FILM REVIEW: Ghostbusters

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For all the hype and hope, all the fury and anger, Ghostbusters was always going to be just a movie. It’s a shame then that it’s not a very good movie. Which is frustrating, as it manages to get so many of the difficult things right that a blockbuster franchise reboot entails, but then messes up the simple stuff.

Simply put, Ghostbusters might be the most carelessly assembled tentpole release in recent memory. Okay, except Batman vs Superman (there’s nothing here as incoherent as that film at its clunky worst), and perhaps if the film was snappier and shorter (not that it ever dragged), the problems wouldn’t be so noticeable, but Ghostbusters is marred by sloppy editing at every turn. It’s not just nitpicking continuity errors, but scenes feel so obviously pieced together from a mishmash of takes, I found it hard settling into a decent groove without something jolting me out of the experience again. Dialogue cuts off abruptly (showing the cracks of unsuccessful riffing), little is done to make the off-screen action feel like it flows concurrently with what is happening on-screen (one moment, Patty is lying on the floor, the next she’s upright with a ghost perched on their shoulders), and there is no sense of time and space (two defenestrations take place through the same window, yet this is never commented on). It feels like the events of the film could be over the course of a few days, but Holtzmann somehow manages to create all this kit, retool all these devices and pimp their ride seemingly at the same time she is out and about with the rest of the team. At one point, Erin is split up from the group only to rejoin them at a crucial moment because…reasons?

Sorry to get all nitpicky. But co-writer/director Paul Feig also fails to get a handle on the big set-pieces. The ghosts and special effects looked decent, if lacking in imagination, but the crowd scenes lack atmosphere – the big heavy metal concert looks like all the oxygen has been sucked out of it – cheap-looking sets and unconvincing backdrops don’t help either. All this wouldn’t matter so much if the film was funny – and I guess it is, sorta? Its fun, generally, and there were a few good laughs, but Ghostbusters is stuffed with too many jokes that fall flat, lost in mumbly, improvy, overtalking, a register that doesn’t quite work with the rest of the film. I kept on thinking “Okay, that’s weird” fairly often, like a comic beat had been missed, or something in the script just didn’t translate to screen and then failed again in the editing room but stuck around anyway. And despite stealing pretty much every scene, I am still not sure if I really understand Chris Hemsworth’s part in all this. It’s a great performance, and I understand it’s a gender flip on the idea of the dumb but sweet natured bimbo who’s breezed through life on looks alone, but Kevin is a special kind of surreal stupidity (we’re talking beyond even Dougal from Father Ted). It’s nice that the jokes are spread around but it leaves the humour feeling imbalanced. You need the principal characters to bounce off someone that represents some semblance of reality, but here every supporting character is an oddball. Oh, and I still have an issue with the internet appearing prominently in films (yeah, it’s a vital part of all our lives, but any references to Twitter and Amazon and YouTube just makes me cringe – acknowledging the manbabies that have plagued the internet since the film’s announcement works against it).

But for all my petty gripes (easy to let slide on their own, but the cumulative effect becomes too much to bear), Ghostbusters certainly has its pleasures. And as mentioned before, these are mainly the elements that were harder to pull off, so credit for the creative team and cast is still due. I liked all the main characters and the dynamic they had with each other and how the team comes together. The performances from Wiig and McCarthy add a touching emotional element, and although McKinnon is largely played as an inconsistent bag of quirks, there’s enough about her unphased perma-grin that delights. And Jones for the most part sidesteps lazy “Aw hell naw” sassitude with a winning positivity and energy. The overarching plot is fine, if not necessarily the fuzzy motivations and glossed over know-how, using the vague skeleton of the original film but making everything else very much its own. Ghostbusters is at its best when its doing its own thing; affectionate cameos and references abound, some subtle and neat, others distracting or horribly dated (note: The Obsbournes ended over a decade ago).

And in that way, I hope for a sequel. And I am glad they made THIS Ghostbusters film. With the team in place and the pressure off, another Ghostbusters outing completely divorced from its predecessor would be enticing (hopefully the final post-credits tag is just a corny wink than a statement of intent). But maybe next time round, Feig should pass the torch on to a writer-director who can mix comedy, action and horror and make it work. Are Edgar Wright or Joe Cornish available – or am I being too obvious?

2015: Films of the Year

Here are ten films I saw in 2015 that I liked a lot with some comments too (some lazily culled and edited from earlier reviews), with some fairly arbitrary ranking (I could probably swap around the top five each day). Given how film release schedules work (or don’t in one particular instance) and festival screenings and the like, it’s somewhat fluid what constitutes a 2015 film (a couple of international releases date from 2013 and 2014, one other film here isn’t out in the UK until March), but if you want the full context of my tastes and habits to avoid a “Where’s [BLANK]?”-athon, I’ve got a Letterboxd account now, which I plan to make full use of in the New Year. So now you can judge everything I watch or do not watch! Enough preamble, on with the list!

 

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1. The Look of Silence

A companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, this time telling the story of the Indonesia genocide from the point of the view of the victims, rather than the perpetrators. Here, an optician whose brother was murdered before he was even born confronts those responsible, but this is far more complex than a straightforward revenge story.  In fact, while this may be a more accessible work than The Act of Killing in many respects, it is even more essential. Playing something like a documentary version of Dead Man’s Shoes, it’s chilling, eye-opening and powerful, and carries with it, in its main subject and his family, an emotionally engaging centre through the horror.

2. The Lobster

Though absurd in its set-up and often very funny, The Lobster has a lot to say about our own reality, namely love and relationships, and the weird rituals, mechanics and quirks that make no sense taken out of context and viewed dispassionately – even if there is something strangely moving about the central character’s own quest for companionship. Though this is his first film in the English language, Yorgos Lanthimos’ dry deliberate tone and stilted dialogue fits well with the international cast.  It’s weird, sad, dark and hilarious, reminiscent of Chris Morris’ Jam if anything, and one of the best films of the year.

3. It Follows

There is so much about David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows to talk about, it’s hard to know where to begin (I go into more detail here). For all the talent taking place on screen and off (especially when it comes to its score and cinematography), a recommendation would be hard to justify through style alone, but It Follows’ substance runs deep. It feels timeless yet current, it presents a gimmick and vague set of rules but allows an uncertainty and ambiguity to the premise to unsettle you further, and it plays on multiple themes explicitly but doesn’t vocalise them in a way to make them seem so heavy-handed. A trashier version of the film, played more for yuks and scares, could exist somewhere – and would probably be very entertaining – but as it stands, It Follows feels fully-formed and left me much impressed.

4. Carol

Carol is a simple story – in the best possible sense – impeccably performed and elegantly told. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara put in their very best work, even given their tip-top standards, and you can almost smell the smoke and perfume pouring off the screen. Every glance feels electric, every touch momentous, and every creative detail perfectly judged.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road

There were arguably better films released this year, but Mad Max: Fury Road was the talking-point movie of 2015, ten tonnes of unfiltered crazy from a singular vision in George Miller, age having done nothing to dull his sensibilities. As blockbusters get baggier and bleed into each other through ‘cinematic universes’, this is world-building done right, with exposition that cuts to the chase, characters that speak through their actions, story that is inferred without sacrificing pace. Instantly iconic.

 

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6. Force Majeure

A family skiing holiday is punctured by a sudden incident and a split-second decision that has deep personal ramifications. Sounds like a thriller, yet Ruben Östlund’s hilarious comic tale manages to create simmering tension while maintaining an excruciatingly funny vein of humour. If you can bear the cringe-inducing awkwardness of it all, Force Majeure is a biting and witty dissection of the roles and responsibilities of men and women in their social and domestic relationships. The great expanse of the Alps has never felt so claustrophobic.

7. Snowpiercer

Included here as something of a protest vote, Snowpiercer remains without a UK release due to meddlings from the Weinstein Company. A shame, as it means audiences here have been denied a chance to see another fine film from Korean master director Bong Joon Ho (his first – mainly – in the English language) on the big screen. In spite of this, Snowpiercer is a compelling addition to the future dystopia social satire sub-genre, charting an uprising aboard an intercontinental train perpetually travelling through a post-apocalyptic Earth turned icy wasteland. As with Bong’s earlier work, it can smartly juggle grim reality and sudden violence with dark humour and emotional weight, and a great cast commit themselves to the outlandish premise (Tilda Swinton particularly memorable as a Roald Dahl-esque villain). Absolutely worth seeking out.

8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Big space movies are back. Gravity, Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, even Prometheus has something to answer for (well, a lot of things to answer for). Ridley Scott’s attempt this year to make an all-together decent off-world offering was very close to finding its way into my top ten – the hugely enjoyable The Martian – but Star Wars: The Force Awakens managed to not only course-correct a franchise that had lost its sheen, but do so in such an entertaining fashion. And it’s not just an exercise in nostalgia. In fact, I was having such a good time with its trio of new characters (plus Ball Droid), it was a bit of a disappointment when Han and Chewie show up. The Internet can nitpick away at its flaws; JJ Abrams for all his success at nailing the tricky stuff does have a habit of fumbling story and speeding through leaps of logic (which makes the next instalments and spin-offs more exciting now the groundwork is out of the way). But fewer better times were had at the cinema this year.

9. Enemy

While Sicario has garnered justifiable praise, it’s Dennis Villeneuve’s previous film (released in the UK on 2nd January 2015, so just sneaking in here) that left the greater impression. Enemy is an engrossing head-scratcher that lingers long after watching, not just as you unpick the plot but with the weird sense of dread that seeps through it. Almost a year after watching it, there’s still stuff in here I’ve yet to shake off. Jake Gyllenhaal is just as good here as in Nightcrawler (though played very differently), and if Villeneuve can combine the atmosphere and paranoia of Enemy with the tension and action of Sicario, then his forthcoming Blade Runner sequel may shift from ‘approach with caution’ to ‘very exciting indeed’.

10. Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman’s latest work is naturally as Kaufman-esque, for want of a better word, as previous favourites, witty and strange and emotionally engaging. But in teaming up with co-director Duke Johnson, together they have also crafted a quite remarkable animation to boot. The use of animation serves many functions here, especially as our lead character, a relatable but crucially not necessarily likeable writer (played by David Thewlis) is surrounded by a sea of identical faces, be it man, woman or child, all voiced by Tom Noonan. To describe what Anomalisa actually is would perhaps reveal too much as the story itself is slim and contained, but the directions it takes and the choices it makes offer much to take away for further thought and reflection. For any fans of his previous films, it is essential viewing.

 

And for making it this far – a reward! Here’s my annual Spotify playlist of favourite pieces of scores and soundtracks from 2015. Stream below or click here to open separately.

 

LFF 2015 Wrap-Up: The Lobster, The Assassin, Anomalisa, The Boy and The Beast

The 2015 BFI London Film Festival has long been and gone, but I’ve finally gotten round to doing a quick wrap-up of all the films I saw. Admittedly, I only managed to see four out of a line-up of hundreds but they are all worth talking about, and three of them are waiting to be released in the UK.

The Lobster

THE LOBSTER

My most anticipated film of the festival (and also the one that was released right after its LFF screenings) also ended up being my favourite. Billed as an unconventional love story from Dogtooth and Alps director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster depicts a world in which singletons are taken to a remote hotel where they must find a partner within 45 days or face being turned into an animal. Though absurd in its set-up and often very funny, like the best sci-fi (or alternate near-future semi-dystopia or wherever/whenever the setting might be), it has a lot to say about our own reality, namely love and relationships, and the weird rituals, mechanics and quirks that make no sense taken out of context and viewed dispassionately – even if there is something strangely moving about the central character’s own quest for companionship. Though his first film in the English language, Lanthimos’ dry deliberate tone and stilted dialogue fits well with the international cast, lead Colin Farrell especially good playing our sadsack ‘hero’. It’s weird, sad, dark and hilarious, reminiscent of Chris Morris’ Jam if anything, and one of the best films of the year.

The Assassin

THE ASSASSIN

Winner of the Best Director prize for Hou Hsiao-Hsien at the Cannes Film Festival and topping Sight and Sound’s Critics Poll as the best film of 2015, The Assassin comes already heavily garlanded. But it’s a case of cinematic Emperor’s New Clothes if there ever was one. Critics may fool you with words like transfixing, captivating, or imaginative to describe the film. But what they really mean is that it is empty, dull and plays around with its aspect ratio a bit. It’s possible to have a beautiful film that also manages to captivate with its story and character, but The Assassin is deliberately vague on both counts for seemingly no reason other than perhaps to make snobby arthouse audiences feel like they are watching a proper film rather than something as trifling as a simple ‘martial arts movie’. And what action is here is incredibly brief, a rush of fast edits that amount to very little, simply there to punctuate the tedium and keep you from dropping off to sleep. The bulk of the film involves people in pretty clothes walking into nicely decorated rooms and telling other people what is happening, who then sit there and think about it for a bit, and then onto the next scene. And yes, there are some rather gorgeous shots, but nothing more breath-taking than any desktop backgrounds that come pre-loaded onto a new laptop. If you don’t find yourself checking your watch repeatedly throughout, you’re either lying or not wearing a watch.

Anomalisa

ANOMALISA

The LFF Surprise Film is always a hot ticket and a bit of a treat (though the list of past entries is an eclectic bunch all right). And out of all the potential offerings, Anomalisa was the one I hoped for after hearing great things coming out of its other festival appearances. And lo and behold, so it was. Charlie Kaufman’s latest work is naturally as Kaufman-esque, for want of a better word, as previous favourites, witty and strange and emotionally engaging. But in teaming up with co-director Duke Johnson, together they have also crafted a quite remarkable animation to boot. And it’s not just a gimmick, rather the animation serves many functions, story, character and humour, creating a distancing effect while simultaneously making you invest more as you find humanity in something not quite real without a living, breathing human being entering the picture and spoiling everything, much as with Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such A Beautiful Day, for example, makes you care deeply for a stick man. Here though the 3D printed models offer greater detail but also a deliberate sense of the uncanny, especially as our lead character, a relatable but crucially not necessarily likeable writer (played by David Thewlis) is surrounded by a sea of identical faces, be it man, woman or child, all voiced by Tom Noonan. To describe what Anomalisa actually is would perhaps reveal too much as the story itself is slim and contained (not unlike The Lobster, set largely in the confines of a hotel, the unnatural atmosphere of which Anomalisa perfectly captures), but the directions it takes and the choices it makes offer much to take away for further thought and reflection. And yet, how it ranks amongst the likes of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche New York is hard to say. Upon initial viewing, it didn’t quite make the same impact on my heart, gut and mind as those films. I liked it a lot, but perhaps the second time, when its aims are clearer, it will connect more. Still, for any fans of his previous films, it is essential viewing.

The Boy and The Beast

THE BOY AND THE BEAST

With The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children, Mamoru Hosoda has become maybe the best working anime director currently in the business. His latest is as thrilling and beautiful on a technical and emotional level as one has come to expect, though suffers from a few too many standard anime narrative conventions and character beats to be considered one of his best. A young street urchin finds a passage to a world of anthropomorphised animal creatures and is taken under the wing of a grumpy bear who reluctantly decides to train him as an apprentice so that he then may challenge for rule of the domain. There is an enjoyable antagonism between the two; even when there is the risk of their relationship sliding into sentimentality, the film holds off from letting them become too fond of one another, so when those emotional payoffs come, it feels earned and genuine. And it means you get more entertaining scenes of them getting on each other’s nerves. It does however lose its way during the inevitable segment in which they go their separate ways, a return to the human world and a forced love-interest perhaps adding an extra dimension to the characters but offering very little that’s engaging. It adds a fair chunk to the run time too, bringing a lively buoyant fantasy up to that point to a halt. But for the most part, whether through its entertaining mismatched-buddy comedy or its spectacular action set-pieces, The Boy and the Beast still has much to offer.

Burning Wet Hot American Meatballs: Summer Camps on Screen

A setting as much a part of the American teen movie fabric as the drunk and disorderly road trip, the spring break vacation, the homecoming prom, and the “big football game”, the summer camp movie is a subgenre of a subgenre that attempts to capture an adolescent experience that remains just as strange and foreign to me as the other aforementioned staples. It always struck me as a bit peculiar that families would happily ship off their kids for weeks on end into a pseudo-military system, particularly in a country without a particularly strong boarding school tradition, a wide range of ages all awkwardly stuck together. Moreover, I was always uncomfortable about how it all seemed to be indulging in a spot of mildly offensive cultural appropriation, a weird attempt to get back to nature via Native American cliché, something effectively skewered in to my mind the best summer camp movie, and one of my absolute favourite comedies, Addams Family Values. But as a sub-subgenre, you can see the appeal, both as film-maker and audience. They’re clearly pretty cheap to make (with picturesque locations readily available out of season) but they also offer plenty of opportunities for ‘hijinks’ as well as an excuse for lots of young flesh on display – y’know, something for daddy.

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And so, with summer having well and truly arrived, I decided it was an appropriate time to stack up a triple of bill of summer camp cinema I’d not seen before, starting with Meatballs. A low-budget Canadian comedy that went on to be a huge hit (leading to three barely-to-completely-not-related sequels), it marked the first starring role for Bill Murray, and with Ivan Reitman directing and Harold Ramis co-writing, it’s effectively a dry-run for Stripes, and in many ways is the quintessential summer camp movie. A bunch of stereotypes (the fat character eats a lot of food, the dorky one is literally called ‘Spaz’) get into various loosely-connected shenanigans and try to triumph over a rival summer camp, and that’s about it. There’s a lot of sub-par slapstick. There are constant grating songs. There’s an unsurprising amount of offensive perving. Most of all, it’s just plain annoying. The saving grace is Murray as camp counsellor Tripper, as you would expect, who has already perfected his shtick at this early stage, and his natural charm shines through. And Kate Lynch as Roxanne has a bit more to her than you might expect a romantic interest in a film of this type to be. But any fun is hampered by a weird sentimental plot involving Tripper befriending shy camper Rudy (Chris Makepeace), which is initially kind of touching, but not even Murray can cut through the treacle, which feels at odds with the half-arsed bawdiness elsewhere, resulting in a film presumably designed for everyone but appealing for no-one (box office success be damned). Spare yourself the headache-in-waiting.

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If there’s one film then that could perhaps offer a more entertaining take on the formula, it would be cult classic Wet Hot American Summer. With a prequel series forthcoming on Netflix reuniting its starry cast (plus some extra famous types for added thrills), David Wain and Michael Showalter’s movie is an affectionate parody of the likes of Meatballs, set on the last day of camp in the summer of 1981 as actors playing far younger than they could ever realistically pass for (itself a clever take on teen movie casting, even more pronounced with the prequel) desperately try to hook up with each other before everyone parts ways for the year. Unfortunately, despite my liking the performers, the film itself is sorely lacking in hilarity. Spoofs are prone more than anything to be hit-and-miss with their gags, trying to get by through quantity if not quality, but there really aren’t that many jokes here at all. Scenes coast by without a titter and performances fall flat, resulting in an anaemic, inconsequential series of sketches, with a script that feels like it was written in a day. It barely attempts to engage with the period and setting beyond superficial details, with its few laughs (mainly from Christopher Meloni’s Gene and Paul Rudd’s goofy ineffectual bad boy Andy) largely disconnected from the subgenre its mocking, so it seems like a pointless exercise, more so when its squandering such fertile ground for comic potential (hopefully something the series will do more with, at least judging by the trailer that offers more laughs in two-and-a-half minutes than this managed over plus 90). I imagine it benefits from repeated viewing, and that it did the rounds extensively on the college circuit, hence the clamouring for a follow-up, but Wain’s They Came Together does a far better job playing with its targets while being very funny too. Disappointing.

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My final film of the three was a dip into a separate but significant subgenre with a summer camp setting, that of the summer camp horror flick. The Burning may have the whiff of a Friday the 13th rip-off and so has subsequently found it hard to escape its forebear’s shadow, and doesn’t have the what-the-fuckery notoriety of Sleepaway Camp, but it is still significant for its cast and crew. Co-written by Bob Weinstein and produced by Harvey Weinstein, The Burning was a very early Miramax film production (and would be released in the UK by Handmade Films and end up a ‘video nasty’), with music from prog keyboardist Rick Wakeman of Yes, and Tom Savini expanding upon his practical effects work from Friday the 13th. And in their first starring roles, we are introduced to future Oscar winners Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens (no, not for his performance in Short Circuit 2, but his producing, specifically on documentary The Cove), plus George Costanza himself Jason Alexander, playing a kinda cool party guy in the Seth Rogen mould . But more than all that, it might actually be better than Friday the 13th itself.

Inspired by the Cropsy legend, a cantankerous caretaker is accidentally burned alive by angry campers when a prank goes wrong, and years later seeks bloody revenge with the aid of a pair of garden shears. It’s a simple set-up, but The Burning takes time with its characters too, giving them if not three dimensions, than at least two and a half, as they go about the standard summer camp activities, oblivious to the killer in their midst. The dialogue and relationships between them feel natural, even if they fall into some pitfalls of stupidity as is to be expected, and there’s enough distinct about them to make you care a little more for them when they variously get sliced, chopped and stabbed. And it doesn’t just succeed through Savini’s impressive gore and make-up, but its scares and jumps (largely taking place in the day time) are well deployed and feel earned. In fact, I dug it quite a bit, and the Hysteria Lives website offers a good overview of the film’s making, release and legacy.

Are there any other must-see summer camp movies out there? Let me know!

Triple Feature of Terror!: The Babadook, The Innkeepers, and It Follows

For a time, horror was my default genre of choice, but recently my interest has fallen somewhat by the wayside, so it was a nice coincidence that in the past couple of weeks I watched three contemporary examples that offered modern and/or alternative takes on familiar tropes. They’re not exactly linked in any way, but they rekindled my passion for spooky movies.

The Babadook

The most acclaimed horror film of last year, The Babadook, certainly warrants its acclaim and attention, though it is its emotional impact that has garnered most praise, and rightly so. As a mother struggling with her increasingly disruptive and seemingly disturbed son (Noah Wiseman) and burdened with grief following the tragic death of her husband, Essie Davis gives a superb performance, believable and raw in the face of unexplained events, tied to a fiendish character from a mysterious pop-up picture book, that push her to breaking point. You can certainly see how We Need To Talk About Kevin has been raised as an interesting parallel. Debut feature director and writer Jennifer Kent succeeds in conjuring an atmosphere thick with dread, playing with shadows and sound in a house designed to discomfort, and Mister Babadook himself feels like a boogeyman for the ages. Yet, the film itself is unlikely to cause much in the way of sleepless nights – my strongest reaction came when Daniel Henshall appeared in a supporting role, though that says more about how much Snowtown has stuck with me than anything (the director of which – Justin Kurzel – is married to Babadook’s Davis, fact fans). But the pervading sense of despair and melancholy is what lingers longest, setting it apart from the other monsters-in-my-closest fair. As strong a calling card as you’re likely to find.

While James Wan, Leigh Whannell, Oren Peli, Jason Blum, Scott Derrickson et al have been the key figures responsible for shaping the landscape of American horror at the box office (with the likes of Saw, Insidious, Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring, Sinister, etc. to their names), another close-knit group of writers/directors/producers/actors have been bubbling away just beneath, carving out their own identity. Often sharing DNA with ‘mumblecore’ movies (to the extent the term ‘mumblegore’ is a thing), the likes of Adam Wingard, Ti West and Joe Swanberg have been knocking out low-budget horror films together (though in Swanberg’s case more indie dramas than anything) with varying results, though still often interesting and efficiently put together. They all contributed to found-footage anthology V/H/S, Wingard directed West and Swanberg in You’re Next, West directed Swanberg in The Sacrament…you get the picture.

The Innkeepers

But it is West’s The Innkeepers from 2011 up for discussion today, with Sara Paxton and Pat Healy (who would more recently appear again together in the grimly comic Cheap Thrills) as staff in a soon-to-close hotel, waiting out their time spooking themselves silly by investigating the supposedly haunted establishment’s dark past and trying to record paranormal activity. But of course it’s all fun and games until things start to get really freaky.

Both Healy and especially Paxton excel in their roles which, while not comic, are imbued with a natural sense of humour and well-observed character traits. Their dialogue exchanges are what makes The Innkeepers feel different and enjoyable and the characters feel like living, breathing people rather than simple slasher-fodder or audience ciphers (to give you an idea of how it’s pitched, there’s even a Lena Dunham cameo). But at the same time, as nice as these moments are, they slow the pace of the story. Given the things that go bump in the night aren’t anything especially new, even if they are effective, the film starts to drag before it really gets going, failing to really satisfy either the ‘mumble’ or ‘gore’ camps, or meld the two together. Which is a shame, as there are still very good elements of both here, but had the whole film been leaner and snappier, it would be easier to recommend.

Finally, my pick of the three is a new release, the much talked-about It Follows. As with the best of its kind, it is reverential and referential, but offers a new twist or take on established horror formulae. In this case, a sexual encounter leaves Jay (Maika Monroe, last seen in Wingard’s The Guest) with an apparent curse in which she is pursued by an unknown entity that takes the form of different people, strangers and familiars alike, but only she can see what’s coming after her. And she must pass it on if she is to survive.

It Follows

From the set-up to the execution, there are clear antecedents. The curse itself shares similarities with the tape from Ring, the unseen predator (and the presence of swimming pools) recalls Cat People, and the sex = life/death motif runs deep throughout so much of the genre it’s hard to know where to start. But It Follows is knowing enough to play with these influences, indulging them some times and subverting them others, without winking to camera.

Perhaps the most obvious influence is John Carpenter’s Halloween, primarily in its cinematography and music. Mike Gioulakis is responsible for the former, beautifully framing and filling each shot such that it feels like a widescreen movie with a capital WIDE. It also plays with perspective, as you are sometimes viewing the action through Jay’s P.O.V. but not always (like the phantasmagorical gimmickry of William Castle’s 13 Ghosts), but mostly the camera feels removed, dispassionate, even voyeuristic, forcing you to scan the margins for when a slowly walking presence might emerge to track down Jay. Anything that can make scenes set in broad daylight unnerving is doing something right. And with Rich Vreeland aka Disasterpeace (probably best known for the soundtrack to twisty platform-puzzle game Fez) providing a gorgeous, haunting, squelchy synth score, it feels both like a clear harking back to the late 70s/early 80s, while also feeling strangely timeless.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell knows his horror onions and is clearly technically accomplished, but he also does a fine job at making his teenage characters sound and behave like teenagers. The cast handle the dialogue and emotional beats in a way that feels authentic, and far removed from your typical scream teens, but Mitchell also understands a balance needs to be struck, and this is a more successful melding of indie sensibilities and spooky goings-on than The Innkeepers. With its stripped back approach, it may disappoint audiences more used to the ‘boo-scared-ya’ blockbusters. And there’s a case to be made that it is the least out-and-out scary of the three. But It Follows is certainly the one that has lingered around in my mind the longest and the one I feel I will return to most often.

 

2014: Films of the Year

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IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER. SCROLL DOWN FOR A SPOTIFY PLAYLIST OF FAVOURITE SONGS AND SCORES FROM FILM AND TV OF 2014, OR CLICK HERE TO OPEN!

Boyhood

The method of its creation has much been talked about, but the real achievement of Boyhood is that the result is so impressively cohesive. Though Boyhood may be the title and it is told through the eyes of Ellar Coltrane’s youth, it’s as much about the changing lives of Ethan Hawke as the father and especially Patricia Arquette as the mother. I was constantly impressed with the vintage detail, only to remember that of course it was filmed at the time, hence its accuracy. It’s true that different people will take different things from it, as you get out what you put in, but Richard Linklater’s trick is to create a sense of memory, documenting the smaller moments that stay with you as much as the big ones. Funny, touching and engrossing.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson at his most whimsical and artificial, but also at his funniest, making it something of a surprise box office success, though richly deserved. A game cast filled with many Anderson regulars and welcome newcomers delights, but it is Ralph Fiennes in a rare comic leading turn who is the film’s crowning glory and will no doubt be a performance to return to for years to come.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Me and Marvel don’t exactly have the greatest track record. Whereas seemingly everyone else has been won over by their superhero formula, none of their output, not even The Avengers or this year’s well-received Captain America: The Winter Soldier, would trouble more than a three star grade from yours truly. That was until Guardians of the Galaxy, that had all the colour, fun, and character that seems to be missing from most non-animated blockbusters of today and I even went to see it twice. Four stars.

The Guest

Adam Wingard builds on the black comic excess of You’re Next with a throwback to 80’s style thrillers and chillers, indebted to the works of John Carpenter for instance, but also working as a smart inversion, or even subversion, of the handsome but dangerous loner of Ryan Gosling in Drive. Dan Stevens as the titular Guest delivers some amazing moments of non-verbal acting, and the film’s weird energy and humour had me grinning throughout.

Her

Spike Jonze remains one of the most interesting and visionary directors around, but with an Academy Award for best original screenplay here too, it felt like recognition for how his craft goes beyond simply the visual and technical. That being said, the world of Her is brilliantly realised, a beautiful, clear and believable near-future in terms of its style and fashion. And as far as love stories between humans and inanimate objects go (which is quite a developed subgenre), it feels genuine. A lovely and imaginative work.

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The Lego Movie

The third Chris Pratt movie to make my list (great job!), The Lego Movie exceeded all expectations, thanks to directing team Christopher Miller and Phil Lord. Having proved their talent with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street (and the mildly disappointing 22 Jump Street released later in the year), Lord and Miller’s manic meta humour was in no way diluted, with franchise cameos galore, while reminding us all why we love Lego so much. Paddington came close, but this was the family film of the year.

Moebius

Though still trying to maintain my interest in Asian cinema, my viewing was somewhat scattershot this year, relying primarily on festival screenings. Of those Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe and Testuya Nakashima’s The World of Kanako offered some great moments but issues aplenty. Ryota Nakano’s Capturing Dad was dry, well-observed and (unlike most Japanese cinema nowadays) short and to the point. The Raid 2 improved upon the well-regarded original, even if I wasn’t much of a fan, by opening the story out and expanding the variety of ways people could get awfully hurt, and there was a solid remake of Unforgiven from Lee Sang-il.

However, it was Kim Ki-Duk’s Moebius that proved most memorable. It plays like a particularly violent Greek tragedy, as an already dysfunctional family is torn apart by a husband’s infidelity and a wife’s horrific act against their son. And that’s just the starting point. Uncomfortable viewing certainly, but there is a grim comic streak running through, as father and son weirdly bond over their discovery of pleasure through pain. If you have the stomach for it, Moebius is a slice of madness to be experienced.

Nightcrawler

It’s not often you see a film unlike anything else, but Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut Nightcrawler feels both like a product of the 70’s and something completely new. In Lou Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal totally inhabits a character you can’t keep your eyes off – human in form only, armed with internet-sourced business patter, defective moral compass and sleazeball charisma. He is ably assisted with support from Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo and the always welcome Bill Paxton in a film that works equally well as satire and thriller. Also, I would pay good money for a videogame version – think Grand Theft Auto meets Pokemon Snap.

We Are The Best!

Though Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank offered an entertaining and touching insight into the creative process of a troubled ‘genius’ – as well as some brilliant songs  – it was Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! that had my favourite fictional band of the year, as a trio of girls in 1982 Stockholm are determined to prove punk’s not dead. Though the story follows predictable enough beats, the naturalistic and energetic performances from its young leads make the film a constant joy.

Whiplash

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash has been one of the buzz films of 2014 (though technically released in the UK in 2015 – check last year’s list for Inside Llewyn Davis and Under the Skin!), and it is easy to see why. What looks on the surface like a typical teacher-pupil relationship story is in fact closer to the opening to Full Metal Jacket than anything, but with jazz drumming instead of military training. It’s raw in its depiction of bullying, and both J.K Simmons and Miles Teller make for terrific sparring partners. For only his second film (and at only my age), it is shot with confidence and style, with some of the most tense and electrifying sequences this year.

Blockbuster Round-Up!

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With next year’s big releases debuting their teaser trailers this week (namely Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens), it seems an appropriate time to look back at the traditional summer blockbuster period this year and assess the damage. But looking through the box office rankings seems to suggest that 2014 will hardly go down as one of the all-time-greats for popcorn movies. Only comparative underdogs Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie felt like genuine break-out successes that will enjoy a long shelf life, critically acclaimed and universally liked (if you only saw Chris Pratt or Scarlett Johansson films this year, you’d have a pretty good success rate of most talked about/popular/very good movies). And let’s hear it for Edge of Tomorrow. Only through consistent good write-ups did I give it a chance, and I’m glad I did – funny, inventive, different, and Tom Cruise’s best performance since Collateral, with great support from Emily Blunt and Bill Blooming Paxton.

Apart from that, there were few films I didn’t feel bad about giving a miss. At least until a couple of long-haul flights and some recent DVD releases came along so I could catch-up. So here’s my blockbuster round-up, filling in the gaps of those I didn’t fancy seeing first time round.

First up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to the preboot (that’s a reboot that works as a prequel) that did a very good job of making rampaging apes seem exciting and not so very silly (a feat in itself). The world’s population has been decimated by simian flu, though once again, we’re back in the San Francisco area, so it’s hard to say if other parts of the world are experiencing similar primate problems. Caesar and his chums are back, and Andy Serkis and co, plus the fantastic work of the computer graphics team, do a terrific job of tricking you into not necessarily believing what you are seeing is real, but not caring that it isn’t. Sadly, the human characters are in no way as well-drawn as their ape counterparts (Gary Oldman does a very good bit of crying, but that’s about as three dimensional as anyone gets), and as interesting as their clashes are, I wished I could have cared more about what was going on as it all reached its inevitable conclusion/cliffhanger. A triumph more of technology than writing.

Superheroes set most of the rest of my catch-up agenda, with Marvel in its various forms (via Fox and Sony, plus its own studio) basically unchallenged. Maybe not the obvious choice, but Captain America: The First Avenger was probably the film out of Marvel’s first wave I enjoyed the most thanks to its interesting spin on perhaps the character that seemed most out of place in the 21st Century (by having him do just that, after gallivanting around in WWII and finding his status as a propaganda tool problematic). But while Captain America: The Winter Soldier was popular with both audiences and critics, it did very little that wowed me. Given Captain America himself as more conventional superpowers than most, it was impressive how creative the action sequences were, taking stock-and-trade car chases, fist fights, and stealthy sneaking scenes and adding something different or unexpected to them. However, so much of the plot hinges on you giving a solitary toss about S.H.I.E.L.D., so come the twists, reveals and conspiracies, I really didn’t care, likewise with the titular Winter Soldier. I even fell asleep a bit during the climax (okay, I was on a plane, but still). Guardians of the Galaxy remains the only Marvel Studios film I’d give more than three stars.

Not a great deal better was X-Men: Days of Future Past. Billed as the ultimate X-Men movie, given it unites the cast of the original trilogy and the First Class prequel, but even with original director Bryan Singer returning, the future dystopia sequences felt as ropey as anything in Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, while the main narrative thread in the 70’s didn’t play as much around with the period or have quite as much fun as First Class had with the 60’s. It’s weird how, much like The Expendables, the prospect of seeing a big cast sharing screen time ends up being more interesting than the finished product. Not bad by any means, but given the stakes (trying to prevent a future in which everyone, human and mutant alike, are enslaved or killed by giant murder machines), it all feels disappointingly inconsequential.

Weirdly, it was two of the summer’s more divisive blockbusters I ended up enjoying more, especially impressive as one was the sequel to perhaps the least necessary reboot in recent memory. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, while still not maybe quite yet justifying Sony’s revived attempt to ‘Cinematic Universify’ the Marvel brand they still hold onto beyond simply renewing their rights, is at least a step in the right direction. Compared to the dull retread of Marc Webb’s first attempt, the sequel remembers that Spider-Man should above all else be fun and sparky and vibrant. The main draw is Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and their interactions feel natural and genuine, to the extent you could probably remove the big action set-pieces and it would still be worth watching. The threat of adding too many villains to the broth (which apparently killed Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, along with Emo Peter Parker, but you’re WRONG IT’S PERFECT) in the end doesn’t work out that way, and both Jamie Foxx and Dane DeHaan handle tricky roles well. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 knows that it can be alternately serious and goofy and still be entertaining. It doesn’t need to be po-faced like Nolan’s Batman trilogy or Man of Steel, nor does it have to be smug and quip-laden like Iron Man or The Avengers. That’s not to say it’s better than any of those films, but it finally felt like its own thing.

But altogether more surprising was how much I found myself liking Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, a film I had little to no interest in seeing, and put off for the longest time once the rental DVD arrived at my door, despite Aronofsky’s track record being actually pretty good, or at the very least interesting. Well, lo and behold, so too is Noah. From the get-go, you can imagine they wanted the tagline to be: “This Ain’t No Bible Story”, for while it does feature a whole heap of biblical reference and backstory, it does a lot to divorce itself from the Sunday School imagery that immediately springs to mind. Although the world of Noah is pre-apocalyptic, it looks and feels closer to post-apocalyptic. It’s Mad Max B.C.. Plus, thrown into the mix are The Watchers, fallen angels turned giant rock monsters that despite being CG creations move and behave somewhere between stop-motion animation and a Jim Henson puppet. And they are great. In fact, the animals of the ark play only a small part in the story, with the focus on Noah (Russell Crowe, doing his patented mix of gruffness and sensitivity) and his family, and in particular Noah’s determination to follow God’s plan, come hell or high water (ba-dum tish). And boy, when that water comes, it is pretty damn horrifying. You wonder what the studio execs must have felt, bankrolling a big Bible epic and expecting a Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments and ending up with something so dark and downright weird, but kudos to them anyway. I still don’t know what Noah really is, or what it is trying to be, and if there’s an antecedent, The Fountain probably comes close, though this has far more drive and urgency. But it’s fascinating, engrossing and worth watching with an open mind.