near you: Grim film featuring murder, cannibalism and lesbian NECROPHILIA that even shocked Cannes is now set for British screens” and “Has cinema ever been so depraved and the censors so amoral? CLARE FOGES on the extreme violence, cannibalism and lesbian necrophilia in new film The Neon Demon” These headlines are ridiculous for two reason. 1) I’m sure anyone who has seen a solid amount of film could name you films more graphic than this one. 2) Such headlines would give its pretentious twonk of a director an egotistical thrill and further fuel his perception of himself as some sort of revolutionary.  He’s not worth it.

The film favours an approach of Message over an actual storyline, choosing to drift between scenes as opposed to following a narrative and having loose outlines as opposed to actual characters. The more extreme moments are so needless they undercut everything that has occurred prior and throw any perception of The Message out of the window. If Refn wanted to criticise the modelling industry these scenes confuse The Message completely. Initially the film relies on the perverse pleasure of being voyeur of the voyeurs (we watch the watchers watching the watched) whilst pointing out the dark side of the industry. Yet once the aforementioned silliness occurs it is is almost like we see the film for what it really is – a mastabororty experiment where Refn gets to sadomasochistically annihilate his inner 16-year-old girl.

There are images and messages galore on offer within The Neon Demon, but the majority of these are like gaudy baubles. Beautiful to look at but totally empty.

2.5

The Nice Guys

Shane Black strikes again with another brilliant buddy comedy

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of my favourite films from the 21st century. Not only did it reintroduce the world to Robert Downey Jr (with Iron Man coming out three years later) and star an underrated Batman, Val Kilmer, as a character called Gay Perry, it is also a definitive example of a contemporary pulp-y neo-noir that is also truly hilarious with a side note of surreal.  I love Kiss Kiss Bang Bang so I have been impatiently waiting for The Nice Guys with desperate expectations. Thankfully those expectations were more than meet with a crime comedy that is made so much fun to watch by an awesome cast.

1977, Los Angeles. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a private detective, quite a good one actually although appearances can be deceptive, very deceptive… Whilst investigating the death of a porn star called Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) he begins searching for a girl called Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) Holland comes into contact with an enforcer called Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). More specifically Jackson breaks Holland’s arm to try and stop him from hunting down Amelia. But after a failed attempt on his life occurs Jackson realises that his case and Holland’s cases actually overlap, they may have to work together to solve their cases and stop more people from being killed.

There are three truly great things about this film. 1) Ryan Gosling is truly wonderful and properly hilarious. He appears to have a natural gift for physical comedy and it is a gift he utilizes for great effect here. His facial reactions are joyous to watch and his delivery of gags legendary. His bond with teen daughter Holly (Angourie Riceadds a wonderful dynamic and an extra layer of depth to things. But it is his rapport with another truly great thing about this film that is standout.

2) Russell Crowe has been rocking a certain blend of grizzled touch-guy for a few years now. In this film he goes full grizzled tough-guy in such a way that, thanks to his mis-matched partnership with Gosling, makes him likeable. The dynamic between the pair is founded on hate-fear rather than hate-love, with both characters being so fatally flawed they shouldn’t really spend any time with each other. At all. Yet the pairing proves hilarious with both characters finding a balance between each other as Crowe’s punch-punchy character, whose only friend is a pet fish, somewhat softens through his exchanges with Gosling who frequently ends up rivalling Buster Keaton in terms of physical comedy.

Finally, 3) The script. Few scripts are this crisp with brilliantly quotable one liners and dialogue such as this gem of a sequence:

Holland March: Look on the bright side. Nobody got hurt.

Jackson Healy: People got hurt.

Holland March: I’m saying, I think they died quickly. So I don’t think they got hurt.

Occasionally the plotting does get too convoluted, potentially it is too overambitious in its conspiracy plotting, but for the most part it’s typically sharp Shane Black with a blend full of action, comedy, aspects of hard-bitten noir and a side of social commentary. Few films out in the cinemas at the moment are this entertaining.

4 stars

 

 

Green Room

An intelligent and electrifying horror

Usually me and horror don’t mix particularly well. Almost two months on and I am still occasionally haunted by visions of Black Phillip the goat from The Witch and I still feel a bit twitchy when I think about what I would do if I were to be trapped in a basement 10 Cloverfield Lane – style (is it normal to worry about that as a hypothetical scenario..?) But then again, Green Room isn’t your typical horror film. Yes there is gore (I’ve become very aware of my hands for the past hour since watching) but it is never overused. Whilst the narrative follows a ‘well-that-escalated-quickly’ structure it is founded in a series of cause-and-effect plot points that seem both believable and terrifying in equal measure. Then when you chuck in the superb pacing, swift editing, nerve-shredding soundtrack and  some superb character performances…well you’re in for a great time!

“The Ain’t Rights” are a punk band who are travelling through the Pacific Northwest, playing gigs and scrummaging whatever they can to get by.  The band – formed of Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner) – end up playing a gig in rural Seaside, Oregon to a club filled with Neo-Nazi skinheads.Upon seeing their Anti-Semitic surroundings Pat jokingly suggests they play a cover of The Dead Kennedys “Nazi Punks Fuck Off!” The band play the song during their set to  a less than receptive audience. Set over and cash in hand they make a move to leave, a move which the show organiser hastens to speed up, when Pat has to run back to grab the band’s mobile which they left charging. He stumbles across the scene of one of the skinheads leaning over the body of a young female punk with her still-alive friend Amber (Imogen Poots) rendered numb in disbelief. The band are then locked in the green room with the pair and the dead body. Reinforcements are called in the form of club owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart). The band have seen too much. Will any of them make it out alive?

There are so many reasons to like this movie. I want to say enjoy but considering the subject matter and content the verb ‘enjoy’ seems in rather poor taste. Semantics aside this is a cracking horror film. The slow-build of tension, the overwhelming sense of inevitability and the shock factor of many of moments. This is a film made with an equal blend of style and substance. The film looks damn good – the shots are well chosen with some excellent lighting choices that make for truly memorable sequences.

All of these factors would be pointless were it not for the excellent performances that drive the story. The characters are presented in a way that is a balance between wanting them to live but not really knowing them well enough to mourn any losses that occur on the way. You experience a degree of ‘oh no!’ because you care about them when certain things may or may not happen but are detached enough from them to not feel too aggrieved should/when something happens to them. Yelchin is superb as the accidental leader of punk trope. Poots is truly kick-ass as a female character who is not just cast to the sidelines, doesn’t spend the entirety of the film in shades of hysteria and who is capable of holding her own in certain situations. This is definitely/hopefully  showing a changing of the tide in Hollywood horror as her character is in line with that of Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the aforementioned 10 Cloverfield Lane. And then there’s Patrick Stewart as a properly scary baddie – whose calm and collected demeanor is unbearably (in a good way) unnerving to watch.   

Tense and taut (clocking in at 94 minutes) with some powerfully acted performances along with an admirably well-written script that is black humour laden this is definitely worth a watch.

4 stars