thriller

Alien: Covenant

I was on the fence about this one, but in the end I decided to catch it before it disappeared from the cinemas. I can’t say I regret the decision and I’m glad I’ve watched the film, because no one shoots sci-fi like Ridley Scott, but the most damning thing I can say about Alien: Covenant is that it’s the first entry in the series that doesn’t offer anything new, and instead plays like the Alien: Greatest Hits. Even the runts of the franchise had some individuality about them, whether it was the director’s unique visual style or some new ideas, and even when these ideas were terrible, *cough* human/alien hybrid from Alien: Resurrection *cough*, at least they were still memorable. My biggest complaint about Alien: Covenant is how little of this adequate movie was truly memorable.

I liked the divisive Prometheus way more than many people did, and the ending of that film teased some intriguing possibilities, as its heroine Elizabeth Shaw packed the head of David the android in a duffel bag and set off towards the home planet of Engineers. While Covenant still acts as a direct sequel to Prometheus, it jumps ten years ahead and opens with the scenes aboard Covenant, a colony ship with thousands of passengers in cryogenic sleep, plus preserved embryos. When the ship is hit by a massive solar flare and suffers casualties, the crew pick up a strange transmission, human in origin, while doing repairs. The signal comes from a planet that’s much closer than their original destination and appears to be a perfect choice for human colonization. Ignoring the lessons of dozens of sci-fi movies where veering off course spells certain doom and death, the crew decide to stop by and investigate. If you thought that the scientists in Prometheus made some inexplicably dumb choices, this lot decide to explore an alien planet while not wearing any protective helmets whatsoever, presumably because they decided that hey, since this place looks a lot like Norway, it must be safe.

Visually, Covenant may not be as beautiful and striking as Prometheus, but it still delivers, with the majestic landscape shots and lived-in sets typical of Scott movies. It’s a pity then that the human characters don’t receive anywhere as much love and attention: this bunch is as nondescript and generic as they come, including the new Ripley-esque heroine Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Other characters’ personalities, when they do have hints of any, can be summed up in a couple of words – this guy is quirky and wears a cowboy hat! This guy believes in God! The only two interesting characters are synthetic: David (Michael Fassbender), the inquisitive and amoral android who was the highlight of Prometheus, returns here as the sole inhabitant of the planet, and is rather more unhinged than the last time we’ve seen him. Then there’s Walter, the android crew member of Covenant, also played by Fassbender. Unlike the creative David, Walter’s generation of androids were made to be more machine-like and less creepily human, an upgrade David finds disappointing. The interactions between the two, with David teaching Walter to play the flute among other things, are weird, funny, philosophical, and make for the film’s best scenes.

Rather than answering the question posed by Prometheus – why did the Engineers wish to destroy the humankind? – Covenant instead chooses to focus on edging closer to the original Alien film and exploring the origins of the xenomorph. Which means that, at some point in the movie, it’s time for the usual: running down corridors, dark and drippy interiors, eggs, facehuggers, chestbursters and xenomorphs. While Covenant ramps up the gore and body horror, the problem is that a) it can’t muster the same level of tension as Alien, or the breakneck excitement of Aliens, and b) I can’t say I ever wondered about where the xenomorph came from. There’s no real point explaining something that was always effective simply as a horrifying, mysterious thing from outer space. So while Covenant is by no means a disaster and makes for a watchable, well-shot sci-fi thriller/horror, it’s short on new ideas and, unlike Prometheus, does nothing to stoke my excitement for a hinted-on sequel. Maybe it’s finally time to blow this franchise out of the airlock.

Get Out

My only regret with this film is that I already knew the big reveal beforehand from watching a spoiler-filled review. I’ve no idea why I did this to myself, I can’t even blame the reviewer who was thoughtful enough to include a spoiler warning – but I just kept on watching. The movie was still hugely enjoyable and suspenseful, and had other twists and surprises up its sleeve, I just wish I came into it knowing as little as possible.

The hero of Get Out is Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, in an instantly sympathetic turn), a young black man who is about to meet the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for the first time in their affluent rural home. Rose never told her parents that her boyfriend is black, and Chris worries about their reception despite Rose’s assurances that her father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could. A different, simpler movie might have played it so that Rose’s parents are awful in an obvious racist way, but in Get Out Chris’s visit turns into a nightmare because Rose’s liberal neurosurgeon father and psychiatrist/hypnotherapist mother are just so hellbent on broadcasting how totally fine they are with Chris. But this awkwardness might be the least of his problems, as he gets increasingly creeped out by the very odd behaviour of the other two black people in the house, a groundsman and a housekeeper. They move around the place in a ghostly, silent manner, and when Chris tries to be friendly with them they’re cold and just plain unnerving.

If you briefly summarised the main mystery to someone who hasn’t watched the film it would sound incredibly silly, but it totally works in the context of the film, much like the potentially silly reveal of The Stepford Wives works in Ira Levin’s classic satirical thriller (Ira Levin I think would have enjoyed Get Out a lot). It takes care to lay the foundations for the reveal, so that when it happens it’s genuinely horrifying rather than inviting ridicule. There are certainly implausibilities, but you’re generally too busy being carried away by the film and its suburban-Gothic vibe to stop for nitpicking. It’s a superbly made thriller that juggles horror and humour, most of the latter coming from Chris’s lovable best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), TSA Officer whose natural inclinations to conspiracy theories come in handy.

One unexpected delight of the film for me was its score, which often sounds like it was lifted from the old-school horror movies with their shrieking violins, an interesting juxtaposition with the modern-day setting. My Mum who watched the film with me remarked that, just when you think that nothing new can be done anymore, a film like this comes along, and yes Get Out is the sort of fresh take on the genre you cherish.

P.S. The actor who plays Rose’s douchy brother looked naggingly familiar to me, and I only realised later that the same guy played the sweet-natured Banshee in X-Men: First Class. He’s certainly no sweetikins here!

The Witch

A very effective and disturbing exercise in slowly escalating dread, The Witch is the sort of movie where you sit on the edge expecting something really bad to happen any minute now. It doesn’t have many big jump scares but the claustrophobic setting, moody and muted visuals (the film is shot in natural light, with only candles providing the artificial one), spooky music and the unsettling implications of horrible things happening offscreen all work together to create a superb atmosphere of unease.

The setting is the 1630s New England, and in the opening scene a devout family of seven leaves their Puritan settlement over religious differences to reside on a farm by the edge of a forest, far away from human contact. I was glad to have subtitles while watching the movie, because everyone in it speaks in the archaic English based on the written records of the time, with thee and thou and dost and so on. It has a certain poetry to it and adds a lot to the authentic feel, but man would it have obscured the dialogue for me. One day, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy of the eerie wide-set eyes, seen most recently in Split and giving another strong performance here), the eldest child of the clan, takes her baby brother outside, where he vanishes into the thin air. I don’t think it’s a big spoiler to say that, contrary to my expectations, the movie actually doesn’t toy with the audience regarding the existence of the titular witch – it shows upfront that yes she’s real, and what she does with the baby is not pleasant.

Thomasin and her family live in a world governed by faith and superstition where God, Devil and sin are a daily pre-occupation and the idea that the Devil might take on an animal shape is nothing out of the ordinary. It sure made me happy to live in the present day where I don’t have to think of myself as a born sinner and worry about hellfires all day long. When other strange and inexplicable things begin to happen, the family is slowly consumed with fear and paranoia that leads them to turn on each other with accusations of devilry. I thought that The Witch worked best as a quiet psychological thriller about the breakdown of the family – when it did attempt a few deliberately scary moments they mostly made me titter. They’re just too over-the-top compared to the overall subtle approach of the film.

Taylor-Joy is the standout in the cast, as The Witch is also an unconventional coming-of-age story of a young girl in the Puritan age, but Ralph Ineson and Katie Dickie (both seen on Game of Thrones), are also solid as the father who is sympathetic but too weak and prideful to admit he’s taken his family to ruin, and the brittle, emotionally damaged matriarch with a shade of Lysa Arryn. Without spoiling twists and turns, looking back it’s satisfying to spot all the clues the movie plants early on that hint on where the story will eventually go. It certainly has one of the most memorable endings in a film I can think of.

As a random aside, I wish I could think of ways to incorporate the line “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” into my daily conversations somehow.

Apocalypto

I came across this one thanks to the most excellent History Buffs YouTube series, a show dedicated to reviewing historical movies run by a British guy called Nick Hodges. Nick is not a fan of Mel Gibson movies to put it mildly and he panned Apocalypto mercilessly for its many gross historical inaccuracies and the overall misrepresentation of the Mayan culture, with Gibson rolling his Mayans and his Aztecs into one. While his criticisms seemed legitimate, I’m way more forgiving towards the movies fudging historical facts for drama, and the film looked visually interesting at the very least. Besides, who else out there is making movies about a pre-Columbian civilisation shot exclusively in the Mayan dialect? I’ll take my Mayan movies where I can get them.

The story is very simple: Jaguar Paw, a young tribesman living in a jungle village with his little son and very pregnant wife, gets captured by the raiders from a nearby city, where he and his fellow villagers are due to be sacrificed to appease the angry gods. The collapse of the Mayan society is imminent, with the dying crops and strange diseases decimating the population, and nothing less than a constant waterfall of blood will do. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his wife and son in a pit cave before he’s taken, and he must escape and return to his family before it’s too late.

There’s some social commentary about the decline of a civilisation, with the scenes showing environmental degradation, the contrast between the pampered ruling elite and the sickly poor, and the cynical manipulation by the religious leaders. Some of it is as subtle as a brick, such as the creepy little girl prophesying the end of the Mayan world in a typical Creepy Child fashion. The movie really works best as a crazy, audacious, ultra-violent adventure story. Whatever else you can say about Mel Gibson, he knows how to pack a cinematic visceral punch and film a tense chase through the jungle, as the hunted becomes the hunter and picks off his pursuers one by one through the ingenious and often gory means. It’s like Home Alone, Mayan style.

The city scenes can be truly stomach-churning with the decapitations and cut out hearts galore, but they’re also visually stunning and feature the colourful body paint, eye-popping costumes and tribal decorations the likes of which I’ve never seen onscreen before (all that jade jewelry! The film is at least accurate about the Mayan upper class decorating their teeth with jade, as I got to learn on my recent trip to Mexico). I don’t know how historically accurate they really are, but they sure do look spectacular. The cinematography makes the most of the lush green jungle and other naturally beautiful locations. The indigenous cast, many of them first-time actors, do a fine job, especially Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw, and there’s a surprising amount of humour in the scenes where we get to know our hero and his fellow tribesmen and women before everything goes to hell.

Split

split-imageWith all the prestigious Oscar-season films out, I wanted to take a break and see something different. To my surprise, a film I felt like seeing was M. Night Shyamalan’s latest. Like most people, I loved The Sixth Sense, but I haven’t watched a Shyamalan film at the cinema since Signs in 2002, a movie so offensively stupid it would have put me off his stuff even without the critical bashing his next few films received. The reviews for this one however were quite decent, hailing it a comeback even, and James McAvoy starring did a lot to sway me, since I’m a big fan.

McAvoy has a kind of sweet face that could easily have doomed him to an endless string of lightweight cutie-patootie roles (Amy Adams had a similar problem before David O. Russell cast her in The Fighter), a fate he’s obviously determined to duck. There was his stellar turn as a vile foul-mouthed cop in Filth, and in Split he’s once again playing a shady individual, with spectacular results. His character, Kevin, has a Dissociative Identity Disorder, and shares his mind with twenty-two other personalities, though we only see a handful of them. McAvoy, always a vibrant screen presence, has tremendous fun with his scenery-chewing performance and manages to successfully distinguish his “characters” through body language, ticks and vocal inflections, going from almost endearing to scary-as-hell in a fraction of a second. There’s a rather fascinating (and most likely wildly unrealistic) system to the way the personalities “come to the light”, wrestle for control and arrange alliances between themselves.

The story has Kevin kidnap three teenage girls, including an introverted school outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is offered a ride home by chance. The girls are kept in an unidentifiable place somewhere underground, and though Kevin and his other personalities don’t intend any immediate physical harm they keep on making creepy comments about sacrifice that can’t possibly come to any good. Casey, a haunted soul with a tragic personal history told in flashbacks over the course of the film, does the most trying to engage their captor and trick him into letting them escape. The other two girls are less developed and feel like traditional horror archetypes.

Most of the explanation and world-building in the movie comes courtesy of Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s therapist who is intensely sympathetic to him and other DID patients. Through their conversations, we learn of an enigmatic twenty-third personality in Kevin’s mind called The Beast, whose existence Dr. Fletcher doubts and who doesn’t sound like anyone you’d like to run into in a dark alley at night.

Split still has some of the usual annoying Shyamalanisms like stilted dialogue and a pointless cameo from the director, but it’s easily one of his better films. It’s fun, trashy and full of weird interesting camera angles, it excels at generating Hitchcockian tension and suspense, and it’s anchored by McAvoy’s freewheeling, entertaining performance. I wish though I didn’t read so much hype about the Big Twist this movie was supposed to have, because a part of my brain spent the entire movie trying to figure out the twist and anticipating the surprise. The revelation however failed to rock my world – it has little to do with the story itself and its effectiveness depends solely on how much you know or care about the thing it refers to.

Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-animals-amy-adams-imageCaught up with the other Amy Adams movie released recently, and a very different beast to Arrival where she also starred. Directed by Tom Ford, it’s exquisitely photographed, strongly acted, and does well to create meshing narratives with their own moods and textures, but in the end it all felt rather hollow and trying-too-hard. There’s much to admire about it, but my reaction in the end pretty much boiled down to, so what.

The film opens with a sequence that’s clearly meant to provoke an uncomfortable reaction, featuring morbidly obese women, naked except for cowboy hats, boots and gloves, dancing and gyrating against the blood-red background in slow motion. These, it becomes clear later, are part of a new art installation in the gallery owned by Susan (Amy Adams), a high-roller in the Los Angeles art world and a profoundly unhappy woman. Her world is immaculate, extravagant, overstyled, glossy and oh-so spiritually empty, and her second husband (Armie Hammer, probably doomed to play born-into-privilege types forever and ever) is acting cold and distant. The next day after the opening, Susan receives a yet-to-be-published novel from her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she hasn’t spoken to in years and who dedicated the novel to her. While opening the package, she receives a nasty papercut that draws blood. Foreshadowing much?

From then on, the movie splits into three stories: Edward’s novel that Susan keeps on reading with increasing discomfort, Susan’s current miserable life, and flashbacks to her former life with Edward. The story-within-the-story is about a man called Tony (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who drives with his wife and daughter through West Texas at night, and has a run-in with a bunch of young sadistic thugs. Suffice to say, things go from bad to worse to sheer horror, and Susan’s response to this fictional story becomes more and more emotionally fraught and personal, as it becomes obvious that she effectively cast her ex-husband as the protagonist of his brutal novel. There are other visual touches linking the two stories: Susan’s red couch from her L.A. home becomes a sinister prop in Edward’s story; Tony’s wife and teenage daughter in the novel bear an eerie resemblance to Susan and her real daughter.

I’ve been trying to figure out my ultimately blah response to it all, and I think it’s down to the fact that the movie did nothing to make me care about Susan and Edward’s relationship. The flashbacks reveal them as a couple of young and idealistic lovers whose relationship falls victim to the demands of the real world and different aspirations. Problem is, the movie doles out this information in the most obvious way possible, with the subtlety of a brick to the face, though I did enjoy the brief cameo by Laura Linney, almost unrecognisable as Susan’s pearl-wearing, conservative Republican mother. Blue Valentine from a few years ago, with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as the doomed couple, covered a similar ground in a much more nuanced fashion. Also, it turns out that Susan did something awful to Edward near the end of their marriage, but this doesn’t have an impact it should have had. Without a real emotional centre, the story basically comes down to, he sends her a screw-you novel, she is disturbed. The end. The only real standout for me, other than the stylish visuals, Susan’s wardrobe and great sense of atmosphere, was Michael Shannon’s mesmerising turn as a laconic, enigmatic Texas lawman who at times is even more frightening than the criminals he’s chasing.

Elle

elleI caught what was probably one of the last screenings of this film in Melbourne, from the far left seat in the first row of a tiny movie theatre. Which usually would have been a major source of irritation – I hate sitting too close to the screen at the movies – but all of that went out of the window as soon as it started. With less than half a month left to 2016, I feel pretty safe in saying it was my favourite film and best lead performance I’ve seen all year. While elegantly shot and full of oh-so-tasteful-and-French interiors, it’s very much a Paul Verhoeven film, provocative and full-blooded.

Elle begins with the most unsettling use of a cat’s face since Jonesy the Ginger Tom watched a crew member die horribly offscreen in Alien. This time, the impassive feline eyes witness the violent rape of its owner, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), a woman in her 50s who is assaulted in her flat by a masked intruder. It’s not an uncommon scenario in movies, but Michèle’s reaction afterwards gives a good warning that this movie is about to subvert your expectations over and over again. After her attacker leaves, Michèle chucks the dress she was wearing in the trash, takes a bath, and orders food. She doesn’t call the police, for personal reasons revealed slowly over the course of the movie. Instead she changes the locks to her apartment and coolly informs her friends about her rape over a fancy dinner. All in all, Michèle’s intent is to simply compartmentalise and move on, but it seems that the unknown rapist is not done with her yet and his creepy texts make every man in her life a suspect.

This sounds like a setup for a psychological thriller, which Elle is, but at times the mystery of the masked man feels like it takes a backseat to the thrill of simply following a fascinating, singular character played by an actress at the height of her profession without fear or vanity. She is the kind of ballsy, mean, damaged, funny, cutting, complicated, don’t-give-a-f*** character that is almost exclusively a domain of male actors in movies these days. A large chunk of the film is taken up with Michèle’s interactions and relationships with people in her life, and there’s a lot going on in her life for sure. She runs a successful video-game company with her best friend Anna, where she’s disliked by the majority of her younger male employees. There is her amiable but rather useless grown son and his bitchy pregnant girlfriend; an ex-husband who is dating a much younger yoga teacher; an affair with her friend Anna’s husband; Michèle’s mother who mortifies her with her love of Botox, heavy make-up and young men; and a handsome neighbour who she’s having intense erotic fantasies about.

All the while, the memory of the assault and the ongoing stalking loom over the proceedings, and things turn out to be a lot less cut-and-dry than the typical revenge thriller would have it. The movie’s turn of events could be seen as hugely problematic by some, but to my mind it simply acknowledges the fact that human beings are complex, their sexual desires don’t always veer towards wholesome and nice, and they don’t always react in proper, approved ways. It takes a lot of skill to pull off this gleeful, confronting mix of horror and comedy of manners, but this made-in-heaven match of director and lead actress manage it and how.

P.S. Movie cat watch: Michèle’s British Shorthair is gorgeous.