The VVitch is a tortured descent into madness and hysteria

Fear is in the eye of the beholder in this jump scare free atmospheric horror

Occasionally, there is a film that is recommended to you time and time again that you, for some inconceivable reason, avoid watching. For me 2016 was the year of The Witch. It made an appearance on most best of the year lists and it came out in February, so why did it take me 14 months to finally sit down and watch The Witch?

Frankly, I don’t care why. I don’t care about much anymore. Not after seeing The Witch. I used up all my willpower powering through the last twenty minutes and I am now a husk.

The Witch is an atmospheric horror with the emphasis on atmosphere. It boasts a charcoal black tone and a slow creep of tension with a touch of phantasm. Aided by dimly lit, isolated locales and a tiny cast it is as low budget as can be, but also as low budget as it needs to be. It is a simple story of a family being tormented by a witch. That’s all there really is to say about the plot, the rest you can discover by yourself when you watch this amazing film.

The film’s greatest strength is its ability to construct fear as opposed to simply stating ‘here is the scary bit. You gasp now.’ Many movies mistake a jump scare as the payoff for building tension, Robert Eggers understands that the most terrifying payoff is one that is entirely constructed in the viewer’s mind. The Witch gives its viewers enough information to scare themselves with each new turn of the story without resorting to cheap tricks. The titular witch is revealed within the first ten minutes so it leaves no space for stupid clichés of the genre (“What was that?” “Probably just the wind” – “don’t be stupid, there’s no such thing as witches” etc etc)

There is a complete lack of jump scares and most the film’s power lies with the family unit that is being picked apart bit by bit. Like in The Shining, the film finds terror in the potential for family members to turn on each other. They search for meaning in God, the devil, fate and vengeance, all while the viewer knows its witchcraft. It’s a downward spiral of desperation and despair that only gets worse, and it’s fantastic.

It is held together by solid performances on all sides, Game of Thrones alumni Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie play their roles with a terrifically level mix of faith and despair. Yet they are both outshined by Anya Taylor-Joy, who hopped right from this role to the lead role in M Night Shyamalan’s Split. She plays the eldest daughter Thomasin with a fantastically mature and expressive performance and will hopefully be seen in more roles like this soon.

The film combines the atmosphere of The Shining with the aesthetics of The Blair Witch Project. It is well shot and simple in its beauty and muted colour pallet. However, criticisms will come from those who find difficulty acclimatising to the film, the characters speak in olde English and live in the 17th century, hardly the most glamourous or accessible of settings. Yet the dialogue is simple and easy to understand and the effort acquired to fall into the film is easily worth it for the terror that proceeds it. I hear potential whispers of people possibly calling The Witch boring and I hear louder whispers of myself telling those people to go fuck themselves.

Recommendation

It’s a dark film, a slow film, it is unpleasant and hard to watch and it all comes together to create a perfect unity. All in the service of atmosphere and mood, it creates weighty moments of real drama and tragedy, getting into the heads of the characters with an incredible effectiveness.

One of the greatest examples of ‘feel-bad cinema’ I have ever seen. The music is filled with dread, but not dreadful, the mood is horrible to bare but incredible to watch. If you can appreciate a good atmosphere and a story well told, then you owe it to yourself to see The Witch. I have not yet been so close to giving out my first A+ grade

War on Everyone is a disjointed, but wonderfully cynical take on the buddy cop movie

Corrupt cops are unpleasant, offensive and hilarious in this first American outing for John Michael McDonagh

A film that came out earlier this year that I just got around to watching, War on Everyone had mixed reviews at the time, with many damning it, it was even called “this years don’t see film.” This is a preposterous claim that deserves to be sucked into a black hole. The film is far from perfect, but multiple reviews calling it terrible are perplexing, especially in a year in where we have had to suffer through bland shit like Jack Reacher and London has Fallen as well as the box office successes of Suicide Squad and Batman vs Superman. It’s alien to me that someone would be so turned off by a little crass humour that they would call such a clever, well shot, sickly funny movie as War on Everyone terrible, I’ll take offensive over boring any day of the week.

One review claimed that it is not the right time to make a comedy about corrupt cops, which is a laughable insinuation, The Great Dictator came out in 1940, Dr Stangelove, at the height of the Cold War. The purpose of comedy is to highlight the problems of the day and point out what’s laughably stupid and wrong about them. It is always the perfect time to make comedy films about the problems in the world.

War on Everyone is unstuck from time, it’s a pastiche of 1970’s cop dramas set in the modern age. It is having fun with the levels of incompetence that cops could display in these old shows and films. They are as corrupt as the day is long, they don’t get warrants, they want to kill people instead of take them in and they do it all for their own gain. Alexander Skarsgård is doing his best Hunter S Thompson impression throughout his entire drug and alcohol fuelled performance, and it’s hard to think that the story wasn’t somewhat influenced by the capers of Hunter and his Mexican sidekick in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The film has the same rampant pace and sprawling jagged structure, not really establishing itself with a beginning or middle, it just sort of keeps going until it ends. It allows the film to concentrate on the jokes but the fact that McDonagh’s writing never lets up on the quips means there really isn’t any time to slow down and take it all in. The characters are so unlikable and untroubled that it is hard to identify with them.

They drive in a Starsky and Hutch style sports car and do absolutely no real police work throughout the film’s run time. I believe it is an intentional choice on the director’s part, to show how far gone these characters are and that they can in no way continue to be police while maintaining this lifestyle, but one simple scene of them performing their job, just to show that they are capable, would have gone a long way to humanising them.

It has a soundtrack of almost entirely Glen Campbell songs which compliments the dark mood of the film perfectly. There is interesting cinematography at every turn and some amazing comical cuts in the editing. There are so many memorable and clever moments in the film that it’s a shame they’ll be forgotten about by being placed in such an uninteresting story. The film doesn’t go all out parody so it needs to hold on to a somewhat reasonable semblance of story to grip its viewers, it doesn’t do that.

Where the film stumbles is on the villains’ side of things. All the scenes used to establish them are not in line with the rest of the film, it seems intentionally mysterious and away from the point unlike the dialogue of our main characters. The villains in the film are almost too satirical for their own good. They lack the charm and clarity of villains from the Grand Budapest Hotel or the Fifth Element. But they act a slight too strange to really be funny or taken seriously. It’s a tricky line to walk and War on Everyone seems to slip up on it.

Recommendation

This is not up to the high standard of quality McDonagh has set with The Guard and Calvary and it doesn’t come close to his brother’s even higher bar of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, but it certainly shares a mood and a style of humour with them.

The dialogue seems to still be written for Irish actors and sounds strange coming out in American accents. There are pacing issues and the crime story is too busy and generic but beneath it all the film is refreshingly shameless in its pursuit of a good laugh. At one point even throwing its leads on a plane to Iceland for a simple joke. War on Everyone is not made for everyone, but if you don’t take it too seriously, which you shouldn’t, it’s a comedy, you’ll find plenty to laugh about.

 

Silence is a quiet meditation on Christianity and torturous barbarism

Scorsese has skewered the American Dream better than anyone else, now he tries his hand at the opposite

Martin Scorsese has gained enough points throughout his illustrious career to be a box office draw all by himself, but with the release of a 170-minute-long film displaying the trials of Jesuit missionaries I think he may have found the limit that his name has. People expect more of the same and with the release of Silence Scorsese has surely not given people what they expect. It was for this reason that four people left the cinema during the screening of Silence that I attended. Although it is hardly likely that a lack of box office will reduce the legendary director’s clout in the industry, especially when the film is a stunning example of cinematography and sound design.

Silence announces itself to its audience, it opens with a black screen and ambient noises of cicadas increases until it is deafening before cutting out completely as the title reveals itself. It’s a powerful opening to what proceeds to be a powerful film. The film follows the Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) as they travel to find their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson). They travel to Japan where Catholicism has been outlawed and priests and catholic practitioners are being executed and tortured in increasingly cruel ways. The film’s premise has similarities to Apocalypse Now and it mimics the film’s mood effectively, with knowledge of Copolla’s masterpiece creating an additional sense of dread surrounding the mentor, Ferreira’s fate.

Silence constantly shows that it is a film that has the potential to follow the Scorsese mould of brutal violence but does not indulge in it. People are seen being burned alive wrapped up in wicker like sushi, stacked upon each other like firewood. It is terrible and unforgiving but the scenes of violence merely service the true message of the film and they are used sparingly and effectively. Scorsese has the ability to tell another violent story, but it is not his prerogative. He wants to open up a conversation about other things now. Like the release of Hugo, this is a passion project for him and it shines through in a levelhandedness and a genuine moral ambiguity. The aggressive back and forth dialogue so associated with his films is replaced with voices of concern.

In all of Scorsese’s most successful films there is a narrative to be the best, to hop into a pond at the start of the film and end up as the biggest fish. It is true of Goodfellas, Casino, Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator and more. This leads to his films having clear paths of progression; suits become more fitting, wives become prettier and characters become experts in their respective fields. It’s a reason why Scorsese speaks to so many people, it is aspirational filmmaking with a coat of gloss.

What occurs in Silence I would argue is the same type of progression, Rodrigues faces more and more testing trials, there is a clear path of regression. He goes from a marble church in Portugal to a wooden shack in a rainy Japanese mountain and only goes down from there. Yet Rodrigues’ hero is not a Casino mogul or a Wall St banker, he aspires to be like that most idolised of heroes, Jesus Christ. Instead of making money and spending money his path to imitating the success of his idol is through martyrdom. He endures tortures that test his ability to keep his faith and the tortures keep escalating. In a sense this is the polar-opposite of a traditional Scorsese flick while still retaining the narrative structure.

Andrew Garfield is put under a lot of pressure with his performance, for the majority being the only English speaker on screen. He does himself proud while performing with a difficult Portuguese accent and a wealth of dialogue. Whilst his accent does slip in places it does not take away from the film and he should be commended for the range he can apply to his character’s despair. Driver is a more divisive character who show reservations and doubts but plays it well, whereas Liam Neeson simply refuses to attempt to change his voice for the role. Which, I admit, made me laugh out loud. It is a brave choice to commit actors to accented roles but to contrast this with Neeson talking in his droll Northern Irish tones after two hours of Portuguese and Japanese is baffling.

The film has issues with being somewhat too indulgent in its moral quandaries, most notably with its ending, which drags on for much longer than needed to state something which doesn’t need to be said. For a film that values the power of Silence in filmmaking it sure screams its conclusion in your face. Its message of Religion is not always the most cinematic but it constantly finds a way to be interesting.

Recommendation

This is Scorsese on a philosophical level, on the surface it is a no thrills affair that could leave the average viewer bored if they go in expecting Godfellas. There is a wealth of drama hidden beneath the surface and the multiple methods of torture and brutality should haunt viewers.

It is an impassioned movie for a select audience who should be fascinated by its portrayal and it should be rewarded for not taking the easy route of constantly criticising the specifics of religion. For those not interested in religious discussion it still possesses an intense emotional central arc which provokes thought on a personal, as well as parochial level.

La La Land is a sentimental love letter to the persistent loser

Damien Chazelle will not stop until everyone loves jazz

Every year films float into the academy’s eye by flaunting their gimmicks like peacock plumage. Last year it was Leo getting cold, before that there was Boyhood’s long road and Birdman’s faux single shot. Academy board members fell over themselves to congratulate them because each year needs a new film that brings something different to the table, it’s clear that the Academy loves a good gimmick. But only a little bit.

La La Land’s gimmick is that it’s a musical. The simple fact that being a musical is a gimmick in 2016 is a saddening thing for many people, most of all for director Damien Chazelle, who came from a musical background. The film follows the career and relationship of Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actor working as a barista and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist aiming to open his own jazz club. There is not much to talk about in terms of plot. The film proceeds as expected up until a point, it is in the musical refrains that the true meat of the film is found. They serve to sweeten each character moment and keep the viewer smirking up at the big screen.

The film is an assault on the senses in all the right ways. its use of not only sound, but colour is astounding. Every frame is filled with saturated lighting and colourful scenery. Characters dress as if they were professionally dressed for the stage in bold pastels. It’s all so on the nose, subtlety is thrown out the window for the service of the film and it almost always works.

La La Land is a throwback to the cinema of the fifties and to the musicals of old, to the studio system and to a genre of films that have been in danger of extinction for the longest time. Whether the film will cause a resurgence of musicals is yet to be seen, but it’s a clear coda of the film that the beautiful should not be left to die. The musical movie genre requires people who are passionate, people who mourn the impending loss, to fight for it. The film finds a brilliant mirror for this in the form of jazz, with Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, a struggling jazz pianist fighting to keep people interested in something that they don’t want to like. It’s hard not to see the parallels with Gosling and Chazelle here, with Chazelle taking La La Land from production company to production company since 2010, fighting against enforced changes to the characters to better suit audiences. It took the success of Whiplash to allow Chazelle the creative freedom to make the film he had always wanted without impediments. And the final product justifies his patience.

With 14 nominations at the Oscars La La Land is tied as the most nominated film in Academy history. It is not unlikely that there will be more than a couple of wins in that 14. While Gosling’s performance is more in line with what you can expect from him and his singing less impressive, Stone must be a hot favourite to take home best actress after displaying a performance of the level she has been hinting at for years. Critics have pointed to Mia as a less developed, more passive character or as “little more than a conduit for Sebastian’s feelings,” and whilst this is a valid point the ‘blandness’ of her character serves her purpose in the right ways.

She is the underdog of the story and she grounds the film, whereas Sebastian is larger than life and cocksure, Mia is a blank slate on which Stone places a timid vulnerability and a deep belief that she isn’t good enough. Where Mia purports deep down that she may not actually be a great actress, Sebastian knows he has the talent, he just doesn’t believe he has an audience. Sebastian’s struggle is one of means, he must make the money to fund his dreams, but Mia’s is a more personal journey, a string of failed auditions has demolished her self-worth and she is constantly being told that she is not wanted, Sebastian’s skill meanwhile, is more marketable, he’s just holding out for better. Her struggle is the more relatable to the viewer, Sebastian’s is more relatable to Damien Chazelle.

Chazelle’s love for jazz almost takes centre stage in the film, with Sebastian delivering an impassioned plea for the genre in one memorable scene. Chazelle is two for two for talking about how much he loves Charlie Parker in his films at this point. It’s more than likely that many people will prefer the jazz oriented side of the film to the Hollywood side, and if that is their take away then I’m sure the director will be pleased with himself.

La La Land does face the same trappings that every Hollywood centric award show darling does, in that it must avoid simply praising Hollywood. There is nothing that appeals more to Hollywood types than films about how creative people are heroes. It’s all a bit too masturbatory. The film does attempt to divert this by showing some of the skeevy underbelly of LA but this amounts to nothing more than a few rude casting directors and the odd traffic jam. The dark side is not pronounced enough to criticise the industry, but it is present, and this creates a little unevenness in the tone of the film. Its darkness is not really necessary as the film is on the whole a joyful affair based around a relationship drama.

Recommendation

All in all, the film is a noteworthy achievement that blends the fantastical elements of cinema with a burning desire for the magic of jazz and musical theatre. It’s a rare beast, something that is deeply personal to the filmmaker. The film is so out there that it should not have been funded, and the fact that it is also a box office success is as uplifting as it is surprising.

But it is clearly not a film for everyone, musical fans and cinephiles will be its biggest fans and the romance and star power is strong enough to bring around the slightly weary. Yet, much like Manchester by the Sea, it is not a film for the unsentimental. It’s wishy, it’s washy, it’s affecting, it’s visually stunning.

Manchester by the Sea is story telling at its best

The ultimate weepie speaks volumes in its silence

Awards season is always a dividing time, especially in the UK, where movies that have been lauded as ‘the best of 2016’ aren’t released until 2017 (Downsize’s review of 2016 will run from FEB-JAN). So, for a long time I have had to stew in the praise for films I haven’t been able to form an opinion on yet, meaning that any views on the film have been skewed and affected by media influence. For this reason, I attempted to approach Manchester by the Sea with a certain level of cynicism to counteract the excitement that had been conditioned into me. Not long after sitting down in the cinema all cynicism was pounded into a million little pieces as Kenneth Lonergan’s latest disarmed me with an unexpected humour. It quickly became clear that there was a reason why this film has been batting off praise from all angles.

Casey Affleck leads the charge as the emotionally unavailable Lee Chandler, who must move back home to Manchester, Massachusetts to become the sole guardian for his nephew Patrick after his brother Lee dies of a heart attack. Lee has trouble with the idea of moving back home due to his terrible associations he has with the city and he fails to be the emotional rock that the teenage Pat needs. You would not be blamed for believing that this film is nothing but award season pandering. Lee’s past is a mountain of melancholic misgivings that keeps revealing a higher peak as the clouds begin to dissipate.

Lee Chandler manages to be a frustrating character in every way while somehow still avoiding becoming a pain in the ass. Aware of the influence that this event will have on Pat, he remains oblivious of a satisfactory way to handle the situation, dragging the boy to funeral parlours, will readings and informing Pat that he must uproot his life and move to Quincy. Lee constantly asks other people what he needs to do to make things alright and his insecurities are consistent and clear throughout the viewing. He is a self-destructive man who does not trust himself to handle responsibility for another, and with good reason. He inspires sympathy in every bad decision because each mistake he makes is explainable and that is something that is difficult to instil into a character. Whilst this is mainly down to the writing of the character it cannot be understated how much Affleck’s mumbling vulnerability adds to this. Those who enjoyed his performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will know that Casey Affleck can do vulnerability like no one else.

But beneath all its weighty drama, death and sadness the film finds time to give space to the little things. Lucas Hedges allows Pat to have fun as a normal teenager despite all that is going on around him. Scenes of Pat attempting to get his end away with one of his girlfriends are played like they’re straight out of a screwball comedy. The dialogue maintains a witty back and forth in almost all scenes featuring Lee and Pat and even in moments of gut wrenching sadness the film still manages to find laughs. In particular, a scene involving a midnight snack and a freezer door.

The film is a masterclass in pacing and appropriateness, taking a back seat in the life of Lee it introduces us to his dissatisfaction with life through the goofy words of the clients he serves. It holds back on revealing the true nature of Lee’s relationship with Manchester until it knows its viewers are ready for it. Gut punch follows gut punch follows gut punch but the film never becomes a slog. It hops from the miserable to the comic in refreshingly organic ways. The beginning the film takes a more documentarian approach to Lee’s life, taking a back seat and allowing the actions to speak for themselves. While the dialogue stands out it is in the silence that Manchester by the Sea truly shines. When faced with bad news Lee does not say much, he contorts his face subtly and mumbles some contraction. Affleck acts as a real life Kuleshov effect, allowing viewers to experience the news fresh through Lee’s view rather than being told what to feel. Brevity is the true hero of the piece.

Recommendation

Not everyone wants to feel sad when they go to the cinema, and to those people I say that if there was one film to break that rule for it is this. The film is not a Requiem for a Dream style journey into despair more than it is a movie about moving on. There is something positive to find in every interaction. Always something beautiful to notice.

The film is about characters, it is not spectacle heavy but does have its moments of catharsis. it’s big on laughs and sustains a surprising level of entertainment throughout. It may not be a film that you will watch multiple time but it is a film that will have an effect on anyone who isn’t a miserable cynic on a molecular level. I am trying and failing to come up with criticisms of Manchester by the Sea.