Sundance London Film Festival 2018 Review: Hereditary

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Director: Ari Aster

15 | 2h 7min | Drama, Horror, Mystery | 15 June 2018 (UK)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Playing  Sundance London 2018

Star Toni Collette is superb in director Ari Aster’s Sundance horror sensation Hereditary. The film burst out of the US festival earlier this year with the kind of favourable buzz that eased the way for The Babadook and Get Out. Comparisons to The Babadook are particularly understandable given both films centre on an unstable female protagonist who is an unreliable narrator (as well as parent), but the comparisons can be overdone. I personally found Aster’s film incredibly unsettling, one of the closest approximations to the kind of nightmares I've had that I have seen on film recently. The night terrors that have lurked in my memory are those where I wasn’t sure where the real world ended and the supernatural took over, and where waking up resulted in a flash-moment where dreamscape and the real world overlapped. Watching Hereditary recalled that to a certain extent. Those going into Hereditary should be warned that not only is this flick not entirely similar to The Babadook but the marketing materials for the film - particularly the posters that feature a miniature house lit spookily from within - might create the wrong kind of expectations. Nor is it really helpful to call this ‘the next Exorcist’. Rest assured though, despite a two-hour run time that suggests a slow-burner, the film will make you jump. You will never think about tongue clicks in the same way.

What about those weird miniature houses though? Well, they are naturally a handy metaphor for how we can be shrunk down to irrelevant size by the loss of control, and the vulnerability of a family unit to menacing forces peering in from outside.  Aster actually opens the film with a striking zoom onto what appears to be a miniature of a bedroom, only for the entrance of a character into the room to break the spell and reveal this is a real place. But the miniatures are also fascinating, real objects within the film; the life work of Toni Collette’s character. Collette plays Annie Graham, an American artist who is famed for creating miniaturist houses, which mostly are based on scenes from her own life; tiny lit rooms with Lilliputian human figures, fixtures and fittings all fabricated with a frankly eerie level of detail and care (there is a real-life American artist Narcissa Thorne who’s work is similar, and she may be an inspiration). It is, of course, tempting to read into this a form of deep-rooted control freakery or some kind of pathology (or curse?), and given that when we first see Annie when she is giving a very bleak reading at her mother’s funeral, we also start to sense that the Grahams might be a family with deep roots of damage. Annie’s mother, we learn, was elderly, secretive and abusive, and only died after years of dementia. Right away, we wonder how this mysterious matriarch affected not just Annie, but her steady-the-ship husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and their teen children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). As Annie hisses through her teeth during the funeral, her grandma insisted on taking Charlie under her wing, and even though she is dead, she fear her ‘hooks’ are still in her child.

It is difficult to talk about what happens over the next two hours without spoiling, but suffice it to say that Aster crafts the downfall of the Graham family, and reveals the shadow they live under, with real craftsmanship. It really starts with loner teenage granddaughter Charlie (a great performance from Milly Shapiro, who has fascinating gaze that really conveys the sense of seeing something beyond), who starts catching visions of her grandmother outside her school, before graduating on to dissecting animals and unsettling her family with strange, sudden tongue clicks. Then a truly gruesome and bizarre tragedy strikes, and the domestic turmoil this unleashed is so effectively conveyed by the cast, particularly Collette, that Hereditary could actually have just stopped right there with the supernatural elements and carried on as a great character study of grief. One dinner scene, conducted in the family’s gloomily-lit and oddly doll-like house (the rooms just feel too neat to seem lived in), sees Collette’s character escalate to such a frightening level of savage accusation that the film reaches an almost hysterical pitch of unease. This happens many other times, with Annie’s uncontrollable outbursts against her hapless son Peter (Alex Wolff really nails the look of a person exhausted by the process of falling apart), who was involved in the aforementioned tragedy and thus has twisted the family’s response to it even more, revealing such deeply-buried and unspeakable truths that you night find yourself emitting a guffaw of shock. This grounding really helps the film, as few things are more terrifying that seeing bad things happen to believably frail people.

But it is not over for the Grahams, not by a long shot. Aster’s script, the production design, editing and a precise nerve-jangling score from Colin Stetson all work in slick tandem to ratchet up the feeling of delirious dread as the family members increasingly isolate themselves, and thus fall further prey to the forces trying to get at them. I particularly liked the film’s trick of snapping from day or night in exterior shots in a single beat, like switching the lights in a doll’s house on or off with a switch. Grace Yun’s production design and Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography for the outdoor scenes make the Graham residence look like another miniature house in a totally isolated space, cut off from any help, which is complimented by the aforementioned square-on compositions that make the interiors look uncannily like replicas with live occupants. Interspersed with all this are a few jump scares so well-constructed that it overrides the fact some are straight out of the oldest playbook in existence. By the time you get to the WTF ending (which, despite my ambiguous feelings about it, doesn’t diminish my appreciation), you will probably be wanting to steer clear of doll’s houses for a good few months.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Director: Ron Howard

12A | 2h 15min | Action, Adventure, Fantasy | 24 May 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Well, isn't this a blast of shameless fun to clear away the spilled tears of the last two grim Star Wars movies? Steered safely into port by veteran director Ron Howard and writers Lawrence and John Kasdan after original directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired by Lucasfilm, Solo - which gives us the backstory of the titular rogue and smuggler indelibly played by Harrison Ford in the original Star Wars films- is by no means the expected car crash that the behind-the-scenes drama implied. It is just a lot better as a piece of charm-reliant light entertainment, when it is racing ahead in search of the next scrap to throw its misfit group of characters into, than when it tries to get Han Solo on the psychiatrist's couch. 

A solid rather than spectacular 'Star Wars Story' set about ten years before A New Hope, with appealing vibes here and there of the western and heist genres but with little of the comic zaniness promised by Lord and Miller, Solo doesn't really give our main character - played with charm at a nice mid-point between sheer impersonation and a more youthful optimistic take by Alden Ehrenreich- a rich character arc so much as it gives him to us mostly fully-formed but just with a tad more 'Han-ish' flourishes coming into play as the film goes on. After a tragically uninteresting and confusingly-shot (so much of this film, shot by DP Bradford Young, seems to take place in gloom) initial twenty minutes of where we see orphan Han attempt to escape his dreary existence as a crime syndicate scamp on the shipbuilding world Corellia, the plot wisely whisks him off-planet, through three years of Imperial Navy training and undistinguished military service, and gets him swiftly paired up with his lifelong companion and first mate Chewbacca the wookie. Once spectacular intergalactic playboy and gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, stealing every scene) and his intriguing rebellious-minded droid L3 (a nicely left-field motion capture and vocal performance from Phoebe Waller-Bridge who plays L3 as if she is Lando's ex-lover) enter the picture and a double cross-heavy heist gets going, the film really finds its gear, with enough wit, charm and thrills to keep it flying over the bumps. 

An action sequence set aboard a twisting monorail train is a real highlight, as is watching Han gleefully take the controls and thread the Falcon crazily through an asteroid field (even if the fast editing and low lighting make it hard to see what is happening all the time). It kind of makes sense, given that elder Han himself admitted in The Force Awakens that he prefers to act first and figure stuff out later, that Solo would itself be a film that works much better when it is keeping everyone on the move rather than stopping to get contemplative. Solo isn't so much a chance to see a fan-favourite character being moulded in intriguing ways before our eyes as much as it is a fan's best excuse to soak up Star Wars nostalgia as we see Han getting loads of cool familiar stuff and hanging out with equally cool and familiar characters. Given the time jump the film crams in in the first act, a lot of Han's core skills are gained off-screen anyway: we never see the guy take a single flying lesson, but by the time he gets his hands on the newer, shinier Millennium Falcon starship, he already is a pro. Only occasionally are we allowed to linger to see the birth and maturation of some more complex key traits; in particular, Han's dislike of authority and the bullying it allows, and his instinctive siding with the underdog that springs from that. Other developments are handled in a surprisingly mundane or even cheesy fashion. Guess how Han got his iconic blaster and low-slung holster? Someone in the crime world gave it to him! Guess how Han got his name? An imperial officer...picked it for him during his shockingly brief induction into the Imperial Navy. Ummm...

Alongside Ehrenreich and new Chewbacca actor Joonas Suatamo, is Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke who plays Han's long-lost love from Corellia, Qi'ra, which is not an ideal role to be cast in given we know Han's real true love lies further down the line for him. Clarke loses out also through a mix of not getting the lion's share of the impactful or comedic dialogue and having her character's real life-shaping drama take place offscreen, though a last-minute and surprising revelation suggests sequels to this film are where her character could take a really interesting turn. As Han's mentor and veteran smuggler Tobias Beckett, Woody Harrelson does his world-weary veteran schtick as competently as you'd expect, imparting a few somewhat obvious life lessons to the young rogue (i.e , the earth-shattering warning of 'don't trust anyone'). But because the film is so much vibrant when all these characters are finally crammed together in the Millennium Falcon cockpit racing ahead of Imperial star destroyers in the Kessel Run, or just bickering and double-crossing each other, I found myself thinking the whole piece could have worked much better if it just started cold with Han facing off against Lando in a card game for the Falcon, explaining what happened in just two or three sentences when asked what brought him to the table.

As someone who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy, who will probably die in the middle of cycle eight of these movies, it still remains impossible to resist a grin when Han and Chewie are doing their thing; the 'thing' usually being trying to figure their way out of a scrape with lots of bickering and quips as all their plans get shot to hell. Star Wars creator George Lucas's ingenious pairing of the swaggering 'do now, think later' rogue and the sensitive voice of conscience who just happens to walk in the hulking shape of a hairy monster still proves as weird but sweetly charming as ever. Taking over the mantle of the Wookie from Peter Mayhew, Joonas Suatamo really nails Chewbacca's particular walk, his flashes of brute physicality (one thing I liked about this film is the way we really see Chewbacca displaying his power, throwing people across rooms and punching through columns) but also gives us the more subtle head tilts and eye movements that mean that we really don't need Han to translate for us. 

Judging from my reaction to this new Star Wars standalone film, I don't really care to have the gaps in my imagination as to how Han and Chewie met paved over by Star Wars's current owners Disney; I would much prefer to see these two rogues flip the bird to the Empire and ride around in the Falcon all day, always just failing to make that fortune. With the real 'back' part of the story done now, lets hope the next Solo adventure - and the ending of this film makes it pretty clear there will be one - focuses less on the 'development' bit, and just gives us more of the fun characters and action we know.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: The Breadwinner

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Director: Nora Twomey

12A | 1h 34min | Animation, Drama, Family | 25 May 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

This poignant and elegantly-designed animated film was in the running for the Oscar this year, though it lost out to Pixar's Coco. It hails from the same studio that produced the well-regarded Song of the Sea. Directed by Nora Twomey and based on the novel from Deborah Ellis, and with a plot focusing on one girl’s struggle to support her family in Taliban-controlled Kabul, this film is a proudly female-driven project from top to bottom. But there is so much more to enjoy here than simply this picture's #metoo credentials, in particular the evocative animation that strikes a nice balance between realising the paper-like fantasy sequences that represent the vibrant storytelling imagination of central character Parvana, and conjuring for us the sun-baked reality of an oppressive, Taliban-ruled Kabul in the days before the US invasion.

Despite being aimed at younger audiences, the film does not flinch from exploring the grim reality facing women under extreme religious rule: women like Parvana and her mother and sister are forbidden from going anywhere unaccompanied, which means access to food or even trying to enquire about their imprisoned father’s whereabouts is impossible. If they are to survive, drastic action must be taken, which drives Parvana to cut her hair and pass herself off as a boy. It’s a cruel decision to have to make and a very risky move, but as dark as things get for the young girl, this makes the film's moments of light- particularly those that come from female solidarity and ingenuity (Parvana makes a decent amount of money by leveraging her reading and writing skills, skills many men in Kabul do not seem to have) - more impactful.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Sink

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Director: Mark Gillis

90m, Drama, 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

A truly charming and touching London-set and shot indie film from director Mark Gillis, which is currently screening around the capital, in many cases only a few meters from where it was shot (check the website here for venues, times and dates). This is true low-budget filmmaking at its finest (think crowdfunding and credit cards), the Smoke Screen can testify. In many ways indebted to the tough social realist films of Ken Loach, Sink nevertheless is also genuinely funny and left field much of the time.  It’s about Micky Mason (a naturalistic and empathetic turn from lead Martin Herdman), a skilled manual worker who, since the Crash, can find nothing but menial zero hours jobs. He takes a course of action that is completely out of character, but it’s the only way he can see of keeping his family together. Director Mark Gillis will be in attendance for a Q&A after the show.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Deadpool 2

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Director: David Leitch

15 | 1h 59min | Action, Adventure, Comedy | 15 May 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

How to review a film like Deadpool 2, a superhero film (or "expansive two-movie universe" as the titular mercenary calls it now) that foregrounds its throwaway, tastelessly ultra-violent and demented nature as part of its appeal? Given his love of irony, I am sure that Deadpool himself - the unkillable, gag-spewing mercenary from the (Fox-owned) Marvel comic superhero universe who breaks the fourth wall as often as he breaks wind in people's faces- would appreciate the strange fact that despite being marketed as a refreshing commentary on the staleness of the now-dominant superhero movie genre, Deadpool 2 arrives in cinemas at a time when these movies seem to have avoided sinking into the bog. Or at least, the movies pumped out by Disney/Marvel seem to have kept a certain standard of quality: witness the positive reactions to, and box office haul of, Avengers: Infinity War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Black Panther. Thus, Deadpool 2 and is predecessor sit in a groove where they can maybe be best appreciated as a funnier alternative to the more 'serious' films; Deadpool is not needed to save the genre.

If judging how funny it is is the best way to rate Deadpool 2, then director David Leitch (who helmed Atomic Blonde, which no doubt explains the confident, muscular and inventive action sequences here) and writers Rhett Reese, Paul Wernic, and star Ryan Reynolds (who's commitment to get this character on screen spans over a decade) can take a bow. Despite being overlong, and suffering through some airless moments where the laughs don't come so fast, and allowing for the fact that this sequel is the dictionary definition of 'have cake and eat it', Deadpool 2 is mostly a loopily-enjoyable ride into mayhem. A huge amount of this franchise rests on the manic energy of Reynolds and his machine-gun delivery of gags, profanities and to-screen commentary on the state of supeherodom, with a substantial number of digs aimed at the gloomy tone of the DC superhero universe and the fact that Deadpool's new antagonist is played by a (crazily ripped) Josh Brolin, currently on screen as another hulking villain in competitor studio Disney's Avengers: Infinity War. If you found the pitch of Reynolds's performance, and the entire angle of the previous Deadpool movie totally unbearable, you won't be converted here.

One thing the filmmaker's get is that Deadpool as a film can't just survive on its main character's up-to-date meta commentary, a deliberately campy and syrupy soundtrack (Deadpool is an unabashed Celine Dion and Cher fan) and some inventive action sequences which exploit the fact that Deadpool, like Wolverine, is unkillable and thus can be bent and blown out of shape like a rag doll. As fun as all that can be, Deadpool 2 really gets into a higher gear when Deadpool rubs up against contrasting characters who are fun and interesting in their own right. As with the lone ranger type Wolverine, I prefer such a distinctive superhero character to bounce off other players and create sparks instead of carrying an entire film on their own, which might result in too much boredom or annoyance. Here Reynolds is paired off well with the gruff, beefy, blockheaded figure of Cable (Brolin, under appreciated as an actor with comic timing), a cyborg from the future determined to kill an unstable and bullied mutant teen called Russell (a hugely funny but also genuinely poignant turn from Hunt for the Wilderpeople's Julian Dennison) who Deadpool feels an affection for. Cable's blunt, grim approach and minimal care for conversation leads Deadpool to quip "are you sure you're not from the DC Universe?" Also bringing some buzz to the screen is Zazie Beetz as Domino, a new recruit to Deadpool's totally inept 'X-Force' team (he wants his own 'X' based team, copyright be damned) who's superpower is she is always lucky, which the filmmaker's exploit to create some of the most inventive and amusing action sequences.

Deadpool 2 throws a lot at the screen, so much so it feels inevitable that enough of it would stick, given the proof of concept established from the first film. But although I wouldn't say it surpasses the original in any notable way, what the Deadpool team can take credit for is creating possibly the funniest and, at the same time, the most logical mid-credit sequence of any superhero movie, where Deadpool not only uses Cable's time travel device in a way that totally makes sense (thus the film actually engages with the obvious plot hole in many time travel films, why don't characters use the tech to just fix everything) whilst also allowing Reynolds to warmly embrace all his previous career car crashes. There is also a 'blink and you'll miss it' cameo from a A-List actor which, literally, you could miss if you blink.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.