The Witch (2015)

 

Robert Eggers’ (the Tell-Tale Heart, 2008) movie is set in the early 1600’s with a new England farming family, headed by the farmer husband and father (Ralph Ineson, Intruders, 2011), a man of strong religious views, are banished, for religious reasons from the community they live in.  Needing to build a new life for the family, they settle down a couple of days away from the town and build a new existence for themselves. Life is hard and the family is struggling to make an income in the harsh New England countryside.

As hard as life is, it still goes on. Each member of the family has their position and duties accordingly. And this is where the film works. The movie draws on the folklore of ththe-witche early New England settlers as they came to terms with the new land, the strange surroundings and the natural fears and superstitions of life at this time.

There is an under lying tension within the family, As the father and mother (Kate Dickie, Red Road 2006) struggle to make a success of their little farmstead, the children also have responsibilities and duties. It is to this background that things start to happen. The two oldest children are of an age where the tensions of hormonal changes are coming into play, most especially for the son, who is becoming aware of himself, so to speak. One day while taking care of the youngest child, the oldest, Thomasin, (Anya Taylor-Joy, Viking Quest, 2015) loses her, but only after taunting the middle daughter, Mercy (about witches and saying she was one). This of course leads to all sorts of implications. The Son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw, Oranges and Sunshine, 2010, a person who could have a bright future ahead of him) is caught in the middle of this and goes to find his little sister, only to make things worse.

The days following the disappearance of the child are tense ones, made all the more tense by the otherwise mundane arguments and struggles of life, which are blown-up in the tensions of the struggles.  Eventually things are said and accusations are made, Did Thomasin do something to her little sister, did an animal take her or did the [ubiquitous] with in the woods take her?

As we are drawn in to this struggle, the tension mounts, but then we are introduced to a new element, the witch herself, it turns out there is a witch in the woods, who might actually have taken the child.

Over the next while the presence of the witch is hinted at and explored at first, but then takes a larger part of the story-line, especially with the use of the family mail goat as a familiar, who might actually be the devil.  The last act or so of the film is an old fashioned blood and gore horror segment which needless to say culminates in the great showdown. This final denouement  (and yes any denouement should be final…) is to me the lessor event.  As the tensions in the household mounts and events begin to take their toll, the children are taken over and possessed, with young Caleb especially affected. This scene is one of the better ones of the film.

Now, let’s be clear; this is not the great horror movie people seem to think it is. It could have been, a nerve wrenching thriller playing on the fears and dangers hidden in the dark corners and damp ground, or it could have been an old fashioned horror with our heroes fighting the evil monster etc. Instead it tried to do both and so ultimately failed to succeed to the level it wanted. The acting by the younger actors in particular in first class, even if the character of the mother seemed a little over the top (more the character than the acting).

This is a good film, scoring a safe 3 stars, it could have been much more, if it decided to go one way or the other. Personally I would have liked a movie where we never say the protagonist, but only the fears, reactions and struggles of the family.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

 

wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Directed by New Zealand director, Taika Waititi (What we Do In The Shadows, 2015), in-short the movie concerns the disappearance of a young teenager with his foster guardian for about 6  weeks in the New Zealand bush, with a national manhunt underway for them two heroes.

Our Young protagonist, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison, Paper Planes, 2014)) is a street smart young lad full of attitude, though always strangely likeable. We never know why he has been taken from home, all we do know is that this city kid has been placed in the care of Bella (Rima Te Wiata, House Bound, 2014)) “call me aunty Bella” and her silent grumpy husband, Hector, (Sam Neill, Daybreakers, 2009). The social worker looking after Ricky is the officious job’s worth,  Paula, (Rachel House, Whalerider, 2002).

Despite initial problems, such as Ricky deciding to run away on his first night, and only managing to get about 200 metres from the house, before falling asleep with exhaustion only to be found the next morning by Bella. In the days that follow, Ricky and Bella develop a relaxed relationship, with Ricky slowly settling in. Small gestures by Bella such as a hot-water bottle in the bed, of a small collection of books for Ricky read. Life starts to take on an ordinary pace. Hector is still a silently grumpy as usual. Indeed, the only time we see Hector show emotion is when Bella unexpectedly dies at home, Hector is distraught.

A man of few words, He and Ricky get through the funeral and begin to settle down at home, only to receive word that the authorities are going to collect Ricky in about a week.  This is the key point in the film, upon which all else hinges. Ricky decides to run away, however he gets lost, Hector looking for him, finds him but quickly there-after, injures himself, resulting in them taking six weeks in the bush to recover. During this time, the social worker is convinced Ricky has been kidnapped by Hector and a full-scale manhunt is launched. Eventually Hector and Ricky discover this, and have to cope as best they can while trying to recover the situation. The interactions they have with the public range from co-operative to trying to turn them in.  We follow them as Ricky tries his hand a hunting for the first time, or building a shelter, or sharing a camp with Hector. Together they try to survive, seeing off risks from civilians hunting them, dodging the police and keeping fed.

The only down side is the Characterisation of Paula’s social worker, as it was overly manic and more than necessary for the part, allied to this was the use of a “SWAT team looking for the couple of fugitives (Watching SWAT teams search through New Zealand bush wears off as a joke fairly quickly).

Sam Neill is perfect for the role, gruff and uninterested (or so it seems) at first, his character has a caring side which comes out as the film moves on, as do the secrets Hector carries with him as he goes through life.  As with most of these movies, Hector not only teaches Ricky about life, but the reciprocal takes place also. Together they deal with the challenges their escapade causes, learning a bit more about each other, as they do.

I could go into detail, but that would just ruin the story, as with any chase they are eventually caught and have to deal with the consequences of their actions.  This could have been a twee piece which would have had me pull my eyes out, but no, it is well crafted (apart from Paula, sorry!) and entertaining, young Dennison gives a first-class performance alongside one of New Zealand’s greatest actors, who as usual does not let the side down. This movie brings together a loud, self-confident street thug and a lonely grumpy old man missing his life partner and results in as assured young man, preparing to take his place in the world, alongside his friend and mentor, Hector.

8/10

Calvary

Written and directed by John Michael Mc Donagh, this is the second of a loosely based trilogy. The subject matter is not connected, rather locations associated with McDonagh’s background. The first installment was “The Guard” (2011). Described as a black comedy, it might be better described Dark thriller with a touch of dark humour thrown in.

Although described as “dark” this is a very entertaining movie, which from the start drags in the viewer and keeps us alongside to the very end. Brendan Gleeson’s character is that of Father James, the local parish priest in a small rural parish in Sligo. Boarding the coast, there are some fantastic backdrops (having spent two years living in the area, I can say the scenery is every bit as photographed for the film. Fr. James we learn came to the Priesthood later in life, after his wife died. As with any normal person, he has his daemons, he is open about his hard drinking ways in the past, now he controls his life and habits. As “normal” as he is, the villagers, his parish, are what can best be described as an “odd bunch”.

The film opens in confession, here we learn that one of his parishioners was abuse as a child by a priest. In the parishioner’s quest for vengeance, he has decided to kill a priest, not just any priest, but a good priest, someone people will notice. He is told he has just over a week to live, they even make an appointment for the following Sunday on the beach. We are not clear if he actually knows who his killer is. Following a discussion with his less than helpful Bishop (David McSavage), the Bishop feels that the confession was not valid, as absolution was not present and so he should report the issue.

Instead Fr. James uses the week to put his house in order and try find a way to stop what is going to happen. In to the mix comes his adult daughter (Kelly Reilly, Sherlock Homes, 2009), recovering from a suicide attempt. We see through her that his relationship with her has been strained over time and in deed still shows some stress marks but they know they have something to work out and so do. They treat each other as adults.

Over the coming days, we see Fr. James deal with his parishioners, the wife beaten by her lover, the lover who has no remorse and even the cuckolded husband, who is quite happy for his wife to have an affair, as it takes the pressure off him and basically they can get on with life. As part of his ministering to his flock he visits an old American writer who is living in a remote area accessible only by boat. While bringing the old writer his messages, he makes a request for a gun (Walter PPK). After some banter Fr. James says he will try and see what he can do. In the course of the next day he pays a visit to the local Police Inspector, to borrow a gun. The inspector is at home, with a male prostitute. Fr. James is not fazed by this or the prostitute’s behaviour. The prostitute is played by Owen Sharpe, I mention this because of his recent role in “’71” playing the young IRA killer, a completely different role, both done well.

As the week goes on, he has to deal with his curate, Fr. Leary (David Wilmot, Vikings 2013) who is not exactly the caring type, more concerned with image rather than substance. Fr. James is rather blunt in his opinion of him as a priest. Indeed one of the defining characteristics of Fr. James is his bluntness. When we see him with the financier on the edge of arrest (Dylan Moran, Black Books, 2000) who is trying to put things right (in his own way). Fr. Leary fawns to Moran’s character, while Fr. James just basically sees through the acts and gets down to business naming a figure and looking for the check.

As the week goes on, we start to see things taking a chilling turn, with his local church being burnt down and even his pet dog killed, we are not told who is responsible for these acts. We see the tensions mount to breaking point, while we also see moments of clam and belief, no more so that the French couple of holiday who were involved in a car crash, the husband is killed, while the wife escapes unhurt, we see in her a person of Faith and in so doing also see his Faith, it is real to him.

He has no airs and graces, when one of the village odd-balls, Milo Herlihy (Killian Scott, Love/Hate 2010-2014) sees Fr. James in church to ask for his advice regarding women; the conversation turns surreal. He basically has urges, possibly to violence , to control these urges he has decided to join the army, which he is convinced is full of psychopaths anyway and so should be a natural home for himself, Fr. James attempts to bring him back to reality by suggesting he read certain magazines, only to have milo say he has already tried them. What we see is a man casting no judgements and genuinely trying to help. His chats with the atheist (and cynical ) doctor, (Aidan Gillen, Love/Hate 2010-2013) also give us an insight to his view on life and his outlook on things in general, while at the same time not forcing a believe or rationalisation on the other person.

In dealing with his parishioners and even his daughter (and by extension himself) we do see a “good Priest”. Fr. James’s character is no Saint, he has his flaws and weaknesses like any person. He is essentially a person who is trying to help is parishioners without overstepping. However the various scenarios thrown up by the locals work at both levels, firstly allowing for a local and immediate (personal response) but also causing us to see the reaction of a kind and compassionate man, even if one who does not suffer fools to gladly.

Among all of the local community there is one who stands out, the altar boy, Mícheál (Mícheál Óg Lane, the Guard, 2011) he stands out for one reason, essentially he has reprised his role in The Guard, as a comic foil for Gleeson. This time it is a little more subtle but equally as good.

This movie shifts to an climax which can only end one of two ways, Fr. James alive or dead. A good man alive or dead. What we saw was a week in the life of a small parish, all seemingly tranquil and calm while below the surface there is violence, loneliness, suffering and pain and only one man has an idea as to what extent the people of the village are suffering in their various ways, just as he is dealing with his own daemons. This is dark in its subject matter but the cinematography and sharp lines place this movie in the first league.

It is felt Gleeson might get an Oscar nomination for this role, he deserves it

9/10

Snowpiercer

A south Korean movie, directed by Bong Joon-ho (The Host 2006) based on the screen play by Kelly Masterson (Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007) and Bong Joon-ho. The world has been destroyed by attempts to stop global warming which have gone totally wrong. Faced with the growing threat of global warming, an experimental new approach was developed, which entailed seeding the upper atmosphere with a chemical (CW7) to overcome the effects of global warming.

One of the first things you notice about this film is the cast. I have to admit, it is probably not the cast I would have picked, but that said, I would have been wrong. The casting works well and I wouldn’t change any of them. Behind the scenes, there is some discussion about The Weinstein Company taking out about 20 minutes of the film to suit western viewers. The movie is based on a French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige”.

The film opens in the train, but with a narration giving us the history of the efforts to stop global warming which ultimately resulted in the destruction of civilisation by virtue of the CW7 working too well and forcing the world in to an ice age. We quickly learn that those on the train have been on it for 17 years, entirely self-contained. Life is dystopian for many and carefully managed and controlled overall. The train itself is a huge affair purposefully built by an eccentric transport mogul who had no confidence in the CW7 solution so he built a special train which linked in to the world’s rail transport system and provided a place of refuge for the select few, constantly travelling around the world, never stopping.

Never stopping has a price. In order to keep the train moving the passengers are carefully ordered. First class, standard and economy. We learn about the workings of the train and its society from the huddled masses in economy. As bad as conditions are, we are told they are “the lucky ones” as they got on the train and are still alive. For seventeen years these people have been in the windowless back carriages at the tail of the train. Things are not good. People are huddled in to any corner they can find. The background is explained to us through the eyes of those trapped in the back. There have been up-risings in the past, all of which have failed. One of the key aspects of the uprisings is getting out to the armoured carriages in to the next carriages on the train. The people are fed a stable diet of protein pars to keep them alive. The protein bars are provided by the “Train” We also notice that although these third class passengers are in rags there is a fully uniformed security force and also train crew.

Chris Evans (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2014) plays the part of Curtis, he is the leader of the would-be rebellion. He must decide when to act and how to. Key to their plan is rescuing Namgoong Minsu (Kang-ho Song, The Host, 2013) who is the security expert who designed the security systems for the train, keeping the carriages separate. The only problem is that he is a drug addled prisoner in the train’s prison carriage. Curtis together with his Lieutenants; Edgar, his second in command (Jamie Bell, Man on a Ledge, 2012)) sporting a strangely passable Irish accent who is the no-patience action man; and Gilliam, the older sage, respected by all and carrying the wounds of previous encounters. Discipline is savage, beatings are regular and extreme, often involving loss of limbs. Other rebellions have failed, they have looked at why and hopefully have a plan to overcome these issues.   In to the mix of this we see the “overlords” using these third-class passengers as nothing more than a resource to be taken from.

At one scene we see one person taken to the front of the train to provide musical entertainment for the upper classes. We later see him and others who have been taken, their minds’ washed to be compliant and subservient. Meanwhile children are being taken to the front and nobody knows why.

Authority on the train is in the person of Minister Monroe (Thilda Swinton, Adaptation, 2002) who is the voice of authority, endlessly engaging in a passive aggressive dominance over those in third class.   Eventually when they notice that the guards on the carriage actually have no ammunition in their weapons, the passengers rise-up. Using weapons and tools they made, they make their attack, first to the jail carriage where they rescue the security expert and his girlfriend. Using their skills they move forward first past the prison carriage, then they take the food and water carriages, revealing some of the nasty truths involved in life on the train. After a series of often bloody battles, against firstly the guards, then axe yielding black clad figures to then more armed guard and some very nasty people along the way. Eventually they make their way forward, glimpsing along the way how the rest of the upper-class passengers live. Ultimately they arrive at the Front, and meet Mr Wilford (Ed Harris, the Way Back 2010). Here talking with Wilford they rebels get an idea of just how perverted life has become on the train.

We are told as the film progresses that the key to survival is balance. There is plenty of food (for the privileged) the key is balancing the demands with supply at the right times and seasons. This even stretches to the punishment of the third class passengers, it is calculated that 74% must die. We have become used to video games producing tie-in movies, however this is a movie which almost feels like a video game despite not having one at its origin. Each Carriage is essentially a new level with new associated challenges for the rebels to overcome.

This movie could have been too busy, with so much cramped in to so tight a space, both physically and emotionally, but the characterisation works, Evans’ Curtis is very underplayed, what we know of him comes from revealing moments as the movie progresses, to ultimately a character we have confidence in as a leader. Swinton’s Monroe is a nasty piece of work showing nothing but disdain for the passengers through her passive aggressive control. We see just how lose control is later on as she is used to lead the rebels through the train. Those upper class people they pass are largely disgusted by what they see, interrupting their on-going lives. The food shortages present further back are not seen here.

The only obvious weakness that presents itself, is a slight continuity issue; where having established that the guards are out of ammunition we later see a full use of ammunition as the rebellion gathers pace, perhaps it is rationed to certain areas. The other slight weakness is the issue of blockages on the line, is it only now that these are causing problems, are they normal with the rebellion deflecting away from essential management of them?

When we eventually meet Wilford, having already gotten a background on him we see a person who is immediately comparable to “Christof” the show’s producer and “God-like” character. We see the same calm omnipotence here. There Characters are perhaps a little too similar, given the respective plots. Very smartly we are shown not just his power but also how fragile it all is, perhaps his character is more comparable to The Wizard from The Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan). His power is based on what people think of him. Minister Monroe’s character shows us how the train’s front has almost taken on a mystical, even religious aspect, with Wilford being almost worshiped.

That said, this is an excellent movie with an excellent cast, Evans, gives one of his best roles, Swinton is almost unrecognisable, Bell and Hurt support magnificently. It should be pointed out that even additional supporting cast duties are taken up by well-known character-actors more than capable of supplying what is needed.

In the last scenes we see a polar bear; does this signify freedom, danger or the sub-text that the bear looks fed and, if it is fed, there is life of some sort, where there is life; there is hope. As viewers, Bong, quite deliberately allowed us to get to know those people surviving at the back of the train and what they have to endure, are we allowed to hope for their future.

This is very much a hybrid movie, merging the characterization of western film with the manic nature of some of Korea’s most successful outputs in recent years (The Good, The Bad and The Weird, Kin Jee-woon, 2008). There is violence, but it is a tool of the plot, especially in how the lower class passengers are treated and in one or two scenes it is quite graphic, but just on the right side of what is needed.

An excellent movie which could have been mind-numbingly bad in other hands.

Mustang (2016)

This has been the surprise movie of 2016 for me so far.  Set in Northern Turkey it is Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature, and one which will get himmustang noticed. The film is set in modern day Turkey in a rural community, seemingly modern, but privately conservative.  One early summer’s day the 5 sisters around who the story revolves are at the beach on the way home playing with some of the local boys. By the standards of the “western viewer” their actions were nothing of any much worth to notice, but in conservative small town Islamic Turkey, this was too much, young men/boys and girls playing about in such a manner was not acceptable.  Their sins were to  be kids.  Hearing of their actions from the complaint of an old neighbour, the girls’ grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) acts to curtail the situation.

Effective immediately, in order to prevent further shame to the household, the girls are forced in to “traditional” shapeless dresses, and no more unsuitable western clothing, which might corrupt their young neighbours. As if this was not enough the girls are effectively placed under house-arrest, not allowed out to mix with friends or swim.

As this incarceration rises tensions, the girls’ uncle  (Aybert Pekcan), their guardian does nothing to settle the situation, turning the family home effectively into a prison, with new locks on the doors,  bars on the windows, and gates to block access.  Against all of these changes, the girls continue to fight back in an attempt to control their own lives, not always successfully.  In all this very definite characters arise among the girls as they, ultimately futilely, fight back against what is being imposed on them.

The ultimate humiliation being visited upon the girls, is their marrying-off, almost immediately upon events starting, their uncle decides it is time to find them suitable local husbands. What follows is a very sharp look at the clash between the modern world and traditional conservative practices of an older generation. Much of the film deals with how the girls are forced to come to terms with this and accept their new husbands, or not.

An interesting sub-plot, is the attempt by the girls to escape their destiny, and live the western life they dream about. Will they all be able to escape?

At first glance this would seem as a light-hearted drama comedy, however, as the movie progresses the darker clash of cultures begins to drive the film. As with any well-crafted movie there are moments of light-hearted hilarity to counter-point the deeply unsettling aspects of the movie.

Well worth the time taken to watch it, one of the best movies that I’ve seen so far in 2016. 4/5

The House on Pine Street

The House on Pine Street.

Directed by Aaron and Austin Keeling (more known for their short movies) An interesting idea which ultimately lets itself down by giving us too much and tool little at the same time, creating a movie which is a mixed bag of everything.  A young couple recovpinestreetering from issues which reveal themselves as the movie goes on, move in to a house in a sleepy Kansas sub-urban town.  Here immediately the film falls for its biggest weakness, cliché; as the couple is introduced to us arriving at the home, the host/estate agent is the type of mono-syllabic character Which makes Lurch (Adams Family 1964) seem carefree and reckless, as it turns out he was a red-herring, appearing nowhere else for the film.

We find out that Jennifer (Emily Goss) is 7 months pregnant and has agreed to move back to her home town with her partner while he takes a temporary job locally. Straight away the scene is being set as we see the house deliberately set to look suitably old and scary. Which is fine except, one room is perfect and nicely restored, while the hallway etc. has bubbling peeling paint.   Nothing much happens at first, then little things start to happen, but only as long as we the watcher sees them. As the house continues to make its presence felt, the stresses build up for Jennifer.  Stresses which are not helped by her over-bearing mother. It turns out her mother arranged the house and job, despite the two of them barely being on speaking terms.  As Jennifer is drawn deeper in to the horror of the house, the others (including some local friends of her mother) are more and more inclined to believe it is Jennifer, and not the house which is the issue.  It also does not help, that as her hate of the house and her surroundings grows, her husband (Taylor Bottles), is settling in to town and has accepted a full-time position.

This could have been an excellent movie, but there was nothing new in the offering, if the writers had decided not to actually show the entity, it might have been a better movie, as it would have kept the mental terror whole.  The tension between Jennifer and her mother (Cathy Barnett) is perhaps a little too much given the already occupied story-line. Somewhat cluttered in its presentation, leaving the viewer to try and catch-up a number of times, it could have tried to do its own thing.

The film builds to its ultimate end, not a million miles from expected and so not reaching too high an achievement. The Taking of Deboragh Logan (Adam Robitel, 2014) was a much better piece of work. Over all a familiar take of a familiar story, which could have been much more interesting.

Overall a “Middle of the road” 2.5/5 (I could not stretch to 3)

Youth (2015)

 

Some directors take a life-time to get established, however Paulo Sorrentino (Thyouth-2015_e Great Beauty 2013), has done this in less than half a dozen films. Those not used to Sorrentino’s works might take a little while to get into this movie, but when you do, it will reward you.   The movie is set around an elderly Maestro, played by Michael Caine (Get Carter, 1971) who while trying to enjoy a holiday in an upmarket Spa-hotel in the Alps with his daughter and best friend (Mick Boyle, played by Harvey Keitel (Thelma & Louise, 1991)), who is trying to write his final masterpiece screenplay). Despite the tranquil setting (with camera-work to match) there is an underlying tension, the Maestro’s daughter is unhappy with the treatment of her mother by her father, who he last visited 20 years ago (was it her grave he visited?).

Much of the film is made up of the Maestro and Boyle working through their issues, usually together, while not allowing the tranquillity of the surroundings to be interrupted.  Their time at the hotel is enlivened (relatively speaking) by a young actor, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine, 2006) also staying in the hotel as he prepares for his next role, keeping mostly to himself, and not imposing himself on any of the guests.

Behind all this, pressure is being put on the Maestro to perform his most famous piece of music as part of a celebration of the Queen’s birthday, the request is personal from the Royal family and not just some producer trying to fill an event programme. Boyle meanwhile is working with his writing staff on what could be his last great screenplay. Added to this is the fact that the Maestro’s daughter is married to Boyle’s son, however they are splitting up due to his infidelities, both fathers show their displeasure with the young man.

As the movie progresses with the heroes working through the issues, the viewer is drawn in by the musicality of the presentation, the visual aspects are stunning and the acting perfectly levelled for the work in question. I could go into detail on the plot and ruin the movie, suffice it to say, this is a movie to sit-back watch and enjoy. Sorrentino’s own The Great Beauty (2013) or Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) would be similar to this one.

Don’t be fooled by the slow/serene start, this movie grips you from the start and walks you along the Alpine storyline right to the end. Each of the leading cast gives the type of performance we’ve come to expect from each of them. Well worth experiencing.

Score 4/5