The Witch (2016)

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Director: Robert Eggers

Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie

A future horror classic

This ain’t no Hocus Pocus kids! Witches aren’t usually the first port of call when coming up with horror film ideas. They work well with family film’s like Nicholas Roeg’s surreal adaptation of Roald Dhal’s The Witches but can cackling old women with pointy hats and broomsticks scare grown adults? After seeing Robert Egger’s striking debut, the answer would seem to be a resounding yes. The Witch is the best horror film since Kill List and is sure to become a future horror classic. I like to think of myself as a hardened horror movie nut but The Witch did actually manage to scare me, more so than the recent It Follows and The Babadook.

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It’s a fairytale for adults and Robert Egger goes down alleys as dark as a film can get. Within the first five or ten minutes, I could tell that I’d be in for a stunning ride as we’re treated to some seriously nightmarish imagery involving a naked old woman smothering herself in the blood of a baby, accompanied by a screeching score which is sure to give you the shivers. Terrifying sequences like this appear sporadically through the film so it never feels overdone, it just adds to the mounting tension in each scene until it explodes into the most wonderfully indulgent finale.

A lot of films set in medieval times can be a bit trying. A Field in England and Black Death both felt like the setting let the film down by getting bogged down in confusing olde worlde Shakespearean-esque language. However, The Witch is never anything more than compelling throughout. The sole focus of the film is the family and all the parts are acted beautifully by the relatively unknown cast. The audience becomes incredibly involved and invested in the characters so you care about what’s going to happen to them. There’s a sense of dread in every scene but you’re never quite sure about what’s going to happen next which makes for unpredictable and absorbing viewing.

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I can’t talk about The Witch without mentioning just how gorgeous the film looks. You could pretty much take any shot and hang it up for display in a gallery because it’s just beautiful to look at. The eerie shots of the deep wood reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s equally unsettling, Antichrist, however The Witch has a more fantastical quality to the images which adds to the Brothers Grimm fairytale kind of vibe. There isn’t a second in the film’s tight 90 minute running time where a shot doesn’t ooze atmosphere. It’s so refreshing to get a horror film which doesn’t rely on a few seconds of gore to shock the audience, but actually takes it time to conjure up genuinely frightening images. There’s stuff in this film which won’t leave my head for a long time after viewing it.

Equally as atmospheric as the imagery is the sound. I can’t think of a more striking score or sound design since The Shining and it helps a lot to generate such an unsettling atmosphere. The exceedingly creepy dissonant violins and loud chants build scenes up to a shattering intensity where I found myself holding my breath. In fact, the whole film has such a strange and unnerving quality to it. It feels like you’re watching something you shouldn’t. It’s no wonder that the film’s even been endorsed by the Satanic Temple itself with the Temple’s spokesperson calling it “a trans-formative Satanic experience.”

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The Witch has to be my favourite film of the year and one of my favourite horror films full stop. I found it absolutely captivating and full of tension from beginning to end. It’s pretty much as perfect as horror can get and exudes the quality of a classic chiller from the 60’s. Robert Eggers is definitely going to be a director to look out for in the future. He’s proven to critics that the horror genre is alive and well and can still genuinely scare the hell out of people. The Witch is a sensational experience for the eyes and ears, it’s cinema at its finest and is a masterpiece.

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Barry Lyndon (1975) [The Yellow Kubrick Road]

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Director: Stanley Kubrick

Stars: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee

Like watching a very old painting dry… Yet somehow it ain’t boring!

There is nothing about Barry Lyndon which is appealing to me. Everything is against it, and if it didn’t have Stanley’s name attached to it then I probably would never give it the time of day. It’s basically a three hour period drama which moves at a snail’s pace and is full of dull, stiff and unlikable characters. So, why did I like it? Why did I not find it tedious and boring? These are questions I’m still asking myself and it appears to be the hypnotic nature of Stanley’s films. 2001: A Space Odyssey is painfully slow and has no memorable characters (except HAL) yet it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

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Let’s start with its beauty. Even the haters can’t deny the sheer gorgeousness of pretty much every shot. The film opens to a haunting classical score and throws up a landscape shot which could easily be mistaken for an oil painting. Every landscape/exterior shot had my jaw on the floor at the sheer beauty of it, and I’m not one to get all excited over scenery. I don’t like to use the word ‘perfect’ because things rarely are, however that’s exactly the word I’d use to describe some of the shots. Just perfect. The costumes and sets are wonderfully lavish too and do a great job of plunging you into the life and atmosphere of those times.

Even though the film is a whopping 180 minutes there wasn’t one moment when I was bored. Perhaps some parts dragged on for a little too long in the war half, but I was never fed up and the film didn’t feel like it was three hours long. Not a lot happens but it somehow remains engrossing. It moves at its own pace and it seems to work well at creating an atmosphere that evokes its period.

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It’s a very cold film and all the characters seem distant. Even the title character doesn’t give much away, and lady Lyndon must say about four lines throughout the entire film! Something about it remains captivating though and not all of it is devoid of emotion. In fact, the scenes involving Lyndon and his son were very moving and quite powerful. It was also interesting how the film was told in two parts and both involving battlefields of one kind or another.

Unfortunately, Ryan O Neal’s performance is a little lacklustre. His Irish accent was all over the place and he didn’t entirely convince in the role. The rest of the film however is quite exquisite. It’s easy to see why people don’t like it, because even I’m not quite sure what I found so appealing about it all. It is a technical master class though, and whilst it may be a step down from 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange it is still a great film in its own right. Stanley returned to breaking the mould with his next film though, which could very well be my favourite from his filmography.

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Travel down the Kubrick road by clicking here

Mr. Turner (2014)

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Director: Mike Leigh

Stars: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville

Timothy Spall relives his teenage years

Mike Leigh is a pretty underrated director. He’s the king of British kitchen sink dramas and creating fully realised characters who the audience can fully invest in and care about. If you look at some of his very best films (Secrets and Lies, Another Year etc.) you’ll find that there’s very little in the way of plot, but because the characters are so good it doesn’t really matter. I’ve often said that good characters are even more important than a good plot. The same can be said for Mike’s latest effort which is basically 2 and a half hours of bits and bobs which still manages to be largely enthralling.

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I rarely care much about good acting, but even I couldn’t help but marvel at the superb ensemble splashed in the screen. There’s a fantastic array of Leigh regulars including Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville in minor, but memorable parts. Of course, at the centre of it all is the always marvellous Timothy Spall who has never been more marvellous and grunts ten times more than your average teenager. It’s one of those rare performances where the actor becomes the character. Tim had obviously been immersing himself in the character as he had been learning to paint for a few years in preparation of the role, which is a very Daniel Day Lewis-like stunt to perform.

Arguably the biggest character in the film, however, is Mike Leigh’s astonishing directing. Every shot is like a painting, which of course is very apt for the subject matter of the film. Again, I’m not usually the sort who weeps over scenery, but there are some shots which really took my breath away. Credit does need to be given to Dick Pope, who managed to photograph the film to perfection. He’s worked with Mike Leigh many times in the past, but Mr Turner has got to be the most visually beautiful of all his films.

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Just like the artist, Mr Turner the film is suitably unconventional in its storytelling. It has none of the traditional three act structure and is instead a collection of scenes which offer a small insight into Mr Turner’s life. It took a good half an hour for me to get into it, just because the pacing is so unhurried and there’s so little plot, however once I got into it and started to immerse myself in the world, I began to really enjoy it. There are plenty of lovely moments and some are very funny. Highlights for me include the initially moving moment when Turner paints a young lady in a brothel and starts to hysterically cry at the sadness of it all, however his sobbing is so otherworldly that it becomes incredibly comical. I also loved the cartoonish critic who’s the embodiment of snobbery.

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Mr Turner is an enigmatic little film. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about this film which I really like. I’ve not been able to shake it out my head for most of today and I can’t quite work out why. There’s something very mysterious about it which keeps you engaged. The score adds a sinister edge to the film and kind of suits the character. I liked how nothing was Hollywoodised and Turner wasn’t presented as a perfect human being. In fact, sometimes he came across as someone quite vile who takes advantage of women and neglects his children. It makes the film so much more human and engaging. I also loved the solemn ending, which was such a typical Leigh ending. It comes highly recommended from me.

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