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.

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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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Phantom Thread (2017)

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Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

A Mighty Breakfast

The movie world jumped for joy when they heard that Daniel Day-Lewis was reuniting with Paul Thomas Anderson once more for another period epic. Although it was upsetting to hear that it would be Day-Lewis’ final swansong, there was no doubt that it would be a suitable film to bow out in style with and I’m delighted to confirm that that’s true.

Although not as powerful as the duo’s previous There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread is an exquisitely crafted film with phenomenal performances and enigmatic characters that dare you never to tear your eyes from the screen. There’s a tremendous tension bubbling beneath the film’s stylish exterior, yet that tension never quite explodes in the way you might expect.

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Phantom Thread is a love story with a strange twist. It follows a fashion designer called Reynolds Woodcock who is about as fascinating as a character gets. A beyond fussy workaholic who lives with his coldly reserved sister (played beautifully by Lesley Manville) and feels utterly cursed despite living lavishly. We meet him at his lowest point during breakfast where his latest relationship is in tatters. His sister convinces him to go away for a while where he meets Vicky Krieps’ Alma, a shy waitress who becomes besotted with the eccentric genius after he orders enough food to feed the Vatican City. From then on we’re treated with the weirdly captivating ups and downs of their beyond volatile relationship.

Some might say that nothing much happens in the film’s 130 minute running time. I heard an old dear behind me say, ‘well that was far too long. I would’ve edited that down.’ But thank god they didn’t hire her as editor because there’s so much more going on beneath the surface. This is a character-driven film, very much like Anderson’s previous There Will Be Blood and The Master and as such requires multi-layered, strong performances to carry the narrative along and this film does so in spade loads.

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It doesn’t come as much surprise that Daniel Day-Lewis gives an outstanding Oscar-worthy performance given that the man already has three of them. It would be wonderful to see him win a record-breaking fourth but it looks as though this year belongs to Gary Oldman. He completely transforms into the character and was extreme as ever when preparing for the role. Everyone on set had to refer to him as his character’s name and he even learnt how to sew and make dresses. The result is another astonishing performance, if it really is his final film then it’s a pretty spectacular exit.

Equally as magnetic is Vicky Krieps, a relatively unknown actress from Luxembourg who is entirely believable as the young muse falling head over heels in love with Woodcock’s peculiar charm. Lesley Manville is also quietly hilarious as the ultra-frosty sister whom Woodcock adores. In fact there’s a quiet hilarity running through the entire film. Woodcock’s eccentricities make him appear as a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode at any moment. The slightest noise at breakfast riles him, as does cooking anything in butter. His outbursts are both funny and sad at the same time. Funny because they seem so trivial and sad because this is obviously a man who struggles to find happiness in anything despite having it all.

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The film is also beautiful to look at, as any film about beauty and the fashion industry should be. You could proudly roll it down the catwalk for everyone to marvel at. Anderson even worked as his own director of photography for the film and the result is luscious imagery, some even quite haunting. There’s a heightened sense of reality in the film which makes it feel dreamlike in quality.

In some ways Phantom Thread is the opposite of There Will Be Blood. It’s far more subtle and contained with most of the drama happening within Woodcock’s majestic home. It doesn’t have the same raging intensity and is instead surprisingly tender. It leaves you with much to think about and even if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like their films to leave them thinking, you can’t help but be astounded by the highest calibre of acting. Films like this don’t come around too often so let’s treasure it and cherish it even more so that it could be the last time we see the greatest actor of our generation on screen.

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The Greatest Showman (2017)

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Director: Michael Gracey

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron

P.T Barnum Would Be Dancing In His Grave

“Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve waited for” are the first words Hugh Jackman warbles in this box office smash hit. I’m not entirely sure that the world has been waiting for a jazz-handed, all-singing, all-dancing musical about P.T Barnum (the man who invented the business of show) but the audience numbers prove otherwise. Like a bad penny, Jackman’s returned to the world of musicals, only he’s looking a little happier in this one compared to Tom Hooper’s sprawling adaptation of Les Miserables and his voice is sounding a little better too! Or is that just the autotune?

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Either way, Jackman and the rest of the cast look like they’re having the time of their lives in Michael Gracey’s infectiously joyous debut. I must admit to being a little apprehensive about seeing it, fearing the worst for a High School Musical-esque cheese-fest, but was immediately drawn in by the spectacular visuals and mighty music. From start to finish, The Greatest Showman does what P.T Barnum knew how to do best, entertain. The film moves at a glorious pace, piling on the impressive images and sounds until your senses feel overwhelmed. Gracey displays great skill and confidence from behind the camera, at best it displays similarities to Baz Luhrmann’s musical masterpiece, Moulin Rouge! It’s hard to believe that this is a film from a first-time director.

Unfortunately it’s the screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Oscar-winner Bill Condon which stop this show from soaring to the heights of Zendaya’s pink-haired trapeze artist. The story is undeniably cliché and predictable. It’s the rags to riches tale we’ve all seen countless times before, only this time with more song and dance routines. The film almost peaks too early by rushing through Barnum’s rise to stardom and then not giving our hero much to do through the rest of the running time. A flat love story is introduced between Zac Efron (who remains fully-clothed for once) and Zendaya but neither character is developed enough for us to care what happens. Shock, horror, Hugh gets too fame obsessed and ends up neglecting his wife and children only to realise his sins in the end so we can neatly tie a bow and let the credits roll. There are also moments of sugary sentimentality enough to make even the soppiest person cringe.

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But in the end none of that matters, The Greatest Showman is a pleasure of the guiltiest kind. It knows exactly what kind of film it is and it does it very well. There isn’t a duff song in the film, although that’s no surprise given that the lyrics were penned by the duo who wrote for last year’s stupendous La La Land. The choreography is also top-notch, daring you not to take your eyes away from the screen. Despisers of musicals might want to steer clear, but those who are a sucker for a catchy showtune will undoubtedly find a lot to admire. It’s perhaps not something I’d shout from the rooftops and ruin my street cred, but I was a big fan and strangely I can’t wait to see it again.

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Nothing Bad Can Happen (2013)

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Director: Katrin Gebbe

Starring: Julius Feldmeier, Sascha Alexander Gersak, Annika Kuhl

Jesus Christ!

It’s rare to find a film which manages to disturb and horrify without ever being exploitative or using cheap shock tactics like you’d see in the August Underground movies but Nothing Bad Can Happen manages to do exactly that. I came away from the film feeling drained and disturbed in a way that I haven’t felt since Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs which should certainly ring alarm bells if you can’t handle upsetting subject matters in your films. Although Nothing Bad Can Happen is undoubtedly a superb piece of filmmaking, it’s something I’d recommend with caution due to explicit sequences involving abuse of all kinds and cruelty to animals.

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The film follows the true events surrounding a young self-proclaimed ‘Jesus freak’ called Tore who happens to have some form of autism which makes him think and act very differently to others. Tore places all of his faith in Jesus Christ and is naively taken in by a truly evil family who take advantage of his absurdly good nature. It’s a fascinating meditation on evil in society and the dangers of religion. Despite being an utterly gruelling watch, Nothing Bad Can Happen never gratuitously relishes in the violence and is always focused on character and delivering a powerful message. The fact that these events are true makes the film all the more relevant and important.

First-time director Katrin Gebbe shows astonishing confidence behind the camera. Despite the ugly subject matter, the images always try to find beauty and light through the bleakness. There’s a hypnotic sense of realism to the whole film which reminded me of Justin Kurzel’s equally uncompromising Snowtown. The acting from the unknown cast is similarly impressive, particularly breakout star Julius Feldmeier in the lead who manages to make Tore an engaging and sympathetic main character. Sascha Alexander Gersak also feels toe-curlingly real as the malevolent patriarch determined to break Tore’s Holy spirit.

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You could easily mistake Nothing Bad Can Happen as being the kind of lost film in Lars Von Trier’s ‘Golden Hearts Trilogy’ which correspondingly follows mentally-challenged protagonists as they battle through life’s brutal hardships. It’s just as tough to watch as seeing Emily Watson getting stoned by feral kids or Bjork dancing desperately through life despite the world crumbling around her. It’ll be just too depressing for some people and it does get harder to watch as the film progresses but the reason I watch films is to be moved and provoked by some sort of emotional response. Nothing Bad Can Happen does this in spade loads.

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Initially appearing to be the ideal father figure, Benno, played by German actor Sascha Alexander Gersak in Nothing Bad Can Happen, shows his dark side as he mocks and violently tests a young boy’s religious fai

This is a haunting piece of work which will bury itself under your skin and stay there long after the credits roll. It’s a torturous watch at times but it carries an important message which is extremely relevant to society today. The pacing is very slow at the beginning but it’s also immersive and character-focused meaning that it’s always easy to engage with. There was not one moment where I was bored or distracted in its 110 minute running time. It’s a heart-breaking watch which will surely shake you to your core. A stunning debut but proceed with caution.

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Mother! (2017)

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Director: Darren Aronofsky

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer

House Party From Hell

With just six feature films under his belt, Darren Aronofsky is still one of the most innovative and striking directors working in Hollywood today. With his unique visual style he creates intimate stories which have the power to grip you by the throat until the very last shot. ‘Black Swan’ is probably my favourite film of the last decade so you can imagine my delight at discovering that Darren had been secretly filming Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in a horror film for God knows how many months. It was a shock well worthy of the cheeky exclamation mark pegged onto the title. It looked as though Darren had returned to his melodramatic roots after spending years working on a forgettable biblical epic.

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Although ‘Mother!’ also has biblical overtones, it’s perhaps less obvious than watching Noah’s ark rock around a stormy ocean. It is interesting to note, however the almighty split of opinions on Aronofsky’s latest work of art. People talk all the time about ‘marmite’ films, where critics and audiences alike seem to adore or outright detest a film for equally valid reasons and ‘Mother!’ is exactly that. Some find it tedious and ridiculous, whilst others find it gripping and intoxicating in the best possible way. I must admit that when I first saw the film, it completely went against my expectations and I was left sitting in a rare state of shock trying to process what I had just seen. Suffice to say that after about 10 minutes, my opinion landed directly on the ‘love it’ side of the fence.

The less you know about ‘Mother!’ the better the experience will be so I won’t delve into plot points. The biggest surprise for me was discovering how funny the film is. The trailers make it out to be like some sort of hardcore horror movie in the vein of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ meets ‘Repulsion’ but I was amazed to find myself laughing so much, particularly in the first half. The preposterousness of the situations make for darkly comic viewing in a similar kind of way to ‘Calvaire’ a Belgian horror film with equally pitch-black comedy. It could be mistaken for bad writing, but it’s entirely intentional. It all comes from the fact that J-Law’s character is presented as the only sane person who the audience can relate to, whereas pretty much every other character is totally unrelatable.

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The film builds slowly but always intrigues. Just like Natalie Portman’s Nina in ‘Black Swan’ J-Law’s titular ‘Mother!’ character is always shown in tight close-ups with the camera intensely following her every move. It makes for claustrophobic and uncomfortable viewing at times, particularly as the action never moves away from the house, which makes the insane third act work even more effectively for it. The point of view is also very subjective, it’s made clear that Jennifer isn’t quite right in the head and we see all her strange and horrifying delusions as if we were in her shoes. It’s fantastically focused filmmaking (nice bit of alliteration there for you) which helps to build up the intensity.

The first half might seem more than a bit weird to most moviegoers but it isn’t anything compared to the hysterical second half which has to contain some of the most insane sequences ever committed to film. I won’t go into details but I was left feeling incredibly stressed and bemused which is exactly how the film wants you to feel. Visually it’s astonishing and some of the camerawork is dizzyingly terrific. It also contains some seriously shocking content which left my mouth agape and I’m someone who considers themselves to be a hardened horror nut. It’s the kind of big budget surrealism which is devastatingly lacking in Hollywood.

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Of course none of it is supposed to be taken at face value and there are plenty of metaphors to chew over after the film has finished. It’s just a shame that Darren and Jennifer have been so open about what the film is actually about as it means that the sense of mystery has gone already. The film could’ve and should’ve been left up to interpretation. Directors such as David Lynch and Michael Haneke would never dream of telling audiences what their films are about because every audience member’s ideas are valid and have meaning to them. Anyhow, although the metaphors and symbolism are a little heavy-handed in the film, they are no less brilliant and intelligent.

It’s also worth mentioning the excellent performances in the film. Although that really doesn’t come as a surprise when you have heavyweights like Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem and Michelle Pfeiffer starring all in the same film. Each role is very challenging though and the fact that they all pulled each part off and made it believable is a credit to them. The real star of the show though is Darren Aronofsky whose directing style manages to unequivocally sweep audiences away on a mad, horrifying journey which isn’t soon forgotten. ‘Mother!’ is a very special film. It’s divisive but most great works of art are. You will get a strong reaction, no matter who you are or what that reaction might be.

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