A new film from M Night Shyamalan, the horror, the horror.

Old, 2021.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the cinema, Be afraid, be very afraid… Are these the 7 most terrifying words in modern cinema; a new film from M Night Shyamalan?

Shyamalan burst on to the scene with his third feature, The Sixth Sense, which he wrote and directed in 1999 at the tender age of 29. I remember watching that film and thinking, what on earth is all the fuss about? But then it delivers its ending, and I thought, in fairness, that was genuinely surprising.

The Sixth Sense, 1999.

So I sat down to watch his next film, Unbreakable, from 2000, in a mood of quiet excitement. And, like the previous film, it ambles along in a perfectly inoffensive manner for four fifths of its duration, before delivering what was similarly intended to be a killer blow. But blow alas is the appropriate term. Instead of explain all that had gone on before, all the ending did was to undermine and cheapen it.

Next up was Signs, a sub-Spielbergian tale of awe and wonder which was so conventional, conservative, ham-fisted and ill-conceived it was hard to know what to think. Worse, that cute cameo he’s always rewarded himself with was here allowed to morph into a fully-fledged speaking part. And not a small one at that. What on earth were we to make of him? 

The Village, 2004.

But that was swiftly cleared up by the two films that came next. The Village, from 2004, is not so much an homage to The Crucible as it is a violent assault on it. On to its basic backdrop Shyamalan inserts a series of pedestrian twists that are as drearily predictable as they are improbable. And for the first time, we get a clear picture as to quite how poor a screenwriter he is. 

But it’s with his next film, Lady in the Water, from 2006, that any ambiguity as to the man’s gifts was cleared up once and for all. This was so badly written that it went on an almost unique journey from mesmerically bad, to so-bad-it’s-good, and on beyond to so irredeemably bad that it became literally unwatchable. 

I lasted for the first 25 minutes or so, until it was revealed that the person who was, wait for it, going to save humanity, was in fact…  a writer! And that that writer was played by none other than… Our very own writer director himself. Once I’d recovered from a protracted fit of giggling, I’m afraid I got up and left. 

Lady in the Water, 2006.

But there is one invaluable service that that film serves. For any writer out there convinced that what they’re working on is beneath worthless, all they need do is watch Lady in the Water, and they’ll immediately feel better about themselves. It’s the perfect tonic.

So I’ve not seen his latest magnum opus, Old. But I can’t wait. By all accounts, it’s another gem from the pen of every writer’s very best friend. I’m saving it up for a special occasion. 

In the meantime, here’s the trailer for Old.

And here’s the trailer for Lady in the Water.

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Promising Young Woman, disjointed muddled film

Cinemas have been eerily abandoned for over a year now, and drifting past them through deserted city centres felt at times like finding yourself in a scene from The Omega Man. So it’s perfectly understandable that we should all latch on to some of the new releases when they do surface and greet them much as a man in a desert might welcome of bottle of bog standard bottled water. None the less, the hoopla that Promising Young Woman generated was somewhat baffling.

Basically, it harks back to those late 80s, early 90s zeitgeist movies that Hollywood periodically gravitates towards. The title of course references Single White Female, but what it feels like more than anything else is a riposte to Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction. Essentially, it’s a revenge film for the Me Too era. And its problems are twofold.

First, is it a revenge thriller? There’s a visual joke early on around a hot dog which is genuinely funny and plays on the question of what exactly it was that our heroine did to her previous night’s ‘victim’. But that ambiguity is never resolved. 

Is this a good old-fashioned slasher movie, and are we looking at a female answer to Charles Bronson in Death Wish? Or is our heroine a complex, moral character carefully carrying out a precisely calibrated plan?

Some have welcomed this ambiguity as further evidence of the film’s charms. But all it means is that we’re never sure of what kind of person she is, that is to say what type of character she represents, and therefore what kind of film it is that we’re watching. This confusion is exacerbated by the second of its problems. Its structure.

Todd Solondz’ Happiness.

Effectively, it’s three films in one. It begins as what seems to be some sort of a revenge thriller come slasher movie. Then it morphs into an impeccably crafted, very left of field indie, personal drama. The scenes inside the house with her parents are wonderfully claustrophobic and feel like something out of a Todd Solondz film. 

But suddenly, about half way through, it lurches into rom com territory, as the Carey Mulligan character hooks up with an ex class mate, played by Bo Burnham. But about 20 minutes into this, it reverts back to revenge thriller mode.

The problem is, Bo Burnham’s performance is so impressively naturalistic and so winningly believable in the rom com section that the rest of the film’s parts are thrown completely out of kilter. Mulligan of course, it almost goes without saying, is wonderful throughout. She adopts a studied neutrality which manages to meld perfectly with each of the film’s three modes. 

But the sections with her parents, who are quietly mannered and off, grate horribly with the revenge movie sections, in which the villains, and for villains read males, are painted with such broad brushstrokes and are all so one dimensional they’re little more than cartoon caricatures. Which would have been fine if the whole film had been like that. But it’s not. 

Mulligan and Burnham are foot perfect but they’ve wandered into a whole new film.

When, for instance, you meet those sorts of moustache-twiddling villains in the likes of Killing Eve, you either sit back and accept them or you turn over to something else. That they should surface here makes compete sense as this is the feature debut of Emerald Fennell, who was one of Killing Eve’s principle writers and its show runner for season 2. 

The problem with Promising Young Woman is that Fennell was unable to decide on exactly what kind of film she wanted it to be. So unfortunately, it just ended up as a mess. A very well made mess, with a pair of stand-out performances. But a mess none the less.

You can see the trailer for Promising Young Woman here.

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Pulp Fiction, opiate for the masses

Pulp Fiction.

Pulp Fiction is the perfect pick-me-up movie. It’s ideal for dipping in and out of during a pandemic as an alternative to chocolate and alcohol. What it isn’t though is a film, never mind one of any discernible depth.

It’s inhabited by movie types played by actors famous for the movie types they’ve previously played. And it’s written and directed by someone steeped in popular culture, and specifically in Hollywood culture. 

So it’s a glorious playground for any number of layered and endlessly self-referential games, as characters and actors alike, and of course the writer director, play and act against type. The way Tarantino achieves this is by dispensing with story. 

With no protagonist, and hence no one to root for, there’s no goal, no heart’s desire for us to desperately hope that our hero will one day attain. With no story to worry about, Tarantino is free to appear to play with the conventions of storytelling. It’s extremely clever, consistently funny and endlessly knowing. What it isn’t though is ironic.

Dramatic irony arises when we know more about what the character is doing than he does. And it results in a reversal that profoundly affects the fate of the character, and acts as a judgement on the decisions he took to produce that reversal. But it only arises when you care about what happens to the character. And that only happens when your characters are part of a story that we the viewer can become involved in. 

‘The Bonnie Situation’, the one dud, is a thank you to Harvey Keitel, and an excuse to allow the director some unwarranted screen time.

If there’s no story, you’re never going to care about what happens to any of the characters. When, for instance Travolta’s character gets killed, it’s amusing rather than tragic. And that, crucially, is not a spoiler. Because knowing it won’t in any way spoil your enjoyment of the movie.

Yes it’s also shocking. But not emotionally shocking, intellectually so. You’re shocked, in an impressed way, that Tarantino should have broken the rules of drama so cleverly. But he hasn’t broken any of those rules because it’s not an actual drama. It’s a collection of seven, free standing sections, that are made up of various distinct and independent scenes that you can dip in and out of, depending on your mood. 

John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson.

And it’s precisely that absence of emotional depth that makes it so instantaneously enjoyable. As Adorno complained of horoscopes, it asks nothing of you. And provides you thereby with an immediate, uncomplicated hit.

It’s like listening to a greatest hits album. You know that the pleasure that that affords is a guilty one. That instead of investing the necessary care and consideration that an album proper requires, you’re cherry-picking the songs that were the most accessible, that is to say the hits. And deep down, you know who greatest hits albums are aimed at; teenagers.

As a grown-up, you know that all clichés are true and that you only get out of life what you put into it. And that that is as true of art as it is of everything else. The greater the work, the more work it requires of you. 

But, for whatever reason, right now you just don’t have the energy. What you need this second is release. An uncomplicated, undemanding, instantaneous hit. So you turn to cinema’s perennial teenager; Tarantino.

So many memorable scenes, so little story.

Paradoxically, and indeed ironically, what Pulp Fiction anticipates and opens the door to is the very thing it’s celebrated as having been the last stand against. It presents a flat, comic book universe peopled by types, that move in and out of interchangeable and free-standing scenes that make absolutely no emotional demands on the viewer whatsoever.

Pulp Fiction wasn’t that last of an era when grown-ups were catered for at the cinema. It was the beginning of that era’s end. It’s a teenager’s film, and a very male one at that, for anyone who finds themselves momentarily in a teenage frame of mind. 

You can see the trailer for Pulp Fiction here.

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The Farthest, one more gem from BBC 4’s Storyville

The Farthest.

When the accomplished film editor Emer Reynolds first moved up to Dublin from Tipperary it was to study science at Trinity College. But she was soon distracted by and diverted to the world of film. 

So she was the perfect candidate to tackle what is one of the most extraordinary stories of the 20th century. Combining as she does a passion for science and a wealth of knowledge about the craft of storytelling. The resulting film, The Farthest, is a joy and a wonder to behold.

Saturn, from Voyager 1.

One of the conundrums posed by space travel is; the further you go, the more fuel you need to take on board. The more fuel you take, the bigger the space craft needed. And the bigger the vehicle, the more fuel you need. And so on.

But in the late 60s, the boffins at Nasa realised that, once you’d mastered the fiendishly complex maths, you could send a space craft to a planet on exactly the right trajectory so that it ends up going into orbit around it.

And you could then use that orbit to ‘sling-shot’ the space craft on to wherever it was that you wanted it to then go. Once you got it into that initial orbit, there wouldn’t be any need for any additional fuel.

Jupiter, from Voyager 1.

And that furthermore, for the one and only time in around 176 years, the four main gas giants of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune would be in alignment between 1975 and 77.

So they set about designing and building what would become Voyager 1 and 2, which were both launched in the late summer of 1977. And what had previously been seen as but four blurry dots were suddenly transformed into glorious, detailed technicolour.

The Farthest has three components. First and foremost, it’s the nuts and bolts story of the building and launching of the two space craft, as recounted by the individuals involved, a remarkably large number of whom spoke to Reynolds and her crew. 

The extraordinary photo of the solar system that Carl Sagan got Voyager 1 to take before moving off for the edge of the solar system. That less then 1 pixel dot is us.

Then, it’s the story of the fabled golden record that Carl Sagan oversaw the creation of, and which each vehicle carries a copy of. This was and is an audio-visual record of life here on Earth, should any intelligent life come into contact with them at any point in the future.

And finally, it’s a gentle musing on the nature of humanity. Because, apart from anything else, when we are all dead and buried and all signs of what was once life here on this planet have long since disappeared, the only remnant of our existence will be carried on those two golden discs.

The Farthest is everything you’d want in a documentary. Thrilling, uplifting and utterly compelling, you can see the trailer for The Farthest here:

And the full doc (which 90 minutes despite this recording clocking at 120) is available here:

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2 Films You Might have Missed in 2020

After a year in which the headless chickens at Warner Bros declared, yawn, that cinema was dead, again, it’s easy to have missed the fact that a number of films were in fact released in the year just gone, albeit in a somewhat truncated manner. Two of which are very much worth the effort of chasing down.

Bacurau won the Jury prize at Cannes in 2019 and is the third feature from Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho, which he co-directs with his long time art director Juliano Dornelles. Set in a dystopian near future, Bacurau is a mythical town in the Brazilian outback whose inhabitants are being slowly closed in on. 

Their water supply has been cut off, their town is inexplicably disappearing from Google maps, or whatever its futuristic equivalent is, and there are a group of tourists whose safari trip seems to revolve around taking out the town’s inhabitants, as if they all existed in some sort of actualised video game.

At Home, In the Company of Strangers.

Bacurau begins in malevolent sci-fi mode before morphing into spaghetti western territory via Mad Max. As such, it’s a companion piece to At Home In the Company of StrangersNikita Mikhalkov’s impressive debut, from1974. It shares that film’s refusal to be bound by any genre straight jacket, and is wilfully open to any number of interpretations. So that its political resonances are suggested rather than declaimed. The result is an impressively atmospheric trip into a heart of darkness that says little about the future and much, alas, about the present of the country in which it is set.

The Vast of Night is a much less substantial affair, but is well worth a look nonetheless. The feature debut of Andrew Patterson, who also wrote and produced it under the pseudonym James Montague, the film was actual shot in 2016. But it was picked up by Amazon last year after turning many a head at Edinburgh and Toronto, and was duly released in the summer of 2020. 

It’s an unabashed homage to 1950’s sci-fi B movies and is presented as an apparent episode of a would-be Twilight Zone series. What elevates the film is the infectious confidence with which it is directed. 

And there’s absolutely no way we can persuade you to consider a sequel…?

I’m sure if I sat sown and thought about it for 20 minutes, I could probably work out quite how he manages to match-cut that tracking shot that seems to glide all the way into the basketball game and then effortlessly back out again and into the night. But I’d rather just luxuriate in its brash exuberance. Part of the joy of seeing magic is knowing that it’s only a trick but being for the life of you incapable of working out exactly how it was that the trick was done.

Clearly made for thruppence ha’penny, thanks to its bravura direction The Vast of Night looks like a million dollars and more, and is the most impressive calling card since Donny Darko, if that’s not too hubristic an appellation to lay on it. And both films, by the by, come in at a crisp 90 minutes. Would that some of their more seasoned, ahem, superiors would follow their lead.

You can see the trailer for Bacurau below. 

And for The Vast of Night below.

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