The Girl on the Train (2016)

★★★

The Girl on the Train PosterDirector: Tate Taylor

Release Date: October 5th, 2016 (UK); October 7th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Mystery; Thriller

Starring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux

Despite author Paula Hawkins’ protestations, The Girl on the Train is in many ways similar to Gone Girl. Structurally, individually, thematically — Tate Taylor’s film adaption feels like it could be set in the same deceitful world and the same deceitful suburban neighbourhood. Those who enter having seen Gone Girl (also adapted from a popular novel) will likely struggle to keep David Fincher’s film wholly out of mind for the duration of this new domestic horror show, just as Taylor’s movie struggles to escape the spectre of its superior predecessor: the main character, a woman hampered by emotional scarring, mellowly narrates her own miserable life, perking up only during self-constructed imagination sequences within which false scenarios play out (a perfect relationship, crucially). There’s a familiar aesthetic slickness too, white, crisp text decorating a black background each time we skip from present to past.

But most significantly, The Girl on the Train revisits Gone Girl’s wistful tale of a woman who yearns for an idealistic life that is never forthcoming. She is Rachel (Emily Blunt), an alcoholic devoid of any sort of plan. It’s apt that she spends most of her time aboard a train, going places without ever really getting anywhere. These journeys are less journeys and more pockets of time within which Rachel can ogle at the apparently superior lives of others, notably that of Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans), a couple she often sees from the train window in a state of embrace. Until one day that embrace doesn’t include Scott — or perhaps it does; Rachel’s perception isn’t exactly up to scratch — at which point perfect worlds crumble, and Megan goes missing.

“Are you alone?” “Yeah.” This first interaction tells us all we need to know about Rachel. (Or so we think.) Blunt wears her character’s alcoholism with raw fervour: lips cracked from sucking on a straw channelling vodka, shaky hands rendering her unable to properly apply lip balm, eyes watery, bloodshot, terminally lost in a daze. She is obsessed, her obsession with other people forming the basis for the film’s creeping milieu — the sense that something just feels off. Which is to say Rachel isn’t, or hasn’t, been particularly great company over the past few years. Pal and landlord Cathy (Laura Prepon) can attest to that. And still, we want to root for her because as humans our innate humanness calls upon us to empathise with those who are struggling, but also because Blunt affords Rachel a subdued sense of purpose and accountability. A speech at an AA meeting is quite devastating, hauntingly delivered by the actor.

Unfortunately Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson use alcoholism less as a character trait and more as a structural device. Which brings us to coherence, or the lack of it, an aspect which lets the film down. You can understand Taylor’s mindset; to view the world through his protagonist’s untrustworthy eyes, visualising a collection of blurry incidents rather than a natural arc. This is something that would likely work better with fewer key characters — there are at least six here, all interconnected in various ways. Keeping track of who knows whom from when and where is difficult enough, and that difficulty increases as the story hops from scene to scene without any palpable sense of time or space (we know which events are taking place in the past and in the present, but don’t get much of a feeling for timelines within each space).

Set in the midst of a winter of discontent, the outing draws upon classic Hitchcockian themes such as suspicion. The obvious comparison is Strangers on a Train, and indeed this focus on movement funds the suspicious mood. For people are constantly on the move. They might run as a form of exercise, or as way to temporarily exorcise any domestic demons. Others are seen figuratively running from the law, not that you would blame anyone for literally hightailing it from Allison Janney, superb as a police detective fully versed in the art of dressing-down. And there is the train itself, hanging on for dear life as gravity does its best to tear it from the tracks, loud and a bit unstable as all trains are. Echoing, in a sense, Rachel’s own daily existence.

This is the age of paranoia: Édgar Ramírez’s psychiatrist defiantly confirms his American citizenship when engaged in an otherwise innocuous conversation with a client. Given the film is set in New York, it is possible he has just heard Trump threaten to send non-Americans to the moon, thus we should cut him some slack. Rebecca Ferguson, as Anna, also succumbs to the neurotic atmosphere, frantically guessing laptop passwords in a bid to find out more about those around her. She is married to Tom (Justin Theroux) who used to be married to Rachel, and their nanny is Megan. It’s complicated. There does come a time, about halfway through, when you wonder if you care at all for anybody on-screen, at which point the piece loses momentum. Fortunately not for too long as some characters reignite, but you do have to survive a bunch of platonic conversations unable to maintain the paranoid air.

The Girl on the Train wants to be more uncomfortable than it is, and this becomes apparent when it plummets into unnecessarily nasty territory towards the end. Threads of emotional abuse and physical violence are explored only tentatively, perhaps because there are too many characters for the film to juggle and not enough time spent with each one (Rachel aside). But it is intriguing at worst, and there are signs in the minutiae of proceedings that the filmmakers know what they are doing. Look out for Rachel’s discreet reaction to a lipstick stain on a mug, and think about what said moment entails. It’s a terrific blink-and-you’ll-miss-it incident astutely pitched by Emily Blunt, who is worth the price of admission alone.

The Girl on the Train - Emily Blunt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

★★★★

The Girl with All the Gifts PosterDirector: Colm McCarthy

Release Date: September 23rd, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Horror; Thriller

Starring: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close

Kids are taking over the world. Well, the worlds of pop culture and weighty entertainment. If it’s not a bunch of Spielbergian curiousos charming viewers eight times over in Stranger Things, it’s Jacob Tremblay comfortably matching his demonstrably more experienced counterparts with a powerhouse performance in Room. Today Sennia Nanua joins the not-so-Mickey-Mouse-Club, her turn as a next generation zombie-human in The Girl with All the Gifts at once endearing and domineering. And even a little amusing. That’s quite the trifecta.

Colm McCarthy brings M.R. Carey’s (credited as Mike Carey) mid-apocalyptic world to the silver screen, a world severely stunted by some sort of biological doomsday. Carey’s novel of the same name garnered much praise, which, when coupled alongside his extensive comic book writing portfolio, suggests he is doing something right. The penman may yet want to consider a screenwriting career if this is his default standard. He presents Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a child with fleshy cravings and the ability to interact as normal. When we first meet her she is hidden away in some sort of military base with many of her kind — her ‘classmates’ — and a selection of adult soldiers, scientists, and teachers. It’s not initially clear what the purpose of the locale is: a zone of Freudian experimentation usurping social and ethical norms, or a shelter from the horrors outside?

We quickly learn it is a bit of both, though the striking image of children wearing orange jumpsuits and strapped to wheelchairs feeds the former narrative (these sequences are probably not unintentionally dissimilar in a visual sense to familiar scenes in A Clockwork Orange). That it soon becomes clear said treatment is decidedly less harsh than what is going on elsewhere ought to give you an indication of the type of material we are dealing with. I hesitate to reveal more of the initial plot; not because doing so would spoil the film but because piecing together the early moral dilemmas as they play out on-screen is both a challenging and rewarding experience. Needless to say the setting soon changes and The Girl with All the Gifts transforms into a Monsters-esque road trip.

But back to Melanie, the film’s central presence. She is essentially a blank slate, or a dry sponge for lack of a better description, in that she desires knowledge as well as body parts and absorbs information with incredible endurance. Her favourite teacher is Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), a sort of Miss Honey figure who brightens up their bleak bunker home inhabited otherwise by those who refer to the children as “abortions” and treat them with contempt bred, perhaps understandably, from wariness. This attitude prevails throughout the film to varying degrees, some characters afraid but sympathetic, others driven solely by the scientific possibilities the zom-kids present. Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) is one of the latter, a medical professional who sees Melanie not as a human being but as a resource and a pathway to a potential cure. “They present as children, you know my opinion on that,” she insists. Emphasis on “present”.

Close excels as a pseudo-antagonist, stirring intentions born out of necessity rather than anything particularly sinister. Caldwell only dons the antagonist role because Carey’s writing characterises Melanie not as a resource but as an innocent child, his characterisation authenticated by Nanua’s poise. We feel compelled to side with Melanie because we can relate to her kindness and her appearance. Caldwell feels compelled to do her duty as a scientist in an endangered world running out of scientific solutions, which isn’t evil per se. Whenever zombies are involved comparisons with The Walking Dead are inevitable, but whereas that show has adopted a broadly romanticised us-versus-them approach, this feels more arduous, moral implications blurrier. It’s interesting precisely because there is no clear answer.

This world has seen the worst and now exists in a state of post-shock where terror no longer marinates. Now is the time for practicality, a mindset embodied by Caldwell: without hesitation she investigates the contents of a pram being pushed by a ‘hungry’ — an actual zombie, brainless — not put off by danger but rather spurred on by “gathering data, which is part of [her] mission statement”. Justineau, meanwhile, is clearly more concerned about the welfare of Melanie than her own, apparently consigned to whatever fate lies ahead. Arterton has the emotional burden to carry, her frequently exhausted expression not a consequence of physical exertion (she is more than capable in the field) but of her problematic attachment to Melanie.

The piece hits some of the usual genre beats but does so with enough quality to sustain a level of intrigue. We’ve witnessed the basic premise play out in films such as 28 Days Later and World War Z and, just like in those films, military personnel have a hand in proceedings here. What separates The Girl with All the Gifts from the pack, though, is its almost subliminal tone of humour. It’s an understated lightheartedness that feels genuine in a broken society already acclimatised to its brokenness. At one point Melanie, having just fed on some animals, blood tattooed onto her face, jovially reveals she is no longer hungry and the others can only look on in a collective state of horrified discombobulation. Paddy Considine’s Sgt. Eddie Parks benefits most from the humorous touch, able to escape an incoming hard-man caricature and develop into a rounded figure.

For those seeking the usual zombie fare, The Girl with All the Gifts has you covered. It’s as bloody and gory and gnarly as it is thought-provoking. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score spans the mood spectrum, incurring a feeling of discomfort with invasive brass entries. I was reminded of Shutter Island’s brooding soundtrack. With air raid sirens fulfilling the threat-based requirements, the sounds of trees swishing harmoniously and birds gently humming reflect the film’s thoughtful mantra. Nature, too, is character, sparse streets having been attacked by overgrown greenery, turning South East England into Pripyat, Ukraine. McCarthy’s film makes brilliant use of its £4 million production budget, and is well worth the price of admission.

The Girl with All the Gifts - Sennia Nanua

Images credit: IMP AwardsThe Guardian

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Blair Witch (2016)

★★

Blair Witch PosterDirector: Adam Wingard

Release Date: 15th September, 2016 (UK); 16th September, 2016 (US)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Callie Hernandez, James Allen McCune, Valorie Curry

Netflix, for all of its cultural zeitgeist curating — yes, Stranger Things is wonderful and, yes, we should ramble on about it forever (or at least until the next new series hits in a few weeks) — is at its best when fulfilling the promise of its roots. In other words, when it functions as a library of untapped gems. I watched one of those gems a few weeks ago, a found footage film with a science fiction setting and horror proclivities, and a good one at that. Aside from strong performances and an increasingly eerie atmosphere, Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report champions a found footage style that minimises the head-spinning amateur wobbliness we often have to endure, but which also maintains the unsettling sense of privacy invasion that found footage, at its best, should enact. Europa Report, released in 2013, struggled to find a theatrical audience.

Yet, here we are. Another found footage horror release towing the subgenre line, another mainstream commodity (though surprisingly not another box office victory). Filmmaking team Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have cultivated, certainly in my eyes, an admirable reputation for undercutting genre tropes and flavouring their films with semi-satire. You’re Next isn’t perfect but it does throw bombs at horror clichés with amusing success. Even better, The Guest upholds taut thriller tendencies as it encourages us to revel in the villainy of its not-so-cookie-cutter lead. Therefore it is odd that Blair Witch, the duo’s newest offering, often falls so far by the witty, intelligent wayside.

We’ll start with the story: a group of nice-looking adventurers with age on their side travelling somewhere they shouldn’t because they reckon it is a good idea when everyone sat in the screening room and standing in the foyer knows it isn’t. The GallowsAs Above, So Below. Area 51. That sort of thing. Blair Witch sees the brother of The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue head to the forests of Maryland in search of his missing sister whom he reckons is still alive. James (James Allen McCune) is joined by documentarian pal Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and their friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid).

The film revisits the final moments of The Blair Witch Project at the beginning, instantly alerting us to the grainy aesthetic of the original horror; in fact, one of this instalment’s redeeming features is its occasional use of an old camcorder to document events, a visual reminder of what came before. Elsewhere, the film uses up-to-date high-definition technology including earpieces embedded with mini cameras and a drone to shoot from above (the drone is never used to its full potential, barely fluttering above the forest foliage). Very little happens for half an hour, the characters merely learning how to work their equipment before heading to their destination. Although this isn’t time spent particularly interestingly, these minutes do at least paint those on-screen in a fairly genial light. James and Lisa are particularly amiable, neither pushy nor arrogant, both a far cry from genre caricatures.

It’s not until we the reach the Burkittsville creep-land that things begin to take a turn for the haphazard. The group arrange to meet with a couple wielding knowledge of the area in the hope that they will lead them to their desired location and then depart. But of course Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), indiscreetly hiding their collective kookiness, want to stick around as part of the deal. Because every scary excursion has to accommodate someone (or some people in this instance) willing to spout his/her supernatural inclinations at every opportunity. I should also note that by this point we’ve already heard one member of the party poke fun at the idea Heather is still alive. And shortly thereafter, another member of the party injures her foot. Which effectively means no running from The Bad Stuff.

There are spooky campfire tales, noises in the night, Wicker-Man-esque stick symbols, and folks wandering off alone. The inclusion of so many blatant tropes would be fine if the film then countered with either some brazen self-awareness (like in You’re Next), or at the very least a handful of genuine scares. But it’s not scary, in part because the camera contorts too violently in moments of would-be tension, disorientating us — yes — but never affording us the chance to engage with or understand what is happening on-screen. And I don’t think there is an awful lot of self-aware hilarity going on either. When the proverbial hits the fan, Lisa et al. appear much too freaked out for any of streaks of amusement to stick. I suppose the actors do offer the infrequent helping of light relief (Scott’s reaction to an infected cut), but in truth there is nothing for us to be momentarily relieved from.

The best scene actually involves said cut and, you guessed it, an unhealthy serving of oozetastic body-horror. Kudos to the prop masters and makeup artists for provoking legitimate yelps of disgust (at least that’s how the scene played with most of the audience in my screening). Elsewhere, a tree-climbing sequence places Foley workers in the foreground, branches creaking and murmuring to delightful effect, part of an OTT noise-fest that would make Toby Jones proud.

As the story advances, Blair Witch adopts more of a monster movie mantra, distinguishing itself from the paranormal tensions of its predecessor. We see glimpses of the creature, removing the disconcerting veil of uncertainty that covered the original and boosted its chilling potential. The ingredients fail to click, or maybe they just aren’t strong enough. Any potshotting nods, instances where the filmmakers look to knowingly nudge their well-versed audience, translate poorly. Besides, the film’s overabundant use of familiar genre commands would almost certainly render satirical swipes moot (see Deadpool). Wingard and Barrett will doubtless be back with something devilishly sweeter. This one just irks because it is a sequel to the prototypical found footage horror, the one that reinvented the game for better or worse, and it is timidly generic.

Blair Witch - Valorie Curry

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

Jason Bourne (2016)

★★★★

Jason Bourne PosterDirector: Paul Greengrass

Release Date: July 27th, 2016 (UK); July 29th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Thriller

Starring: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander

The prospect of another Bourne movie with Paul Greengrass at the helm and Matt Damon in the mix brought out the hopeful side in my otherwise sequel-averse instinct. While The Bourne Legacy done its best to redistribute the focus of a successful, smart franchise onto a new character, it never really looked like hurdling the post-Damon problem. Jeremy Renner has proven to be quite the asset since 2011, each new turn as Hawkeye in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe more successful than the last. But Aaron Cross was no Jason Bourne and director Tony Gilroy couldn’t muster the same level of thrill as Greengrass had during his time in charge (it is worth pointing out that as screenwriter Gilroy has had as much to do with the Bourne franchise’s success as anyone).

Therefore in late 2014 when it was announced Greengrass and Damon would, in fact, be returning for a third outing together — and a fifth overall — I welcomed the news. A lot has happened in world of geopolitics since The Bourne Ultimatum, notably the rise of social media and the undercutting of questionable surveillance techniques by the likes of Edward Snowden. WikiLeaks has become a force, for better or worse disseminating otherwise secretive information around the world, affording us the opportunity to learn about foreign policy tactics and moral mistakes. And just recently, the Pokémon Go app launched to the delight of almost everybody with a smartphone, users a simple ‘yes you can use my location data’ away from catching Pikachu.

Miraculously, Jason Bourne covers all of those bases with a familiar garnish of Greengrass grit. We reconnect with Bourne (Damon) as he steps out of the bare-knuckle frying pan and back into the fugitive fire. The former sleeper agent, now practically free of his debilitating memory loss, learns from former Treadstone contact Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) about some new information regarding said program and his father (Gregg Henry). The CIA pick up on Bourne’s re-emergence and, under the guidance of Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and rising star Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), seek to bring him in — or worse.

Stylistically, Greengrass remains a champion of the 24-influenced techno-sheen: operatives hunch over computers showing complex maps and databases; Barry Ackroyd’s camera harangues characters, zooming in on their stressed faces and back out again; edits are snappy, driving momentum. A tip of the hat, too, to the practical effects used throughout and especially those on display during the final act. All of these visual footprints coalesce to invoke a sense of urgency, as you would expect. Perhaps more importantly they help to paint the on-screen world as our world, as an arena built for the era of borderless technology and ethically dubious decision-making.

The film manoeuvres around three typical set pieces: the first, a multiperson jaunt through an anti-government protest in Athens; the second, a London-based double-cross; and the third, a lengthy game of cat and mouse around the convention centres and streets of Las Vegas. These aren’t exactly new action frontiers for the series — the scene in Athens borrows heavily from the Waterloo Station sequence in The Bourne Ultimatum — but they are all expertly crafted and thoroughly involving. Primarily because they place us right there with Bourne as he searches for answers while attempting to avoid the CIA’s traps. It can get quite tense.

Unsurprisingly, then, the outing is a winner both structurally and technically. What about themes, character, and narrative? The latter two are certainly weaker, though that’s not to say they are weak. Bourne himself has always got by on Damon’s brutish charisma which is again the case here (for a marquee attraction, the actor has but a few pages of dialogue). We see an ageing protagonist at the onset, a lost soul battered by a gruelling life: “All that matters is staying alive,” he says, yet he earns his way as an underground fighter. Tommy Lee Jones’ gruff Dewey is as world weary as the man he wants to capture, but has amassed experienced and is a master player of the game. There is no villain per se — Vincent Cassel comes closest as a hitman employed by the CIA — meaning the piece evolves into a grey area battle between Bourne, courting a lighter shade, and Dewey’s darker prerogative.

Alicia Vikander was always going to be a winning get for the franchise, though the shuffle does dizzy her character at times. She unveils a great glare, her serious face on point throughout as Lee, however the actor is asked to use it a little too often. It’s as if the filmmakers want to her to be the next Bond so badly they’ve created a character so brisk in personality that the casting suits over at MGM simply have to take notice. I suppose everyone on-screen is wrapped up in the seriousness of their various predicaments, and rightly so. Lee does get more involved as the piece progresses and her final destination is an intriguing one, it’s just that Vikander’s talent, for my liking, should have commanded that bit extra. Julia Stiles likewise. Parsons serves a purpose here but as one of the few characters already ingrained in the Bourne community, a grander presence would have been welcomed.

Given this is the fifth instalment of the series, and a picture not based on any sort of primary source material, it is right to consider the film’s aim. What does Jason Bourne have to offer that the previous pictures did not? The answer almost wholly is of thematic content, in that the film expands upon its already established surveillance lexicon and roots itself in updated issues of the present day. That Athens protest I referenced earlier could be happening right now, for instance. Bourne’s unravelling of the Treadstone program brought to light a seedy government process, true, but it also revealed the location of active field agents and subsequently put them at risk. Similar, in conclusion but not effect, to the WikiLeaks reveals which, in some cases, have inconvenienced innocent civilians.

Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse also incorporate the rise of social media and particularly its knife-edge promise to protect user information. The duo mean well and have the correct issue at heart; we are challenged to consider the probability that our personal data isn’t really that safe when in the hands of mega corporations, which is almost certainly true. It is a clumsily handled narrative thread though. When upstart CEO Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) exclaims “no-one will be watching you” before an audience of technologically savvy people during a lecture on what users should expect when they sign up to his new social media platform, those in attendance all vigorously applaud like mindless cattle. Surely we’re too sceptical for that sort of behaviour these days.

The filmmakers try to squeeze in as much compelling and relevant detail as possible, though are clearly mindful not to overdo it. (A discussion between Dewey and Kalloor even hints at the recent Apple-FBI iPhone encryption saga.) The series has always been admirably faithful to process, much more so than its genre counterparts. This approach doesn’t always work: the need to establish mission procedure and tick every box can occasionally halt character development, and I think it does here. But Jason Bourne is an intelligent action-thriller, a rare breed of tentpole movie that we should demand more frequently. Its message, apt: moral clarity has no place in muddy waters and our geopolitical world is utterly caked.

Jason Bourne - Tommy Lee Jones & Alicia Vikander

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

★★★★

The Conjuring 2 PosterDirector: James Wan

Release Date: June 10th, 2016 (US); June 13th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Mystery; Thriller

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson

At one point in The Conjuring 2, Patrick Wilson — as Ed Warren, paranormal investigator — attempts to play an Elvis track on an old record player that he immediately discovers isn’t working. The record player belongs to the Hodgson family, mother and four children. Wilson notices an acoustic guitar upright in the corner of the room, left behind by a cheating husband and father, and opts to give the instrument a whirl. He plays “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, his Elvis twang in full effect, and the children join in soon enough. Mum sobs a little; it’s her moment of reprieve. Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) cries too, envisioning a peaceful life with her husband, free from their hazardous occupation. It is such a sweet moment, quite possibly the sweetest of the year. And it occurs slap-bang in the middle of a horror movie.

I have long considered horror the genre most reliant on aid from other genres. Not because an exclusively scary movie can’t be successful in and of itself, but because it often takes added resonance for a scary movie to make that leap towards all-time great. The Conjuring 2 is not an all-time great. It is very good though, partially because director James Wan knows how to handle his surroundings (he’s been there before) and partially because those surroundings host reliable human drama. Just like in The Conjuring (a film I have seen again since this review and enjoyed a lot more), the sense of eeriness we feel as we watch holds more weight because we actually care about the characters on-screen. That’s good acting, good tone management, and good filmmaking.

Having exorcised demons aplenty, the Warrens decide it’s time to give up the ghost and focus on their own family. That is, until the Enfield case makes itself known: Peggy (Frances O’Connor) and her offspring quartet, Janet (Madison Wolfe), Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Johnny (Patrick McAuley), and Billy (Benjamin Haigh), are haunted by a spirit with historical ties to their flagging council house. At the request of the Church, the Warrens travel to England to observe from a distance, though we all know how that usually goes. It is worth noting that the decision to utilise a fairly unknown secondary cast, likely for budgetary reasons, proves a good one as it grounds those characters in a more believable reality. Since we don’t recognise any of the Hodgsons — Esposito’s role as Margaret is her first ever acting gig — it is much easier to get behind them as your average working class family.

The Warrens are roped into another paranormal investigation then, despite grievances. Lorraine has been struggling with the mental anguish brought on by her gift (she can see stuff) while Ed, though less pained physically, seems a bit fed up with the mainstream denial (we see this during a televised debate during which he sports a mean Wolverine hairdo). To his relief, England appears united in its belief that something spooky is going on in Enfield. One newspaper refers to the Hodgson home as “The House of Strange Happenings”. And the Warrens’ begrudging return to the fold becomes truly worthwhile when they meet their clients, a genuinely nice family due a break. Newcomer Esposito, playing the eldest, relays that same attitude of care for her brothers and sister as Emily Browning did in A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The siblings can’t afford to argue because they can’t afford anything. The closest thing we get to a squabble lasts mere moments and is over food. As well as poltergeists, they are up against a social climate preempting Thatcher’s Britain (the film is set in 1977, a few years prior to her Prime Ministerial venture, but it might as well be set in the early 80s). Thatcher herself even appears on television at one point. Although Wan and co-writers Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes, and David Johnson mightn’t have meant it, their movie does act as a symbolic decrying of the former leader’s era in government. Here we have a family isolated and afraid, troubled by a domineering force they themselves can’t touch, with no prospect of homegrown assistance. Their house, walls flaking and furniture dank, recalls The Babadook, another family drama disguised as horror. By contrast, the Warrens’ stateside residence is bright and sunny. A home.

Wan recycles a few elements from The Conjuring: the blunt, yellow text that opens the film, perversely serenaded by a malefic male chorus, is a stylistic consistency that works. The haunted house plot is a tad worn out, but when your central pairing are based on real people who often conducted haunted house visits, that’s a tough one to get around. For the most part any sense of tired repetition is painted over by the development we get character-wise. I’m not saying this is in the same ballpark as a Linklater sprawl or something of that ilk, not by a long shot, but it is a treat to watch well-rounded characters bear the weight of horror. Wan welcomes classic genre tropes, utilising Ouija boards and creepy toys as scare MacGuffins. It’s not really about how the characters use these artefacts but instead the emotional fallout of said usage.

Don Burgess delivers behind the camera, exuding initiative and variation. A jarring, jilted effect during an early séance sets the visual tone and justifies the sort of terror described shortly thereafter as “diabolical”. Later, we become part of the horror as the camera swoops around characters and spirits, flirting with disorientation. Sometimes it hovers above those below like an apparition. Perhaps it doesn’t add texture to the narrative, but Burgess’ work is different enough that it should engage viewers accustomed to the conventional. The cinematographer excels during quieter moments, when we expect a jump scare but instead witness unsettling portraits depicting faces that become unpredictable silhouettes in the dark. Wan and Burgess develop an eerie atmosphere that demands noise as silent scenes are unbearable — a Demon Nun sequence in the Warren household, or the odd actions of a firetruck toy back in Enfield.

It’s not perfect. There is a character arc that veers too near The Exorcist and a character, played by Franka Potente, who is drawn as thinly as can be. At over two hours the movie is too long to sustain its fairly straightforward story, which means the buildup to significant happenings is stretched beyond its narrative limit. The Warrens don’t start their investigation until at least an hour in, for instance, and we do miss the purposeful presence of both Farmiga and Wilson for large chunks of that hour. In fairness, the filmmakers are not doing nothing — they’re spending that time developing the plight of the Hodgsons. It’s just that there is sense of halted momentum, albeit momentarily.

Delighted with the financial prosperity yielded by their Annabelle doll spin-off (an incredible $257 million from a measly $6.5 million budget), Warner Bros. have announced the growth of another cinematic branch centred on the Demon Nun entity that haunts this instalment. Though efficient enough, Annabelle failed to match its elder’s genre know-how. The Nun is certainly a scarier visual prospect and a film based on it will undoubtedly rake in the cash, but I think The Conjuring series is at its best as it is here: more interested in its human characters, grounded by the performances of its human actors, and served admirably by its human director.

The Conjuring 2 - Nun

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

The Gallows (2015)

The Gallows PosterDirector: Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing

Release Date: July 10th, 2015 (US); July 17th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford

Remember the days when movie titles made use of inanimate objects and animals to induce a sense of clinical creep? The Birds. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Alien. Those are probably bad examples given chain saw massacres are far from inanimate and aliens aren’t technically animals, but the point is The Gallows could have been one of those movies with a creepy title backed up by creepier content. It’s not, as it transpires, and that becomes fairly obvious fairly quickly.

We’re back in the found footage dimension — you know, the black abyss of modern horror — and in the company of cameraman Ryan (he’s really a high school footballer but for the purposes of this film he’s also a cameraman), his girlfriend Cassidy, pal Reese, and Reese’s crush Pfeifer. The foursome find themselves locked in school after dark and, unsurprisingly, are drawn into a sinister game of cat and mouse opposite the ghost of tragic history. Moral of the story? School finishes at 3:30 pm.

A common problem with the found footage design is it tends to hinder character development because it limits how we literally see those on-screen, often from the same angle and same perspective, while hiding the person behind the camera. As such, the characterisation here is pretty sub-standard: “Hey Reese, can I borrow your blouse?” are some of the first words Ryan says to his mate after a dodgy drama rehearsal (Reese has decided the most effective route to Pfeifer’s heart is playing opposite her in their school theatre production). It’s a bland, easy introduction to a bland, easy set of students and one not at all aided by the rest of the football team’s boyish insults that follow.

This is the stereotypical, grating, douchey high school behaviour Richard Linklater mercifully avoided in Everybody Wants Some!! and the sort of behaviour that serves only to undermine any care we have for those on-screen. Even the drama students are unbearably caricature: geek attributes maximised, ‘dorky’ glasses abound, lead actress buoyed by more positive energy than the Sun. The film has only been on for around 10 minutes by this point but even by the 70th minute the same broad strokes are stifling people. At least in this version of high school the drama geeks manage to dish out some prank revenge on the football douches.

The actors use their own first names because it’s all real and they are not really actors. (On a serious note, aren’t we past the point of trying to pretend this found footage stuff is in any way authentic?) Their performances are fine, though Ryan — the guy hauling the camera around — oscillates between high-pitched wailing and incomprehensible whispering a little too often. Another thing that’s odd: the play that the students are rehearsing is a rerun of the same one that killed a child many years prior, and given people still seem traumatised by that event, why even do a rerun? Sure, it’s the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. But wouldn’t a memorial service have sufficed? It’s especially grisly when you consider the child died via accidental hanging.

Regardless, it’s an inevitable part of the plot therefore you’re left hoping for something to differentiate the film from the usual genre pack. Writer-director duo Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing dabble in the superstitions (“Break a leg”) of stage performing without reinventing them, or at the very least provoking any new connotations — maybe by not having the characters angrily coax the dead or leave an injured mate behind. Everything goes belly-up: open doors become locked (apart from the large brick one with an eerie cross engraved on it); the group start blaming each other amid ensuing relationship drama; the gallows’ noose, previously removed from its perch by Ryan, saunters back up there unassisted.

Of course, the school does bear windows that the group could break open and escape out of at any moment. The dialogue and situational development are both so poor you wonder whether the filmmakers are actually embarking down a purposefully satirical route — for instance, at the start of the movie Ryan discovers a damaged door primed for after-dark entry. See, Reese needs to destroy the play’s set because it is the only way he can get out of a would-be terrible performance. The only way. A performance, incidentally, that he agreed to deliver because he fancies Pfeifer and it is the only way Reese can initiate a relationship between the pair. The only way. That’s high school for you.

There are a handful of quiet-quiet-bang moments that give us a fright, but these are frights without substance. You won’t remember any of them because none of them hold any weight: they aren’t emotionally or audibly or visually scary (that’s not true: there is one suitably unsettling visual during a red-tinted scene that revisits the hauntingly quiet manoeuvres of the Babadook). But otherwise the attempted scares encourage a human reaction as natural as visiting the toilet during a three-hour Tarantino film.

Look, this is cheap horror, and worse, cheap found footage horror, made for popcorn audiences searching for an easy cinemagoing escape. I don’t doubt the people involved in the process put in a lot of hard work and effort, and perhaps for some of them The Gallows conveyed genuine promise. But it should be held to the same standard as the best outings, films like The Blair Witch Project, and there simply is no comparison. It’s another case of dollar bills over quality. Lo and behold, The Gallows made $43 million — so who cares?

The Gallows - Cassidy Gifford

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Eye in the Sky (2016)

★★★★

Eye in the Sky PosterDirector: Gavin Hood

Release Date: April 1st, 2016 (US); April 15th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Thriller; War

Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Alan Rickman

I often find that the most engaging films are those which, in one way or another, encourage viewers to invest more than just the alertness of their eyeballs. Films that oil the brain, that challenge you to weigh up testy themes or unfurl complicated arguments both in the cinema and later at home. Some of the best movies reflect the prevailing zeitgeist (Boyhood), while others re-evaluate histories (Bridge of Spies). There are also those which, having aged over time, can be examined under the guise of new perspectives (2001: A Space Odyssey). Eye in the Sky is one of the former, its content exclusively in tune with the woes of modern drone warfare and, unsurprisingly, it’s a heart-thumper.

A low key opening sequence outlines the active operation, the personnel involved, and the everyday atmosphere at play. There’s Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a senior intelligence official who has tracked down a group of terrorists residing in Nairobi, Kenya. She wishes to eliminate the group, one of whom is a former British national, and has the support of Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman). Evidently, the duo are used to navigating tough situations from afar — they are working from separate UK bases — though the situation Powell and Benson are about to encounter is probably as tough as it gets. That is, juggling the life of young girl selling bread in the vicinity of their prospective drone strike.

Gavin Hood’s film is formatted almost to match that of a 24 episode, which is to say it ticks along more or less in real time as people in suits number-crunch death percentages and debris projections. Foreshadowing is a factor too: Rickman, superbly authoritative yet typically human, drolly sweats over dolls and toys as the Lieutenant General, unaware his job will shortly have him deciding the fate of a child. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert colours his characters with titbits of everyday information in an attempt to humanise them, quite successfully given the amount on-screen. We learn, for instance, that American drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is only monitoring the controls of such a weapon in a bid to counter his college debt.

These people are secure, detached from a teetering war zone in Nairobi, their most immediate danger apparently food poisoning — Iain Glen’s queasy British Foreign Secretary struggles with an upset stomach, a first world problem if there ever was one. You wonder if they actually care about the civilians caught in their crosshairs or whether it is all just a political game of Pass the Buck (there was a laugh of incredulity in my screening following one such buck-passing incident). Some do care, primarily those ordered to get their hands dirty: Watts and new recruit Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) wear the emotional baggage of their piloting well, while Barkhad Abdi’s undercover ground agent evokes conscientiousness despite having to navigate the tumultuous streets.

Others struggle with the dilemma too — as time goes on, it increasingly looks as though the terrorists are about to commandeer an enormous suicide attack, however their assassination in present circumstances would almost certainly kill the aforementioned young girl. We see timid bureaucracy in action; the chain of command gains branches by the second as nobody seems willing to make the final call, apart from Powell. This is militancy versus diplomacy and she is firmly aligned with the former, calculated and desperate, unwavering in her kill-or-be-killed motto. Mirren compels throughout and rules those around her with a cracked iron fist. At times you feel her judgement has been clouded by her innate desire to end what must be a years-long operation.

It’s possible too that she has been desensitised by process: surveillance technologies used by the conglomerate of global forces (borders are irrelevant in this inter-connected world) include spy cameras disguised as airborne birds and bugs (brick walls are irrelevant too). These trinkets embody the disconnect between tangible ground activities and those making the crucial decisions from afar, and such technologies likely lighten the load for senior decision-makers such as Powell. Interactions between UK and US agencies hint at the statistical and mechanical nature of modern warfare, a notion embodied by the varying systems of collateral damage interpretation between the two nations. It’s not a matter of saving every life, but rather reducing the total number of deaths.

Hibbert’s screenplay ties in real-world strands by referencing the ongoing migrant crisis (“Well let’s hope she’s not coming back,” bemoans Powell regarding the homegrown British terrorist) but really Eye in the Sky is all about the immorality of war in 2016. The best result the military’s facial recognition software can hope for is a “highly probable” match, which would be great in a university science lab but not ideal when lives are at stake. Any margin of error is amplified in battle and the debates between officials take on that extra weight, a weight that we also incur as we sympathise with various characters. Megan Gill edits Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography to full effect, highlighting the stark anomalies in Nairobi: Gill cuts from the young girl setting up her bread stall to the extremists preparing their suicide vests, mere metres separating the two.

The film avoids problematic whirlpools and discriminatory icebergs by riding a wave maturity — it would be very easy to take a side, but as the piece nears conclusion it shines a blatantly more rounded light on a number of brutes earlier seen authoritatively commanding vehicle checkpoints. Unlike London Has Fallen, which clumsily waded its way into the drone debate, Eye in the Sky sets out to discuss and not to distract. Clearly they are different films in a tonal sense, aimed arguably at different audiences, but both speak the same thematic language and only the latter does so with any credibility.

There is one issue that the film only manages to partially iron out. You’ll almost certainly enter this having already formulated an opinion one way or the other, especially given the relevance and significance of drone warfare in today’s political climate. And although it is possible you’ll be made to reconsider that opinion — it helps that Hood’s gripping direction increasingly positions you alongside the toiling decision-makers — chances are the events depicted will not shift anyone’s viewpoint. This isn’t necessarily a reflection on the movie itself, but rather the divisiveness of its real-world content.

People band around the phrase “spoils of war” in relation to any profits gained through military victory. But it is war that spoils, and here we see that spoiling in action: it spoils ethical frameworks established by the civilised strand of humanity; it spoils urban locales that have hosted and continue to host generations of livelihoods; and, crucially, it spoils the daily existence of normal people living their normal lives. Eye in the Sky suggests war spoils some people more than others, and while that mightn’t be a new conclusion, the method of warfare on display is as morally challenging as it gets.

Eye in the Sky - Aaron Paul

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Entertainment One, Bleecker Street