The Witch

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

Director: Robert Eggers

Writers: Robert Eggers


In my review of The Forest I wrote about some of the problems I have with horror films these days, remarking that many of them simply content themselves with imitating their predecessors without any understanding of how the genre actually works. The Witch is a film that puts these other movies to shame. This is a film that actually understands the importance of tone and atmosphere as well as the art of subtlety. This isn’t a film that tries to catch the audience off guard with a few ‘Boo!’ moments nor is it one that is embarrassed to call itself a horror film. It tackles its subject with the utmost seriousness and devotes its time towards its characters and setting in order to create a frightening portrait of paranoia, desolation and superstition. Eggers demonstrates a strong degree of patience, skill and faith in his audience when creating this horror and I found this film to be most admirable because of it.

Set in New England in the 1630s, a Puritan family is banished from their town for the crime of “prideful conceit”. William (Ralph Ineson), the patriarch, leads his pregnant wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their four children to a site by the edge of the woods where they build their own farm. It is here that Katherine gives birth to a baby boy whom they name Samuel. One day when Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest of the children, is playing with Samuel, he vanishes during the split-second in which she loses sight of him. This happening ends up being the first in a series of horrific and damning events that befall the farm. As William struggles with his failing crops and Katherine weeps for her son it falls onto Thomasin to look after her dutiful brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and also the mischievous twins. With only their religious beliefs to guide and protect them, the family starts to believe that the terror that has befallen them is a punishment for the sins that they have committed.

Setting the film at a superstitious time when religious doctrine was law and where witchcraft was perceived as a real, unholy threat works splendidly to the film’s advantage. Even though there are clear supernatural occurrences that happen on-screen, the elements of folklore and superstition allow for enough ambiguity to cloud its nature. It is possible that this family is being tormented by a witch living deep in the woods, but they could also be the imaginings of a devout people being slowly but surely overwhelmed by the burden of guilt and immorality. One must understand that these happenings are not merely scary for this staunchly Protestant family; they are ungodly. They are unnatural events of a depraved nature that could only have been brought about by sins of profound wickedness and perversity. When Samuel disappears and is feared dead the mother and father are terrified to their core, not because their infant son might be dead but because their unbaptized child will surely be sent to hell. Once this is understood, and the film does devote time to make sure that it is understood, the paranoia and anguish they feel and also the actions that they take become clearer and more relatable.

At the centre of it all is Thomasin, a young woman living a forlorn life in a culture that suppresses, silences and subjugates women. It is not a coincidence that the root of the family’s woes, the so-called witch of the woods, belongs to a cult that is traditionally perceived as feminine. Thus this attack on what is viewed by Thomasin’s family as the natural way of life could almost be viewed as a tale of female empowerment, albeit that of an evil and unorthodox nature, seen from the eyes of a repressed and neglected girl seething with hidden insecurity and resentment. Anya Taylor-Joy shines in her breakthrough role in a film that is ripe with strong performances by its small ensemble. Ineson delivers a commendable performance as a distressed father striving to retain normalcy while Dickie is remarkable as an inconsolable mother grieving for her lost son and the dejected state of her family.

The Witch is exactly the kind of horror film that I go to the cinema hoping to see. Through atmosphere and character the film builds tension and conveys dread and despair while allowing the underlying threat to remain ambiguous and uncertain. Those who go in expecting to see a simple monster movie about a witch terrorising a colonial family will likely be disappointed because that’s not the kind of movie it’s trying to be. The Witch is more layered in its approach, more complex in its execution and more restrained in its horror. It is an engrossing film that creates a harsh and otherworldly atmosphere through its expert cinematography and builds its tension through the skilful use of editing and sound. The Witch is an example of what horror could and should be and was a chilling and mesmerising experience to watch.

★★★★

Advertisements

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer


I desperately wanted to love this film. I’ve been a fan of Batman and Superman since childhood and couldn’t wait to finally see them together. I went into this movie with great anticipation and when I finally saw the two go head to head against one another, it was an epic spectacle that was astonishing to behold. But it was done for the wrong reasons. Amazing as it was to finally see the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel in the same movie and engaging each other in battle, some of the choices that were made in terms of story and character defy sense and reason. I don’t know if the fault belongs to Snyder for masterminding the whole thing or with the studio for their interference, but the result is a visually stunning yet fundamentally misguided mess of a movie.

In the aftermath of Metropolis’ destruction in Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) has become a controversial figure in the world. Half of the public view him as a saviour while the other half sees him as a monster. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who witnessed Superman’s destructive abilities first-hand, believes Superman to be a threat to the planet and seeks to stop him as Batman. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is also threatened by Superman and hatches a plan to assure his demise using the discoveries he has made from studying Zod’s corpse and his Kryptonian ship. A congressional hearing led by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) meanwhile is held to determine whether Superman is indeed a threat to humanity and invites him to appear before the world to speak. Thus Superman must confront the responsibility he holds for his power and actions and must decide what kind of man and what kind of hero he wants to be.

When it was announced that the sequel to Man of Steel would introduce Batman into the DC universe by pitting him against Superman, I think that the excitement that arose was more than a reaction to the iconic status of the two characters. I think the reason that so many people were excited for this fight is because there is actually a valid ideological conflict to be had. Superman stands up for liberty and justice and believes in the power of hope to save people. Batman in contrast fights crime through fear and favours methods that are altogether more ruthless and brutal. Fans of the comics, the animated shows or of the previous movies featuring these heroes can understand and relate to both of their creeds which is why a clash between the two would allow for a complex and engaging dispute of epic proportions. Either the makers of Dawn of Justice did not understand this or the heart of this conflict simply got lost in the middle of all the many overlapping and convoluted stories that were crammed into this movie.

Maybe the bloated state of this movie is a reaction to the enormous success and widespread adoration of the Marvel franchise, as if DC thinks it needs to catch up as quickly as possible by doing in one movie what Marvel did in five. Even though the conflict between Batman and Superman had more than enough material to make a compelling, action-packed movie, Dawn of Justice also decided to include an inquiry into Superman’s actions, a mystery for Batman to solve, the appearance of Wonder Woman, a diabolical plot by Lex Luthor resulting in the creation of a villain the trailer saw fit to reveal, some set-up for the future Justice League movie, a number of dream sequences and an iconic storyline from the comics that occurs during the climax. While some of these stories do work, the simple reality is that the film as a whole suffers from a severe absence of focus and direction. The movie tries to juggle so many different elements that it never finds the time to adequately explore any of its characters’ motivations or the deeper meaning of its themes. Although we do get our Batman vs. Superman fight, and it is breathtaking, the investment just isn’t there.

Anyone who has seen 300 or Watchmen knows that Zack Snyder is a superb visual director. The action in Dawn of Justice is some of the best to ever involve these characters. Snyder however is not Joss Whedon and in this film he doesn’t seem to understand what it is audiences actually want from a Batman and Superman movie. He displays little understanding of the characters themselves or of how to use the story to serve them. He doesn’t seem to appreciate the virtue of establishing and developing this universe over successive chapters rather than trying to do it all in one go. Most infuriating of all was the ending where he saw fit to include an iconic event from the comics that was wholly and entirely unearned by the film’s story. As much as I admire his talents as a visual artist, I still cannot believe how profoundly misjudged some of his choices were.

I feel torn about criticising the movie in this way because there are genuinely amazing things in it. Batman himself is stupendous from the look to the action to Affleck’s performance. The inclusion of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman worked well and now has me very much excited for her solo movie next year. The visuals and action scenes were masterful with only some of the highlights being the vision of an apocalyptic future, the actual fight between Batman and Superman and also what is perhaps the single greatest Batman action scene ever put onto film. Even the climatic battle that has no business even being in this movie was impressive to watch, especially in the way it employed Wonder Woman. No other movie this year has managed to inspire such an ambivalent reaction out of me. Although I’m giving this movie three stars, I must stress that I do not think Dawn of Justice is in any way an average film. There are parts of this film that I utterly adore and there are parts that I bitterly hate. Even though I am disappointed that Dawn of Justice was not the movie I wanted it to be, I must admit that I was drawn in by the spectacle and that, all things considered, I am glad I saw it. I just hope that Snyder learns from the backlash when the time comes for The Justice League.

★★★

10 Cloverfield Lane

Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher, Jr.

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Writers: Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, Damien Chazelle


The secrecy surrounding this film as it came out is I think one of its best selling points. As it was being developed and filmed, few people realised that it was going to be a sequel to the J.J. Abrams movie. The ambiguity and intrigue that the revelation of the film’s title inspired ended up being a key ingredient in what made watching this film such an enjoyable experience. The question of how this story is connected to Cloverfield adds much to the uncertainty provided by the film’s very concept and also keeps the viewers on their toes whenever they start to believe that they might have figured this movie out. I was a bit apprehensive about watching this movie as I wasn’t really a fan of the original Cloverfield. However I ended up finding the sequel, with its wholly different tone and style from that of its predecessor, to be a fascinatingly compelling and intriguing film. It works well enough on its own but as an ambiguous sequel with an uncertain connection to its original counterpart it works splendidly as both a mystery and a thriller.

After breaking up with her fiancé, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) frantically drives through rural Louisiana where she ends up in a car collision. When she regains consciousness she finds herself chained and locked in an underground bunker. Howard (John Goodman), the man holding her in this place, reveals that an unknown attack has occurred and that he cannot allow her to leave his shelter. These claims are given credence by the testimony of a third survivor Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a construction worker who helped to build this bunker and who witnessed the attack himself. After an escape attempt convinces Michelle of the truth behind these claims she accepts that she must remain in the bunker with these two men for an indeterminate amount of time. As time passes by however, Howard’s eccentricities and antagonism convince Michelle that he might be withholding secrets from them both and might even have ulterior motives for holding her in the bunker.

While Cloverfield was a found-footage monster movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane adopts an entirely different style as a claustrophobic psychological thriller. The audience is trapped in the bunker along with Michelle while the threat in the outside world remains invisible and anonymous. The film makes the wise decision of portraying the entire narrative through Michelle’s eyes, meaning that we only ever know as much as she does. With each new discovery she makes about the ominous threat that has them all trapped inside this bunker and also about the strange, hotly tempered man keeping her here, the deep tension and stirring intrigue keeps growing and growing. Although I do think that the ultimate pay-off in the third act was perhaps a little too far-fetched, the way that the mystery unfolds over the course of the first and second acts is a suspenseful and captivating experience.

At the centre of it all is Winstead as Michelle, the viewer’s window into this world. While we never really learn much about her, we get a strong enough sense of her personality that she never feels like a mere surrogate for the audience. In her attempts to understand the reality of her situation and the natures of the men sharing this living space with her, the film never makes the mistake of making her an idiot. She applies reason and rational thought, she is able to be trusting without being naïve and she takes action when faced with a legitimately threatening situation. The best performance of the film however belongs to John Goodman as Howard. This is a man who clearly isn’t all there, given that he was paranoid enough to have actually built the bunker in the first place, and whose eccentricities range from strange to charming to terrifying. He is the one who holds all of the power within this bunker which means that he could be either Michelle and Emmett’s greatest asset or most dangerous threat. The fact they don’t know which he is scares them to no end.

10 Cloverfield Lane is easily a clear step up from its predecessor. The film is tense, smart and enthralling and unfolds its story and just the right pace. While I did find parts of the climax to be somewhat bewildering and cannot help but feel that they sort of undermined the film as a whole for me, I can still definitely say that I never saw a single frame of it coming. Obviously I cannot elaborate in any way on what happens, but feel I should say that the decision to make this movie a sequel to Cloverfield without explaining how or why was an excellent one on the studio’s part. The mystery of how the two movies are connected is the icing on what is already a rich and layered cake. If this franchise chooses to continue the trend of reinventing itself then I eagerly await its future instalments.

★★★★

Zootropolis

Cast: (voiced by) Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrance, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira

Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore

Writers: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston


I think the greatest strength of Zootropolis is that it isn’t the film it initially appears to be. I walked in expecting to see a fun movie about animals sharing a city. What I got instead was an astoundingly smart and insightful film with a cultural relevance that I never expected from Disney. Zootropolis takes the idea of animals inhabiting a city further than any of us could have imagined and uses it to explore such themes as prejudice, discrimination, diversity and tolerance. Not only does this film succeed in engaging with these themes in a clever and entertaining way, it does so in a format that is targeted towards children. It takes an enormously complex issue that still provokes much debate and controversy in the world today, an issue that even adults still struggle to wrap their heads around, and manages to present it to kids in a way that is challenging but also accessible. If Zootropolis is not the best film that Disney has made in recent years, then it certainly is the most important.

The film follows Judy Hopps, a young rabbit from an idyllic town who dreams of becoming a police officer. She actively pursues her dream as an adult in spite of being told by those around her that she as a critter is too small and too weak to ever succeed in such a job. Even when she proves the naysayers wrong and earns her place at the academy, her boss Chief Bogo, a cape buffalo, refuses to provide her with any real responsibilities and instead places her on traffic duty. However, once she finds an opportunity to land a case involving a missing otter and seizes it, Bogo allows her to take the case under the condition that she agree to resign if she cannot provide any results within 48 hours. To solve this case Judy teams up with Nick Wilde, a fox and a con artist who she doesn’t trust but who has the skills and street smarts she needs to pursue this case. As they get deeper into the case however they find that it might be much bigger than they could have imagined.

This film completely deserves all of the praise it has received so far for three reasons. Firstly is because it is both funny and entertaining. Zootropolis is able to have fun with the animal city concept, leading to some great laughs. I laughed all the way through this film thanks to such jokes as the rabbit population, the elephant in the room and, best of all, the sloths. There are even some grown-up jokes and some self-referential jokes about Disney that manage to add to the humour without seeming forced. The second reason this film deserves praise is because of the animation and design. One of the best scenes in the film is when Judy moves to Zootropolis and sees the entire city for the first time. We see some of the different districts that will be explored later on such as the Polar District and the Rainforest District and even see how the city is able to accommodate for such a large number of animals of varying sizes and shapes in such places as the subway. There is a good chase scene later in the film which leads Judy to stumble into a mouse neighbourhood where she herself is a giant. The film’s very concept is one of limitless possibilities and half the fun was in watching the ways in which it was realised.

The third reason Zootropolis deserves to be lauded is because of the themes it tackles and the morals it teaches. By teaming Judy up with a predator in the form of Nick the Fox, both characters have to learn to overcome their differences and prejudices in order to work as a team. It isn’t done in a corny or half-baked way though; the film goes to great lengths to illustrate why these differences exist and just how much these characters need to overcome in order to work together. Zootropolis doesn’t try to pretend that overcoming prejudice is easy or that it is an issue that can be simply tossed aside. Judy has to work just as hard to learn how to understand and accept Nick as she does to prove herself to the police department. As well as showing children the complexities and challenges inherent in this issue it also manages to promote understanding and acceptance as being the way forward.

Zootropolis is so much more than a fun family-friendly movie about animals. It is a film about overcoming differences and altering perceptions and is a marvellous success. Although it is disparaging to think that this is a lesson that still needs to be taught in this day and age, it is also a relief to see that it can be taught to any and all audiences in such an intelligent and enjoyable way. Usually with Disney films I think it’s better to leave well enough alone, but this is actually a film that I’d like to see be given a sequel. I would absolutely love to see how much further Disney can take this concept and to see how much deeper they can explore these issues. However, if this is the only movie that Disney ever makes, then it stands as an excellent feature in its own right and is certainly a worthy addition to the line-up of movies Disney has released since their adoption of 3D animation.

★★★★★