thriller

28 Days Later

I always liked post-apocalyptic settings, and in 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle, it’s the zombie apocalypse, which happens after a bunch of animal activists break into a research lab and free a chimpanzee carrying a deadly “rage” virus. Once a person is infected, they have 20 seconds before they turn into a mindless berserk monster. As the film’s title suggests, you don’t get to see the collapse of the society, instead the action switches to our hero Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle courier who wakes up in the hospital after suffering a road accident. Emerging from his coma, he wanders the silent, deserted streets of London, made even more eerie by the total lack of soundtrack. These early scenes of the abandoned metropolis and familiar postcard locations stripped of life are probably the most striking sequences in the film.

Soon Jim stumbles on a couple of survivors, including Selena (Naomi Harris), a tough-minded young woman grimly focused on staying alive. Some time later they encounter big and kindly Frank (Brendan Gleeson), holed up in a high-rise apartment block with his teenage daughter, and pick up a radio signal from an army unit near Manchester, offering safety. They decide to take the risk, and go on a car trip through the zombie land.

As I started watching the movie, I wondered if my DVD rental place had slipped in a crappy pirated version, because I felt like I was back in 1997 watching a VHS tape. I only realised later that the cheap and nasty video effect was a deliberate artistic choice, probably for a more documentary and immediate feel. I can’t say I cared for this affectation, but luckily the movie itself was good.

On the list of onscreen terrors, zombies occupy a lower rung for me, maybe because they’re fairly straightforward creatures, and I actually find the classic slow shuffling zombies more unnerving than the fast killing machines in 28 Days Later. Still, the film is a well-executed thriller, with the nightmarish atmosphere and effective use of speeded-up motion. It also has things to say about the human nature; Selena may imagine that she’s a kind of ruthless person who’d do anything to survive, but then the third act demonstrates what cold self-interest really looks like. The characters, while painted with broad strokes, are engaging, and the movie makes great use of its locations, whether it’s depopulated London, a church littered with corpses or a grand manor in the countryside. My only real quibble is the ending, which felt rather tacked on and disjointed. I did a brief research and yep, apparently the original ending was scrapped because they couldn’t get it past the test audiences. What a surprise.

Baby Driver

I had a couple of biases to overcome in order to watch this movie. Firstly, the unattractive title that makes you think of some dumb third-rate summer comedy (a baby gets behind the wheel and hilarity ensues!). And then there was its lead actor, Ansel Elgort, whose punchable turn in the otherwise decent The Fault in Our Stars irritated the crap out of me. Well, I judged prematurely, because he’s more than fine in Baby Driver, and the movie itself is a rarity these days, a truly idiosyncratic thriller that doesn’t feel like a product of a committee.

In many ways, Baby Driver is a film about music disguised as a car-chase heist flick. Its eponymous hero is a young getaway driver, who has been working for kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey), paying off an old debt. Baby is not a bad sort, and as the film begins, he’s only a couple more jobs away from freedom. While Doc never employs the same crew twice, there’s always someone in the bunch who’s unsettled by Baby’s quirks: he barely ever speaks and he hardly ever takes his earphones out. Baby needs his tunes (different i-Pods with different playlists to suit the mood) to drown out his tinnitus, the result of a childhood car accident, but his passion for music goes further than that. At home he cares for his old deaf foster dad, and spends time making mix tapes from his secret recordings of gang meetings. When he meets the girl of his dreams, a waitress called Debora (Lily James), the two get to have nerdy conversations about music and songs with their names in them – when Debora learns Baby’s name she exclaims that he’s got everyone beat.

The film weaves music and the love of music into the story in inventive and joyful ways – some action scenes aren’t just set to the music, but carefully match the beats of a meticulously chosen song. The opening credits sequence could make one think they’re about to watch a musical, and there was a brief (and perhaps unintentional) reminder of La La Land’s primary colours in the scene where Baby and Debora visit a laundry and you see brightly coloured clothes spinning inside the dryers.

The car chase sequences are exceptional and some of the most exhilarating and well-choreographed action scenes I’ve seen in a long time, but whether Baby’s behind the wheel or romancing Debora, the movie is just tremendous fun to watch. The superb supporting cast is one of its biggest strengths. Other than Spacey’s boss, the standouts are Baby’s partners in crime played by Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, a violent loose cannon and a deceptively laidback ex-Wall Street man, respectively. The film’s only real weakness is a crucial plot point involving Spacey’s character where things get implausibly sentimental, but it’s a minor complaint about an otherwise excellent and fresh offering from Edgar Wright.

Oh and have I played Queen’s Brighton Rock over and over since watching the movie? Oh yes.

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.┬áThe 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.┬áLike 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.