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. 

 

Son of Saul

A Masterpiece

When I left the mid-day screening of this film it was sunny outside. Bright rays gleamed upon the cinema and I glared at them. As I walked home there was a busker singing ‘Walking on Sunshine’. I glared at him. As I passed through a heaving farmers market I glared at the merry people chomping away. I couldn’t work out why I was reacting in this way. Ordinarily I would be thrilled by walking out of the cinema into sun. I would beam at a busker singing Katrina and the Waves 1983 seminal feel-good classic. And I’d probably only side-eye the hipsters filling the farmers market. Why was I so angry at everything? It seemed obvious that it was most likely my  response to the film and the horrors it entailed. But these were not horrors that were new to me – I hadn’t learnt anything new and the events of the film were horrifically familiar.

That’s when I fully grasped just how masterful ‘Son of Saul’ is. It’s almost a rethink of how to portray the Holocaust – by not showing it at all. Gone are any attempts at glamorization, of showy melodrama or noble heroism. Instead we are shown pieces of events – snippets of the evil that took place only feature in the side of or outside of the frame. Overt dramatization is replaced by close-up and over-the-shoulder shots with shallow focus on our central characters face. We hear the events but we don’t see them – leaving the spectator’s imagination to join the dots and fill in the gaps.  As Alfred Hitchcock said, “A glimpse into the world proves that horror is nothing other than reality.”.

It is 1944. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz who is part of the Sonderkommando unit. He is forced, under threat of death, to work for the Nazis in removing the “‘pieces” (the term used for bodies) from the gas chambers. Although the job delays his death it is only a temporary pardon – the job, and therefore his life, has an expiry date of five months which he is fast approaching. When clearing out the chambers post-gassing he finds a still-breathing boy that he believes to be his son. The Nazi doctors swiftly suffocate the boy and decide to have an autopost performed on him to find out how he survived. Saul desperately endeavours to stop the autopsy and find a Rabbi to lead a proper burial for the boy. 

 The events that follow are unforgettable in terms of content and portrayal – relentless and horrifying yet the carnage is skillfully implied as opposed to being explicitly shown. The two hours spent watching this film are two hours spent being a spectator in Hell. Death is not shown but instead resides off-frame – an omnipotent and omnipresent force haunting the frame. Just as one should not look directly into the sun we cannot look directly into the face of evil.

The opening sequence must be forever acknowledged in its audacity and its viscerality. We observe Saul as a sheepdog figure, one of many leading herds of bewildered people into what appears to be a changing room. An off-screen voice offers reassuring sentiments they are going for a shower and offers promises of what will follow. Our focus never leaves Saul’s face as we swiftly realise with unbearable inevitability what will happen next. We don’t see the people enter the gas chamber. We don’t see them die. But we do hear them die.

Rohrig’s performance is truly exceptional – his Saul is haunted and hollow. Grizzled by the unspeakable horror, his jaw is rigid with determination and his eyes are empty. We can only wonder how he keeps on living. The fact this is Rohrig’s first performance, as it is the director’s first feature, only adds to the remarkability of this film.

It is unbearably difficult to write this review – every word or phrase seems inadequate to fully describe the soul-altering experience of watching. It leaves you so numb you can no longer cry. Unlike any other Holocaust film there is nothing here to sweeten the devastating blow of watching this film – no beautiful musical score, no magical rescue and no story of redemption. It’s an intense and immersive experience with a the visceral immediacy it provokes that is ultimately necessary. Truly unforgettable.

five star

 

 

Eye in the Sky

A powerful and reflective examination of the cost of warfare. 

Very few films are this good. It’s well-acted by a truly terrific cast, impeccably shot with a thrillingly taut script. It also poses such incredibly cerebral and difficult questions without copping out and providing easy answers. Then again, war itself doesn’t provide any easy answers.

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) arrives at a military base in Sussex to oversee a high-level mission, to capture Al-Shabaab extremists who are meeting at a safe-house in Nairobi. Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) is one of numerous undercover Kenyan field agents on the scene using covert surveillance. In Nevada USAF pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) takes his seat alongside rookie Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) to provide aerial surveillance (the Eye in the Sky). Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) arrives at his work, an office in London, taking the seat at the head of a table with members of the government to oversee the operation. What starts of as a seemingly routine capture mission soon becomes deeply complicated when it’s discovered the extremists are preparing to send two suicide bombers into the busy city streets. The only option appears to be to drop a hellfire missile on the safe house, but a little girl is out on the street nearby who would be fatally injured in the process. Those involved are deeply conflicted about what to do, and time is quickly running out.

I do not say this words lightly, but I firmly believe that everyone should see this film. Far beyond the fact that it is superbly acted and written, things I will discuss shortly, few films about war are this suspenseful and affecting.. The very term ‘collateral damage’ is a term complicated enough when you reflect on the fact it is a label used for human beings  caught in the crossfire but having the film truly immersing the audience debate generates a new level of soul searching. This is a genuine nail-biting thriller, with moments of true edge-of-your-seat-ness and wringing your hands in despair.

The cast for this film is awe-worthy and all of their performances justify completely justify that awe. This is one of two posthumous roles for Alan Rickman and serves as a reminder of what a genuine talent we lost this year. His iconic tone and manner are both fully in display here, truly serving his character and the film itself very well indeed. Helen Mirren is wonderful and fully believable as the stoic Colonel who watches her mission escalate from out of her control yet never losing her calm or nerve in the process. Aaron Paul is extraordinary as a man with two years experience in the job who is finally being told to pull the trigger, torn between duty and morality. Barkhad Abdi is one of the characters we know least about yet the strength and depth of his performance allows the audience to truly understand his role in events.

The script, cinematography, sound and performances of Eye in the Sky align to make this easily one of the best movies of the year so far. A riveting, fully entertaining yet equally chilling study of the morality of warfare. The questions it raises are not and cannot be truly answered yet will continue to haunt long after the credits roll.

This needs to be seen by all.

five star