Any film that features a child learning magic draws comparisons with Harry Potter. Eli Roth’s adaptation of John Bellairs’ novel – that predates J. K. Rowling’s behemoth – stakes out its own territory with a 1950s period setting, sorcery in locations adjacent to rather than separated from the non-magic world, and a young protagonist who is more precocious than Chosen. As Lewis Barnavelt, Owen Vaccaro is an engaging lead, given the right blend of social awkwardness and forthright courage. Jack Black and Cate Blanchett offer decent support as Lewis’ Uncle Jonathan and his neighbour Florence Zimmerman. One of the film’s most enjoyable elements is the amusing banter between Jonathan and Florence, every insult laced with affection. Lewis’ growing pains at school are relatable, and there is a pleasing diversity among the performers, avoiding a whitewashed American history. Several of the set pieces are thrilling and there are laughs, the loudest involving a topiary griffin. Yet despite the promising elements, overall the film proves less than the sum of its parts. The visual style is rather flat and the different pieces fit together with heavy tocks rather than efficient ticks. Roth made his name with grisly horror, and he seems uncomfortable with family fair that wobbles unsteadily from sentimentality to grand scale danger to slapstick comedy. The House With A Clock In Its Walls makes for a half-decent visit, but spend any longer there and you may start to notice the time.
Viewers care about character in films. Character can be a route into the film’s world, but somewhat controversially this reviewer believes there are other routes and ‘caring about the characters’ is not essential. Indeed, in the case of Mile 22, characterisation is a distraction. In this latest collaboration between Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg after Deepwater Horizon, Lone Survivor and Patriots Day, Wahlberg plays James Silva, a US special ops agent who is over-characterized. After an opening scene that establishes the remit and lethal abilities of strike team Overwatch, we are treated to a credit sequence that details Silva’s history: identified as ‘gifted’ (which quickly becomes synonymous with ‘troubled’ and ‘mentally abnormal’), his military service, exceptional skills, special forces, recruited to Overwatch, and the rubber band that he snaps on his wrist when his thoughts are too fast for the everyday world. As the film progresses, this rubber band snaps many times, while Silva delivers verbal barrages at his teammates as a form of motivation. The excessive characterisation distracts from the otherwise fairly stripped-down story. Overwatch must transport cop Li Norr (Iko Uwais) through Jakarta to a landing strip 22 miles away (hence the title) so that he can provide vital data about terrorist activity. Along the way they encounter resistance which leads to intense violence, violence that extends into the fabric of the film as well as the narrative. Director Berg mixes multiple formats, from handheld cameras to satellite, drone and security footage, while the present day story flashes forward to a debriefing session. For the most part, this unsteady chronicling effectively conveys a disorientating sense of danger, although it unfortunately obscures Uwais’ martial artistry at several points. A sequence in a tower block with our heroes facing multiple adversaries recalls The Raid, but Mile 22 has a different sort of onslaught. The bombardment of visual information quickly becomes confusing, but this confusion is itself part of the action. In a technologised world of globalisation where US covert ops, Indonesian police and state intelligence, other espionage agencies and civilians violently interact, what can be trusted or depended upon? The double and triple-crossing of the narrative, combined with the disorientating visual grammar, adds up an action thriller that is overwrought and overdone. Nonetheless, Mile 22 is a gripping couple of hours, and an effective product of our troubled and confusing times. Pity about that pesky characterisation.
As a white man, there is a word I will not say. The word is probably obvious – it is a pejorative with a specific meaning, but also a term with contested meanings within racial discourse. Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting explores this term as part of its dramatisation of race relations in contemporary America. The film emphasises the reality that it is never easy being black in the USA, especially at the current political climate. While many might appreciate this concept, Blindspotting follows the excellent BlacKkKlansman as another timely film about race in modern America, which expresses how appalling it is to live under the oppression of racial prejudice. Collin (Daveed Diggs) is a convicted felon three days from the end of his probation. Collin is focused on following the rules of his probation carefully while dealing with his ex-girlfriend, mother and stepfather, and with his volatile best friend and work colleague, Miles (Rafael Casal). Collin’s resolve to stay on the right side of the law becomes more complicated when he witnesses a police shooting of a black man. From this chance encounter, Blindspotting follows a ripple effect of interpersonal dramas that intertwine with broad socio-political concerns. Estrada deftly charts a series of conflicts, both in the immediate story and through judicious flashbacks that explain how Collin got to where he is. Racial tensions battle against personal loyalties; smart humour gives way to sudden violence; aerial shots of the gridlike city are juxtaposed with with close-ups of startled faces. Collin’s attempts to devise rap songs show how he makes sense of the world, and his regular fumbling over words and rhythm demonstrates how hard that sense is to come by. Interestingly, the clearest moments are also the most unnerving, indicating that nothing cuts through confusion better than anger and fear. Therefore, in a world of confusion, prejudice and blindspots, cyclical violence manifests as an escape, a cathartic release and even the suggestion of redemption. Yet rather than slipping into a disturbing glorification of toxic violent masculinity or (like the recent Obey) a depressing, deterministic depiction of black identity, Blindspotting never presents violence as anything other than a terrifying choice that is nevertheless still a choice. Therefore, it takes a responsible and compelling position towards problems with no easy solution, while also being a vibrant and at times amusing tale of social stratification and the struggle to go straight.
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.