FilmGet Out

Race relations in the USA are strained, to put it mildly; new...

Get Out

Race relations in the USA are strained, to put it mildly; new stories about white police officers harassing or shooting black citizens appear almost weekly, and the marching trend towards demagogic fascism with strong racist overtones continues on. Racial segregation has long since been struck from law, but the damage and divisions between these communities are still real and visceral.

Get Out tells the story of the Black nightmare. The Black experience dialled up to 11. Visiting a white girlfriend’s parents on their rural estate, and having to navigate the ludicrous and complex social constructs and prejudices that exist between these groups. It’s designed to express the fear, the anxiety, the awkwardness, the prejudice, the history, and the perceived consequences of a Black introduction into a White suburban family.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. A lot of my enjoyment is probably due to the surroundings in which I watched it (more on that later), but this directorial debut from Jordan Peele feels like the creation of a well-established horror director with a confident grasp of racial and cultural issues (#woke).

Daniel Kaluuya’s portrayal of the pointedly named Chris Washington is extraordinary. The range of vivid emotion and his ability to slip into character are performed effortlessly and tirelessly. He is undoubtedly the high-point of the cast.

The use of humour and comic relief is admirable – Lil Rei Howery’s TSA guard is reason enough to see this film – and serves to shatter the tension of what would otherwise be an unremittingly bleak story.

The reliance on cheap jump scares causes me to lose a lot of respect for horror films, so I’m happy to be able to say that they are used sparingly (I initially typo’d that word as ‘scaringly’), and the majority of the horror is this deep and slow-burning crescendo of tension that, combined with the horrors of its racial connotations, serves to unsettle the mind, rather than just scare the senses.

Although it’s a solid and enjoyable horror film on its own cinematic merit, this film is built firmly upon the theme of race and racism. A lot of the thematic currents are explicit and sometimes almost patronising in their conspicuousness, but I found that it’s the things left unsaid that had the most weight.

Almost every scene and line of dialogue drips with thick racial symbolism; from the ‘kill the deers’ speech through to the theatrical poster – Daniel Kaluuya’s terrified monochrome eyes wedged between solid white – the issue of race is inescapable. As the story progresses, we exponentially experience the history of black slavery, identity, and equality through well-constructive metaphors and narrative devices.

Ultimately, this film is about black slavery; it’s about whites dehumanising and claiming ownership of blacks, but I’ll avoid spoilers and say no more on that point. When a certain character uses the phrase ‘a sliver of consciousness’, you’ll know what I mean.

I had something of a unique experience watching Get Out; I was invited by a friend to a private screening organised by a group advocating and supporting black people in cinema, a cause of which I’m strongly in favour. I was literally one of two white people in an audience of 100+, and hearing the discussion afterwards was frankly eye-opening, and genuinely moving.

Sadly I confess that the point I made early on about this film being the ‘black nightmare experience’ when meeting a white girlfriend’s parents was something that was discussed; it’s easy to see Chris as a proxy for a black audience, and I felt somewhat vindicated by hearing it talked about so openly by the people most affected by these issues.

On a superficial level, I felt like there was a message embedded in the storyline just for me, or at least for (some) white people who might fall foul of this particular faux-pas.

This running gag comes in the form of the well-meaning but ill-advised comments from white characters, such as ‘I would have voted for Obama for a third time!’ and ‘I know Tiger Woods. Love Tiger! Great man,’ and so on. Even the implicit metaphor of a blind white man who claims he doesn’t care about race (‘I don’t see colour.’) I feel like there was a rather unsubtle message encoded in this dialogue: ‘dear white people, you know those things you say to try to relate or make us accept you? Just don’t.’

Get Out has a black audience in mind, while expertly avoiding the shameful pitfalls of Blaxploitation cinema, and on that merit alone it is worthy of praise.

I dearly want Get Out to be a mainstream commercial and critical success, and to act as a waypoint on the road towards major production companies not seeing racial minorities in starring roles as a ‘threat to profits,’ although that isn’t the only reason.

I want it to succeed because it is a genuinely good film. I haven’t enjoyed a contemporary horror film this much for a while. It was remarkably emotionally involving for a horror; my heart rose and sank rapidly at points, I felt powerful pity and horror for some of the unfortunate minor characters, and the empathy the audience – of any race – feels for Chris and what he represents is real and readily accessible.

(Also on Letterboxd)

Carrie

More a tragedy than a horror, Carrie tells the story of a bullied and ostracised high school student whose torrid torment in school is surpassed only by her mother’s uniquely extreme religious fanaticism at home. Almost from the start, we know Carrie has some unusual powers, albeit underdeveloped, but by the end of the story, her phenomenal telekinetic and telepathic powers are subject to intense media coverage and academic scrutiny for the very worst of reasons.

Carrie was published 43 years ago, and not only have there have been at least two mainstream film adaptations and a musical since then, but the book cover itself contains plot hints, so before you cry foul about spoilers, know that Carrie isn’t about what Carrie does, so much as *why*; what forces her over the edge.

Foreshadowing is early and eager; from the immediate construction of the plot arch in that infamous first chapter, the signs of Carrie’s power, and the eventual extent of their use is hinted at. This is to the story’s credit; without the teasing and tantalising, the audience might be fooled into thinking that Carrie is the villain of the piece, rather than an extremely ambiguous anti-hero. The use of excerpts from court transcripts, AP tickers, books, and other retrospective publications written about ‘Prom Night’, serves to remind the audience again and again that the story is not going to end well, and that we much read on to discover why, and indeed how bad that end is going to be.

What sets Carrie aside from so many other high school novels is the departure from well-trodden narrative tropes and overused character archetypes inherent. Although we can see some of the usual battery of high school characters in place – jocks, popular kids, plastics, nerds, and outcasts – the individual characters are cleverly elevated to something more than their archetype. For example, Tommy Ross, the popular jock who, despite the poor history of his stereotype, is also a high achiever and, to quote one incredulous report repeated in the story, a ‘socially conscious young man‘. Chris Hargensen, for all that she resembles Regina George of Mean Girls, doesn’t so much alter her stereotype as embrace and intensify it, specifically her cunning, willfully abusive relationship with Billy Nolan, and her pursuit of popularity – and subsequently vengeance – at all costs.

Also, (super spoilers) everybody dies, and that’s gutsy. I can’t stress this enough; the level of destruction and death is terrifying to contemplate, and it’s to King’s credit that he actually went through with killing 450 people, many of whom were high school students, and burning down a town, rather than losing his nerve and ‘saving’ Carrie at the last minute.

While I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite King novel, it’s definitely up there.

 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

A radical approach to the time-travel/loop genre. Harry August is one of a few humans who, upon death, is reborn at the same time, place, and parentage, but with all the memories of their previous lives. With this knowledge, they can change the course of human history, strive to better the species, cause catastrophes or create new worlds; pursue the most hedonistic desires, jump-start technological development, and experiment wildly with the fabric of humanity… or just go and fight in World Wars for the sheer fun of it.

To say I was gripped by this book is an understatement. It had me in a fatal stranglehold from the first page.

When a message, trickling back through time, warns him that the world is ending sooner and sooner, Harry mounts an epic effort to prevent it, but stopping someone from wiping out humanity – its past, present, and future – can be a little complicated when you and your enemy can’t truly die.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a mind-bending masterpiece of a novel, spanning around a thousand years, focussing on just a handful of people in various ‘lives’ during this time, all encased in glee-filled indulgence in speculative history.

Lolita

Lolita is a controversial novel; there’s no denying that. My time reading Lolita has been necessarily surreptitious and discreet, for the simple reason that this novel is erroneously judged by its critics, often in ignorance, as somewhere between ‘subversive erotica’ and ‘a paedophile’s handbook’, both of which are phrases I have heard used to describe Lolita, and both of which are terminally inaccurate.

I want to make this plain: Lolita no more glamourises and encourages paedophilia than Trainspotting glamourises and encourages heroin use. (It doesn’t. At all.)

Humbert is variously described, even by himself, as a ‘pervert’, ‘horrible’, ‘abject’, and ‘a shining example of moral leprosy’. Dolores, even as the legal victim, has a history of abuse and often of complicity, although this is hardly an excuse as much as an explanation of her consent.

I would certainly not describe Lolita as an ‘erotic’ novel, barely even a novel with erotic motifs; all that detail is conspicuously lacking, and the focus of the narrative is shifted purely onto their difficult and dangerous relationship – both as parent and step-child, and later as ‘lovers’ – told through the highly unreliable lens of Humbert’s paranoid psyche.

Starting as a tortured story of a lonely foreigner before developing into a storm of emotional instability and introspective mayhem, Lolitafollows the creatively anonymised Humbert Humbert as he seeks to either gratify or cure himself of his ‘pederosis’. When meeting Charlotte Haze with the unenthusiastic intention of become her lodger, he meets and falls in love with her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores – nicknamed Lolita. Discovering every intricacy of the plot was a genuine pleasure of which I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone else, so I’ll leave it at that.

Lolita shocked me with its stunning prose, its sardonic commentary, its solid story, its beautifully painted characters, its subversive yet compelling nature, its sarcastic observations of America, and its sheer frank audacity.

From a literary perspective, it is nothing short of a masterpiece; every sentence is constructed with glorious succinct precision and wit, and a luxurious love of language. The narrative is both clear and sufficiently vague so as to provoke intrigue, but never to masquerade confusion or cryptic monologuing as ironic mystery, or at least almost never.

I found it charming in places, and horribly unsettling in others – though not for reasons many who have not read the book might expect – increasingly shot through with fear, doubt, and melancholy.

Whiplash (2014)

An unceasingly frenetic, exhilarating, and thrilling film which literally had me holding my breath for minutes at a time.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, the naïve yet naturally talented drummer, freshly enrolled in one of the best music colleges in America, and eager to prove himself.

J. K. Simmons plays Fletcher, the sledgehammer to Andrew’s statuette. Brutal, barbaric, savage, and tyrannical, Fletcher wages an unceasing campaign of psychological and physical abuse on his band members in order to elicit their absolute maximum potential, and push them beyond what anyone expects of them. The terror radiating from Fletcher is massive. All-encompassing.

The story tracks Andrew’s progress in the Studio band, conducted by Fletcher, as he pushes them to greater and greater extremes, and plays complex psychological games in order to completely demoralise them and extract almost impossible feats of musical performance.

Aside from having an absolutely perfect lead-support character dynamic, <em>Whiplash</em> achieves something which so many films fail: it never once drops tempo – fittingly – without meaning to do so.

The pace of the film is blindingly fast and extraordinarily tense for the entirety of the first two acts, and most of the third, only dropping its rocketing pace for the odd second to compound tension and maximise brutality.

Like many two-person character play films, the story centres almost entirely around Andrew and Fletcher, and how their chaotic and dysfunctional relationship affects one another.

Although I found the construction and execution of Andrew’s character to be nothing special, Simmons’ portrayal of Fletcher is positively electrifying and exudes a palpable field of tension and terror that extends out of the screen and notably touches the audience.

Throughout the start of first act, there are tiny visual beats where the characters and audience catch a glimpse of Fletcher’s shadow behind a door, or see him catch Andrew peeking through a window on a rehearsal and so on, and the sensation of fear is real, and powerful. This is when Fletcher is only on screen for a split second, if at all; when he is in full horrifying glory, it is so much worse.

I went into <em>Whiplash</em> expecting to see a watered-down Holywood-friendly facsimile of Vernon Schillinger, from the HBO series <em>Oz</em>, an apparently similar character first portrayed by Simmons almost two decades ago. However, even though <em>Oz</em> is one of the greatest prison dramas ever made, and Schillinger is undeniably scary as a serial rapist, vehement racist, and domineering patriarch with a power complex, I don’t find Schillinger half as terrifying as Fletcher.

I do not say this lightly: no one has ever been more deserving of an Oscar than J. K. Simmons with his portrayal of Fletcher. No one. There have been those of equal merit, but I cannot recall a character portrayal of superior commitment and perfection.

What few technical and narrative faults <em>Whiplash</em> has are burned away by the searing white heat of J. K. Simmons’ literally awesome portrayal of Fletcher.

But, loath as I am to say this, there are some faults. Luckily, they are minor. Teller’s performance is great, but not extraordinary. A minimalist story can be beneficial in films focussing on one specific human relationship, but there are times where I felt I wanted more from it.

I found the lack of female characters disturbing, but not half as disturbing as the fact that the only female character meriting a name was nothing more than a half-baked love interest who dissolves quickly into the wings, never to be seen again. I suppose this is to further accentuate Andrew’s commitment to – and obsession with – drumming, but it is a little worrying nonetheless.

My major concern, however, and <strong>this is a spoiler, as will be this entire paragraph</em>, is that in the final scene, almost the final sequence of shots, the expressions exchanged between Fletcher and Andrew paint a clear picture of a man who realises that brutal, unyielding torment and vindictive psychological bullying is the only way to draw true talent out of an otherwise unsatisfactorily motivated person; that one must utterly destroy something in order to build it back stronger. There can be no doubt that despite Fletcher’s sudden and gut-wrenching betrayal at the beginning of the last scene, Andrew is only spurred on because of this, accepting his treatment, and vindicating Fletcher’s abuse. That, to me, is troubling.

But that is what this film is about; pushing someone beyond what they thought were their limits at all costs, and although we see how that can go horribly wrong (Fletcher’s phone call) sometimes it can go phenomenally well.

I usually like to conclude my reviews with some summation of everything I’ve said, coupled with a non-committal recommendation to either consider seeing the film, or not to bother. However, this time, all I will say is this: if you do watch <em>Whiplash</em>, and I wholeheartedly recommend you do, try to remember to breathe.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Wake up and smell the Scorsese!

Wolf is a crime epic, following the life of naive wannabe Henry Hill, as he realises his dreams of getting a foothold in a major, slightly criminal organisation. Hill climbs the ladder fast, soon becoming a seemingly unstoppable force. However eventually, the power, money, and drugs begin to go to his head, and his effortlessly ostentatious life begins to crumble around him.

… Wait, something’s wrong here. Oh sorry, It’s not Henry Hill, it’s Jordan Belfort. Henry Hill is in Scorsese’s other crime epic, Goodfellas.

To be honest, the two films are so similar that I find them hard to tell them apart in many ways. Both have a naive young lad trying to break into a new career with criminal intentions, both portray their lives in a fabulous gloss of conspicuous hedonism, and both share many plot points on the traditional rags-to-richs crime story. Luckily, Wolf borrows only the best from Goodfellas. The characters are solid, the story is satisfying – if a little turgid in places – and there are underlying veins of humour and terror expertly intertwining throughout the narrative.

The role of Henry Hi- sorry, Jordan Belfort is so uniquely suited to DiCaprio’s persona that one could convincingly argue that even the book had been written just for him. DiCaprio portrays Belfort with such magnificent character that it’s impossible not to innately believe in him as a person.

Similarly, the cast is filled by one solid character portrayal after another. Matthew McConaughey plays the wonderfully sleazy mentor figure Mark Hanna, Rob Reiner is cast as Belfort’s foul-mouthed battleaexe of a father-cum-enforcer ‘Mad Max’, and Margot Robbie expertly fills the Eye Candy/Slutty Wife slot and actually turns it into a legitimately interesting character, something which can not be said for most instances of this character archetype.

My only major complaint about Wolf is Jonah Hill. Hill’s character Donnie comes across like a character lifted straight out of the Hangover franchise and dropped haphazardly into what is otherwise an exceptionally well-executed crime drama. He provides a good comic vibe, but has the unfortunate ulterior role of perpetuating this cinematic fad of including a Jonah Hill/Seth Rogan-type character, who provide easy laughs for idiots, smoke pot, waddle around in their 42″ trousers and talk in that stereotypical nasal dudebro dialect. But even that is reasonably smoothed into the film, but it is a little jarring at times.

Kyle Chandler’s portrayal of FBI Agent Patrick Denham seems rather hollow; he’s just there as an ever-present pest for Belfort, popping up on screen every now and again to warn Belfort that he’s being watched. Even when Denham seemingly has the upper hand over Belfort, I can’t tell if Chandler’s being deliberately inscrutable, or characteristically flat.

Overall, the narrative is very gripping, the characters work very well together, it’s impressively put together, and it’s generally a very satisfying film.

(Original review of mine on Letterboxd.

28 Days Later

What better way to start a zombie movie than with a medium shot of a naked Cillian Murphy laying on a hospital bed? How about a quick, self-contained scene wrapping up an ever-present question in Zombie films; a tantalising teaser for fans: what caused the zombie apocalypse? This is the case in 28 Days Later; a clear explanation of the entire film’s premise, then straight into the nudity and the fall of Man.

Animal rights activists have a lot to answer for, if 28 Days Later is to be believed as an accurate representation of the fauna-friendly; after releasing ‘rage-infected’ monkeys from a research site in Cambridge, the UK quickly becomes overrun with the savage, violently-insane infected.

Possibly the most impressive thing about 28 Days Later is that, in this the present day, it has the audacity to be a zombie film. While nearing its tenth anniversary, 28 Days Later is born

Jim, in London, "alone."

into a subgenre – and indeed subculture – based partly on some of the most ridiculous movies ever produced, but also on the self-perpetuated idealistic imaginings of its patrons. The whole concept of a Zombie apocalypse is such a fertile field of imaginable scenarios that films – and books – attempting to harvest the potential are sadly frequently disappointing; they simply can’t live up to their own hype.

28 Days Later, however, is different. Rather than a perfunctory 120 minutes of underdeveloped archetypal protagonists chainsawing their undead friends and relatives, we get a compelling 120 minutes of adhesive story held aloft on beautifully experimental – yet solid – cinema.

Jim – Murphy’s character – awakes 28 days later (oho, I see what you did there Mr. Boyle,) after a bike accident left him comatose and hospitalised in a Westminster hospital, during which time the UK rapidly descended into a maelstrom of murderous carnage and chaos.

Chancing upon a few fellow survivors, they venture to Manchester, ironically, in search of the fabled last bastion of human civilisation; a military base offering food, water, protection and most importantly, hope.

Jim (Murphy) and Selena (Harris)

If there is one thing on which I cannot fault Cillian Murphy, it’s his ability as an actor to portray oblivious, emotionally-stunted moron who looks as though he’s one blink away from actually being catatonic. In 28 Days Later, we see Murphy run the gamut from fledgling survivor overwhelmed by the deadly world facing him, to love-struck gun-toting topless hero while maintaining the exact same facial expression. He’s as emotionless as Kristen Stewart, only I don’t want to punch him in the face to change his expression. He plays the part very well; the part being a shock-stricken man who went from bike accident to end-of-the-world in what he perceived to be a few seconds.

Similarly, Naomie Harris (who portrays Selena,) is in a constant state of angry hard-ass survivalist who sees little value in the lives of others, or perhaps that’s from her Finsbury Park upbringing. Occasionally she manages to let her guard down just enough to become Hannah’s sister-figure. Despite a fairly flawless performance by Harris, as an actor, she falls into the category of Angry Black-British Woman, a part often seen in low-budget BBC dramas, and characterised by forced lines, fierce expression and a not-so-subtle need to prove their relevance and legitimacy as a character. Nonetheless, Selena is a strong motivational force in the story, and pivotal character who gives the film some balls – metaphorically; Murphy’s first scene provides the physical.

The father-daughter dynamic of Frank and Hannah is a warming element to what is otherwise a very dark and cold film, though Megan Burns’ performance as Hannah is even worse than Murphy’s; she lacks confidence, her lines are laboured and heavy and she spends a large amount of her screen-time looking blankly at the rest of the cast. Admittedly, some of her later dullness is probably caused by a combination of shock due to her father dying and ingestion of a large amount of Valium.

Hannah (Burns) and Frank (Gleeson)

Her general woodenness is counterbalanced by the brilliant performance of her father by Brendan Gleeson, better known as Mad-Eye Moody. A warm and loving father-figure for all four survivors; Frank ferries the group to Manchester in his taxi, defends his flat against the Infected and coordinates their daily survival, at least for a short while (spoilers omitted.)

Last in the main cast is stalwart of the UK cinema scene Christopher Eccleston. Taking on the roll of Major West, a senior soldier who has subtly succumbed to insanity, West commands the platoon operating the Manchester refuge which Jim, Selena, Frank and Hannah believe will be their sanctuary.

Major Henry West (Eccleston)

After spending some time with the orphaned Army unit, Jim realises that there is something far more sinister happening and attempts, in futility at first, to rescue Selena and Hannah from Major West’s inhuman plans. It is at this point in the film that we realise who the main antagonist is; humanity itself. Apropos of nothing – in the eyes of most people – the bedrock of society has fallen away, pitting people against people (against zombies) in a savage fight for power masquerading as survival.

In recent years, many apocalyptic movies have subtly provoked the question of what makes us human? What separates us from the proverbial ‘them,’ before showing us that, in fact, we as a society can be monsters and are capable of unspeakable evil. A person’s initial natural reaction to seeing humanity in ruins is one of shock and disbelief, but over time the idea of deserving or justice creeps in.

The legitimacy of 28 Days Later as a zombie film has been disputed for a number of reasonsl firstly: the zombies run. Very fast. Had a person only seen the genre defining classic The Dawn of The Dead (1979, Romero,) I doubt they’d identify the sprinting masses of blood-drenched carnality as ‘zombies,’ per se. Similarly, the ‘zombies’ are not actually dead, there is little talk of cannibalism, they do not rot as conventional zombies do (according to The Walking Dead,) however they do starve, which leads me to believe that they are not zombies by the

Pte. Mailer; a zombie.

traditional definition.

On the pro-zombie side; they are a faceless and massive adversary of murderous humans who have involuntarily lost any semblance of their prior humanity (and higher-brain functions.) They kill to satiate a biological imperative, their infection can be transmitted by blood, bites and other fluids, and a bullet to the head will put them down.

Magnificent depictions of Britain as an abandoned apocalyptic wasteland also lend credence, not only to the zombie standing of 28 Days Later, but its rather outstanding camerawork and spectacle.

Director Danny Boyle made the bold – later dubbed ‘stupid’ – decision to shoot 28 Days Later, not on industry-standard film, but on Digital Video. With the vomit-in-throat-like rise of 3D in today’s cinema, DV is becoming a more prevalent format, but in 2001 when 28 Days Later was being shot, it was still a developmental technology. The result was that the images become slightly pixelated in times of fast-motion, there is occasionally some purple chromatic abberation (purple artefacts in areas of high contrast in the frame,) and certain scenes would not look out of place on someone’s personal YouTube channel. The Blu-Ray release of 28 Days Later is simple an upscaled version of the DVD release because no higher-resolution footage exists.

Let's go to Manchester!

The practical benefit of all this, however, is to create an overwhelming sense of realism within the film. Whereas Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project sought to exploit the harsh realism of Digital Video for narrative effect, it is used in 28 Days Later to maximise the credulity of what is already a highly plausible storyline – though in what way the term ‘plausible’ applies to the notion that the population of Britain maraud the streets, spewing blood and eviscerating people is open to debate – or perhaps not; I’ve been to Birmingham.

Despite one or two let-downs, 28 Days Later is nothing short of a masterpiece of modern horror cinema which, when considering that the director is the legendary Danny Boyle, is to be expected. The characters work well together, the story goes from naught-to-sixty in -3 seconds and the atmosphere meticulously built by the production crew is astoundingly real and believable, as well as beautiful.

I’m giving the Zombies eight George A. Romeros, the action six Jack Bauers, the story nine Danny Boyles and the acting seven Gary Oldmans (all out of ten.)

Zombies
Action
Story
Acting

Insidious

I have no compunction in saying that modern horror is an artless genre. ‘Round back of the horror genre, there are several large barrels containing archetypal characters, villains and stories. These barrels have been scraped so arrantly by the lowest common denominators in cinema that there is little left but rust and a rotten Scream mask. That’s right Eli Roth, I’m looking at you and your woeful history in the industry.

When I watched Insidious the first time, I certainly wasn’t expecting much from director and accomplished barrel-scraper James Wan (of Saw infamy.) I know it’s important to keep an open mind when watching a movie with the intention of writing about it later, but keeping an open mind when going into a horror movie is like trying to keep your eyes open when you see Jedward on TV. More so when the movie is directed by James Wan.

The bizarre thing is that I quite enjoyed Insidious, despite it’s general mediocrity.

The story begins with the beginning of the large story arc; a flashback [spoiler] into the dad’s childhood [/spoiler] showing him asleep in his bed while the Old Woman watches on from the window. Thus begins the very conventional portrayal of demons and spirits; transvestite men in incredibly camp outfits wearing badly-done make up.

The still from Insidious you will see everywhere.

This does not really improve with the discovery of The Twins; twin girls who look like the twins from The Shining but all growed-up and

scaring sumptuously-bearded Angus Sampson. Finally, we meet Red-face Demon; a strange hybridisation of Freddy Kreuger, Dave Grohl and Darth Maul. Strange as this mix sounds, it’s made more strange by the fact that it scared me about as much as the Google logo. I have never been so disappointed with a primary antagonist in my life; the first few times to which its existence is alluded, we see a shadow, or a hand/claw print. Then we very clearly see a grimacing red face which shatters the ominous crescendo like a fat guy falling through a greenhouse.

I won’t even bother with the ridiculous Child demon which looks like Dick Van Dyke with congenital dwarfism.

The only truly creepy demon is the Old Woman, mainly because she never moves, constantly watches, occasionally appears in photographs and is played by a man. Similarly, the Twins and their family never move, apart from sudden jumps to another facial expression, something which is unnerving, if not creepy. Some of the demons are camp enough to be cameos from Buffy.

Dalton and Renai in the new (not haunted) house.

Characters, always important. Insidious is quite minimal, if nothing else; characters are developed and mentioned when they are of crucial importance. For example, the first few scenes deal wholly with Renai and Dalton (mother and son) dealing with the new house. Further on, the focus is on Renai battling her husband’s devout rationalism, persuading him that there are supernatural forces present in the house (or, more precisely, their son) and so on. Any peripheral characters only serve to accentuate the focus of a particular scene.

That is something for which I would definitely commend Insidious; rather than bombarding the viewer with an ever-changing stream of faces and names of no importance, we are presented with about ten characters, all of whom have a very specific and identifiable purpose.

From a technical stand-point, Insidious is mostly uninventive; while the opening titles are quite pretty, the camera-work often feels like the DP quickly flicked through ‘How to Shoot a Horror Movie For Dummies,’ and James Wan’s directing is so reminiscent of Saw that there are times when I felt as though I actually was watching Saw without the gratuitous gornography element.

The photography is fairly standard in places, as I’ve already said, but I was equally often surprised by some very well constructed composition. It mirrors the casting in its simplicity and sparsity, but that’s definitely to its credit. The opening-credit shots of the house in high-contrast monochrome are really amazing, it’s just a shame about the vastly unconventional (or, rather, very conventional) title logo.

The 'clairaudience circle.'

Finally, and most importantly, the part of any horror movie that differentiates it from a drama or sci-fi movie: the horror. Demons, demonic possession, haunting. It sounds like the perfect combination for a horror movie, however I didn’t feel scared at any point, apart from one or two incidents, but then I was more surprised by the sudden appearance of a face behind someone, rather than scared by the face itself.

The fear and tension smoulders throughout the film, but not to any real extent; just enough to unsettle the viewer enough that they would jump at the sudden appearance of a demon’s face, or another equally disappointing event. The sense of foreboding is completely ruined by a sudden peak and then deterioration into camp Whedon-esque demons floating in James Wan’s unconvincing cinematic style. Oddly enough, this is a passable mix which is not completely unenjoyable.

The horror element of Insidious basically boils down to shock and awe; flashing the faces of weird-looking demons on-screen at random times isn’t scary so much as surprising. A good horror movie builds on a sense of growing threat by the unknown (or known, such as a named killer,) rather than sporadically making the viewer jump.

'Josh?' *Gasp, cue twist.*

Reading this review back to myself, I can see several good reasons why I should dislike Insidious; it’s quite uninventive, I’m indifferent to the general story and its implementation and James Wan’s odious directing is smothered all over it. The fact is that I quite enjoyed Insidious; the universal mediocrity of literally every element of the film seem to build the basis for a passable horror movie.

For the poorly constructed and borderline-contradictory reasons above, I’m giving Insidious a 7 out of 10.

Primer

Aaron and Abe working on 'the device' in Aaron's garage.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I watched Primer; I’d heard it described as ‘the adult Donnie Darko;’ a moniker very hard-earned, I would say. As such I suppose I was expecting a mind-bending tale of time-travel with a personal undercurrent of the protagonist trying to right his wrongs, overcome his sociopathic nihilism and make sense of his life.

What I got was 80 minutes of bland dialogue, forgettable acting and a plot so obfuscated and nonsensical that it caused me to lose interest in the film entirely. Given the budget on which this film was created ($7000/~£4300) and the quadruple role held by Shane Carruth (writer, director, producer and star,) it’s fairly understandable that Primer is not all it could be.

In the opening scene, we are introduced to Aaron, Abe and their two partners (who are later all-but-abandoned by the story,) working on their home business and discussing their experimental project. The purpose of Primer, in many ways, is to portray time-travel, not in the hi-tech polished steel and plastic realm of Deja Vu or Paycheck, but in an everyday way. Aaron and Abe discover a means of travelling through time entirely by accident whilst working on an unknown project in their garage.

It’s a very refreshing view on the technology, seeing two blokes accidentally send a Weeble forward in time and back in their garage, certainly after years of seeing time-travel occur amidst ultra-hi-tech devices in a white room deep in a US military base (or similar.) I would go so far as to say that this film has the best portrayal of any film I’ve seen recently; accessible, fairly understandable and a decent balance of technology and effect.

Two examples of an imbalance of technology and effect would be Donnie Darko and Deja Vu. Donnie Darko depicts no time-travel

The human-size devices in the self-storage building.

apparatus at all (apart from perhaps the wormhole,) and yet the effects of time-travel are very visible and integral to the plot. Deja Vu, on the other hand, is more spectacle-based; hoards of screens, blue-ish machinery and epilepsy-inducing flashing green lights form a time-viewing/travel machine that doesn’t do much more than just surveillance (at first.) J. J. Abrams’ popular TV series Lost is the perfect balance; the Dharma Initiative having cracked time-travel during the 1980s using rather clandestine and simple-looking technology.

Having said that, every other aspect of Primer is very bland and boring. The acting is quite hard to describe; Carruth obviously intended for the movie to be as close to reality as possible, which it is, provided that you and your friends mumble, frequently interrupt each other and respond with random non-sequiturs. It seems to me that either all the characters are talking over each other, or not talking at all.

This makes the dialogue that much harder to follow; when you’re trying to follow four yuppies who accidentally stumble upon a means altering the laws of causality and quantum physics, badly constructed dialogue that flows like bricks in glue is the least appropriate means of doing so. One saving grace is that there is no real overacting; what’s worse than generally bad acting is bland acting, and what’s worse than that is overly enthusiastic drama students fresh out of acting school expressing their character’s feelings with inhuman vigour.

Aaron and Abe holed-up in a hotel to avoid causality paradoxes.

It is impossible to bond with the characters in Primer, or make any kind of connection with them at all, apart from maybe dislike. Four characters, two of which receive very little screen-time, the other two of which are so boring and devoid of human presence that one can only feel disdain towards them. The standard by which I would gauge a character’s importance is how much I would care if he (or she) died, and how I would feel. For example, if Donkey died at the end of Shrek I would be so inconsolable that I’d be petitioning Eddie Murphy to kill Mike Meyers. Conversely, in the Harry Potter series, the audience is groomed to want Lord Voldermort to die as he is the embodiment of wizarding evil and Harry’s nemesis.

I could watch Abe and Aaron die in fire or some horrific accident associated with their time machine and not care in the slightest. I would like to say that this is because they’re annoying, but it’s not that so much as that I just can’t suspend disbelief long enough to actually see them as people; to me they just seem like actors who can’t act, playing characters who are bland and two-dimensional.

Ordinarily, I would herald subtly in cinema; but the extent to which Primer goes in hiding and suppressing the major plot points is just ludicrous. Several major plot points go by with very little explanation in any way (dialogue, camera etc.) If it weren’t for the telephone narration – which, again, goes with very little explanation, – we’d miss quite a few things that are rather important.

Carruth has stated that he ‘deliberately obfuscated the narrative.’ Again, I would usually applaud this, but in this case it is done to such a heavy extent that I now assume that Carruth simply lacks the ability to write a consistent and coherent plot. As I said, the dialogue and narrative is very dull up until the 50 minute mark, at which it jumps to an insane speed. By 65 minutes, the narrative has taken on such an incredibly nauseating pace that I gave up trying to figure it out. By the end of the movie I had lost interest all together.

It has been said of Primer, ‘anybody who claims he fully understands what’s going on in Primer after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar.’ I would include this addendum: ‘anybody who tries to understand it will be sadly disappointed.’ People seem to assume that there’s some deep meaning to Primer; some masked truths laid down by a genius awaiting discovery. There are none.

Primer boils down to an under-funded movie based on a rickety amount of skill and created with the intention of capitalising on the booming 2000s Indie movie scene. If Primer is indeed the ‘best Indie movie ever made,’ as it has so been dubbed, then I would gladly go back to modern mainstream cinema. Mercifully, it is not, so I don’t have to.

Giving Primer a generous 4 out of 10.

Donnie Darko

It seems I’ve been neglecting my adoring readers (derp) for several months now. Well, let’s get on with it.

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal)

On the table today is 2001 surrealist Indie psych-horror Donnie Darko. Filmed in 28 days on a budget of $4.5million, Donnie Darko was – predictably – a box office failure, grossing just over $4.1million.

However, it has enjoyed very strong DVD and BluRay sales and garnered a devoted cult fanbase.

It’s very difficult knowing where to start with Donnie Darko, in any respect, certainly for a first-time viewer. I have a confession to make here; I first watched Donnie Darko in 2003 and it parted my hair as it shot over my head.

8 years and 5 viewings later, I can finally say that the plot is starting to make sense to me. Trying to find a movie with a similarly disjointed, non-linear and bizarre narrative would be a like trying to find porn in Toys ‘r’ Us.

Donnie and love-interest Gretchen

I would like to say that this is what makes Donnie Darko great, but it’s not, at least not solely. There are plenty of films sporting sliced-up stories and cryptic concepts and, for the most part, these movies fail in every way.

Darko is unique in that it manages to be brain-bakingly insane and completely credible simultaneously; confusing to the point of frustration, but also a work of cinematic beauty.

Set in a 1980s American small-town microcosm, Donnie Darko focusses on the life of disturbed genius Donald Darko (portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal.) Darko harbours severe psychological issues bordering on paranoid Schizophrenia with inclinations toward pyromania, a lot of which is perpetuated by his repeated hallucinations of a large, anthropomorphic rabbit called Frank. We first meet Donnie after one of his sleepwalking excursions; he awakes on a secluded mountain road and smiles oddly at the sunrise.

We are shortly thereafter introduced to the town of Middlesex; a microcosm of American culture. An almost stereotypical small town model, complete with high-school, bullies, a cinema, picket fences and all the other hallmarks of an archetypal fictional middle-American town.

A good criterion for judging the merit of a film is the authenticity of the peripheral characters and universe. It’s all too easy to concentrate on the headline actors and the main story, but the universe on which the movie is built supports the whole story; makes it believable.

Although in what way the term “believable” applies to a movie featuring a time-travelling jet engines and a 6-foot tall rabbit that warns of the end of the world, I don’t know.

In this respect, Donnie Darko excels. The various subnarratives that interweave the main story add to the movie’s interest and overall feel.

Frank

Speaking of which, by far the most interesting character in the movie is Frank. As with a vast amount of this movie, Frank is never fully explained, but contributes to the story in such a profound way.

Firstly, Frank lures Donnie out of his house at night in order to prevent Donnie being crushed by the jet engine that crashes into their house. This is an integral event in the course of the narrative, quite literally accounting for every subsequent action.

Frank then tells Donnie exactly when the world will end.

At this point, I must bring up the subject of Donnie Darko’s narrative, and the fact that I am still slightly confused by it all. A mercy is that certain scenes in the film are interspersed with extracts from the book of mysterious elderly recluse Roberta Sparrow, affectionately known as ‘Grandma Death.’

These extracts explain some of what happens in the movie, perhaps even all of it, if somewhat cryptically.

Grandma Death speaking her only line in the whole film; 'every living creature on Earth dise alone.'

I’m holding my hands up here; I’ve given up trying to summarise the storyline of Donnie Darko; it is literally too complicated and confusing to explain, certainly without spoiling everything. I plan on writing another article explaining Donnie Darko, and when I do, I shall insert the link here.

Rose Darko (Mary McDonnell)

Mary McDonnell is quite possibly the most underrated actress of modern times. Co-staring in Independence Day, Donnie Darko and the re-imagined 2004 TV series of Battlestar Galactica, she has consistently portrayed strong female characters with a great degree of authenticity and commitment.

In Donnie Darko, she takes on the roll of Rose Darko, Donnie’s mother. A suburban hockey-mom figure, Rose seems to quite interestingly contrast to the strongly conservative and Christian character of Kitty Farmer, who I would personally like to punch in the face.

Kitty Farmer, gym teacher at Middlesex High, is an outspoken conservative activist and a strong fan of the work of self-help expert Jim Cunningham. One of my favourite subnarratives in DD is when [spoiler] Jim Cunningham is revealed to be a paedophile [/spoiler] prompting Kitty to ‘spearhead’ his legal defense, also showing us another interesting clash between Farmer’s strong right-wing mentality and Rose Darko’s liberal parenting and views.

Authoritarian right-wing teacher Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant)

Kitty Farmer and Jim Cunningham is definitely something to which attention should be paid; again, as I do not want to spoil the film for anyone, I can’t explain why. Darn.

Other great characters include Drew Barrymore’s excellent portrayal of dejected liberal English teacher Ms. Pomeroy and Jena Malone who plays Gretchen, Donnie’s love interest and stabilising influence throughout most of the film.

In short, as the Parallel Universe falls apart around the town of Middlesex, the lives of the inhabitants become increasingly violent and intense, culminating in the ultimate destruction of the universe, or at least the ‘Tangent Universe,’ as it it referred to in Sparrow’s book.

A beautifully filmed piece of psychological horror cinema, rife with fine acting, bizarre hallucinations and a narrative that will cause your brain to melt out your nose.

Enjoy the movie; I know I did.

8/10.

One other thing I should mention: you may well see or hear of a movie entitled S. Darko. This has been dubbed ‘the sequel’ to Donnie Darko. It is not; it is an oddly half-assed attempt at playing off the success of such a ground-breaking movie which has, inevitably, failed. I may well review it on here one day, but for the time being, there is only one Donnie Darko, and it is Donnie Darko.