Review: Julia’s Eyes

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The Pitch: In the kingdom of the blind, how do you know who the king is? You can’t even see him.

The Review: If you see any advertising material for a new movie, then chances are the first names you’re looking for are either the lead actors or the director, as often those names can be a mark of quality, or an indicator of a lack of it. Directors wield a huge amount of influence in the movies these days, but go back half a decade and that wasn’t always the case; originally the Hollywood system was run by the producers and the director was little more than an afterthought. But the name of a producer can still be used today to sell an audience on a product, from Steven Spielberg’s name plastered all over the Transformers movies to Peter Jackson’s District 9. Ideally the producer credit will still give the audience a good guide as to what to expect – if Emma Thompson gave up the Nanny McPhee movies and produced a slasher horror, we’d get more than a few traumatised seven year olds, but in this case the familiar name of Guillermo Del Toro is also an indicator of a familiar product.

So if you were thinking about Guillermo’s previous output, then you’d probably be thinking dark, twisted, unusual and Spanish, and you’d be right on all counts. Guillem Morales has co-written and directed, but you can see why Del Toro’s name is a good fit about the title. First off, the dark – if the title Julia’s Eyes isn’t already a give away, then eyes and vision are a consistent theme throughout the movie. Julia and Sara are twin sisters, and both suffer from a degenerative eye condition which is sending them both blind. Investigating Sara’s death, the police find nothing suspicious but Julia isn’t convinced and starts her own investigation. Working against her are her own condition, which worsens whenever she is under stress, and that fact that even her own husband is sceptical at first. As the clues mount and Julia’s condition worsens, the darkness creeps in both in terms of the light levels in the film itself and in the tone, which for the first half is an eerie mood piece centred around Julia’s investigations.

If anything, it’s that first half of the movie that lets down the whole, as the pace moves slowly and the creeping dread hasn’t yet been ratcheted up enough. But the second half allows the twisted aspects to unfold and the story twists and turns, increasing the atmosphere and throwing in a few more random scares for good measure. While you might think unusual with Del Toro, it’s the fascination with eyes that provides that, and what eventually reveals itself is a taut and effective thriller that quickens the pulse and entertains in equal measure, but while it’s a well made one the core story is nothing new in itself. The performances are strong, and Belén Rueda as Julia (or Sara) is in practically every scene and convinces on pretty much every level.

As with many of Del Toro’s other movies, it’s a universal tale that just happens to be in Spanish, and the washed out and grimy settings feel much more middle America than middle Spain. The other American feel comes from some of the later twists, which do have a feeling of daytime soap opera, admittedly one made in the style of a thriller. A word of warning, though – while the tension and the thrills increase in the second half, so does the level of visuals more commonly found in horror, and if like me you are squeamish about eyes then there’s at least one scene in the last reel that could leave you screaming or running for the exit. All in all it’s high marks for Del Toro the producer and for Morales the director, who makes excellent use of the visuals and uses both the light and the dark to great effect, it’s just a shame that Morales the writer lets the side down a bit – if the story hadn’t flagged early on and taken so long to get going, this could have been a feast for the eyes, rather than merely a good, solid watch.

Why see it at the cinema: There’s always something claustrophobic about seeing sequences set entirely in the dark in a large dark room, even if it is filled with other people, and Morales’ taut direction and the cinematography both make full use of the big screen.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Scre4m (Scream 4)

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The Pitch:  The real life events in Woodsboro that inspired Stab 8, as seen in 5cream. Probably.

The Review: Two years ago… oh wait, that was a different meta review. Fifteen years ago, believe it or not, the ironic, post-modern, nudge-nudge-wink-wink movie franchise was launched on an unsuspecting world. The three Scream movies, stretched over four years, brought two things to the world of horror that made them stand out; their killer, the Ghostface killer, is actually a different person each time, and is normally just one (or two) bitter mortals with a mask and a supernaturally efficient voice changer. It also established that there are rules to horror movies, maybe more so than any other genre of film, and if you know those rules and understand them, then your chances of surviving to the final reel or beyond are that much higher. There’s an unwritten rule about horror movies, that they never die; they just get rebooted if all the actors get too old or the series runs out of creative juices.

So in an attempt to milk as much money as possible out of a fifteen year old franchise seem fresh and inventive, Scream has rebooted its franchise with the same actors. Eleven years of constant pestering and faltering careers have finally convinced Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette that doing another one of these is a good idea. There were two other key players in the franchise as well: director Wes Craven, who’s been pulling these metaphysical, self-referential tricks since the seventh instalment of his other Nightmarish franchise, and writer Kevin Williamson, who gave us the movie-obsessed Dawson’s Creek as well as the horror movie-obsessed Scream films. It felt as if both had lost interest in Scream 3 a little, resulting in a noticeable drop in quality compared to the first two (Williamson didn’t even write the screenplay for the third entry), so their investment, maybe even more than the actors themselves, was key to getting anything substantial from the reanimated corpse of this franchise.

Oddly, though, what they brought to the original Scream films was that sense of knowing, and framed them into character-based whodunnits. Whisper it quietly, use a voice changer if you will, but the Scream films have never been that scary. There was certainly a death in each of the first two films, that of Drew Barrymore’s Casey and Jamie Kennedy’s Randy respectively, which shocked and traumatised, but Scream films have never been that terrifying – there’s plenty of attempts to make you jump, but that’s the cinematic equivalent of someone repeatedly leaping out from behind your seat and shouting “Boo!” So it’s the knowing and the whodunnit that actually make the Scream films most enjoyable, and there’s plenty of knowing here, almost too much in fact. It works best in the opening sequence, which has fun with audience expectations and is so self referential the only thing that the characters don’t do is turn and wink at the audience, instead allowing the script to do that for them.

There are rules of writing reviews as well, and one of those is to talk about the film in question, which actually I’ve done very little of. (Is that the phone ringing? Never mind, it can go to voicemail.) But there’s also a rule about the Scream films, which is that much of the fun comes from discovering what happens for yourself – the fun is pretty much all in the surprises, and I don’t mean the sudden jolts of people in a black cape and a Munch mask leaping into frame. So all I can say is that you’ll see the likes of Anna Paquin, Kristen Bell, Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts, Rory Culkin and Anthony Anderson, and many more, because both horror franchises and self-referential whodunnit franchises need fresh meat, and Scream 4 ploughs through that meat like Freddy and Jason let loose at a horror convention. While it comments on horror trends, the main focus is the reboot, but actually Scream 4 feels most like the original; so much so that it’s almost like a cinematic comfort blanket, providing the same old thrills and pleasures in equal measure. It’s not up to the standard of the first two but is a stretch better than the rather dull third, and if you’re a fan of the series then there’s plenty to enjoy in the company of a similarly minded crowd. Now if you’ll excuse me, I really must get that phone…

Why see it at the cinema: Scream movies are at their absolute best in a packed cinema, where you can guarantee being entertained by the one-third or so of the audience who do still jump every time Ghostface appears. Or, like me, you can use the cinema toilets afterwards and have the crap scared out of you when someone bursts in very suddenly.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Black Swan

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The Pitch: Swan Lake and Madness used to make me think only of this. Not any more…

The Review: At the time of year when awards are being handed out, it’s often useful to consider what qualities a great film embodies. When considering my favourite film of all time last year, I noted that Back To The Future was the master of many films, a science fiction / action / comedy / romance that did all types very well. It’s not a prerequisite for greatness, but if a film can straddle genres so successfully, then it stands a much better chance of being enjoyable. Black Swan is certainly a melding of many different concepts; it is on the surface a ballet film, and certainly the parallels with Swan Lake are clear and simple. Early on, ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) confidently tells everyone in his company that they all know the story of Swan Lake, then proceeds to explain it anyway for the benefit in the audience of anyone who might have come in cold. But this early scene with dancers rehearsing and generally milling in the foreground and background will leave you in no doubt of the context, and director Darren Aronofsky packs the film with ballet detail, from sessions at the physiotherapist to the rituals of preparing ballet shoes for the rigours of performance.

It’s also very much a character drama, and there a number of key players in this drama. The nexus of the drama, on screen almost constantly and into whose mindset we are drawn, is Nina (Natalie Portman), as she replaces Beth (Winona Ryder) at the centre of the ballet company and attempts to get into the dual mindset of the White and Black Swans at Swan Lake’s centre. Her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) guides her career, but may be holding her back as much as pushing her on, and her inhibited home live leads Thomas to encourage her to bond with tattooed rebel Lily (Mila Kunis) in order to explore both sides of her psyche. Lily is her exact opposite, almost her doppelgänger, and when Thomas makes Lily Nina’s understudy, her nervousness about the challenge begins to build into a full-blown psychosis.

Black Swan is effectively a coming of age drama, but this is no John Hughes movie; encouraged to the point of sexual harassment in his actions by Thomas, Nina transitions from the virginal and metaphorical White Swan to the dark side of her personality. Natalie Portman is completely fearless in her role, laying bare her emotions and being completely unafraid to explore the more sexual side of the role as well. (And when I say explore, let’s just say that When Harry Met Sally’s got nothing on this one where female vocalisation and inhibitions are concerned.) The whole cast is great, Hershey playing the overbearing mother to perfection and Cassel and Kunis also filling the roles well, but this is Portman’s movie and she slowly but surely takes ownership of the role and the film as it progresses. Aronofsky sees the parallels in the loss of innocence in adolescence as a parallel for Nina’s development and exploration, giving Portman plenty of meat to work with, and the psychosexual aspects add further layers to the drama and, indeed, the horror that form the core of the narrative.

For yes, this is as much a horror movie as anything else, and that will undoubtedly come as a shock to a certain part of the audience who’ve come for the ballet. The psychosexual tension simmers and occasionally bubbles, but there is psychological horror here as well as aspects of body horror that would seem to suggest Aronofsky could be a natural successor to David Cronenberg. It’s subtle and woven through the fabric of the film, and helps to ratchet up the tension at key points. There are parallels to the director’s previous work, and Aronofsky himself has quoted Polanski’s Repulsion, but if anything the film is most reminiscent at points of the Roger Moore film The Man Who Haunted Himself, as Nina sees herself reflected in the faces of those around her and starts to lose her grip on reality. The only criticism that could be levelled at the film is that it’s occasionally a little one note in tone, but what a note and what a tone. Fascinated with the idea of the double and the understudy as the usurper, Black Swan also has a mirror in almost every scene and is full of both physical and metaphorical reflection; when you come to reflect on Black Swan, you’ll realise that Darren Aronofsky and his cast have created something just a little unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, tense, theatrical, racy and provocative; allow your darker side out and it’ll have a fantastic time with this.

Why see it at the cinema: As communal audience experiences go, this one’s a belter; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, if you’re even slightly prudish you’ll feel very uncomfortable and between those lapping up all the melodrama and those in shock at getting a film they plainly weren’t expecting, there’s sure to be a buzz on the way out the door or at the pub afterwards. The subtle CG embellishments and sweeping stage scenes will be best appreciated on the largest screen you can find, so see it soon while it’s still on the main screens at your multiplex.

The Score: 9/10

Review: Let Me In

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The Pitch: Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?

The Review: Hollywood does many things well, and one it seems to do extremely well is to make a complete Horlicks of remaking successful foreign films, either losing the essence of what made them so special in the first place or adding in element that don’t work in context. There’s a spate of high profile instances going through the production cycle at present, and it’s two of the Scandinavian movies that have won widespread acclaim in the last couple of years that are currently getting the most attention. The first out of the box is Cloverfield director Matt Reeves with his re-imagining of the Swedish classic, Let The Right One In.

First of all, re-imagining may be too strong a word for what Reeves has done. Claims that he’s returned to the source material prove unfounded and there is, in places, an almost slavish dedication to recapturing the look and feel of the predecessor, to the extent that you have to pinch yourself as a reminder that this is set in New Mexico, not Northern Europe. While Reeves has made a few attempts to distance himself from the original, at times this has the feel of a shot for shot remake in the style of Van Sant’s Psycho or Haneke’s English language Funny Games, and feels about as essential as either – in other words, not at all if you’ve any familiarity with the first film.

So to those areas where the differences come in, and this is still a story about a young boy who’s isolated and ends up living next door to someone who gradually reveals their secret, except now they’re called Owen and Abby instead of Oscar and Eli. There’s one change, in the modus operandi of Abby’s guardian, which leads to a stunning set piece seen from a fixed viewpoint at the back of a car that equals and, whisper it, possible even betters anything in the original. Additionally, we never see Owen’s mother clearly, which serves to reinforce his sense of isolation. But apart from that, other than the casting, any other changes actually work against the overall feel, including some ill-advised CGI which serves to take you out of the scene rather than further into it.

The casting, though, is about as impeccable as you could possibly hope for in such a situation. Chloe Moretz, while occasionally less androgynous in appearance than her Swedish counterpart, still nails the role of the creature years beyond her young appearance, while Kodi Smit-McPhee, Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas round out an excellent central cast. Michael Giacchino’s score is also moodily effective and worth a mention. But other than that, this first film from the relaunched Hammer studios feels like the safest possible bet that they could have made. So let’s be clear – it’s a great film, but the original was outstanding, and is so recent that I bought it on Blu-ray as soon as it came out. Imagine having been given an orange flavoured, chocolate covered cake snack from a supermarket’s own range when you already own a packet of Jaffa Cakes – why would you not just eat the Jaffa Cakes?

Why see it at the cinema: The car set piece deserves a view on the big screen, and this is absolutely dripping in atmosphere. It’s also a real thrill to see the Hammer logo on the big screen, and long may it remain. But if you’ve encountered the original, then move along, for there’s nothing to see here.

The Score: 8/10

(Author’s note:  I was eating Jaffa Cakes at the time of writing.)

Review: Paranormal Activity 2

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The Pitch: [ ∆ PLAY] [ ∆ PLAY] [ ∆ PLAY] [ ∆ PLAY] [ ∆ PLAY]

The Review: I remember a time when Hallowe’en wasn’t just an excuse to churn out another half-baked sequel in a scary movie franchise. Simpler times, but money talks and the only thing that managed to derail the Saw series from picking up massive opening weekends seemingly unrelated to the actual quality of the movie was another crowd pleaser full of seasonal frights, but which this time jumped on the back of the “found footage” craze. Paranormal Activity had such an impressive box office to cost ratio that a sequel was inevitable, but how can you make money a second time round, without just regurgitating the same concept?

To an extent, this does its fair share of regurgitating in that we are still looking at video footage recorded overnight, but the writers (and producer and returning writer / director from the original Oren Peli) have attempted to retain what was so successful about the original while expanding the concept. That expansion actually works backwards in time, as this is a prequel, and it comes as a certain surprise to see the two lead characters from the first movie returning, but the onscreen caption confirming this place in the timeline does lend another slender air of suspense to proceedings.

But what worked so well in Paranormal Activity was the gradual build of tension through the repetitive structure. By edging up the drama each night, the slow burn nature gradually took its grip on, let’s be honest, some rather gullible audiences, but part of the fun was being caught up in the reactions of those around you. The sequel retains this concept, but with a succession of five cameras spread around the house that are cycled through, allowing you not only the same chance to spot what’s going to cause the scare, like a sort of horror “Where’s Wally?”, but also to speculate on which one is actually going to offer up the scares.

It was also that sense of found footage that helped those more susceptible to fully engage with the original experience, and sadly this is where the sequel compromises in two key areas. Rather than characters played by complete unknowns, we have one played by Sprague Grayden, a.k.a. the manipulative daughter of President Taylor from TV’s 24. The original also dispensed with credits in an effort to maintain the façade; sadly this tries to have its cake and eat it, with a long black screen at the end, but only the most sprightly front row patrons will be out the front door by the time that Sprague Grayden’s credit appears on screen. There’s not much more to say – if you enjoyed the first one at the cinema, and can find a big enough crowd willing to open themselves up to this, then the downsides are offset by some slightly more effective scares and a satisfying extension to the mythology. Amazingly, this franchise might not be on its last legs yet – didn’t see that coming.

Why see it at the cinema: This is a 7/10 experience rather than a 7/10 movie, in all honesty; any attempt to watch this when not fully surrounded by the company of like-minded people, with a large enough proportion jumping out of their skin at the appropriate moments, will completely diminish the effect.

The Score: 7/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Dark Souls (Mørke Sjeler)

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The Pitch: Oily Vomit Of The Living Dead.

The Review: I will be honest, this, in nearly 100 reviews I’ve written, has been one of if not the most difficult one line pitches to write. Part of that is down to how much is going on in this quiet little Norwegian chiller, which while running to only just over an hour and a half covers an awful lot of territory in that time. The one substance in abundance in this movie is oil, but it’s not the only black entity around, as much of the humour is of the dark variety.  Dark Souls attempts to put a smile on your face as it drills into your brain, and it succeeds to a large extent in that endeavour.

We start with a young girl, Johanna (Johanna Gustavson), who is attacked by a man in an orange boiler suit with an electric drill and left for dead, found face down in the mud by the police who pronounce her dead and have her taken to the mortuary. This comes as a surprise to her loving father, Morten (Morten Ruda), who’s seen her walk in the door not moments earlier. But there’s something not quite right about Johanna any more, and she’s not alone. While detective Askestad (Kyrre H. Sydness) attempts to uncover the truth behind these mystery murders, and the local doctor (Jan Harstad) attempts to uncover the truth behind these rather lively corpses and their strange symptoms, Morten attempts to re-establish family life with Johanna as best as possible, but is slowly but surely drawn into the secret world behind it all.

Directors and writers Mathieu Petuel and César Ducasse obviously know their horror. There’s a deliberate, unhurried pace from start to end and, as with so many other effective horror movies over the years, the pacing is used to build tension and to unsettle the viewer. This isn’t your average American slasher, filled with jump cuts and loud bursts on the soundtrack in a vain attempt to summon up scares, everything here is designed more to pick at your nerves and unsettle, apart from the occasional head drilling, of course. The acting is generally fit for purpose, so while it won’t win any awards, it does engage your sympathy in all the right ways, and Morten Ruda is the stand out, carrying more of the narrative as the movie progresses and allowing the mix of off-kilter laughs to blend perfectly with the feeling and the pain.

The use of oil is also an interesting motif, but its allegorical use pales in comparison to the body horror of watching it exude from every pore of its victims, and it gives them a distinctive and effective look. There are also a lot of references to other horror movies thrown into the mix (more than this casual horror fan could ever detect), but the overall narrative, while taking occasional tangents, hangs together very effectively, and the abiding impression is of a deliciously dark movie that will creep under your skin like the oil in its victims.

Why see it at the cinema: There’s plenty of effective imagery, both subtle and in-your-face, and of course this is at its core a horror movie, so why not guarantee yourself a dark room with a large screen to make the most of the chills?

The Score: 8/10

Review: The Last Exorcism

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The Pitch: The Exorcist Witch Project.

The Review: Horror is a predominant genre of cinema, thanks to classic horror movies such as The Exorcist. There have also been a number of sub-genres of horror over the years, and probably the most prevalent of the last decade is the “found footage” genre, where either a documentary or home video feel is applied to footage, such as The Blair Witch Project and [REC]. So it was surely only a matter of time before someone decided to splice the two together. Taking a break from another sub-genre, torture porn stalwart Eli Roth takes a producer credit on this “documentary” of the less than reverend Cotton Marcus and his faking of an exorcism to expose the issues with the wider trade.

The first act of the movie is set-up for the later events, and consequently is more focused on the religious aspects, reflecting on Cotton’s increasing lack of faith, but the journey that’s actually taken him on and how he’s arrived at this point. His cynicism and brashness is only vaguely challenged as he heads out to the home of Nell, where he’s chosen at random to conduct his last exorcism. Through this section of the movie, there’s plenty to reflect on, especially around the nature of faith and aspects of belief.

Then the second act shows Nell start to show the effects that have led her father to call on Cotton’s services in the first place. By setting up the fact that the demon only presents itself at night, there’s an underlying tension built in as we approach darkness each time over the course of the next few days. There’s a couple of very effective shots using the camera to grisly or suspenseful ends, and as we’re led to question characters’ motives and back stories the tension starts to come from without as well as within, and in general the middle stretch is by far the most compelling section.

In the final stretch, there’s a deliberate set-up for what is to come, and expectations are set, only for those expectations to be subverted a couple of times. Unfortunately, this is where The Last Exorcism starts to lose points; the first of those subversions culminates in a decision taken by characters who’ve obviously never watched Scream or any other self-mocking horror (don’t do that – no sensible person would do what you lot are doing!), which leads them to the final twist, and a riff on another very famous Sixties horror, which while making sense of all the characters’ arcs denies us the gory catharsis promised by that earlier set-up, and feels horribly anti-climactic. If you like a more tense and cerebral horror, then this could be for you, but it may be best to leave just before the end, and see if you can come up with a better ending than the moviemakers.

Why see it at the cinema: Some early and mid-movie creepiness always works well in a large, darkened cinema. You can also get to enjoy the tutting and disbelief of your fellow moviegoers on your way out.

The Score: 6/10