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The Babadook

The Babadook film posterSynopsis

Starring Essie Davis who is a mental health nurse living with her son.  Her husband was killed in a car crash on the way to hospital where she gave birth.  Her sister tries to get her to be more sociable.  She reads the story of the Babadook to her son and it seems this storybook bogeyman takes on a life of its own and it scares them.

Review

All good ghost stories explore the ambiguous shadows between the real and the illusory.  Spooks should be just as scary from the imagination as from an external agency.  The Babadook seems to be about the psychological disintegration of a grieving and stressed woman.  So we’re meant to think that the Babadook is only an illusion.  When she sees the bed shake and her son thrown about, is it just imagination?  The film wants the best of both worlds, the inner drama of encroaching madness and an old fashioned bogeyman doing his Halloween routine.  It’s quite promising at first.  The acting is well paced and the build up of menace is well heralded.  Mother and son live in a house that’s all black and grey, as if they’re trying to win an Adams Family contest.  It’s all bare wood, creaking doors, and creepy shadows, which shrewdly exploits retro 70’s horror.  It depicts the claustrophobia of psychic breakdown quite well, but then the script disintegrates alongside Essie’s mind .  We get the familiar cliches of horror films since The Exorcist:  The jittery furniture, bass growls, the screaming fit, cracking ceilings.  What a cop out!  It’s lost the same opportunity for imaginative originality as a lot of films that succumb to the inanities of special effects.  It could have had a subtler build up like in Stephen King’s Misery at the terror of helplessness.  The boy is a screeching irritant straight out of The Omen.  Mention of Stephen King prompts the thought that Babadook does for black and grey what The Shining does for red, except that it fails.

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Posted by on January 25, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Carrie

Carrie film posterSynopsis

Repeats the story of the 1976 de Palma film.  Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) is bullied at school.  Her fiercely religious mother (an agent of religious repression) is eventually powerless to frustrate Carrie’s desire for normal company.  Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to enact revenge when humiliated as Prom Queen at the ball.

Review

Kimberley Peirce’s Carrie could have been a disaster and it isn’t but it doesn’t develop, elaborate, or in any way improve on Palma’s film.  A remake of this Stephen King story would have to make a good case for itself but it fails to do that, de Palma’s Carrie is unrepeatable since it speaks of its time.  This Carrie is set in 2013 present when there are mobile phones, computers etc.  Chloe Moretz’s Carrie is too self possessed and “normal”, lacking the weird otherworldliness that Sissy Spacek brought to the role.  We’ve also become inured to forty years of special effects ploddingly repeating The Exorcist or Carrie itself.  Peirce’s Carrie simply isn’t capable of bringing any psychological subtlety. Julianne Moore does her best as Carrie’s sadistically evangelistic mother but her control looks more like mere bullying until undone by Carrie’s abilities.  Her control should be more difficult and painful to break free from.  The sanitary towel bullying at the start would be more viciously effective in the less hi-tech world of ’76 but could Moretz’s Carrie really be so insulated from biological reality in today’s world?  Any scariness that the film can summon consists in the nasty politics of young women at high school and this has too much competition with similar films over the decades to be effective.  Watchable, but really quite pointless.

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Woman in Black

The Woman in Blck posterSynopsis

Based on Susan Hill’s novel, it’s about a clerk Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) who is sent to do legal work about the deceased Mrs Drablow.  Kipps’ wife has died, he has a son.  Travelling to the village near Eel Marsh House (where she lived) he meets Sam (Ciaran Hinds) who is the local rich man whose son has died and whose wife is mentally ill.  Kipps gets a frosty reception from villagers.  He is taken to Eel Marsh House and he looks over her papers, he sees a mysterious woman in black.  He visits Sam and then a couple of children in the village die and their deaths happen under the influence of the Woman in Black.  Sam and Kipps return to the house after retrieving the corpse of Mrs Drablows’s boy and more spookiness happens.  Kipps is at the railway station reunited with his son and…

Criticism

Susan Hill’s novel has been a TV film, a long running play, on the radio, and now on film.  Each is fairly different from the book and this film departs from the original story quite often, to the dismay of readers who find the book scary.  I had high hopes for this, I wanted it to succeed.  On the positive side, there is a skilfully creepy atmosphere to the house.  The sound of the ghost’s rocking chair is scary but it could not build up into real terror.  The puppets are sinister and there are claustrophobic terrors in the oppressive heaviness of Victorian domestic decor.  The details of Victoriana  are well observed: the spinning Zoetrope, the pictures of the dead, the heavy wooden beds and wardrobes which loom up in their forest of shadows and sinister silences – Norman Bates would be quite at home.  Alas the film undermines all this, it cannot sustain mystery or nuance.  Money must be to blame for its inevitable crassness: the muddied child looming out of the bedsheets, the Woman in Black herself looks like a lard face with conjunctivitis.  Her best moment was when she was an indistinct shadow from the grave but that could not be sustained.  Daniel Ratcliffe was brought in to bolster the teenager presence in the audience but the character needs someone older able to convey the range of emotions from tragic parenthood, to professional self confidence, and then to terror.  It’s all very well claiming that ghost stories are about reclaiming memory, suffering loss, and gaining redemption but those sound like excuses for not ratcheting up the scariness which the book could do and the film doesn’t deliver emotionally.  It goes for the claim on our emotions that mainstream cinema over exploits, it guarantees hatred of the Woman in Black because like a female Herod, she’s all doom for children.  Janet McTeer as the bereaved posh mother acts more woodenly than the local yokels (who are the usual villagers with a dark secret who won’t talk to strangers).  This film also suffers from geographical confusion, we get the Yorkshire Dales round the village which amazingly is only a short ride from the marshes of East Anglia.  The stolid village folk gurn in Yorkshire accents but Keckwith who takes Kipps out to the house, is an East Anglian Barkis.

This is a sadly squandered opportunity as it lets Susan Hill’s story down badly.  Here are my Top Five  Scariest Films of all Time:

1) The Dead of Night (1945)

2) The Others (2000)

3) The Exorcist (1973)

4) Whistle and I’ll Come (1968)

5) The Haunting (1963 – definitely not the crass 1999 one)

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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Antichrist

Antichrist posterSynopsis

A couple called He and She make love soundtracked by Handel whilst their child climbs out of his cot to fall to his death from an open window.  He (Dafoe) is a therapist who tries to help Her (Gainsbourg) in her grief.  They go to ‘Eden’ in the countryside in a forest.  She describes a sort of dream vision of her walking through a ghosterized forest.  They are assaulted by falling acorns, there’s a talking fox, a pregnant deer, a mad jackdaw, human body parts in trees.  She is into the study of ‘gynocide’ about the male war on women and how male imputed evil is actually the evil of nature, which is Satan’s theatre.  She gets increasingly wild, bolts Dafoe’s leg with a screw clamp, bashes him with a spade, cuts off her clitoris.  He kills her and comes across a crowd of forest pilgrims walking past him, once again that Handel song.

Criticism

Initially I was ready to slag this off.  The whole thing looks like a pretentious scam, a non film with do-it-yourself symbolism devised by a prankster contemptuous of his audience..  The film looks like Equus as written by Steven King or D.H. Lawrence as a Halloween stunt.  Is it satire on torture porn?  If so, I wanted to dismiss it as fake satire because it’s complicit in the vileness it ridicules.  The relationship between He and She is partlly intellectualized and partly magazine supplement mystical.  Occasionally they are pithy and their eroticism electrifies their corny forays into B horror movie concerns:  feminist witchcraft, demonology, astrology (constellations are ‘Grief’, ‘Despair’, and ‘Pain’).  Gainsbourg doesn’t have the technique to convey true menace or dark passions, she comes over all RADA trained and squeaky, like a convent-educated debutante self consciously screaming Lawrentian lust in the bathroom.  The talking fox is silly and made me think of Basil Brush.  The violence is sickening.  At Cannes Lars von Trier no doubt enjoyed the publicity that predictable condemnation brought.  Is this a film at all?  Is it a series of happenings from the depressive mind of a mentally ill-film maker?

After saying all this, I have come to think this is an outstanding film.  It’s like a narrative from a romantic author discovering nature after the buttoned up Rococo era.  One critic compared it to Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, but I think Christabel would be more apt.  Its depiction of nature is like the forest in Company of Wolves or the witchiness of Blair Witch Project and the menace of The Village.  In this nature humanity is at least a mysterious and threatening presence.  Nature is here on its own terms as a bloody and chaotic wilderness.  The forest is menacing like in a Grimm fairy tale without von Trier having to rely on the tired tricks of mainstream cinema.  It’s do it yourself symbolism, and the fun comes from the boundary between image and symbol, they each seem to merge then separate.  Occasionally the film weakens into the self consciousness that comments on what doesn’t need commentary.  As for the accusation of unfair treatment of women,  I disagree in this film.  In Antichrist Gainsbourg is a martyr to her nature, mysticism sanctioned by feminist rebellion against the academic arrogance of her husband.  What Gainsbourg does is to herself, she suffers from a grief that her husband can distance himself from, alienated by his smug attempts at closure.  As for the black and white sex scenes and the accidental death of the child, I think von Trier is parodying the cinematic urge to choreograph life’s horrors and it’s banalities.  Look at those pompous shower scenes Will Smith gets into.

This film for me is more a thinking person’s Steven King:  the remote forest farmhouse is not a place to escape to but a sort of terror of truth seeking.  The forest house offers a violent redemption in self hate and self sacrifice: a rejection of the false security of their urban life.  Fighting with the devil guarantees spiritual honesty better than deluding ourselves with the unacknowledged seeking for power over others that we often sanctify as love and the search for spirituality.

The film is undoubtedly derivative so there’s fun in searching for influences.  There’s Arthur Rackham’s nature vision in those limb sprouting trees, though at first it reminded me of a skin cream commercial.  The falling storm of acorns is like Pan’s Labyrinth.  Scandinavian love of forests turns up in Bergman and Elvira Madigan.  Von Trier depicts not Eden but a failed human attempt to realize it in spite of our sin and guilt.  No one seems concerned about the title, what exactly is the Antichrist?  For Nietsche it’s not satanism but the will power set against the bad faith of religious belittlements.  It’s a celebration of vitality against the self deluding power seeking of religious self denial.  Guilt v blame feed off each other in Antichrist like parts of the forest (natural forces), and so are not religious at all but devouring energies.  Von Trier celebrates the amoral vitality of women freed from male control, their subversive energy is potentially anti-Christian.  We see subliminal shots of a face passing through the greenery then Gainsbourg lies down on the grass and becomes green like the earth, and I think of people archetypically totemized as halloween forest creatures.  The animalization of the male is a lurid phallus spurting blood.  Gainsbourg becomes the spirit of animism fusing with the spirits of the forest against the corrupt fallen rationality of the male psychiatrist.  Trier himself is I think a convert to Catholicism so he will doubtless think that original sin is a domestic problem which we enact in any attempted Eden.

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2011 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD

 

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Kill List

Kill List stillSynopsis

About two ex-army hitmen.  We see Jay at home being quarrelsome with his wife.  They have two guests, one is the other hitman Cal.  This guest’s wife scratches a symbol on the back of a mirror.  The hitmen are given a list of their victims by a mysterious boss.  They go after a few people guilty of what seems to be sexual crimes:  a priest, a librarian, and an MP.  When they go after the MP they come across his country house and they see a ‘Wickerman’ procession where a woman is killed.  The hitmen shoot the MP and the procession comes after them and one of them is killed.  The procession attacks the hitman’s house and he gets into a knife fight with one of them.  Their employer is the chief ‘black magician’.

Criticism

This starts out as a pretty nasty film.  The scenes of domestic are like Nil by Mouth.  The hitman Jay quarrels violently with his wife.  When a hitman colleague comes to his dinner party with his wife, the conversation is like a deadpan parody of Big Brother with nouveau riche dinner guests.  These are poorly educated but clever people, like experts in mental cruelty from a soap opera.  The two hitmen speak in flat, deadpan tones, about anything they come across but they lack the wit and style of the two killers in Pulp Fiction.  They behave in a menacingly thuggish way to whatever gets on their nerves.  When they are in a restaurant they find the neighbouring table of Christian people irritating in their smugness so they are predictably sarcastic about them.  Their matter of fact lack of conscience emphasizes the hilarious pedantry of their solemn attention to sordid detail.  Jay assaults his victims with a hammer as well as a gun,  When the victims express their thanks, presumably for being released from their torment, they enrage their executioner all the more because they puzzle him, as he attributes their terminal masochism to another expression of their perversion.  I thought I’d been inured to films like this but I was ready to walk out.

The two thugs come across their latest victim’s house and they see a procession of robed people holding torches and they are wearing straw masks.  This is an obvious imitation of the 1973 film Wickerman.  Whereas that was about a Calvinist policeman out of his depth amongst pagan nature worshippers, Kill List at the end reminded me of that parody of this kind of film: Hot Fuzz.  The village or big house with a secret.  Hot Fuzz is funny, Kill List  is merely derivative like Straw Dogs in an unpleasant episode of East Enders.  This film has nothing to recommend it, it’s an unpleasant re-hash of our interest in violence and death.  It looks at how intentions involved in a network of violence simply breed more evil and violence and how addictive it all is.  This coarse film gives further ammunition to the cinematic satire of Peter Hanke.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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