Life wasn’t what I expected, but I still got a kick out of it

Life is tough: one moment you’re hanging round with Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal, the next thing you know you’re being constricted by a tentacle monster and deprived of oxygen

Trailers are an ever changing thing, they’ve gained a reputation in modern times of giving away too much of the story. They so often follow the same beats set to the same musical cues and can mislead the public into thinking a film is something it isn’t.  This is not the case with Life, a sci-fi survival thriller marketed as a clone of Alien which plays out like a clone of Alien. I saw two trailers for Life in the cinema, one which was made it look like the most generic sci fi movie ever made and another which was simply a clip taken directly from near the beginning of the film. Never before have I seen two trailers for the same film with such a chasm in quality. Having seen the generic trailer first, my expectations for Life were set extremely low.

Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. The premise behind Life is simple; Astronauts aboard the International Space Station discover microbial alien life, the organism grows until it is big enough to kill people, and then it kills people. It’s a classic horror movie set aboard the ISS, nothing special about the story, it’s how the story is told that makes the difference.

Plot-wise the film is a pretty standard outing, it progresses in a slow pace to begin with, focusing on the science and daily work of the astronauts. It allows for basic character building before going gung-ho on the violent rampage. The characters are likeable enough for you to not want them to die, but not sympathetic enough to not warrant a cheer when they are slaughtered by a tentacle monster.

Visually it is all very bland, the space station is as cookie cutter as sci fi design can get and the cinematography is all very forgettable. The first sequence of the movie is one long shot, reminiscent of Gravity, the camera bobs and weaves in the zero-g, it seems to promise that the film will be trying to have fun with the camera. However, it amounts to nothing other than a few upside-down shots and canted angles.

The overuse of CG is rife in this film, the monster is constantly shown front and centre and in full light, which highlights its seamless skin textures and unrealistic contact with the environment. Its forgivable and not something I take gripe with because the monster is for the most part well designed and creepy. But it’s hard to shake the thought that this film is likely going to look like dated trash in five years.

An issue that Life faces is that there are no real rules to dictate the behaviour of the monster, it is clearly stated in Alien and Aliens that the Xenomorphs are afraid of fire, whereas the monster in this film is pretty much invincible until the plot dictates that it shouldn’t be. But my biggest problem is that there is little to no mystique surrounding the monster, in Alien the Xenomorph stays interesting because it creeps in the shadows, it is shown piece by piece throughout the movie. A claw here, a tail there, just out of frame, this breeds a level of tension and anticipation that Life fails to reach. It doesn’t make you crave the next sighting because you have seen it all before, every inch. You’ve literally seen it under a microscope, the film attempts to keep it interesting by changing the design of the monster as it grows, but it amounts to nothing more than more CGI tendrils and the eventual addition of a pretty laughable face.

The only thing to look forward to in Life is how the next kill is going to happen. Luckily the film manages to pull out some fantastically sadistic monster movie murders. Some well-paced, terrifying ideas are put into practice and realised in memorable ways, it saves the movie even if it does run out of ideas towards the end.

Recommendation

I could keep discussing this film in its minutia but in all honesty, it doesn’t really matter. The film is average Hollywood movie making on almost every level, it’s cinematography is uninteresting but competent, its lighting is balanced, clear and non-dramatic. The soundtrack is an assault of WAAHs and its characters are passable. What the film does offer is a crisp, clean version of the dirty, dingy Alien, chopped and changed enough to still feel new and different. The story takes some exciting turns and ends with an interesting message.

There is enough to take home with you after viewing Life. Within the film are a series of sparse moments that are vividly memorable and cinematic. It has enough interesting ideas to sustain a solid sci fi movie. It is not one of the best movies you will ever see but it is undoubtedly enjoyable.

Recut Trailers: The Neon Demon

Due to a lack of interesting releases this week and some personal reasons there has been no review written for this week.

A fresh review should be coming soon, but until that time here is a recut trailer for The Neon Demon. 

The video was more a personal exercise rather than being made for the site but I’m going to put it up here anyway. Clearly it is not good marketing to recut the trailer to a film that no one saw to look like a film no one would want to see, but there you go, it’s done now.

It was a serious challenge to recut the most stylish and interesting film of 2016 to look like generic crap and my editing skills are pretty much in their infancy. Any constructive criticism is more than welcome and some subscriptions to the channel would not go amiss as more videos are planned for downsize on YouTube.

Thanks for everyone who reads these things x

Get Out exploits horror tropes to tell an original story

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut balances mystery, humour and horror

Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key have put some serious man hours into their comedy careers over the past decade. Following the success of sketch show Key and Peele on Comedy Central the duo became highly in demand. They found guest acting roles in the likes of Bob’s Burgers, Rick and Morty and even the TV adaptation of Fargo. Key has since focused on his acting career while Jordan Peele, on the other hand, has concentrated more on behind the scenes roles. He has collected more writing credits, including the pair’s 2016 buddy comedy Keanu, a pretty decent venture that served mainly as a platform for the two to put their fantastic chemistry on screen.

Jordan Peele does, therefore have writing experience for feature films, what he did not have before making Get Out, however, is directing experience. And what comes from Get Out is some pretty stellar directing. The film’s plot is best left discovered for yourself, essentially it is the story of a black man meeting his white girlfriend’s rich parents at a family get together in the countryside. Chris Washington has reservations about he will be treated over the weekend, he is played by Daniel Kaluuya, who might be recognised from UK TV roles like Black Mirror or Psychoville.

The plot moves forward with almost no diversions or subplots, there is a central premise and mystery in the film and the script serves solely to explore that. It is a strength of the horror genre that it can afford this tunnel vision like approach to filmmaking, it makes for pleasant, to the point viewing.

Get Out has undercurrents of real life racism but they are so well melded with the detached unreal racism on the screen that it never feels too heavy handed. True, most dialogue of the film is, to an extent, open to interpretation and serving another purpose but it benefits greatly working as a story first and foremost. It follows story beats, action cues, Chekhov’s guns and plot twists; it is not merely a vehicle for racial discourse and could be enjoyed in a social vacuum. It does however add another layer of enjoyment to the film to look at it through the eye of a first-time black director with an interest in these issues.

Yet Get Out impresses with its pacing, scenes are constructed in such a concise way, to create tension and tell the story through a great mix of visuals and sound design. The first scene of Chris and therapist Missy being a particularly strong example of this. The film eases the viewers into what it calls ‘a heightened sense of suggestibility’ becoming almost hypnotic with its ebb and flow.

Like with many horror films it takes place in few locations but manages to only feel claustrophobic when it needs to be. The small cast of speaking characters are given sufficient screen time to establish themselves and the waves of extras are effectively defined by one catchall description from Milly early on in the film “it’s a very white crowd.”

The film suffers at some points from overexplaining itself and some might think that it goes a bit too far into its own ridiculousness but I thought it appropriate considering the satirical element. Certain scenes featuring the comedic relief (LilRel Howery) can seem out of place but these are cancelled out by the charisma of his performance; these are all small nit-picks to what is a highly competent, greatly crafted flick. While I do understand the need for the budget to come from somewhere in such a small film, the level of Windows product placement is slightly off putting, shots linger on Lumia screens or bing searches a little too long that it did distract for a while.

However, I am looking for criticisms in the film because there really aren’t many to make, the film is a fantastically crafted, amusing journey into a well realised world with an interesting mythology. It takes its horror cues from its visuals, its outsider status and from a surreal warped view of humanity best likened to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Like last week’s review The VVitch, it avoids cheap tricks of most other Blumhouse pictures in favour of a more cerebral horror.

Recommendation

The film is a tight package, tied up with a neat little bow, it tells a small-scale story that hints at larger implications, it ends when it is done with the premise and resolves all possible loose ends. It is a pleasure to watch, prolonged stretches of tension and mystery are broken up with lightly comedic dialogue and a satirical remove that keeps everything light and breezy despite the subject matter.

 

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