Rewatch: Raw (2016)

Raw was my favourite film of 2017. Without a doubt. I saw it several times in the cinema and I’ve watched it so many times at home. It’s everything I want from a film, I can’t find anything wrong with it. It’s clever, it’s darkly funny and it’s also very accurate in it’s depiction of university life. I wrote a short piece on it for a magazine I write for and I called it the cannibal film we wanted but got Eli Roth’s Green Inferno instead.

For those of you who are not familiar with the premise of the film, this is what it’s about. Garance Marillier plays Justine, who follows her parents and sister’s footsteps into a veterinary school. A brutal rite of passage includes getting blood dumped on the new students and force them to eat a small animal liver. This does not sit well with the vegetarian Justine who breaks out in a horrible rash and then some. It seems that her coming of age is a tiny bit more bloody as she develops a taste for meat and not just beef and chicken, but human.

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No summary can do justice for Julia Ducornau’s film. It’s inventive and hypnotising in its approach to growing up, finding your sexuality and becoming this whole new person you didn’t know existed. Justine is naive and childish, which makes her transformation into a man-eating beast even more satisfying, because she is almost annoyingly sweet in the beginning. Although she might now crave a bit of human flesh, she never becomes a true monster, she fights to keep her humanity. She is trying to find a way to remain herself while horrific transformations take place in her body. Don’t we all. Her changes mimic our own, even if we never developed a taste for human burgers. There are new sensations, new found confidence and sexuality and a sense of being comfortable in your own body, because finally you have some say over how to use it and what for.

Ducornau deals with Justine’s sexuality admirably. Maybe it’s because the film is French, but Justine’s budding sexuality and its emergence is dealt frankly and honestly. Her first sexual encounter with her roommate is wild, animalistic and erotic, which is a change to all those awkward first encounters, with sheets magically covering everyone’s private parts. The sex is about her, about her satisfaction and her needs. As she climaxes, she bites down on her own arms, drawing blood.

The film ultimately boils down to the relationship between the two sisters and that’s what I fell in love with on my first viewing. Alexia is wild, out of control and a cool party girl, where as Justine is quiet and shy. The two couldn’t be more different and it’s the cannibalism, which turns out to be a family trait, brings them closer in ways you can’t imagine. The last act of the film is as horrifying as it is emotional. The sisters love and hate each other in equal measure, they’re too different, but crafted from the same tree. They share a genetic bond, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will get on. At the end of the day, they’re still family though. Alexia commits a heinous crime, one that isn’t only gruesome, but also hurts her sister more than anything. When Justine discovers this, she’s angry and she places a ski-pole on her sisters forehead, ready to plunge it in there and deliver a final blow to end the madness. But how could she? They’re the same and they have to stay together. The sisterly bond is one that cannot be broken, it seems.

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Jim Williams’ score is one of the best film scores. It draws you in and it really drives the film forward. I still listen to it and every time I hear the Main theme, I get goosebumps.  Electronic film scores have become a trend lately, especially in horror films, but rarely are they this effective and able to draw such an emotional response. Williams’ score never overtakes the visual imagery, but provides an essential companion, like all the best scores. Hearing a song will remind you of specific visual images in this case and that’s powerful.

Raw was called a feminist film and there were also many reports about audience members fainting at the over the top gore in the film. Both are true and false. The film isn’t necessarily feminist, but a very female-centric film, focuse largely on the female experience of growing up, in Raw‘s case in a very horrific way. Justine goes through what most opf us go through in uni. We become independent, but the process is scary and littered with bad sexual experiences and uncertain emotions and of course, too much alcohol. Ducornau never hides how emotionally abusive the experience can be on the female psyche. In Raw the experience manifests in what is almost a physical as well as an emotional transformation for Justine.

Raw is gory. Of course it’s gory, it’s a film about cannibalism. It’s never needlessly gory nor does it glorify violence. Raw is an intelligent film about growing up. The film is never about a cannibal, it’s about the changes we all go through in our adolescence and how we adapt to them. In Justine’s case, she has to adapt to the desire to consume human flesh as well as her new relationship with her sister. Thigns really aren’t the same after your sister munches on your first love. Grim.

Stay Excellent, and watch Raw!

Maria

“Well, somebody’s got to do something!” First Reformed Review

First Reformed opens with a shot of a church. The slow, creeping shot sets the tone for the rest of the film. This is not the film for the fast and the furious, but the meditative and tormented. The church is shot from a low angle, which makes it look much bigger than it really is. Much like God.

Paul Schrader’s excellent First Reformed deals with one man’s crisis of faith. Not just a spiritual crisis, but also a crisis about one’s role in the universe. Will God forgive us? That’s the question tormenting Reverend Toller whose shortcomings in life haunt him. Toller writes a diary, which is also read in heavy voiceover. The diary, as well as the film, is a brutally honest take on a sick man’s life, which is filled with despair and whiskey. He meets a local pregnant woman, Mary who asks Toller to speak with her husband Michael, who is struggling with his own demons. Michael wants Mary to get rid of their baby because he’s against bringing a child into a world like this. Despite Toller’s best intentions to help him, Michael kills himself. Toller gets caught up in the aftermath and starts researching Michael’s enviromental activism with disastrous consequences.

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First Reformed shares a lot of DNA with Schrader’s early work, most of all, Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote. While Toller might not quite reach Travis Bickle -level madness, First Reformed is a scary film. It starts as an honest portrait of a man in crisis, but changes into a chilling account of Toller’s struggles and humanity’s mistakes, how much destruction we as individuals as well as a species can cause. The scariest part is that Michael actually has a very good, very well researched point to his argument. Why would we bring a child into a world like ours? One character notes that their (much older) generation wouldn’t even recognise this world we live in now, so much has it changed. It’s all true and Toller struggles with this knowledge. First Reformed feels timeless, even though it’s specifically mentioned to take place in 2017. Toller has an old flip phone and no new technology apart from laptops make apperances. The story could take place in any decade and it’s refreshing to see such a contemporary film that doesn’t waste time making statements about social media and our addiction to the gadgets in our lives. This is about one man and his inner life. Simple, but effective and compelling.

Schrader filmed the film in a 1.37:1 ratio, which frames the characters tightly, trapping them into a box on the screen. Schrader avoids closeups and too many cuts; First Reformed is a slow, quiet film, which will leave the viewer devastated by the end. It sneakily wraps its’ celluloid hands around your throat and when the film abrubtly cuts to black before credits start rolling, you realise you haven’t taken a breath for a while. Even after leaving the cinema, I felt like I was still being strangled by the weight of Schrader’s film. I felt a strong connection with Toller. While I’m not a guilt-ridden man of the cloth, surely we all struggle with the madness of life and the insanity of the world we are living in, but that is our own creation.

First Reformed is heavy on metaphors and spiritualism, naturally. Toller is a sick man, one who slowly poisons himself with alcohol despite being told to stop. After becoming concerned about the environment and wanting to punish those who pollute it, it’s ironic that he would still keep polluting his own body, which is meant to be a temple and a vessel for God’s work. Toller’s life is without hope, until Mary arrives. Mary, a name with religious connotations, is carrying a child, new life. She represents hope, a new beginning for Toller. The ending, which I don’t want to spoil here, is a delirious one and open for interpretation. It seems to be a happy ending though, with Toller finding hope again or at least meaning. Schrader toys with the abstract and while most of the film is dead serious and imitates the greyness of real life, he offers solace in moments like this. There’s a fantastic scene where Mary is frightened and ask Toller to lay down while she lies on top of him. Suddenly the two start levitating over mountains and cities. It’s a strange moment in a film that is a very literal in it’s dialogue and approach, but it gives us a moment to breathe and just to admire.

Ethan Hawke turns in his best performance to date. Rarely is he bad, but in First Reformed he is simply on fire. It’s largely a one-man show, focusing solely on Toller, but Amanda Seyfried is memorable as Mary. The relationship between a priest and a grieving mother-to-be is a strange one, almost an uncomfortable one. Although Schrader goes out of his way to make sure no sexual desire is ever implied between the two, the two share a strange bond, as if tethered to each other through their losses and struggles.

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First Reformed is not an easy watch and I would struggle to recommend the film, because it’s an exhausting watch. It grips you. It silently shocks you. Schrader uses music sparingly and the silence is deafening at times. Music often offers the audience a relief, but Schrader denies us this. If Toller suffers, so should we. In this sense First Reformed isn’t a film that is to be enjoyed and consumed passively, but something that should jolt you awake. First Reformed imitates life by denying us the one thing that often drags us to the cinema: escapism. First Reformed doesn’t allow us to escape the real world, but actually forces us to face the world and the damage we have done to it and to humanity. There’s a little Toller in us all.

Stay Excellent.

Maria

“We can still think our own thoughts” Leave No Trace Review

Does anyone remember a time before Jennifer Lawrence was the biggest movie star on this planet? Me neither, but I do remember the film that made her the biggest movie star on this planet. It was Winter’s Bone, a tiny indie film that somehow managed to score a few Oscar noms, including one for Lawrence. What a film and performance that was. Winter’s Bone was directed by one Debra Granik who has been laying low since, but she’s now back, better than ever.

Leave No Trace follows father and daughter, Will and Tom, who live in an urban park, away from the busy streets of Portland and other people. Living in isolation, surrounded by nature, the pair live off the land and make very few trips to the busy city. This is a lifestyle choice for the two, who just prefer the peace and quiet really. It might also have something to do with the PTSD that Will, a war veteran, suffers from. A small mistake by Tom leads to the authorities finding them and taking them away from their home and into the city. While Will seems to suffer from the move, Tom is conflicted by her love and devotion to her father and the new life she finds exciting. When Will decides to head back into a life of isolation in the woods, Tom is forced to choose between her dad and her new life.

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Leave No Trace is not a big film. There are no big, heartfelt moments or big escapes from the police, no car chases or tear-jerking moments. It’s all relatively normal and quiet, human-like. A film like this is powered by the performances and Granik’s powerful, but reserved direction. She understands that the filmmaking and the end product should never be about her, but about the story and the performances. Leave No Trace is nonetheless the most authentically emotional film we’re gonna see this year. It doesn’t force your tears, but it earns them. If you didn’t cry at the end, you’re dead inside.

Ben Foster is magnificent. He turns in a reserved but powerful performance as Will. Will is traumatised by his experiences in the war and he turns into the antagonist of the story here, but never a villain. While he holds Tom back for selfish reasons, Foster makes you care for Will and his troubled soul. Foster has always had the ability to transform himself for any role, like a chameleon. Leave No Trace is his most ordinary and stripped down performance and possibly his best.

Thomasin McKenzie is an instant star and it’s impossible not to compare her turn as Tom to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in Winter’s Bone. Both performances are stripped, raw and honest, but while Lawrence was full of contempt and equipped with a tough attitude, McKenzie is full of resilience, wonder and tender love. It’s equally powerful, just not as showy, but make no mistake, she is a superstar in the making, just like Lawrence was all those years ago.

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Granik’s direction is subtle, but every frame is filled with meaning and honesty. She finds truth in the most unusual places and images, crafting a painfully authentic tale of a girl between a rock and a hard place. Granik never treats Tom as a child, but as a young woman who is able to take care of herself, but who is treated like a victim by others. Some will always say films like Leave No Trace are films about nothing and some will doze off during the film. Nothing much happens but that certainly doesn’t make for a boring film. Leave No Trace is captivating and engaging, but asks you for an attention span greater than 5 seconds at a time. The film is nothing short of incredible.

Stay excellent!

Maria

“Women always have to put up a fucking fight!” Revenge as a post-#MeToo film

Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge is an astonishing accomplishment. I saw it a couple of months ago and I’ve been itching to write about it ever since. It’s a perfect example of visceral female filmmaking.

Rape-revenge films were made popular in the 70s by the likes of I Spit On Your Grave (also known as Day of the Woman) and The Last House on The Left, which was the late, great Wes Craven’s debut film. The premise of these films is often ridiculously simple. Woman gets raped, woman takes revenge, finito. However, what lies beneath the surface of these films is usually what draws the spectator in; what really grips our attention and makes us commit ourselves to watching unspeakable horrors. They are often a commentary on class and gender inequality, rape culture and the male and female gaze. However, at their worst and too often these films are pure violence and spectacle, which is a shame because Revenge really shows that the genre still has something to say.

Fargeat’s Revenge is a beast of its own and although it would be easy to compare to previous rape-revenge films, it shouldn’t. Fargeat has taken the rape-revenge genre and ever so cleverly and quietly twisted it. I say quietly, because Fargeat so sneakily turns the tables around on us that it takes a while to register that you are watching something different, something new and exciting. While never fully transcending the genre’s limitations, it’s a glorious film that demands to be seen many times to fully unpack its offerings. Needless to say, it comes at exactly the right time with #MeToo and TimesUp movements.

What I found equally interesting and creepy is that at the screening I attended, a quiet Sunday afternoon in Central London, I was the only female present. Men of all ages and races took their seats around me to watch brutal sexual violence and just good old plain violence towards women about to unfold and I felt very uncomfortable for some reason. By the end of it, I felt empowered to be the last woman standing. Although I was the only one to begin with… Anyway.

Fargeat begins her film provocatively and fully embracing the male gaze that dominates the films we are used to. Her doomed protagonist Jen is presented as the ultimate eye candy for lustful men. Erotically sucking on a lollipop and immediately initiating oral sex with her wealthy, but married lover Richard in his holiday home in the desert, she is the forbidden fruit. The camera swirls around her smooth and young body, almost teasing the audience with its overly sexualised imagery. Richard’s hunting pals arrive a day early to the happy couple’s surprise and after a night of drinking, Jen seductively dances with one of them, grinding her forbidden body on Stan, making him feel wanted and desired. So when she rejects him the next day, it’s almost too easy to blame the rape of Jen. Right? WRONG. Fargeat dares to ask this and to show Jen as an individual who loves her body and her sexuality. But to assume that this is asking for rape is exactly what Fargeat hopes the audience will trip on.

Interestingly, Fargeat keeps her protagonist quiet for a painfully long time. Jen has no dialogue until after she has performance a sexual act. Even her first actual line of dialogue is slightly muffled. She is defined by her sexuality and looks and she has no voice. The silence is deafening. This is something she must break free from in order to survive her ordeal. Early on in the film, Jen leaves an apple she was eating on the kitchen counter. The apple stays there and rots along with the men of the film. The more disgusting the men’s behaviour gets, the more rotten the apple appears. Ants are crawling on the apple. Actually, there are ants everywhere in the film. They’re all over Jen and everything she touches, much like the men. The ants end up drowning in her blood. Guess what happens to the men.

Fargeat’s gender politics are complex and interesting. In Revenge, she presents the viewer with three types of toxic masculinity. First type is represented by Stan, who commits the act of rape but isn’t your usual film rapist. Whereas many films tend to overly simplify the role and show rapists as dumb, violent and lower class, Stan is surprisingly normal and relatable in the sense that he is hurt by Jen’s rejection and his motives are driven by his pain. This is not to say that Stan isn’t a disgusting human being, but Fargeat dares to show a more humane version of a character that’s easy to portray as a caricature and it makes the rape even more horrifying, because we all know a Stan. He’s insecure, always in Richard’s shadow and feels the need to be validated sexually. Jen’s rejection is almost an act of castration and he redeems his masculinity by taking what he not only needs to feel like a real man, but what he believes is rightfully his; Jen’s body.

Second is Dimitri. He is the passive male, who allows the rape to happen and ignores Jen’s agonised screams. He sees Jen crying, he hears her screams, but doesn’t stop chewing on his sweets and simply backs away and turns the TV on louder to muffle her screams. Third is Richard. Richard as a character is a fascinating one. He is at first presented as an affectionate and loving boyfriend and even gets appropriately angry after he finds out about the rape. One might even be fooled to believe he might punish Stan. One is wrong however as Richard tries to make the problem, Jen, disappear, going as far as pushing her off a cliff to her death.

Jen lives though, rising from the dead like a phoenix. She literally rises from the ashes of the tree she burns to release herself from. Fargeat isn’t exactly subtle with her metaphors and imagery, but why would you when they’re this magnificent? Jen has been impaled by a branch, a wound that would most likely be fatal in a real life situation. Rape-revenge films often include an almost supernatural element in which the woman survives horrendous, fatal trauma to avenge herself. Fargeat’s avenging angel is however just trying to survive and escape. She’s not yet a warrior at this point.

When Jen finds Dimitri and attemps to kill him, she’s clumsy and almost gets herself killed. But she manages to overpower Dimitri by stabbing him in the eyes. Poetically, Dimitri is punished for not acting on what he saw.

A brilliantly bonkers sequence taking place in a cave with Jen tripping out on some peyote and performing some very gruesome surgery on herself is one of the films highlights, as it is here where Jen really becomes the avenging warrior. Cauterising a bleeding wound with the metal from a beer can, she brands herself with a phoenix and when she emerges from the cave, the camera once again admires her body, but this time not sexually. We are invited to admire and celebrate the strength of the female body and what it’s capable of enduring, the scars that Jen now carries as a reminder of her ordeal. Her body isn’t the childishly smooth, lustful body it once was. It’s now war-torn, dirty and bruised. Richard’s house might have been filled with expensive art pieces, but Jen’s body has become a canvas for both female empowerment and male abuse.

This is where Fargeat finally turns the tables on us. The male gaze is making way for a new gaze. Hers. She becomes the hunter who hunts her pray ruthlessly, but never losing her humanity in the process. Even when she finally reaches Stan, she is unsure and clumsy with the huge gun she is attempting to use. Fargeat doesn’t shy away from the gore; Stan steps on a piece of glass and cuts his foot badly, forcing him to pull a huge piece of glass out of his foot and Fargeat is sure to milk the scene for all its brutality. She understands the genre’s need for violence and exploitation, but she never lingers on anything needlessly while fully committing to the ultraviolent approach.

Ultimately Jen manages to kill Stan, but of course Richard is our main baddie, because he could have saved Jen an awful lot of suffering by just calling the police. Instead of throwing her off a cliff. In this sense, Revenge is the perfect post- #MeToo film, because it seeks to punish not just those directly responsible for the abuse, but those who allowed it to happen and go unreported. It treats Dimitri and Richard’s crime of not speaking out against Stan as equally severe as the act of rape itself.

Back at Richard’s house, Jen wounds Richard by stabbing him in the abdomen, penetrating him like she was forcefully penetrated. They then chase each other around the house in circles, as if the universe is shouting what goes around comes around. Richard is fully naked at this point, having been in the shower when he heard a noise. The film offers substantially more full frontal male nudity than it does female nudity. It feels completely natural, maybe because the film is a French production, they just seem better at filming naked bodies. The house is slowly filled with blood, Richard bleeding profusely everywhere. It’s visually grand, but a little sickening. For a moment it looks like Richard might actually come out of this as the winner, having been able to pin Jen down. “Women always have to put up a fucking fight!” he snarls at her. She plunges her hand in Richard’s wound and gains the upper hand, being able to retrieve her shotgun and kill Richard. She walks outside, covered in blood, dirt and scars, having become a new woman.

And what kind of a woman? The kind of a woman who puts up a fucking fight. The film’s greatest achievement is its message to women like Jen. While not encouraging violence, the film doesn’t force Jen to abandon her sexuality and punishes all three men accordingly, not just the man who physically penetrated her. Female empowerment is all over Revenge. Similar to the Final Girl trope, Jen is the last one standing, but unlike the slasher film trope, Jen isn’t a masculine female. She’s feminine, sexy and aware of the power her sexuality holds. Revenge is a bold movie, both thematically and visually. It’s a tough watch, but an important one and it clocks in at No.3 of my favourite films of 2018 so far, so do check it out and let me know what your thoughts were!

Stay excellent!

Maria

Resolution, The Endless and Spring: Time and humanity in Benson and Moorhead’s films

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead made some ripples in the horror scene a few years ago with their second feature film Spring. It was hailed as a Lovecraftian romance, a new way of doing horror and blending genres. Needless to say I was intrigued and had to get my hands on it. I fell in love with the film in the first 5 minutes which proved to be hauntingly raw and emotional.

Fast forward a few years and I’m at London Film Festival, attending some screenings and I stumble onto a screening of The Endless and was pleasantly surprised to see the names of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead on screen. I had no idea what it was about, but it went on to being one of my favourite screenings of the festival. My Limited Edition Blu-ray of The Endless arrived a couple of days ago and I’ve now held a mini Benson/Moorhead -festival by myself. I watched all three of the duos’ films, Resolution, The Endless and Spring and I have some thoughts. Get ready.

For those of you not familiar with their work, go watch the films now and then return to read this post, because there will be spoilers galore. These films won’t be ruined by knowing the twists (always a sign of a decent film), but they won’t be nearly as fun on the first watch.

All three films are completely unique in their approach and execution of some well known horror/sci-fi tropes, but not only do they take place in the same cinematic universe (my second favorite, after MCU), they also share surprisingly much DNA and themes, a sign of maturity on Moorhead and Benson’s part.

Let’s start with Spring. A story of a young man who escapes to Italy after the death of his mother and a violent incident following her funeral. In a small Italian town he meets a mysterious lady in a red dress, who he can’t stop thinking about. Too bad she’s a shapeshifting monsterlady. Spring is like Before Sunrise meets Hammer horror. It’s romantic and gory in its exploration of love and eternity. It’s every horror fan’s favourite rom-com. Lou-Taylor Pucci’s Evan is a hopeless romantic and she’s an ancient beast, which makes for a surprisingly compelling on-screen pairing.

Resolution sees a man trying to sober up his best friend who is on the brink of death from drug addiction. Supernatural occurrences take over their stay in the cabin in the middle of nowhere with terrifying and violent outcomes. The Endless follows two brothers, Justin and Aaron played by directors Justin and Aaron, who return to a cult they escaped from years earlier. While seemingly normal and nice, something sinister is taking place at the camp. Residents haven’t aged at all in 10 years and something called The Ascension is about to take place. The Endless and Resolution share the same mythology and even cross paths, which makes for a thrilling viewing for Benson and Moorhead’s fans. There are more crossovers between the two films than you can process on the first viewing and while both films stand firmly on their own feet, the shared mythology and timeline give The Endless  a much more devastating layer.

Benson and Moorhead seem obsessed with time. All three films observe characters stuck in time and various loops. Louise is stuck in an eternal loop of rebirth while the characters from Resolution and The Endless are stuck in loops created by a higher being, a godlike monster who looks down on the puny humans for entertainment. Justin and Aaron are also stuck in a metaphorical loop of their own in which they are stuck in a reality they hate, but unable to break free from a crappy job and constant money struggles. Anxieties about being stuck and unable to move on from trauma are explored heavy-handedly, but effectively in all films. Interestingly, although all films have a very heavy supernatural presence in them, the film’s focus is on the characters and their relationships rather than beating the evil. The supernatural entity, a deity even, can’t be controlled or beaten, you can merely escape and hope for the best. This allows for a more engaging story and especially climax. While all films are somewhat anti-climactic in today’s terms, they are all emotionally complex enough to be satisfying and memorable.

Benson and Moorhead are also more interested in male stories. Female characters are sparse and this might be for the best. If you have nothing to say about women, maybe just leave them out of the film, you’re only gonna mess it up. Louise is an exception, being a main character in Spring. While still very much Evan’s story, Louise is the tragic female at the centre of the mystery, forced to suffer a major trauma every 20 years, but also completely in love with her way of living. She finds power in her immortality. For centuries she has chosen herself over possible romantic partners and a normal life, because this has made her superior and unique. She’s might be a shapeshifting mutant, but she holds tremendous power over us mortals. When she ultimately chooses Evan and to become mortal, it’s almost disappointing that she gives up her gift to die with him in the end, whenever that is. Although Pucci’s portayal of Evan is fine, Evan is an awfully boring person to give up eternity for.

What makes our time valuable on Earth? Spring answers it with love when Louise chooses mortality and love, but The Endless and Resolution offer more complicated answers. The point seems to be to not repeat our mistakes. Loops offer humanity a chance to right our wrongs on an individual level, to transform ourselves into better beings. Spring is about romantic love between a man and a woman, but both Resolution and The Endless are about love between men. Love between friends in Resolution and brotherly love in The Endless. Justin and Aaron are the ever -bickering brothers who love each other unconditionally as families do, but issues surface early on in the film with Justin being equally protective and dictatorial in his love towards the quieter and more naive Aaron. Chris and Michael are best friends and Michael’s decision to handcuff his best friend to a pipe is a controversial move; is he really doing it to save Chris or just to feel better about himself. Chris is genuinely about to break; don’t do drugs, kids, don’t end up like Chris. It’s clear that Chris and Michael are stuck in their loop with no way out but the ending to The Endless is a bit more ambiguous. Do Justin and Aaron really escape Camp Arcadia’s loop, or were they already trapped in a loop of their own, one of their own creation or the monster’s? While the film seems to have a more hopeful end note, the flying birds and the shadow of a moon seem to indicate there is a loop going on here.

Many critics have described the camera work in the filmmakers films as expressive. It’s undeniably gorgeous and all three films are visually stunning without being grand or over the top. But the word that comes to my mind is organic. The camera is never intrusive, but almost like a wanted companion in the frame. The camera is often handheld, but never messy or disorienting. The subtle, relaxed motion of the camera gives the frame some room to breathe, it becomes a picture that’s truly alive and the whole experience becomes more engaging. Benson and Moorhead’s films are all about tone and mood and the camerawork aids it by establishing the strange, supernatural and magical universe the characters exist in.

The handheld camera also positions us as a viewer much like the unseen entity, peeping into the lives of these characters. The entity seems to be quite cheeky and draw people into these loops where it forces them to play out stories for its entertainment. It lures Justin and Aaron to Camp Arcadia by sending them a video tape the same way it lured Michael to Chris’ cabin. I’m just gonna say it; sounds a lot like Cabin In The Woods. And this is nothing but a good thing, Cabin In The Woods is one of my all-time favourite films, specifically because of its meta-layer of commentary on films themselves. Much like an audience or a filmmaker, the entity in Resolution (which came out the same year as Cabin) demands stories told in a certain way and forces conflict upon its victims.

All in all, all three films are poetic, intriguing and entertaining. They manage to avoid genre clichés but have a certain feeling only associated by pure-blood genre films. Someone told me if a film doesn’t fit into any other genre, it’s a drama. Dramas are films that are not genre films. Benson and Moorhead bravely mix moments of pure genre gold to their films which otherwise be dramas. These are definitely filmmakers to keep on your radar, because if they made these films with shoelace budgets, imagine what they could do with top dollar. Here’s to hoping!

Stay excellent!

Maria

Rewatch: The Hateful Eight (2015)

I have so much love for Quentin Tarantino, I really do. He has a great ear for dialogue and a sharp visual style and I personally really enjoy the ultra-violence he portrays on screen.

I’ve always been drawn to violent films and to this day there is only one scene I refuse to watch (girl regurgitating her internal organs in Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. 100% nope). I’ve always considered extreme violence as spectacle; it has never bothered or disturbed me, it has been nothing but theatricals to me. As I’ve become older, my fascination with on-screen violence hasn’t stopped or even decreased, but I now yearn meaning behind it.

Which brings us to Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and my reasons for absolutely hating this film.

I decided to give the film a second chance because Tarantino is an acclaimed filmmaker so surely I got something wrong after watching this when it came out?

Nope, The Hateful Eight still remains one of the worst films I have seen.

I got a call about 25 minutes into the film and had to pause it. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character Daisy Domergue had already been beaten 3 times. Needlessly. I have no issue with violence against women if it’s… I don’t want to say deserved because that sounds awful but surely you get what I mean? We shouldn’t shy away from violence against women because they’re women, but we surely shouldn’t inflict violence on women on-screen because they’re women. And this is where lies my problem with The Hateful Eight.

Daisy Domergue might be an awful person in the film and surely deserves to be on trial and found guilty for her crimes. She does not however deserve to be needlessly beaten by men because they feel it’s their right to put their hands on her for no other reason than to their amusement. She is already sporting a black eye at the beginning of the film and by the end of it, she’s been sprayed with blood from several people, one of them being her brother. Imagine having to scrape off your sibling’s brain matter from your face.

While all actors do a fine job and Jennifer Jason Leigh truly shines in her thankless role, they can’t rescue a film that is so keen on abusing its only female character and to throw the n-word around like its synonymous with the peppermint sticks Joe Gage purchases. Race politics have always been muddled in Tarantino films, but The Hateful Eight takes them to a whole new level of problematic. Somehow Tarantino seems to believe he is the exception and for him it’s more than fine to write the n-word as long as he can justify it with the time and place he sets his films in.

Tarantino is possibly the most post-modern filmmaker we have today. Most things in his films are borrowed; names, whole characters, visual clues… I have never minded this, I have actually found it quite fun, like a little game for us film lovers. Can you find the 10 references in one scene? -kind of thing. Here Tarantino seems to be borrowing from his own material, almost honouring his own work. The Hateful Eight is remarkably similar to Tarantino’s first feature Reservoir Dogs with it’s setting, cast and even how scenes play out. I find this incredibly arrogant, borrowing from your own line of work. Style is one thing, but to build your career on borrowing from other filmmakers and ultimately from your own work seems simply cocky.

If The Hateful Eight was a better film, I probably wouldn’t mind this. I’d probably even find it quite interesting, maybe even brilliant. But Tarantino’s insistence on fetishising violence against his leading lady makes The Hateful Eight unbearable. Her death is prolonged and the camera lingers on her struggling to breathe. Almost all the men die die from gunshot wounds or from poisoning. You could argue that their deaths are painful and violent, but Tarantino is more eager to cut his scenes when the men are dying. He cuts between different characters, ensuing chaos within the scene and creating action where there isn’t much. But poor old Daisy dies while two men and the audience watch her. We are almost invited to celebrate her death while all other deaths seem to only lead to this one. Chris Mannix wants to shoot her, but Major Warren chooses to hang her. Tarantino once again chooses extreme cruelty where there was a more humane way for her to die. He grants his male characters the bliss of death, but makes sure the female suffers the most.

The taste left in your mouth after watching The Hateful Eight is a sour one. On one hand it’s still hard to deny Tarantino’s talents as a filmmaker; the film is beautifully shot and sharply edited. But the overall cruelty he portrays in the film is hard to swallow. The violence never seems theatrical, it doesn’t seem to be about the spectacle, only about violence and pain being inflicted to others. The deaths are unnecessarily cruel and played out with a straight face. Samuel L. Jackson describing murdering another passenger’s son is drawn out and both told and showed to the audience. Surely one or the other would have been enough? His race politics are too complicated to include in this post, but let’s just say I wasn’t happy with them either. Major Warren’s portrayal is problematic at best and racist at worst.

I’m now both excited and worried about Tarantino’s next film. He is already speaking of retiring from filmmaking, while Takashi Miike completed his 100th film last year. If Tarantino continues to portray such cruelty towards women and throwing the n-word around, how will he stand against the #MeToo -movement? Will his films still gain accolades and good reviews or will people be outraged by his treatment of characters? This is in no way a criticism of Tarantino as a person, I have never met him, but I sure would like to talk to him about this and I’d make him a banging cup of tea too.

Stay Excellent

Maria

The Best of 2018 So Far

It’s got to be done. That’s all I’ve got to say. I’m also gonna exclude big awards contenders like Lady Bird and Shape of Water (which didn’t open in the UK until 2018) from this because they’ve already had their time on the spotlight and so many good films have come out since.

#10 Love, Simon
Even just thinking about this film makes me smile. It’s such a heart-warming film, with a great cast and an important message.

#9 Thoroughbreds
Dark, funny and sad. Effective AF. Anya Taylor-Joy continues to be a genre queen while Olivia Cooke has the time of her life playing a sociopath. Thoroughbreds is stylish and memorable, a truly unique film. 

#8 Black Panther
Don’t come at me, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t love Black Panther. Is it an important film? Yes, absolutely. Could there have been a more engaging way to tell this story? Yes. Black Panther suffers from the same problem the first Thor -film does; everyone else is way cooler than the title character. But Ryan Coogler still nails his vision of Wakanda.

#7 Avengers: Infinity War
The problem with Infinity War is that it’s incredible while you’re watching it and you’re loving every second of it. But give it a couple of days and it becomes so flawed and is clearly part 1 of a bigger story.

#6 Isle of Dogs
Again, please don’t hate me, but not a huge fan of Wes Anderson. I’ve always found him a bit meh. His films look good, but that’s about it for me. Isle of Dogs kept me interested and these animated mutts were the best thing Anderson has brought to the big screen.

#5 Ghost Stories
It’s British, it’s horror, it’s original (well based on a play, but it’s the same writers so that counts as original). That’s all I really want.

#4 A Quiet Place
One of the best viewing experiences I’ve had. Generally I tend to have a lousy time at crowded screenings but you could hear a pin drop at the sold out Friday night screening at Tottenham Court Road. Not necessarily scary, but the most tense film I have seen in a long time, The Quiet Place is an instant classic.

#3 Revenge
I’m still writing a long post about this, but all I’ve got to say about it now is that I am so happy I saw it because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

#2 Hereditary
The most terrifying film I have ever seen. I’ve already said it and I’ll say it again, Hereditary didn’t scare me, but it shocked me to my core. It left me feeling exhausted and drained and was a much more satisfying viewing experience than most horror films.

#1 Beast 
Of course it’s Beast! I saw it last October and I still rave about it. Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn’s mesmerising performances are great, but it’s really Michael Pearce’s writing and direction that elevate the film from a serial killer thriller to a twisted fairy tale for adults.

There you have it, my top10 of 2018 so far. The year has been littered with comic book films and big blockbusters (Rampage, I’m looking at you), but there are some genuine gems in there and the quality has never been better. I mean just look at MCU. Although we might be a bit tired of comic book films and men in tights, Infinity War is a sample of The Russo Brothers’ filmmaking skills. And we’re finally getting films like Love, Simon which is a very male story, a very gay story and it made very real money! Finally we are seeing some small, but significant changes in Hollywood. Very excited for more great films this year!

Stay Excellent!

Maria

“You’re wounded. I can fix that.” Beast

Let me just say that Beast was the first ever film I saw in an actual press screening with actual journalists as if I was one of them. So even if it was rubbish, it would still hold a very special place in my heart.

Thank goodness it was a beast of a film! (See what I did there?)

I have been itching to talk about this film so I don’t want to label this post as a straight up review of the film. I really want to get in there and dissect it a little bit, but only a little. Unless someone out there is looking to offer me a book deal. Just putting it out there, I AM AVAILABLE.

For those of you who haven’t seen Beast, let’s just quickly summarise what the film is about. But you really should see it for yourself, because nothing that I say will can give it enough credit. Beast is a darkly magical drama thriller about Moll, who lives in Jersey and in the shadow of her sister and under her strict and almost frightening mother while caring for her ill father. After a night out Moll wanders the beaches with a possible suitor, but becomes anxious when he tries to force her to have sex with him. Thankfully, a scruffy local named Pascal rescues her and the two strike up a steamy romance. Pascal might be a serial killer though. Not sure, maybe.

Again, I can’t do any justice to the film because the more I say about the plot, the more I give ideas to people what it might be. Beast is a fascinating hybrid that is ever-changing in its direction and tone. It defies categorisation and is a better film for it. The main focus is always on Moll, but she is not to be trusted. Early in the film, her sister warns Pascal that Moll is “a wild one”. Director Michael Pearce leaves a steady path of breadcrumbs that tell us this is no ordinary romance or serial killer film. The film starts with Moll’s voiceover about killer whales in captivity, setting the tone for the film, even though it might not be evident straight away what the symbolism is here. Just wait.

It’s easy to imagine Beast as a whodunnit; all the ingredients are there for a perfectly fine thriller about a serial killer lurking on an island. However Pearce is more concerned with more complex story and emotions. What if your loved one is a serial killer? Can you ask them that, is that fair? What do you know of the people around you? Who are you? Who are you really, deep inside?

From now on, there will be SPOILERS GALORE so stay away if you’d like to find out what happens for yourself.

The question of whether or not Pascal truly is guilty of the murders is an interesting one. I have now seen Beast three times and I’m only just convinced that he’s guilty. After the first viewing, I was certain he wasn’t, a very controversial opinion I have since found out. Johnny Flynn’s performance is an unsettling one. He never seems to make eye contact with anyone apart from Moll and he seems like an incomplete puzzle, like something is amiss. It’s easy to dismiss the performance as weak. I believe we called Flynn “a poor man’s Charlie Hunnam” after the first screening. Flynn seems uncomfortable in the frame, like a rabbit sensing a fox is nearby. It’s a carefully constructed performance which aims to leave the audience unsettled and a little unsure of him.

I guess the most interesting question is who is the titular Beast? A case could be made that all characters are unpleasant, selfish and arrogant. It ultimately comes down to Moll and Pascal though. Pascal might be the easy answer; he killed several girls and manipulated Moll (or did he?), but I think Moll is the better answer.

When we meet Moll, she’s timid and a guest at her own birthday party, handing out drinks. Her sister announces she’s expecting twins and Moll’s mother asks her to fetch the champagne because they’re celebrating. Talk about a punch in the gut. She’s like a bird trapped in a cage and in a desperate moment, cuts her own hand to feel some sort of relief. She escapes her own house to go dancing in a club, leading her to eventually meet Pascal, who looks at her bloody and injured hand and casually says “You’re wounded. I  can fix that.” That line kills me every time, because it works so well in its simplicity. Of course it’s not just the hand Pascal will be fixing; through their relationship Pascal gives Moll freedom and independence from her family. She is loved and cared for, appreciated by Pascal, which is why she defends him so ferociously when police ask her questions about the murders. She is wanted, sexually and emotionally. We think we know the people we let in our beds, but how can we be sure of who they really are? It’s a classic sleeping-with-the-enemy -situation and the constant electric, erotic atmosphere is delicious, as is the strange chemistry between Flynn and the absolutely fantastic Jessie Buckley, who really digs deep into Moll’s psyche.

The seed of doubt has been planted in Moll. What began as a steamy and wild romance has turned into a trial for Moll. She has become a pariah in her community after Pascal is detained for one of the murders. In one fantastic scene, Moll attends the funeral of the murdered girl and is met with disapproving looks and is asked to leave but Moll stays. She hugs the mother who screams and violently trashes in Moll’s grip. Two men approach Moll, assumingly wanting to harm her, but Moll lets out a primal scream. All that fear, frustration and agony comes out in one scream and the men back away. Moll has become almost animalistic, a very different woman has grown from the timid girl we met at the start of the film.

Pascal is eventually released when another man is convicted and life seems to go back to normal but an incident in bar leaves Moll unsure of Pascal’s innocence. Moll confesses to Pascal she knows he’s guilty and she’s okay with that. Haunted by a memory from her own childhood, where she stabbed a classmate in the face, she believes they’re the same. Pascal seems troubled by this, never confessing to his crimes but moved by Moll’s gesture. On the drive home, Moll unlocks Pascal’s seat belt and crashes the car and then strangles the still-alive Pascal. Now who’s the beast?

Why does Moll kill Pascal? I have three different theories.

  1. Pascal put her through hell. She was alone and scared, abandoned by both the community and the only person she loved. She defended him all while he was actually guilty. This is revenge.
  2. She’s protecting her community. Pascal was a threat to the community and Moll knew he wouldn’t stop killing so she became the avenging angel the community needed. The community might have been cruel to her, but Pascal committed awful crimes against it.
  3. She’s seeking redemption for her own past. She’s never been forgiven for what she did as a child and this is her way of redeeming herself; show everyone and most importantly herself, that she is good, she can do good deeds.

Was Moll a beast before Pascal entered her life? Or did he make her into a calculating and murderous, dangerous woman? Moll is haunted by nightmares in which she is attacked or unknown intruders invade her home, but they all end being shadows of herself. She is essentially scared of herself; the potential for a dangerous being is inside her and she knows it and she fears it.

Which theory is correct or are any of them even close to what Pearce intended, I have no idea. Maybe it’s a combination of all these things that prompts Moll to take Pascal’s life. What makes Beast an excellent film is the journey Pearce takes us on and how Moll develops as a character. Always fascinating, but at times a bit cold, Beast is one of the best feature film debuts, without a doubt.

I have lots more to say about the film, but let me stop here. See the film, see it many times, tell me what you thought.

Until next time,

Stay excellent!

Maria

 

“Do you ever feel like you’re waiting for something to happen?” American Animals Review

What do you get when you mix a documentary filmmaker and a bizarre true story about 4 students attempting to pull of a really stupid heist? Answer: A very entertaining film.

In 2004, four college students in Kentucky attempted to steal some very valuable books from the Transylvania University’s Special Collection. The plan was idiotic and was never going to work, except these guys didn’t realise that. At no point did any of them realise that maybe, just maybe this was gonna go down really, really badly. They made a huge mess, got caught and incarcerated, but not before they assaulted the librarian guarding the books.

Bart Layton, who crafted the excellent documentary The Imposter, has tackled this odd story with all his might, mixing fiction narrative with documentary, creating a pretty unique film which entertains throughout its run time.

Evan Peters, known mainly for American Horror Story is magnetic and energetic as Warren, the bad guy of the group. Barry Keoghan is convincing as Spencer, the young and naive boy in way too deep. But this isn’t a film about the characters, not really. It’s a film about a lot of things. While none of the characters really register, they’re all bland and one-dimensional, it’s the sheer craftsmanship and filmmaking that makes American Animals a decent film.

Layton inputs talking head interviews in between his narrative scenes. They interrupt and even change the scenes. Themes of memory and legacy are present throughout and they’re handled with genuine curiosity and confidence by Layton. All participants have slightly different memories of how the events unfolded, which probes the question, what is truth? We racked our brains as students in our early lectures when the teacher asked what’s the goal of a documentary. The truth, find the truth. Layton proves that a truth isn’t singular, but an entity that can be altered by memory and point of view, forming several personal truths.

Oliver Stone, known for his many historical films such as the excellently problematic JFK, described himself as a cinematic historian. What a legend. History must be based on truth, but a cinematic truth is always manipulated by the filmmaker so where does Layton (and Stone as the master cinematic manipulator) stand by proving truth can be many things? He might have cracked it, if I’m being honest. His take is wildly imaginative and intriguing. However, the film isn’t always so smooth on it’s merging of fiction and documentary and it’s sometimes hard to tell if Layton’s artistic choice was a result of innovation or indecisiveness. American Animals could have been an engaging documentary or a wildly funny heist film, but merged together, it’s not quite either. The true story weighs on the narrative, which struggles to be outrageous while being honest.

Regardless, American Animals is well worth a watch. Not because it’s a masterpiece, but because it asks and provokes questions. American Animals is at its best when its a warped take on the American Dream; it’s is no longer about working hard to reach your dreams, it’s about being remembered for something, anything. Our protagonists, or antagonists really, have no reason to commit the crime they wish; they’re all from good homes and educated young men, but they lack a sense of meaning, a place in this world that has evolved into one that teaches you that your success is based on how many people remember your name after you’re gone. The film is basically about white privilege and becomes problematic when it provides the four men with the infamy they were seeking in the first place. Do they really deserve a Hollywood film after committing serious assault on the poor librarian, whose real life counter part is also featured in the film?

But you can’t deny it’s a damn good story to be told on the big screen.

“I just don’t want to put any more stress on my family” Hereditary Review

Let me get one thing off my chest. Hereditary is not the film you think it is. It suffers from the hype set earlier this year after debuting at Sundance. It was never going to be able to live up to the hype and reports of viewers being paralysed by fear. It’s in no way a traditional scary film and it didn’t scare me.

That being said, I can confirm that Hereditary is an exquisite film.

Annie Graham has just lost her mother. She’s coping with her loss incredibly well, probably because her mother was an abusive presence in Annie’s life. Her family consists of her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage stoner son Peter (wonderful Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Charlie is an unusual child; building creepy little figurines, constantly eating chocolate and making little clucking noises while staring into the distance with weirdly expressionless eyes.  Charlie notes her grandmother always wanted her to be a boy. When another tragedy occurs, Annie’s mental health starts declining rapidly and her whole family is thrust into a nightmare they have no way out of.

First-time writer-director Ari Aster veils his film with an inescapable sense of dread from the very first frame and it only tightens its grip on the viewer during the film’s run time.  Aster’s painfully long, slow camera movements only extend the sense of an underlying threat that seems to be looming very close to the Grahams. Hereditary is visually bold and not a single thing is out of place in Aster’s frames.

Toni Collette is fantastic. Her Annie is a primal and feral creature in her sorrow. Collette’s range of emotion is astounding and she has really been given the tools to flex those acting muscles, but she makes it all seem so effortless. Annie is manic, desperate, angry and confused, often all of these in one single scene, but Collette pulls it off. Even when the films gets arguably sillier and sillier, Collette keeps it grounded in reality with her fearless performance. We might as well give her the Oscar now. Her performance would be a grade A candidate for awards, if it wasn’t for all the gruesome violence that’ll put off most old, white men that tend to be in charge of awarding people things.

Alex Wolff, younger brother of Nat Wolff who is best known for a few John Green film adaptations, is equally impressive. Much of his performance is internalised, but his commitment to the role of Peter is present in every scene. Peter goes from your regular weed-smoking high school teenager into a blubbering mess when supernatural events occur in his home. Annie and Peter’s relationship is really in the centre of the film here and it’s a joy to watch two such brilliant actors bounce off each other. The theme of motherhood as a burden hangs above the mother and son and rarely has it been examined with such terrifying results. Annie is the mother and daughter all women fear they will be. She feels things that we wouldn’t dare to admit we feel, but here she is, telling her son how she tried to cause herself to miscarry and all poor Peter can ask is “How?” Exposition or not, it’s a remarkable moment between a mother and a son who equally love and hate each other.

But it all comes down to whether or not Hereditary is truly scary as a horror film. Yes and no. It’s a fascinating study of grief and mental health, which then turns into a more traditional horror story. It’s nonetheless terrifying and haunting in its representation of some of the demons that haunt us. And that’s exactly why Hereditary works so well. It doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares or cheesy CGI-demons. Hereditary’s demons are real and very much alive in all of us. Hereditary didn’t scare me, but it left me quietly terrorised, as if someone had been gnawing the inside of my stomach for two hours. I felt drained and weak. And that’s a compliment.

Maria