You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Wednesday, 30 March 2016



Is there a more potent symbol in American mythology than that of the witch? Though an export of the old world, the witch is also a symbol of modernity – a frightening sort of  progressiveness.  For potions and spells read medicine and psychology; healing and hysteria. In Robert Eggers’ The Witch, however, they are also the baby-killing devil worshippers of lore, but, in the context of the 17th Century wilderness the film conjures up, even this is almost condonable.

The initial folly here lies with William (Ralph Ineson), a fervent Puritan whose “prideful conceit” leads to him and his family being banished from a New England plantation. Having already travelled across the sea, William, his pregnant wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), daughter Thomasin (the first credited film role of Anya Taylor-Joy), and inherently creepy fraternal twins Jonas and Mercy journey out into the countryside to eke out of a living off the land.

Instead of purity, however, they find only hardship – crops die, animals escape traps – and misery to test even the hardiest of faith. If mankind is born into sin as William, not unkindly, contends then amid the foreboding placidity of black spindly trees, away from civilization, they takes salvation or damnation in their own hands.

The Witch eschews simple scares in favour of disquietment and a genuine sense of spiritual dread; Jarin Blaschke’s stark, all-natural lighting and Mark Korven’s score – unsettling ambience rising suddenly into a howling chorus – effectively see to that. Subtitled ‘A New England Folk Tale’, the film shows what happens when ordinary, decent people go up against the implacable forces of darkness.

In the face of evil a father’s weakness in telling his wife a hard truth, a son’s awakening sexuality, their mother’s grief-stricken piety, a daughter’s rashness of speech – all spell doom. The film isn’t simply an eerie meditation on man’s uncertain place in the universe. There’s also a yellow-eyed, twitchy-nosed rabbit that makes the one in Monty Python and The Holy Grail look like a timorous wee beastie and the film as a whole beats out The Revenant in the “Fuck Nature” stakes.

Ineson is a gruff, compelling presence while Dickie presents the acute image of a woman desperately longing to return to her former nature and relative state of grace (even if, alongside Game of Thrones, there’s a recurring motif of deeply ill-advised breast feeding.) While Scrimshaw’s Caleb is an innocent led astray, its Thomasin’s pale, unspoken – likely unrealised – anger that, more than red-lipped temptresses or Goya-esque  crones, gets at the film’s dark, corruptible heart.

If a new-born baby has no guarantee of entry into Heaven, how – and why – should man – or woman – withstand corruption? The plantation, with its almost comical clusters of blank-faced, identically dressed Puritans staring in judgment, may offer safety and security, but there is no hope of liberation within its walls or dogma.

Though it’s unlikely to win any modern-day converts to the Satanic Temple (though the group has since endorsed the film), The Witch stands alongside the likes of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England - if only for the language and setting - and Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers as an eerie study of human suffering and the absence of God. Stalking the periphery of the horror genre, the film is a theologic nightmare that will get under your skin and, just possibly, that bit deeper.

The Witch gets an 8.5 out of 10

Tuesday, 29 March 2016


With my written review having devolved into a more or less unprintable rant, here are my thoughts in spoken form instead; courtesy of Mr. Rob Daniel and the Electric Shadows podcast, of which I am lucky enough to be the co-host.

All and any feedback is kindly appreciated.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016


One woman, two men, and an underground bunker. 

As its residential title might suggest, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a far more localized affair than its so-called spiritual predecessor, found-footage monster flick Cloverfield. Both the output of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company, and released under similarly mysterious circumstances, those looking for large-scale destruction here will likely leave disappointed. What unfolds instead is a tightly-wound tale of precarious coexistence in the wake of likely apocalypse.

Fleeing her home in New Orleans after a fight with her fiancĂ©e, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is involved in a car wreck and wakes up in an underground bunker. Her captor/host Howard (John Goodman) tells her that an unknown doomsday event has occurred, leaving the surface of the Earth contaminated. After some early well-founded scepticism, Michelle comes to reluctantly accept Howard’s claim and, along with rustic interloper Emmett (an endearing John Gallagher, Jr.), sets about trying to make the best of an impossible situation.

However, their attempt to form a nuclear family quickly turns toxic due to Howard’s volatility — and some serious worrying issues with women. There are moments of calm amid the communal storminess — of magazine reading, film watching (Howard has managed to preserve a collection of DVDs and VHS that would most likely appall the AFI), and heartfelt conversations about past regrets — but when every dinner table conversation or game of Charades is a minefield it’s obvious that this arrangement can’t endure for long.

Originally an original script called The Cellar, 10 Cloverfield Lane's only real connection to its predecessor is the idea of monsters — which, to quote the tagline, "Come In Many Forms". A far cry from the more ebullient menace he brought to films like Barton Fink, Goodman imbues Howard with a simmering narcissism. Even when he’s bumping along in front of the jukebox or recalling his absent daughter, there’s the sense that his resentfulness could surge into sudden violence. As far as chemistry goes, this is one brew that would choke Walter White.

Though it veers into outright genre in its denouement (by way of Chekov's whiskey bottle), before it turns her into Ellen Ripley the film makes Michelle into a protagonist who is both flawed  resourceful. For a film with almost no expectations attached — its existence was a closely guarded secret before January — this is one cinematic address well worth the visiting.

VERDICT: This may not be Abrams' first rodeo when it comes to bunkers - there's even a hatch! - but 10 Cloverfield Lane is equals parts LOST and Room, albeit with an intriguing sci-fi slant. First-time director Dan Trachtenberg's direction is slick but not showy (just check out the 360 pan when the camera first enters the homey main living area) and the film's script (rewritten by Whiplash's Damien Chazelle) is a tightly-wound triumph.

10 Cloverfield Lane gets an 8.5 out of 10

Monday, 7 March 2016


Everyone loves a good movie about the movies. Hollywood’s fetish for self-mythologizing1 lends itself to tales of stardom2 and scathing satire3 alike, but few films imbue Tinseltown with the same glow or seeming reverence as the Coen Brothers’ latest. 

Hail, Caesar! takes the real-life persona of Eddie Mannix (played here in highly fictionalised form by Josh Brolin)4, the archetypal studio “fixer”, and transforms him into a Christlike figure. When hapless matinee idol Baird Whitlock (George Clooney5) is snatched from the set of a sword-and-sandals Biblical epic — also titled Hail, Caesar!6 — it falls to Mannix to secure his return. 

This involves negotiating with his mysterious kidnappers7, a group who call themselves The Future; all while handling the (mis)casting of singing cowboy Hobie Doyle8 (Alden Ehrenreich), the pregnancy of an Esther Williams-like aqua-musical star (Scarlett Johansson)9, and being hounded by twin gossip columnists (both Tilda Swinton). 

Segueing through various period appropriate period pieces — including a perma-tanned Channing Tatum in a homo-erotically charged Anchors Aweigh pastiche10 — the film is comprised of a few witty cameos11 and some good ideas12, but its all subtext, no stakes.13 

Hardly the conquering hero, Hail, Caesar! is at best a knockabout second-rater amid the Coen canon. A Burn After Reading without the bite, Intolerable Cruelty without the cruelty, in looking at the stars, the film strays too far from the gutter, losing sight of the salaciousness that might have made this a memorable affair instead of just another trip to the movies.


Hail, Caesar! gets 6 out of 10


1 It can only be so long before we get a biopic of James Cagney that features an actor playing Cagney playing, say, Lon Chaney (as Cagney did in 195’s Man of a Thousand Faces), who is himself playing a character. levels performance balance
2 E.g. The Player.
3 E.g. A Star Is Born.
4 The real Mannix was an executive at MGM who had no kids and at least one longterm affair. He was also implicated in the apparent suicide of George Reeves, TV’s original Superman, as dramatised in the film Hollywoodland. In short, not the sort of guy likely to worry unduly about the cost to his immortal soul of sneaking a few cigarettes.
5 A worthy addition to Clooney’s roster of numbskulls, Whitlock is a goggle-eyed sap, an empty vessel ready to be filled with words and ideals, like the florid oratory of a Roman officer who undergoes a religious conversion when faced by Christ the godhead (who, incidentally, does not appear in this film).
6 Albeit with the added subtitle “A Tale of the Christ” — the film, after all, owes a debt to Ben-Hur.
7 The words of a Roman officer, or those of a “study group” of Communist screenwriters with a passion for Heidegger and lack of appreciation for irony.
8 A charming, slightly bumptious fellow who’s utterly loyal to the studio and good with a lasso. But not quite a home in Merrily We Dance, a cool, sophisticated prestige pic directed by Ralph Fiennes’  Laurence Lorenz, an impeccably mannered Vincente Minelli stand-in whose controlled, self-effacing frustration is a wonder to behold.
9 Introduced to us a manically smiling mermaid in an elaborate synchronised swimming sequence, she’s revealed to be a brusque Brooklyn gal: “How am I? Wet,”
10 Just call him Gene Commie.
11 Including Jonah Hill as the world’s most reliable surety agent (he’s bonded) and Dolph Lundgren in silhouette.
12 Mostly along the lines of how the division of God mirrors the division of labour, which plays into the surprisingly conservative notion of, essentially, “knowing your place”. They do give the rabbi a few good lines, though: “You worship a God who doesn't love anyone.” “Not true. he loves Jews.”
13 Excluding a nasty bit of business involving Frances McDormand’s hyper-efficient, chain-smoking editor and a projector — perhaps the film’s only true striking moment — there’s nothing harsher here than a few slaps. Even compared to Inside Llewyn Davis, which at least had some Greenwich Village pettiness and self-loathing, this is mild stuff.