Jan 25, 2020

The Grudge [2020] [15]

Dir: Nicolas Pesce
Horror moves in cycles. I really thought the Japanese ghost girl had be consigned to history, but here we are in 2020 and she’s back, once again in the form of a remake of Takashi Shimizu’s bafflingly popular Grudge series.

There are, to be fair, reasons for optimism. This is the third, and easily the highest-profile, film from director Nicolas Pesce. His first two—The Eyes of My Mother and Piercing—were each among the most visually striking horror films of the past five years, evidence of a genuinely exciting voice who, in Piercing, filtered Ryu Murakami's novel through Argento, but shot with a striking formalism and fashioned those influences into something perverse, funny, creepy and genuinely all its own. There is also the presence of British actress Andrea Riseborough; a performer of formidable natural gifts who should be a star, and might be but for her often terrible nose for screenplays. 

Riseborough plays Muldoon, a cop who, following the death of her husband, has recently moved to a small town with her young son. With her new partner Goodman (Demian Bichir) she is assigned to a dead body found in a car. Discovering that the body is that of a woman who went missing from a house where an entire family previously died violently, she goes to investigate. After she leaves the house she can’t shake the feeling that something has followed her.

Splitting his narrative into three strands, set in 2004, 2005 and 2006, Pesce has plenty of plot to unfold (much of it, in the 2006 story, told largely unbidden to Muldoon by a character we’ll simply call ‘Exposition Cop’), but that’s not to say that he finds any new ideas here. The stories don’t really join up. We get no sense of what initially brought the spirit from Japan to this house. Despite setting up a couple of interesting ideas around possible deaths, be it a couple’s (John Cho and Betty Gilpin) option to abort a baby that is likely to have birth defects or a long married couple (Lin Shaye and Frankie Faison) looking into assisted suicide for the cancer stricken wife, the writer/director does nothing to tie these ideas into the film’s threat. 

Pesce displays so little interest in the why of the ghostly presence that we never have any idea of what the scares mean. Is this a vengeful presence? If so what does its vengeance mean when taken out on the random people who happen to move into this house? Does the presence simply want the house to itself? This doesn’t seem like the answer, because the film implies that further victims are also tied to the house. These questions aren’t particularly novel or interesting, and nor are the prospective answers, but at least attempting to answer them would give the film something to be about.

As it is, Pesce works his way, seemingly wearily, through the playbook. Things go creak, things go boo, things grab at people from bathtubs full of dirty water, long haired girls stand menacingly with their hair over their faces. For the most part, the film looks drab. It has none of the sharp lines, inventive framing or stylistic verve of either of its director’s previous films. The last ten minutes bring a handful of shots, most notably some violence that looks like it’s out of a graphic novel, framed against a window with stained-glass detailing, that feel like they find Pesce firing on at least a few cylinders. Otherwise, this is the most complete subsuming I've seen for years of a promising director’s personality beneath the mediocrity of a project.

The supporting cast are, to their credit, trying. Lin Shaye and Frankie Faison are an interesting enough pairing and the basics of their backstory are touching enough that you wish that this couple could have been characters in a different movie, and John Cho and Betty Gilpin’s story has similar promise, one scene, of the two of them on the phone discussing whether to keep their baby suggests, like Shaye and Faison’s story, a more interesting film we could be watching. Unfortunately, both of these storylines are interrupted at regular intervals by rote jump scares, because this is a Grudge movie and the wheels of the Scare O Matic must turn.

The main storyline is the weakest section of the film. Riseborough and Bichir have no chemistry, build no relationship we can invest in, and both seem like deeply substandard cops (the plot point of Goodman having ‘investigated’ a previous case in the haunted house without ever entering it is risible). The investigation narrative goes nowhere, the flashbacks to the past of the house are never triggered by anything Muldoon or Goodman do. This is painfully lazy screenwriting, simply neglecting to do the most basic of jobs. This also applies to the depiction of Muldoon’s son (John J. Hansen), who is such an afterthought that the movie forgets about him for ages, then, to remind us he exists, inserts an otherwise purposeless scene of Muldoon bringing him to work, Goodman gives him 48 Hours to watch, then the scene ends. It does nothing within the narrative and doesn’t even have the excuse of being funny to fall back on. 

For me, the entire ghost girl sub-genre was always difficult to take seriously, and after Sion Sono’s wicked parody Exte (which also works as maybe the best and creepiest ghost girl film I’ve seen), it seems even more redundant. This umpteenth revisitation of The Grudge does nothing to change that. Sadly, the only thing of note it manages is tarnishing the reputation of one of horror’s most talented and promising young filmmakers.

Jan 18, 2020

Waves [15]

Dir: Trey Edward Shults
Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults impressed me with his second film, the low-key horror inflected family drama It Comes At Night. His third, as its title might suggest, is bigger and more expansive, yet it remains focused on the small dramas of a family in Florida, dramas which sometimes boil over into life altering moments.

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is from a solidly middle class family; a good student, wrapped up in his beautiful girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and a star on the high school wrestling team. He’s also often under pressure from a demanding father (Sterling K. Brown) and a combination of injury and unexpected news begins to send him off the rails. In the second half of the film, Tyler’s sister Emily deals with her own pain and guilt through a relationship with one of Tyler’s teammates, Luke (Lucas Hedges).

Waves are unpredictable and, like its namesake, this film moves in different ways through its 135 minute running time. At times, it crashes relentlessly; all furious noise and violent emotion, in other moments it gently rolls; time passing in something like a distracted haze. Shults balances these different moods beautifully. He evokes them through the use of his camera, for instance, the endless spinning of the opening sequence throws us into the noise of the lives of its young protagonists, while the off balance stalking quality of a sequence at a party strikes a note of foreboding that turns Waves into a horror film for about ten minutes. The shot composition is often masterful, and called particular attention to by the shifting aspect ratios which move us between the acts. The first of these is especially striking, as in one instant a single act metaphorically shrinks the world in which Tyler, and consequently his family and friends, exists, sending the film into 4:3 ratio. The ratio continues to shift throughout the film. Remarkably, Shults manages to do this without it feeling trite, rather each time it happens - always preceded by a brief blackout - the film is taking a breath and resetting; into panic as walls instantly close in the first instance, and later to a more expansive experience and finally back to the sure footing of the first ratio we saw. It becomes a key part of the film’s emotional journey, both for the characters and for us.

While Shults’ visual craftsmanship is often what commands the attention, it is underpinned by some outstanding performances. Sterling K. Brown plays Tyler and Emily’s father as a man we are given to believe has pulled himself up through hard work, and is sometimes too tough on his son in his desire to bring that same commitment out of him. This toughness is what we see for the bulk of the first act (which takes up the first half of the film), but the second and third reveal it as a shell that can be cracked, in some of the film’s most emotionally wrenching scenes. Good as Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry (as Tyler and Emily’s stepmother) are though, this is largely a coming of age story, and as such it centres on the younger actors. Kelvin Harrison Jr gives a performance of building resentment as Tyler’s denial about his terrible shoulder injury builds and his anger at his father and at his girlfriend; one for pushing him too hard the other for, in his mind, pushing him away. It would be easy to hate Tyler, but the film establishes him initially as a nice kid, we can understand if not sympathise with his denial and his rage - at least towards his injury - up to a point. The final moments of the first act are brutal; a momentary act that echoes throughout the film and will do for all the characters long past the credits, and the second, third and fourth acts all ask us to dwell in the aftermath of that act from an angle we don’t often see. Harrison is outstanding in the part, the pressures Tyler feels and the sense of loss at what to, whether it’s to avoid disappointing his dad or to win back Alexis, is always at boiling point inside him.

The second half of the film, broken into its last three acts, largely turns the focus on Emily and on her budding relationship with Luke. Taylor Russell and Lucas Hedges establish a warm and naturally growing chemistry, begun with a perfectly awkward scene of Luke asking Emily out, which seems designed to play as the direct antithesis of Tyler and Alexis’ fast burning and eventually angry story. This is certainly a more typical coming of age story than is presented in the first half, but it too is suffused with the striking colours and inventive camerawork that Shults brings to the telling. Russell and Hedges are both wonderful, and it’s the first time I’ve really bought into the hype around Hedges. That said, the standout scene of the second half isn’t between them but between Russell and Sterling K. Brown, as Emily and her father finally talk about the emotional fallout of what happened with Tyler and Alexis.

Waves isn’t perfect. Shults’ Malickian shots of people leaning out of car windows and his colour wash transitions can feel a little self-indulgent at times, and much of the final section of the film is spent on a storyline that has barely been seeded and feels like a digression from the main thrust of the film. However, if the film doesn’t hit the bullseye on every emotional target it takes aim at, those it does strike resonate powerfully and for a long time.
★★★★

Dec 24, 2019

24FPS' Top 25 films of the decade

I wrote a little bit about No's 25-11 on Twitter [@24FPSUK], and you'll also find those notes on this Letterboxd list, but before we get to the Top 10 in more depth, here's the list of titles.

25: Before Midnight [Richard Linklater, 2013]
24: Confessions [Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010]
23: Summer 1993 [Carla Simon, 2018]
22: Tuesday After Christmas [Radu Muntean, 2010]
21: We Are The Best! [Lukas Moodysson, 2013]

20: The Babadook [Jennifer Kent, 2014]
19: Vox Lux [Brady Corbet, 2018]
18: Phoenix [Christian Petzold, 2014]
17: Mustang [Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015]
16: Beast [Michael Pearce, 2017]

15: Alps [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2011]
14: The Spectacular Now [James Ponsoldt, 2013]
13: Heal the Living [Katell Quillévéré, 2016]
12: Melancholia [Lars Von Trier, 2011]
11: Hounds of Love [Ben Young, 2016]

10: Evolution [Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2015]
It took Lucile Hadzihalilovic a decade to follow up her haunting debut, Innocence, and Evolution is the perfect title for her second film. Beyond its own themes, it represents a companion piece to and a refinement of many elements of Innocence, being set again in a community largely composed of children (this time all boys rather than all girls), cut off from any recognisable real world and monitored only by women. 

What could seem like an idyllic existence: kids running free on a beautiful island, soon becomes creepy as we are taken into its inner workings and begin to see strange experiments being conducted on the boys, one of whom forges a connection with one of the nurses (the striking Roxane Duran). Hadzihalilovic's images often have a dreamlike beauty to them, but the evidence of influences like David Cronenberg and Guillermo Del Toro often reshapes that dream into a surrealistic nightmare. Elliptical, strange and disturbing, Evolution gets into your head, inviting many different readings, and repaying multiple viewings. 

9: Leave No Trace [Debra Granik, 2018]
Like Lucile Hadzihalilovic, it took Debra Granik a long time to follow up her previous film, which is baffling given that Winter's Bone was successful and launched Jennifer Lawrence's career with an Oscar nomination. Like that film, Leave No Trace - the story of a war veteran father with PTSD and his 13-year-old daughter living off the grid - introduced someone we're going to be seeing a lot more of in New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie. 

Granik's images are beautiful, she emphasises both the beauty and harshness of nature, but even the toughest aspects of the forest are deliberately contrasted with the hard edges and cold spaces of the towns and cities we see.

McKenzie plays brilliantly off Ben Foster, perhaps the most underrated American actor of his generation, creating a father-daughter relationship that is unconventional but close and caring. Granik often cuts dialogue to the barest minimum, allowing them to communicate largely through looks and gestures, with give us the sense of a deep understanding between the two, even when what they want becomes more in conflict as the film goes on. This may be a simple, quiet film, but it speaks loudly about things as diverse as the love between families, nature and mental illness.

8: In The House [François Ozon, 2012]
François Ozon is often at his best when indulging his playful side, and this mischevious riff on Hitchcock, Chabrol and ideas of storytelling is one of his very best films.

Ernst Umhauer is excellent as Claude, a student who begins writing stories about his middle class school friend and his parents (Emmanuelle Seigner and Denis Menochet), drawing his literature teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) into the narrative. As teacher and student begin to shape the story, we become less able to tell which of the film's events are the result of Claude ingratiating himself into this richer family's home and which he simply conjures whole cloth on the page.

Ozon makes sly commentary on class, both through Claude's story and by contrasting Germain and his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) with the couple they are avidly reading about, as well as making broad jokes about storytelling, particularly as Germain increasingly pops up in Claude's stories, suggesting changes even as we're watching what he's relating unfold. Witty, rigorous, sometimes sinister and cleverly constructed, this is a wonderful tightrope walk of a film.

7: Hagazussa [Lukas Fiegelfeld, 2017] 
The best pure horror film of the decade is not just a debut but the film school graduation project of its writer/director. For me, this is a film that serves notice of a truly formidable talent who I can't wait to see develop into the 2020s. The story is fairly skeletal: Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen), a young woman living in the Alps in the 15th century, is believed to be a witch. Fiegelfeld takes us from the natural beauty of the mountains to the depths of surreal horror as Albrun seeks revenge on the villagers around her after she is raped and then ingests psychoactive mushrooms.

The imagery is stunning yet unsettling. The beauty set against the horror is perfectly captured in one cross fade, after Albrun visits a local church made largely from bones the image of a skull dissolves into a wide shot of the mountains, and from there the film becomes ever more reliant on image over dialogue. The unsettling nature of the film is enhanced by a droning score from MMMD, which compliments the increasingly dark and doomy feel that Fiegelfeld's images impart. For me this isn't so much a film about story as it is about mood, image and effect. It should be seen on a big screen, so the atmosphere can envelop you, and once it does it truly gets under the skin. 

6: Girlhood [Celine Sciamma, 2014]
Celine Sciamma has had an astonishing decade and had her new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, opened in time it would be even higher up this list. Girlhood closes her coming of age trilogy. Perhaps less personal than her earlier coming of age films, given that it takes place in a black community in the Paris banlieues, this film shows Sciamma's growth as a director, being easily her most visually accomplished work to this point.

Most films about youth gangs are about crime, but Sciamma is more interested in exploring female friendship and group dynamics here, as we see Marieme (Karidja Touré) slowly get absorbed into a small gang led by Lady (the hugely charismatic Assa Sylla). Throughout the first hour of the film we see Marieme become more and more part of the group, a sense of camaraderie grows with every passing scene up until the film's centrepiece; a sequence in which the girls, all dressed up in a hotel room, dance and mime to Rhianna's Diamonds. It's a perfect encapsulation of the process we've seen in the film so far and a perfect, but passing, moment.

Sciamma structures the film brilliantly, with each of the five acts finishing on shots that rhyme with each other, building her main character up, evolving her scene by scene, but never forgetting that coming of age is a process, and one that isn't done in the film's final frames, which are in some ways triumphant, but also, to my mind, showing someone still torn and with doubts. It's a complex and compelling moment to leave a character at, and a great encapsulation of the film. 

5: Love Like Poison [Katell Quillévéré, 2010]
Katell Quillévéré's second entry on my top 25, her debut and, in a great decade for French and female directed coming of age films, the best of both. A deeply personal film that draws on her own experiences, Love Like Poison sees Clara Augarde's Anna deal with her grandfather's illness, her first crush and her changing relationship to her and her family's catholic faith in the run up to her confirmation. In the background is another moving story of her priest (Stefano Cassetti) who seems to be going through his own crisis of faith.

Quillévéré balances the story's many elements beautifully and draws sensitive and unaffected performances from her cast, giving the whole film a very intimate and observed feel. At the same time though, there is an impressive sense of visual composition. There are moments of quiet anger directed at the church and its attitude to young girls going through the moments Anna is experiencing, but it's never hectoring. In the tradition of many of the best coming of age films, Love Like Poison's dramas are everyday, but powerfully felt in the filmmaking.

4: Stop the Pounding Heart [Roberto Minervini, 2011]

Roberto Minervini looks at rural America with a curious but never condescending eye in this documentary that feels so much like a coming of age story you could mistake it for a brilliantly acted fiction film. Sara Carlson lives with her fundamentalist Christian family in Texas. She's been homeschooled and is now helping teach her many younger siblings the same lessons in the Bible and in how to work the goat farm they live on, producing milk and cheese for farmers markets. We watch Sara and her family go about their daily lives and while Sara seems mostly content, there are moments that she has questions about the beliefs she's been raised with, perhaps some of them coming from what seems to be a burgeoning attraction to Colby, a kid from the neighbouring farm.

Minervini's style; artistically and beautifully framed, but also with a great sense of unobtrusive observation, allows us to simply drop in on this family's life, and those of the people around them. The film feels like a pointed lesson in empathy. I imagine I'd find little in common, politically or in any other philosophical sense, with the Carlson family, but still, there is the overwhelming sense of good people doing the best they can for their children. This does sometimes rub up against what many of us, myself included, might see as damaging teachings but even when, late in the film, the conversation that gives it its title occurs, the feeling is more one of sadness, and of fear that a young person as vibrant and curious as Sara may be missing out on so many experiences, rather than one of judgement. For a film as unobtrusive as it is on face value, Stop the Pounding Heart is a complicated watch, and all the better for it.

3: Jess + Moss [Clay Jeter, 2011] 
Jess + Moss feels as delicate as the grainy, expired, super 16 stock it was shot on. That visual choice gives Clay Jeter's film a timeless feel, it could be set any time from the 70s onwards, and feels like a hazy reminiscence of a summer remembered fondly; the last moments of childhood, just getting a little fuzzy from the view of an adult trying to recall them (memory being a recurring theme).

The friendship between Sarah Hagan's Jess, who is probably supposed to be about 17, and Austin Vickers' roughly 11-year-old Moss is at once slightly odd and very real. We get the sense that Jess is trying to stay a kid just a little while longer and that Moss is longing to grow up just a little, their dynamic meeting in the middle. The two are also pulled together by the fact their parents are missing, and this motivates both of them in ways that ring true for their larger characters. Again, this isn't a film big on incident, the moments are small and intimate, but the performances and Jeter's imagery (owing more than little to Terence Malick) make them vivid and transporting.

2: The Neon Demon [Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016]
In some ways I'm surprised to find this so far up my list. This is the only film of Nicolas Winding Refn's I'm a fan of, but where most of his work screams style over substance to me, the setting and subject matter of The Neon Demon - the story of a young model (Elle Fanning seduced and swallowed up by the LA fashion industry, rendered as a neon-lit Giallo homage - means that its style is what gives it substance. In many ways Refn's stylistic verve set against what I see as the emptiness of the others I've seen of his films is what makes him the perfect fit for this one: he IS the problem he's diagnosing here.

As incredible as the stylisation is here, as much as Cliff Martinez pulsating electro score adds, as effective as the Cronenberg and Argento homages are, the film would be nothing but a shell without Elle Fanning's incredible performance. Just 16 at shooting, she's convincing as the innocent sucked into the seedy belly of a beast that must be fed, but also compellingly evolves until she has to some degree become that beast; a process we can imagine that her fellow models (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote, also excellent) must have gone through just a few years ago. Refn's metaphor here isn't subtle or novel, but it's effective and wrapped up in the creation of a whole world. It may just be that all the right ingredients - even ones that don't usually work for me - came together perfectly here, but The Neon Demon has never stopped evolving as I watch it over and over and that why it's landed where it has on this list.

1: The New Girlfriend [François Ozon, 2014]
The prolific François Ozon had a weird decade. After many years of being a huge fan, I found him stumbling many times, delivering several of his very worst films (though he's recovered some form with the solid if anonymous By the Grace of God), but in between those he made his two best films, both in this top 10. The New Girlfriend feels like a culmination the ultimate evolution of every theme Ozon has been playing with throughout his career.

The dynamics of the story (adapted from a short story by Ruth Rendell) are complicated. When Claire's (Anaïs Demoustier) lifelong best friend Laura (Isild LeBesco) dies, Claire discovers that Laura's husband David (Romain Duris) has again taken up a habit of dressing as a woman. Soon, Claire and David, in his female persona of Virginia, begin getting closer and David begins to feel more comfortable as Virginia than he does as the man he's always presented as. 

Ozon's slipperly approach to gender and sexuality is on full display here, not just in the David and Virginia personas, but in the film's design (Claire is almost always dressed in trousers and a collar; a more stereotypically masculine look than the outwardly glam Virginia) and in several of the scenes between Claire and her husband (Raphaël Personnaz), notably a sex scene in which Claire takes care of her own pleasure, then simply rolls off him to go to sleep. Most significant though is a sex scene between Claire and Virginia, which becomes essentially a two person threesome. It's a stunning moment; a masterclass in using intimacy to advance story and character and a sequence shot through with Ozon's auteurism.

The film has scenes that hit you in the heart (Demoustier singing a song to Durris, for instance), but Ozon remains playful, light and funny as well, capturing the thrill of this new person that Claire suddenly has in her life to fill the void that Laura has left, which is something we appreciate through the film's first 10 minutes, which feel like Ozon's take on the beginning of Up and are just as joyous and as sad. While Duris has the showier part, and is brilliant, never overplaying, repeat viewings reveal the subtle work that Anaïs Demoustier does as the film's lynchpin. She can draw a laugh or a tear with a look, delivering huge amounts of character information in small adjustments.  

There is simply too much to say about how great this film is, and it's another that only grows and reveals more on each rewatch. It is, and on recent evidence is likely to remain, Ozon's masterpiece.