The House that Jack Built (2018)

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House-That-Jack-Built-2-1920x1122postDirector: Lars Von Trier

Stars: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman

Jack Sprat goes rogue

Lars Von Trier, the delightful Dane returns with yet another controversial film drenched in misery. After receiving a ban from Cannes, regarding some unfortunate Hitler comments during the Melancholia press release, 2013’s Nymphomaniac double-bill was refused by the prestigious festival. However, it would seem that the frogs have forgiven our Lars as the hotly anticipated, The House that Jack Built was granted a Cannes premiere which sparked a mass walk out by all the sensitive snowflakes attending. Cannes is notoriously filled with drama queens who hiss and boo at the screen, so those expecting a super-sickening gore fest in the vein of A Serbian Film may find themselves sorely disappointed… Or delighted depending on what you’re looking for.

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The House that Jack Built is centred around Matt Dillon, a vicious psychopath conversing with Bruno Ganz about five incidents in his life (split into five chapters) focused on brutal murder. It’s a structure similar to Lars’ previous epic, Nymphomaniac although Dillon does like to highlight how each incident is random, therefore creating a lack of chronology. There’s also plenty of digressions in the dialogue often illustrated by stock footage or illustrations, although these feel slightly less fanciful than the humorous one’s used in Nymphomaniac.

The film is basically a giant character study in which the audience is forced to spend two and a half hours in the head of a mad man, which probably doesn’t sound like much fun to most normal people, but weirdos like me thrive off this stuff. Starting off softly with a light slam to Uma Thurman’s head via a jack hammer, the film slowly notches up the brutality until the shocking crescendo engraves some seriously disturbing imagery into your mind. Some of the violence does feel like Lars trying to shock for the sake of it, but each chapter does explore different layers to the character and the notion of art itself. Parallels can be drawn between the protagonist and the director, although let’s hope that Lars doesn’t stock bodies in his freezer.

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The film is overlong and does get bogged down in some contrived pseudo-intellectual dialogue at times which could have easily made it onto the cutting room floor. In fact, most of the film’s digressions could’ve been cut as they don’t really add much to the plot. Talking of plot, I didn’t really think there was much of one and the film would’ve benefited from a clearer sense of narrative. We see all the debauched acts but the film never lets us into the reasons why Jack does this. It would’ve been interesting to see him growing up and his family life, but we’re only ever treated to mere glimpses of him as a boy. It just feels like a missed opportunity to create a character as enthralling as Joe in Nymphomaniac or Bess in Breaking the Waves.

There’s also a lack of suspense or tension during the incidents as we’re all aware that Jack’s going to kill all his victims with ease and he does! There’s a surprising amount of dark comedy though which was nice to see as well as some stunning cinematography which creates beauty in the brutality. I also was not expecting the hauntingly surreal epilogue which had the feel of Dale Cooper’s bizarre red room trip near the beginning of Twin Peaks: The Return. This sequence really is Lars at the height of his hypnotic directing powers.

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There’s no denying that Lars is a great director and The House that Jack Built isn’t far off a great film, it’s just not quite as striking as the director’s previous outputs. There’s talk of this being his last film and it wouldn’t be a bad note to end on, however part of me does wish that he’ll put his ego and desire to shock to one side and create something as emotionally extraordinary as Dancer in the Dark or Breaking the Waves just one more time.

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Finding Your Feet (2017)

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Director: Richard Loncraine

Stars: Imelda Staunton, Celia Imrie, Timothy Spall, Joanna Lumley

Superior Brit-com

There’s no shortage of British comedies featuring all of our Dames finding romance with some twee comedy thrown in for good measure. The Best Exotic Marigold hotel had the grannies queueing out of the cinema doors to catch a glimpse of Dame Maggie Smith blasting out Dowager-esque zingers on a holiday to India. It brings new meaning to the term ‘silver screen’ when everyone in the audience is way past sixty, but it’s a very profitable market for cinema chains. Many of these films provide a few laughs but are rather forgettable, fortunately Finding Your Feet isn’t just one of the best examples of twilight comedy, it’s one of the best examples of British comedy full stop.

The film slithered out to a limited audience in 2017 failing to garner the attention of the likes of Calendar Girls and Best Exotic Marigold, however it pretty much blows every comedy of that ilk out of the water. Why it hasn’t received the praise it deserves is beyond me. Everyone I’ve sat down to watch this with has sang its praises, even a grumbling millennial who instantly dismissed it because they didn’t want to watch a film about ‘old people falling in love’ admitted that it was in fact, ‘very good.’

It follows Imelda Staunton, a stiff snob who relishes her new title of ‘Lady Sandra Abbott’ who finds herself in crisis after discovering that her husband has been having a Doctor Foster style affair with a lady not much younger than herself. Rightfully so, she storms out of that life and decides to rekindle with her estranged sister, Celia Imrie who couldn’t be more opposite in character. What follows is a genuinely heart-warming tale that will have you grinning from ear to ear one minute and gushing with tears the next.

What makes Finding Your Feet so involving is the beautifully fleshed-out characters. Lady Sandra Abbott may come across as unlikable and toffee-nosed initially, but the film takes time to peel back the layers so that your sympathies fully lie with her by the end of it. She’s also brilliantly played by Imelda Staunton who never really disappoints in any role. In fact, the talent on display here is really top drawer stuff. Timothy Spall particularly impresses with his moving performance as does the always reliable Celia. It’s also always a joy to see Joanna Lumley in a role, even if her screen time is limited.

Anyone expecting to find a forgettable comedy about oldies learning to dance are in for a massive surprise as there’s so much more to Finding Your Feet than this. I wasn’t prepared for how emotionally devastating some of it was going to be. I very rarely feel my tear ducts wobbling in a film, but there were several moments in this where I thought I was going to blub, but perhaps I’m getting more emotional in my old age and can relate to the characters a bit more!

Naysayers have slammed the film for being ‘predictable’ but I’d disagree. The narrative seems to unfold with the characters, making everything far more involving than your average romcom. There’s an equal amount of comedy and tragedy to stop it from being overly sentimental and it ends on such a heart-warming note that you’d have to be made out of marble to not feel your cockles getting warm. This is a truly special little film which deserves to be watched time and time again in the calibre of other British comedies such as Bridget Jones and Love Actually.

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Halloween (2018)

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Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak

The High Noon of horror

Oh look it’s that time of year again! Because nine sequels, one remake and a sequel to that remake wasn’t quite enough, Blumhouse have only gone and produced another bleedin’ horror featuring the William Shatner mask-wearing madman, Michael Myers. In fact, this sequel makes all the other Halloween movies obsolete by totally ignoring their existence. It’s a very wise move considering that Jamie Lee was unwisely bumped off in 2002 so that a cliché-ridden teen slasher film could follow. This sequel could’ve been equally as terrible, however I’m relieved to say that it’s not.

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I’ve seen every Halloween film so I consider myself quite a fan and it excites me to say that this is unquestionably the best sequel in the franchise and may even be as good as the original. David Gordon Green has put all the tired slasher tropes in the corner and actually focused on making a good film. It opens fairly bizarrely with a couple of Brits visiting old Michael in his maximum security asylum for their podcast, hoping that he’ll have something to say for himself after over forty years of silence. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t. Then the title hits the screen and John Carpenter’s beautiful score fills the air and you realise that this film really has got back to the basics, in the best possible Scream 4 kind of way.

We then get to see the ultimate final girl, Laurie Strode who’s looking quite different to how she was imagined in H20. To say that the events in 1978 traumatised her would be an understatement. This Laurie is utterly obsessed with the idea of Michael returning so she’s created a little fortress in the middle of nowhere and laden it with traps to capture him once and for all. This has understandably put a strain on the relationship with her daughter, but her granddaughter seems pretty groovy with it. The new characters are all interesting and relevant to the story, however the film doesn’t take long to get into the character we really want to see.

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As if by fate, Michael manages to escape after some bright spark decided it’d be a good idea to transfer him and a load of other loons to another loony bin. Seeing him wondering around the streets and heartlessly butchering random people is thrilling and chilling in equal measure. Out of all the Halloween films, I’d say that Michael definitely gets the most screen time in this one, which is fantastic news. He’s also never looked better, Halloween proves to be a masterclass of lighting and camerawork. It’s incredibly well-made for a slasher film and David Gordon Green isn’t afraid to show some creative flair behind the camera.

In the style of High Noon, however, the film is basically one big build up to the showdown between Michael and Laurie. It’s very well executed and when the climax does arrive, it’s every bit as thrilling and unpredictable as you could hope for. The suspense and intensity levels are very high and less hokey than the fight in H20. In the end, you couldn’t have asked for more in a Halloween sequel. You couldn’t really have asked for a better face off.

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Horror fans will also be pleased to know that the body count is very high and pretty violent at times. Of course this doesn’t make it a better film, but it makes it far more entertaining to watch. It’s also not afraid to make you laugh and I was surprised to find myself laughing amongst moments of dreadful horror. It’s also worth noting that Jamie Lee brings her all into the role and it’s humbling to see that she hasn’t forgotten the character that turned her into the superstar we know her today as. Halloween isn’t just the best sequel in the franchise, it also proves itself to be one of the finest slashers to come out in the past two decades.

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A Star is Born (2018)

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Stars: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliot

A Miracle Birth

Cooper’s A Star Is Born had everything going against it when it was announced. Hollywood is renowned for its lack of originality but remaking a film for a third time is garishly lazy, even for them! It began with Janet Gaynor in 1937, then Judy Garland had a go in 1954 before passing the song-and-dance baton onto Barbra Streisand in 1976. I mean, how many times can a star really be born? Well, apparently the answer is at least four times as our Lady Gaga is now having a go playing the reluctant starlet rising to fame. Gaga wouldn’t have been an obvious choice for a leading lady after her horrendously wooden stint in American Horror Story which bizarrely earned her a Golden Globe. Type-cast pretty-boy, Bradley Cooper also wouldn’t spring to mind as the perfect leading man, let alone as writer and director. The whole project sounded doomed from the beginning.

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However, ladies and gents, take those cynical hats off because by some miracle turn, Bradley Cooper’s version of A Star is Born isn’t just good, it’s pretty much great on all levels. Following in the footsteps of the 70’s Barbra Streisand version, Cooper unsurprisingly decides to focus on the music industry rather than the movies. This means that both leads find themselves outside of their comfort zones as Cooper must pretend to be a world-class singer and Gaga has to do a Cher and become both a phenomenal singer and actress at the same time. Somehow, they both manage to pull it off.

Bradley Cooper is more known for his comedy roles in The Hangover and the films of Academy favourite, David O Russell (The Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle etc.) and has given no indication of just how far he can stretch his acting abilities. Here, he completely transforms himself into Jack, the raging alcoholic with a troubled past and a penchant for popstars. I’d certainly be very surprised if he doesn’t earn an Oscar nomination for his performance which at times feels painfully all too real. Gaga also impresses as Ally, although this is a role which doesn’t particularly stretch her as an actress. A popstar playing a popstar rising to fame wasn’t exactly going to be difficult for her, at one point she mentions being signed with Interscope Records (her actual record label) and you wonder if she’s really acting at all. She really does mesmerise in the singing department, however, and the scenes involving heated arguments feel frighteningly genuine.

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The plot itself sticks quite faithfully to all the other Star is Born’s. Alcoholic superstar falls for talented nobody and transforms her into a superstar whilst he spirals into a deadly hole of addiction, whilst almost derailing her career. It’s a very simple story and the film does feel quite overlong. The first half is the strongest and paciest section. After about and hour or so, the film does start to feel a little repetitive and I was left wondering where else it was going to go. What packs a real punch though is the ending. Of course, it won’t come as any surprise for those who have seen any of the other versions of the story, but here it’s no less powerful and executed pretty much to perfection.

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Cooper’s directing is also very arresting. There’s a very raw and real feel to whole film which grounds the film in a reality rarely seen in Hollywood blockbusters. The camerawork is often handheld and intimate so that we always feel close to the characters and their lives. Whilst I wouldn’t quite say that the film is an instant classic like some critics, A Star is Born is well worth your time. If not least for the powerful ending which sees both Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga at the very top of their respective games.

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The Ritual (2017)

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Director: David Bruckner

Stars: Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier

Lads holiday gets ruined by gigantic moose man

You’d think people would’ve got the idea now. Don’t go into the woods! Especially if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, in a Scandinavian country, with only a compass to rely on. The Ritual might not be all that original but it’s a solidly made little film which will certainly appease hungry horror fans who live for watching a group of friends get butchered one by one. It also ends up becoming surprisingly layered and moving, it’s certainly more intelligent than the B-movie exterior it hides behind.

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It’s a premise we’ve all seen before. In fact it’s exactly the kind of formula The Cabin in the Woods was poking fun at, there even happens to be a cabin in the woods, would you believe it! A group of thirtysomething men decide to go on a walking holiday (which is a bit of an oxymoron, but there you go, some people enjoy it) after their friend gets brutally murdered by some crackheads robbing a corner shop. He was the only one who wanted to go on a Scandinavian hiking trip so they all go in tribute to him. Unfortunately, Rafe Spall is now wracked with guilt because he did nothing to help his friend and instead cowardly hid behind an aisle, which is something we’d all probably do if we were put into that godawful situation.

Alone in the gorgeous Swedish outback, one moaning member of the group bruises his ankle so they decide to take a short-cut through some deep woodland which has ‘Blair Witch’ written all over it. They’re not even that phased by a deer hanging on a tree with its guts pouring out, they just want to get some rest in an old creepy cabin which has an even creepier Wicker Man-esque moose/reindeer thing upstairs. The film does an excellent job of building up a sense of foreboding and threat. You know something isn’t  right but you can’t quite work out what’s going on. It’s a film which keeps you guessing right up until the surreal third act.

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Some have said that the film is at its best when it’s hinting at things in the shadows and that’s sort of true, but you’d surely be disappointed if the evil was never revealed. There’s a great sense of friendship with the cast of characters and for a horror film, it’s actually very well-acted. You believe everything which is going on, which is important in a film which gradually gets more and more bonkers as it goes on. It’s also nice to see a more mature British cast in a slasher flick instead of a bunch of whiny Americans. Who would’ve thought Thomas Barrow from Downton Abbey would be under attack in the woods?

Lots of people have expressed dislike towards the ending, but for me that’s when I realised that the film was actually more intelligent than what it’s given credit for. It instead becomes a kind of parable for facing your demons and accepting your faults. Like the creature is symbolic for grief in The Babadook, the one here is also symbolic if you dig deep enough. If you don’t take the ending too literally then you’ll find it to be surprisingly touching and meaningful, it certainly stayed with me after the credits rolled.

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The Ritual is a good example of a supernatural slasher flick albeit not exactly an original one. its high production values are let down by the formulaic screenplay which enables you to predict the direction in which it’s heading. It also bordered on the ridiculous at times, although I do admire films which decide to take a more surreal route. All in all, if you’re a horror fan you’ll find a lot to appreciate in The Ritual. Even though it doesn’t offer much new, there’s certainly worse ways to kill ninety minutes.

Get Out (2017)

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Director: Jordan Peele

Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener

Horror at the Oscars? Get in!

It’s been about one whole year since Jordan Peele’s Get Out was unleased onto cinemas and I’ve only just managed to see it! I call myself a seasoned horror fan but why on Earth did it take me so long to see a four-time Oscar nominated horror film? You know it has to be special when the Academy (who famously shun all genre movies) consider giving it a gong for Best Picture. After all, Get Out is the first all-out horror film to be nominated in the category since The Exorcist in 1973. Unless you decide to count the likes of Black Swan and The Silence of the Lambs which have elements of horror but are no where near as obvious as this film.

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Is it all that superior then? Personally I think we’ve seen better recently in films such as The Witch and It Follows, but there’s no denying that it’s a cut above the rest. It’s certainly far more intelligent than most films nowadays, which the Academy miraculously realised after awarding it an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay last night. It follows black British star Daniel Kaluuya as he goes to meet his white girlfriend’s parents at their large middle-class home. Everything seems fine a first but gradually things start to take a sinister turn as some very white guests arrive and seem to almost close in on our black hero. To say anything else would be to ruin the terrific surprises in store, I went in knowing almost nothing about the plot and was certainly all the better for it.

Get Out takes a simple horror movie premise and turns it into a thoughtful and scarily plausible satire about racism. What’s nice is that it doesn’t shove it down our throats in a ham-fisted way like say, Mother! (which I loved, I must say) but there’s stuff for keener viewers to dig in to. It never patronises its audience and is always interested in building up a sense of paranoia and suspense around a likable protagonist who we can all root for. It also manages to provide an exciting third act which manages to satisfy and thrill in equal measure.

GET OUT, Daniel Kaluuya, 2017. ©Universal Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

It’s difficult to believe that this is Jordan Peele’s debut film. The technical competence is pretty outstanding, although he has had plenty of experience starring in film and TV before so he must’ve learned something about being behind the camera whilst being in front of it! He shows great flair and vision behind the camera, always remaining focused and expertly building tension. Where most directors would go in for the heavy-handed approach, Peele uses subtlety and restraint. Even the barmy revelation is presented with such confidence, that you don’t doubt the logic for a second.

Get Out might not be the ground-breaking classic you were hoping for, but it’s certainly a fine horror film with enough comedy to comfortably cleanse your pallet. Despite always having its tongue in cheek, it carries an important message about liberal racism and does an excellent job at making the audience feel what it’s like to be a black man in modern America. The ending perhaps could’ve been less predictable and convenient, but Get Out offers plenty of hidden riches in repeated viewings.

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Coco (2017)

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Director: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina

Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt

Another first-rate animation from Pixar? I should coco!

Pixar needn’t fear about entering the land of the dead after Coco dazzling audiences and critics alike. They’ve been teetering lately with their three most recent films (The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory and Cars 3) all of which received relatively mixed reviews from a studio who have churned out more timeless animations than any other. Coco sees them back on top form though by emotionally weaving an engaging and constantly surprising story about family, love and loss.

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It follows a spirited Mexican lad called Miguel who wants nothing more than to be a musician. Unfortunately for him, his family are from a long line of music-haters after Miguel’s great great great grandmother’s husband left her and her daughter alone in order to pursue a career in music. Since then every child from the family has been raised to detest all kinds of music (as any sane family would do) which means Miguel has to tinkle his ivories in secret whilst worshipping his superstar musical idol, Ernesto De La Cruz. For reasons never quite explained, Miguel ends up in the Mexican land of the dead where a madcap adventure ensues, never failing to entertain along the way.

Coco fools you initially by pretending to be a straightforward family adventure film with stunning visuals and cute characters, but a genuinely shocking third act twist reveals itself to be so much more. It’s quite barmy how a film targeted for children is more unpredictable than the majority of films aimed at adults in this day and age. Nevertheless, this is Pixar and we all know that despite being family friendly, they’re really made for adults!

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What makes the film so memorable though is its pure emotion. Pixar have been pulling at our heartstrings for years from the infamous opening of Up to the tragic demise of Bing Bong in Inside Out. I’m happy to say that Coco is no exception. I’m not one to cry in films but I must admit to being quite choked up several times in Coco, particularly in its closing moments. This isn’t manipulative, sugary, trying-desperately-hard-to-make-you-cry kind of emotion seen in the likes of the recent Wonder but genuine tear duct pulling. This is a film which genuinely cares about its characters so the audience does too.

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Some people are calling this the best Pixar film ever but I think that’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. It lacks the innovation of say, Inside Out and the comedy of Up but that’s not say it’s a great film because it is. Pixar have just churned out such a high calibre of animated features that to say one is better than the other doesn’t really count for much. Coco will certainly be beloved for years to come though, I know I’ll be watching it with my kids all the time if anyone would have them with me!

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