The Shallows

Just when you thought it was finally safe to go back in the water…

Jaws (1975) revolutionised cinema in three ways. 1) It established the career of a certain well-known director by the name of Steven Spielberg. 2) It was one of the first, if not the first, Blockbuster movie. 3) It made sharks seem really really scary, continuing to turn generation after generation into galeophobics (those with an intense fear of water due to sharks). 41 years later (yep, just take a minute to ponder that!) The Shallows comes along, using a great white shark to once more terrify audiences. Does it work? For the most part yes it really does!

Shortly after the death of her mother medical student Nancy (Blake Lively) decides to take a break from college and go travelling. She’s decided to retrace her mother’s steps and has travelled to a secret beach in Mexico to surf. Her favourite photo of her mother is her being stood on the beach, surfboard in hand, just after finding out she was pregnant with Nancy. Kind local Carlos (Óscar Jaenada) drives Nancy to the beach and drops her off. Nancy proceeds to surf for hours, first alongside two local residents and then on her own. After sensing a commotion in the water she travels a little further out when a great white shark attacks. A badly wounded Nancy drags herself to a pile of rocks roughly 200m from the shore, but the beast is circling and stopping her from reaching the shore. What will follow is a test of wills between man and nature – will Nancy survive?

In the 41 years since Jaws (again, can you believe it?!?) about 83 movies (yep, I counted) featuring killer sharks have graced big, small and non existent screens. For every Jaws there’s been at least ten Jaws:The Revenge. Thankfully The Shallows  is more like the former than the latter.

There’s a few reasons The Shallows has the makings of something of a modern masterpiece. There’s the fact it’s a bottle thriller – a movie set solely in one small location, think Buried (2010), Moon (2009) and 127 Hours (2010)- is an excellent decision. Bottle movies play us right in the situation the characters are in , we the audience cannot escape just as the character we are watching cannot. Having Nancy trapped on a small pile of rocks, that are soon to disappear with the tide, really ratchets up the tension. It allows us to connect with the tension she is feeling and develop our own sympathy tension. Even though we have only just meet her we know quite a chunk about her and we are desperate for her to pull through, no matter how unlikely that regularly seems.

This, however, would not be as effective were it not for Lively’s performance. It is not hyperbolic or oversimplified to say she carries this film. For the majority of the film, aside from a temporary companion seagull she names Steven, she is alone on screen. At least 60 minutes pass where she has no-one to communicate with and no-one to help her. Lively excels in communicating every emotion – from the pain of her energy, the horrendous worry over her situation to her savvy quick mindedness as she handles each situation. Should it have really been warranted Lively truly proves her skill as a fine actress.

Her excellent performance is immensely well served by the cinematography. The sequences of the shark attacking are as chilling as you’d hope/expect/want. The scenes where the shark cannot be seen, when we know it is lurking, are equally-wracking. An excellent balance is used between showing the beauty of this secluded and breath-taking beach along with the horror that lurks beneath the surface. There’s also an effective integration of social media/mobile phones early on which whilst highlighting this is a modern movie also had to the believability of the situation and of Nancy as a character.

The only negative has to be the final 5 minutes/ ending which really test the realms of believability.

All in all The Shallows has plenty of thrills and chills, with scares that will compel  most of the audience. And, at less than 90 minutes long, it’s a taut and lean thriller. Well worth a watch.

3.4

‘The Shallows‘ is in cinemas now. 

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

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

Victoria

A true feat of film-making. Truly extraordinary.

To put it simply, a ‘take’ refers to the period between a director saying ‘action’ and ‘cut’. It’s up to them or the cinematographer how long this period is. Typically the longer the take the more difficult the film-making process is as it requires actors to be in the right place, saying the right lines, nothing else interrupting the shot etc. Alfred Hitchcock experimented with this in 1948 making Rope which clocked in at 80 minutes and comprised of only 10 takes, the majority of which were shot in such a way to make the cuts seem seamless. It was an ambitious project which paid of in most regards, the murder and the main characters fear of being caught out in only heightened by the prolonged takes. The character cannot escape and neither can the audience. 68 years later we have Victoria which was filmed two years ago and rejected by many of Europe’s film festivals as they believed the filmmakers were lying on the submission sheet. What lie did they think the filmmakers were proclaiming? Well the film-makers claimed that Victoria, which is 2 hours and 18 minutes long, was shoot using only one take. The most unbelievable thing about this? It’s the truth.

Victoria (Laia Costa) moved from her hometown of Madrid to Berlin three months ago. She works in a coffee shop for less than minimum wage and doesn’t really know anyone in her new city. In the hours before her early morning shift she decides to go clubbing and dances alone quite happily. On her way out of the club she bumps into a group of four men – informal group leader Sonne (Frederick Lau) who Victoria feels an instant spark with, Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit) and Fuß (Max Mauff) – who promise to show her ‘real Berlin’. Victoria agrees and what first follows is a fun night for Victoria, seeing parts of Berlin she had never seen before and connecting quickly with Sonne. When Boxer receives a phone call and claims that the group need Victoria’s help.  It is her connection with Sonne that prompts her to make the first in a series of bad decisions and things take a dark turn before spiralling out of control.

I repeat. The entire film is only one take long. It cannot be overemphasised how incredible this is, what a triumph of filmmaking it is and what an astounding experience of film-watching it creates as a result. It’s breath-taking, wondrous, exhilarating and utterly compelling. As it is shot though one-take it is shot in real-time. This is important to note as it adds to the authenticity, we watched events play out and escalate. We cannot question how we got from the first frame to the last as we witnessed very moment and decision which lead the characters there. And these moments don’t just take place in one room – the characters travel all over the city, up ladders, jammed into cars and lifts, dancing across the street and running across it too – and the camera is always there watching and following. Incredibly this also manages to feel gimmick-free. Instead we feel like we’ve tagged along for a night out, been immersed in the spontaneity and intensity of this world, then kicked out of the club  and ditched at the end of the film. There is a reason that the cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen receives first credit ahead of director and writer Sebastian Schipper as Victoria is an example of true technical mastery. The camerawork is dazzling ambitious, pulsating and gripping.

The performances are mostly improvised, which only adds to the feeling of authenticity and believability. This is next level realism as we get to experience this world as it happens. It’s a huge credit to the relatively inexperienced cast that they only had to shoot the film three times, this being version two. It’s only after seeing the film, when you see what they had to achieve and endure, that you can truly appreciate the level of skill being utilised here.

It’s divine. A sensational watch. It needs to be seen.

 

10 Cloverfield Lane

The low budget “spiritual successor” to Cloverfield

Cloverfield was a serviceable found footage horror film that did well at the box office predominately due to its marketing strategy which featured things that took the burgeoning viral marketing to a whole new level. MySpace accounts were created for each of the characters, websites for the fictional companies that featured in the film could be trawled through for clues and the film itself was announced only as a series of numbers which formed clues that were eventually revealed to the release date. Cloverfield appeared in a few films of the year lists and that was about it. Producer J.J. Abrams would regularly be hounded for details of a possible sequel but appeared not to be able to give a definitive answer. When the upcoming release of 10 Cloverfield Lane was announced early this year there was real surprise as no-one had known that it was even filming let alone finished. This was due to the fact 10 Cloverfield Lane had not been filmed – originally based on a script called ‘The Cellar‘ it was adapted and linked to Cloverfield it was filmed under the codename ‘Valencia’. Here we are in March 2016 and 10 Cloverfield Lane has been released and it bares little resemblance either in tone or story to its predecessor. And it’s good. Very good indeed. So good that it’s definitely in the running for my end of the year top ten list.

Fleeing New Orleans and her fiance, intentionally leaving her engagement ring behind in the process, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) drives far away from the city. In the process she ends up in a nasty car accident. Next thing she knows she wakes up in a basement, her injured leg is handcuffed to the wall. She desperately does all she can to escape but all attempts are futile. The locked door opens and she is greeted by Howard (John Goodman) who explains that he saved her life and yes he is keeping her trapped down in the basement but it’s for her own good. His rather menacing nature and pointing out of how much Michelle owes him hugely unsettle Michelle who is desperate to leave. She also meets the other resident of the bunker, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who has known Howard for most of his life and is certain that Howard is a conspiracy nut but fundamentally a good guy. Time passes before the pair admit to Michelle why she cannot leave the bunker, a chemical attack has taken place in the outside world contaminating  the air and killing the world’s population in the process. The unknown assailants have made the outside world unlivable and the trio’s only hope to stay alive is to remain in the bunker. All of life’s comforts are there, as Howard has spent most of life preparing for such a situation, but Howard’s increasingly controlling and menacing behaviour makes Michelle desperate to leave. Taking matters into her own hands Michelle soon realises the truth of what has happened.

What is truly impressive about this film is how cleverly it terrifies the audience. Considering it is a 12a (something I have an issue with concerning the themes and some of the moments of the film) it manages to do so much with so few of the big violent scares of other horror films. Two of the film’s tensest moments are when Michelle crawls through the ventilation shaft, twice. Through a brilliant combination of editing, camera work, sound and acting they were both sequences I had to watch through my fingers whilst desperately hoping for the best possible outcome. There are a few moments of big and jumpy scares, many of them coming from loud noises that have never sounded so scary, but most of the moments are slow-building subtle fears that build to genuine terror. This is through the fantastic storytelling and narrative. Information is so carefully withheld then slowly realised to the audience. Every new revelation requires a reassessment of what we know and what we expect will happen next.

We know little about what has actually happened outside and we have little reason to trust our primary source for that information. John Goodman is truly terrifying as mysterious Howard whose character gains murkier and murkier added depths with each conversation. He’s a dangerous blend of menace and deluded altruism with every sequence in which he appears forcing us to eye him dubiously, wondering how much he says is actually the truth and how big a threat he plays towards Michelle. The slow revelations that follow only complicate our distrust and unease of his character. Gallagher Jr.’s Emmett is a much-needed comic foil into the tense mix, when tension hits sky-high level it is masterfully lowered with  a dose black humour. Winstead’s performance as Michelle is the best of her career, making a character who is truly sympathetic and one which we are desperate to succeed. I’d even argue that, in a year which saw Brie Larson win an Oscar from Room in which she played a woman held in captivity, that Winstead’s performance rivals Larson’s. Winstead’s blend of determination to leave and her struggling to accept the awareness of its possible futility may have resulted in one of the finest acting performances of the year.

If you’re looking for a film that clocks in at one hour and a half, that will drain you of every emotion possible, make you jump out of your seat and shield your eyes in concern, then you’ve come to the right place. Well worth seeing, if you dare…

Disorder

An intense and intimate voyeuristic thriller

How many films are there that feature a character with PTSD (post-traumatic-stress-disorder)? Then, let’s narrow it down, how many of the those films are about PTSD sufferers who fought in Afghanistan?  Finally, how many of those films use the PTSD to shape the storytelling process, making the story as unreliable as it’s narrator? I suspect that Disorder may be alone in this regard which makes for a mostly refreshing if at times nerve-splintering film-watching experience.

Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts ) is a French Special Forces soldier who is currently back from a tour of Afghanistan. His latest health check-up indicates that it will be his last as due to his various  health problems his doctor will not be recommending him for service, something that he appears to be in denial about. He and a group of his friends are hired by Jessie (Diane Kruger), the wife of a rich Lebanese  businessman, to provide security at a party they are holding at her villa. Vincent starts to develop a strange fascination with Jessie, whilst at the same time starting to suspect a dangerous threat is going to target her and her young son, and he begins to be consumed by paranoia. Is there really a threat, or is it a result of his disorder?

A month ago, in my review for A Bigger Splash I talked about Matthias Schoenaerts and said “He is currently one of the most interesting and underappreciated supporting actors in cinema at the moment, and I greatly look forward to seeing more of his (admittedly rather beautiful) self.” After seeing Disorder, I stand by what I said. Schoenaerts carries this movie, his scowl/brooding combination is utilized to excellent effect. His mannerisms subtly display his inner turmoil, he never needs to clearly state ‘I am suffering from PTSD’ (in fact that is something his character who never admit) but it’s clear from every single scene that this is a man who is suffering. Vincent’s innate paranoia served with a side of voyeurism makes for an unnerving central character who is haunted but hunky. In fact whilst watching his performance I remembered some of the minor backlash that James Norton received for Happy Valley with a (thankfully small  minority) saying that he was ‘too good-looking to be a murderer’. It’s a stupendously flawed logic to have, implying that attractiveness and committing crime share a correlation. Yes Schoenaerts is attractive, but that does not enhance nor detract from his performance here. His performance is wonderful, if that adjective can be used to describe something so unsettling, and the best thing about the film.

A close-tied second place would be the soundtrack and the cinematography. The former is throbbing, jarring and frequently atonal (like Vincent’s mental state) whilst the latter is ambiguous, swamped by shadows and at times unhinged (again like Vincent’s mental state). Aside from these aspects, the film itself is rather slow with a rather porous plot that fizzles out. Worth seeing for Schoenaerts latest in an uninterrupted run of solid and charismatic performances, but rather forgettable.

An outstanding central performance in a good/mediocre film. Don’t put it too high on your ‘must-see list’ but worth a try.

 

High-Rise

‘Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find.”

41 years after its publication, J. G. Ballad’s High-Rise proves itself to be scarily accurate in its predictions of the then-future and our now-present. The film adaptation is equally brutal and dark, tinted with the blackest of humours. Deciding to set it in the time period in which it was written, director Ben Wheatley succeeds in using Ballad’s bleak hypothesises of societal hierarchy to transform the big screen into a mirror reflecting our darkest innermost fears. This review comes from the preview screening and Q&A session I attended at the British Library (Hello to Galia, Alison and Alex…)

London. 1975. Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a psychologist, movies into a high-rise building having been seduced by the lifestyle it would bring with it. The building itself is isolated from the rest of London and is so self-contained with a supermarket, gym and swimming pool that, aside from work, there is little reason for the residents to leave. They are cut off from the rest of society in their luxury tower block. The higher your floor the higher your status – Laing takes up residence on floor 25, his new friend Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) is on floor 26 and the architect of the building, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), take up the entire top floor. Laing also comes into contact with a family relegated to the second floor, BBC documentary-maker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their two children. When Wilder becomes so embittered by the social hierarchy he decides it will be the focus of his next project. A dangerous situation develops causing a domino effect which leads to the fragmentation of the residents and formulation of violent tribes.

Where to start when reviewing this film? It’s excellent, terrific and truly haunting in equal measures. Like many of Ben Wheatley’s films High-Rise is of the ‘well-that-escalated-quickly’ genre. However, this film does not require a suspension of belief for the dissention into madness. Whilst accelerated the resulting horrors stems from social resentment that has been apparent since time immemorial. History showcases time and time again society’s that form then self-destruct that little exposition is required in High-Rise to explain why things get so bad so quickly (not that I can really imagine Wheatley wanting to spoon-feed us in this way). The script is bitterly funny, laden with comments that are iceberg-en in terms of depth. Social commentary is rarely this sharp-tongued, appalling yet absurdly funny.

Wheatley doesn’t waste a shot in the telling of this story; countless viewings would be required to access even half of the detail and imagery it possesses. And practically every shot could be printed out as a still and put on a wall, for the cinematography and mise-en-scene is otherworldly in its beauty. There’s the generic, unbranded supermarket made of quadrilaterals in primary colours, the kaleidoscopic parties of the various factions, the riding of a white house across the luminescent greenery of the rooftop garden and the seemingly innocent shades of grey of a certain floor 25.The blend of lighting and framing makes for sequences that are fraught, depraved and agitating. This is only exasperated by the incredible soundtrack, with two appearances of ABBA’s ‘S.O.S’ (hence the subheading of this review) that bring chills in way that one would never have though possible. At one point the BAFTA award makes a cameo, which Wheatley later explained he chose to include as it ‘would be the closest he’d ever get to an actual BAFTA’. It would be an utter travesty if for visuals and soundtrack alone High-Rise is not recognised and justifiably awarded.

Speaking of awards, there’s then the performances of the cast. Hiddelston as Dr.Laing, a self-contained possessor of wide-eyed optimism and underlying volcanic rage, is a match made in heaven. Wheatley spoke of his having Hiddelston’s ‘photo on the fridge’ during pre-production and casting as they (they being Wheatley and wife Amy Jump who wrote the script) viewed him as the perfect candidate. But, whilst Moss, Miller, Hawes and Irons are all good in equal measure it is Luke Evans performance that is stand-out to that of Hiddelston’s. If Laing is untapped rage cloaked in a suit, then Evans as Wilder is the untamed man. Evans must have come close to the edge in making this film, for his character is a powerhouse of bitterness and injustice whose raging against the machine is awash with inevitable destruction.

With so many reasons to see High-Rise; the performances, the script, the visuals are just three broad reasons which should justify you’re purchasing a ticket upon the film’s release next week.

Go see it and be haunted for days afterwards.