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The Little Stranger

Stranger

Ghost stories are rarely about ghosts. From The Sixth Sense to The Devil’s Backbone to Ghost Stories, the genre is used to explore themes of grief, loss and memory. Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger follows this pattern, being largely about class. Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has moved up from his working-class background to the professional middle class through medicine. The local country estate, Hundreds House, held fetes in the inter-war years, and as a boy Faraday visited this home and briefly touched a life distant from his own. In 1947, Faraday is called to the house by the Ayres family, to investigate ailments among the family and their staff. Steadily, Faraday becomes a fixture, developing relationships with matriarch Mrs Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), battle-scarred war veteran Roderick (Will Poulter) and daughter of the family, the pragmatic Caroline (Ruth Wilson), to whom Faraday draws closest. Through this relationship, director Abrahamson charts class tensions, as the landed gentry stubbornly cling onto their ancestral home even as their finances and significance fade along with the building. The house is as much a character as the people, its crumbling exterior and dilapidated interior expressing the failing fortunes of the Ayres. These fortunes are tied to a sense of grief and regret that permeates the film but it is always contained within a very British attitude of constraint and reserve. There is a sense of critique over these attitudes, both in terms of their effect on the Ayres and Faraday’s clear but dubious desire to join them, while no one is actually willing to confront their issues. In such an oppressive environment, small wonder that concerns emerge over haunting and lost loved ones. There are also some effective jump scares, including a child, a dog, fire and slamming doors. At times, Faraday’s voiceover is intrusive and can seem excessive, but as the drama progresses it proves to be more than its initial appearance suggested. This is not the case with the film overall, which sets itself up as a period ghost story, and delivers on that promise. It is not much more than that, lacking the emotional rawness and truth of Room or the scares of The Others, but The Little Stranger is still a nicely constructed Gothic chiller.

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Yardie

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‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a yardie’. No character in Yardie says this line, yet Idris Elba’s directorial debut echoes Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas with its tale of the rites of passage through criminal syndicates. With its period detail and tactile sense of time and place, Elba’s adaptation of Victor Headley’s novel immerses the viewer in its milieu, its use of London also recalling David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, with an added Jamaican flavour. The narrative includes familiar genre tropes of revenge, redemption, how one defines identity and the tensions between men being men and women being sensible. The theme of immigration adds a distinctive element to the film, as Jamaican culture feeds both the yardie mentality and a non-criminal lifestyle. Elba handles the interpersonal drama effectively, allowing a very impressive cast to shine. Elba also displays confidence and flair as a director, especially with such devices as freeze frames and non-sequential editing. Various sequences begin, continue and end, but key moments from these sequences appear and reappear later, often with additional detail. This emphasises the film’s conceits of trauma and haunting, as our protagonist Dennis (Aml Ameen) is psychologically trapped in a formative moment, an experience that he cannot escape even when his location changes from Kingston to London. As the film follows Dennis’ progress, there is a constant sense of enclosure, demonstrated with claustrophobic framing and close quarters. The one avenue for escape comes from music, brilliantly realised with an atmospheric soundtrack, that takes centre stage at key points. These include an attempt at an armistice between warring gangs, and later as a possible road to redemption for Dennis. Yet the musical and the criminal pathways are intertwined, and Dennis’ status remains fluid and liminal. Come the end of the film, the viewer is likely to feel ambivalent, which is a sign of the film’s strength. Not only is it worth seeing in its own right, but Yardie raises expectations for what Elba may do next.

The Equalizer 2

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The Equalizer was a pleasant surprise in 2014. An exploitation film that made a virtue of the simplicity of an ex-special forces soldier in Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) becoming a DIY avenger. The attention to social detail, especially in respect to race and class, constructed an interesting site of resistance. In addition, the genuinely nasty violence showed a commitment to the brutality of the depicted organised crime and the potential of a hardware store, while star Washington elevated the material to something more engaging than it might have been otherwise. Sadly, 2018’s sequel fails to deliver on almost all these aspects. Foregoing the stripped down simplicity of the original, EQ2 suffers from an overly elaborate plot, or rather plots that lack connective tissue. Character relationships muddy the waters rather than adding dramatic weight, whether they involve McCall’s mentee Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders), former comrade Dave York (Pedro Pascal) or Holocaust survivor Sam Rubenstein (Orson Bean). These sub-plots are frustratingly peripheral, screenwriter Richard Wenk failing to link together McCall’s central pursuit with the different lives he touches. Director Antoine Fuqua brings little stylistic flair to the proceedings, except in one bravura sequence that reminds the viewer of the importance of seatbelts. Meanwhile, a steadily approaching hurricane fails to increase tension, and much of the violence is obscured which makes the film appear neutered. The end result feels turgid and sluggish, and makes the viewer wish for something more efficient. Only Washington emerges unscathed, his charisma and star power lending the work some dignity. But great actors do not always equal great films, and The Equalizer 2 is a prime example of how much more is needed to equalize the quality of other fare.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

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In the pantheon of spy movies, there have been some impressive set pieces that take place in public bathrooms. Mission: Impossible – Fallout adds to this legacy with an inventive and visceral sequence that incorporates needles, laptops and various methods of unarmed combat with basins, mirrors, pipes and cubicles. The scene is typical of the film as a whole: gripping, visceral and intense, as writer-director Christopher McQuarrie delivers a ruthlessly efficient script and muscular direction. The plot, unusually for this franchise, follows on from the events of the previous instalment. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is haunted by his past missions, especially memories of his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) and malevolent adversary Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). When the remnants of the Rogue Nation pursue weapons grade plutonium, Ethan and his team of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) are given the mission (should they choose to accept it) to intervene, and lumbered with CIA observer/assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill). From this set-up, intrigue, disguises and quadruple crosses abound, amid an array of quite astounding set pieces. The M:I franchise has prided itself on ever-escalating action sequences, and in the contemporary era of superhero exploits, it is impressive that this sixth instalment pulls off scenes with heft and physicality without the benefit of superpowers. Curiously, several of these scenes appear to re-stage sequences from previous films. The aforementioned bathroom scene echoes True Lies and Casino Royale, while a mountain climbing sequence recalls M:I II as does a motorbike chase, which is also reminiscent of similar chases in Rogue Nation and Skyfall. Speaking of sky fall, in the movie’s bravura set piece, McQuarrie flexes his stylistic flair, as two characters perform a sky dive in a continuous take, the viewer spiralling and tumbling along with the figures on screen. It is a breathtaking sequence with a genuine sense of peril, and one of the finest action set pieces this year. There is also emotional turmoil to match the physical, as themes of regret, guilt and responsibility pulse throughout the narrative, while the convolutions of the plot ensure that one’s brain is engaged as well as guts, leading to a film that is exhausting on an emotional as much as a physical level. As a result, despite these missions running for over twenty years, I would certainly choose to accept further ones.

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Incredibles 2

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Superhero narratives have a reputation for being conservative. Terms such as chauvinistic, right wing and valorising the cult of the individual often appear in discussions of the genre. Since Pixar and director Brad Bird first presented their superpowered family in 2004, films such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther have offered alternatives to this pattern. Incredibles 2 does so as well, making it the best sort of sequel: it gives us what we know and expect and also something new. There is the same blend of action and humour, much of the latter deriving from Bob Parr/Mr Incredible’s (Craig T. Nelson) struggling with domesticity while Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) leads on the action front. In one bravura sequence, a souped-up motorcycle chases a train with the tangibility and immediacy of live action. The introduction of more supers allows for further exhilarating sequences, and the humour and action are brought together brilliantly with the development of Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile).

IncrediblesjpgAll this is great fun, but in its narrative development and also world building, Incredibles 2 displays some surprising elements. The film’s focus on Helen is not the limit of its exploration of gender, as discussions between Helen and Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener) as well as Voyd (Sophia Bush) raise further issues. Furthermore, Incredibles 2 also questions our engagement with technology through its villain the Screen Slaver, and while this discourse could be reduced to clichéd monologuing, it is striking that the film includes this feature. In addition, there is a curious social aspect to the presence of supers in the film’s world. When Helen and Bob consider their future, they refer to the private sector, and benevolent government agencies are shut down due to public mistrust. All of this distances the Incredibles from the more self-righteous exploits of Batman and Iron Man. If superheroes are presented as inspirational figures, especially for children, figures that want to help others and make the world a better place, Incredibles 2 suggests that the place to do that is within the purview of the state. In a time of rampant individualism and self-interest, Incredibles 2 continues Disney’s surprising messages of acceptance, tolerance and state intervention and responsibility. If the imagined nation the United States of Disney actually practiced what films such as Zootopia, Beauty and the Beast and now Incredibles 2 suggest, it might not be so bad. And that may be the most incredible thing of all.

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Sicario 2: Soldado

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2015’s Sicario was a coming together of several brilliant talents. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who also delivered great scripts with Hell Or High Water and Wind River; director of photography Roger Deakins, who drew closer to his elusive Oscar; the fine acting chops of Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin; the ever improving director Denis Villeneuve, whose subsequent films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 cemented his standing as one of the finest directors working in Hollywood. 2018’s Sicario 2: Soldado reunites Sheridan’s writing with Del Toro’s enigmatic Alejandro and Brolin’s bullish yet principled Matt Graver, but minus the other prominent figures with Stefano Sollima behind the camera and Dariusz Wolski on lensing duties. New cast members include Isabela Moner, Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener and Elijah Rodriguez, their presence expanding the scope of this follow-up. Concerns over terrorism and pirating give the film a more global flavour, although these elements serve more as a distraction than contextualisation. The film’s subject matter feels ripped from the headlines as immigration is a prominent feature, much of the film involving Mexicans illegally entering the United States. While there is (currently) no wall, there are certainly obstacles as well as opportunities for those willing to exploit the desperate. Into this potent mix Matt sends Alejandro, with the goal of starting a war between drug cartels. The film is efficiently put together, with several gripping set pieces including a gruelling gun battle on a deserted desert road. Oddly, the film’s more affecting moments are quiet interchanges, especially between Alejandro and Isabel Reyes (Moner), daughter of a cartel head that Alejandro takes custody of. Their relationship is engaging, while Matt’s clashes with his government superior Cynthia Foards (Keener) and Secretary James Riley (Matthew Modine) highlight the political agenda. Unfortunately, these disparate elements are not cohered, while a subplot involving young Mexican-American Miguel Hernandez (Rodriguez) never convinces. Worse, the film lacks the nihilism of the original, and in its final act there are several moments that could be shockingly cruel, but instead the film loses its nerve and takes the narrative beyond its natural conclusion. The border has many interesting stories, but this is one of the lesser ones.

Mid-Year Report

Jiminy jump cuts, we’re half way through the year! 2018 has already given us Brexit shenanigans, the savaging of civil liberties by the US government and sporting events that some people enjoy. In the movie world, we saw a fantasy film win Best Picture, a superhero film with a largely black cast become a box office success, and fan responses to Star Wars reached a new low. The cinematic offerings of 2018 thus far have, by and large, been impressive. From varied award bait to adaptations of video games, novels and stage plays, franchise instalments to indie gems, January to June provided film delights aplenty. Now at the half-year point, I offer my top six of the first six months on 2018.

  1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri-movie-6Traditional as it was, this was the Best Picture nominee that impressed me the most. Were I a member of AMPAS, I might not have voted it for it for political reasons (more on that later), but this is the most impressive film of the year for me so far.

  1. You Were Never Really Here

You Were PosterAn extraordinary experience, to such an extent that after I saw it, I needed to take a walk just to let it settle. Describing such a exquisitely cinematic experience in words is hard (though I did it anyway), so all I will say here is that you need to see it. Off you go, you can read the rest of this later.

  1. Avengers: Infinity War

Infinity War PosterThe culmination of ten years of world and story building for Marvel Studios, Infinity War manages to do that thing you don’t expect in a franchise instalment – be surprising. Blending a myriad of characters and narrative threads, and going to strange thematic places, Infinity War continues Marvel’s mastery of the superhero genre.

  1. The Shape of Water

Water bannerWere I a member of AMPAS, I would probably have voted for this to win Best Picture, since it is a different sort of nominee that manages to blend the fantastical and the real, the whimsical and the brutal. Guillermo Del Toro has crafted a remarkable oeuvre and, while this is a career highlight, I hope he continues to give us further brilliant pieces of cinema.

  1. Phantom Thread

Phantom_Thread_PosterPerhaps the oddest film this year, one that I can only recommend in the sense that is an exquisitely crafted piece of cinema. Paul Thomas Anderson’s period romantic drama about an insufferable dressmaker could be sold on its talent, but to view it is to enter into a fully realised and often uncomfortable world.

  1. Black Panther

black-panther-posterIt says something about a superhero film when you find yourself considering the foreign policy of a fictional country, the society of which is based entirely on a fictional element. It means that the film is working so well on a generic level that you want to apply its conceits to the real world. Marvel’s venture into Afro-futurism combined super-powered thrills with debates between isolationism and interventionism, and without labouring the point struck a blow for cinematic equality.

Stinker: Red Sparrow

Red SparrowOnly one real stinker so far, and I hope that I don’t see a worse film this year. Red Sparrow had so much potential, considering its subject, its themes and talent. That made the disappointment of watching this tedious, turgid, brutal, nasty and ultimately hollow film all the more crushing.

Will the top (and bottom) films of the year include these entries or others? Time will tell, so keep viewing with Vincent to see where the year goes.