Us (2019)

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Once upon a time, there was a girl and the girl had a shadow. The two were connected, tethered together. Accompanied by her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), son Jason (Evan Alex) and daughter Zora (Venus Williams lookalike Shahadi Wright Joseph), Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) returns to the lakeside home at Santa Cruz CA where she grew up. Haunted by a traumatic experience from 1986 when she entered the funhouse at the pier and encountered her doppelganger, subsequently becoming electively mute,  Addie grows increasingly concerned that something bad is going to happen but agrees to go to the beach where they meet their friends Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their twin daughters. They have a better house, car and boat than the Wilsons. Jason wanders off at the beach and Addie grows frantic. Her fears soon become a reality when four masked strangers descend upon the house, forcing the Wilsons into a fight for survival. When the masks come off, the family is horrified to learn that each attacker takes the appearance of one of them and they have to fight to the death with Addie finally facing up to what happened thirty years ago … Who are you people?/ We’re Americans. Dontcha just hate it when the people who break into your home look exactly like you? This second outing for Jordan (Get Out) Peele gives the game away when it enters comedic territory for its second hour. And in the penultimate sequence, when Gabe says to the children Leave it to your mother, she’ll know what to do, we get a hint as to the final twist – and precisely what he may have known about his wife all along. You’ll probably figure it out from the poster. This take on – what? impostor syndrome? race relations? slavery? the Other? the base versus the superstructure? people who live underground in tunnels?! rich versus poor? Mexico?! –  wants to be so much more than it is. On the other hand, it nods towards horror tropes quite cleverly with Nyong’o being a very modern Final Girl – of a sort. It’s not remotely scary despite its publicity campaign. There are a lot of rabbits:  breeding like … I don’t know, people who want to make the US great again?! The tilt towards pantomime brings out some spectacularly bad acting – thank you, Ms Moss! – and rather rubs our faces in some crude rap to make a point about society and Reagan-era politics with a telling mention of South of the Border and then goes and robs the ending from the great Mad Men. What a cheek! It’s well set up and crafted but has some diffuse ideas about things that remain stubbornly unresolved so ultimately isn’t about anything at all, if you ask me. Sigh. Too many twins around here

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Death Wish (1974)

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I mean, if we’re not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when they’re faced with a condition or fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide? Once a mild-mannered liberal, New York City architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) snaps when intruders break into his home, murdering his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and violently raping his daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan). On a business trip to Tucson, Arizona he is given a gift from a client Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a revolver he uses to patrol the streets when he returns home when he realises his ideals have been completely compromised in the worst possible way. Frustrated that the police led by Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) cannot find the intruders, he becomes a vigilante, gunning down any criminal that crosses his path. Then the public finds his vigilanteism heroic… Wendell Mayes adapted Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel which arose from his own spontaneous reaction to being a crime victim. Under the direction of Michael Winner this exploitation fare becomes a muscular revenge thriller, brilliantly honing Bronson’s persona to effectively express what any normal individual might feel like doing – but would restrain themselves from actually pulling the trigger. His transformation is key to establishing the audience’s empathy. You’ll have fun identifying the thugs – watch for Jeff Goldblum. Also in the cast:  Stephen Elliott, Paul Dooley, Christopher Guest and that’s Olympia Dukakis in the precinct. The cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz is realistic and the score by Herbie Hancock immersive, making for a powerfully atmospheric narrative. Probably Winner’s best film. Fantastically judged and controversial, this is for anyone who’s ever felt f****d over.

Straw Dogs (1971)

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If you can’t catch ’em … shoot ’em.  David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mild-mannered American mathematician married to Amy (Susan George), an Englishwoman. They have relocated to the small town in rural Cornwall where Amy was raised, to a house filled with her father’s belongings. David is writing a book because he has a research grant to do a project on astrophysics.  He is ostracized by the brutish men of the village who are renovating the garage beside the cottage, including Amy’s old boyfriend Charlie (Del Henney). Eventually the taunts and lewdness escalate, their cat is strangled and hanged and two of the locals rape Amy while they distract David by taking him out hunting and leave him alone for the day on the moor. When the village idiot Henry Niles (an uncredited David Warner) winds up at their house after accidentally killing the local slut Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett) following a church social, the locals come a looking and lay siege to his house and the passive aggressive David finally takes revenge …  David Zelag Goodman loosely adapted the 1969 Gordon M. Williams novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm with director Sam Peckinpah and its sustained atmosphere of unbearable tension and brutality shocks to this day. The campaign of harassment is inscribed in the titles sequence in which we open on a gravestone and children torturing a dog:  we are quickly introduced to the casual viciousness of the village, the acceptance of violence – mentally retarded Henry is bitch slapped by his brother John (Peter Arne) for playing ball with schoolchildren;  Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) breaks a glass into the publican’s hand when time is called despite the presence of the local magistrate (T.P. McKenna);  Hedden’s trampy daughter Janice (Thomsett) and son Bobby (Len Jones) watch David and Amy in bed together. The goons played by Ken Hutchison and Donald Webster are uncomplicated thugs who nonetheless question David about his familiarity with guns (the anti-Vietnam war poster and the animal trap indicate where the film is going textually). He makes it obvious that he is anti-violence. The gang rape is anything but simple:  Amy tries to pacify the first assailant because like most rape victims, she knows him and that’s what makes this so convincing, never mind that it’s brilliantly shot and constructed.  She has gone around the place without a bra – even David tells her to start dressing appropriately and stop complaining that the locals are making horrible remarks. The marital strains are echoed when the vicar (Colin Welland) gives his wife a condescending look because she doesn’t know who Montesquieu is;  Amy doesn’t understand binary numbers. The drama is then structured about the outsider intellectual amid backward yokels, of whom his wife still appears to be one;  the awful Hedden’s concern for his daughter reminds us that Amy’s father dominates her domestic surroundings and she resents David’s retreat to his study. This is where I live. This is me.  I will not allow violence against this house. This was much misunderstood upon release but it’s a genre mashup whose antecedents – the western, the horror film (isn’t this a Hammeresque village with a Frankenstein’s monster?), the home invasion movie – are delineated clearly. The crosscutting (Nic Roeg’s collaborator Tony Lawson is one of three editors, including future director Roger Spottiswoode) also clarifies the complex and ironic psychology. You simply cannot say, as many did at the time of this film’s initial release, that this celebrates violence:  the technique just does not permit it.  David’s shit-eating grin at the film’s conclusion is perhaps what bothers people but as someone who has suffered outrageous violence at the hands of my thick neighbours I can relate to his turnaround and wish I were in a position to emulate it. When I asked the local plumber what was behind it he told me an apocryphal tale which ended in the deathless words, Y’see, nobody wants someone with too much education in their neighbourhood. So when anyone asks me what it’s like to live in the countryside, I tell them, Watch Straw Dogs. As far as I’m concerned, it might be a documentary.

A Quiet Place (2018)

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Who are we if we can’t protect them? We have to protect them.  Over three months in 2020, most of the Earth’s human population has been wiped out by sightless creatures with hypersensitive hearing and a seemingly impenetrable armored shell that attack anything that makes noise. The Abbott family — engineer husband Lee (John Krasinski), wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), congenitally deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simonds), and sons Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward) — silently scavenge for supplies in a deserted town. Though skilled in sign language the family must nonetheless be vigilant in case they make accidental noise. Four-year-old Beau is drawn to a battery-operated space shuttle toy, but his father takes it away. Regan returns the toy to Beau, who unbeknownst to her takes the batteries their father removed. Beau activates the shuttle when the family is walking home through the woods, near a bridge. Its noise makes him an instant target for a nearby creature, and he is swiftly killed. A year later Evelyn is pregnant, Regan is plagued with guilt and convinced her father doesn’t love her (despite working on a cochlear implant for her) and he takes Marcus out on survival training just as the creatures are circling the farm and weeks before Evelyn is due to give birth … A canny blend of horror, sci fi and maternal melodrama, the fact that this has a somewhat unclear endpoint doesn’t necessarily ruin its affect. Third-time director and star John Krasinski contributed to the rewriting of the screenplay by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (which had just one line of dialogue) and it’s a testament to the construction that the hook gets a great payoff but still sacrifices a major character. The thrills mount as the tension grinds on, the family treading barefoot everywhere as the slightest noise could bring these aliens swooping down on them.  The elements – air, water, fire – are put to deft use in this clever narrative which tests the audience and not just because a lot of the diegetic atmosphere consists of … silence.  Mercifully short (at 90 minutes) this has all the best elements of 70s horror and a cliffhanger of an ending which means you just know there will be a sequel.

 

Wolves at the Door (2017)

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Some years ago an older friend of mine who is a psychiatrist said that showing another friend A Short Film About Killing had altered that man’s opinion about the death penalty with which he had previously agreedThe story of that film is about a passenger who randomly and brutally murders a taxi driver and is then sentenced to an equally violent death. Apparently this third party now agreed with my psychiatrist friend that the death penalty is wrong. My psychiatrist friend thought I would agree. I didn’t. I argued for my part that it was precisely the callous random nature of the act – a total stranger being murdered for pure pleasure, presumed sexual excitement and on a whim – that justified the punishment. A life for a life, if you will. My psychiatrist friend was duly horrified by my reaction. Nowadays I believe in life imprisonment. And I mean life. Which is all by means of introducing this re-staging of the horrifying so-called Manson Family murders 8th August 1969 of the beyond beautiful heavily pregnant actress Sharon Tate (Katie Cassidy), her unborn son Paul Polanski, her best friend Abigail Folger (Elizabeth Henstridge), Tate’s ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring (Miles Fisher),  Folger’s boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski (Adam Campbell), and Steven Parent (Lucas Adams), who wasn’t in the Cielo Drive house but met his end at the gates. If there is a text here that is worth discussion beyond the psychotic violence at the core of this exploitation film, it is about carelessness. How careless people are about their own safety, their presumption of civilised behaviour from others and the means by which a gap between our experiences and our expectations can be filled by the utterly inexplicable hate-filled rage of people we don’t even know, exiled from normalcy, refugees from society, indecent and obscene. There’s a reason we are hard-wired to have a circle of 150 family, friends and acquaintances – survival. It’s why kids are taught as soon as they speak, Stranger Danger. Some of this is expressed in the portrayal of William Garretson (Spencer Daniels) the so-called caretaker on the Polanski property who is portrayed here as a witless drug user with earphones clamped to his brain-dead head throughout. He finally died in 2016. Some of the perpetrators are still breathing. There are some episodes that do not require gruesome and explicit re-enactments. This vile explosion of depraved horror lingers in the communal memory for a reason. It fundamentally altered most people’s view of the death penalty which Manson and his smirking wenches escaped by the pure fluke of timing, unlike their wretched and helpless victims. One of them even got away to live her life in exchange for bearing witness. Other than that, I have nothing to add. Written by Gary Dauberman and directed by John R. Leonetti. Ghastly, tasteless and misjudged, in the truest sense.

Panic Room (2002)

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Divorced mom Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) are no sooner moved into their new four-storey NYC brownstone than the previous owner’s grandson Junior (Jared Leto), caretaker Burnham (Forest Whitaker) and psychotic Raoul (singer Dwight Yoakam) have broken in to steal millions in bearer’s bonds belonging to Junior’s grandpa – now the Altman money (much more) happens to be in the eponymous space where the ladies have decamped. Trouble is, these guys really want that money and are arguing amongst themselves and in the panic room little Sarah is going into diabetic shock … This was part of Foster’s reinvention as a paranoid action woman – triggered only when Nicole Kidman had to withdraw from the role due to injury.  Screenwriter David Koepp wastes absolutely no time in putting the ladies in jeopardy and it’s a face-off between their ingenuity and the desperate men’s resorting to violence that fuels the narrative which is disrupted again by the arrival of Altman pere (Patrick Bauchau). After a taut mid-section it descends into a rather predictable shootout at the conclusion but not before there are some genuinely thrilling moments including a visit by the local police force following Meg’s phonecall which she has to disavow because the thieves are watching on the extensive CCTV system. A good example of the home invasion thriller and nice to see a blonde Kristen Stewart pre-nose job! And a nicely ironic physical example of what the snowflakes would call a safe space …. (ha!) Directed with his usual flair by David Fincher.

Home Alone (1990)

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Sensational, kinetic, lively action comedy from the late and beloved chronicler of childhood and adolescence, auteur John Hughes.  Little Kevin is terrorised by everyone in his family – and they forget about him when they depart for a trip to Paris for Christmas, leaving him on his own in their big suburban Chicago house to deal with a pair of bungling thieves. Macaulay Culkin is brilliant as the kid whose dream comes true – to be spared his awful family, even for a short time. This held the record as the biggest grossing live action comedy in the US until Hangover Part II came along to spoil the party.  Simply sublime entertainment for any time of year.

Krampus (2015)

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Ever dreamed of spending Christmas without your family when everything seems like it’s going to Hell in a handcart? Well young Max (Emjay Anthony) swaps one kind of home invasion (aunt, uncle, cousins and great-aunt) for another (a German folkloric nightmare) when he wishes exactly that. Grandma Omi (Krista Stadler) knows it’s all down to what she did as a kid back in Austria but that doesn’t stop the demons being unleashed, starting with an ominous looking snowman in the yard, a power cut and a big sister kidnapped on the way to see her boyfriend in a snowstorm. There are noises in the attic and suddenly there are psychotic gingerbread men, Teddy bears and porcelain dolls on the prowl and that’s before the elves get started. Way to see your obnoxious cousin disappear up the chimney! NRA supporting uncle Howard (David Koechner) figures there’s only one way to deal with the invaders, since you can’t placate a crazy cookie.  I know how you feel about family at Christmas too (aw! really?!)  but even I find this veering on the violent end of the spectrum – tho hey, what about that staple gun! Starring Toni Collette and Adam Scott as the put-upon PC hosts who become really quite ingenious with their home cleaning solutions. Written by Todd Casey, Zach Shields and director Michael Dougherty, responsible for Trick ‘r Treat. Only if  Gremlins really doesn’t do it for you. I must start looking for those baubles …

Housesitter (1992)

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She’s turning his house into a home …. hers! I can never have enough of Goldie Hawn. She’s Gwen, the con artist/waitress who has a one night stand with architect Netwon Davis (Steve Martin), grief-stricken over longtime girlfriend Becky (Dana Delany) refusing to marry him and move into the dream house he’s designed for them in their small town. On the brink of reconciliation he arrives home to find Gwen has moved in, bought furnishings and food on his account and befriended his folks – having introduced herself as his new wife! Never let a crisis become a disaster:  Newton uses the situation to mend long-broken relationships. Both of them are liars, both of them use each other to get some sort of ultimate truth and personal salvation and in Newton’s case, a promotion at work.  Goldie jungle dances, Steve sings Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra and we all have a darned good time as they hit the comic beats perfectly. They make a great comedy duo. Hawn is especially good at creating a fully rounded character that expands the drama beneath. And there’s a good closing line. Which is just what the doctor ordered. Directed by Frank Oz and written by Mark Stein from a story he wrote with Brian Grazer.

What About Bob? (1991)

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If you’ve ever had the misfortune to be acquainted with someone in therapy then you’ll know that they use their acquired techniques to manipulate, bully, threaten and terrorise their innocent target. Unbeknownst to myself, a much older friend was an alcoholic analysand. And I was the utterly innocent (admittedly obtuse, people had warned me) target her therapist told her to terrorise – apparently this is what they do. I found out when summoned out of my office (to discommode me) by this talentless self-obsessed madwoman when she announced it loudly in public (an essential component) that her therapist revealed to her that I was professionally jealous of her (she was unemployed until the grand old age of 51 when she finally got a temporary job) and I endured twenty minutes of crazed vitriol. I stood up, told her to have a drink and felt a spring in my step as the weight of five horrendous years of her narcissistic attacks lifted from my shoulders.  I ran for ten miles on the treadmill at the gym. Three days later I got a letter from a literary agent I’d never heard of issuing a legal threat on behalf of my now former friend claiming authorship to one of my works to which she now exclusively attached her name (her notion of co-writing being to smoke in my face, drink coffee like an addict and snigger). I then (self-therapy alert) wrote a study on authorship. Ahem. So when I first saw this film many years ago I found it funny. Now it’s about as funny as a funeral and practically a documentary. And all that trauma has come flooding back … Bill Murray is narcissistic divorced Bob who’s driven his last shrink nuts with his phobias and is taken on unwittingly by Dr Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) who’s about to become mega-famous thanks to a forthcoming interview on Good Morning America to publicise his new book, Baby Steps. Through a series of cunning acts Bob hunts him and his family down at their lakeside retreat where they’re vacationing until Labor Day and proceeds to drive the doc crazy … Tom Schulman’s screenplay is based on a story by veteran Alvin Sargent and co-producer Laura Ziskin (with Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett). Being Hollywood vets I can only guess at the real stories they could tell. Like I said, I used to find this hilarious and Murray is of course brilliant as the nutcase but Dreyfuss has the real acting moments here, turned inside out and crazy by his gifted sociopathic charge, finding himself put on Librium and in a straitjacket in the lunatic asylum. They hated each other on set but how it plays on screen as the nutter alienates the doctor’s family, marrying his sister and appropriating his life. How nice it is to see a doctor victimised with their own tools for a change! Starring Joan Lunden as herself. My ‘friend’? You won’t have heard of her. Obviously.