Top 10 Scariest Films

With Halloween just around the corner I thought I’d put together a list of my favourite horror films. We all love a good scare (well, most of us) and there’s nothing like a good horror film to provoke that spine-tingling, adrenaline-rushing, blood-curdling reaction out of you. Everyone is obviously going to have their own ideas of what they find scary and will also have their own unique reactions to the films that depict those scares. For me the best horror films are those that play with the psychological aspects of fear. They don’t simply resort to jump-scares and bloody imagery as a means of frightening their audiences, they understand what it is beneath the surface that makes people afraid and they go after it. They provide their scares by building an environment of insecurity and dread through atmosphere and tension. They can be subtle and ambiguous or blatant and clear so long as they understand the nature of whatever fear it is they are trying to exploit. Fear is an incredibly complex emotion and it takes a good deal of intellect and skill to understand how to harness and express it in any medium including film. What follows is a list of the 10 films that I have found to be the most terrifying.

 

10. The Haunting (1963)

The Haunting

There are many who hold that what you don’t see in a horror film is always scarier than what you do. No film exemplifies this better than The Haunting, the definitive haunted house movie. Not once do we ever see a ghost in this film and yet the tension and the scares are always present. People are naturally afraid of what they cannot understand or explain and so Robert Wise was able to exploit this fear through ambiguity and uncertainty. We are never sure how much of what is happening is in Nell’s head or how much of it is real. Even when it is clear that something supernatural is at work, or at least appears to be, the ambiguous nature of the threat means that we’re never sure what to expect. Sometimes less really is more and The Haunting is proof of that.

9. Evil Dead II (1982)

Evil Dead II

It shouldn’t even be possible for a film to be both terrifying and hilarious at the same time and yet, somehow, Sam Raimi pulled it off. Even though The Evil Dead is more of a conventional horror and is certainly scary in a more traditional way, for me the second instalment takes the cake due to how depraved and batshit insane it is. Between the tree rape, the fight between Ash and his disembodied hand and the laughing deer head, we’re never sure whether we should be laughing or screaming. Whereas The Haunting succeeds in being scary through restraint and subtlety, Evil Dead II succeeds by doing the exact opposite. The bizarre mixture of masterful slapstick and over-the-top blood and gore was somehow able to blend together to create what is easily the most successful horror-comedy (that I can think of) ever created.

8. Don’t Look Now (1973)

Don't Look Now

Probably the most artistically directed and least conventional horror film on this list, there was a time when Don’t Look Now was more famous for its steamy sex scene than it was for its scares. Today however this film is a horror classic, providing a beautifully haunting essay on terror and dread. The film flirts with supernatural and occult ideas with Venice itself portrayed as an almost otherworldly city, full of strange sights and unsettling people. The ambiguity and vagueness of it all makes for a stunningly creepy atmosphere. On top of it all of course is the overlying fear of loss with the two leading characters broken and traumatised by the death of their young daughter. The pain and suffering they undergo is then stretched to horrific proportions as the film builds up to its terrifying finale.

7. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary's Baby

There’s something about this film that really gets under my skin. Putting the satanic themes aside, the dread and paranoia that Rosemary experiences throughout her disturbing pregnancy is almost unbearable to watch. Watching her struggle to keep her sanity as she loses her ability to distinguish between reality and fiction is like watching a living nightmare. This idea that everyone she knows and trusts are somehow abusing and torturing her without her knowledge and that everything in her life that makes her feel loved and safe might be an illusion is a frightening one. Polanski’s ability to interweave the fearful aspects of the mysterious and the mystical has a petrifying effect as Rosemary descends deeper into madness and fear.

6. Alien (1979)

Alien

The tagline says it all: “In space no one can hear you scream”. The iconic chest-burster scene is of course the moment when the screams are at their loudest and it still manages to get a good jump out of me whenever I watch it. What really makes this film a cinematic horror classic though is the claustrophobia it evokes. Surrounded only be the silent, timeless void of space, these characters are trapped by the dark, mechanical confines of their ship with a silent and deadly beast. The uncertainty of their surroundings builds a palpable source of tension that only grows more and more agonising as the crewmembers become more confined and afraid. Giger’s incredible design of the alien, a terrifying monster with a cold, metallic exterior, plays no small part in heightening the fear in this chilling film.

5. The Thing (1982)

The Thing

Thinking about it now the premise of this film is very similar to that of Alien. Both films depict an unknown life form that terrorises a group in an isolated location from which they cannot escape. However what made The Thing a scarier experience for me is that, as well as having the same sense of claustrophobia as Alien, it also has an added element of paranoia. This being can assume the form of any one of these characters and so we are never sure who we can trust. The moments when the group is (seemingly) alone are ripe with tension as they attempt to discover if everyone really is whoever they appear to be. Much like in Alien, the grotesquely horrifying design of this creature adds just as much to the scares as Carpenter’s expert direction.

4. The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist

Probably the most influential horror film to be made in the last 50 years, this story of demonic possession has set the standard for what a modern horror film should be. Depicting a compelling tale of fear, loss and faith and combining it with a forbidding supernatural concept, The Exorcist delivers scares across the spectrum as two priests gather to combat the wrath of the demon-child. Regan provides this film with a fascinatingly scary villain who is as unpredictable as she is menacing. With such daunting moments as Father Merrin’s silhouette emanated by that eerie light, the climax on those hard, fatal steps and of course the crucifix scene, few mainstream horrors have managed to be as frightening or as shocking as this film.*

3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

This film is every single kind of fucked up! Watching the teenagers in this film fall victim to Leatherface’s homicidal rampage was scary enough, but what really horrified me was that dinner scene where we see Leatherface and his warped, deranged family in all of their depravity. While I’m all for horror films that dig into the psychological themes of fear and terror, sometimes all a film has to be is completely and utterly terrifying in order to become a staple of its genre. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a film that is immense and unrelenting in its horror. Not much more needs to be said about this film because it simply is what it is: a frenzied, depraved, insane horror film.

2. The Shining (1980)

The Shining

It wouldn’t be a horror list without some mention of Stephen King and Kubrick’s The Shining remains the scariest adaptation ever made of King’s work. One thing Kubrick always knew how to do well was atmosphere and his use of unsettling music, uncomfortably long takes and creepy imagery made him the perfect candidate to direct what is perhaps cinema’s quintessential horror film. Nicholson’s performance as the violently unhinged Jack Torrance is wonderfully demented in the way Nicholson knows how to do so well and remains one of the craziest performances in any horror film. The film’s scariest moments from the creepy twins to the lady in the bath to the climatic chase in the maze have all become iconic since the film’s release and still scare me out of my wits.

1. The Innocents (1961)

The Innocents

The film absolutely terrifies me to my core every time I watch it. The Capote-penned story of a governess who is given the charge of two delightful children in a house with a tragic and disturbing history is a monument of everything that I love in a horror film. It is dark, ambiguous, subtle, sinister and beautiful. The underlying mystery of this estate, its strange occurrences and whether or not the children know anything about it is immaculately crafted and stupendously executed. The uncertainty surrounding these occurrences, whether there really is something evil at work or if they are merely the fantasies of a chaste governess, is every bit as fascinating as it daunting. This is gothic horror at its finest and there is no other film that frightens me as much as this does. I still get chills whenever I hear that song about the weeping willow.

Suffragette

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep

Director: Sarah Gavron

Writer: Abi Morgan


In this day and age when voting in the UK, as well as every other free country in the world, is an assumed and inalienable right, it’s easy to forget how fiercely (and recently) some people had to fight to win that right, especially women. It hasn’t even been a hundred years since Britain was a country where women strove, fought, sacrificed and even died for the right to vote. Voting is a vitally important right and is quite possibly the single most fundamental thing we all do as citizens of democracy which is why the Women’s Suffrage Movement is such an important and powerful story. The resolve and vigour they displayed and the hardships they endured serve as an inspiring example to us all. Suffragette attempts to depict and realise this struggle in a dramatic form by focusing on the story of a single woman in the middle of it all.

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a working class wife and mother who gets drawn into the Women’s Suffrage Movement almost by accident when her kind and caring nature compels her to stand up for her ill-treated co-worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff). Through Violet, herself a determined suffragette, Maud falls into the company of such women’s rights activists as Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) and Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). As she learns more about this movement and comes to identify more with the cause, Maud becomes more and more active much to the detriment of her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and the local police officer Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson). As the peaceful protests orchestrated by these women yield little results, the suffragette champion Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) entreats them all to resort to more extreme methods.

The decision to focus this story on a working class foot soldier caught up in the middle of this movement was a wise move on this film’s part. The sacrifices she makes and hardships she endures have greater resonances because she has more to lose than those that are better off. Maud depends on her work and her family to survive and would be destitute without either of them. As the struggle becomes greater and more unbearable, it becomes more difficult for Maud to decide whether this cause is bigger and more important than her own needs and those of her family. As well as the social and economic sufferings that Maud undergoes her perspective in the front lines of this movement provides a window into the other sufferings women endured. These women include the bold, working class Violet who finds herself powerless to oppose the sexual violence of her boss, the passionate, middle class Edith whose activism drives her towards extreme and unhealthy lengths, and the earnest, upper class Alice who despite her status feels powerless as she does not hold the right to control her own wealth and estates. The portrayal of the men also proves effective with Sonny serving as a working class man desperate to avoid any negative attention brought about by his wife and Steed as an ambivalent officer whose duty to the law trumps whatever personal feelings he might have.

Unfortunately there are a few issues I have with this film that I think prevent it from being the Selma of the women’s rights movement. One is that the film’s climax hinges on a real-life tragedy involving a character who doesn’t get nearly enough development. Maybe the lack of focus on this character was so she would stand as more of a symbol for all suffragettes by the film’s end, but I feel like the tragedy would have had a bigger impact on myself as well as the audience if we understood more about who this woman was, what she stood to lose and what the right to vote meant to her personally. Another issue I have, which admittedly is less to do with the film itself and more to do with its advertising, is Meryl Streep whose presence in the film is much smaller than the trailers or posters would have you believe. While she plays Emmeline Pankhurst well with all of the dignity and authority befitting her character, she’s only in the film for one scene. Her performance is essentially not so much a supporting role as it is a cameo. Even though I don’t have any particular problem with the performance itself or the character’s role in the overall story, I couldn’t help but feel misled.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement is an intense and harrowing tale and it takes a powerful film to depict it. Suffragette is not quite that film but it comes pretty damn close. The cruelties and oppression inflicted upon these women are depicted well and the entire cast succeeds admirably in portraying them. It’s only a want of a more refined focus and greater development that prevents this film from being the masterpiece it could’ve been. The film does end on an effective note as it lists the countries that now allow their women to vote and the years in which their suffrage was granted, some of those years being embarrassingly recent. Looking back it is astonishing how far our society has come in the last century in terms of women’s rights and feminism and, while there is still a way to go, this film serves as a reminder of the enduring bravery, strength and resolve of these women that lives on today and continues to inspire progress and change.

★★★★

Pan

Cast: Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Amanda Seyfried

Director: Joe Wright

Writer: Jason Fuchs


Whenever a film attempts to create a sequel/prequel/reboot of a franchise I know and love I tend to be pretty ambivalent about it. While I’m open to the prospect of someone bringing a new spin to an old story and old characters, I’m always afraid they’ll tarnish them in some way. As I’ve grown up I have come to accept that liberties are always going to be taken with the mythology of a story in order for it to be modernised and updated. Sometimes it works well (Star Trek, Mad Max: Fury Road) and sometimes it doesn’t (Planet of the Apes, Terminator Genisys). There are however some things so sacred and so inviolate that you simply don’t mess with them. The Force in Star Wars is a mystical, intangible energy field, not the product of microscopic life forms in the blood stream. Wonderland is a world that defies all forms of rationality and sense, not a realm of prophecies and civil wars. The Batsuit does not have fucking nipples. By failing to follow the pre-established rules and traditions of these franchises, these sequels/prequels/reboots effectively betray the stories that the originals were trying to tell. Pan tells the story of a boy called Peter that takes place in a world called Neverland, but very little of it resembles the universe or the story of J. M. Barrie’s novels.

This incarnation of Peter (Levi Miller) is an orphan boy living in London during the Second World War. He lives in a world of oppression, injustice and fear until one fateful night when he is kidnapped by pirates on a flying ship. The ship sets course to Neverland where Peter is subjected under the rule of the pirate king Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) and is forced to mine for fairy dust. After an encounter with Blackbeard that leads to the discovery of Peter’s ability to fly, Peter escapes the pirates with the help of fellow miner James Hook (Garrett Hedlund). During his escape Peter learns of a prophecy that could lead to the truth about himself and his parents, a truth he seeks to uncover with the aid of Hook and the warrior princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara).

I don’t want to turn this review into an essay on what liberties this film took with the Peter Pan lore and why they don’t work because I think to do so might be to miss the point. There is certainly more than one way to tell a single story and not all the deviancies to the original source material are necessarily going to be bad just because they’re different. However, as I said earlier, there are some things you simply don’t mess with. The story of Peter Pan is first and foremost a story about growing up, Peter himself is a mischievous, cocky troublemaker and Neverland is a world of imagination and adventure. Barrie’s universe is and always has been open to variation and interpretation but the core ingredients have to be there if his story is to be conveyed. In Pan however the theme of growing up is not at all featured and Peter is a timid, whiny messiah who now has some great destiny that he must fulfil. I do think that Neverland itself is quite well done (with some grossly egregious missteps here and there) but it isn’t nearly enough to excuse the severe lack of regard held towards J. M. Barrie’s work. What aggravates me about this film is not only that it tried to change something that was already fun and wonderful to begin with but that what it offers instead is so weak and insipid in comparison.

Thus Pan is not only a bad film because it betrays the spirit of Barrie’s work, it’s also a bad film because it’s a bad film. The protagonist is about as bland and forgettable as a protagonist can get. The whole idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy foretelling Peter’s great destiny is the same cheap narrative trick we’ve seen in a hundred other films. The rules and laws of this universe are not adequately established or explained, leading to much confusion and many unanswered questions. And then some things are just plain silly. Between watching a dogfight between a flying pirate ship and WW2 fighter jets, seeing hundreds of pirates singing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and witnessing a trampoline fight between Hook and a native, there were many instances when I had to stop and ask myself what the bloody hell I was watching. The forced inside jokes and winks to the audience (“We’ll always be friends Hook”) were also so obnoxious and in your face that I felt like I was watching Bojack Horseman’s stand up routine (“Get it? Do you get it? Do you understand the joke?”).

As frustrating as I found this film to watch there were some pleasantries I quite enjoyed. Neverland for one looks pretty stunning, with the exception of those monstrous CGI birds (you’ll know them when you see them). The setting is rich in colour and texture and many of the visuals are quite imaginative. Some aspects like the giant bubbles surrounding Neverland or the puffs of colourful smoke emitted by the pirates’ pistols may not be part of Barrie’s lore but I still thought they looked nice. Again some licence with the material is permissible when it comes to visually representing them and I thought Pan did an adequate job of illustrating Neverland as a world of imagination and wonder. I also liked the music composed by John Powell of How to Train Your Dragon. At the end of the day though the visuals and music cannot save this film from its shortcomings in story, character and sensation any more than it could with the Star Wars prequels.

Perhaps the most common defence for this film is that it was made for children and therefore doesn’t have to meet the standards of films made for grown ups, an argument that simply doesn’t hold water. Making a film for children is not a licence to be stupid, undistinguished or lazy. Bright colours and movement might be enough to keep younger children amused for a couple of hours but it isn’t enough for a film like this to stand the test of time. Children are smarter than some adults give them credit for and if a film actually offers something of substance they will respond to it. Disney’s Peter Pan as well as Barrie’s original novels have lasted because they both have timeless characters, incredible imagination, a compelling story and a profound moral for children to take away. Pan offers none of these things. In this day and age where studios like Pixar are able to produce wildly successful films that can challenge and entertain children and adults alike, Pan offers nothing of worth to its audience and will be forgotten once they’ve moved on to whatever comes next.

The Walk

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne


Right after Philippe Petit walked the line between the Twin Towers, the question on everybody’s lips was ‘why’. Why would any man in his right mind attempt such a reckless and dangerous feat? Why would he go to such great lengths as to break the law and endanger his own life just to perform a stunt? Why did this matter to him so much that he was willing to risk everything to achieve it? In response he simply answered, “there is no ‘why’”. There are some things in life that are more than aspirations or ambitions; they are callings. Philippe himself may not quite know why he attempted this exploit (not in words at least); all he knew was that he had to. Through his story the film explores this idea of the impossible dream and the kind of dedication, faith and madness it takes to pursue it.

Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a French street performer who first hears of the World Trade Centre while flipping through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. In that moment he is suddenly struck by inspiration and hereby makes it his mission in life to one day walk on a tightrope between the two tallest towers in the world. He recruits a team, including a street performer called Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), to fly to New York with him so that he might realise his goal before the construction of the towers is complete. Using the lessons and techniques taught to him by the circus performer Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), Philippe overcomes legal and personal obstacles to perform one of the most daring and insane deeds in recent history.

For the sake of full disclosure I should point out that I haven’t seen Man on Wire. Therefore this film marks my official introduction to Philippe’s remarkable story, and what an introduction it is. For me this is easily one of the best-directed films of the year so far and is also some of the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen in a film. When Philippe walks on that wire with the great void and chasm between the Twin Towers silently and ominously encircling him, you are right there with him. I was practically clutching the sides of my seat holding on for dear life as Philippe gracefully treaded the thin line that separated him from a fatal fall. The film’s climax is a terrifying, thrilling and astonishing piece of cinema that also captures a profound moment of beauty and poignancy. As Philippe stands on top of the world and realises the sums of his ambitions there is a deep sense of perspective as he comes to understand what this accomplishment really means to him. Philippe may not have known or was unable to explain his reasons for attempting this feat but whatever it was he was looking for, he found it.

As for the rest of the film, I really enjoyed it. One of the main criticisms I found amongst others was the film’s use of narration and its breaking of the fourth wall but, while I’d be lying if I said I didn’t at times find it annoying or distracting, I actually think it works for the film. Philippe as a character is passionate, animated, arrogant, eccentric and reckless. He is therefore exactly the kind of person who would break the fourth wall and who would narrate his own story. The narration can be overbearing at times, but Philippe himself can be overbearing at times as well. That’s why I think the film’s style of narration works well at establishing and defining his character. The performance of Gordon-Levitt also does a magnificent job in this regard. The zeal and enthusiasm he displays as Philippe is a lot of fun to watch and makes the character utterly irresistible. However the film does remain balanced in its view of Philippe, highlighting the irresponsibility, arrogance and madness driving his actions. Yet, while these traits are hardly his most admirable qualities, he probably couldn’t have achieved his dream without them. After all, you’d have to be some kind of crazy to even attempt a feat this irrational. It is an interesting character study of a wholly remarkable man.

It’s been over a week since I’ve seen this film and I still get a slight sense of vertigo just thinking about it. As a story the film is interesting enough, even if the supporting characters don’t get much focus or development, and I do think it is well told, even if the pacing is somewhat haphazard and the narration sometimes distracting. In the end though what really makes this film special is the actual walk itself. That is the moment when the film truly comes to life and flourishes on an immersive and breathtaking level. Watching Philippe walk the tightrope was one of the most astonishing cinematic experiences I’ve had this year and was worth the price of admission alone. Yet, as well as having one the most incredible scenes of the year, The Walk is also an engaging and entertaining tale of daring, conviction and aspiration and one that I would recommend to anybody (who isn’t acrophobic).

★★★★★

Macbeth

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki, David Thewlis

Director: Justin Kurzel

Writers: Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie


There’s a reason why Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest writers, if not the greatest writer, in the English language. Nearly four centuries after his death his plays are still being studied, performed and praised by people all around the world. So innovative was his work and so great was his impact on the art of literature that Shakespearian is now an entire genre in itself as well as an adjective to describe the highest possible quality of writing. When a play has gone through as many revisions, reinterpretations and reinventions as so many of his own have, including and especially Macbeth, you’d think there couldn’t possibly be anything new to add to them. However Kurzel’s offering, which sets the story back in the original Scottish medieval setting, shows that there are still indeed new angles on familiar stories and themes to be found in the Bard’s work.

The film opens with an original scene not found in the original play, the funeral of a young boy. The boy’s parents Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) stand before their infant son in silent misery and grief as the witch’s summit takes place on an overlooking hill. Following his victory in a bloody and vicious battle Macbeth is visited upon by these witches as they pass onto him a prophecy of his kingship, awakening a strong and inflamed ambition within him. His ambition is matched only by Lady Macbeth who impels him to murder the standing king Duncan (David Thewlis) in his sleep. Macbeth’s ascension as king begets a reign of madness, paranoia and terror as he seeks to secure his position by any means necessary. As he grows more in power and his mind sinks deeper into insanity, it is his own pride and arrogance that shall prove to be his undoing.

When a film tackles a story as oft-adapted and performed as Macbeth, it’ll have to bring something truly new and creative to the table in order to distinguish itself from the others. Kurzel’s does so in such a beautifully subtle way through the abridgement of speeches and soliloquies and slight variations in the course of events. Even the smallest variation can have a reverberating effect on the story. He is also able to cast an entirely new light on this familiar story through the inclusion of two original scenes. The first is the afore-mentioned opening which adds an acute element of grief and sorrow to the burning ambition that drives Macbeth’s actions. It is a development that extends and amplifies the overlying tragedy, ferocity and horror of the narrative without altering the fundamental themes and motifs of the story. The second scene is included at the very end of the film which is why spoiler etiquette refrains me from elaborating on it. What I will say is that, much like in Roman Polanski’s adaptation, it is an ending that augments the ominous nature of the story in a dark and foreboding way and is steadfastly true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s play.

Fassbender and Cotillard both deliver powerhouse performances as the manic king and his devious wife. Fassbender’s Macbeth is a great and fierce warrior who is unhinged by the loss he suffers. His bereft ambition and fervently violent nature have a maddening effect on him in his rise to power as he consolidates his position in the only way he knows how, through bloodshed. The madness that consumes Macbeth’s mind is portrayed in a breathtakingly depraved manner by Fassbender as his character falls victim to fear and paranoia. Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is rendered cold and unfeeling by the loss of her own child and is driven by her grief to drive her husband towards greatness and power whatever the cost. The ruthlessness she exhibits is agonising to behold. It is only upon realising the sums of her ambitions when she comes to understand that no amount of power or wealth can heal her anguish. He heart has been forever broken and has left her a shell of a woman.

Macbeth has always been one of Shakespeare’s darkest and most tragic plays, something which this film exemplifies. It depicts the highlands of medieval Scotland as a chilling, gloomy and desolate place, much like the hearts of its king and queen. Much of the play’s mood and tone is marvellously captured in the imagery and atmosphere of this film from the harsh colours to the coarse dirt, the howling wind, the freezing snow, and the raging fire. The themes of pride, ambition and corruption are stunningly demonstrated by the film’s keen understanding and profound interpretation of the text as well as the harrowing performances of its two leads. It is a film that shows no hesitation or restraint in adapting The Tragedy of Macbeth as the chilling and brutal tale that it is.

★★★★★

The Intern

Cast: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Adam DeVine

Director: Nancy Meyers

Writer: Nancy Meyers


Watching this film was kind of an odd experience for me. I wasn’t expecting to like it because, based on the trailer, I was expecting a bland story with two great actors putting their talents to waste on the same tired clichés that we’ve all seen a million time before. In the end it wasn’t any of those things, or at least it wasn’t to the extent that I expected it to be. The characters were more layered than I expected. The story was more thoughtful than I expected. The comedy was more decent than I expected. All in all The Intern was better, smarter and more interesting than the film I expected it to be and yet, for some reason, I still didn’t enjoy it very much. I never felt very attached to the characters, the jokes never got a laugh out of me (well… maybe once), and the film failed to make any sort of a lasting impression on me. It wasn’t a terrible film; it just did nothing for me.

Ben Whittaker (Robert de Niro) is a retired widower who has found himself restless without a partner to keep him company or any work to keep him busy. He applies for a senior internship at an up-and-coming online fashion company as a way of getting a routine and perhaps even some fulfilment into his life. His boss is Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), the CEO and founder of the company whose commitment to her work keeps her busy minute by minute every day. In spite of being assured by Jules that she won’t have anything for him to do, Ben is still able to distinguish himself by performing other tasks around the office and by being an all-round nice guy to everyone. The office personnel soon learn that Ben has much wisdom to impart as an old-fashioned and accomplished elder that helps them all to cope with their daily stresses and problems. Jules in particular soon grows dependent on his help and advice and forms a friendship with him as he helps her to overcome the troubles of her professional and personal lives.

I’m kind of ambivalent about De Niro’s character. Essentially he is an all-round decent seventy-year-old man; he is kind, caring, charming, patient, hardworking, complacent and judicious. He is a perfectly pleasant character. The problem is that I didn’t find him at all interesting. The film basically made him too perfect; I haven’t seen a character this amiable since Cary Grant in The Bishop’s Wife who was literally an angel sent from heaven. Over the course of the film he never shows any limitations as a character, he barely has any obstacles to overcome, and he doesn’t accomplish anything for himself nor does he learn anything new about himself. He’s likeable enough but I couldn’t find anything compelling about him whatsoever. Jules however was more of a surprise. I figured she was a typical workaholic who simply needed to learn to loosen up more and to figure out what was really important in life (family and pleasure over work and all that good stuff). As I learned more about her though I found that her problems were actually more complex than I’d originally thought and that there weren’t any easy solutions for them. It may not have been the most substantial character arc but it still made me feel for her.

The generation gap is a theme that is made prominent in this film. A point is made about how the elderly have much to offer the younger generation including a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that has been built upon decades of experience. The film also points out the generational gap between the men and how somewhere along the line men seem to have lost their old sense of class, style and dignity. The younger guys of the office are portrayed here as an unruly bunch who have no idea how to treat women like ladies or how to look and act like the gentlemen of Ben’s generation. This gap is also employed for comical effect as it depicts Ben’s cluelessness with technology. It is an idea that works well enough I guess but none of it is stuff we haven’t heard or seen before.

As I was watching this film I saw that the audience I was with enjoyed it just fine. They laughed and gasped at all the right places and seemed contented when they left theatre. For whatever reason though this film simply didn’t do it for me. I think this might be because The Intern is essentially a film that hinges upon the talent and chemistry of its two leads. While both actors do well enough in their roles and do share a chemistry that is undeniable, it simply wasn’t enough to sell me on this film. While it wasn’t at all unpleasant to watch, it was still pretty forgettable. If a little bit of pleasantness and some light comedy is all you want from a film like this then you’ll probably like it just fine. This film just wasn’t for me.

★★

The Martian

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: Drew Goddard


This is a film that surprised me for two major reasons. Firstly the film was much more enjoyable than I was expecting it to be. When I heard about the film’s premise I was expecting something much darker and more despairing, kind of in the same vein as 127 Hours. I was not prepared for how funny and exciting this film turned out to be. Secondly is because the film was directed by Ridley Scott. It occurred to me after I saw The Martian that it’s been quite a while since Scott has made a great film (heck, it’s been a while since he made a good film). I initially found this film to be a bit out of character for him until I realised what a versatile filmmaker he really is. In his time he has made a claustrophobic horror film in Alien, a philosophical mystery in Blade Runner, a heartening buddy movie in Thelma and Louise and a historical epic in Gladiator. Therefore why not an uplifting survival story as well? In any case I think The Martian marks a return to form for Scott and I hope there’s plenty more to come.

The story is that of the astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a part of a manned mission to Mars that gets cut short by an intense storm. In the chaos that ensues Mark is injured and presumed dead and so the mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is left with no choice but to go on without him. Stranded on a planet with a limited amount of food and supplies and without any means of communication, Mark must rely on his intellect, skills and spirit to make contact with NASA and to ensure his own survival until a rescue mission can be arranged. The team at NASA, led by its head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and the mission directors Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), soon learn of his survival and work vigorously on the effort to bring him home safely. Meanwhile Melissa and her crew are wracked with guilt from leaving their crewmate and friend behind and therefore undertake to ensure his rescue by any means necessary.

Any film that features Matt Damon as a lone astronaut being stranded on a forbidding planet as well as Jessica Chastain is bound to receive comparisons with Christopher Nolan’s visual spectacle Interstellar. However, whereas Interstellar was (mostly but not entirely) characterless, anaemic and self-indulgent, The Martian is positively bursting with life, flavour and colour. The characters actually talk and act like real people. The emotional stakes of the film’s conflict feels authentic. The planet even feels like a character in itself, a great red desert both beautiful and ominous that is so full of majesty and wonder and yet so desolate and remote. Being stranded in such a place with little to no hope of survival or rescue is a daunting concept and the isolation and futility of such a prospect would be enough to drive any man insane. Yet this film depicts Mark’s harrowing ordeal with such humour and heart that The Martian becomes an absolute delight to watch.

Matt Damon kills it as Mark in his effort to stay alive and to keep himself sane. Given the dire situation he faces Mark resorts to using humour as a defence mechanism in order to keep his spirits up, which I felt was a very human way to handle such a predicament. He records daily vlogs detailing his thoughts and endeavours as he attempts to “science the shit” out of his resources in order to keep himself alive and does so with such an anxious yet heartening attitude that he becomes all the more relatable. This could have been compelling enough as a one-man survival story, much like Gravity, but amazingly the rest of the ensemble shines as well. The scientists at NASA are made up of interesting and diverse characters all working together to deal with this crisis. I really like how the film resisted the urge to include some sort of clichéd, bureaucratic antagonist trying to halt the rescue mission as a means of generating conflict. These characters are all on the same side and are all working towards the same goal, even when they disagree with each other. The only characters I didn’t feel that much of a connection to were the crewmembers. I thought they were likeable but underdeveloped.

Another thing to say is that this film is a technical marvel. The visuals are simply gorgeous to look at, particularly the Martian landscape which I thought had a real otherworldly feel to it. The 3D also works really well by drawing the viewer further into the world they’ve created. I thought the film did a wonderful job of depicting this alien environment and the challenges Mark faces in inhabiting it. As someone who doesn’t even have a GCSE in science I can hardly account for the film’s scientific accuracy. I did however find the science to be both interesting and coherent. I think it’s probably safe to assume that the film isn’t 100% accurate but, as a standard inexpert viewer, I went along with it just fine. The methods adopted by Mark seemed reasonable and plausible given the context and my suspension of disbelief was never stretched beyond reason.

There really isn’t much I can fault about this film. The characters are great, the humour is hilarious, the story is well told and the visuals are superb. My only real criticism is that I think the survival theme could have been taken a bit further. When I compare this film to, say, Gravity, I didn’t really feel like this film ever really expressed that same level of danger and desperation. Mark does have moments of uncertainty but he never loses his charm or wit through any of it. So upbeat is this film’s tone that I thought the tension never really reached the point where the possibility of Mark’s survival was brought into question. That aside, The Martian is nevertheless an excellent viewing experience and a wonderfully entertaining film that provides a funny, moving and epic account of the human spirit.

★★★★★

Sicario

Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writer: Taylor Sheridan


Sicario is an interesting example of how a film with a mostly one-note story and mostly one-note characters can be elevated in the hands of a skilled director. The narrative itself is not particularly remarkable or even memorable but the film does such a good job of depicting it that it somehow becomes captivating to watch. This isn’t to say that Sicario is a badly written film. It has some good lines, some interesting characters and a coherent story. It’s just that the story as a whole is quite unexceptional and would likely have made for a generic film in the hands of a generic director. However, through beautiful cinematography, subtle editing and the clever use of sound and lighting, Villeneuve was able to transform the film into a compelling thriller ripe with tension. I may not remember the ins and outs of the story and how it unfolds but I do remember being thrilled as it happened.

The film takes place within the context of the US-Mexican drugs war where FBI agent Kate Marcer (Emily Blunt), an idealistic agent with a strong moral code, is tired of the nominal raids she conducts that fail to make even the slightest dent in the Mexican cartel drug economy. She is enlisted by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the leader of a government task force, to take the fight where it really matters so that she might make a real difference in the escalating drugs war. Kate soon finds herself exasperated by the unorthodox methods the task force employs and by constantly being kept in the dark. Most vexing of all is having to take her orders from Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), an agent with a mysterious past whose brutal and violent approach weighs heavily on her conscience. As Kate attempts to uncover the truth about what this task force is really doing and really trying to accomplish, she falls deeper into a world of darkness and chaos that threatens to engulf her.

Again this story is not particularly noteworthy or outstanding. However I would be remiss if I did not take a minute to talk about del Toro as the fascinatingly furtive Alejandro. The way that he inflicts these cruel, ruthless methods with a cold, uncompromising gaze and a callous, deadpan expression is astonishing to behold. His character becomes all the more captivating to watch as we learn more and more about him and he leaves what is by far the film’s most memorable impression. Blunt as the protagonist does well enough to start with but becomes less and less interesting as the film progresses. Her arc as a naïve, inexperienced agent gradually coming to understand the contorted nature of the mission she has signed up for becomes less compelling as her character fails to exhibit any sign of growth. The lack of development or a refined personality meant that the actions and decisions of her character became more of a chore to follow as my interest diminished.

However the real star of this film is the direction. Villeneuve compensates for the film’s misgivings by having the film shot and constructed in a way that enhances the story. Not only is the cinematography beautiful to look at but also it is employed to communicate information and build tension in ways that other films of this kind do not. One scene near the film’s climax comes to mind where, without giving too much away, a massive raid is conducted and shot in a way that draws the viewer right into the action while still allowing a strong degree of subtlety and subdued tension. This is aided by the skilful way the film edits these scenes and the keen intuition and attention to detail that the film demonstrates through its use of sound. The sound of shells hitting the ground as Alejandro fires his silent pistol adds just as much to the conflict of any given scene as it does to the film’s authenticity. Therefore through artistry and skill the director and his crew were able to transform what could easily have been a standard run-of-the-mill thriller into so much more.

However, for all that this director was able to accomplish through creative ideas and clever techniques, this film is still far from perfect. The story is still quite uninspired and the characters fairly forgettable. It is mainly through the proficient direction as well as the inclusion of del Toro’s brilliant character that Sicario was able to leave a lasting impression at all. Having said that it is nevertheless one thing for an unremarkable film to be well shot and well crafted and another thing altogether for the editing and the cinematography to actually enrich the story beyond what was initially written, something in which Sicario succeeds admirably. It is an accomplishment that deserves to be recognised and deserves to be praised. This film is a strong testament to the assertion that a film is only as good as its director. Denis Villeneuve as it turns out is a very good director indeed.

★★★★